Tag Archives: japan

Link Dump: #81

This week’s spooooky kitty is from Michele Soavi’s Cemetery Man, which also blessed us with this image of Rupert Everett. And now, some links for early October…

Some spooooky search terms: “10 kid pussy,” “man and women rectum,” and the wonderful Yahoo! Answers fodder (or maybe rejected Macbeth dialogue?) “does wanking make a black spot under nipple appear.”

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Link Dump: #34

Kitties are generally cute—but since this kitty is from Adam Elliot’s Mary and Max, it’s cute in a depressing, oddball way. While I’m mentioning it, kudos to Elliot for making a black-and-white animated movie! That takes chutzpah. Especially when that movie is tragic and bizarre. And now I give you: links.

Not too many amusing search terms lately, but I did like “ζωο σεξ,” which is Greek for “animal sex.” I didn’t like “i got robbed and fuckin raped hard and i enjoyed it” because, um, NO. Somewhere between the two was “lesbiansim curiostiy killed the cat,” which combines non sequiturs and misspellings. Finally, I really like this pair of phrases, searched for simultaneously: “of course i do” “it was fucking awesome.” Of course I do! It was fucking awesome.

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Gross horror and pleasant anime: two great tastes that taste…odd together.

[This post is written by both of us in support of the Japanese Cinema Blogathon for Japan earthquake and tsunami relief, hosted by Cinema-Fanatic and Japan Cinema. Check them out and please donate if you can.]


Andreas:

This may be a colossal understatement, but here goes: Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man is a really fucking weird movie. It’s short, cheap, and to the point, communicating through gory, rapid-fire sequences that blaze past in the blink of an eye. This makes the film as a whole pretty difficult to follow, since it often comes across as a particularly hazy, frenetic nightmare. Add in the fact that none of the characters have names, and that the dialogue is minimal, and you can see why I’m not even sure if I saw a film. Maybe I just imagined it. Could a string of images and sounds as intensely, off-puttingly gruesome as Tetsuo really exist?

Well… yes. I guess. The impression I got of the film’s plot was, roughly, this: a panting madman (played by the director) impales his leg with a metal rod. It gets infected. He runs in front of a car and gets run over. Later, the driver of the car notices a gross chunk of metal sticking out of his cheek. He tries to remove it, and (naturally) it sprays pus all over the place. After that, I’m lost. The man tries to go to work, and gets chased by a fellow commuter who’s turning into a cyborg—or maybe not? He goes home, where he has fatal drill-penis sex with his horny, wild-eyed girlfriend after some surreal foreplay—or, again, maybe not?

The rest of the movie involves yet more sped-up chase scenes, violently phallic imagery, and stop-motion transformations. Just imagine the movie Videodrome on amphetamines, with an even more inscrutable storyline. That’s Tetsuo in a nutshell. Overwhelming and gratuitous as the film may be, there’s still a dizzying, demented genius in how earnestly and resourcefully Tsukamoto executes his vision. At heart, it’s a nonstop, nonverbal battle between metal and flesh, with each one ferociously preying on the other; the audience is left to say “Eww!” or “WTF?” Or both.

Ashley:

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT: PONYO!

Let’s take the edge off a bit, shall we? I’ve written about Ponyo before; it’s one of my favorite feel-good movies, right up there with Harvey. It is the ultimate example of what a kid’s movie can be: sweet and pleasant without all the pandering, condescending bullshit. You don’t have to have a “kid’s” movie full of double entendres, coded language, hidden imagery, or obscure parallelism (although I ain’t knocking that kind of animated film; I need more of it in my life) for it to be clever, cute, and appealing to a broad audience. Miyazaki’s effortlessly beautiful hand-drawn underwater worlds and his impish little Ponyo are totally irresistible. Sadly, I’m very short on time so I can’t get too in depth about the film but I will leave you with a number of lovely images.

Thanks to Cinema-Fanatic and Japan Cinema for hosting this great blogathon! Please donate if you can!


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Selling Out on the Street of Shame

Over at Shadowplay, David Cairns’ The Late Show – a blogathon devoted to directors’ late and last movies – rages on. Since I contributed to it on Sunday with a post about Eric Rohmer’s The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (2007), I’d like to travel back half a century and halfway around to the world, to postwar Japan. While the legislature debates banning their trade, a group of prostitutes working side by side must fight both poverty and the stigma attached to their profession in Kenji Mizoguchi’s final film, Street of Shame (1956) or Akasen chitai – more accurately translated, according to the Eclipse DVD case, as the nonjudgmental “Red Light District.”

