One year ago today, on March 8, 2016, I arrived in Japan for a four-week stay, a dream trip that I’d waited until my retirement to take. I’ve written about the trip in seven previous installments in the Japan Journal series, mostly from a film and pop culture orientation, but I had so much more material to cover that I decided to put together an album for the one-year anniversary using mostly previously unpublished photos covering the full span of my trip. I spent three weeks in Tokyo and one week in Osaka, with day trips from there to Kyoto and Nara. I took thousands of photos and had to spend a couple of days going through them. I’ve devised some broad categories with which to group them.
2016 was my first full year of retirement. I made 33 trips to movie theaters, the most trips I’ve made in a single year in over two decades, and I saw 34 movies there. Ten were Hollywood films, 19 were foreign films, mostly from Japan, and the rest were indies. Five were documentaries and eight were animated.
I picked 15 films to highlight from the year, eight new films seen in New York theaters, three revivals, two films seen in theaters in Japan, and two more recent Japanese films seen on the airplane flight to Japan. One of the revivals is generally considered to be a masterpiece, while the film at the top of the list may one day be considered one. As for the others, their virtues outweighed their flaws enough to put them on such a list. Nine of the fifteen are Japanese. Four of the fifteen are documentaries. I only saw ten current Hollywood studio releases in theaters this year and only one is on this list. When the final tally for the U.S. boxoffice is announced, there’ll be very few films in the top ten—or the top 100—that I’ve seen. Since I’m no longer at the office discussing superhero and comic book movies with my younger co-workers, I no longer feel the need to rush out to see these films. My two favorites of the year are at the top of the list. The rest are grouped this way: films I saw in theaters in New York; revivals; films seen in Japan and on the flight to Japan. Most of these descriptions are taken from the notes I composed for my daily film log after seeing the films. Where applicable, I’ve included links to complete reviews I did, including blog entries and IMDB reviews.
“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.
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:
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.
One of the absolute highlights of my trip to Japan was the visit to Toei Kyoto Studio Park, in Kyoto, on Wed. March 30, 2016. This is a combination theme park, museum, and studio run by the Toei Company, one of the leading film, TV and animation studios in Japan. Since 1950, Toei has been turning out a steady array of Japanese pop culture staples, including samurai and yakuza movies, martial arts films, superhero TV shows, animated sci-fi and all sorts of other time-honored Japanese genres. The Toei Kyoto Studio Park offers a samurai village backlot that visitors can explore to their heart’s desire, as well as a visitors center filled with galleries devoted to Toei’s 60-year animation output, live-action tokusatsu and sentai TV series, Japanese film history in general, and the singer Hibari Misora. The backlot is in active use as a set for Toei TV shows, plenty of which I’ve seen, and I will share images from shows that were filmed there. It was an immersion in Japanese pop culture history like I’ve never experienced anywhere else.