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Old School Review: “The Hidden Fortress” (1958)

Written by Ryûzô Kikushima, Hideo Oguni, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Akira Kurosawa and directed by Kurosawa, “The Hidden Fortress” is an adventure comedy that notably inspired George Lucas in his crafting of the original “Star Wars”. The film follows two peasants, Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara) and Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) trying to return home after being conscripted into a regional war. They provide the levity in the film, which is more frequently in use here than the majority of Kurosawa’s work (of the films of his that I’ve seen at least). We begin the film with these two bemoaning their predicament after having gotten to the war two days late and forced to bury the dead. They wander across a desolate landscape towards home but find the border now controlled by the recently victorious kingdom, thus forcing them to find an alternate route home through separate kingdoms adjoining one another.

A few scenes later the two stumble across a gold bar lodged inside a wooden stick while making a fire for the night. Bewildered at their luck, Matashichi and Tahei make a mad dash in the morning to find more of the hidden gold. In their frantic efforts, which mostly consist of them bickering over how to divide the gold, they stumble into Rokurota Makabe (Toshirô Mifune), a well known general of the defeated kingdom- though they do not recognize him. After telling him their plan to travel through a neighboring region to avoid the newly established checkpoints, Rokurota recruits them to his cause through clever manipulation as he leads them to the eponymous Hidden Fortress. He keeps them busy for awhile by suggesting that the rest of the gold may be buried near the fortress. During that time he retreats to the waterfall hideout of Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara), the nobility left in power after his kingdom’s destruction. There they craft a plan alongside Izumi Nagakura (Takashi Shimura), the elder general, to use the peasants’ idea for their route and to enlist them to help carry the royal family’s remaining gold back home. They also decide to have the Princess pretend to be mute as to avoid detection as she could accidentally reveal herself through speech usually characteristic of nobility. The troupe, consisting of Rokurota, Princess Yuki, Matashichi and Tahei then depart hauling the hidden gold on their backs and in a large cart.

The rest of the adventure is full of high energy moments like the lance (spear?) duel between Rokurota and Hyoe Tadokoro (Susumu Fujita), a general of equivalent rank and status. There’s also quieter beats of tension like the numerous times Matashichi and Tahei create new problems for Rokurota and Yuki by either plotting to steal the gold for themselves or their general fear of getting caught with all this gold. Eventually they sneak into a procession of people marching with hordes of wood towards a fire festival nearby- thus blending into the crowd to avoid being stopped by any watchmen. There’s a lot to like in “The Hidden Fortress” so I’ll spare you all the details for your own discovery, though it is most certainly worth a watch! This film feels like a tonal standout from Kurosawa’s other works. There’s no self serious moral message or compelling heroics, or even universally relatable characters as in other films of his. This film feels most at ease with it’s premise, a high stakes energetic comedy with a sensation similar to those punchy adventure serials from American cinema from the previous two decades before this film’s release. It’s clearly crafted by a master director if you’re paying attention though. Kurosawa’s deft hand at directing and filming is on display for those analyzing shot structure and the handling of movement and blocking. In fact, there’s a scene early in the film before Matashichi and Tahei encounter Rokurota, that’s reminiscent of the ‘Odessa Steps’ scene from “Battleship Potemkin” (also reviewed on the blog @ https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/spacecortezwrites.com/11007) in which dozens upon dozens of people descend down a huge staircase against a horde of guards with guns shooting into the crowd. There’s some question as to whether or not Kurosawa was directly homaging Potemkin, but I imagine he was aware of that uniquely important film at the very least.

If you have any interest in getting into Japanese cinema, this is an easy entry point and I highly recommend it. Especially because it will likely lead you to other excellent films by Kurosawa, or dare I say it, the work of Mizoguchi or Ozu. It’s like recent Academy Award winner Bong Joon-ho infamously said “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” The man couldn’t be more right. So if you’re new to foreign cinema, welcome, and if you’re a well worn visitor to the land of subtitles and a difference in perspective, welcome back! ‘Til next time film nerds!

