Friday, August 27, 2010

Jazz Operetta in Edo

The year was 1939. The entry into the grim era.

But for the New Year Film Fest, Nikkatsu released "Oshidori Utagassen", one of the most delightful Japanese musicals ever. It was directed by Masahiro Makino in about 10 days. In fact the star of the film Chiezo Kataoka was ill at the time, so his screen time is minimum (shooting was only 2 hours long, it was said), and the rest of the film was filled with the most delightful examples of cinema making ....

I wrote "one of the most delightful Japanese musicals ever". It's a musical you would never have dreamed of. Jazz Operetta set in 17th century Edo. The young lord breezily walking the streets with his subordinates, singing "I am a young load ..." See it for yourself.  

It may remind you of "A Connecticut Yankee in King Author's Court (1946)", but that one involves time travel. This film is a straight Jazz musical set in the feudal era, no gimmicks. 

Every now and then, another Japanese film director is "discovered" by western audiences.
First it was Yasujiro Ozu, then Mikio Naruse, Hiroshi Shimizu, Sadao Yamanaka and so on. Apparently, Masahiro Makino has not been discovered by West, yet. But he was the Japanese cinema.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Then and Now, Tokyo in "I Was Born But ..."

One of the pleasures of looking at the old films is to admire the scenery of the past. When you look at the Keaton shorts, you are looking at the Los Angeles in making. When you see Italian Neo-realist films, you see Rome, Milan and other Italian cities before MacDonald invasion.

While watching "I Was Born But ... (1932)" by Yasujiro Ozu, I was asking myself, "Which railway is this, these obnoxious ever-present trams ?"  The film was shot at Kamata Studio, so this must be either Mekama-Line or Ikegami-Line. One of the key locations in the film, the railroad crossing, where the father and sons have little conversation every morning, was also mystery. How does it look like today ? So I did some research.

According to the cinematographer Atsuta, the railroad you see in the film was Ikegami-Line. Ikegami-Line began its service in 1922, and its main customer was the visitors to the nearby temple. But there was another railway nearby, Mekama-Line, which was to service the same customers. These two railroad companies were in fierce competition. According to Atsuta, the company operating the Ikegami-Line asked Shochiku to do some advertising by showing its new trams as much as possible in the films. 

Thursday, August 12, 2010

An Executive, A Chauffeuse, A Novelist and A Girl like Me

Hanshojo (1938)
Directed by Keisuke Sasaki
Cinematography by Hiroyuki Nagaoka

"Hanshojo (1938)" is a typical Shochiku-style woman's film in the late thirties. The film is rarely seen today, and is not listed in imdb. Keisuke Sasaki, the director of the film, dedicated his whole career to Shochiku. He made 57 films, mostly woman's films Shochiku was noted for. The casts of the film are regulars of the Shochiku programmers. The original novel was written by Seijiro Kojima, who loved the complicated plots for his tear-jerkers. The plot of "Hanshojo" may be far-fetched, but it really doesn't matter. Women suffer. Men suffer. But in the end, women suffer more.

Soukichi (Shin Saburi), an executive of the movie trading company, was successful and very rich, but his wife was hospitalized in psychiatric ward after she torched the house. He hired Misuzu (Kuniko Miyake) as a chauffeuse and a babysitter for Soukichi's little girl. Eventually, Soukichi was impressed by Misuzu's foreign language skills and hires her as a staff. Privately, Misuzu was attracted to Shuntaro (Daijiro Natsume) a young writer her mother didn't approve of.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Calligraphy and Propaganda

Chishu Ryu said "Ozu-san didn't make any heroic movie during the war".

This is true. He did not make any combat films, heroic military action films nor pseudo-historical drama to support totalitarian political agenda. But it does not mean he was making films in vacuum.

"I was born, but ... (1932)" may seem the last place for anyone to find any war propaganda, but, remember, it was filmed in 1932, the year of Shanghai Incident.

During the scene in the classroom, you can see a rather large frame of Japanese calligraphy on the wall. It says "Bakudan Sanyu-shi", or "Three Human Bombs".  "Human Bombs" ? Yes, this is the most heroic tale of three Japanese soldiers during 30's. It happened on February 22, 1932 near Shanghai. Three soldiers, with the bombs strapped to their bodies, dashed into the enemy line, sacrificed themselves so that troops could charge into the enemy stronghold. They called these three brave soldiers "Bakudan Sanyushi" or "Three Human Bombs".

This story fascinated Japanese media and entertainment industry at the time, and fierce media circus ensued. Many studios produced extremely raw quickies about the incident (like "Churetsu nikudan sanyushi [release date: 3/6/1932, Tokatsu Eiga-sha]", "Nikudan Sanyushi [release date: 3/3/1932, Shinko Kinema, the print survives in MOMAT archive]", "Nikudan Sanyushi [release date: unknown, Akazawa Eiga]", "Nikudan Sanyushi [release date: 3/17/1932, Fukui Eiga]") within a few weeks. Japanese public loved them and craved for more. Newspapers ran special reports on the soldier's families and the songs about three heroes were recorded.

So this frame of Japanese Calligraphy about the patriotic soldiers is not out of the place in this particular time in history.  The film was released on June 3, 1932. It was less than four months after the incident. You don't need a long time duration to cook up a war hero.

The most disturbing thing is, the story was largely a fabrication. Three soldiers died, but not so heroically. It was a tragic accident. But Japanese wartime government, with help of entertainment industries, effectively exploited the whole thing to manipulate public psyche. And as you can guess easily, the story became the forerunner of Kamikaze.

I do not think Ozu put that calligraphy frame up there as a war propaganda. But it shows the background of the film, the mood of the time. And these kids in the classroom were probably seven or eight years old at the time. They would have become 19 or 20 years old in 1944, the year Japanese military organized the Kamikaze unit. Kamikaze pilots mostly were between 17 and 24 years old. Soldiers died in Saipan, Guam, Imphal and other battles were also in that age group. Then, this calligraphy frame quietly looking down on all these adorable kids makes us realize the insidious nature of human violence.

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