Yoshiko Kawashima – Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy: Four Films

23 Jun

Earlier this year, I attended five films in a series at Japan Society in New York entitled “The Most Beautiful: The War Films of Shirley Yamaguchi and Setsuko Hara,” curated by Aiko Masubuchi, and wound up seeing five films there, three of them starring Yamaguchi, more widely known as Yoshiko Yamaguchi, and two of them starring Hara, all made in the years 1937-1943, during the period of Japan’s occupation of China. As preparation for seeing these films, I began reading a novel about Yamaguchi called The China Lover, by historian Ian Buruma, who has written several books about Japanese history and culture, two of which I’ve read. In the novel, there’s a character named Yoshiko Kawashima, who is also known as Eastern Jewel, a historical figure who was a princess of the Manchu royal family and a cousin of Pu Yi, the famed “Last Emperor” of China. She got her Japanese name when she was sent to Japan at the age of six to be raised by Naniwa Kawashima, a Japanese translator of Chinese and friend of Yoshiko’s father, Prince Su. She self-identified as Japanese for much of her life. I realized as I was reading about her that I own a DVD of a Hong Kong film called KAWASHIMA YOSHIKO (1990), a full-scale biopic starring Anita Mui in the title role. I’d never seen it, so I resolved to do so at the earliest opportunity.

Anita Mui as Yoshiko Kawashima

Anita Mui as Yoshiko Kawashima

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JANKEN MUSUME (1955): First “Sannin Musume” Musical

14 Jun

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Sannin Musume is the name given to the informal starring trio of Hibari Misora, Chiemi Eri and Izumi Yukimura, the three ranking pop singers in Japan in the 1950s, when they made movies together. They made a total of four and I’ve written about the second and third ones here, ROMANCE MUSUME (1956), on November 9, 2014, and ON WINGS OF LOVE (1957) on March 8, 2015. I’ve seen the fourth, HIBARI, CHIEMI, IZUMI SANNIN YOREBA (1964), but haven’t written about it here yet. The first was JANKEN MUSUME (1955), which I wrote about previously on my J-pop blog, but used lesser-quality screen grabs, so I decided it was high time to watch it again and cover it here. My emphasis in the earlier pieces was on the musical numbers and the films’ frequent uses of American pop songs of the era, sung in both English and Japanese.

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VHS Discoveries: Classic Kung Fu

4 Jun

Back in 1998 to 2003, my revived interest in “Old School” kung fu films from Hong Kong and Taiwan happened to coincide with a phenomenal outpouring of these films in low-cost VHS editions, usually bootleg or “gray market,” with many available in mainstream video stores (e.g. Suncoast, Virgin, Tower and FYE), but more often found at discount dealers like Record Explosion and Entertainment Outlet. A company called Xenon (with various subsidiaries) released quite a number of these films as part of the “Wu Tang Collection,” often given new titles designed to appeal to hiphop fans and fans of the rap group, the Wu-Tang Clan, which took its name and a significant amount of its content from kung fu films its members had seen on 42nd Street back in the day. One of its members, Ghostface Killah, even took his name from the villain of a 42nd Street hit called THE MYSTERY OF CHESS BOXING (aka NINJA CHECKMATE). Ol’ Dirty Bastard was the name applied to another member of the Clan.

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WHEN MARNIE WAS THERE: Best Ghibli film since MONONOKE

24 May

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WHEN MARNIE WAS THERE is a love story, a ghost story and a coming-of-age tale, all rendered in beautiful, painterly, exquisite 2-D animation. It is about Anna, a troubled 12-year-old girl in modern Japan who is sent to visit relatives in Kushiro, on the island of Hokkaido, for the summer so that she can get a break from the stress that is giving her asthma attacks. While exploring the rural region where she is staying, she finds a magnificent old house that’s apparently been abandoned and eventually meets a beautiful girl named Marnie, who supposedly lives there, and embarks on a series of adventures with her in what seems to be some kind of ghostly realm. Revelations gradually ensue, resulting in the kind of emotional spectacle that some of us cherish but encounter too rarely in films these days. That’s all the plot I’m going to give you, since the film will work best if you go in cold, not knowing what to expect.

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Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon: PORTRAIT OF JENNIE (1948)

16 May

This post is my contribution to the My Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon in support of the first National Classic Movie DayThe home page for the blogathon can be found here:

http://www.classicfilmtvcafe.com/2015/03/a-blogathon-in-celebration-of-inaugural.html

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Since a couple of the favorites I would have picked were already taken by other bloggers (e.g. THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES and CASABLANCA), I opted for PORTRAIT OF JENNIE (1948), which I saw for the first time as an adult and quickly became a favorite after a TV viewing and a big-screen viewing. I wrote a piece about it after the big-screen showing, which took place 24 years ago yesterday, and, since the piece has never been published, I decided to use it as my entry in this Blogathon. The emphasis is on the film’s use of New York City locations and how they contribute to the romantic and otherworldly aura of the film. Without further ado, here is the original essay:

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Orson Welles Centennial

6 May

Orson Welles would have turned 100 today, May 6, 2015. Last night I re-watched ORSON WELLES: THE ONE-MAN BAND, a 1995 documentary which shows Oja Kodar (Welles’ companion for the last 20-odd years of his life) going through film footage Welles left in numerous film cans (mostly 35mm) in storage over the years and sharing bits and pieces of it with us. While there’s little in the way of a potential masterpiece excerpted in it (other than, perhaps, THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, his famous late unfinished project, and an arty made-for-TV short version of “Merchant of Venice”), it’s fun watching Welles in a variety of eras and boasting a variety of looks, mainly having fun with the camera. He loved filmmaking and liked to shoot wherever he went. As Kodar shows us, he carried a case with an editing console and another one with various cameras and filmmaking tools wherever he went. If you love Welles, you should see this film because there’s a lot of Welles in it, in all sorts of modes, and Kodar’s love and devotion to him are quite evident throughout.

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40 Years of Sentai: Japanese Costumed Superhero Teams

5 Apr

Forty years ago today, on April 5, 1975, a series called “Goranger” premiered on the TV Asahi network in Japan. The full Japanese title of the show is “Himitsu Sentai Gorenja,” translated literally into English as “Secret Squadron FiveRangers.” It was the first in a long franchise devoted to the concept of a team of five people (usually four men and one woman) in color-coded costumes that bestow certain powers and skills on them so they can work together to defeat monstrous enemies either based on Earth or from other planets (or dimensions) who attack Japan and wreak havoc on, usually, Tokyo. Sentai is the general term for this franchise, although Super Sentai is technically the more accurate term for the seasons that began in 1979 since Super Sentai refers to a sentai series with mecha (mechanical vehicles, usually human- or animal-shaped) used by the heroes. (I’m just going to refer to the entire franchise as sentai, non-italicized, in the rest of this piece.) Sentai series are best known in the U.S. for their American version, Power Rangers, which has been on the air since 1993. (The picture on top is from “Denjiman,” the 1980 sentai season, which I’ve reviewed here on IMDB.)

Sentai shows are part of the broader Japanese genre of tokusatsu, meaning live-action special effects programs, usually in the sci-fi or fantasy genres. Famous tokusatsu programs include the Ultraman and Kamen Rider franchises and “Giant Robo” (aka “Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot”). I covered some of these shows in Ultraman Heaven, my entry from December 15, 2014, and Classic Japanese TV  from March 16, 2014.

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