Final Score: Two Peasants, One Princess

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Old School Review: “Ugetsu” (1953)

Written by Matsutarô Kawaguchi, Akinari Ueda, and Yoshikata Yoda, and directed by Kenji Mizoguchi “Ugetsu” is a film that hides its true intentions behind the veil of a ghost story. The supernatural aspects of the film cleverly disguise the introspective look at the different sexes and how war frenetically warps both. Frankly, the idea of ghosts here aren’t what modern audiences may expect, it is an older representation of the dead that take issue with moving on from this world. There are no jumpscares here, but there is a moral tale that should cause concern and, dare I say it, a deeper level of fright than your typical horror show. We are set in sixteenth century Japan during a civil war in which two lower class families are torn apart just as much by the greed and avarice that foments during wartime, as their own miscommunications.

Mizoguchi’s camera is almost always flowing in poetic fashion, mastering the long take and transitions that emit an ethereal tone.

Genjurô (Masayuki Mori) and Tôbei (Eitarô Ozawa) are the men of two small households in a rural village near the shores of Lake Biwa in Ōmi Province. Genjurô, a potter, and Tôbei, an ambitious fool with dreams of becoming a Samurai, head to a larger village nearby that’s heard to be having a small economic boom due to the encroaching war. Despite the concerns of their wives, Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) Genjuro’s wife, and Ohama (Mitsuko Mito) Tobei’s wife, the two men hurry off to earn money, material value, and in their eyes; the satisfaction of their wives despite their own fears of inferiority. Which is nonsense to begin with as both of their wives tell them that they are enough for them as they are. Despite the worries of their wives and the village elder, the two men come back successful with a small batch of earned income, which only bolsters their egos to earn more silver and gold the next time they embark.

This scene was excellently shot and eerily immersive.

As Genjurô and Tôbei rush to prepare their next batch of pottery in their kiln, the approaching war marches upon their doorstep before they can properly assess their work and are forced to leave while it burns, unattended. The two men begrudgingly trot off with their families as soldiers arrive in their village, but it isn’t long before they are so consumed by the idea that they might lose all of their effort that they run off to check the kiln. To their surprise, the pottery was completed without harm and they quickly gathered their product and convinced their wives to travel with them to the city to sell their goods once more. They choose to take a boat across the lake, avoiding the foot-soldiers of war. However once on the water, and the fog rolls in, we are at once transported from a wartime historical drama to one of supernatural happenings. An unspoken sense of dread spreads as another boat emerges from the mist with a dying man to warn them of pirates out among the waves. After which they decide that sneaking about the edge of the water might be safer. Genjurô’s wife and boy head back towards safety, but Ohama fears that Tôbei’s dreams of becoming a Samurai could overtake him, so she departs with them to hurry along the selling process.

A newly decorated Tôbei discovers Ohama working as a prostitute.

As expected, Tôbei runs off after spotting a decorated warrior in the crowd. Ohama chases after him to no avail while Genjurô remains to sell their wares. Not long after Ohama’s rush to find Tôbei, Genjurô is approached by Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyô) and her aide. They point out a few dishes and a sake set and tell him to bring them to the Kutsuki mansion just outside of town. Now, here’s where each of the four major characters have major scenes surrounding their decisions and failures. Tôbei eventually finds a suit of armor and sneaks about to the battlefield where he stumbles upon a dying general of the opposing faction who asks his accompanying lieutenant to execute him by decapitation. The loyal underling abides, wipes tears from his face, and takes the head of his fallen master right as Tôbei attacks from behind, killing the lieutenant and hurrying away with the stolen head as his prize. He finds the nearest barracks, presents the head of an enemy general and is rewarded fondly with a fitting rank, horse, and a small regimen of soldiers to command. Ohama’s luck is not so kind, as she’s captured by random footsoldiers, raped, and thrown to the street. She eventually finds work as a prostitute and runs into Tôbei with his men at an inn. They argue at length in a scene where I personally thought Ohama might actually kill Tôbei, but eventually they abate and both discard their new personas and return to the village having learned that unchecked ambitions can have great costs.

