I’m surrounded in this room by DVDs and VHS tapes containing, primarily, Japanese animation (films, TV series, made-for-video productions); Japanese live-action films and TV shows (think Godzilla, Ultraman, and Zatoichi); classic Hollywood movies, particularly westerns; Hong Kong movies, particularly kung fu; and plenty of other stuff (Italian westerns, classic cartoons, Criterion box sets, Japanese pop music concerts, etc.). I’m a big believer in physical media. I like holding a film in my hand. I like knowing it’s on a shelf where I can get it and not have to depend on a TV station showing it or a website streaming it. (I once worked in a film library where everything was on 16mm film.)
I created this blog so I can write about some of the stuff I watch, with the emphasis on classic film, anime and Japanese live-action entertainment. Much of it is pretty obscure, so there might not be many places to read about these titles. I like to write reviews for IMDB (Internet Movie Database) when I find something that no one’s yet reviewed or has only one or two comments. (I use my real name on all my reviews and have been submitting them since 2001.) A recent review I submitted was for “Ultra Q,” the 1966 Japanese TV series produced by special effects genius Eiji Tsuburaya and the forerunner of “Ultraman.”
Some of the stuff I watch is so obscure it’s not even on IMDB. (I keep a word file just for titles that are “Not on IMDB.”) One that I watched recently that is not on IMDB is a 2002 Japanese TV drama called “Shinshun! Love Stories,” which contains live-action dramatizations of three famous Japanese stories, including “The Izu Dancer.”
It was in Japanese with no subtitles, so I first dug out my copy of the original story and read that and then I watched an animated version of the story from the “Animated Classics of Japanese Literature” TV series (1986), which is subtitled. By then I was ready to tackle the untranslated TV drama version.
I love discovering obscure films that have real historical value. For instance, last year I bought a DVD box set called “Combat Classics” and found two films starring Anna May Wong, the first Chinese-American actress to achieve prominence in Hollywood and the only Asian star to ever be under contract to a major studio (Paramount Pictures) in the Golden Age of Hollywood. She was usually cast in exotic “China Doll” or “Yellow Peril” roles, but in these two wartime films, “The Lady from Chungking” and “Bombs Over Burma,” both 1942, she played a Chinese patriot who actively opposes the Japanese occupiers of her country. She plays no-nonsense characters in both and does so without a trace of stereotype. I daresay that these characters probably came as close to capturing the real Anna May Wong as any role she played. It’s sad to note that she could only find this kind of starring role in low-budget films made by the Poverty Row studio, PRC. The copies on this DVD set are quite poor (dark, scratchy, choppy), but they’re the only way I know to see them—and I’m glad I did.
Also last year, I got a copy of the very first Japanese movie to feature a bonafide American movie star in its cast. No, it wasn’t a Godzilla movie, but a drama about orphans in postwar Japan called “Futari no Hitomi” (Girls Hand in Hand, 1952) and it co-starred former Hollywood child actress Margaret O’Brien and Japanese recording star Hibari Misora. (And, yes, I reviewed it on IMDB also.)
I’m not terribly nostalgic about the past, except for one thing. I miss the days when there were movie theaters everywhere. I grew up in a neighborhood (in the Bronx) where there were at least 16 movie theaters within walking distance of my apartment building. Long after those theaters closed, there were still dozens of theaters close to where I worked in Manhattan. From 1985 to 1999, I worked two blocks from Times Square and had access to all the theaters once situated there, including those on 42nd Street.
What a great time that was. I used to go to the movies more often when theaters were more accessible and many of them offered only one screen, so you didn’t have to spend precious time traveling on an escalator to get to the screen showing your movie the way you do in today’s Manhattan multiplexes. Fewer theaters, longer walks (or subway rides), longer distances from the boxoffice to the actual seat…all add up to fewer trips to the movies for me. Not to mention the lesser quality of movies now produced.
Once upon a time, there was a greater variety of genres available at the movies. When I was attending neighborhood theaters from the early 1960s to the mid-1970s, you could see westerns, historical epics, comedies, melodramas, science fiction, Oscar-nominated dramas, Disney movies, Italian costume spectacles, Japanese monster movies, British horror, French thrillers, Russian fantasies, Blaxploitation, Hong Kong kung fu, and a dozen other genres. There were even arthouses in the neighborhood where you could see indie classics like “Putney Swope” and “Minnie and Moskowitz,” or a Shakespeare adaptation like the 1968 version of “Romeo and Juliet.” Today every other movie seems to be a superhero CGI extravaganza from Marvel or DC Comics or a cookie-cutter rom-com starring Kate Hudson or Katherine Heigl. Or an indie film about a dysfunctional middle- or upper-class family. And how often do foreign movies even play at multiplexes anymore? Even in the early 2000s, you could see “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Hero” and “Kung Fu Hustle” at multiplexes–and all subtitled, too.
I grew up at a time when I could go to local theaters and see new movies starring John Wayne, Spencer Tracy, Cary Grant, Henry Fonda, James Stewart, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Robert Mitchum, Frank Sinatra, and a host of other Hollywood legends, not to mention relatively younger stars like Marlon Brando, Jerry Lewis, Jack Lemmon, Sidney Poitier, Charlton Heston, Steve McQueen, Elvis Presley, Doris Day, Shirley MacLaine, and Natalie Wood. Plus, foreign stars like Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Alain Delon, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Gabin, Curt Jurgens, Sophia Loren, Claudia Cardinale, Gina Lollobrigida, and Catherine Deneuve, to name a few. Gabin had starred in Jean Renoir’s “Grand Illusion” 35 years earlier and was generally considered the “Humphrey Bogart of France,” yet I could walk to a theater a few blocks from home and see him in a relatively recent movie (“The Sicilian Clan”) as late as 1972.
And here’s a partial list of the great directors whose films I saw at neighborhood theaters during this period: John Ford, Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh, Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, Cecil B. DeMille, Michael Curtiz, William Wyler, Anthony Mann, Robert Aldrich, Don Siegel, Phil Karlson, Gordon Douglas, Stanley Kramer, Otto Preminger, Edgar G. Ulmer, Alexander Ptushko, Blake Edwards, John Frankenheimer, Stanley Kubrick, Arthur Penn, Robert Altman, Sam Peckinpah, Roger Corman, Richard Lester, Tony Richardson, Franco Zeffirelli, John Cassavetes, Terence Fisher, Mario Bava, Ishiro Honda, Sergio Leone, Sergio Corbucci, Henri Verneuil, Hideo Gosha, Kenji Misumi, Kinji Fukasaku, Chang Cheh, Robert Downey Sr., Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Brian De Palma. When I entered film school, how could I not embrace the “auteur theory” all the way?
As you can see, I also like making lists. Hopefully, I’ll come up with enough interesting ones to make worthwhile reading here.
I hope you’ll join me on this journey and enjoy what you see and read. This is just an introductory entry. I still have to learn all the quirks of WordPress and figure out how to post pictures in unbroken succession. I’ll be adding reviews and more in-depth commentary in the near future. And reminiscences of the days I attended so many theaters in the city. In the meantime, here’s a link to the index of my reviews on IMDB: http://www.imdb.com/user/ur1060482/comments?start=0&summary=on&order=date