Monday, 20 December 2010

Seven Samurai

I'll say from the off that I have mixed feelings about Seven Samurai. On the one hand, you'd have to be a fool not to appreciate the sublime craft of Kurosawa's direction - the impeccable (and groundbreaking) cinematography, each scene's meticulous attention to detail and the deft handling of action sequences - but on the other hand, I found the film too slow-paced at times and ultimately, over-long. The content doesn't really seem to justify the 3 1/2 hour running time.

The story is actually very simple: in 16th Century Japan, bandits are rife and regularly raid villages to steal their produce. One village resolves to take a stand against the bandits and hits on the idea of recruiting samurai to protect it. The first half of the film, which deals with the assembling of the seven samurai - the prelude to battle - is absorbing, but excruciatingly slow-paced. The second half, which is more focused on the actual conflict between samurai and bandits is, for me, the more engaging. Throughout the film though, the various relationships between key characters (high/low caste, master/apprentice, wise man/fool) are intriguingly developed. Despite being quite a big ensemble piece, there are some memorable performances - in particular, Takashi Shimura, charismatic leader and master samurai to Katsuhiro's raw apprentice, and Toshiro Mifune, who hams it up as the irascible clown of the group.

The film touches on a lot of big themes - the class divide (encompassing both illicit love and the injustice of the peasant's lot within the feudal system), rebellion, war, honour, duplicity. But like the role of Mifune's character, Kikuchiyo, a lot of the themes in Seven Samurai seem quaintly archaic - signposts to forgotten places. It's a film, I think, that will always enthuse movie lovers based on the brilliance of its execution and storytelling, its evocation of a lost time, rather than in the enduring substance of its message.

Dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1954

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Juon 2

Well, that explains the gaze... sort of. At the end of Juon, Koyoko catches the eye of the new owner of the Saeki house, Mrs Kitada, and being the psychic type, immediately clocks her as being in possession of a dead woman's soul. It first becomes apparent to the viewer that Mrs Kitada is not herself when she brains her husband with a frying pan for complaining about his egg yolk. Even if you put this piece of slapstick brutality down to her getting out of bed on the wrong side, you're left in no doubt when she literally transforms into Kayako in front of Tatsuya Suzuki, who has ill-advisedly gone to check up on the property. Possession is the theme of Juon 2 - various people who come into contact with the house end up being possessed by Kayako and Toshio.

I'm assuming that this isn't a sequel to Juon, so much as a second DVD containing some material that would originally have been broadcast at the same time as the stuff on the first DVD. That's the only way I can explain why the first two chapters of Juon 2 duplicate the last two chapters of Juon and why the last two chapters of Juon 2 are both about 5 minutes long and are, basically, Shimizu taking the piss. Why not have a hundred Kayakos, all creaking in unison and hunting in packs? Why not have a couple of people tasting the sake that Kyoko left in the Saeki house (despite the fact the Kitadas would surely either have consumed or binned said liquor)? The only thing this installment really serves to do is to flesh out the story of the Suzukis - Tatsuya and his sister Kyoko - but in doing that, it still provides a few choice moments of ghastliness.

呪怨 2
Dir. Takashi Shimizu, 2000

Saturday, 11 December 2010


OK, so this really is the first film in The Grudge franchise - the made for TV movie, Juon. I don't know whether it's because I saw the theatrical release first and had an inkling of what to expect, but Juon was nowhere near as hard to follow. In terms of chronology, it's not linear, but mercifully, neither does it jump around like a frog on a hot plate. Instead, you get six distinct stories - or chapters - each centered around one character and their, usually fatal, experience of the curse. These function nicely as a series of vignettes, putting me in mind of a short story collection like Creep Show, where each episode ratchets up the tension before the pay-off.

I like the fact that more time was spent on the Toshio character as well - the back story of Toshio and Kayako is hinted at in the theatrical release, but details like the neglect of Toshio, Kayako's obsession with Toshio's teacher and her husband's jealousy of him does help to establish more of a context for subsequent events.

Naturally, being a TV movie, the budget is considerably lower and it does occasionally show - but mostly just in terms of flat lighting and slightly cheap-looking sets (interestingly though, the same set is used for the Saeki house as in the theatrical release). Special effects are used judiciously, to create some great moments - the first reveal of Kayako in the attic is very creepy and there's pure schlock horror fun to be had in the scene where a bloodied Kanna ascends a staircase in laboured steps, then slowly turns around to gape jawless at her stricken mother. The ending of the film, which uses no more special effects than a mutual gaze, has to be one of the best WTF moments in recent memory.

