MODERNIST JAPANESE FILMMAKERS: NAGISA OSHIMA, JUZU ITAMI AND 100-YEAR-OLD KANETA SHINDO

NAGISA OSHIMA

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Nagisa Oshima is widely considered the greatest Japanese film maker of the 1960s and man who liked to shake things up like his contemporary Jean-Luc Goddard, once saying, "I break taboos and I'm interested in people and actors who break taboos." Another time he said, "Erotic relations fascinate me. I don't believe in any relationship that is not based on eroticism."

Major themes of Oshima’s films included skepticism of Japanese politics and society; an interest in the struggles of youth and a fascination with emotional extremism. Among the works that best bear out these ideas are The Sun’s Burial (1960), Cruel Story of Youth (1960), Death by Hanging and Pleasures of the Flesh.

Born in Kyoto, Nagisa was the son of a government official from a samurai family. He was a major innovator in the 1950s. In 1996, while America preparing a film about Rudolf Valentino called Hollywood Zen, he suffered a brain hemorrhage that paralyzed one side of his body.

Dave Kehr wrote in the New York Times: “Among the Japanese directors who came of age after World War II, Nagisa Oshima is perhaps the most provocative. Mr. Oshima achieved worldwide fame with the 1976 release of his sexually explicit art-house hit ' In the Realm of the Sense Most of Mr. Oshima's themes are present in this plot: his rejection of traditional Japanese hierarchical culture, his fascination with instinctive rebels, his suggestion that sex is at once the rebel's most powerful weapon and most fatal distraction. But for all of its transgressive force, In the Realm of the Senses remains one of Mr. Oshima's most stylistically conservative films, telling its story in a linear, naturalistic way with bright, balanced, classically composed images.” [Source: Dave Kehr, New York Times, May 16, 2010]

Nagisa Oshima Films


Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence
with David Bowie
Oshima had commercial successes with his early, teen-cult films (like Cruel Story of Youth and The Sun's Burial, both released in 1960). He was rediscovered by Western critics at the end of the decade, when politically provocative works like Diary of a Shinjuku Thief and The Man Who Left His Will on Film made him seem an Asian cousin to European iconoclasts like Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Marie Straub.

Some of most obscure but some say his best films were made in the late 1960s during the so-called “Oshima's Outlaw Sixties.” Kehr wrote, Oshima seems almost obsessively determined not to repeat himself, both in terms of material (the genres range from a soft-core sex film to something resembling absurdist theater) and presentation (ritual solemnity backs up against giggling infantilism). The films are uneven and not always easy to take, but they reveal a side of their maker obscured by the clear and calm formal elegance of In the Realm of the Senses''---a stylistic reserve that he maintained through later films like ' Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983) and his latest, Taboo (1999). Fascinating in themselves, these earlier films are also a reminder that simplicity, particularly in the movies, is not always simple. It can be the end of a journey, rather than its beginning.” [Ibid]

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983) is set in a World War II prisoner of war camp. David Bowie is one of the prisoners. Beat Takeshi played a Japanese sergeant. Other Nagisa films include The Sun's Burial, (1959), The Catch, (1961), Double Suicide (1967), Boy (1969), The Ceremony (1971) and Max Mon Amour (1986)

Japanese Summer: Double Suicide' (1967) flirts with theatricality and claustrophobia, through an allegorical tale of a sexually frustrated young woman (Keiko Sakurai) who finds herself locked in an abandoned barracks with half a dozen oblivious males. They are all far more fascinated by their weapons of choice (handguns, rifles, knives) than they are by her.” The action finally moves outside when the group lends its support to a mysterious Westerner, a sniper terrorizing Tokyo. (The actor, unidentified, looks and dresses like a member of the Beach Boys.) Revolutionary fervor has here turned into a nihilistic death wish, modeled on the American example of assassinations and race riots.” [Source: Dave Kehr, New York Times, May 16, 2010]

“Like some demented parody of a Richard Lester Beatles movie, Three Resurrected Drunkards (1968) begins with the members of the pop trio the Folk Crusaders frolicking on a beach to the accompaniment of what sounds like a comic Japanese drinking song performed by Alvin and the Chipmunks. The Fab Three's clothes are stolen by unseen miscreants who burrow up from beneath a sand dune, and replace them with their own---the uniforms of a Korean high school student and a Korean army officer. Slipping the new clothes on, our heroes are mistaken for illegal immigrants, unleashing a series of absurd encounters highlighting Japanese xenophobia as well as a desultory dream sequence in which the boys find themselves serving in Vietnam. At the 40-minute mark the film starts over again, as if to give its bungling heroes a second chance---which they promptly bungle.” [Ibid]

After a 14 year absence, Nagisa made Taboo (2000), a samurai film with Beat Takeshi that explores the homoerotic bond between warriors. Based on a Ryotari Shina story, it was described by one reviewer as "both humorous and tragically beautiful."

