Los Olvidados (1950)

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The opening narration of Los Olvidados asserts that the great modern cities of the world including New York, Paris, and London all mask issues of poverty and delinquency amid their magnificent structures. This is a universal problem that plagues Mexico as well.

In Los Olvidados a test case is being proposed and the solution left open-ended because change is still necessary. There’s still need for some kind of resolution. Whether it’s completely true word for word is nearly beyond the point because it feels authentic. There’s little need to make up a world as dire and ugly as this one unless there’s at least a grain of reality in every frame.

Where boys break out of reform school, stone blind beggars in retaliation, and form gangs as a kind of social safety net to lash out at their environment. Beating up the poor and the helpless. They too are poor but this band of theirs allows them to be less helpless and prey on others instead. That’s their main tactic of survival in their life of impoverished vagrancy.

It proves to be a harrowing exhibition in social realism and though defamed in its day, its candid and at times brutal depiction of juvenile delinquency has gained it a spot as one of Mexico’s most prestigious pictures. There’s no doubt that it’s a violent picture seething with adolescent rage. The only question is how much is environmental and how much is a product of the individuals?

As much as this film is disquieting and repulses me to the core of my being, I cannot deny its place as an important commentary and cinematic landmark from Luis Bunuel. The Spaniard is a master who always makes my skin crawl and challenges my very convictions. Los Olvidados succeeds in doing the very same thing again by forcing us to acknowledge the loathsomeness in the world that we so often want to brush under the rug. It’s there. There’s no denying it. Man left to his own devices will send the world hurtling towards malicious chaos.

There’s an intent to every moment with action streamlined but never feeling rushed or forced in its everyday rhythms that provide a seamless illusion of real life. Luis Bunuel still finds space to imprint Los Olvidados with his own surrealist vision as a young boy, Pedro, is haunted by a grinning corpse to mirror the dead body now laying in a ditch where he served as an accomplice. However, his disquieting nightmares are compounded by a mother complex. He wants her love and yet seems to do everything to receive her ire.

In a world such as this where we see the brokenness and the sheer depths of poverty, it seems like it would be easy to empathize and yet this film makes it rather difficult. Because some of these boys are so boorish. So violent and dirty-minded. There’s no sense of decency even if they wanted it and their leader Jaibo is the worst of the lot.

But there are two boys that I do have some lingering sympathy for. Pedro is not unlike the others. Out on the street getting into trouble and the like. And yet there’s something in him that is trying to reform. He looks to find work and he wants the love and affection of his mother once more. The problem is she’s already given up on him. There is no love in her heart. And his pals are constantly impeding his road to reform. That’s as much as an indictment as the city that has no effective system to give these boys a better life or the boys themselves who live wayward existences.

The second sympathetic figure simply goes by “Eyes” and he’s been waiting patiently for his father to return. He hasn’t. Instead, he becomes the guide to the ornery street musician who makes a living in the town square when he’s not accosted by young gangsters. “Eyes” gets pulled into the drama too but there’s an innate integrity that’s lacking in most of his contemporaries. He generally treats the old man well and respects the pretty young ingenue Meche. That cannot save any of them from an awful existence.

The final image is grotesque. Not for the graphic nature of the imagery but the metaphoric juxtaposition. A body thrown into a trash ditch like a bag of flour. There’s no value to it and the people who do it while not the perpetrators are further implicated in this societal problem. They trade pleasantries with the mother as she searches for her son — a son she never seemed to love — until he’s in trouble. The issues run so deep it hurts to watch. The finger can be pointed in any direction.

The problems must fall on the parents, adults, and peers who do not find it within themselves to speak up or to continue loving or fighting for change. Complacency and hard hearts are just as bad a problem as juvenile delinquency. Put them together and you sow nothing but generations upon generations of human beings damned before they even have a chance at a decent life. It’s over 60 years on and we’re probably still searching for many of the answers to these very same issues. As much as I would like to admit that this film is outdated, to make such a statement would be heedlessly ignorant.

Because of course Los Olvidados in English is literally translated to “The Forgotten.” There’s part of your problem right there. As humans we so easily forget. We brush problems under the rug, pass the buck, and so on. Before you know it years have gone by and a new generation of youths are all but forgotten. The deadly cycle begins again and never ends until someone champions radical change. Until that day they will continue as the unnamed, unwanted, forgotten foes of society. Los Olividados.

4.5/5 Stars

Summertime (1955)

 

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It’s summertime and the living is easy. It makes me think of sultry summer days and cool summer nights and George Gershwin. But summertime also means travel. It did for my family when we were growing up as kids and it took us to many places near and far off. That’s what this film gives us license to do. Venture into another world for a picturesque vacation.

