Japanese Cinema: 3x Nippon 80s

Sex change in Exchange Students.

What I really like with big cities, such as Berlin, is the constant flow of cultural opportunities, mainstream and alternative; I think I’ve seen three productions each of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie and Kafka’s Bericht für eine Akademie. Recently, the Institute for Film and Video Art had a little festival called Nippon 80s, during which they screened Japanese movies from the 1980s. I saw these three:

Exchange Students was a pretty fun high school comedy about a boy and a girl who through an accident happen to switch bodies with each other, which leads to a number of comical situations based on how we expect the two genders to act; the girl suddenly becomes brutal and coarse (since it’s really the boy but in the girl’s body), and the boy becomes shy and sensitive. And when they’re alone, they fight with each other since they’re anxious that the other one doesn’t taint their status in school, now that the other one is “acting” them.

Although we shouldn’t imagine that the gender roles are any laxer in Europe (they’re just a bit different), I think Japan is a great setting for this kind of comedy, since everything is much more visible there. For a Japanese girl, it’s a kind of ideal to stand in an insecure posture, looking down and giggling. Which the boy in this comedy constantly does after the body swap. Great acting!

The Love Suicides at Sonezaki was a kabuki drama acted out with puppets. The theatre was full. Nuff said!

Finally, Fall Guy was my favourite. A really sweet action comedy about a stunt man. See it if you get the chance! Here’s a picture from Fall Guy:

Japanese Cinema: 3x Osamu Tezuka

The Japanese “god of manga” Osamu Tezuka (1928-1989) is most famous for creating Atom, or Astro Boy as he was called in the US, a 1950s manga cum tv series. I still haven’t made his acquaintance. Instead, I watched these three animated movies:

  • 1980: Phoenix 2772
  • 1984: Bagi
  • 2001: Metropolis

Of course, the 2010 Metropolis was only based on Tezuka’s comic, which he made in 1949. I enjoyed the film though, it was very bombastic.

The Phoenix 2772 didn’t leave much impression (I was probably in the wrong mood), but Bagi really did. It’s a beautiful story about a genetically manipulated cat, who escaped a lab and lives with a boy. I think you got to see it for yourselves. Go to 2:50 for some beautiful and hot cat/boy-love:

I also wanted to see Princess Knight (Ribon no Kishi) because of its gender-bending qualities, but didn’t manage to get hold of the movie.

Japanese Cinema: 4x Kenji Mizoguchi

The Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi (1898-1956) made many films that dealt with women and their problems. He has therefore been dubbed “the feminist director.” I saw four of his films:

  • 1951: Miss Oyu (お遊さま – Oyū-sama)
  • 1952: The Life of Oharu (西鶴一代女 – Saikaku ichidai onna)
  • 1953: Ugetsu aka Tales of Moonlight and Rain (雨月物語 – Ugetsu monogatari)
  • 1956: Street of Shame (赤線地帯 – Akasen chitai)

Unfortunately, this wasn’t my cup of tea. Wikipedia describes his style this way:

Mizoguchi’s films have an aesthetic that is reminiscent of Japanese art. He favoured long takes and rich, painterly mise-en-scene, seldom with the Western-favoured device of the close-up; a typical shot can take a few minutes, and places emphasis on lighting and placement (…)

Although it was fun to watch a movie based on a short story by Ihara Saikaku (The Life of Oharu), the films mostly bored me – with one exception: Street of Shame. That movie is about the women in a brothel in a time when the city discusses a ban on prostitution. I found it engaging and surprisingly up-to-date, since prostitution was banned in Sweden in 1999.

Japanese Cinema: 4x Nagisa Oshima

Nagisa Oshima (born 1932) seems to be a kind of enfant terrible of Japanese cinema. His films often have a political edge to them, and at the same time he’s been “accused” of being sensational. Sounds like a good mix to me. I watched these four movies of his:

  • 1960: Cruel Story of Youth (青春残酷物語 – Sēshun zankoku monogatari)
  • 1969: Boy (少年 – Shōnen)
  • 1983: Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (戦場のメリークリスマス – Senjō no merī Kurisumasu)
  • 1999: Taboo (御法度 – Gohatto)

Boy was a very touching family drama that takes child abuse to the next level: A couple earns money by having their 10-year-old son being hit by cars, whose drivers rather pay upfront than deal with the police. The dysfunctional family travels across Japan with this scam, earning over 700,000 yen. After a while, the boy doesn’t need to fake injury anymore …

Cruel Story of Youth, or Naked Youth as it’s sometimes called, had a similar idea for a scam: A woman hitchhikes with a male driver, all the while her boyfriend follows them on his motorbike. She fakes nausea and asks the driver to stop. If he makes advances on her, her boyfriend turns up and threatens to call the police if the driver doesn’t pay them. The film wasn’t bad, but not at all as touching as Boy.

I saw Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence some ten years ago (I even bought it on VHS!), and I think I liked it.

Now over to what seems to become Oshima’s last movie, Taboo from 1999. It’s set in some kind of samurai school in the last years before the Meiji era (which began in 1868). The title refers to the homosexual love affairs that the beautiful youth Kanō becomes the object of.

There were several things I didn’t like about this movie. For starters, the constant referring to people having “that leaning” or not seems a very 1990s way of seeing things. According to the texts that I’ve read on the subject (Louis Crompton and Paul Gordon Schalow), people in those ages didn’t reflect on homosexuality as a subject as such. But then again, who knows.

Then some of the acting sucked and the production quality was low. I think this film was shot digitally, and it shows. It might work now, but in 1999, it didn’t. It was fun to see Takeshi Kitano again though.

