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.
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.
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.
Returning to the Lone Wolf and Cub series evokes similar feeling to Outlaw Gangster VIP. Like that yakuza series of the late ‘60s, Lone Wolf and Cub appeared in theatres every few months with a new film not unlike a new episode of a television show. And much like television before the rise of heavily serialised shows that relied on a slowly advancing, overall arc story that required viewers tune in every week or miss out, Lone Wolf and Cub offers pretty much the same content each time. Baby Cart in Peril (1972), the fourth film in the series, is no different. Even allowing that I left the series alone for several months before picking it up again – much as contemporary moviegoers would have seen it back in ‘72 – I found myself looking at a very familiar movie. Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama) is hired as an assassin, there’s a beautiful but deadly woman, the assassination subplot weaves around the ongoing Ogami-Yagyu clash, and there’s a gigantic fight at the end in another of Japan’s mysteriously sandy valley locations where they seem to film all the Super Sentai show battles.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa is a fairly prolific director and, at the time of writing, I have only seen four of his many films. His work seems to be getting some new attention here in the UK with a slew of releases from Arrow Video and Eureka! Masters of Cinema. The latest entry is Cure (1997), a crime thriller with a strong undercurrent of horror. It stars Koji Yakusho (Shall We Dance?, 13 Assassins) as Detective Takabe, a haggard cop following serial copycat crimes. In each case, the killer carves an X into the victim’s throat, but no one can work out why the killers are choosing this very particular methodology when that information was never made public. Along with psychologist Sakuma (Tsuyoshi Ujiki), Takabe pursues increasingly unusual explanations for the phenomena.
When it was announced that Hideaki Anno, alongside Shinji Higuchi, would direct the next live-action, Japanese-made Godzilla movie the question in my mind was: how closely would it hew to his classic, cult Neon Genesis Evangelion? It seemed like a perfect fit – after all, Evangelion revolves so heavily around the kaiju-like angels that it would only be natural for Anno to step in, and as the Godzilla series has frequently used its giant monsters as not-so-subtle allegories for other issues that it was surely ripe for Anno’s brand of symbolism. The result is the rebooted Shin Godzilla (2016), Toho’s first new movie since 2004’s Final Wars, and coming in relatively hot on the heels of Legendary’s American-made Godzilla (2014).
Director Shunya Ito returns with his final entry in the Female Prisoner Scorpion series with Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable (1973). Loosely picking up where Jailhouse 41 left off, Meiko Kaji’s escaped convict Matsushima, aka the titular Scorpion, is on the run and still doggedly pursued by the police. Taking place largely outside of any actual prison and in an urban setting would already give the movie a different feel to its predecessors, even Jailhouse 41 that also prominently featured an escape attempt, but Ito also gives Beast Stable a far stranger, more horror-oriented tone than his earlier entries. At times, it feels more like watching something as surreal as Blind Woman’s Curse – not coincidentally, also starring Meiko Kaji. So different is the tone that in the back of my mind I knew that Ito didn’t direct all four Female Prisoner Scorpion movies and I found myself wondering if this, and not the final #701’s Grudge Song, was the movie he skipped.
Given my love of Ghost in the Shell in all its many iterations, I would be remiss in not reviewing Ghost in the Shell (2017) – the US remake from director Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman) and starring Scarlett Johansson (Lost in Translation, Under the Skin) as the Major. Remakes in general are always a tough sell, and while I think there are some good examples on both sides of the equation (The Ring is a strong adaptation of Ring, Yurusurezarumono is a fantastic adaptation of Unforgiven) the general expectation is that any piece of world cinema being adapted for Hollywood is going to lose something in translation. I wanted to approach it with some degree of open-mindedness – perhaps it could be one of those rare examples of a remake that transcends its source material, or if nothing else, perhaps it could stand alone as a decent film even if in failing to surpass the original version it winds up feeling unnecessary (not unlike the recent RoboCop remake).