News that Summertime was supposedly David Lean’s favorite picture of his own work is not all that surprising when put into the context of his career. When I think of him I am quick to reference monumental epics or British narratives out of Charles Dickens but here is a picture that feels strikingly different. It’s intimate and small yet still gorgeously photographed and affecting. It’s no Lawrence of Arabia (1962) or even Great Expectations (1946) but it has no aims to be. That’s what makes it a delightful change of pace.

Katharine Hepburn plays an American school secretary from Akron Ohio, one Jane Hudson, who has always had a dream to travel and get out of Middle America to see the world. We see her aboard a train bound for Venice and she’s beyond ecstatic chatting up her fellow traveler and snapping pictures on her camera that’s already logged rolls and rolls of film undoubtedly, capturing the most mundane things for the simple fact that they come from a foreign land.

But there are even more stereotypical American tourists who are hilariously ignorant and subsequently stick out like a sore thumb wherever they wind up. To say the McIlhennys are slightly insufferable is kind of the point. Still, they’re hardly to be taken seriously. It’s people like them that cause Jane to want to venture to Italy to get away and allow herself to be wrapped up in the throes of another culture. I can certainly resonate with that sentiment. I feel that way now.

So, in one sense, she still maintains the awe of a tourist but manages to experience the life as if she were a local and that’s the key, boarding in a pensione and trying to get a taste of everyday life.

First, she is befriended by a spunky little boy who tries to sell her his goods and out of that grows a mutual affection for one another. She also wanders into an antique shop to buy what she deems to be a precious goblet and strikes up a conversation with the proprietor (Rossano Brazzi) who she had unwittingly crossed paths with before. This is the first of many meetings.

In a film such as this where the sets are left behind for a foreign locale, a place like Venice very easily becomes almost another character in the film because being there alone creates a dimension you would never get otherwise. Without Venice, those layers of history, accents, and textures, something magical would be lost. But with it, Lean makes something that rings with gentle passion.

The sumptuous visuals capture both the immense character and quaint waterways with their gondolas drifting lazily by. Tailor-made for romance especially between an American school teacher and a handsome Italian shopkeeper, bringing them so close together over the course of the film. The Piazza San Marco is showcased front and center in numerous sequences but even with its presence this still exists on a smaller scale than the parade through Rome that is Roman Holiday (1953). Because it readily occupies itself with many smaller scenes too.

Lean even preceded Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief (1955) with a very similar fireworks show. In both cases, the moment signifies the strides made in the relationship and just how splendorous they are.

Summertime also features one of the most striking endings because it’s not quite as cathartic as we are used to in a love story and yet it hardly can be considered downbeat or melancholy. A lot like life, it simply is and how can you be glum anyway? It’s summertime. Venice is immaculate. Love is afoot.

It so enraptured David Lean that he would make it his home away from home. At that point, it doesn’t matter if we like this movie because as its director Lean was taken with it. That’s praise enough.

3.5/5 Stars

From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)

Kokurikozaka_kara_film_poster.jpgThe song “Sukiyaki” sung by Kyu Sakamoto proved such a charming enigma for me. Here was a record that was so quintessentially Japanese, a melodious ballad, that was nevertheless branded in the West with a more novel title and became a smash hit. However, here within the framework of this anime, the song feels perfectly at home once more as “Ue o Muite Arukō” an impeccable benchmark of an era in Japan’s history. It’s true that the full extent of the musical score is noticeably more western than we might be used to with anime yet the cornerstone of the soundtrack is Sakamoto’s iconic tune.

What we are given by director Goro Miyazaki and a script by his father Hayao Miyazaki is a small-scale nostalgia piece that still manages to have broader implications for all of Japan. More crucial yet is how it aims to hone in on a story that is part family melodrama, part love story, and even a high school feel-good tale.

We are planted in Yokohama (south of Tokyo), circa 1963, with the nation setting its sights on the 1964 Olympics famously documented in films such as Kon Ichikawa’s official documentary and Walk Don’t Run (1966). Here Up From Poppy Hill gives a more up close and personal approach that allows us to empathize with a very different type of narrative.

Because even with the pull for modernity feeling so prevalent, there is this sense that Japan, as not only a nation but a culture, must not forget the past. Yes, the war years were rife with so many tragedies but therein still lie traditions and the ways of old that must not be forgotten.

The greatest emblem within the confines of the film is the so-called “Latin Quarter” on the high school campus — a dingy rickety old building that serves as headquarters for many of the school’s circles including philosophy, chemistry, archaeology, and of course, the school newspaper.

Umi is a young student who must help run her family’s boarding house by preparing meals daily after school and the like. But after a fateful encounter, she is drawn to become a member of the academy’s journalism circle transcribing news.

One of the figures who leaves an impression on her is Shun, a stalwart member of the journalism circle, who is part of a band of students intent on fixing up their headquarters. But more so than that these audacious students must plead with the local chairman to reverse his plans to demolish the old relic. For them the reasons are twofold. First off, it’s their home and secondly, it’s part of their history.

