What a long, strange tournament it’s been! There is of course one day left in the Nagoya Basho, but with his win over Tochiozan, young sekiwake Mitakeumi has clinched his first ever top division tournament win and with it, the Emperor’s Cup.
Seijun Suzuki was a prolific director. For Nikkatsu alone, he directed 40 pictures from his debut in the ‘50s to his dismissal after 1967’s Branded to Kill. Overlooked at the time, Youth of the Beast (1963) is now recognised as a turning point for his personal style. It is a film oversaturated with style, as if Suzuki approached every scene – every frame – with a playful, or perhaps unhinged, effort to make it interesting. He flips between black and white – with a single splash of colour – and full colour production. He pans the camera across a noisy cabaret bar, and abruptly cuts to a soundproof room, the volume dropping precipitously. A scene transition is smothered by a fan dancer. Conversations take place to a roiling backdrop of black and white movie footage from the office of a movie theatre. In one bonkers blink-and-you’ll miss it moment, star Jo Shishido (as Jo Mizuno) walks past a movie theatre covered in Nikkatsu bunting, complete with portraits of all the Nikkatsu stars – himself among them. All this contributes to a lively film that while perhaps not good is nevertheless great.
I find Japanese films to review all over the place. Some are old favourites I already had in my collection, others are from the growing catalogue of cult and classic films from niche Blu-Ray publishers, and some just happen to pop up on streaming services like Netflix or Sky Cinema. It’s the latter where I’m most likely to see something unusual that I might otherwise have missed – I’m probably going to pick up every Kinji Fukasaku gangster movie I can find, but won’t necessarily see the latest contemporary drama from a director I’ve never encountered. That’s how I ended up watching Harmonium (2016) by Koji Fukada. A bleak study of human misery, it follows the family of metalworker Toshio (Kanji Furutachi) as an old acquaintance re-enters his life after coming out of prison. Inevitably, this disrupts the family’s already fragile existence and a series of terrible events ensue.
The great thing about there being six sumo basho a year? It’s never that long between tournaments.
Things have been quiet on the blog for a few weeks with my attention split between the news from E3 and then a major conference at my actual, non-Japanese-film related job. There’ll be new content soon though, from the stack of Beat Takeshi-directed films I picked up during Third Window’s sale celebrating their association with Arrow Video to the July sumo tournament looming up ahead. Roll on summer.
The early 1970s were a golden age for gangster cinema. In the West, there was Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972). In the East, Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honour and Humanity (1973). And then, there was The Yakuza (1974), Sydney Pollack’s fusion of both. Developed from an idea by Leonard Schrader, an American expat living in Japan, and scripted by his brother Paul Schrader (Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters) and Robert Towne (script doctor for The Godfather), it follows several American characters who get tangled up in Japan’s criminal underworld. Robert Mitchum stars as Harry Kilmer, a former US military policeman during the Allied occupation of Japan, who returns to Japan at the behest of his friend Tanner. It seems the yakuza have kidnapped Tanner’s daughter after a shady deal gone awry and Kilmer’s connections are the only way to get her back. That means going back to Tokyo and getting in touch with a yakuza named Tanaka (Ken Takakura, The Bullet Train) indebted to Kilmer. Heavily inspired by contemporary Japanese films watched by the Schraders and no doubt hoping to cash in on the success of The Godfather via “Japan’s mafia”, The Yakuza works surprisingly well as a slow-burn crime thriller that leans heavily on its then-exotic setting.
I’ve written at length about how pleased I am outfits like Arrow Films and Eureka! Masters of Cinema keep putting out releases of old, often obscure Japanese films. It feels like Arrow must have made a deal with whatever is currently left of the venerable Nikkatsu studio for access to a huge swath of their back catalogue in the last couple of years, because they’ve steadily released volumes in collections like Nikkatsu Diamond Guys and Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years. Not every one of these forgotten films can be a classic, but it’s often fascinating just getting a taste of what Japanese cinema was like in the ‘50s or ‘60s. Sadly, the third film in the first volume of Nikkatsu Diamond Guys, The Rambling Guitarist (1959), cannot be described as a hidden gem.