Realm of the Senses


Realm of the Senses trailer
Oshima's most controversial work,In the Realm of the Senses (1976), is based on a true story about Japanese woman who was found walking the streets of Tokyo in the 1930s with here lover's penis in a shopping bag. Described as the first artistic porno film, it was financed by French producers, censored in Japan and shocked audiences around the world. In 1997, Nagima was arrested on obscenity charges after publishing the script and stills from the film in a book. He was declared not guilty in 1979.

In the Realm of the Senses ( Ai No Korida ) is a about man's affair with one of his servants in pre-war Japan and teh servant's insatiable sexual appetite. She and her lover withdrew from the increasingly authoritarian culture of imperial Japan into a private world of nearly constant sexual stimulation. Her male partner dies during an act of erotic asphyxiation, and the woman, refusing to relinquish her happiness, cuts off his penis as a keepsake.

In The Realm of the Senses caused a sensation in 1976 for its scenes of unsimulated sex and its depiction of fatal sexual obsession. Hailed as a masterpiece by critics, the Franco-Japanese film went on to become a landmark case in the history of British film censorship (the uncut version was only allowed to be shown in 2011). [Source: Ben Hoyle The Times, September 19, 2011]

In The Realm of the Senses had already caused difficulties in Japan (where an obscenity prosecution was brought over the book of the film) and the US (where the print was seized by customs). It was first shown in Britain at the 1976 London Film Festival, where it won the critics' prize.

One scene that was cut when the film was shown in Britain in 1978 was a brief sequence in which a woman grabs hold of a naked child by his penis after he refuses to sit with her. According to the BBFC "the scene in question was pivotal to the audience's understanding of the female protagonist's shift from mere obsession to derangement" but it was deemed unacceptable under the Protection of Children Act 1978. In 1989 the film was resubmitted for classification for a limited cinema release. The BBFC received legal advice that the sex was now unlikely to be found obscene but that the "penis tugging" scene remained potentially indecent.

In 2011 the censors were again asked to look at the full film for DVD and Blu-Ray release. "The board concluded that the scene was not likely to be found indecent under recent interpretation of the Protection of Children Act," said the BBFC. A source at the BBFC said that the change in interpretation "is not opening the floodgates to kiddie porn". Ian Christie, professor of Film and Media History at Birkbeck University, said the fuss had overshadowed a "classic film about the rise of militarism".

Pleasures of the Flesh, Violence at Noon and Sing a Song of Sex

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Realm of the Senses
'' Pleasures of the Flesh' (1965) appears to be his attempt to enter Japan's then-burgeoning market for ''pink films,'' low-budget dramas spiced up with female nudity and simulated couplings,” Dave Kehr wrote in the New York Times, “But the story takes a quick turn toward film noir: Atsushi (Katsuo Nakamura) commits a murder to avenge the honor of a young woman who had been his pupil and remains the love of his life. But he is seen and then blackmailed by a crooked government official, who forces Atsushi to hide a suitcase full of cash while he serves out a prison term for embezzlement.” [Source: Dave Kehr, New York Times, May 16, 2010]

“Rather than succumb to this representative of senescent authority, Atsushi rebels by spending the money on a series of women, including a wild and willing nightclub dancer and a virginal nurse who continually puts him off. When the cash runs out, he'll kill himself. Observed in long takes and colorful wide-screen images that increasingly keep him trapped in one corner of the frame, Atsushi slowly realizes that, instead of buying his freedom, he has only enslaved himself further to the women in his life, each one more emotionally voracious than the last.”