Poppy Hill also takes great care to consider Umi and Shun’s parents. Her mother is a professor and her father was a sailor who died during the Korean War. Shun’s past is something that’s even more murky, clouded by facts that he’s never quite been able to reconcile. Their coming together at school proves a near act of fate since their personal histories are tied closer than they could have ever known. Again, the past and the present prove equally important to their identity.

The main draw for me is the throes of nostalgia that wrap up the picture. Pictorials that capture the innate beauty of living in Japan generations before with the harbor and the fresh sea air off in the distance. While simultaneously you have the degradation left over from the war and the increasing pollutants which come with what is termed “progress.” It’s true that in all things there can be derived both a positive and a negative. The same could be said of the love/hate relationship with the U.S. and the constant give and take between progress and remembering the past. These issues prove universally applicable.

But this is never a story to dwell on the bad, far more content with forging an innocent and genial path. That’s one of its finest attributes and you can see Hayao Miyazaki’s own warmth coming up through the seams. There is little animosity here as it’s replaced by laughter and more pleasant aspirations. While son might never reach the heights of his father as a storyteller, Up From Poppy Hill is nevertheless a quaint tale that brims with benevolence.

3.5/5 Stars

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Grave_of_the_Fireflies_Japanese_poster.jpgAnime is very much a Japanese art form denoted by its style, the visuals, and even the depiction of its characters with wide eyes all the better to convey emotions. Oftentimes the images onscreen are a great deal more stagnant than the real-time action that American animators try and replicate with a greater frame rate.

Maybe American animation is more “realistic” but what the Japanese films have is an unrivaled beauty almost like watercolors or as if canvases of actual paintings are making up the backdrop for our characters to reside in. There’s even a line of inspiration that can undoubtedly be drawn from Japan’s own rich tradition of vibrant scroll and woodblock paintings.  Far from being derided as childish fare, cartoons are given a platform as art and they are executed as such.

Thus, it’s fitting that Grave of the Fireflies brought to us by renowned Ghibli Studios and the acclaimed director Isao Takahata would utilize this very Japanese style to tell a native story full of pain, suffering, chaos, and survival. His canvas includes exquisite landscapes that glorify the Japanese countryside but more often than not provide a muted even sobering lens to view the ashes and destitution that war sows. The wounds and the scars. The dead bodies left in the streets and the dirtiness that pervades daily life. It’s offensive to the eyes. All of this because American planes drop fire bombs to break the will of the enemy.

In western minds, it almost seems like an incongruity that a film can be both a stark war-torn drama and an animated picture but Grave of the Fireflies proves emphatically that this simply is not the case.

There are very few films brimming with so much emotion, so powerful and evocative and so fully invested in the human experience. There is an innate understanding of the pure destructiveness in the totality of war. It breeds very little that is good. Ripping families apart, causing children to grow up too fast, and subjecting mankind to excruciating loss and indignity.

But in my estimation, it remains far too simplistic to simply state that Grave of the Fireflies is an indictment of the carnage of war or that it is an anti-war picture because its scope is so much greater than that.

Notice what Takahata doesn’t do. He doesn’t make the Americans into dehumanized monsters or anything else. They are just absent, faceless individuals that we will never know. However, he does give us a front row seat to the events through the eyes of two other people.

I think it’s an especially uncomfortable and maybe an important perspective for Americans because instead of seeing ourselves front and center of this epic story of WWII amid both its victories and tragedies, we are only a distant force. This film causes us to take on the viewpoint of those on the other side of the Pacific. This wasn’t just an emblematic figure like Tojo or some crazed, inhuman killer that we were looking to take down.

It becomes clear from the outset that the people being displaced from their homes by firebombs and struggling with rationing and families getting split apart by conflict are not so unlike us.

Takahata brilliantly gears us up for a story that could not be more universal. It doesn’t take place on a battlefield. It doesn’t involve war rooms or army barracks. It’s about two siblings. An older brother Seita and his little baby sister Setsuko.

Together they provide the core of the film. Because Setsuko is one of those precocious little kids who undoubtedly does not comprehend the gravity of all the chaos that swirls around her. All she knows is that she wants to see her mother or that she’s hungry or that she wants her favorite Sakura fruit drops. And her brother provides for her and sticks to her closely with fortitude and faithfulness that makes their bond one of the most affecting connections between cinematic siblings.

I would be hardpressed to guess how old Seita is but there’s no doubt that he’s forced to act quite a lot older than should be necessary under normal circumstances. His father is gone in the navy. His mother is debilitated. He must be his sister’s keeper and everything else for her. Her friend, her playmate, and her protector from a traumatic world that she cannot begin to understand. Since they only have each other and as they skrimp by, as an audience we realize just how abhorrent their conditions are and how no child should ever have to know a life of malnutrition or obliteration.

