Posts tagged “Japan

The Last Samurai (2003)

The Last Samurai (2003)A film I watched purely on recommendation, not really a fan of Tom Cruise, however when it mentioned the U.S. civil war I decided to take a closer look at The Last Samurai (2003) to see what was really going on. And I wasn’t let down, even though it’s not technically a western it does have all the clever hallmarks of being a revisionist Western, cleverly reworked to look at the decline and fall of the Samurai warrior. A reflection of the Native American across the Pacific, complete with out all knowing white other Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) a troubled man of the army who cannot reconcile his part in the forced relocation and massacre of the Native American people. Which we see in the form of ever more graphic flash-backs which could relate to any massacre before 1876 when we find him now a drunk helping to sell the Winchester rifle. He’s not happy in his work, used as a heroic figure who used a rifle in the Civil War.

He’s offered the chance of a better life back in the uniform in a training role in Japan. By this time relations with the once isolationist country have warmed up. The country has become westernised, adopting the fashions, technology and even weapons. We have come a long way since the time of The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958) when relations are just being started between the two very different countries. One rooted in tradition and the past and another in asserting their dominance in the world (nothings changed there then). Now in the late 1800’s we are more in line with Unforgiven/Yurusarezaru mono (2013) when the Samurai is a seen as a dying breed, a reflection of the American gunfighter. The Last Samurai raises their status to another race that has become a relic, deeply rooted in the past, yet also very much part of the countries heritage. Once noble men at the disposal of the Emperor, who now wants them tamed if not eradicated. All part of the westernisation of the country.

Algren’s position is one of modern cinema with a conscience, looking back over the historical depiction of his own country reflected in another. He will train the Japanese army to fight the Samurai but not willingly, more out of a sense of duty and the money’s pretty good too. You’d think that guns would be a far better match for the sword wielding samurai who we meet in a gruesome batter that alters the course of the film dramatically. After killing of a fair few men Algren is taken back to the samurai village out of respect for his ability in battle. You can see some similarities between him and Lieutenant Dunbar (Kevin Costner) who is adopted/assimilated into the culture. The journey is not straight forward, it’s not a case of understanding just the culture, its a whole different mind-set. He can fight, he has the potential to be great, held back by his mind-set, not able to focus his thoughts. Whereas Dunbar is more open to what is around him, not coming with the “I’m living with savages” mindset which takes a while to wear off.

The Samurai are not depicted as savages, cinema has been more kind and even respectful to them. We hold them in awe of their skill, part of the countries culture and heritage. The genre is has strong links with the western, both drawing on each other before the release of this film. This is not Dances with Wolves (1990) in Japan, there is a sweeping feel to the movie, we are seeing the end of an era in a country through the eyes of an American which is standard for Hollywood. Which allows the audience to connect with another culture, which this time was more open to the white-man’s presence, the other was becoming a double-other (film theory talk) in order to work together. Both Algren and Dunbar are/were soldiers of the U.S. army who have come to dislike its recent campaign history. One wanting to see the West before it’s tamed and another horrified by that process. Openly criticising General Custer and his last campaign, saying he was living up to his legend. It’s as if the past has grown a deeper conscience through the guise of Japanese culture, however historically correct is another matter.

With the warrior transformation underway we see him assimilate into their culture, learning the language. Algren never gives up, determined to prove himself to these people who are almost like gods, giving their skill, honour and duty to the emperor who has turned his back on them. They are now fighting for survival, something which Algren feels the Native Americans had but were greatly outnumbered and outgunned. The same is happening here, but not without a fight all provided courtesy of cinema. And boy do we get a glorious battle even though it may never have really happened it’s all part of Hollywood and the genres attempt to rewrite history. It allows Cruise to act more than just rely on his stunts which he insists on doing. There is also little time for romance which would be very out-of place in this film. It’s thankfully held back to move the film forward. We also have Ken Watanabe as Katsumoto the leader of the Samurai and advisor to the Emperor. Watanabe has become the go-to Japanese guy for these heavier roles, bringing with him a more honest portrayal, not just someone in make-up or slightly Japanese. It’s a solid block-buster that if you go deep enough find more than just a historical action film, you get a western, always an extra treat for me.