Sing a Song of Sex (1967) is an unclassifiable blend of high school sex comedy (overstimulated students spend a night on the town with a drunken teacher, who regales them with his repertory of bawdy Japanese folk songs) and political theater (they follow a girl to a protest rally, where the folk songs shift to the American, Woody Guthrie variety).” [Ibid]

“A similar recognition awaits the protagonist of Violence at Noon (1966). Eisuke (played by the Oshima regular Kei Sato, with his Brandoesque pout and pushed-in nose) is a farm worker from a small village whose attempt to escape his dominating wife and demanding mistress spurs him to embark on a nationwide rape and murder spree. The images are now in an austere black and white, but in his editing Mr. Oshima systematically avoids the smoothly matched shots that create a sense of unified space in classical cinema, frequently reversing the direction of action on screen or cutting to shots that don't correspond to the angle of a character's gaze. This is a jumpy, disordered world, where it is difficult not only to distinguish right from wrong, but also right from left.” [Ibid]

Juzo Itami


scene from Tampopo
Juzo Itami (1933-1998) was popular and acclaimed film maker in the 1980s. Regarded by some people as the most important Japanese director since Kurosawa, he produced very funny satirical films that had a large audience outside of Japan. The son of famous film director, he started his film career as an actor and made 10 films in his 13 years as a director. Many of his films are about little guy who stand up to bad guys.

Among Itami’s films were The Funeral (1984), a satire that poked fun at Buddhist monks and the huge amounts of money they make from funerals; Tampopo (1985), the comic look at restaurant owners quest to create the perfect bowl of noodles with the help of a westernized truck driver and assistance by other offbeat characters; and A Taxing Woman (1987), a film that poked fun at tax-collectors.

Tampopo was popular in the United States. Many consider The Funeral, his first film, to be his best film. His wife, the actress Nobuko Miyamoto, starred in Tampopo and A Taxing Woman. His younger sister was married to Nobel-Prize-winning writer Kezaburo Oe.

Itami got his start making documentary programs and television commercials. He didn’t make his first film until he was 51. He acted in many films, including 55 Days over Peking.

In May 1992, Itami was attacked and slashed in the face and neck outside his Tokyo home by gangsters, who were apparently upset over his portrayal of their creed in The Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion, which had been released the week before.

In the spring of 1998, Itami suddenly committed suicide by leaping off the roof of an eight-story building after he was informed that a Japanese tabloid was going to run a story that he had an extramarital affair with a 26-year-old "office lady." In a suicide he wrote, "Death proves my innocence. There is no other way to prove it."

Kaneto Shindo

Japanese film director Kaneto Shindo was second oldest active director after Portugal's Manoel de Oliviera. Shindo released the film Sanmon Yakusha (2000) when he was 89. He turned 100 in April 2012 and died the following June. Kenji Hall wrote in the Los Angeles Times: Shindo has spent most of his long career telling other people's stories. As a screenwriter and film director, he showed the hardscrabble lives of the have-nots in Japanese society---prostitutes, farmers, migrant workers and war victims. No subject seemed too grim for him to explore. Shindo’s seven-decade career includes an impressive catalog of work, writing more than 200 screenplays and directing 49 movies. He made tragedies and horror films, period dramas and documentaries. Japanese directors Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu won far more attention overseas, and some critics found Shindo's work too sentimental or racy. But Shindo produced a few that are regarded today as classics. [Source: Kenji Hall, Special to the Los Angeles Times, February 05, 2012]

In his obituary Margalit Fox wrote in the New York Times, Kaneto Shindo “was a venerable filmmaker whose work was haunted by the wartime devastation of his native Hiroshima. Mr. Shindo’s body of work was known for its vast stylistic diversity: over six decades it ranged across social realism, horror, sex comedy and documentary. What unified his output was its obsessive quality; its concern with people---peasants, prostitutes, the poor---on the margins of society; the use of isolated, often claustrophobic spaces; the damaging interference of ghosts (of the psychological sort, though sometimes also the literal kind); and the presence of strong women. [Source: Margalit Fox, New York Times, June 1, 2012]

“But for all their darkness, Mr. Shindo’s films were ultimately pervaded by an essential humanism, even hopefulness. The net effect left some Western critics enraptured and others bewildered. As a result of his mixed reception in the West, Mr. Shindo never attained the global reputation of countrymen like Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi. Mr. Shindo also wrote the screenplays for well over 100 films, both his own and those of prominent directors including Kozaburo Yoshimura, with whom he long collaborated. [Ibid]