It’s easy to marvel at the animation because whereas normally we would probably take care in depicting actions of great consequence, a picture such as this finds time to articulate the little things that feel so human. Fiddling with a piece of clothing, scratching an itchy mosquito bite, or simply frolicking along the shoreline for the sheer relish of the moment.

It’s these smaller interludes and touches that give even greater import to the larger ones. A childhood home burning down with a whole host of others so that an entire town looks drastically different. A brother and sister who are forced to live on their own thanks to the glacial welcome they receive from distant relatives. And ultimately the inevitable comes knocking: death.

But just as the titular fireflies fill young Setsuko with a certain awe and wide-eyed wonderment, even in death there seems to be some distant even elusive sense of hope. In a world that can hardly be fathomed, Seita and Setsuko are reunited; no longer plagued by their suffering, their path illuminated once more by nature’s shining beacons of light. While we might have slightly different views about the afterlife, there’s no doubt that we share a desire for such an outcome after death.

Where graves will be emptied. Death will be no more. Pain will have ended. War will be over. Families will be restored. Wounds will be healed and peace will be the final resounding note. Do not let your flame be extinguished by hate, burdens, or dissatisfaction but know that there is so much more to life. In their enduring innocence in the face of such devastation, Seita and Setsuko are a stirring reminder.

Because life is not simply upended by tragedy. It is also fortified by hope. That’s part of what makes it worth living. As Dylan Thomas once eulogized, “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Do not let your youth be quelled. Do not let your optimism be forfeited. Do not give up your capacity for love. It’s well worth the fight.

5/5 Stars

Tampopo (1985)

220px-Tampopo_cover.jpgJuzo Itami’s so-called ramen western Tampopo is unequivocably original in its hilarity, opening with what could best be called a public service announcement. A suave gangster is getting ready for the movie screening only to be disrupted by a noisy bag of curry potato chips. He threatens the foodie and sits back down to enjoy the entertainment, concluding the film within a film.

What follows in the actual movie is an unabashed love letter to food with some oddly sensual elements. It has off-beat scatterbrained touches of humor that send it in all sorts of odd directions, picking up momentary storylines and varying vignettes focused on different people all over Japan with the one unifying element being the food that they eat and enjoy.

There are the businessmen going out for a meal together who all order the same thing in deference to their leader only to be put off by their youngest associate who turns out to be well-versed in French cuisine and champagne. Then a society of women gets a lesson in how to eat Spaghetti like a true westerner which apparently means shoveling noodles into your face and making as much noise as you possibly can. They`re not wrong per se. Even the aforementioned debonair gangster and his lover turn up several more times romancing each other over their favorite dishes.

But the main attraction and the one that takes up most of the runtime has to do with the art of the perfect ramen shop with touches of what can best be termed a ramen western (an oriental rendition of Italy’s own affectionate spinoff, Spaghetti Westerns).

Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and his sidekick Gun (Ken Watanabe) ride into town in their big rig and happen on a ramen shop that’s not doing so well. Its proprietor is a single mother who lives with her young son and looks to maintain the establishment after the death of her husband.

Unfortunately, she’s not much of a chief or a businesswoman and the shop has been suffering as a result. Thus, the newcomers main objective becomes turning the humble Lai Lai into a 3 star ramen operation. They are the hired hands who swoop in to save the helpless villagers, metaphorically speaking.

Recall Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven, or Shane and you`ll probably be on the right track. In this particular rendition, the first order of business is a name change to Tampopo Ramen. A regiment of further fortifications follows thereafter.

Goro takes his new benefactor to scout out the major competition in the area, gleaning from their success and also their failures. A good ramen shop has no wasted movement and provides a quiet atmosphere for the customers to savor.

Next, Tampopo trains with the foremost masters who know how to make a truly delectable bowl of ramen in every dimension. Finally, Goro and his compatriots help build a team to ensure her little shop will have the best of everything from food, to decor, and, of course, noodles. They are ready to face the inevitable onslaught headed their way: The lunch rush.

In her final test, Tampopo succeeds with flying colors. Goro`s work here is done so he can drift on further down the road a spell until another ramen shop catches his interest.

To its very core, Tampopo is a meandering film that ambles along forcing no clear agenda nor does it seem intent on getting to a certain destination. Instead, as it roams it slowly causes us to become attuned to the simple pleasures of food while wrapping us further still in the idiosyncrasies of humanity. This is the holy grail for ramen-lovers everywhere. It will make their mouth’s water in frame after frame and leave them raising an eyebrow on more than one occasion.

It’s possible to guarantee that you’ve probably never seen a film quite like Tampopo. While it revels in Japan’s rich culture of food it may not be for everyone. The same might be said of Japanese cuisine. I for one am more partial to the noodles but the film no doubt has a few savory moments.