Lady Wakasa’s seductive illusions further illustrate how war inflicts suffering on men and women alike- even carrying some trauma to the afterlife.

Genjurô and Miyagi, however, fare worse fates than that of their neighbors. Given that Mizoguchi’s main narrative focus is the suffering of women due to the ambitions of the men in their lives during times of heightened conflict, the overarching narrative between Miyagi and Genjurô is particularly grim. While Genjurô heads to the Kutsuki manor with Lady Wakasa’s order, Miyagi and their son Genichi are attacked on the road home by rootless foot soldiers. In a moving sequence Miyagi is hassled for the food she’s carrying, Genichi strapped to her back, but the men quickly overcome her and stab her to death with their spears and trot off with their spoils to devour them in the background- all while Genichi wails in the foreground clasped to his dead mother’s back. This macabre scene paired with the dream-like pleasures Lady Wakasa offers to Genjurô may cause a battle of emotional turmoil in the gut- and as this film’s historical setting is used as a reflective mirror to Japan’s postwar sensibilities, it’s introspective look at Japan’s wartime morality is powerful and poignant. Eventually Genjurô is confronted by the reality that his new illustrious lover may not be all that she seems, a local shopkeeper turns pale at the mention of Kutsuki Manor and a wandering priest notices that Genjurô has been in contact with supernatural forces and applies exorcistic tattoos all over his body. When he wakes from his illusory nightmare and sees that the Kutsuki manor has been in ruins for years, Genjurô returns home sober and in need of his family. Waiting for him there are Genichi and Miyagi, with food and a bed roll waiting. It isn’t until the morning after that Genjurô realizes that his wife’s ghost was watching over their son, and he goes back to solemnly fire up his kiln, and help Tôbei tend his fields.

Miyagi’s final moments…

In retrospect, I did enjoy this film. Mizoguchi has a unique direction, and his narrative focus is one that is often underrepresented- especially in his own time. While this film did not capture me or necessarily take my breath away, it was a good film that I respected. This was the first film of Mizoguchi’s that I have seen, and I’ll definitely be returning to his library of films in the future. I recommend this one to anyone interested in the film’s sociopolitical message or simply to see another Japanese master of cinema. I recommend giving the links listed below a look if you want to know more about the film and the creators involved with it.

Final Score: One Potter, One Samurai, and One Ghost

The article below is what drew me to check out Mizoguchi in the first place. Having recently seen a lot of Kurosawa and Ozu films- I found this article’s title to be both provocative and mystifying. Thus credit, where credit is due:

https://www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/better-than-ozu-and-kurosawa-mizoguchi

*Here’s another focused review that provided a lot of good context for the film and Mizoguchi as a creator:

https://deepfocusreview.com/definitives/ugetsu/

*Lastly, here’s another in-depth analysis of “Ugetsu” that I found fascinating:

https://www.slantmagazine.com/dvd/ugetsu-bd/

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Old School Review: “Good Morning” (1959)

Written by Kôgo Noda and Yasujirô Ozu and directed by Ozu, “Good Morning” is a comedic drama following two young boys who wage a war of silence against their parents to persuade them to buy a Television set so they can watch Sumo wrestling. This is the most charming of Ozu’s films that I have seen thus far (three and counting), and still yet the film manages to insert powerful, but subtle, musings on the intricacies of communication and intent. The film is focused on a small Tokyo suburb of families living in close proximity with each other and it cleverly bounces between the language barriers and misunderstandings of a few groups of the residents. First, and most focused on, are the two brothers Isamu (Masahiko Shimazu) and Minoru (Sitara Koji). On their morning walks to school they and a few other boys from the neighborhood have perfected a game in which they press a finger against each other’s forehead to instigate a fart, which gives way to laughter and affirmation in the group. Funnily enough, one poor kid keeps failing this intestinal test and, well, he begins and ends the film with a walk of shame back to his parents to get a change of pants.