Kaneto Shindo's Life

“Kaneto Shindo was born in Hiroshima in April 1912. His family, once prosperous landowners, had lost their money and, as he later wrote, he watched his parents engage in “the backbreaking labor of wheat-harvesting” and “the grueling job of threshing by hand with primitive implements.” Drafted into the Imperial Japanese Navy, Mr. Shindo was one of only six members of his 100-man unit to survive the war. [Ibid]

Kenji Hall wrote in the Los Angeles Times: Shindo was in his early 20s when he joined the film developing lab of a studio in Kyoto. He once told an interviewer at the Directors Guild of Japan that he wanted to become a film director after seeing Sadao Yamanaka's "Life of Bangaku" (1933), about an itinerant do-gooder samurai. After beginning his cinematic career in the 1930s as a film developer for a small Japanese studio, Mr. Shindo was later an assistant to Mr. Mizoguchi. A feature-length documentary portrait, “Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director,” written and directed by Mr. Shindo, was released in 1975. [Ibid][Source: Kenji Hall, Special to the Los Angeles Times, February 05, 2012]

“Mr. Shindo’s first wife died in the early 1940s; his first film as a director, the drama “Story of a Beloved Wife” (1951), starring Ms. Otowa, was based partly on their marriage. After Mr. Shindo’s second marriage ended, Ms. Otowa, who appeared in nearly all his films, became his third wife. Ms. Otowa died in 1994. [Ibid]

Manohla Dargis wrote in the New York Times: “Kaneto Shindo may be best known in the West for his fascinating films The Naked Island (1960) and Onibaba (1964). He started out as an art director in the 1930s, worked on Mizoguchi’s Loyal 47 Ronin (1941) and wrote scripts directed by Suzuki Seijun, among others. He began directing in the 1950s, making, the critic Tadao Sato has written, “Japan’s first, real anti-bomb film,” the highly regarded Children of the Atom Bomb (1952). In the 1960s Mr. Shindo, a self-described socialist, started making films with emphatically erotic themes.” Hachi: A Dog’s Tale, an American remake of a film written by Shindo, about an Akita who famously waited for his dead master at a train station, came out in 2009 and starred Richard Gere. [Source: Manohla Dargis, New York Times, October 21, 2010]

Shindo always thought of himself as a socialist. You could see it in his characters: They always seemed to be barely scraping by and yet were hopeful about their circumstances. Shindo's upbringing might have had something to do with it. "His parents were rich landowners in Hiroshima but they went bankrupt and lost everything when he was young," Jiro Shindo says. "He always saw things from the perspective of people who were at the bottom of society."

Kaneto Shindo’s Films

Margalit Fox wrote in the New York Times, “Mr. Shindo came to international prominence early in his career with two features, “Children of Hiroshima” and “The Naked Island.” Released in 1952, the year after the American occupation ended, “Children of Hiroshima” was the first Japanese film to treat the atomic bombing of the country by United States forces in 1945. It starred Nobuko Otowa as a schoolteacher who returns to the city several years after the war to search for her former students---those who have survived. [Source: Margalit Fox, New York Times, June 1, 2012]

“The film was released in the United States only last year, in a retrospective of Mr. Shindo’s work at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Reviewing the picture in The New York Times, A. O. Scott called Mr. Shindo “a distinctive and protean visual storyteller” whose films “balance ethical seriousness with an almost voluptuous appetite for natural beauty and pictorial elegance.” [Ibid]

“The Naked Island,” released in 1960, is a stark, wordless drama, filmed in quasi-documentary style, about an impoverished farming family scraping out a living on a barren outcropping devoid of fresh water. The film, which has no dialogue, follows its characters’ lives of crushing toil on their daily pilgrimage to haul water by hand from the mainland. The picture shared the Grand Prix at the Moscow Film Festival in 1961. [Ibid]

“Mr. Shindo was also known for two critically praised horror films, “Onibaba” (1964) and “Black Cat” (1968). Both are set in the Middle Ages, a time of war, famine and lawlessness. In “Onibaba,” a woman and her daughter-in-law, desperate to survive, murder roaming samurai and sell their weapons and armor. In “The Black Cat,” two peasant women, raped and killed by samurai, return as seductive, vengeful demons. [Ibid]

