LIKE THE CLOUDS, LIKE THE WIND (1990) – Anime Tale of Village Girl-Turned-Empress

19 Jul

 

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In 1992, I bought a VHS tape, an animated feature in Japanese with no subtitles, from a dealer at a comics show and it was pitched to me as a film by Hayao Miyazaki, whose work I’d begun recently exploring. The title was LIKE THE CLOUDS, LIKE THE WIND (KUMO NO YOUNI, KAZE NO YOUNI) and it was from 1990 and 79 minutes long. I watched it with my daughter. It seemed clearly set in China several hundred years ago and followed the progress of a spunky young peasant girl, Ginga, who learns of a drive by the palace to recruit girls to be potential brides or consorts for the new Emperor. She’s picked to join them and embarks on a series of classes and instruction and physical training along with dozens of other girls who are eventually winnowed down to a handful, including her three roommates, each a disparate type. Palace intrigue threatens them on the inside while a rebel army building force threatens them on the outside, eventually forcing the girls to use the palace stocks of cannons, flintlock rifles and other weapons of war to fight back. Continue reading

Japanese Bus Rides: MR. THANK YOU and HIDEKO, THE BUS CONDUCTRESS

10 Jun

Two of the most charming Japanese films I’ve ever seen are about bus rides in rural Japan in the pre-war era. MR. THANK YOU (1936), directed by Hiroshi Shimizu, follows a single bus, driven by “Mr. Thank You” (Arigato-san), played by Ken Uehara, as it plies its route along the mountainous roads of the Izu Peninsula towards Tokyo over the course of a long day. HIDEKO, THE BUS CONDUCTRESS (1941), directed Mikio Naruse, chronicles the efforts of a bus conductress, played by Hideko Takamine, who basically punches tickets on a route in farm country, to enhance the ride by announcing to passengers the sites of interest along the way. They’re simple, gentle, touching movies about people trying to make the best out of difficult, economically trying situations. Continue reading

“I will never grow tired of hearing stories told” – Quotes from Orson Welles

6 May

The great actor-writer-director Orson Welles would have turned 106 today, May 6, 2021. I did a centennial piece on him six years ago. Thanks to the release of MANK last year, which offered a questionable treatment of Welles’s role in the writing of CITIZEN KANE, I’ve been eager to read Welles’s own account and wound up re-reading three different books of interviews with him and soon forgot all about MANK. Welles is never boring and never predictable and shares extraordinary insights into life, the arts, society, history, and culture. He loved the act of creation, no matter which medium he worked in: film, theater, television, radio, painting, essays, etc. and he loved watching other human beings invested in creating. I’ve been reading portions of lots of other books about celebrated film personalities lately, mostly directors and movie stars, and I’m constantly finding instances of behavior that absolutely appall me. Some directors thought nothing of putting their cast and crew members in situations of great danger and discomfort or simply treating them horribly. These include some of my favorite directors, so I don’t want to name names. Some movie stars made life miserable for other cast members and their directors. But I’ve never heard anything like that about Welles. He seems to have loved working with people and put himself fully into every one of his creative endeavors. Here’s a quote from a 1964 interview done in Madrid that ends with a sentiment I wish more directors had endorsed:

Q: How do you work with actors?

Welles: I give them a great deal of freedom and, at the same time, the feeling of precision. It’s a strange combination. In other words, physically, and in the way they develop, I demand the precision of ballet. But their way of acting comes directly from their own ideas as much as from mine. When the camera begins to roll, I do not impro­vise visually. In this realm, everything is prepared. But I work very freely with the actors. I try to make their life pleasant.

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50 Years in Times Square: Kurosawa and his Western Remakes

8 Apr

On April 8, 1971, 50 years ago today, I made my first trip to see a Japanese movie on the big screen. It was Akira Kurosawa’s SEVEN SAMURAI (1954) and it may have been the first time the full three-and-a-half-hour cut of the film was shown on the big screen in New York. It was also the first fully foreign-language film with English subtitles that I would see in a theater. The theater was the tiny Bijou Cinema on West 45th Street, between Broadway and 8th Avenue in Times Square in Manhattan.  Interestingly, just over two months earlier, on January 28, 1971, I’d seen John Sturges’ THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960), a western remake of SEVEN SAMURAI, for the first time at a theater around the corner from the Bijou, the Victoria on Broadway and 46th Street. On May 20 of that year, I would see Sergio Leone’s A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964), the first in the Italian director’s “Man with No Name” western trilogy starring Clint Eastwood, at the Astor Theater, adjacent to the Victoria on Broadway between 45th and 46th Streets. A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS was an Italian western remake of Kurosawa’s YOJIMBO (1961), which I would then see on July 17, 1971, at the Bijou Cinema around the corner. So I saw Kurosawa’s two greatest samurai films and their western remakes in a six-month time period on one strip of real estate in Times Square, all while I was still in high school. Where else and at what time period could that have happened? I was so lucky to be coming of age as a film buff at just that time.31337908446_1655225bc8 Continue reading

Gamera, Hercules, Ninjas and Giant Robots: American International Television, 1964-1970

12 Mar

Screenshot_2021-02-26 Watch Voyage Into Space Prime Video(19)

I recently watched VOYAGE INTO SPACE (1970) on Amazon Prime, a feature compilation of episodes of “Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot,” an English-dubbed live-action Japanese series that aired in syndication on American TV beginning in 1969. This compilation was never released to theaters but was sold to TV stations as a movie by American International Television, the TV distribution arm of American International Pictures (AIP), which ruled the drive-ins and grindhouses of the 1960s with all manner of low-budget genre and exploitation films.