Dir. Takashi Shimizu, 2000

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Drunken Angel

Kurosawa's first collaboration with actor Toshiro Mifune, is a Film Noir set in a Tokyo slum. The Drunken Angel of the piece is an alcoholic doctor who is drawn to young yakuza hood Matsunaga - subsequently diagnosed to be suffering from the advanced stages of tuberculosis. When Matsunaga's old boss, Okada, returns from a stint in jail, he pretends to fall back in with Matsunaga but is secretly preying on his weakened condition in a bid to take his territory for himself.

I can imagine this being too slow-paced for some, but I found it to be an engaging insight into a bygone era of dapper gangsters and smoke-wreathed speakeasies, a curious melange of East and West, symptomatic perhaps of the American occupation of Japan at the time of the film's production. The main intrigue lies in the relationship of the doctor and Matsunaga; the way he sees his own failings magnified through his patient's plight and feels compelled to help him despite (largely hypocritical) misgivings about his lifestyle. In a sure sign of the times, the blame for Matsunaga's condition - and the ills of society in general - is laid squarely at the door of the demon drink. No-one, including a man dying of tuberculosis, gives a second thought to chain smoking their way through every scene.

Once again the bleakness of the film and its central theme of Man's inherent vampirism of spirit is mitigated somewhat by a slightly jarring, upbeat ending - although the fact it feels jarring might have more to do with my own taste for dysphoria, typical of the modern viewer, than it does with an excess of sentimentality on Kurosawa's part. That said, American Noir of the same era tends to be darker and more uncompromising.

Dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1948

Friday, 3 December 2010


The second of six films shown at The Barbican as part of their mini Kurosawa retrospective - and the first of three that I plan to see there.

According to the ordinance of the film criti-rati, I should probably be telling you how this is an unimpeachable masterwork, perfect in every respect, but at risk of being labelled a philistine, I have to say, in my view, it isn't. Yes, technically, in cinematographic terms, Rashomon is a cut above. Its distinctive visual style, as well as groundbreaking storytelling techniques have no doubt been very influential on subsequent generations of filmmakers, but thematically I found it to be somewhat unsatisfying.

The basic premise goes thus: three men take refuge from a storm in a temple and relate the story of a bandit's murder of a nobleman and rape of his mistress. The story is told four ways: from the perspective of each protagonist and also from the perspective of one of the three men in the temple, who claimed to witness the event. Everyones' story is different, filtered through the gauze of self-interest, which leads the 'honest rogue' among the three to the conclusion that human beings are incapable of absolute truth and all basically absurd and untrustworthy. A fact which, in Beckettian style, he takes great delight in. This idea might have been new to cinema - in the way it's told, visually - but writers had been employing similar devices for centuries. The fundamental problem with Rashomon though, is that the protagonists are reduced to archetypes - the bandit, the nobleman, the priest, are functions of philosophy rather than fully-realized characters. Now, before I'm accused of blatant hypocrisy at this point by certain parties (you know who you are!), I confess that in a recent debate on Tarkovsky's Stalker, these same observations were made about that film and I poo-pooed them. So yes, I'm a hypocrite.

The ending to Rashomon is also slightly disappointing - it was, dare I say it, a bit of a cop out: having exposed the moral relativism lurking at the heart of humanity, Kurosawa allows sentimentality to creep in, suggesting that the redeeming factor for mankind lies in its continual rebirth and the possibility to evolve beyond a self-serving existence. Compassion, in other words, will be our saving grace. To me, that seems a little trite.

Dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1950

Thursday, 2 December 2010

A Snake of June

From one rain-soaked film to another. As with Dark Water, the torrents that rage beyond soundless, sterile interiors are indicative of a public/private, inner/outer dichotomy which seems to obsess many Japanese filmmakers. In Dark Water, the 'inner' was repressed memory, in A Snake of June, repressed sexuality.

It's not as experimental or extreme as I would have expected from Tsukamoto - the film actually has a fairly linear narrative. A couple, locked in a loveless marriage, are stalked by and drawn into the dark, fetishistic world of a slightly unhinged individual, played by Tsukamoto himself. Despite its restraint (this could easily have gone down the sleazy, exploitative route) and its almost myopic focus on the emotional responses of three characters, it's also a richly symbolic film. Naturally, the symbols are all about sex and death, but then Tsukamoto is a Surrealist at heart.

The fact the stalker/photographer is played by the director suggests that he, and by implication, the audience, are complicit in an act of voyeurism and ultimately A Snake of June is the kind of film that leaves you feeling slightly unclean. It's hard to love - I don't see myself revisiting it for quite some time - but a fascinating slice of Japanese art house nonetheless. With directors like Tsukamoto, Miike, Sono, Kitano and Sabu all consistently producing unique, thought-provoking films of the highest quality, you'd have to say contemporary Japanese cinema is in very rude health indeed.

Dir. Shinya Tsukamoto, 2002