Funny how I loved one of Oshima’s films and disliked one of them almost to the same extent. The films are really totally different. If I’ll see something more by Nagisa Oshima, it will probably be In the Realm of the Senses from 1976, because of its sexual theme, and because of this image:

Japanese Cinema: 4x Hayao Miyazaki

Hayao Miyazaki (born 1941) is the famous Japanese animator. I fell in love with his films when watching Spirited Away when it was running in Sweden. Among other rewards, it received an Oscar for Best Animated Feature in 2002. I even have it on dvd!

Some year ago, I watched Kiki’s Delivery Service with my Japanese sensei. Yesterday I watched Princess Mononoke and today I’ve started watching Future Boy Conan, a children’s anime series from the 1970s, set in the future, after “the War” and “the Great Disaster”, when all continents sank into the sea. The future = year 2008 … Remember how exotic those 2000 something years were back then?

So here are my four Miyazakis:

  • 未来少年コナン (Mirai Shōnen Konan/Future Boy Conan, 1978)
  • 魔女の宅急便 (Majo no Takkyūbin/Kiki’s Delivery Service, 1989)
  • もののけ姫 (Mononoke-hime/Princess Mononoke, 1997)
  • 千と千尋の神隠し (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi/Spirited Away, 2001)

I already loved Spirited Away, with its wonderful bathhouse, whose guests of various shapes and sizes I always come to think of when I’m in a sauna.

Scene from Princess Mononoke (1997).

But Princess Mononoke actually topped Spirited Away. It’s a classic adventure, a saga of good and evil, the temptation of Man to destroy Nature, the challenge to live in harmony with it. Add some love between a beautiful boy and a wolf girl – I was sold! The battle scenes reminded me a lot of those in Kurosawa’s Ran. The forest with all its animals and fantasy creations reminded me of the rich worlds in Haruki Murakami’s novels – you just want to stay there forever.

Japanese Cinema: 2x Takeshi Kitano

Five years ago, I happened to see two films by Takeshi Kitano (born 1947):

  • 菊次郎の夏 (Kikujiro, 1999)
  • Takeshis’, 2005

The background to the first one, as I put it in my old Swedish blog on January 30, 2005:

I går vaknade jag med en ångest som jag nästan aldrig upplevt så starkt tidigare. Jag köpte med mig två woker och åkte till J. Vi såg den fina filmen Kikujiro – en underbar bakisrulle – och drack en siciliansk Nero d’Avola.

In short, Kikujiro is a wonderful movie to watch with a good friend as the mellow hangover from yesterday merges into the next wave of liquor. (Who is J, you wonder? I tell you: Johan Haza!) I don’t remember much from the story, but there was a man and a boy, random travel and the search for something. Sounds good, right? It was.

Later that year, we saw Takeshis’ at the Stockholm Film Festival. A film written, directed, edited by and starring Takeshi. I hated it.

Japanese Cinema: 3x Akira Kurosawa

Next up in my personal Japanese film festival is the most famous of all Japanese film makers, Japan’s Bergman: Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998). I watched these 3 films of his:

  • 七人の侍 (Shichinin no samurai/Seven Samurai, 1954)
  • 用心棒 (Yojimbo aka The Bodyguard, 1961)
  • 乱 (Ran, 1985)

All three are included in 501 Must See Movies, a book that isn’t perfect (since A Streetcar Named Desire isn’t in it) but nevertheless works as some kind of reference.

All of them were entertaining, but I liked Seven Samurai the best.

Ran is a 2:40 long epic, loosely based on Shakespeare’s King Lear. The battle scenes are quite spectacular.

Yojimbo reminded me of an American western, and that’s why I liked it the least.

If Ozu shares some light on the modern life of the Japanese, Kurosawa does the same with the way of the Samurai.

Not much more to say about him. I mean, I can see the greatness of his films, but on a personal level I wasn’t that convinced. I prefer Ozu to Kurosawa.

Japanese Cinema: 7x Yasujirō Ozu

Yasujirō Ozu (1903-1963) is one of Japan’s most famous film makers. I recently watched 7 of his films:

  • 東京の合唱 (Tokyo no gassho/Tokyo Chorus, 1931)
  • 戸田家の兄妹 (Todake no kyodai/Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family, 1941)
  • 晩春 (Banshun/Late Spring, 1949)
  • 東京物語 (Tokyo monogatari/Tokyo Story, 1953)
  • お早よう (Ohayo/Good Morning, 1959)
  • 秋日和 (Akibiyori/Late Autumn, 1960)
  • 秋刀魚の味 (Sanma no aji/An Autumn Afternoon, 1962 – his final work)

They all focus on the everyday life of the Family; work, children, marriage, death … The family focus is so strong that it borders on satire. But I’d rather call it obsession.

Three of the films had the same plot: A daughter who doesn’t want to marry, partly out of pity since she lives with her lone parent. The whole film focuses on her acquaintances’ attempts to get her to marry, which she eventually does.

Ozu seems to say: Traditions are important. Change is inevitable and should be embraced.

My favourite was the silent movie Tokyo Chorus, because of the way Ozu shapes the main character, a pretty ordinary guy whom it is impossible not to love.

Ozu uses the same set design and the same actors in many of his movies. Watching the movies so close together almost gave me the impression of a soap opera. (Movie buffs may hate me.) Same plots, same quarrels, same actors – but in different roles. Maybe a better comparison is that of a travelling theatrical company. I couldn’t help but smile when an actress I had “got to know” suddenly emerged in a new role.

The films are all very slow and sport a minimalistic aesthetics. I fell asleep during several of them. But I still liked them, especially to watch on a Sunday when you’re hungover.