Movie Review: Ugetsu (1953)

Title: Ugetsu
Release Date: March 26, 1953
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Production Company: Daiei Film

Set during a Civil War in 16th-century Japan’s Sengoku period, this movie is the story of a potter Genjūrō (Masayuki Mori of Rashomon fame) who hopes to take advantage of the troubled times to make a profit selling his wares in a city across a lake. Due to fear of pirates he leaves his wife Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) and their young son behind, but is accompanied by his friend Tōbei (Eitaro Ozawa) and his wife, Ohama (Mitsuko Mito).

The trio are separated in the city. Tōbei, who always dreamed of becoming a samurai, stumbles into being recognized as a hero by one of the armies, and is rewarded with armor, a horse, and troops to command.  Meanwhile, Ohama is abducted, raped, and forced to work in a brothel.  A noblewoman, Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyō, who also starred in Rashomon and Floating Weeds) visits Genjūrō’s stall and he eventually he goes to live with her and marry her, not telling of his wife and child.

This movie is a ghost movie, but the spectral parts are subtle, and in a way unexpected.  This is also a movie where the two wives are severely wronged and the sympathies of the movie are with them against their foolish husband.  The movie is also a morality play, but again one that is well-done and moving.  I found myself weeping at the end, primarily because the final scenes involve some sweet scenes between Genjūrō and his toddler son.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Tokyo Story (1953)

Title: Tokyo Story
Release Date: November 3, 1953
Director: Yasujirō Ozu
Production Company: Shochiku

Drawing inspiration from Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow, Tokyo Story is a moving film about an elderly couple and their adult children.  Shūkichi (Chishū Ryū) and Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama) live in the Hiroshima Prefecture of southwest Japan with their youngest daughter, a schoolteacher named Kyōko (Kyōko Kagawa).  The travel by train to Tokyo for the first time in their lives to visit some of their other children.

Their son Kōichi (So Yamamura) is busy with caring for patients in his pediatric practice and their daughter Shige (Haruko Sugimura) is preoccupied with her hair salon.  Their grandchildren show no interest in spending time with them.  Only Noriko (Setsuko Hara), the widow of their middle son who died in World War II service, shows interest in them and takes a day off from her office job to take them sightseeing in Tokyo.

The children decide to ship their parents off to a spa, but the lively atmosphere there does not agree with them and Tomi begins to show signs of illness.  Unprepared for their parents’ unexpected return, the couple have to spend the night separated. Shūkichi reunites with friends he grew up with and spends the night drinking while Tomi forms a stronger bond with the kindly Noriko. They decide to go home early, planning a whistle-stop visit with their youngest son Keizō (Shirō Ōsaka) in Osaka, but end up staying longer as Tomi’s health deteriorates.

Shūkichi and Tomi finally return home, but Tomi falls into a coma.  The children reluctantly travel to their parents’ home for one last family reunion, although Keizō fails to arrive before his mother’s death.  Kōichi, Shige, and Keizō leave immediately after the funeral, still selfish and indifferent to their father. Kyōko is angered at her siblings, and Shūkichi thanks Noriko for treating him better than his own family.

This movie is absolutely beautiful and heartbreaking.  Like Ozu’s later film Floating Weeds, it features his trademark style of fixing the camera in a low position without any pans, zooms, or tracking shots (I believe the camera moves once in the entire movie) while cutting to different angles.  This movie also makes me realize that I’m enamored with Japanese domestic architecture.  It’s a great work of film art that touches on family, cultural changes in modern Japan, and the lingering after effects of the war.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Ikiru (1952)

Title: Ikiru
Release Date: October 9, 1952
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Production Company: Toho

Ikiru (Japanese for “To Live”) is the story of career civil servant Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) who works 30 years without missing a day.  He’s shaken by the diagnosis that he has stomach cancer and less than a year to live.  As a widower who is alienated from his son (Nobuo Kaneko) and daughter-in-law (Kyoko Seki), he finds himself with no one to talk about his impending death.

