“Mifune: The Last Samurai” is a documentary on Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune that recently played at the IFC Center in New York. To fans of Japanese film, Mifune needs no introduction. He is easily the best Japanese film actor of all time and, to many of us, arguably the greatest film actor in history. He is best known, of course, for his starring roles in films by Akira Kurosawa (THE SEVEN SAMURAI, YOJIMBO), arguably the greatest Japanese director of all time, but he also made numerous films for other noted Japanese directors, including Hiroshi Inagaki (The SAMURAI trilogy), Masaki Kobayashi (SAMURAI REBELLION), Kihachi Okamoto (SAMURAI ASSASSIN), and Kinji Fukasaku (THE SHOGUN’S SAMURAI), among others. He also made films in Hollywood and Europe, including GRAND PRIX, HELL IN THE PACIFIC, RED SUN and MIDWAY. I’ve written about one of his films here, JAPAN’S LONGEST DAY. He’s got 182 acting credits on IMDB—both film and television–and they extend from 1947 to 1995, two years before he died.
62 years ago today, on November 3, 1954, the Japanese monster movie, GOJIRA, premiered in Japan. Directed by Ishiro Honda, the film established a whole new Japanese film genre, dubbed kaiju (giant monster). When the film was picked up by an American distributor, Joseph E. Levine’s Embassy Pictures, it was re-edited and partly dubbed in English, with new scenes added to it featuring an American actor (Raymond Burr) playing a reporter visiting Tokyo when the monster strikes, and retitled GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS for its April 1956 U.S. release. Godzilla became a worldwide phenomenon and more such films were made, 32 in all, several of which I’ve covered on this blog, including the very latest, SHIN GOJIRA (aka GODZILLA RESURGENCE), which was released this year.
Also on November 3, 1954, approximately 1300 miles to the southwest of Japan, in Taiwan, a baby girl was born and named Lin Ching-hsia. 19 years later, Ms. Lin would begin making movies in Taiwan, mostly romantic comedies and contemporary melodramas, with a brief trip to Hong Kong’s Shaw Bros. studio to appear in the leading male role of Jia Baoyu in the literary adaptation, DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBER (1977). A few years later, she would return to Hong Kong to appear in Tsui Hark’s groundbreaking “wire-fu” fantasy adventure, ZU: WARRIORS OF THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN (1983), where she played a high-flying warrior priestess called the Countess who resides with her band of priestess followers on the title mountain, and her career took a whole new direction.
Once upon a time Asian super-sleuths, independent crime-fighters of Chinese or Japanese origin who were usually one or two steps ahead of the police in solving murders, were quite popular in Hollywood. They were, with one notable exception, played by Caucasian actors. There were three distinct characters around whom series of films were created in the 1930s: Charlie Chan, Mr. Moto and Mr. Wong. The Chinese Chan was portrayed by Swedish-born Warner Oland in the 1930s, Sidney Toler in the late ’30s and early 1940s, and Roland Winters in the late ’40s. The Japanese Mr. Moto, an agent working for the International Police, was played by Austro-Hungarian actor Peter Lorre. The Chinese Mr. Wong was played by British actor Boris Karloff. Lorre and the Chan actors played their roles with distinct Asian accents while Karloff played the Oxford-educated Wong with his normal voice. All three characters drew on the stereotype of the exotic, inscrutable Asian sage with depths of knowledge and wisdom derived from ancient traditions. Chan, in particular, was given to issuing frequent fortune cookie-style aphorisms that were often played for laughs. (E.g. “Mind like parachute – only function when open” and “Inconspicuous molehill sometimes more important than conspicuous mountain.”)
Charlie Chan (Warner Oland):
SHIN GODZILLA (2016), co-directed by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi (who also supervised the special effects), is the first new Godzilla movie to be made by the Japanese since GODZILLA FINAL WARS in 2004 and was released to theaters in Japan in July 2016 and given a limited release in the U.S. in October. (In some listings the film is referred to by its English release title, GODZILLA RESURGENCE.) Coming two years after Hollywood’s most recent attempt to duplicate the success of Godzilla (see my piece of May 25, 2014), this film takes the Godzilla franchise in a completely new and different direction, setting it in the current political landscape of contemporary Tokyo and functioning as if Japan has never seen a giant monster before. How would the Japanese government and its bureaucrats and various ministries react to the appearance of an actual giant monster in Tokyo? What would it take to get the Prime Minister to make timely decisions and get the various departments to work together? This is not an atypical scene from the movie:
Within the last two years, some of the best Hong Kong movies starring Angela Mao Ying have come out on DVD from Shout Factory, remastered, with cleaned-up soundtracks and new subtitles. My earlier VHS and DVD copies had all sorts of problems, so I’ve been wanting to sit down and watch these new editions and thought I’d use the occasion of her 66th birthday today, September 20th, to offer a write-up on them. I watched what I consider her four best films for this piece: HAPKIDO (1972), WHEN TAEKWONDO STRIKES (1973), THE TOURNAMENT (1974), and BROKEN OATH (1977). I didn’t have time for the fifth of her top five, LADY WHIRLWIND (1972)
Today, September 8, 2016, marks the 50th anniversary of the first broadcast of “Star Trek” on NBC-TV. 25 years ago, in 1991, all the original cast members were still alive to celebrate the 25th anniversary, as was the show’s creator and executive producer, Gene Roddenberry, who died in October 1991, the month following the anniversary. At the time I wondered how many cast members would make it to the 50th. Well, the 50th is here and we’ve got William Shatner (Captain James T. Kirk), Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura), George Takei (Sulu) and Walter Koenig (Chekov) still with us. Shatner and Koenig were at a Star Trek convention in New York this past weekend and Takei remains quite active, having recently appeared in “Allegiance,” a Broadway musical based on his childhood experiences in World War II internment camps for Japanese-Americans. Nichols has been quite busy acting in TV and films, according to her IMDB filmography. Plus, many guest stars from the show are still around, including Teri Garr, Kim Darby, Sally Kellerman, Gary Lockwood, Skip Homeier, Barbara Luna, Joan Collins, Robert Walker Jr., and many more. From the original cast, DeForest Kelley (Dr. McCoy) died in 1999; James Doohan (Scotty) died in 2005; Majel Barrett (Nurse Christine Chapel) died in 2008; and Grace Lee Whitney (Yeoman Janice Rand) and Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock) both died in 2015.
One of the things I picked up during my trip to Tokyo that I wanted to share with readers is a Japanese film magazine from 1965 called Eiga Story, found at a flea market table in Ueno Park amidst tons of other old film magazines and comics. On the cover is a photo of Hayley Mills, who’d been a child star in Disney movies (e.g. POLLYANNA and THE PARENT TRAP), and had finally graduated to teenage roles at the time, getting her first screen kiss that year in THE TRUTH ABOUT SPRING. I opened the magazine on the spot and was happy to see excellent-looking color spreads devoted to popular Hollywood films and stars of the time with b&w entries devoted to numerous releases in Japan of Hollywood and European films. Since I was going to films regularly in 1965 and had even seen some of these films during their initial release, I was curious to see what Hollywood films got the most hype during their release in Japan.