Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Wacky...and Wackier...and Wackiest...
Japan hit me with a three fisted attack

Recently, I've been given the charge of creating a painting based on my knowledge of Japanese cinema. That's sort of all fine and dandy. In many ways, Japanese cinema's often meticulous sense of framing lends itself toward a painted medium. At the same time, however, they also feature a tendency to make strong use of the division between on- and off-screen space. That's not so good.

The only reason I mention it is that I needed some sort of explanation for why I've been pounding down all these Japanese films like so much quality beer.

On one end, it was quality research for a future piece of work. On the other, it was a wake up call to the fact that the Japanese cinema I lean toward...well, it tends to lean away from the traditional. Only a small percentage of that cinema that I've enjoyed didn't feature guns, swords, or giant monsters.

This painting is for a girl...albeit a cool girl...but not necessarily the kind that wants a painting of Gamera fighting Toshiro Mifune....

I know what you're thinking: "What?!? Is she crazy?!? She can't be that cool..."

Well take a look at what I've been watching.

The Wacky...

The Executioner (1974, d. Teruo Ishii)

The Story: A former police commissioner brings together a ninja, a hapkaido master pervert, and a disgrased cop turned hitman to stop a drug ring with diplomatic immunity.

The Review: I've seen more Sonny Chiba (our ninja) movies than...well, than most people I know. Like many early martial arts stars, his movies are always lacking one magical moments that could've made them great. In one, it's production values, in another it's strong story, in a third it's any form of coherency whatsoever. And yet, almost every one of them is still infinitely watchable because they deliver the one thing everyone wants: copious amounts of ass whoopin's. (The bonus with Sonny movies for our male friends is the occasional gratuitous amount fo T&A.)

For me it was the first two Street Fighter movies that provided the earliest for instance when all of the pieces came together for Sonny. The Executioner is a...well somewhat distant second. It's a ridiculous amount of fun. It's got some fine slapstick jokes. It's got the copious amounts of beatdowns. It's even got the gratuitous nudity. It doesn't however, always quite make sense. Most of this revolves around the Sakura character who does little more than leer at the former police commissioner's daughter. It's never quite clear what the point of having him in the team is...well, from a story point of view. From a movie point of view, it's quite clear: he's comic relief. The other somewhat distracting aspect is the constant recycling of the villains. One gentleman in particular is missing an ear, and no matter how they dress him up or disguise him...he's sort of hard to miss.

Still any movie that can somehow manage to bridge a gap between a scene where a character literally punches a guys eyeballs out of his head to a prison escape gag that involves a lot pepper-related sneezing has to at least be watchable. And this one was the least wacky of the three...in a sense...

The Wackier...

Atragon (1963, d. Ishiro Honda)

The Story: The Mu empire rises from the depths of the sea to take over the earth and a rogue Japanese Naval commander utilizes his new flying super sub to stop them.

The Review: I checked in a few months ago with a review of The Mysterians, also by Honda. Right off the bat, I'm going to tell you that while I liked Atragon better, it still had a lot of the same problems.

Of the Honda movies I've seen since I was about 10 years old, none seem to hold up as well as the original Godzilla (1954). The weird thing is that they all have a very similar story structure. Much like movies today, they can't seem to figure out how to balance the human stories with the monster/alien/marine life attack.

The opening for the movie was strong, and I was intrigued right away, and who wouldn't be when a mysterious steamy frogman crawls out of the ocean as a seemingly crazy taxi driver crashes himself and his kidnap victim into the ocean. Then almost too much time is spent trying to set up all the characters, but I still didn't end up feeling that much for them. By the time the super sub starts flying around and goes to lay the smackdown on the Mu's, it's a little late. And knowing the run time, I knew I wasn't going to get as much super sub action as I'd been hoping.

The highlight of course was the giant Chinese style dragon Magda, who also shows up too late, and is likewise vanquished too quickly. He is, however, one of the most hilarious show-stopping monsters I've ever seen.

The most disturbing aspect by far came at the finale. The original Godzilla was a wonderful tale of warning about the dangers of scientific hubris and our unrepenetant destruction of the environment. This movie plays with some of the same themes, but has no problem with the genocide of the Mu people. When the queen of the Mu sacrifices herself by swimming to the explosions of the Mu fortress, it didn't feel as victorious as tragic. Sure they were destructive killers of the surface dwellers, but it didn't seem to justify wiping them from the universe.

Altogether, fairly fun...much wackier (c'mon, it's a flying submarine with a giant drill on the front end)...but altogether...disturbing.

The Wackiest...

Kageroza (1981, d. Seijun Suzuki)

The Story: (Anyone who's ever tried to summarize a Suzuki movie sympathizes with me...but from what I gather:) A playwright appears to be having an affair with the ghost of his benefactor's wife, as well as his benefactor's mistress. (I think.)

The Review: I love Seijun Suzuki. In fact, the less I understand about a Suzuki movie...the more I find I enjoy it. Sometimes it's just bits and pieces...in this case, it was nearly the entire movie! Yay!

I'm not sure how much I can review this movie in any conventional sense. I enjoyed the hell out of it, I'll tell you that much. The movie is slow, but don't let that fool you. For one thing, it's beautifully shot. Suzuki makes great use of framing his characters within architecture within the movie frame. Now a beautiful movie isn't always an exciting movie, but what sets Suzuki apart is his occasionally jarring jump cuts, his story oddities, and just the general air of surrealism that he can lay on nice and thick.

Like Bunuel or Lynch, Suzuki's strongest point in this surrealist film world is that even though you may not understand the proceedings you know that there is thought behind it. Certainly it made sense to him when he filmed it, and the idea meant enough to him that he did film it. It's not purely aesthetics though it is aesthetically charged.

This is most evident in the finale as a troupe of children act out a kabuki style version of the story we've witnessed thus far. It's at once horrifying and fascinating, and a strong reminder of how childish all our characters are in their bizarre love square.

Now some might take objection to my referring to it as wacky. If I'm offering this film up as high art, how can I possibly refer to it as wacky? Well, while Suzuki has a serious touch, his film is not without a sense of humor. Some reviewers even seem to consider it a sort of parody of Japanese ghost stories. To me this would make it a parody within a story, and the final kabuki play as a sort of parody of the story within the parody within a story (whoa...). I've never found Suzuki to be merely clever. That doesn't mean that he isn't, just that I don't think he's nodding and winking at me the whole time. Still, it's got a dash of the absurd...and should you see the film...I think you'll agree...it's pretty wacky.

That about covers my deluge of Japanese cinema (after a three month hiatus from spending some time here)...and concludes some of my painting research. Haha. I bet you can only imagine what kind of painting might be made out of these three films...don't worry...I've gathered together imagery from at least two or three more.