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The Wind Rises/Kaze tachinu (2013)

The Wind-Rises (2013)Widely seen as Hayao Miyazaki‘s farewell and indeed the last film from Studio Ghibli for the foreseeable future too, which is even more poignant when you look back at the incredible output of the Japanese animation studio. Traditional animation for feature films is indeed a dying art. Even Disney have stopped working in 2D, but that’s more to do with the critical reception, and more financial reward from computer generated animation. I wonder if that could be a possible new direction for the Japanese studio, who have triumphed for so long in the traditional media. I can’t honestly see the awesome wonder they create on the computer.

I remember catching a glimpse of The Wind Rises (2013) when I caught From Up on Poppy Hill (2011) reminding of the earlier Porco Rosso (1992) which also had a strong aviation theme. Unlike the majority of Ghibli’s film are centred around a female protagonist, The Wind Rises focuses on the dreams and aspirations of one male aeronautical designer, a brave leap for a company that for 20 years or more has championed the independence of the female. We have a dreamer in Jirô Horikoshi (Hideaki Anno) as a boy who frequently steps into his dreams of one day bringing to life his glider like plane, with the added dread that some how it would be a disaster. Sharing his dreams with personal hero, the Italian designer Giovanni Battista Caproni (Mansai Nomura) they meet several times throughout the dream in these dream sequences that explore Jiro’s inner mind, he deepest thoughts are set free. If only they two designers actually met in the real world?

Set during the build-up to Japan’s entry into WWII we find Jiro as a young boy who has big dreams which we see slowly come to fruition. Not before an incredibly animated earthquake sequence where he first meets the love of his life. It not all plain sailing for this couple. Focusing more development, drive and passion that sees Jiro and his friend Honjô (Hidetoshi Nishijima) starting out a juniors designers who are working on a winning design for the navy’s aeroplane fleet. I am already thinking forward to Pearl Harbour that pulled America into the war, but there is little talk of the war itself.

Build up begins when they two designers visit Germany in hopes of bringing technology back to fast forward development of their own planes. Tension is in the air, with Ghibli’s own version of the SS who already have a tight grip on the country for Hitler. We’re pulled out before it becomes too serious really, we don’t really receive the traditional history lesson in a pre WWII film, even from Japan’s point of view. Not like the heart wrenching Grave of the Fireflies (1989) that deals with the aftermath of the atom bomb. Focusing on the ambition of a designer who takes every opportunity to bring his sleek glider design to life.

The love interest doesn’t really take off until much later, first meeting her as a young girl who caught his hat, every time they meet is due to the wind bringing them together, it was mean to be. Its feels so natural, to see Jiro and Naoko Satomi (Miori Takimoto) who meet at a hotel by chance alone. All linked with the wind that determines the course of the film, Allowing for mad-cap designs take flight, really playing with classic designs. The fantastical of the mechanical that Ghibli are known for is paired back in this final film. They don’t want to show off in what is easily their swan-song, if that is what we have here. If we do get another Ghibli film it could be a few years yet. We have a graceful film full of wonder in the skies, celebrating a period on Japan’s history before things got messy for them.

This was indeed worth the wait, that little taster wetting the appetite of what is a graceful film that celebrates part of their aeronautical history. The animation is not as impressive as previously films, they didn’t to go over the top, instead emphasising nature, allowing us to see the wonders of the world from the sky. The choice of male protagonist goes against the tradition for the company and their environmental nature loving ethos, becoming more of standard film. We are not being delivered more of the same of what we have to expect in terms of plot elements, our expectations are instead blown away, quite literally at times.