Released just months before Mizoguchi’s tragically early death from leukemia, Street of Shame is a fitting capstone to a career spent chronicling the abuses suffered and sacrifices made by Japanese women. Although it might not reach the aesthetic heights of such incomparable masterpieces as Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) and Sansho the Bailiff (1954), it still contains all the marks of Mizoguchi at his prime: deep focus photography (by Kazuo Miyagawa) used for visually dense storytelling; the evocation of extreme pathos coupled with a flickering hope for future happiness; and richly drawn female characters, both good and evil.

In less than 90 minutes, Mizoguchi juxtaposes the stories of five women working at Dreamland, a brothel in Tokyo’s Yoshiwara pleasure district. Each has her own attitudes toward her job, and motivations for taking it, but they all have one thing in common: an uphill battle. They’re oppressed enough as women, but as sex workers, they’re directly told, “You’re merchandise.” Socially marginalized beyond the point of visibility, and with the government threatening to cut off their only source of income, they have to take desperate measures just to survive. Poor Yorie (Hiroko Machida) gets married, thinking of it as an escape, but returns when her husband turns out to be as dictatorial as any pimp.

Yume (Ayako Wakao), meanwhile, tries to keep her son from seeing her at work; his shame later leads to a confrontation where he renounces her as a mother. Mizoguchi doesn’t sugar-coat anything, nor does he exaggerate the extent of his characters’ miseries. He just honestly shows every one of the pressures converging on these women as they’re simultaneously exploited by their managers and customers, and rejected by their families in their hours of need. But, in the midst of all of this grim realism, he finds a possible silver lining – the tight-knit community formed by the women, for better or worse.

When their ties with the outside world are cut and the future promises nothing but self-commodification and inescapable debt, at the very least the women still have each other. Like the cast of Pedro Almodóvar’s comparable Volver (2004), the women don’t always support or even like each other, but the basis of their relationships are shared experiences; they each have the same understanding of what it’s like to be coerced into selling yourself. This works both ways, though, as the sly, enterprising Yasumi (Aiko Mimasu) lends out money to her impoverished sisters and makes a killing in interest, earning herself the nickname “Lady Shylock.”

Yasumi’s story is the most telling of the five, since at the end of the film, she’s the only one who successfully leaves the black hole that is the brothel. Her escape, however, comes only through her readiness to play the femme fatale, extorting and betraying those around her when necessary. She knows better than anyone the value of a yen, and she’s bitterly justified in her callous actions. She’s no more “evil” than Ugetsu‘s Lady Wakasa, willing to sacrifice those around her for the sake of self-preservation. Yasumi’s story arc reveals the cruel flip side to Mizoguchi’s vision of female camaraderie.

And speaking of Lady Wakasa, Machiko Kyo reappears here as the brassy young Michiko, who takes on the Americanized name “Mickey” (like the mouse). She’s introduced wearing a flashy, low-cut dress, dancing around in a giant shell à la The Birth of Venus. If Street of Shame‘s women were the seven samurai, Mickey would be Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune): the spunky, frivolous newcomer who doesn’t yet understand the group’s complex dynamics. She initially showcases her sexual allure and seduces away the other women’s customers, but over the course of the film, the routine grinds her down and her vulnerabilities start to show. By the final minutes of the film, she’s an old hand who readily shows the ropes to a shy teenage neophyte.

Thus, Street of Shame (and Mizoguchi’s career) concludes with a disturbing reminder that all this sacrifice and oppression is cyclical. Not only that, but unsolvable, unless economic opportunities and the treatment of women improve. It’s a far cry from the grand, all-for-love melodrama that ended his pre-war masterpiece Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939). The new prostitute hesitantly tries to attract potential customers wandering through Yoshiwara, calling out quietly as she retreats behind a wall. With that lingering image, Mizoguchi’s thirty-plus years of filmmaking fade into open-ended darkness.

What do you think of Mizoguchi, or his representations of women’s suffering? Any and all comments welcome.

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Link Dump: #10

Let me just get this out there: I love the movie Cat People. I love it so much that I’d be OK with it if, every time I was aroused, I turned into the movie Cat People. Don’t question how that’d work. The point is that I really, really love that movie. I love its brevity, its odd visual poetry, its confusing but wonderful morals; I love Tom Conway’s sleaziness and, most of all, Simone Simon’s fractured innocence. Cat People is complex, poignant, perverse, and really sexy. I fucking love Cat People. Anyway, I just wanted to talk about that because I haven’t touched on that movie at all this month. Oh, and I have some links! Read them at your leisure.

