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   Now in our eleventh calendar year
    PCR #516  (Vol. 11, No. 7)  This edition is for the week of February 8--14, 2010.

"The Wolfman"  by Mike Smith
Tales for Another Day: Night of the Badfinger  by ED Tucker
Comic Book Craze Part 2: From DC to Dark Horse  by Chris Woods
50 Ways To Leave Your Lover  by Lisa Scherer
Japanese Directors: Then and Now  by Jason Fetters
Valentine's Day Massacre!  by John Miller
Congrats! .... Movie Notes .... And One From Music .... Welcome To Kansas City .... .... .... .... .... Mike's Record Shelf by Mike Smith

Japanese Directors: Then and Now

As any first time traveler to Japan soon learns, Japanese audiences prefer Western movies and the result is a decline in quality Japanese movies being made.

For the rare film such as Departures, winner of the 2009 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, there are countless entertaining films geared towards the youth market. Movies like Waterboys (2001), Train Man (2005), and Linda Linda Linda (2005) are quickly in the theaters, enjoy their moment of popularity and then forgotten. Some Japanese movies don’t even make it to the big screen and are shot direct-to-dvd, which is how Miike got started. In any given media there are those individuals who rise about the average to produce works of lasting importance. So who are the directors who are at the top of Japanese movies of the 21st Century? To answer that question first requires a look back at five directors who mattered, made a difference, and continue to have influence today.

Probably the most revered Japanese director in the West is, without a doubt, Kurosawa Akira, who is still being cited as a major influence on current directors worldwide. Kurosawa’s signature film is Seven Samurai (1954) a classic movie about villages hiring ronin (out of work samurai) to defend their village against a gang of bandits. I have seen Seven Samurai multiple times and with each viewing, I catch little bits and pieces that I didn’t see the last time. A good movie should be viewed many times and contain hidden truths that are exposed on subsequent viewings.

I am very happy with Criterion’s 3-disc remastered edition that contains commentary by multiple film critics (a film this large should have different perspectives,) special documentaries on the making of Seven Samurai, plus interviews with Kurosawa and a special segment on Samurai culture with the film critics on the multiple commentary track. To get all that information in requires a good 3-day weekend or a weeklong vacation. The work you put into understanding Seven Samurai pays off each time you see it.

Equally important to Kurosawa and another director with an international reputation is Ozu Yasujiro. Ozu’s masterpiece is Tokyo Story (1953) about an elderly couple that travels to visit their children in Tokyo. The children view their old parents as a hassle and make every attempt to get them out of the way. Once again, Criterion does a fantastic job of presenting Tokyo Story. For the first viewing I recommend that you watch it and try to piece it together yourself. Then watch it with the audio commentary on to help you fill in the gaps that you missed along the way. There is so much going on in this film that it is hard to see all those details without the commentary track. Go ahead and watch it a third time to put together everything you have learned from your first viewing, the commentary track, and by this viewing, Tokyo Story should come into focus.

This is something extra special about Tokyo Story that causes the movie to be so highly praised by international critics. Each year Tokyo Story has a ranking in the top ten of greatest movies ever made.

Not a lot of moviegoers are probably as familiar with Mizoguchi Kenji who directed Ugetsu in 1953. Ugetsu is a Japanese ghost story about two peasants living in the village along Lake Biwa in Omi. The peasants make and sell pottery and an invading army interrupts their business. Genjuro decides to take his remaining pottery to nearby Omizo to sell. While selling his pottery in town, Genjuro meets a mysterious beautiful woman who lures him along. I won’t reveal any more of the plot here because it would spoil the initial viewing. Like Seven Samurai and Tokyo Story, Ugetsu is another film that ranks highly worldwide.

Next is Naruse Mikio who directed an outstanding film about the problems women suffer, working in the floating world of Tokyo’s bar district. In 1960, Naruse directed his masterpiece called When a Woman Ascends the Stairs about a woman who hates her job as a bar hostess. As a hostess she is required to entertain men by making light and funny conversations. There are rival wars between bars and bar hostesses and many workers get caught up in those conflicts. On top of that you have problems resulting from bar patrons who want a little more than just conversation. The story in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is what happens when Keiko, begins to age and her youthful beauty fades. Keiko struggles to maintain her independence in male dominated Japan. This is another film that is still thought of highly in Japan.

The fifth director is Teshigahara Hiroshi’s who in 1964 directed Woman in the Dunes. Abe Kobo wrote the novel and worked so closely with Teshigahara that Woman in the Dunes is a true vision of the book. It is not merely an interpretation by a well-meaning director who ignores parts of the text and adds his own artistic license. This is a rare case when the novel and the film are one. Both media draw a heavy influence from Sartre’s existentialism. Woman in the Dunes is about what happens when an entomologist goes out to the sand dunes to look for insects. His misses the last bus going out and locals take him to a sandpit. After climbing down, the locals take away the rope ladder and he is stuck inside, surrounded by sand with a young widow. In vain, he desperately tries to get out creating more problems for himself and the widow.

After looking at the classic era of Japanese directors and the big five that are Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi, Naruse, and Teshigahara, the question is who is left to carry on the torch?

One promising director currently working is Koreeda Hirokazu. After Life (1998) is a moving film about what happens when people die. When you die you are allowed to take only one memory with you to treasure forever in the after life. In After Life you have counselors who help the newly-dead pick a memory and help to coordinate how that one memory will be made into a film. When the memory is filmed, the person watches it and vanishes into the other world during the end credits. For all eternity you are only allowed one memory.

Koreeda has also directed equally quality movies like Maborosi, Distance, and Nobody Knows.

In 2002, Yamada Yoji started a series of highly successful Samurai films with The Twilight Samurai which is a cut away from previous Samurai epics, in that everyday life struggles are the focus instead of the major battles.

The Twilight Samurai won multiple international awards and did well in Japan, where Western entertainment generally dominates. The Twilight Samurai is that rare exception that shows Japanese cinema still has a heartbeat.

Yamada followed up The Twilight Samurai with The Hidden Blade (2004), and Love and Honor (2006.) All three are wonderful films that will entertain moviegoers worldwide thanks to DVD releases for each film.

I generally enjoy a variety of different Japanese movies from the classic directors to the modern ones. I also enjoy the youth-oriented movies coming up that are good for a few chuckles and I want to see the live adventure version of Space Battleship Yamato (released in the US as Starblazers). However, in the back of my mind, I am always on the lookout for the next big Japanese director.

"The Asian Aperture" is ©2010 by Jason Fetters.  Webpage design and all graphics herein (except where otherwise noted) are creations of Nolan B. Canova.  All contents of Nolan's Pop Culture Review are ©2010 by Nolan B. Canova.