The mothers and wives of the suburb turn a simple misunderstanding into a series of gossip and rumors because their collective dues haven’t been paid accordingly. They all attest to have paid on time, surely, there was a simple issue along the way, but on the other hand the chairwoman, Mrs Haraguchi (Haruko Sugimura) who collects the dues, has just bought a new washing machine. As the film progresses, Mrs Hayashi (Kuniko Miyake) the mother of Isamu and Minoru, wanted to solve the issue quickly- she seems to be easily put on edge by financial stress– but Mrs Haraguchi hears about the allegation of a new washing machine bought illegally with the dues and confronts Mrs Hayashi (who didn’t even start the rumor) to assure her that this did not happen. Ironically, later when Isamu and Minoru go on a strike of silence to get their parents to buy a TV, they apply this silence to all adults and Mrs Haraguchi assumes this slight was instigated by Mrs Hayashi for the misunderstanding, and quickly informs the other women that Mrs Hayashi holds grudges. This whole incident, by the way, is finally uncovered when Mrs Haraguchi discovers that the dues were given to her mother (Eiko Miyoshi), a comedic old woman who had simply forgotten about receiving them. The grandmother is often found praying, and blatantly complaining about her ingrate of a daughter- yet another Ozu familiarity in the comedy and tragedy of generational family affairs.

The fathers and husbands of the suburb also have their own issues with communication as well. The father of Isamu and Minoru (Chishū Ryū) must mediate and absolve his sons squabbling, after they loudly resist he bellows that “You talk too much for boys your age”. Minoru (the eldest) responds that adults are even worse because adults always engage in pointless niceties like “good morning”, “good evening” and refuse to say exactly what they mean. Which is how Isamu and Minoru come to their silent strike. Their father also has a scene with an older acquaintance in a bar who had found no solace in retirement, only the slow walk toward death. They try to communicate between one’s drunken rambling and the other’s botched attempt to cheer him up- but in doing so realizes his own encroaching retirement. It is this acquaintance, happier with a new job near the end of the film selling electronics, that Isamu and Minoru’s parents buy a TV from to celebrate his new job- to the joy of the silent little warriors.

Final Score: 2 brothers and a few rumors

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Old School Review: “Floating Weeds” (1959)

Written by Kôgo Noda and Yasujirô Ozu and directed by Ozu, “Floating Weeds” is a remake of Ozu’s own black-and-white silent film “A Story of Floating Weeds” made in 1934. This film follows a traveling troupe of actors performing Kabuki theatre around the provinces (“floating weeds” is a Japanese term for itinerent actors). In the opening we’re introduced to the sleepy fishing village that will house the story to come as a few random dock workers muse about the heat of the day and the novelty of the incoming troupe. The troupe arrives by boat and parades into town handing out flyers and talking up the locals as they make their way towards their new temporary home while in town, the theatre. While there are some delightful and fun side stories with several members of the theatre crew, the plot’s main focus is on Komajuro Arashi (Ganjirô Nakamura) the leader of the operation, and lead actor. After settling in Komajuro heads off to a Saki bar run by Oyoshi (Haruko Sugimura, his former mistress) to visit and go fishing with Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi) their grown son who is unaware of his true father’s identity, knowing Komajuro only as “Uncle”.

As you might guess, it isn’t long until Sumiko learns of Komajuro’s ulterior motives in choosing this town for their next round of performances. Which doesn’t go well for Komajuro, as Sumiko’s the jealous type. After she discovers this affront and sees Oyoshi in attendance at one of their shows, she goes to Oyoshi’s Saki bar and aggressively confronts her when she catches Komajuro there playing Go with Kiyoshi one afternoon. Despite Komajuro’s shock and dismay at Sumiko’s transgression he bans her from the Saki bar and breaks it off with her in a powerful argument in the rain. Later on Sumiko offers one of the younger actresses some side money to go and seduce Kiyoshi at his job. While reluctant at first Kayo (Ayako Wakao) eventually accepts without knowing Sumiko’s reasoning for the request. Despite the origins of their relationship, Kiyoshi and Kayo end up falling in love. Shortly after this development Komajuro stumbles upon the two embracing in an alley and finds himself in a conundrum- how can he exercise his authority over Kiyoshi without revealing his true identity to him?

