Archive | Japanese cinema RSS feed for this section

Silent Naruse: STREET WITHOUT END (1934)

17 Jan

Last year I saw eleven films directed by Mikio Naruse, raising to 24 the number of films I’ve seen by him. So far this year I’ve seen two more, making it 26 total. Before 2017 I’d only seen three of his films. I’ve rapidly come to the conclusion that he is one of the four greatest Japanese filmmakers, on a par with Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi and I may even have seen more of his films that I’ve seen by the latter two. (And not just the greatest Japanese filmmakers either, but four of the greatest filmmakers in the history of world cinema.)

My most recent Naruse viewing is STREET WITHOUT END (1934), Naruse’s final silent film and part of Criterion’s Silent Naruse box set. (The newly-composed accompanying score on the disc, by Robin Holcomb and Wayne Horvitz, consisting of piano and violin, is excellent.)

Continue reading

Life Meets Godzilla

6 Sep

Life Magazine recently published a special issue devoted to Godzilla, which I found in the magazine rack at my local Walgreen’s. After thumbing through it, I decided to purchase it despite the excessive price of $14.99, since it seemed to be a rare instance of a high-profile mainstream American media outlet covering a Japanese pop culture phenomenon. Granted, it was timed to promote the recent Warner Bros. release of the latest Hollywood Godzilla movie, GODZILLA VS. KONG, but there were enough pictures of the original Japanese Godzilla in the magazine to pique my interest. (Last I checked, Life Magazine and Warner Bros. were both part of the same corporate empire, although that may have changed recently.)

Continue reading

Deanna Durbin and Her Japanese Fans

15 Aug

I was watching THE WHOLE FAMILY WORKS (1939), a Japanese film directed by Mikio Naruse about a family with seven kids trying to make ends meet in contemporary Japan, when I was struck by a scene 20 minutes into it where the second oldest son, Genji, who has left school to work, opens a magazine or workbook of some kind during a scene where he’s helping his younger brothers study in the room they share and reveals a photo of American movie star Deanna Durbin that he’s hidden in the book.

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

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).

Continue reading

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.

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Setsuko Hara Centennial

17 Jun

The great Japanese actress, Setsuko Hara, would have turned 100 today, June 17, 2020. She died five years ago at the age of 95. She’s most famous for her films for director Yasujiro Ozu, including LATE SPRING, EARLY SUMMER, TOKYO STORY, LATE AUTUMN and THE END OF SUMMER. She starred in NO REGRETS FOR OUR YOUTH (1946), Akira Kurosawa’s first postwar film, and again for Kurosawa in THE IDIOT. She made four films for Mikio Naruse, including REPAST, SUDDEN RAIN, THE SOUND OF THE MOUNTAIN and DAUGHTER, WIVES, MOTHER. Her last film was Toho’s all-star saga of the 47 Ronin, CHUSHINGURA (1962), and she played the wife of the protagonist, Oishi, a chamberlain secretly plotting over the course of a year to rally the ronin and avenge the death of their disgraced lord. Continue reading