  • Have you bought issue 10 of Paracinema magazine yet? If not, look at this. Now are you convinced?
  • Wow, even Fangoria hated the I Spit on Your Grave remake! Then you know it’s bad.
  • THIS is an incredible video and I love it. It’s just so in-your-face and totally refuses to bullshit. Fuck hate! Fuck yeah! (Share it with everyone you know who can take the word “fuck”!) [Via Four of Them]
  • Here’s another great video, this one being an ultra-NSFW song by MC Sex about period sex, accompanied by clips from dozens of gory horror movies. [Via Hold onto yr genre]
  • This is a really, really stupid NYT article that just wastes space. Oh no! We don’t have lines like “Stupid is as stupid does” in movies anymore! How can we endure?
  • Christopher Nolan is finally disclosing some Batman 3 – excuse me, “The Dark Knight Rises” – details. I’ve been back and forth about Nolan lately, but I have to admit a measure of excitement for this movie. And I, for one, thought it was obvious that he wasn’t going to use the Riddler, since 1) how would lime green fit into the Nolanverse color scheme, and 2) wouldn’t another joke-cracking villain be redundant??
  • Neil Gaiman on Arthur. This makes every fiber of my being happy; while watching it, I was literally giggling with joy.
  • And speaking of Gaiman, want to be one of his most iconic characters, Death from The Sandman, for Halloween? Well, The Powder Room’s Locus Ceruleus Media will tell you how with this awesome makeup tutorial.
  • Courtesy of the Wall Street Journal, here’s a listing of some great Japanese horror movies, including a few we’ve talked about on this blog. Any list that includes Jigoku is good enough for me!
  • A few sites have pointed out this video of a Texas NBC station asking the leading question, “Will acceptance of gays lead to the downfall of America?” Jesus. Fucking. Christ. It’s pretty abhorrent and unbearable, and it just gets worse toward the end. People like this make me fucking sick.
  • There comes a time in every boy’s life when he has to explain the Internet to a 19th century Cockney street urchin. This flowchart should help.
  • To tie it back to Paracinema, their blog has been doing a Halloween Countdown of their own! It’s got snuff films, Japanese wackiness, Vincent Price, and more. And on a related note, Stacie Ponder of Final Girl is rounding down her list-tastic Shocktober lists. Read both of these for some great movie suggestions as Halloween arrives! (Just two days.)

On the search terms front, we had some weird shit this past week. One searcher complained that “women never have sex with men”; another creepily wrote, “my daughter in law has good pussy.” I saw the perfectly unpleasant instruction (?) to “pull my pussy n hurt it grrr,” as well as the more reasonable injunction of “don’t piss off your plastic surgeon.” I’m sorry to say that I don’t know what “professor & the sexy girl japanese movie” refers to.

My mention of Ava Gardner’s performance as a real estate agent in The Sentinel earned us such anomalies as “real estate agent rape scene” and “simulated ava gardner naked fucking” (??!). Finally, my favorite two of the week: “licentiously yours,” which I think should replace “sincerely” or any similar sign-off in correspondence, and “recorded in bathroom, guitar, died, fall,” which is just… I don’t even know. What does that mean? I think it means “Happy Halloween.” So yes. Happy Halloween.

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Sexy Nihilism in Onibaba

[I wrote the following as part of the Final Girl Film Club; go check them out. Also note that spoilers are abundant, like samurai skeletons at the bottom of a pit.]

Kaneto Shindo’s horror masterpiece Onibaba (1964) is set in a world gone to pieces. Ravaged by civil war, the farmers of rural Japan must sacrifice the last vestiges of their pride, trading whatever they can scavenge for a sack or two of millet. This may sound like Seven Samurai territory, but Shindo indulges in none of Kurosawa’s humanism. Nope: this is a pitch-black vision of brutality and despair, right down to the corpses piling up in that deep, dark hole.

Onibaba is loosely adapted from a medieval Buddhist allegory, and traces of this remain in the film’s deceptive simple narrative. An old woman with a shock of Bride of Frankenstein-white hair (Nobuko Otowa) and her feral daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) trap the weary samurai who pass through their field of tall grass while fleeing the war. After swiftly murdering them, they dispose of the bodies using the film’s central symbol and plot device (the afore-mentioned hole), then barter the armor and weaponry for food. It’s a lifestyle born of desperate circumstances that seals the women together in a symbiotic relationship.

