Sunday, March 22, 2015


The Japanese have invaded North America for years; we buy their cars, their electronics and enjoy sushi, but we haven't necessarily understood the culture that helped produce what we like.  Movies provided another avenue towards understanding.  "Godzilla" marked an early success, after the devastations suffered by Japan in World War II but there are many other examples that stand up well.

As a fairly young boy I watched Aldo Ray in "Three Stripes in the Sun" about an American soldier during the Japanese occupation where he starts out hating the enemy, but soon falls in love with his Japanese translator and helps orphans.  Prior to this I had seen plenty of Hollywood war movies where the Japanese were always portrayed as blood thirsty and cold hearted.

Several years ago stumbled on "Shall We Dance" on a Sunday evening at TVO.   My readers might be more familiar with the Richard Gere version where the plot follows fairly closely. They were both supposed to show a quiet man happy in his marriage, but looking for more excitement.  The Japanese version felt closer to that goal, perhaps because we are used to Richard Gere being a very charming, active guy already.  I did not set out to watch the Japanese story from 1996, but was soon captivated.  Perhaps in part it was stereotypical in that we in the West think of the Japanese (at least I plead guilty) as pretty strait-laced and in this movie you see a yearning not to be that way.  The hero is tempted with a dance instructor spotted from a train and then slowly becomes infatuated with ballroom dancing.  He hides his new love (of dancing) from his wife and daughter but eventually it comes out and everyone is relieved.  The Japanese director/writer, Masayuki Suo also co-wrote the Richard Gere version in 2004.

More recently when "Departures" won the best foreign Language Oscar in 2009  I was struck that a Japanese movie could rise to this level.  My first viewing was not enough.  It is about a cellist who is laid off because the orchestra lost financial backing and after being a little misled ended up working for a funeral preparation company.  Two relationships stand out.  The former musician and his new boss who allowed him to overcome his squeamishness over a period of time.  At first the protagonist misleads his wife about his new job and when she finds out she is horrified, but eventually forgives him and even to admire him.  The movie starts with his emotional breakthrough on his new job and then goes back and then later picks up--very slick.  I enjoyed the music by Joe Hsiashi, best known for his background music of well known Japanese animated films.  These two movies elevated my appreciation for Japanese cinema, but opportunities to explore were limited.

Japanese films did crash mainstream North American cinema with animated films aimed at families and horror films that hit an important niche.  From my viewpoint I wasn't very interested in either one and neither were most of my anglophone peers.  Making the effort uncovered some very interesting movies and an opportunity to understand a culture that affects us in so many other ways.

I decided to explore some earlier Japanese classics.  Akira Kurasawa is revered by movie historians and came into his own after World War II when Japan was suffering.  Akira has been both writer and director and got his start in the early 1940's.  "One Wonderful Sunday" was released in 1947 and paints a bleak picture of a young couple not able to plan for their future.  Rain adds to the bleakness, but the woman is optimistic with a few downcast turns where you can sense the despair.  They only see each other on Sundays.with limited opportunities to enjoy their time together.  At one point the heroine asks the audience to clap which is not considered very well by today's critics, but was daring for its time.   "Roshomon" came out in 1950 and is often referred to as it showed 7 different perspectives of a murder.  "Seven Samurai" in 1954, although black and white, is considered a classic.  Many North Americans might not make it through this 3 1/2 hour epic, but if they did they would be rewarded with an excellent character study and plot .  They might notice Toshira Mifune who made it to several Hollywood movies, usually portraying a Japanese military leader losing to the Amerians.   One reviewer pointed out this movie had the first use of "wipes" to transition between scenes.  Later used by George Lucas.  This movie along with Godzilla done over the same time period nearly bankrupted one Japanese production house.

"The Burmese Harp" was another early movie, from 1956 and gave an anti war viewpoint. At one point it is very brutal showing dead and decaying bodies.  It focuses on  Japanese soldiers stranded in Burma at end of war.   The director/writer Kon Ichikawa went on to to film the Tokyo Olympics  of 1964  and "The Makioka Sisters."
"Hula Girls" released in 2006 is a film about a coal mining town that is facing massive layoffs while someone gets the novel idea to open up an Hawaiian themed tourist attraction.  They bring in an instructor with credit problems from Tokyo and there is a lot of resistance to recruiting young girls to be hula dancers.  We have all seen a lot of sports movies based on real events (and sometimes not) where the underdogs eventually win.  This is also based on a true story and has a happy inspiring ending.  The hula show at end of movie is very impressive (especially if you recall the first clumsy efforts).  One detail that surprised me was that the music was composed mostly for the ukulele.  Jake Shimabakuro who has carved out a musical career based on the ukulele.  I was impressed enough to watch a documentary "Jake Shimabakuro:  Life on Four Strings," surprisingly enjoyable.  Another note was that star Yasuko Matsuyuki was also in "Suspect X"  one of the best mystery books I ever read, but not seen the movie.  

"Norwegian Wood" got my attention after reading the book by Haruki Murakami.  I had found the book difficult to read and hesitated to watch the movie.  It is a complex story involving sexual inadequacies, death obsession and obligation.  Perhaps because the movie at about two hours compressed the complications I actually recalled the book better.  It had a Vietnamese director, Tiran Auh Hung.

I did investigate some of the animated favourites such as   "Spirited Away" (which won an Oscar in 2001) and  "Wolf Child"  written and directed by Haya Miyazaki.  They are good family entertainment with a story adults can enjoy, but might like the cover of watching with their children.  Originally in Japanese they are dubbed with Hollywood actors in English for North America.

"Like father, Like son"  took on a sensitive topic.--What happens after you learn your son had been switched at birth.  Is blood more important than nurture?  One father was richer than the other.  One family has a brother and sister.  Reminded me of similar idea in "Born in Absurdistan," an Austrian movie involving a Turkish couple as well as the native born Austrian.  In "Like Father, Like Son," the professional father has been negligent through ambitious  work and expects high standards.  Both mothers are more sympathetic  The one father is a workaholic with high expectations for his son--pushes, and is disappointed--the other father is very family oriented--offered to bring up both sons--insulted, but later on roles are reversed--both boys seem to prefer the lower class father--in the end it is not totally resolved, but you can see the rich father wants to keep up a relationship with both boys-Director/writer  Kore-eda Hirokazu -also did "Still Walking"  which captures a lot of family tension over a weekend.  One son died in an accident trying to rescue another man (father thinks a terrible waste) and another son married a woman already with a child.  More of a happy ending."Nobody Knows" is about a family of 4 children abandoned by their mother (each child had a different father).  This does not have a happy ending.

"Key of Life" with an award winning screenplay by Kenji Uchida is an enjoyable comedy. It pairs Teruyaki Kagawa (who I also saw in "Tokyo Sonata") and Ryoko Hirosue (who was immensely enjoyable in "Departures").

"Jiro Dreams of Sushi"  is a documentary by American director--world famous 85 year old  sushi maker--passionate sushi maker--ingredients and preparations--details--reservations one month+highprice--no special atmosphere.  Released in  2011.

As you might guess I am now a Japanese film fan and hoping to see "Suspect X"

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