Keeper of the Clockwork Heart: The Late Films of Kenji Mizoguchi

Late-MizoguchiIn a career spanning thirty three years, the Japanese film director Kenji Mizoguchi produced a total of eighty three feature films. While many of those films have now been lost and only a few have ever been made available to Western audiences, recent years have seen an attempt to reclaim the legacy of Mizoguchi and introduce his work to a new generation of film-lovers. So far, the most visible element of this campaign has been the very visible release of Mizoguchi’s later films by Criterion in America and Masters of Cinema in the UK. Next week, Masters of Cinema are releasing a blu-ray box set entitled Late Mizoguchi: Eight Films 1951-1956. The set includes:

  • Ugetsu Monogatari (1951)
  • Oyu Sama (1951)
  • Gion Bayashi (1953)
  • Sansho Dayu (1954)
  • Chikamatsu Monogatari (1954)
  • Uwasa No Onna (1954)
  • Yokihi (1955)
  • Akasen Chitai (1956)

My review of the complete box set is now available on FilmJuice. As you might expect for a review of an eight-film box set, the review is kind of long but I think the length was necessary in order to explore not only Mizoguchi’s approach to narrative but also his attitudes to women and how these attitudes to women transitioned over time from bewailing their fate to celebrating their courage and finally to railing at the capitalist system that dehumanises and immiserates them. I personally consider Akasen Chitai to be one of the greatest films of all time as no other film so perfectly captures the ways in which the system bullies and coerces us into betraying each other for personal advancement.

I was actually lucky enough to review some of these films when they were first released on DVD back in 2007:

Re-reading these reviews just now, it’s interesting to see that while my dim opinions of Yokihi and Chikamatsu Monogatari have not massively changed, my feelings on both Uwasa No Onna and Akasen Chitai have improved immeasurably with time. Akasen Chitai may have impressed me at the time but it also stayed with me and had a real impact on how I thought about both the world and film. Since then, I’ve seen quite a few works that have been celebrated for their politics and their devotion to social realism but nothing in either British or Italian Social Realism come even close to the focus and power of Akasen Chitai.

REVIEW – Bakumatsu Taiyo-Den (1957)

Bakumatsu-Taiyo-DenFilmJuice have my review of Yuzo Kawashima’s Bakumatsu Taiyo-Den also known as Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate.

Widely considered to be one of the greatest Japanese films of all time, Bakumatsu Taiyo-Den follows Kenji Mizoguchi’s Street of Shame and Shohei Imamura’s The Insect Woman in using the Japanese sex industry as a microcosm for Japanese society as a whole. Indeed, populated by customers from different levels of Japanese society alongside more-or-less successful members of staff, the brothel shows the economic and social forced that twist lives and destroy personalities. However, while both Mizoguchi and Imamura used the miserable lives of their characters to angrily critique and accuse Japanese society, Kawashima takes their travails and plays them for laughs using the character of a charming rogue:

Using the rogue as a foil, Kawashima explores the complex array of social and economic forces that elevate some people but destroy others. This is a world in which people attempt suicide in an effort to escape debtors and fathers sell their daughters into indentured servitude in order to pay off gambling debts and yet, because Kawashima’s rogue stands to one side making snarky comments, the world seems more absurd than it does horrific or depressing. Played by one of the foremost comedians of post-War Japan, the rogue understands the social and economic systems surrounding him and yet he does not feel constrained by either of them. This sense of existential rebellion is particularly evident in the film’s final scene where an old man castigates the rogue for disrespecting the gods only for the rogue to run away laughing and declaring that there’s no such thing as heaven and hell.

Having reviewed this and found it sensational, I am struck by the feeling that there are certain types of film that I could quite happily watch forever and post-War Japanese dramas are definitely one of them. Having said, this is a particularly good one and its lighter tone and engaging characters make it quite refreshingly accessible meaning that it would probably serve as a pretty decent jumping-on point for anyone interested in learning more about post-War Japanese film and given that this has just been re-released by Masters of Cinema, what better opportunity to immerse oneself in one of the 20th Centuries true creative golden ages?

REVIEW – Gate of Hell (1953)

GateofHellFilmJuice have my review of Teinosuke Kinugasa’s historically significant samurai drama Gate of Hell. I use the term ‘historical significance’ somewhat guardedly as it is one of those pieces of critical terminology which, though apparently quite bland and benign, actually contains a number of harsh judgements.

When people describe a film as being ‘historically significant’, what they generally mean is that watching it allows one to gain a better understanding of the evolution of a particular art form. For example, Jaws has enormous historical significance as Spielberg’s combination of accessibility and technical brilliance provided a blueprint for populist American cinema that continues to shape the films we see in cinemas today. To put it even more crude and reductive terms: You need to see Jaws in order to understand the transition from 1960s Hollywood to 1980s Hollywood.

While Jaws remains a great film, its greatness actually has very little to do with its historical significance. In fact, saying that a film is historically significant in no guarantees that it will make for enjoyable viewing now. Some works enchant with their timeless technical brilliance, others enchant by being of a particular cultural moment and while those cultural moments may linger in our cultural consciousness, it is often hard to experience a historically significant work in the way that made it historically significant to begin with.

Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell is a historically significant film in so far as it is not only a Palme D’Or winner and the first Japanese colour film to be seen outside of Japan, but also one of the first generation of Japanese films to find a European audience. In fact, Gate of Hell was considerably better received in Europe than it was in Japan for reasons that seem pretty obvious to me in hindsight. The main problem is that while the film opens as a visually striking ode to the chaos of war it soon changes into a rather underwhelming (and in some ways quite sexist) costume drama about the constraints of honour. As I put it in my review, this latter section is:

Underwritten, under-directed and spoiled by the concussive brilliance of its opening section, the film fizzles and fades when it should ring the bells and light the fires.