4/5 Stars

I Was Born But… (1932)

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What strikes me right away about Yasujiro Ozu’s silent classic is just how relatable it feels. Yes, this is a Japanese film and yes, it’s silent too but watching the scenarios play out on screen have an undoubted timelessness. This is decidedly fresh material that’s blessed with humor and grace like the best silent comedies.

It’s a narrative about two young boys who have moved with their family to the Tokyo suburbs. As is usually the case it’s brought on by their father’s work and the whole family must get used to it. For the boys specifically, that means a new school and getting to know the neighborhood kids with their carefully enacted social hierarchy. Simply put, the biggest kid rules the roost and the new kid on the block is always bound to get the worst of it.

So obviously we witness the ensuing verbal skirmishes and a few fistfights where the clogs come off and are brandished as built-in weaponry. That’s all part of the rite of passage where the brothers must prove themselves. If we learn anything from this comedy, again, it’s the fact that many things have not changed all that much. Boys haven’t changed that much. At least not in the core important things that still hold weight.

Certainly, this is a less organized and less done up exploration compared to Ozu’s later endeavors but that’s part of the charm. The comedy at times is so pure and simple it gives the sensation of some of the early kid comedies like Our Gang or Chaplin’s The Kid (1921). Watching the posse of boys scamper every which way necessitates no understanding of language or culture. Watch and you understand.

Sparrow’s eggs preclude the pumice stones in Ohayo (1959) decades later as the boy’s favorite keepsake. In this particular hierarchy, it buys them a coveted place at the house of the richest kid whose parents are showing off their home movies. It’s a novel thing for all the boys and they look on with baited breath.

As it turns out, the Yoshi boys’ father is a real cut up, a real funny man, and they couldn’t be more ashamed, from the self-deprecating performance he gives for the bosses camera. This is far more than a few images that garner a few laughs. This is an affront to their father’s character and subsequently their family honor. But this hardly ever feels like a Japanese cultural issue, this is an issue that arises in the hearts and minds of proud, naive boys.

It’s the colliding viewpoints of children and adults and rather surprisingly the film is willing to look at the perspective of the kids. If Ozu’s initial work shares any similarity with Ohayo many years later, it’s at this juncture. The boys decide to protest their father by keeping silent and not acknowledging his presence since he has wounded them so egregiously. They’ve mastered the scowl to perfection as they glower in the front yard eating their mother’s onigiri. It seems like they’ll never be able to face the other kids again and they’ll never forgive their father.

Those very themes alone make this universal storytelling and it’s easy to forget for even a moment that this is a film brought to us from 1930s Japan. Because there is something going on here that feels so real. Every young boy wants to think of their father as a big deal, the king of the hill, a big success, and when we are met with anything that seems to contradict that vision we have, it does hurt us.

Still, what the story does well is to find a resolution where the boys can still be content in who their father is, beginning to comprehend a little bit the situation he is in. Even as they get a little help from the local paperboy to vanquish the local bullies, they ultimately gain a small dose of sympathy for their dad. If they don’t quite understand why he has to say good morning to his boss every day and treat him with such deference, as they grow older they might start to appreciate him more.

However, it does seem like something is lost in the translation of this title for American audiences but the subtitle does suggest more meaning. This is an “Adult’s Picture Book View” so we are looking at a child’s world from an adult perspective and though it’s inherently funny we gain a greater respect for both children and parents.

4.5/5 Stars

After The Storm (2016)

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There is a phenomenon in Japan called hikikomori (pulling inward). It mostly applies to 20-somethings. But in 2017 an article came out in The New York Times to document a different and yet somehow similar occurrence.

Many older people risk the chance of dying alone if they have no family because many live without a network of community and neighbors while in such proximity might still leave them invariably isolated. I have lived there for an extended period of time, granted as a foreigner, and yet I could feel the weight of such an environment

Thus, the dutiful grown children worry about their parents, about being the good son or the good daughter. Ryota’s mother is a wonderful lady. She gives him a playful slug in the stomach, tells him to his face he’s a horrible liar but always in love. Quibbles ensue between siblings over taking advantage of their mother’s good graces since she lives only off her pension following the death of her husband years back.

And yet there is a certain relish in these core relationships because even if it’s not a perfect picture you get the sense that mother and son care deeply for each other. It’s the films most gratifying interaction watching Hiroshi Abe and Kiki Kirin play off each other. Menial events take on the utmost meaning because they manage to color the characters in honest ways and the film has many of these seemingly inconsequential moments. That’s a product of its pacing.

For people who haven’t lived in Tokyo, preconceived notions of it might come from the likes of Lost in Translation (2003). Personified by ultra-hip areas like Shinjuku, Shibuya, and Harajuku touted for their nightlife and shopping. But there are a lot of other places too as director Hirokazu Kore-eda suggests. The Tokyo made up of suburbs, apartment complexes, and more ordinary landscapes. The Nerimas and Kiyoses of the world.