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The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958)

The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958)I knew The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958) wasn’t exactly John Wayne‘s personal best film, struggling to find the character, his motivations as the first General Consul aka American ambassador for Japan. Not really getting along with the director John Huston who knew what he wanted, seeming to get what he wanted out of the actor who to be honest looked like a fish out of water most of the time. In a country that just didn’t suit him visually, I think the open landscape of the west would never really let him go. From the first time we see Townsend Harris arrive in full Eastern American dress complete with top-hat, making the Duke reach nearly 7.ft. Already towering over most of the Japanese population as he tried to validate his claim to be the General Consul from America to Japan. It’s an uphill battle really against the native people who want to be left alone, having a isolationist position towards the rest of the world. We know that didn’t last long, looking at more recent history.

It’s true that the Duke does look out of place, even feel out of place, his popularity in a bit of a lull before heading back to what he knows best with director Howard Hawks in Rio Bravo (1959) which propelled and secured his future position in film history. I’m not writing off his performance here it just wasn’t his best. He was in a culture that most western audiences hand;t seen if we ignore Akira Kurosawa‘s films that were coming out of the country. Japan was depicted more as a stereotype, not a beautiful country steeped on tradition and honour. That’s something which Huston brings through in Technicolor splendour. Helped in a large part to Eiko Ando as the Geisha Okichi opposite the American barbarian and his translator whose mission was to engage and meeting the Shogun in hope his country would join the community of nation, a for-runner of the United Nations.

This is no means another take on an earlier film with the duke Blood Alley (1955) which fell into cliché and melodrama, putting to strong people opposite each other and having no chemistry. The lack of romance between Townsend and Okichi probably works in the films favour. Based on more a mutual respect for one another. Okichi having her own motives before falling for the barbarian who is more gentlemanly that usually. The dynamic is completely different, the aims of the film too. The love is nor really touched upon until the end really.

Told from the geisha’s point of view we also have a rare female perspective on these events (historically true or not) we are supposed to see the Duke from a female viewpoint which is hard to do being male, seeing him more as a role model of masculinity (not that I take all he does seriously). Ando’s narration is dropped in here and there to move the film along, even with her original intent made clear, this soon blurs after the cholera out-break which changes public opinion of the lone foreigners.

On the whole it’s a decent film, we see the Duke really out of his comfort zone, surrounded by people who are at least a foot smaller than him. Not that this was Huston’s intention it was one of a stranger in a foreign land which does work. We are made aware of that in some interesting visuals which allows the far older culture to come through. I just wish they had subtitles, however that would make the translators job pointless in some scenes. So I’m glad I have seen this gem of a film that is am interesting side step away from the usual fare which Wayne is most at home in and has cemented his position in culture and film. He did make a few duds in his time, but what actor doesn’t it?

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Ikiru (1952)

Ikiru (1952)

I’ve been following and very much enjoying the Akira Kurosawa season and Film4for which I am very grateful for them making possible for us to see such incredible films. Although heavy on the Samurai the season ended on an earlier film that is both uplifting and depressing. Ikiru/Living (1952) we have another lead Takashi Shimura
instead of Kurosawa’s favourite lead actor Toshirô Mifune who was at the front or featured in the action heavy films.

Here however we see Shimura who I haven’t seen in a lead role since Seven Samurai (1954), the wise leader who brings together fellow warriors to fend off a town from bandits. Here in a softer more emotional role as an elderly man who has wasted his life in a civil servant for the last thirty years. Discovers he has stomach cancer, a death sentence for him, although not explicitly told he knows what the doctor was really saying to. A shock to anyone told they have inoperable cancer, no hope or chance of living much more than a year or so.

As we have seen numerous times in film and television, it’s a wake-up call to Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) who after spending thirty years signing and stamping forms, realises how little time he might have. What could have been 2 hours of exciting new experiences, such as The Bucket List (2007), is a two-part film from two perspectives. First the straight forward direction as he Wantanabe comes to terms with his fate, drowning his sorrows before hitting the town with new-found friend a novelist (Yûnosuke Itô) who shows him what he believes to be living. As much as he enjoy it, the pace is too much for him to have a repeat of it.

