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.
It’s been far too long since I last updated Kino 893. Part of it is being swamped at my day job since one of my colleagues left in a hurry to greener pastures, and part of it is I simply haven’t been watching enough Japanese films to review! However, I just posted my take on Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi’s Shin Godzilla (2016) and I’ve got Baby Cart in Peril, the next instalment of the Lone Wolf and Cub series, lined up. Hopefully I’ll maintain this as its not like I’m short of content to review – along with the remaining two Lone Wolf and Cub episodes there’s Last Days of the Boss to close out New Battles Without Honour and Humanity and the final Female Prisoner Scorpion movie, #701’s Grudge Song. Plus, Arrow Films have kept me in good stead by releasing a steady stream of Seijun Suzuki’s early films. Between the first two volumes, I’ve got no less than 10 of his early works to get through! Depending on how well each stands alone, I might review those as complete sets rather than individual movies.
A little while ago I posted my thoughts on the predictably dull Hollywood remake of Ghost in the Shell. Along with actual Japanese cinema, I still plan on hitting remakes and other films with ties to Japanese culture – so I feel like I can’t avoid watching Netflix’s The Outsider, a yakuza movie inexplicably starring Jared Leto (although Tokyo Vice author and frequent reporter on all things yakuza Jake Adelstein, whose opinion I greatly respect, writes that “as much as [he] expected to hate the movie, [he] didn’t”). I also picked up the 1974, Sydney Pollack-directed The Yakuza. Roughly contemporaneous with Battles Without Honour and Humanity (and close behind the success of The Godfather) I’m interested to see how ’70s America saw Japanese gangsters.
Away from Japanese cinema, I enjoyed a ‘Cartel season’, checking out a slew of movies revolving around South American drug cartels. Sicario, Savages, Clear and Present Danger stood out among a few more peripherally related movies. I still want to check out Soderbergh’s Traffic, which seemed to be highly-regarded as ‘the’ Cartel movie until Sicario, and a couple of documentaries like Cartel Land and Narco Cultura. The whole thing was spurred on by the dull yet oddly compelling Ozark, when after the first season I wanted to watch something similar – and after having already seen Breaking Bad, which Ozark shamelessly borrows from, needed to branch out. So far, Sicario is the stand out for its beautiful cinematography and damning indictment of both sides in the War on Drugs, and I wonder if the soon-to-be-released Sicario 2: Soldado will actually be any good.
Beyond a slew of Netflix movies (including Mute, Annihilation, and The Cloverfield Paradox) I haven’t been keeping up with 2018 cinema. I did manage to catch Black Panther, though, and you can listen to my review over on the This Gen, Last Gen podcast. This week marks the release of Avengers: Infinity War and I, for one, am far too excited!
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).
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.
Akira Kurosawa is surely one of the most well-known Japanese filmmakers, and it was exploring some of his classic samurai films that prompted me to create this blog. I wanted to explore more of his work and that led me to Kagemusha (1980). While I hope to watch some of his films from other genres soon, Kagemusha is nevertheless interesting even though it’s another samurai epic. It marks the first Kurosawa film I’ve seen in colour – only his third overall, following Dodeskaden and the Soviet-Japanese production Dersu Uzala. Even though colour film seemed to arrive late in Japan, Kurosawa continued working in black and white well into the 1960s. Kagemusha is also striking to me for the absence of Toshiro Mifune, Kurosawa’s longtime collaborator. The 1965 film Red Beard was their last work, but instead Kagemusha features Tastuya Nakadai as the lead – unrecognisable from his earlier appearances as villains in Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Sanjuro.
If I had to pick a movie as a guilty pleasure, I might choose The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006) – except I don’t feel guilty at all, because I love this movie. The third instalment in the now massive, globe-trotting franchise, back in the mid-2000s the future of the series seemed in jeopardy: Vin Diesel had left after one film, Paul Walker after the second. Tokyo Drift was essentially a Hail Mary soft reboot with an all-new cast that transplanted the action to Tokyo, and swapped street races for suitably Japan-inspired drifting.
While the focus of this blog is, and will remain, on Japanese cinema, my tastes are eclectic. I love all kinds of movies, and sometimes, I’ll feature them here if they have some suitable hook – maybe they’re set in Japan, or from a Japanese director working on a foreign production, or it’s a remake of a Japanese movie. In the case of Tokyo Drift, I’m using the location and a scenery-chewing appearance by Sonny Chiba as an excuse.