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 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).