“Mr. Shindo returned to the theme of atomic devastation in several other films. These include “Lucky Dragon No. 5" (1959), which dramatized the true story of Japanese fishermen contaminated in 1954 by fallout from United States nuclear tests on Bikini Atoll. [Ibid]

“If Mr. Shindo’s work was informed inevitably by the war, it was informed in particular by his acute awareness that the vagaries of fate---and nothing else---had let him survive where most of his unit had not. As he said in an interview quoted in his obituary in the British newspaper The Guardian, “I have always had the souls of the 94 with me and have made them the theme of my existence.” [Ibid]

Kenji Hall wrote in the Los Angeles Times: His masterpiece, "The Naked Island" (1960), showed the plight of a poor farming family living on an island with no fresh water. The film, which had no dialogue, won the grand prize at the Moscow Film Festival and its commercial success saved Shindo's production company. "He put all the money that he had left into the movie, and made it with just two actors and a staff of 13," says his son, Jiro Shindo, who is now the company's president. Other Shindo works well known stateside include 1968's arty yet chilling "Kuroneko" ("Black Cat"), which was re-released in 2010 in the United States, and his 1964 "Onibaba," about two women who kill wandering samurai, put their bodies down a hole and sell their armor.

Kaneto Shindo and Samurai Ghost Story

Describing Shindo’s Kuroneko, Manohla Dargis wrote in the New York Times: “Pools of deepest black nearly engulf, with strange beauty and mystery, the characters in Kuroneko, a Japanese ghost story from 1968 about two avenging spirits and the brutal samurai they tick off. Shot in widescreen in stunning black-and-white 35 millimeter film Kuroneko had a brief run in New York in 1971 and doesn’t seem to have been back since.” [Source: Manohla Dargis, New York Times, October 21, 2010]

Kuroneko, is one of those films that, in its narrative rhythms and stylistic choices, feels unmistakably of its era but without any of the dust that can cling to some older art-house efforts. Also translated as Black Cat, the film grabs hold of you fast and tight right from start with images of swaying bamboo and the unsettling sounds of loudly banged drums suggestive of war. A long shot of a tiny house nestled next to a stream and woods suggests a peaceful picture, a tranquillity that is almost immediately upended by the sight of filthy, bedraggled, armed men emerging from the forest, dropping quietly out of the thicket in small dribbles like some kind of newly awakened primordial force.” [Ibid]


Kuroneko

“This sense of fast-rising unease is answered by a dreadful scene as the men, some dozen and a half in number, rapidly swarm into the house and attack the two women inside, Yone (Nobuko Otowa, Mr. Shindo’s wife) and her daughter-in-law, Shige (Kiwako Taichi). They are soon overwhelmed, assaulted and left to die. Mr. Shindo ends the sequence with another long shot similar to the earlier one, only now the men are climbing back into the dark woods while smoke pours from the house that is soon swallowed in flames. Everything burns except the women, whose bodies remain inexplicably almost wholly untouched, save for some ashy streaks and burn wounds that a meowing black cat begins to determinedly lick and lick and lick. [Ibid]

“What follows is a ghost story that’s more eerie than unnerving, and often hauntingly lovely. The women rematerialize as spirits, physically intact but now elegantly attired and living in a large open-air house that intentionally resembles a stage. There, in this new theater of cruelty (their burned-down home was the first), the women seduce passing samurai with cups of sake and bare shoulders, a lethal routine that attracts the attention of the authorities. Among these is Raiko (Kei Sato), a splendidly mustachioed braggart with a gaggle of simpering women, who enlists a newly returned war veteran, Gintoki (Kichiemon Nakamura), to investigate the murders. From the moment he enters with wild hair and eyes, Gintoki takes over the story in more ways than one.” [Ibid]

“As it slides between realism and extreme artifice, using cinematic and theatrical devices, Kuroneko becomes increasingly, pleasurably difficult to predict. It’s alternately abstract and down to earth, recognizable and strange, and consistently surprising. Gintoki’s relationship with the two spirits brings its own twists to the film, as do the continually shifting tones and moods. Using spare dialogue (the soundtrack is likely monaural), Mr. Shindo creates a supernatural story that combines folkloric elements with social commentary and a touchingly sad love story. In one scene a spirit somersaults through the pitch-dark night, in another peasants rob the body of a dead samurai, a reminder that while Mr. Shindo certainly took evident delight in visiting with the dead, his thoughts were never far from the living.” [Ibid]