First, he decides on a night of hedonism with a young novelist (Yūnosuke Itō) he meets at a bar. Finding that life is not for him, he is next drawn to a young former employee, Toyo (Miki Odagiri), hoping to learn the secret of her joie de vivre. Finally, Watanabe decides he must do something significant as his legacy. Through the movie, parents from a poor neighborhood have been shuffled through the bureaucracy as they hope to have a cesspool filled and build a playground upon it. Watanabe makes it his goal in life to guide them through the bureaucracy and see the playground to its completion.

The second part of the film is five months later at Watanabe’s funeral.  City officials and Watanabe’s co-workers reflect on his life while arrogantly denying him any agency in building the playground.  Later when it’s just his co-workers and family, more stories and flashbacks reveal the truth. The men commit themselves to living more meaningful lives in honor of Watanabe, but in the final scene are shown being unable to live up to that promise.

This movie is absolutely beautiful and heartbreaking with outstanding acting and cinematography. The other Akira Kurosawa films I’ve watched are period pieces, but Ikiru demonstrates he was just as good, even better, at telling a contemporary story.  It’s definitely a movie I’d highly recommend that anyone should watch.

Rating: *****

Classic Movie Review: Floating Weeds (1959)

Title: Floating Weeds
Release Date: November 17, 1959
Director: Yasujirō Ozu
Production Company: Daiei Film

The movie captures a few hot days in a seaside town as a traveling theater troupe visits.  Ozu sets up a visual stunning composition for every shot, never panning or zooming the camera, only cutting the next shot for movement.  It’s the type of movie that you can let marinate over you. Seemingly idle conversations among villagers and actors casually provide key information.

The main plot involves the lead actor, Komajuro (Ganjirō Nakamura), visiting an old lover, Oyoshi (Haruko Sugimura) at her cafe.  They have a teenage son, Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), who only knows Komajuro as his uncle.  Komajuro’s current girlfriend, an actor named Sumiko (Machiko Kyō), hires as younger actor, Kayo (Ayako Wakao), to seduce Kiyoshi.  Instead Kayo and Kiyoshi fall in love.

There is a good story of strict social class and changes in the modern world, as the old style kabuki troupe flops, and the respectable Kiyoshi insists upon a relationship with Kayo, despite the scandal.  Unfortunately, the climax of the movie includes considerable brutality toward women that is hard to watch and sours me on the film overall.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: The Hidden Fortress (1958)

Title: The Hidden Fortress
Release Date: 28 December 1958
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Production Company: Toho

What I knew about this movie going in is that it was unique for its time as telling a period drama/war story from the perspective of two low-level peasants.  What I didn’t know is that the peasants are portrayed as whiny, craven, greedy, and would-be-rapists. Despite it’s bottom-up perspective, The Hidden Fortress still ends up showing the elite characters as being more noble people.

Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara) have attempted to fight in a war among the provincial clans, but showing up late are instead forced to bury the dead, and then are captured and forced to dig for gold.  Escaping, they decide to return home not by crossing the heavily-patrolled border but by taking the long route through territory of a third clan.

Along the way, they discover gold near the titular hidden fortress.  A stranger, General Rokurota Makabe (Toshiro Mifune) follows them and then puts them to work finding more gold. Liking their plan of traveling the long way around, Rokurōta uses Tahei and Matashichi’s greed to get them to help carry the gold and transport a young woman (in surprisingly modern-looking shorts), who is revealed to the audience as Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara).

The movie depicts their adventures which are a mix of comic, swashbuckling, and sublime.  My favorite part is a scene in which they try to blend in with the locals at a festival and join in a communal dance.  Rokurōta also has a duel with his rival general Hyoe Tadokoro (Susumu Fujita) which ends up paying dividends later.

The Hidden Fortress is gritty, rather shouty, and does feature its lead characters talking about raping Princess Yuki on more than one occasion.  It’s not the most comfortable movie to watch, but it does have a lot of the basics of a great adventure story (if you like that kind of thing).

