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.
As HBO’s Westworld heads into Season 2 – and don’t worry, I’m not here to discuss the show’s plot so read on without fear of spoilers – it has picked up a number of highly recognisable Japanese actors in guest or recurring roles. Two of my favourites are among the most well-known Japanese actors currently working in Hollywood, with Hiroyuki Sanada and Rinko Kikuchi both making their Westworld debut in the fifth episode of Season 2, “Akane no Mai”.
Kikuchi had a few early roles in Japan, and while she continues to appear in Japanese media, first hit international recognition with Babel (2006) before starring in The Brothers Bloom (2008) and Pacific Rim (2013). She manages to star in both big budget, action-heavy Hollywood releases, artsier fare like Tran Anh Hung’s dreadful adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood (2010) or Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (2014), and hyperdramatic Japanese television dramas like Liar Game (confession: I’ll always think of her as an eccentric villain from Liar Game). It was a welcome surprise spotting her in Westworld. While I wasn’t a huge fan of Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, it did at least give AV Club an excuse to interview Kikuchi and amongst other things ask her about the “Mako Mori test”.
Hiroyuki Sanada – who is somehow, inexplicably 57 years old – is likewise an actor with a career in his native Japan before gradually branching out into Hollywood and plenty of North American TV. Sanada, however, got his start much earlier by training with Sonny Chiba and his Japan Action Club. While probably recognisable to Western fans of J-horror through the Ring/Ringu movies or from the critically acclaimed Twilight Samurai (2002), Sanada also co-starred in The Last Samurai (2003), Sunshine (2007), the underrated The Wolverine (2013), and last year’s Life (2017). Sanada brings some real presence and a lot of cachet to his role in Westworld, even serving as the show’s Japanese cultural advisor [caution: minor Westworld Season 2 spoilers within].
With the second season of Westworld drawing on Japanese culture but also playing with how that culture is stereotyped and portrayed in western media, it’s interesting that the show has picked up Japanese actors to flesh out its world. It’s a little too early to tell how the rest of the season will unfold and how well it utilise (or exploit) Japanese culture, but if nothing else, it’s great seeing some of my favourite actors appear. It’s also a reminder that I really need to track down a copy of Twilight Samurai – which despite its Oscar nomination, doesn’t appear to have ever received a Blu-Ray or digital release in the UK, leaving only an old Tartan Video DVD edition.
Somehow despite being a long-term Japanophile, I’d managed to avoid sumo wrestling until long after I left the country. Last September I accidentally caught part of the Autumn Tournament (Aki Basho) on NHK and the rest, as they say, is history. There are six major tournaments every year, each lasting fifteen days, and I’ve been obsessively following the last four. We’re now halfway through my fifth, the Summer Tournament (Natsu Basho), on the important Day 8. Wrestlers compete once per day for a total of 15 bouts and a potential perfect record of 15 wins, 0 losses. Day 8 is the first day wrestlers can achieve a ‘winning record’, i.e. more wins than losses, so there’s extra pressure. A winning record (8 wins, 7 losses or better) might see a wrestler promoted before the next tournament, while a losing record (7-8 or worse) could see them demoted, losing ranks or even dropping out of the top division altogether.
Outside of Japan, it’s tough to follow sumo broadcasts. There are multiple divisions of wrestlers, but out of the country it’s only really feasible to follow the top makuuchi division. NHK World Japan – the online, English language component of Japan’s state broadcaster – shows daily highlights of the top division in 20 minute segments usually featuring the most popular wrestlers or most interesting bouts. In the latest tournament, they’ve also started showing some live footage – today featured around 50 minutes including most of the top-ranked wrestlers, while still omitting the bottom half of the division. If you live in Japan, or with some sleight of hand live in Japan, there’s also online television service Abema.tv which covers the whole top division tournament live and then broadcasts re-runs throughout the rest of the day. Their coverage is all in Japanese, but once you’ve got the basic rules down it’s fairly easy to follow each bout (and if you speak Japanese, you get to enjoy the commentary that typically includes a retired wrestler, a sports commentator, and a ‘sumo beginner’ who usually just happens to be an attractive young woman to whom the other two can mansplain).
I would love to be able to say that I reviewed Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After the Storm this week because I knew he was a surefire winner for this year’s Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, but in truth, it’s a very happy coincidence. I did want to revisit a previous Cannes contender – and After the Storm played in the Une Certain Regard category back in 2016 – but I wasn’t expecting his latest film, Shoplifters, to suddenly gain such acclaim. On the other hand, it’s great news for Japanese film fans as it makes it more likely for his latest work to get a quick Western release. Here’s hoping I’ll be able to view it myself before the year is out.
Shoplifters (2018) is a story of a Tokyo family surviving in poverty on a limited pension, turning to shoplifting to support themselves. It features Kore-eda regulars Lily Franky (Yakuza Apocalypse, After the Storm) and Kirin Kiki (Sweet Bean, After the Storm). It debuted on May 13th at Cannes 2018, with Magnolia Pictures picking up the North American distribution rights. Fingers crossed Arrow Academy will snatch it to accompany their other Kore-eda releases in the UK.
Continuing the theme of gentle slice of life dramas, this week I watched After the Storm (2016) from director Hirokazu Kore-eda. It follows Ryota Shinoda (Hiroshi Abe), an award-winning novelist who has fallen from grace; divorced, estranged from his son, distrusted by by his sister, and struggling to make ends meet as a private detective while squandering half his earnings on gambling. In the midst of typhoon season, Shinoda is trying to piece the fragments of his life together and collect enough cash to pay his overdue alimony before his ex-wife Kyoko (Yoko Maki) withdraws access to their son. What follows is a surprisingly charming cross-section of Shinoda’s life, a film less about him trying to fix what went wrong than simply get out of freefall.
From director Naomi Kawase, Sweet Bean (2015, also widely released under its Japanese title An) is the story of a baker, Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase), who runs a tiny dorayaki shop. His business gets an unexpected boost when Tokue (Kirin Kiki) comes into his life. She’s an elderly woman keen to work part-time in his shop, and manages to sway Sentaro into agreeing when he discovers she’s a master at preparing the titular sweet bean paste that goes into the middle of every dorayaki. Sweet Bean becomes a fairly straightforward drama in which its central characters search for meaning in their lives, all tangled up around the dorayaki shop, but it’s somewhat harder going and less heartwarming than the premise would suggest, dealing with some heavy themes of prejudice and obligation.