One for scholars and historians rather than modern film fans but the chaos and colour of the opening section does go a surprising way to redeeming it.

REVIEW – Yakuza Weapon (2011)

THE ZONE has my review of Tak Sakaguchi and Yudai Yamaguchi’s muddled and disappointing Yakuza Weapon.

The film presents itself partly as a genre spoof and partly as an earnest exercise in splatterpunk excess.  Unfortunately, like many recent American attempts at producing a high-budget exploitation film, the film winds up feeling forced and spread too thinly.  In my review I explain why this should be:

Back in the late 1950s, filmmakers like Roger Corman realised that there was good money to be made in pandering to youthful audiences. This insight spawned a business model whereby young directors were given small pots of money and instructed to go off and produce something sensational and titillating that might appeal to people from their age group. This business model proved remarkably effective and fueled not just the craze for drive-in movies but also the kinds of exploitation film that played in grind-house cinemas all over America. Given that these filmmakers frequently operated with very little guidance beyond the need to ramp up the sex and violence whilst remaining under budget, exploitation filmmaking rapidly became a sort of Darwinian swamp in which ambitious directors experimented with new techniques in the hope that their films would out-compete those of their contemporaries. However, as with all evolutionary processes, exploitation film produced far more failures than it did successes meaning that for every John Carpenter and Dario Argento there were dozens of Uwe Bolls.

Fast-forward 30 years and the kids who grew up watching exploitation films became the cigar-chomping producers who handed out pots of money. Mindful of the market for nostalgia, these producers green-lit a series of high profile projects designed to tap into the market for exploitation-style filmmaking. Cue the emergence of films such as Quentin Tarantino’s Deathproof (2007), Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror (2007), Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell (2009), Patrick Lussier’s Drive Angry (2011), and the entire back catalogue of Neveldine/ Taylor. Though not without its artistic and commercial successes, this grind-house revival suffers for the fact that most of its excesses come not a desperate need to do something radically different in order to stretch a budget and capture an audience but from a deliberate attempt to parody or recapture the insane experiments of the past.

 

Part of the joy of watching exploitation films lies in their sheer unpredictability. Exploitation filmmakers are so desperate to find an audience that they will do anything to capture our attention and this can produce some really memorable cinematic moments. However, when the director is provided with a lavish budget in order to intentionally recapture that feeling of desperate experimentation, the results invariably feel forced and stage-managed like some grim party where everyone is so desperate to have a good and crazy time that the excess of good will completely smothers all spontaneity and freedom. Technically flawed and way, way, way too long for what is essentially a two joke film, Yakuza Weapon is disappointingly dull.

REVIEW – Battle Royale (2001)

THE ZONE has my review of  Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale: Director’s Cut, which has recently been re-released on DVD.

My review attempts to localise Battle Royale within a dystopian tradition which, it seems to me, is peculiarly Japanese. What distinguishes Battle Royale from many dystopian fictions starring plucky teenagers is that the film uses every possible opportunity to mock and ridicule the suffering of its teenaged scapegoats. Indeed, while writers in this tradition are quick to point the finger at governments that blame the young for social problems, works in this tradition also pour scorn on the youth that allow themselves to be victimised:

Again and again, Japanese genre writers depict modern Japan as a hellish place where the old lash out against the youth in ignorance, fear and hatred but the youth refuse to organise and refuse to do anything about their treatment thereby suggesting that no matter how immoral these old people might be, they are not entirely wrong about Japan’s passive, consumerist youth.

The ways in which Fukasaku mocks and trivialises his teenaged characters feeds directly into my one serious complaint about this re-edition: Was a Director’s Cut really necessary?

REVIEW – Death Notice: Ikigami (2008)

Videovista have my review of Deah Notice: Ikigami, Tomoyuki Takimoto’s adaptation of Motoro Mase’s manga Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit:

There is something profoundly refreshing about Death Notice because not only does it seek to tug the heart-strings rather than quicken the pace, it also tugs the heart-strings in a way that displays a real depth of insight into the human condition and the different ways in which we face death. Each of Death Notice‘s episodes functions as a delicious and perfectly contained capsule of loss, grief and hope in the face of death.

In fact, I enjoyed the film so much that I went out and purchased a few volumes of the manga.

Tokyo Sonata (2008) – How To Live a Meaningless Existence and Not Be Overly Bothered

According to both the Romantics and the Moderns, we are all guilty children of a slain father figure. Standing over the corpse of God with blood on our hands and tears in our eyes, we look down upon slain divinity and weep for the way that his touches always made us feel special. Informed by this sense of loss but unsure of how to respond to it, 20th Century literature built upon 19th Century psychological realism by focusing its gaze inwards to the point where the external world seemed to simply fade away. Convinced that god is dead, science is boring and politics is useless, 20th Century writers wrote about themselves and their problems, coaxing thousands of novels and hundreds of films from the unbearable tragedy of being middle class and a little bit unhappy. Unhappiness framed in terms of the disappearance of God and so made to seem important and cosmic rather than irrelevant and self-indulgent. The truth is that we no more morn the death of god than we do the fall of the Roman empire, like most people who lose a parent, we have moved on and now live our lives not in the shadow of a fictional God but in the sunlight of the real world. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata is a film about the ultimate irrelevance of questions of meaning and consolation to the lives of real people.

 

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