His second attempt with colleague Toyo Odagiri (Miki Odagiri) proves more successful, having been a widower for the best part of thirty years its seen by his son Mitsuo (Nobuo Kaneko) who disapproves of the relationship, whilst the facts are still hidden from him. Whilst not a full-filing time with the girl Kanji realises what he must do to be happy, making a difference.

Before we can even see him begin to make that difference, the narrator snatches him from us, cutting the film potentially short of its running time. Spending the remainder of the film in one room, at his wake, as colleagues and family discuss his last remaining months. What he had done, had he been recognised for it properly. Most importantly how they would lead their own lives thereafter.

Life even in 1950’s Japan had its share of red-tape, treating citizens like idiots when it came to getting things done with the council/local government, that could have prevented Kanji’s legacy and gift to the local community. Teaching us to seize the day and do something that matters, not accepting our situation and carry on.

A powerful film, that was well worth the wait, both depressing and uplifting for the spirit, with an actor who would later save a helpless and cowardly town in Seven Samurai. The themes are contemporary, ensuring that it still resonates today. Visually it’s not like the previous films, full of longing closes ups and grimy sets of a town that is indeed of much love, something that it later receives. It’s quite a feat for a film to remain in one room for over an hour discussing the same subject without losing its way or hold on an audience. Filling in the remainder of Kanji’s life, something I was disappointed in not having at the half way point. A brave move by Kurosawa, another reason why he is such an admired director, for taking chances as such as this with an audience, can pay off if we are invested in the characters enough to stay after they have died. 

The Last Emperor (1987)

The Last Emperor (1987)I have only been aware of The Last Emperor (1987) for a few months, even more so with the recent passing of Peter O’Toole which made me want to watch this all the more. From a technical standpoint The Last Emperor is a near perfect film in terms of visual, sound and editing, a soundtrack which sweeps you off to a forgotten time in China’s recent past. It’s hard to ignore the visual splendour of this film that transports you to another world. There are few films where you can say that each frame is a masterpiece, carefully composed before shooting. Everything is carefully considered and it shows on-screen.

Following the rise and fall of the last Emperor of China Pu Yi who became more of a figure-head for a nation who had moved onto become a republic. Trapped inside the forbidden city where we spend a good hour of the film, filming on location, bringing the past very much to life and with great effect. From the naming of the final emperor to his eventual time in prison for crimes against his country. It takes a while to understand the connection between the two threads of the film, one at the beginning of the century and the early 1950’s which sees a man in prison being interrogated by officers who want to get to the bottom of the charges brought against him and his co-conspirators.

It’s the book by Reginald Johnston (O’Toole) which makes the connection clearer in the book (Twilight in the Forbidden City) found by the prison warden, a real insight into finding the truth of what really happened in the Forbidden City. A Scottish teacher who begins to open the eyes of the young emperor who is already questioning his life, unable to leave the walls of the city that. Surrounded by people who both worship him and take advantage of his position. Jonhston and Yi’s relationship is one that sees a real growth and understanding between them both.

However it’s when they are all forced to leave the forbidden city that the life of Pu Yi really begins, leaving to the safety of Japan who allow him to live his own life, a life free from the trappings of being an emperor, a life which he still yearns for, even after his eventually leaves, unable to see the outside world. A world that is not easily accepting of his position in his own country.

Even in the form of a film, entertainment I have learnt of another conflict between Japan and China that grew into part of WWII. We see a man who was once a figure-head, fighting for respect and glory once more, connecting with his people again, when the time comes he must grab the opportunity whatever the cost maybe. We also see how his life affects that of his two wives who each become disillusioned by their lives with him, taking different directions, some more dramatic than others.

Turning to the acting, even O’Toole’s performance really stand out to be recognised, of course they are more than competent at bringing this life to the big screen, and little else. Nothing really blows me away in this biopic. That doesn’t take away from the visual brilliance that is otherwise a great film to watch, even with the sound on mute you would still have an enjoyable film for the eyes which make this a modern classic still to be watched. A powerful tale that sees a leader become nothing more than a figurehead who is abused for his position for others to carry out awful acts.

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