Coppola’s film worked because it was going for the perspective of an outsider. I enjoyed After The Storm immensely because it has the attention to detail and the touches of a local — someone who has known this terrain intimately.  I distinctly remember the first time I ever came back to the states knowing I would soon be returning to Japan. And in that moment I no longer felt like a tourist but someone with a new sort of understanding. It’s crucial because it changes your entire outlook and what you deem important. The big moments aren’t as relevant as the day-to-day.

Abe’s performance is so exquisitely rendered because while the picture is by no means a comedy his various ticks, expressions, even his lumbering figure are humorous without ever truly meaning to be. And they are organic moments that never feel forced. In other words, they are human and so despite his shortcomings, there’s something that resonates about him. When we look at his life we see a bit of his restlessness. He’s still not the man he wants to be. He realizes that.

His ex-wife is seeing another man. The rich new boyfriend feels like a universal trope that doesn’t need much explanation. Meanwhile, Ryota rarely gets to see his son, only on prearranged days were he pays child support. He’s notoriously bad on making their meetings on time. That and other reasons are hints to why his wife left him. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t hold onto some wistfulness, especially where his son is involved.

Though once an award-winning author most recently he’s taken on a job as a private investigator. He says it’s only temporary — research for his latest project — but it’s been going on far too long. He’s started getting used to it and so have his coworkers.

The film’s point of departure and ultimate revelation, if there is one, comes in the wake of a typhoon. Again, living in Japan you understand that this is a fairly common occurrence. But it’s the regular person’s side of Tokyo away from the bright lights.

Trying to field lost lottery tickets in the swirling downpour or shielding oneself inside a slide at a park watching the debris fly by is enough of a diversion because the intent is to consider not so much environmental changes but how our characters change.

Of course, implicit in the translated title is that there is something new (あたらしい) about life. And yet when we get on the other side of the storm it’s difficult to know. That would be the form of a typical film. To make the before and the after drastically different. Here the characters have changed — no doubt — but externally their behavior seems all but the same. The development is incremental and internalized.

I appreciate that. In life, there is rarely a megaphone to announce change for us. Sometimes it’s imperceptible to the eye. It’s even notoriously difficult to acknowledge some changes in ourselves. And yet we know they are there. Because to our last breath, we are indubitably a work in progress. We will never be perfect. That’s part of what makes life and this film thoroughly intriguing. What’s more is that it still glimmers with a certain hopefulness.

4/5 Stars

 

Densha Otoko (2005)

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In English, it means Train Man and it finds its origins in a media franchise that now includes Manga, a book, a television show, and of course this movie. But the events of the story are purportedly based on real life when a young otaku (Japanese tech nerd) in Akihabara came to the defense of a woman on a train who was being accosted by a drunken businessman.

This isolated, geeky 22-year old male was her knight in shining armor and probably had never talked to a girl before in his life. Every syllable comes out of his mouth jumbled, rushed, and breathless. If they were American we would say that she’s out of his league — the head cheerleader or what have you.

But the film is blessed because it is set in Japan. Densha Otoko proves to be part dorky rom-com while also giving us a view into a unique subculture. While it deals in stereotypes somewhat, we see his constant communications taking place over online chat and although it’s dated by today’s standards the Akihabara vibe is unquestionable as is the integration of technology into modern day romance.

At the time we were on the cusp of where we’re at now and you see the signs of it. Flip phones and laptops on the train. People at their computers at work and home. Such luxuries have become increasingly more invasive and some might say they have come at the detriment of human relationship.

What this film does well is to consider both rather implicitly with online friends on one side acting as his constant peanut gallery offering conflicting pieces of advice, constant pep talks, and further considerations as they all analyze his prospects as a body.

Then, of course, we have this demure woman he stood up for on the train. She might be the Japanese iteration of a manic pixie dreamgirl — granted I’m not sure what that means exactly — no matter she’s considerate and sweet. Their interactions continue with a present sent as a Thank You, then a dinner where they split the bill, and several other affable encounters.

The film’s aesthetic might be off-putting to some as it reflects a world constantly interfacing with their screens. Further suggesting the interweb of relationships that are created where people only know each other online, denoted by a continuously split screen and yet their lives spill outside of that and we get a small taste of not just Densha Otoko but all of his fan club. These characters too could have used more definition but they serve their purpose.

Train Man pushes onward and enters territory that none of them could have ever dreamed of. And he does it by being as nervous and frantic and considerate as ever. He gets a haircut (thank goodness), buys some new duds, and tries a few other techniques. Researching dinner conversations and testing the food beforehand. It’s actually quite sweet if he weren’t so uncomfortable to watch. But then again, who am I to judge?

Still, what matters is the time they spend together. It’s pleasant and kind not interrupted by awkward kisses or embarrassing hijinks with best friends. It just the two of them and he tries to discern how to move forward with this girl on that ever perilous tightrope of male-female relationships. They’ll at least have men befuddled for eternity. I can’t speak for the ladies.