But then Hachi comes back. He’s an old friend of younger woman’s husband who claims he saw his companion killed. Played by Kei Sato, Hachi is lecherous and self-interested, a fitting addition to a family that has become barely human. His horny interest in the younger woman threatens to break up the partnership, and drives the three of them into a series of sexual power plays. Then, one night, a samurai clad in a demonic mask shows up, and throws the movie on a whole different path.

I’ll be honest: Onibaba is one of my favorite horror movies. Like of all time. Like ever. Like I started cackling in glee when I saw it was the new FGFC choice. It’s so unrelentingly dark (tonally and visually), but it has a sense of humor that cuts like a knife. It’s a horror movie where the status quo is monstrous, and we just go straight down from there. The masked intruder is easily the film’s most sympathetic character; as for the older woman, she’s at her scariest when she’s suffering the most, brought down by her own instinctive self-preservation.

And oh man, do I even want to dive into the political and sexual intricacies of this film? Yeah, I guess I do. It convincingly builds up this image of a world “turned upside down,” where all values have been debased, where all institutions – marriage and family included – have been corrupted. From there, the characters’ inhumane actions flow organically; they’re natural responses to such a toxic environment. It’s in this environment that the hole becomes of tantamount importance. As women, our antiheroines are expected to keep the homefires burning until their patriarch returns from war.

But they refuse to lie back and wait like Miyagi, the patient wife in Mizoguchi’s beautiful Ugetsu Monogatari. The field and hole are functional extensions of their own bodies, territory and tools that they possess. The hole is such a multifarious image: it’s (first and foremost) a vagina, it’s a mouth, it’s the last stop in a socioeconomic system. (It’s capitalism!) It’s an all-consuming entity perfectly suited to a time of war. (Also, full disclosure: a couple years ago I wrote a term paper for a Japanese Cinema class with the uncreative title “Life During Wartime: Gender and Violence in Onibaba.)

All of this proliferating symbolism doesn’t feel overbearing, though, because it’s conveyed with such a light touch. Shindo, who was peripherally associated with the Japanese New Wave, makes this centuries-old tale feel unexpectedly modern through his kinetic directorial style, some jarring jump cuts (especially in the film’s closing moments), and a dissonant, sometimes jazzy score. Shot in high-contrast black and white, Onibaba is a distinctly sensual film, filled with beads of dripping sweat, blades of swaying grass, and not-infrequent moans of orgasmic pleasure.

Did I say sensual? I meant “carnal.” The main characters are creatures of the flesh in the most literal sense possible. When the older woman says that Hachi is “like a dog after a bitch,” we believe it: he barks, sniffs, and humps like Marmaduke in heat. Yoshimura’s performance as the younger woman is easily my favorite, though. She has only a handful of lines or facial expressions throughout the film, communicating mostly through her eyes and body language. (This subtlety is a stark contrast with Sato’s hysterics.) She scarfs down her food as if it’s a sexual act, and seems totally removed from any “civilized” society – she’s the noble savage archetype turned on its head.

And, in one of the film’s many convoluted ironies, she’s no more monstrous than her more worldly mother-in-law and lover. Indeed, it’s the mother’s self-serving appropriation of anti-sex religious puritanism that leads to the anguish and mutilation at the film’s end. In Onibaba, eroticism and nudity are among the unavoidable facts of life; as the younger woman says about sex, “Everybody does it!” The two women sleep topless side by side, and it’s totally nonsexual. They do it because it’s hot outside.

With a healthy dose of dark humor, Onibaba sets about inverting everything we take for granted, whether in contemporary society or in horror movies. It’s so sexually and morally perverse, a monster movie told from the perspective of three pathetic, childish monsters. It’s sexy, it’s understated, it’s disgusting… what more could you want? I’ll close with my favorite moment from Onibaba: it’s a line of dialogue that I find emblematic of everything great and scary about this movie.

P.S. – The younger woman’s first line is “Serves him right!”; later, after dropping the masked samurai down the well, the older woman laughs, “Serves you right.” Could this be a thematically resonant repeated line? I think it could!