I had seen VOYAGE INTO SPACE on television around 40 years ago and seeing the AI-TV logo again triggered a memory of quite a few other Japanese films I’d seen from that era that bypassed theaters completely and went straight to TV. Foremost among these were five Japanese movies featuring Gamera, the giant turtle, that had been retitled for American television, all of which I’d seen on TV back then, usually on Channel 7’s 4:30 Movie (WABC), with four of them completely omitting “Gamera” from the titles: WAR OF THE MONSTERS (GAMERA VS. BARUGON, 1966), RETURN OF THE GIANT MONSTERS (GAMERA VS. GYAOS, 1967), DESTROY ALL PLANETS (GAMERA VS. VIRAS, 1968), ATTACK OF THE MONSTERS (GAMERA VS. GUIRON, 1969), GAMERA VS. MONSTER X (GAMERA VS. JIGER, 1970).

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Hollywood and Japan: Betty Boop Crosses Cultures

15 Feb

I recently watched a Japanese film from 1934, an early talkie called OUR NEIGHBOR MISS YAE (TONARI NO YAE-CHAN), directed by Yasujiro Shimazu, about two young brothers, a university student and an adolescent middle school baseball star, who live across the street from Yaeko, an attractive young student, and the romantic complications that ensue when Yaeko’s older sister Kyoko returns home after leaving her husband and begins to flirt with Keitaro, the university student, whom Yaeko has always had her sights set on.

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Yo-kai Watch: A Clever Anime Mix of 2-D, 3-D and Live-Action

24 Jan

A movie shown in Japan in early 2020, MASHIN SENTAI KIRAMAGER EPISODE ZERO, introduced the year’s super sentai season (the basis for Power Rangers), “Mashin Sentai Kiramager” (still on the air in Japan as of this writing), and offers a closing song sequence in which an anime character from another Toei series, the idol anime “Healin’ Good Pretty Cure,” appears alongside the Red Ranger from Kiramager to do a song, with the 2-D cartoon character inserted into the live-action scene. Soon, other animated girls from the Pretty Cure series, a total of seven, gradually join them in the number, featuring three different sets of Power Rangers, all dancing together. In some shots, they’re all filmed on location in Tokyo, while in others the Power Rangers are inserted into 2-D anime backgrounds. Continue reading

Gamera, Frankenstein, Sabata and Zatoichi: The Genre Films of 1970

30 Dec

50 years ago, in 1970, neighborhood theaters offered quite a varied landscape of cinematic fare, although it took me some time to find it all. I managed to see lots of 1970 releases in theaters in the years 1970-72. (Films sometimes took months or years to reach my local theaters.) Most of these were Hollywood films of varied genres or American independents. I would see everything from PATTON to M*A*S*H, KELLY’S HEROES to ZABRISKIE POINT, FIVE EASY PIECES to LOVE STORY and RIO LOBO to WATERMELON MAN, sometimes on double features! It would take years of TV watching, visits to revival theaters and, much later, cable TV and home video, before I caught up with all the great foreign genre films released in 1970, including England’s Hammer horror, Hong Kong’s Shaw Bros. martial arts adventures, French crime thrillers, Japanese samurai, Japanese kaiju, and Italian westerns. One of my favorites from the year is one I first saw in 2018. So there are always new ones to be discovered or rediscovered after decades.

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From Wake Island to Gamera to Perry Mason

23 Nov

In 1942, Hollywood made WAKE ISLAND to commemorate one of the earliest battles in the Pacific War. As depicted in the film, the American marines on Wake Island, vastly outnumbered by attacking Japanese in the early months of the war, fought back valiantly for weeks before finally being overrun and killed. In the film, Brian Donlevy plays Major Geoffrey Caton, the Marine commander on the island, and Albert Dekker plays Shad McClosky, a civilian engineer heading all construction on the island. McClosky resents having to take orders from Caton, but when the fighting starts, he demands weapons for himself and his men. Caton says no. When the Japanese finally storm the beaches en masse, Caton and McClosky man a machine gun together in a foxhole and fight to the death.

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Naruse’s FLOWING (1956): The Fall of a Geisha Household

5 Oct

The more films by Mikio Naruse I see, the more I feel he belongs in the pantheon of great Japanese directors alongside the three I have long considered the best: Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi. While all three have made films about contemporary life on the ground as lived by ordinary Japanese, whether in Tokyo or the provinces, Naruse seems to have visited this theme most frequently and, in my opinion, most effectively, especially in his 39 postwar films. I’ve seen 17 of his films, 14 of them in the past three years. I was especially moved by the one I’ve most recently seen, FLOWING (NAGARERU, 1956), which follows a group of women in Tsuta House, a once-renowned geisha company in Tokyo going through serious decline as it faces bankruptcy after some bad decisions by its owner and head geisha, Otsuta. We see the off-duty day-to-day life of these women chiefly through the eyes of a new maid, a housewife and widow sent by an employment agency. The maid turns out to be very resourceful and eager to fill various unmet needs and she soon becomes indispensable.

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