That’s not to say there aren’t throw away moments or wacky and slightly peculiar ones that we probably could have done without. I won’t bother listing them because most importantly the film remains in our good graces for what it’s mainly set out to do. Allowing a socially awkward underdog a chance to shine. Through all his tripping and falling, sniveling and awkwardness, he gets some amount of satisfaction.

Consolidate it down to its best themes and scenes and you have a rewarding picture of just that. Because after all, it’s fairly easy to forgive a heartfelt movie like this for its gaffs since even in those very things it’s staying true to its core hero: Densha Otoko.

Likewise, I’m going to stick by my guns and enjoy this film perhaps more than I should have and yet in its innocence and jubilation, I found something that is so often lacking in American films trying to work within the same genre. Tighter editing would have been a major benefit but I’ll always hold that sincerity covers a multitude of faults. Call me an old softie if you will but maybe it’s the fact that I’m probably an otaku at heart. Whether he gets the girl or not, he has my sympathy.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)

hiroshima mon amour 1

Like you I know what it is to forget and yet still be endowed with memory. These are only a couple fragments from this film stitched together but in many ways, they encapsulate the essence of its core themes.

I suppose such words ring true for all of us and Alain Resnais’ film is composed of a plethora of equally perplexing paradoxes that though never quite coming into full clarity nevertheless prove Hiroshima Mon Amour to be one of the most bewitching cinematic expressions born out of the French cinema. Without question, it is an undisputed touchstone of the forthcoming Nouvelle Vague that blew up the conventions of the 1960s.

The first time I ever saw Resnais’ romantic meditation there was something so arresting about it such that I will never forget the likes of Nevers and Hiroshima — the two entities that make up this film as not simply places of past tragedy but crucial to the very identities of the characters who come within the frame.

We never need to know the true names of this French actress (Emanuelle Riva in a riveting performance of immense grace) and the equally candid Japanese architect (Eiji Okada) who fall into the throes of a passionate affair together. They are represented well enough by these monikers — symbolic torchbearers of these names — emblematic of the age they ascribed to.

Like L’Eclisse (1961) or Dr. Strangelove (1964), this film too is in the wake of the atomic bomb and any subsequent discussion thereof cinematically speaking must at least acknowledge such films. Part of the necessity in this specific case is how the film takes a particular event and then extends it and intertwines it with so much more in such a way that it not only a monument to Hiroshima but a testament to human history.

We are people so quick to forget. We lose sight of the past. We bury our hurts deep inside. We are doomed to repeat many of our past mistakes. But still, more so we are capable of passions, emotions, and love that carry us through times of tribulation, pain, and suffering. It’s something to be immensely thankful for.

Resnais film is one of the great visual marvels of the 20th century with its graceful fade-outs and flashbacks — delicate camera zooms connecting memories and realities. Stylistically there’s a continuous poetic cadence of image and dialogue, repetitions with recollections. A solemnity exists in its very purposeful pacing that ties everything together with the utmost elegance which, far from being a muddled hodgepodge, forms a perplexing experience never to be fully elucidated.

It has very few equals and remains so as an achievement that can hardly be defined as a typical love story or any such blase categorization. It’s what we might conceive when we think of Film as art worthy of any sphere of discussion.

There’s hardly a meter to begin measuring how it makes us feel or the emotions it elicits.  Somehow connected to fate — two lovers crossing paths — these two individuals seemingly meant to be together and tied together not only by their romantic passion but their own histories. The striking flashback structure subsequently creates tiny microcosms of emotional resonance that flood with abandon.

Recollections of past scars unearthed over the course of the love affair. Both historical and personal. We have the depiction of the devastation in the aftermath of the bomb with images that are all but scorched into our mind’s eye with an unfettered pointedness. We are meant to see these images and take into account how they came into being.

But there’s also the personal trauma brought to the fore and exhumed with a kind of transfixing equanimity that’s hard to fully comprehend but nevertheless leaves us with something to ruminate over. Equally telling is the passage of time as memories begin to fade and minds begin to slowly forget. Again, that is the curse of our beings that we must fight to remember what has come before.

It’s no small coincidence that the cafe that our two lovers rendezvous at is none other than the Casablanca. The yearning and the melancholy are right there in the lyric of “As Time Goes By.” If you’ve never consciously thought about their meaning before then Resnais film might make you hear them anew and be moved.  Love, memory, and heartbreak are often so closely tied together. This is a film that dwells on each and finds some amount of catharsis.

The diversity of the crew is another glimmering bright spot of this joint partnership between nations with an abundance of involvement from both French and Japanese staff taking the shoot on-location to both countries. It’s a lovely marriage and a bond is formed by the picture just as the romance signals a tight-knit cross-cultural relationship on screen.

