Saturday, 31 July 2010

Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence

An appropriate blog follow-on from Brother in a number of ways - this was Takeshi Kitano's first real break from his "Beat" Takeshi persona and his emergence as a serious actor, starring here as Sergeant Hara. It's also another cinematic miscegenation - East meets West - and Nagisa Oshima's first crossover picture. It's clear that Kitano's involvement was a formative experience in his own career as a director, picking up his rapid, economic way of working from Oshima, as well as an interest in exploring cultural differences. As with Brother, Merry Christmas exposes a seemingly impassable gulf in value sets, that lead the Japanese to prefer death to shame and Westerners to privilege survival over everything.

Ostensibly, Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence is a POW film, set in Japanese-occupied Indonesia, towards the end of WWII. Unlike many previous efforts, having a Japanese director at the helm makes for an intriguing take on an established genre. For a POW film, it's not especially violent: there are sporadic bursts of violence, often cleverly alluded to rather than graphically paraded by Oshima, but Merry Christmas is a essentially a subtle, character-driven movie, full of atmosphere, which is embellished by Ryuichi Sakamoto's brilliant score.

Oshima made the bold move of casting pop icons David Bowie and Sakamoto in the key roles of Jack Celliers and Captain Yonoi. Despite powerful performances from all the main players, it's Bowie's strange, christ-like Celliers who steals the show. The tension between Celliers and the camp, repressed, savagely cruel Yonoi is palpable. And
while their relationship is about irreconcilable differences, the relationship between Lawrence and Hara suggests that the shared humanity of the Japanese and the British, arbitrarily cast in opposing roles, could lead to a deeper understanding, and the possibility of friendship in spite of circumstance.

Dir. Nagisa Oshima, 1983

Thursday, 22 July 2010


The tag line, "The Yakuza Takes On The Mafia" promises great things, and Brother very nearly delivers greatness.

The film starts with exiled Yakuza boss, Yamamoto (played by Kitano), ariving at LAX and heading off to find his kid brother. Yamamoto is referred to throughout the film as 'Aniki' (big brother), which assumes a literal and figurative value. Apart from being a damn good gangster film with an impressively high body count, Brother is also a film about fraternity; in particular, its ability to transcend cultural differences. Actions, after all, speak louder than words. This is something Aniki knows from long experience, and even as a stranger in a strange land he is unfazed as he sets about creating a new dynasty. His unflinching brutality and obvious gangster credentials evaporate the misgivings of his younger brother's hood friends instantly, earning Aniki their respect and establishing his place at the head of the new family.

Brother is a multi-faceted gangster film, drawing on all of Kitano's directorial trademarks; stillness counterpointed with explosive action, subtle flashbacks, artful, unusual shot composition, and his ability to show the lighter side of human nature as well as the brutal - even finding time for a bit of pissing about on a beach (a sure sign that characters are taking time out from the grind of existence in a Kitano movie). Thematically, the film explores loyalty and shame as the key precepts in Japanese hierarchical society, each taking on a meaning greater than life itself. In some ways, Aniki is playing out the shame of his disgraced status from the moment he lands in the US - following a violent path to its logical conclusion. Although he takes his exile in good part for the sake of his sworn brother in Japan, he seems to arrive in L.A. with a death wish.

If there's anything to detract from this enthralling film it's that the non-Japanese characters are too thinly drawn, being little more than ciphers for the most part. You could put that down to Kitano's difficulties with English dialogue, but if you were being more generous you'd say it was designed to give an impression of Aniki's world, the way he sees it.

Dir. Takeshi Kitano, 2000

Saturday, 17 July 2010


It looks awesome, it sounds awesome, but what the hell is it all about? The meaning of Shigenori Takechi's scerenplay is elusive to say the least. Miike's direction is typically eccentric, imaginative, beautiful - all the things I've come to expect from one of the greatest auteurs working in cinema today, not just in Japan, but internationally.

If you're looking for a straightforward narrative, or structured character development, then this film is bound to disappoint. If it's important to look for meaning, and I'm not at all sure it is, one line from the 'bard''s commentary may be a clue. To paraphrase, it goes something along the lines of "it's all very well to be anti-war, but what about being anti-human". In a way, that seems to enapsulate the mood of the film.

Izo is like a cleansing fist, crashing through layers of human ignorance-made-flesh at random; as random, in fact, as existence itself. To call this an anti-war film or a meditation on human history as the history of violence is, I think, too reductive. It simply isn't that one-dimensional and resists such a banal interpretation. This is pure surrealism, at it's most random and brutal. It's serious, but then again, ridiculous and, at times, laugh-out-loud funny. It's nihilistic, but it's also about rebirth and the endless hope of renewal. It thrives on contradictions, which is what surrealism is all about.

But if we put all this semantic hand-wringing to one side, what we have is a movie that is fundamentally a BLAST to watch - at least once; the relentless violence might start to become a little tedious on repeat viewings. Taken at face value, it's a demonic undead wandering samurai, who happens to be able to traverse time and space at will (possibly not his own will, judging by his constant state of confusion), putting to the sword whomever should appear in his path, whether it's a class full of school children or an improbably muscular ringer for a Gamorrean Guard. It's a pan-dimensional beat 'em up, where each new character is mid-level fodder or a formidable end-of-level boss, all to be served up and annihilated for the sheer hell of it.

Dir. Takashi Miike, 2004