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RIP Satoshi Kon, anime dream master

Last night I learned, tragically, that anime director Satoshi Kon has died of cancer at age 47. Kon was the creative force behind some of my favorite (non-Ghibli) feature-length anime films of recent years, specifically Millennium Actress (2001), Tokyo Godfathers (2003, pictured above), and Paprika, a dream-hopping adventure I saw at MSPIFF when it premiered in 2006. He also directed the thriller Perfect Blue and the complex 13-episode series Paranoia Agent, both of which I have yet to see in their entirety. Suffice it to say that Kon’s life was cut short near the peak of his creative output, and there’s no telling how catastrophic a loss this is to the world of film.

I’ve been meaning to write about Kon for a while; I’m just sad that these have to be the circumstances in which I do it. I wrote a short piece on Millennium Actress a couple years ago; it’s none too insightful or well-written, but it’s a useful jumping-off point, so I’ll reprint it here:

One film whose existence was only made known to me recently is Millennium Actress (2001). From Satoshi Kon, director of great anime like the series Paranoia Agent and the film Paprika, it’s infused with his unique brand of surrealism, but put toward a more coherent purpose: deconstructing the life of a reclusive Japanese actress, as seen through the eyes of an admiring documentary filmmaker. The narrative intermingles her memories of 20th century Japan with images of her film career (including pastiches of Throne of Blood and Godzilla), and concerns her relationship with a political prisoner, who gives her the key “to the most important thing.” As it traces the actress’s struggle to find her lost love, it also examines the connection between real life and the dream lives portrayed in film, leading to a bittersweet finale. Between its multifarious animation styles and compelling subject matter, I find Millennium Actress just as beautiful as the much-praised works of Miyazaki.

This snippet hints at some of Kon’s inimitable strengths: he could blend an acute cultural awareness and a slightly wacky sense of humor with faith in the infinite (and phantasmagoric) capacities of animation. I’ve only seen Paranoia Agent‘s first episode, but even that lone half-hour displays Kon’s extensive talent for unpacking dense narratives with both impressive (sometimes disturbing) visuals and extreme, sometimes painful psychological detail. Although renowned for his forays into dream imagery (most explicitly Paprika), Kon always maintained an intense focus on those dreams’ emotional underpinnings and his characters’ rich internal lives. At the end of a summer so dominated by Inception, it’s refreshing to look at a dream-weaving director whose characters had personalities and a pulse.

Tokyo Godfathers, which I watched a few weeks ago, was a delightful surprise and demonstrated Kon’s sheer versatility. Although much of his work consists of probing, stylized peeks into the psyches of fragile individuals, Godfathers proved that he was equally adept at marrying urban drama with broad comedy. In American films, homelessness is too often the substance of saccharine, Oscar-baity melodramas; Kon, however, sympathetically observes his poverty-ridden (but still dignified) characters – a grizzled, middle-aged man, a flamboyant trans woman, and a teenage runaway – as they form a strange but functional family unit, interacting naturalistically and coping with hardships that range from hunger to tuberculosis to their dirty, hidden pasts.

Kon deftly balances the gravity of their collective situation with the lightness of their madcap chases and slapstick collisions (as when an assassin accidentally prevents one of them from making a potentially fatal mistake). And although the film indulges in a number of anime clichés, they never threaten to constrain it, since it’s always buoyed by its fundamental soulfulness and self-awareness. Tokyo Godfathers is volatile in mood and style, but Kon handles these rapid transitions masterfully. It’s a film that’s integrates cartoonish extravagances with Tokyo’s physical realities, and a must-see for any fan of Kon’s other films.

However, I think Millennium Actress is Kon’s best work, and possibly one of the best animated films from any nation. It’s so alive with the power and history of cinema; how could I not love it? (For Ozu lovers, its title character is also loosely based on the enigmatic Setsuko Hara.) I’m sure Kon’s critical legacy will be hotly debated over the coming years – and as we debate it, we’ll be mourning the future films he could have made. He did leave an unfinished film, The Dream Machines, at his death; perhaps it’ll be visible someday. In the meantime, here are a couple of helpful Kon-centric links: 1) an extensive interview with Kon from around the time Paprika was released and 2) Film Studies For Free‘s round-up of resources and academic papers on Kon. Or else you can hit YouTube and start watching Paranoia Agent.

Addendum: While glancing through this retrospective on Kon’s career, I saw a description of Tokyo Godfathers as “saccharine melodrama.” Clearly I disagree (I think Godfathers is pretty underrated); still, the piece by Grady Hendrix of the New York Sun has a lot of great insights and is very worth reading.

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