For some, individuals somewhat attuned to diverse backgrounds, Hiroshima Mon Amour is utterly groundbreaking in this realm. Though its cast is small, it’s a mighty statement having a French woman playing opposite a Japanese man. 50 years on it remains as an image that we do not see all that often, despite the changing of the tides.

Their closeness is palpable. Hands clasping tenderly. Eyes gazing with the deepest longing. The intimacy that they share speaks volumes. Even as it’s undercut by the morose strains of infidelity and wistfulness; this is a love story like few others.

4.5/5 Stars

 

 

 

Ohayo (1959)

Good_morning_dvdIf Yasujiro Ozu can be considered foremost among Japan’s preeminent directors then there’s no doubt that Ohayo (Good Morning in English) is one of his most delightfully silly films. But that’s only on the surface level.

Young boys are unified in their affection for watching sumo on television and passing gas as a great gag to pull on their friends. Nosy housewives gossip incessantly whether it be the next door neighbor’s new washing machine or the mysterious disappearance of dues for the local women’s association. Meanwhile, most of the men go to work and spend their evenings knocking a few back at the bar noting how much the world is changing around them. Then they go home oftentimes a little drunk.

Ohayo is actually a reimagining of one of Ozu’s most remembered early pictures during his silent days I Was Born But… (1932) and yet he skillfully reworks the storyline into an everyday comedy of family and neighborhood drama that’s full of humor and his brand of quietly observant social commentary.

Ozu always took great care in analyzing family units and matrimonial bonds that affected relationships. Although we have a bit of a fleeting young romance in the works, this film’s greatest concern are two young boys from the Hayashi family who are giving their parents the silent treatment until they are allowed to have a television. Their parents are holding out and it begins a rather humorous ordeal as the brothers Minoru and the ridiculously comical Isamu (constantly exclaiming “I Love You”) try to make it through dinner, school, and so many other daily activities without a word.

As he would dissect many times over, Ozu focuses on the generational divide that was emerging and becoming increasingly prevalent in the post-war years as reflected by technological advancements like television and other such devices slowly turning present Japan into a land of a million idiots. At least that’s what the older generations feel.

Still, it’s just as equally occupied with the moral customs that have long ruled the nation where wives can speak so kindly to their neighbors up front only to slander them behind their backs a moment later. Saving face and personal honor is often cared about far more deeply than anything else — even in some circumstances when it happens to be at the expense of another family member.

Perhaps the most troubling thing is the very Japanese predilection to talk about nothing in particular, filling conversations with salutations, pleasantries, and comments on the current weather patterns. It hardly ever gets to anything of substance and that comes in numerous forms. Sometimes it means a young man never gets around to sharing his feelings with a girl or adults never being particularly candid with neighbors or spouses. There’s very little of that kind of transparency to be had. Few of the words passed along between people in conversation mean all that much.

The irony of the whole situation is that, in one such instance, it’s a young son who calls them out on it and he proceeds to get a heavy scolding from his father (Chishu Ryu) who bluntly tells him that he talks too much. Meanwhile, although Izamu can be constantly chiming “I Love You” in English, there’s an uneasy sense that his parents and most certainly his father, might have never said the words to him.

In these very simple ways Ozu rather delicately and still humorously tackles many of the issues that have long plagued an honor-based culture such as Japan’s but he does it with an adroitness that uses touches of humor and his own understanding of human nature to craft yet another universal tale that’s ultimately sympathetic in its portrayals.

It unsurprisingly feels like it could be a Japanese episode of Leave it to Beaver except for the father never has much of a talking to with his sons and the mother may be as put together as June Cleaver but hardly feels ever as affectionately maternal.

Equally spectacular is Ozu’s mise-en-scene which as per usual is meticulously staged and gorgeous in scene after scene. He offers up each individual image in a flat two-dimensional way that can best be described as taking cues from not only the theater but Japanese woodblock paintings with wonderful symmetry and compositions boosted by color.

He uses the clique of adjoining homes as the perfect set to send his characters in and out of with the hint of comedic forethought. While watching characters walking by on the hillside up above the homes — their figures slowly moving in and out of the frame past the houses — this provides some of Ohayo’s most visually stimulating images pleasing the eye incessantly.

There’s always a visual fearlessness that you see in very few others because he not only has color at his disposal but the staging is on point as is his disregard of the 180-degree rule of perspective. It just works. What is more, he also continues to use what could best be called establishing shots by western audiences. Except they hardly ever need to establish anything. It’s as if he simply put them there because they are vivid depictions of the reality he is painting — adding yet another distinct contour to the world he is working with — going beyond the figures that he places within the frame.

There’s no doubt that this is Ozu but not all that surprisingly this might be my personal favorite in his oeuvre for the aforementioned reasons. It feels like Ozu operating at his most playful while nevertheless maintaining his peak form as a filmmaker.

4.5/5 Stars