Komajuro had high hopes for his son, Kiyoshi had been saving for college and had plans to support his mother when he could. Before Komajuro can sort out the situation though, Kiyoshi and Kayo elope just as the theatre troupe had begun to fall apart. The financial manager absconded with their funds and several members considered leaving before they become too desperate. Dwindling crowds paired with mismanagement spelled the beginning of the end for the troupe. Eventually Kiyoshi and Kayo head back to town at Kayo’s pressuring- but Kiyoshi and Komajuro clash at the Saki bar when Oyoshi reveals Kiyoshi’s true parentage in an attempt to diffuse the scuffle. Kiyoshi discards Komajuro and leaves in a huff while Komajuro sits in amazement at the series of baffling failures set at his feet. He decides to move on after a cheerful long goodbye to the troupe, ironically riding out of town on a train with Sumiko tending to him- begrudgingly accepting his enemy’s re-established loyalty.

Ozu’s works, of the two I’ve seen so far, have this unique serenity to them. Maybe it’s the leisurely pace, the shots of gentle locations giving the world of his stories a sense of the oft quoted “lived-in” space, or simply that the content of his films are universal to the modern human experience. His films evoke a powerful catharsis felt just as strongly sixty years later. Obviously, not every film will work for every person, but I’m willing to bet that if you gave any of his films a chance you might find yourself quizzically enraptured not just by the drama of common themes across his filmography, but also by the meditative cinematography of his infamous “pillow shots” that melt in-between scenes asking you to pause and digest, relax and breathe. There is something powerful in his depiction of the joy, sadness, humor, and tragedy of everyday life that makes his characters seem familiar and his plots reminiscent of truth.

It wouldn’t be an Ozu film (as I’ve come to notice in my intense search for information on the filmmaker) without a particularly precise composition for every shot in his films. Ozu would typically put the composition of his frame above all else, ignoring the continuity of props and eye-lines for the purity of his images. Which is doubly true for his foray into color filmmaking near the end of his career. His warm pastel coloration for “Floating Weeds” adds another layer of texture to the small seaside village the story takes place in. Between the visible mugginess of the hot summer and the cleansing, humidifying, rain that comes at night and in-between heated arguments, there is a unifying sense of place not only with the “pillow shots” of nature and architecture but in all variables of the filmmaking process. Particularly pleasing was the soundtrack, evocative of popular video game scores (which were probably inspired by films such as this) like “The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker” and “Animal Crossing”, it was perfectly set for a small seaside village in the heat of summer. I doubt there could have been a more perfect fit than what we got. The recurring theme gave way to the notion of music belonging to a particular place in its essence, these melodies molded to fit this time and this place. All of these things combine to craft a beautiful and atmospheric stage for Ozu’s story to play out, and it does so with a grace and humility like no other.

While maybe not quite as emotionally impactful as “Tokyo Story”, Ozu’s remake here is a more diverse picture in terms of emotional balance. This is purely my commentary and I can only speak to my experience with the film, but this film held a greater variety of emotional resonance. I was legitimately shocked when Sumiko directly confronted Oyoshi in her Saki bar. The following heated debate in the rain between Sumiko and Komajuro was incendiary and raw. The anger, regret, shock, and disgust thrown at each other was palpable and moving. While earlier, in less fierce scenes, I was tickled by the three bachelors of the troupe and their antics in trying to pair up with the women of the town. This film is a rarity among cinema, as was Ozu himself, and it’s worth your while to experience something new in the pantheon of film, even though this film is sixty years old- it’s still a charming story with universal and relatable characters and themes. Give it a shot!

Final Score: 3 bachelors, 1 lead actor, and 2 mistresses