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Seven Samurai (1954)

Title: Seven Samurai
Release Date: 26 April 1954
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Production Company: Toho

In 16th-century Japan, a village of farmers faces the threat of repeated raids by bandits. The village elder Gisaku (Kokuten Kōdō) suggests that they hire samurai to defend themselves against the bandits.  Realizing that the farmers will only be able to pay in food, he notes that the will need to find hungry samurai.

The farmers are initially unsuccessful but they meet a skilled and generous rōnin, Kambei (Takashi Shimura) who takes leadership and recruits additional samurai to the cause.  The team brings together the various skills of an archer, Gorōbei (Yoshio Inaba), a swordsman, Kyūzō (Seiji Miyaguchi), and Heihachi (Minoru Chiaki), who is less known for his fighting than for his good sense of humor that keeps up morale.  Two more oddball selections fill out the team: Katsushirō (Isao Kimura), a young and unskilled samurai who attaches himself to Kambei, and Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), a hot-tempered and manic figure who may not even be a samurai.

The seven samurai train the farmers to defend themselves, build defenses around the village, and put together a plan to defeat the bandits.  Despite this, the farmers make it clear that they consider the samurai only a step above the bandits, making an uneasy alliance.  One of the farmers tries to protect his daughter, Shino (Keiko Tsushima), by cutting her hair to disguise her as a boy.  Nevertheless, Shino and Katsushirō end up having a romance that forms a major subplot of the movie.

Kurosawa directs a fantastic movie to look at, innovating several techniques to capture the action scenes from all angles.  He had an entire village built as a set and it really feels lived in with the geography made clear.  And does anyone film in the rain as well as Kurosawa? The movie is over 3-1/2 hours long but it goes by swiftly due to the good storytelling.  And it certainly is a very familiar story because it has inspired all manner of movies where a group is brought together to achieve a goal.  Just remember, it came first!

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Rashomon (1950)

Title: Rashomon
Release Date: August 25, 1950
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Production Company:

Set in medieval Japan at the Rajōmon gate entering Kyoto, this is a thoroughly modern and groundbreaking film.  It’s also one of the first Japanese movies to receive worldwide attention. Japanese critics at the time considered the film to be overly “Western” in style, but I think it’s safe to say that Rashomon was unlike any film – Western or Japanese – previously made.

A woodcutter ( Takashi Shimura) and a priest (Minoru Chiaki) take shelter in the ruins of the gate from a torrential downpour. I don’t now how to describe it, but they’re something fantastic about the way the rain is filmed and the atmosphere it evokes. When a commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) joins them at the gate, the woodcutter and priest relate the disturbing story of a samurai (Masayuki Mori) murdered by the bandit, Tajōmaru (Toshiro Mifune), who also raped his wife (Machiko Kyō) in nearby woods.

In flashbacks, the bandit, the wife, the samurai (who’s story is told through a medium), and the woodcutter each tell the story from their own perspective.  Each story also contains attempts at self-aggrandizement and outright lies.  Thus the factual truth of what actually happened is impossible to determine.

A large portion of this film takes place in a forest. I’ve never been to Japan, but in pictures and films, I find that Japanese forests resemble New England forests.  Hollywood films typical film in California forests which look very different from New England, so Rashomon oddly feels like “home” to me. More importantly, the forest – much like the rain at the gate – contributes to the atmosphere of the film, particularly the effect of dabbled sunlight .  Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa is pretty much the innovator of pointing the camera up toward the sun in the sky through the tree branches.

This is a spectacular film and should definitely be on any film buffs list.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011) #AtoZChallenge

This is my entry for “J” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Other “J” documentaries I’ve reviewed include Jane.