Kaneto Shindo in His 90s

Kenji Hall wrote in the Los Angeles Times: Shindo was in his 90s when he made his final three films. He was in a wheelchair for the last two. Investors were constantly asking about his health. "Everyone worried that he might die in the middle of making a movie," his son Jiro told the Los Angeles Times. "He knew it and wanted to make sure that his projects could be finished without him. So he made detailed storyboards for every scene before getting started." [Source: Kenji Hall, Special to the Los Angeles Times, February 05, 2012]

These days, the nonagenarian rarely drops by Kindai Eiga Kyokai (Modern Film Assn.), the independent production company that he started in 1950 in Tokyo. He makes an exception for interviews. In his wheelchair, he looks frail, his hands clasped in his lap. He speaks slowly and his voice is raspy and weak. When his train of thought veers off or gets stuck in a loop, his granddaughter, Kaze, who is a film director, pokes his arm. "I now read books. I lie around," he says. "You mostly lie around," Kaze adds.

Kaneto Shindo Last Film: 'Postcard'

In 2011, Shindo turned turned out what he called his "last film," Ichimai no Hagaki (Postcard), a movie he worked intensely on to deliver his antiwar message.Kenji Hall wrote in the Los Angeles Times: There was one story from his own past that he kept from almost everyone: an episode from when he was in the imperial navy during World War II. It had weighed on his mind for decades.By the time Shindo decided to tell his story, he was 98 years old. "I felt my own death approaching, but there were things I still had to say," he says. [Source: Kenji Hall, Special to the Los Angeles Times, February 05, 2012]

The film he made, "Ichimai no Hagaki" (Postcard), hit the big screen in Japan last summer. Written and directed by Shindo, it portrays a man who is drafted and assigned to a cleaning crew at a temple. One night, the man's bunkmate pulls out a postcard from his wife and asks for a favor: If I die, tell my wife that I read her note. The man later finds out that all but six from that 100-man unit were killed in the war, and pays his former bunkmate's wife a visit.

The film showed on just 20 screens across Japan but pulled in more than $1.3 million in its first month. In October, "Postcard" won the special jury prize at the Tokyo International Film Festival. It became Japan's entrant for the foreign-language Academy Award this year, and screened at the Palm Springs International Film Festival. Longtime fan Benicio Del Toro touted screenings of Shindo's film in New York and at Cinefamily in Los Angeles. Although "Postcard" didn't end up among the five eventual foreign-language Oscar nominees, it will play at the Portland International Film Festival in mid-February and its backers are looking for U.S. distribution.

Making Kaneto Shindo’s Last Film

Kenji Hall wrote in the Los Angeles Times: Not everything in "Postcard" actually happened. Shindo didn't keep the bunkmate's postcard or contact the man's wife. Still, just making the movie was therapeutic for Shindo. "This burden that I had been carrying around all those years feels a lot lighter," he says. It makes him chuckle to think that he got to squeeze in one last film. "I feel very satisfied," he says. "I feel at peace."

Jiro says his father would get dropped off at the set each morning and the crew and actors would huddle around him to get specific instructions and hear how he wanted a scene to play out. The main actors, Etsushi Toyokawa and Shinobu Otake, had worked with him previously.

"His staff and actors listened closely to him and knew that he was hard of hearing and that they had to be loud and clear when speaking to him," Jiro recalls. "We had originally planned for 60 days of filming but had to squeeze it into 45 days because of a budget shortfall. For my father, who was 98 at the time, it was physically draining." "My biggest task was to make sure he didn't wear himself out, and would have enough energy to do his job throughout the filming," he adds. "At one point when he got sick and had to go to the hospital, I suggested that he take the day off and he insisted on going back to the set."

At times, Shindo talks like someone who knows that he has beaten the odds. That goes back to his navy days. He never forgot the way officers decided assignments for the rank and file: by lottery. "The lottery determined your fate," he says. "If I had drawn a different number, I would be dead." It made him even more determined to honor the men in his unit who died. He also set out to show the contradictions of war. "Everyone says it's an honor to die for your country. But it destroys your family," he says.