I felt like it would be remiss to build up my interest in the summer sumo tournament and then neglect to mention how it all turned out, so here’s my take on the results. On the final day, it came down to two wrestlers: Georgian Tochinoshin and Mongolian yokozuna Kakuryu. Going into their final bouts, Tochinoshin – who had most likely performed well enough to secure his promotion to the second-highest rank of ozeki – had lost twice in a row. It felt like he needed at least one more win, symbolically, to come out of the tournament feeling good. It was especially galling considering one of his losses felt like an accident, with Tochinoshin losing his footing and slipping to the clay rather than facing an opponent who actually overpowered him. Kakuryu, on the other hand, was looking to achieve a tournament victory, that would have been his first back-to-back tournament win in his career following an earlier championship in March this year.
In his final match with Ikioi, a wrestler who had pushed hard against both yokozuna in earlier bouts, Tochinoshin was finally back on form. It was a win that put him on 13-2 out of the 15 day tournament. After two days with a face like thunder he actually looked pleased with his performance again, even relaxed, even though he was not technically out of the running for the championship. That hinged on how Kakuryu did against fellow yokozuna Hakuho, an extremely talented wrestler. Hakuho was mathematically out of the running, but if he beat Kakuryu, he could force a playoff between Tochinoshin and Kakuryu. Even though Kakuryu had beat the Georgian hopeful the day before, it would be anyone’s guess whether he would repeat that, especially coming straight off the back of a match and therefore having to fight two bouts in a row.
The speculation was all for nothing though – Kakuryu won, and the tournament was his. As much of a cheerleader as I am for Tochinoshin, it was good seeing someone other than the frequently unsportsmanlike Hakuho clinch it. Besides, Tochinoshin’s promotion to ozeki now looks all but guaranteed, and he even picked up a some of the special prizes for technique and fighting spirit, adding to the impressive collection he has already racked up over his career. Now, however, all we can do is wait for the announcements from the Sumo Association ahead of the next tournament to see how everyone shapes up going into the Nagoya Tournament in July.
In the meantime, my last review was Hayao Miyazaki’s debut feature length anime, the classic Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro. This week, I’ve got a new review lined up of The Rambling Guitarist, one of the many old Nikkatsu movies Arrow Films has put out in its Nikkatsu Diamond Guys series.
Last weekend I wrote about my excitement for the current sumo tournament being held in Tokyo. After eight days, Georgian sekiwake Tochinoshin was sitting at the top of the leader board with eight straight wins and looked set up to earn his promotion to ozeki and perhaps even win the entire tournament. As the days wore on, he racked up win after win, until on Day 12 he had his toughest opponent yet: yokozuna Hakuho, one of the most succesful wrestlers of all time, and someone who Tochinoshin had never before defeated in 25 previous bouts.
With that victory, it looked like Tochinoshin had secured his promotion and cleaned up the tournament. He still had three bouts left, and mathematically, he could still go on to lose the title to the tournament’s other yokozuna, Kakuryu. Yet, it felt like Tochinoshin was safe.
Then he collapsed to Shodai, a lower-ranked wrestler, in a shocking upset. It didn’t even seem to be that Shodai won so much as the Georgian lost his footing and slipped to the clay just as his opponent was flying out of the ring. Suddenly, it all came down to his match-up with Kakuryu today, on Day 14. If Tochinoshin could beat Kakuryu, he would claw back first place in the leadership race.
That means that going into Day 15, Kakuryu is sitting at the top of the leaderboard with just one loss from early in the tournament. Tochinoshin has been pushed into second place, but he’s not completely out of the running – unlike Hakuho, who suffered an unexpected but much-deserved defeat to Ichinojo. On Day 15, Tochinoshin will face Ikioi, a wrestler who failed to defeat either yokozuna but clearly pushed them hard. It’s not guaranteed that Tochinoshin will beat him, especially after two days of defeat himself. If Tochinoshin can best Ikioi he’ll finish the tournament with only two losses. That makes a playoff for the title possible if Kakuryu loses in his final day match-up with Hakuho – another conceivable result, but again, not one that’s guaranteed. If Kakuryu wins his bout with Hakuho – or in an anti-climactic nightmare scenario, Hakuho withdraws – it’s all over anyway.
It’ll be a tense final day.
This week, I’m turning back the clock to the late 1970s and the feature film debut of Hayao Miyazaki: Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979). Though of course I’m a fan of several of his later films under Studio Ghibli, I’m surprisingly poorly versed in his earlier work, and this classic had somehow escaped my attention. With it recently resurfacing on Netflix UK, when better to give it a chance? Cagliostro follows master thief Lupin and his accomplice Jigen as they trace the source of counterfeit bank notes to the titular castle in the Principality of Cagliostro before getting involved in breaking up the forced marriage of the kingdom’s young princess to its evil count.