Title: Jiro Dreams of Sushi
Release Date: June 11, 2001
Director: David Gelb
Production Company: Magnolia Pictures

I am not interested in sushi, or fine dining, or tv/movies about cooking, so I strongly resisted watching this film.  But it was hard to find any other “J” documentaries that were well-regarded.  This film documents Jiro Ono, at the time an 85-year-old sushi master who owns the Tokyo restaurant  Sukiyabashi Jiro.  Jiro focuses on the traditional sushi practices of making fresh pieces for each customer and presenting them on a counter.

The restaurant is in a basement adjacent to a subway station and has only 10 counter stools.  A meal at Sukiyabashi Jiro can be completed in 15-30 minutes.  Nevertheless it has received the coveted three stars from Michelin, requires reservations months in advance, and the 20-piece tasting menu costs ¥30,000 (equivalent to $270 in US dollars at the time of writing).  Jiro is presented as fulfilling the stereotypes of a Japanese person who is a reserved workaholic and perfectionist with his whole life focused on making better sushi.  Very little of his personal life is revealed, and he mentions that when he sleeps he literally dreams of sushi.

Jiro’s elder son Yoshikazu works in the restaurant and is slated to take it over from Jiro (and since Jiro will likely never retire it will most likely be after his death).  Yoshikazu goes to fish market to meet with the wholesalers who are dedicated to the different types of fish and sea life that Jiro can serve.  Yoshikazu and a team of apprentices do much of the food preparation at this point, although Jiro still presents the sushi for the customers to eat and watches as they do so.  This is said to be an intimidating experience by many people interviewed. Jiro’s younger son Takashi operates a mirror-image restaurant in another part of Tokyo.  This restaurant received only two Michelin stars but is also said to be a more relaxed experience.

Many shots in the film focus intensely on food preparation at the restaurant and the fish market. Close-ups of seaweed being heated over an open flame, fishing getting chopped, and the shaping of a perfect portion of sushi (painted with a brush of soy sauce at the last moment) are strangely mesmerizing.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

At my age I should know that something I don’t want to do is probably going to be something that’s pleasantly surprising.  While I still have no interest in sushi or fine dining, I did enjoy the movie. What I liked best about the documentary is that it is an appreciation of craft.  We live in an age where entrepreneurship is celebrated and people who do the same thing day after day are belittled.  While Jiro is always trying to make his sushi better, he primarily does so by using the same practices he’s worked on throughout his life. And he’s certainly not trying to do anything trendy.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

Well, if you really enjoy this movie, then you may just want to go Tokyo and at Sukiyabashi Jiro.  The website has detailed instructions of what you need to do to prepare, and is a fascinating read in itself.

Source: Netflix

Rating: ***1/2


2019 Blogging A to Z Challenge – Documentary Films, Part II

A: Amy
B: Being Elmo
C: Central Park Five
D: Dear Mr. Watterson
E: The Endless Summer
F: F for Fake
G: Grey Gardens
H: High School
I: Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice

If you want to read more, check out my previous Blogging A to Z Challenges:

And dig deep into Panorama of the Mountains, by checking out my:

And, if you like Doctor Who, I have a whole ‘nother blog where I review Doctor Who stories across media: Epic Mandates.

Photopost: A Visit to the MFA, part eight

I continued my ongoing quest to visit every gallery in the Museum of Fine Arts by visiting the Art of Asia, Oceania, and Africa wings.  It’s unfortunate that the art of the two most populous continents and some diverse island cultures are all clumped together like that, especially since the MFA boasts having a large collection of Asian arts dating back to the earliest days of the museum.  Nevertheless there was quite a delightful collection of works that had me hopping around geographically as well as through time.  One gallery deliberately mixed contemporary and classical Japanese art in a provocative way.

I also took a 3 masterpieces in 30 minutes tour and got to learn about three family portraits from three different artistic styles – Sargent’s The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, a folk art portrait from the 1830s, and Steen’s Twelfth-Night Feast.

After these eight visits, I believe I’ve been to every permanent gallery in the museum.  Of course, art on exhibit is changing all the time, so I’ll have to go back and do it again.  Maybe next time I’ll have a theme like art with families or bridges or pets or something like that.

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