Kon Ichikawa

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Kon Ichikawa made more than 80 films including The Burmese Harp (1956); its remake in 1985; Conflagration (1958), based on a Mishima novel about a young monks who burned the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto; Kagi (“The Key”, 1959); and The Makioka Sisters (1983). He won the Cannes Film Festival International Critics Award in 1965 for his documentary on the 1964 Olympics and made a film in 2006 when he was 90. He died in 2008 at the age of 92.

Burmese Harp was based on a novel by Michio Takeyama, which in turn is based on the real life experienced of Kazuo Nakamura, a Japanese soldiers who was sent to Burma and after the war and visited Japanese prisoners and sang songs for them.

Kagi (also known as “Odd Obsession”) was given a special prize ay the Cannes Film Festival. The film critic Pauline Kael called it a “beautifully stylized and highly original piece of filmmaking---perverse in the best sense of the word--- and said it was “among the good films ignored or ludicrously misinterpreted by the critics. It is about old man who tries to rev up his virility by inducing a handsome doctor to make love to his loyal wife, who goes along with the plan because she is a traditional, dutiful wife. With here suggestive, demure style she is presented as infinitely more desirable than her Western-influenced, sexually-liberated daughter.

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Olympiad
Kael wrote of Kagi: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that gave such a feeling of flesh. Machiki Kyo, with her soft, sloping shoulders, her rhythmic little paddling walk, is like some ancient, erotic fantasy that is more suggestive than anything Hollywood has ever thought up.” The film is also a black comedy that examines sexuality from a somewhat perverted but fresh perspective and takes a critical look at Westernization in Japan. The film is based on a Junichiro Tanizaki novel.

The Makioka Sisters is based on a famous novel by Junichiro Tanizaki. Described by the film critic Michael Stagrow as “an unassuming masterpiece” with “forthright and beguiling artistry,” it is about the vanishing world of a proud, Osaka-based merchant family expressed with “essences” rather than “incidents” and centered around the stories of four sisters, their husbands and their suitors and sometimes seems like lovely parade of kimonos. Stagrow wrote that “The Makioka Sister is one of the most accessible f all great Japanese films, a work of spirited imagination and translucent, meditative grandeur.”

Shohei Imamura

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Shohei Imamura is famous for his lusty, irreverent, "uncivilized" films about the seamy side of life in Japan. The Village Voice critic J. Hoberman wrote: “Imamura has a passion for everything that’s kinky, lowlife or irrational in Japanese culture. He populates his films with murderers, hillbillies, shaman, and prostitutes; incest and voyeurism are his stock-in-trade.” Imamura once said: "I am interested in the relationship of the lower part of the human body and the lower part of the social structure." On another occasion he said the thing he looks for in actress is "light coloring, smooth skin" and "good genitals."

Imamura began his career as an assistant director for Ozu. Among his dozen and half feature films are Pigs and Battleships (1961); Insect Woman (1963); The Pornographers (1966); Intentions of Murder (1964); Vengeance is Mine (1979); What the Hell! (1981); and Black Rain.

The Pornographers is a lurid black comedy about the producer of eight-millimeter porn films. Set in seedy Osaka, it features yakuza shakedowns, a mechanical sex doll, and woman who lusts after her son and keeps a car in her bedroom that she claims is a reincarnation of her husband. The producer is called “maestro” by his assistants and makes money on the side pimping “virgin” schoolgirls to rich businessmen. One of his films feature a rape scene between a father and a his mentally-retarded daughter who is given lollipops to keep her quiet. The films ends with producer floating out toe sea with his sex doll.

Eijanaika (1981) is a Feliniesque film set in 1967 that features mountain carnival run by a gangster, a riot in a silk warehouse, women wrestling in the nude, biting off the heads of snakes and spitting streams of fire and pretty girls in kimonos that can stretch out their neck to a distance of two meters. It was described by the film critic Dave Kehr as a “swirl of action and color” with “enough ideas...for a half dozen films...And each is given a full, commanding development.”

Unagi ("The Eel") is quirky film about a former murderer who reveals his innermost thoughts to an eel in a fish tank, It won the Palme d'Or award at the 50th Cannes film festival in 1997. Imaru won the same award in 1983 for his film The Ballad of Narayama. He was still active in 2001. Warm Water Under a Red Bridge was his entry in the 2001 Cannes Film Festival.

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated July 2011

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