Continuing a dive into Nikkatsu’s vault we have Toshio Masuda’s Red Pier (1958). It stars Yujiro Ishihara as “Lefty” Jiro, a ‘50s gangster laying low in Kobe after killing a civilian over a drug smuggling racket. When he falls for the victim’s sister and starts to let slip his involvement, his low-key criminal underworld starts to come unravelled.
From Kiyoshi Kurosawa, director of Sweet Home and with a long career dipping in and out of the horror genre, comes Creepy (2016). Ex-cop Takakura (Hidetoshi Nishijima) leaves his job hunting serial killers to become an academic specialising in criminal psychology, but when his new job is unfulfilling he re-opens the cold case of a missing family on the side. In a parallel story, his wife becomes perturbed by their unusual new neighbour Nishimoto (Teruyuki Kagawa). But as Takakura tells his wife – serial killers are usually nice to their neighbours, so she has nothing to fear from the socially graceless Nishimoto. Right?
Opening 2018 with another Akira Kurosawa classic seems like a good way to get started, so here’s Rashomon (1950). An inventive story that retells the same event from the point of view of multiple unreliable narrators, Akutagawa’s storytelling and Kurosawa’s interpretation echo through pop culture – with my personal favourite being the King of the Hill Episode, “A Fire Fighting We Will Go”. The film presents multiple layers of narratives within narratives as a wandering traveller happens upon two other men seeking shelter from the rain in the huge, cyclopean ruin of the titular Rashomon gate.
Satoshi Kon’s third feature, Tokyo Godfathers (2003), sees three unlikely, homeless protagonists happen upon an abandoned baby on Christmas Eve in Tokyo. Gin, a middle-aged alcoholic, Hana, a former drag queen, and Miyuki, a young runaway girl are forced to look after the baby, which they name Kiyoko, and in the process are taken on a whirlwind tour of the city in the lull between Christmas and New Year’s as they try to keep her safe – and find her real parents.
Trying to find seasonally-appropriate Japanese films can be difficult when the holiday in question isn’t celebrated in Japan, but I’m giving it a shot with Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983). Starring David Bowie, Tom Conti, and Takeshi Kitano, this British-Japanese production is an unforgiving, oddly-paced, but fascinating take on a WW2 Japanese internment camp in Java.
Two felons break out of an Alaskan maximum security prison in the middle of winter. When they find come across a train leaving a depot it seems like their ticket to freedom and escape from the snow and the cold – but a freak accident traps them aboard as the unmanned train picks up speed, out of control and unable to be stopped. This is Runaway Train (1985). Starring Jon Voight (Midnight Cowboy, Heat) and Eric Roberts (The Pope of Greenwich Village, The Dark Knight) as the escapees and directed by Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky, Runaway Train is an unexpectedly brilliant thriller – but why is it on Kino 893?
Because it was based on an undeveloped screenplay than none other than Akira Kurosawa.
My experiences with the first two Lone Wolf and Cub movies didn’t fill me with excitement for the remaining four films in Criterion’s box set. I don’t regret watching them, but I was starting to regret owning the collection – all the more reason to be sad Amazon was shuttering its LoveFilm rental service. And yet! Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades (1972) performs the nigh impossible task of course-correcting from the previous films, with drastically improved cinematography and fight scenes, as well as more interesting character interactions. While still by no means a perfect film, it took me by surprise, and reinvigorated my interest in the series.
In this second instalment of the cult Lone Wolf and Cub, Itto Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama) and infant son Daigoro take on a Shogunate plot to steal a region’s indigo dye techniques, do battle with a legion of ninjas and plenty of sword maidens, and spray buckets of luminously-red blood. It’s Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972)! When I reviewed the first film in the series, I wrote how deeply disappointed I was; it was not the vital action classic I was imagining. Does the sequel manage to right those wrongs?
By the time I got around to seeing Your Name. (2016), it was already a phenomenon. It held the top spot at the Japanese box office – before returning for another three. It was the second largest box office for a domestic Japanese film behind Spirited Away, and the first non-Miyazaki anime to pass $100 million dollars. Critical praise was high, and the fandom was intense. People were going on pilgrimages to locations featured in the film. As time slipped by and I still hadn’t seen it, I grew worried that it couldn’t possibly live up to expectations – or worse, that all that hype would undermine even an above average film. In the end, I needn’t have worried: Your Name is visually stunning and has a story to match.
The synopsis for Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (1949) simply reads, “During a sweltering summer, a rookie homicide detective tries to track down his stolen Colt pistol.” That could seem like a reductive description, but Stray Dog might be the sweatiest film ever made. Set in a broiling Tokyo summer in 1949, Kurosawa drenches the film in atmosphere. No scene is complete without cops mopping sweat from their face and necks, people fanning themselves, or characters just slumped lethargically in the heat, unwilling to move. Toshiro Mifune, in one of his very early Kurosawa collaborations, stars as newly-minted detective Murakami. In the opening moments of the film a pickpocket lifts his service weapon from his jacket pocket and kicks off a hunt that stretches all across the post-war city.