Friday, June 1, 2007

Thank You

I'm still reeling from the contrast between Hogs and Battleships and Late Autumn.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who came to the series. It was a pleasure for me to share these films with such an enthusiastic and knowledgeable audience.

Till next time.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Hogs and Battleships

Nikkatsu Studios released Shohei Imamura's Hogs and Battleships on January 21, 1961. Before this commercial release, however, the film was submitted as an entry to the 1960 Media Arts Festival. Based on its participation in this event, it was singled out by Kinema Junpo as one of the ten best films of 1960.

Imamura began his career in 1951 as an assistant director at Shochiku Studios. There he had the opportunity to work with the renowned Yasujiro Ozu. He assisted the great master on three films: Early Summer (1951), The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice (1952), and Tokyo Story (1953). Although Imamura would gradually came to respect Ozu, at the time he chafed a what he perceived to be the director's rigid, overly genteel approach toward film.

In 1954 Imamura moved to Nikkatsu, the financially troubled studio that had only recently re-entered the film business. Imamura found himself more at home in this new professional environment, where the commitment to teen sexploitation pics and yakuza movies better fit his freewheeling sensibility than the more refined fare produced at Shochiku.

In 1958 Imamura directed his first film, but it was not until Hogs and Battleships that he made a film that exhibited his distinctive take on life. This view is encapsulated in the director's oft-quoted statement "I am interested in the relationship of the lower part of the human body and the lower part of the social structure on which the reality of daily Japanese life obstinately supports itself." This principle is on display in Hogs and Battleships, which focuses on the efforts of mobsters and other low-lifes to eke out a living on the periphery of a US navy base. In particular, Imamura depicts the struggles of his female characters, who, in contrast to the noble suffering exhibited by the heroines in the films of Mikio Naruse and Kenji Mizoguchi, use every weapon at their disposal to get ahead in life. No shrinking violets, these women are every bit as tough and self-reliant as the men around them (if not more so).

Imamura followed Hogs and Battleships with other examinations of the lower echelons of Japanese society. Never condescending or moralizing, he paints stark portraits of life at the bottom of the social and economic ladder. The Insect Woman (1963) tells the story of a peasant who over the course of her life works as a factory laborer, prostitute, and madam, before eventually ending up as a domestic servant. The Pornographers (1966) chronicles the life of a producer of low-budget porn films.

In the 1970s, Imamura shifted his creative energies from film to TV documentary. Despite the shift in medium, he continued to treat the down and out, representing the experiences of bar hostesses, the so-called "Comfort Women," and ex-pat soldiers.

With Revenge Is Mine (1979), Imamura made a triumphant return to feature-film making. Over the next decade he directed some of his most important works, including Eejanaika (1981), The Ballad of Narayama (1983), and Black Rain (1989), for which he was awarded the Kinema Junpo Best Director Award.

Despite health problems, Imamura remained professionally active until the last years of his life, directing idiosyncratic films that defied easy categorization. He passed away in 2006.

He is currently the subject of a film retrospective at the Pacific Film Archive. For more information, go to Shohei Imamura's Japan.

Shohei Imamura

Ballad of Narayama

Black Rain

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Hogs and Battleships Trailer

Our last trailer. Enjoy!

Friday, May 25, 2007

Review of Late Autumn

Click here to go to Weena Pun's review of Late Autumn. The review appeared in the April 13 edition of The Stanford Daily.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Late Autumn

Shochiku Studios released Yasujiro Ozu's Late Autumn on November 13, 1960. It was Ozu's third-to-last film and is considered to be one of his great masterpieces.

In Japan and around the world, Ozu is treasured by cineasts, particularly specialists in film studies. Scholars especially appreciate the uniformity of his visual style and his commitment to a consistent set of thematic issues. In this sense, he readily conforms the notion of a film director as the "author" of his films. This idea that great directors use film as a medium to express their view of life (in the same way that authors use the medium of the written word) lies at the heart of the influential school of film studies know as the auteur theory. I think it's safe to say that Ozu's body of work serves as the ideal vehicle to promote this approach toward interpreting film.

Because Ozu has been the subject of so many scholarly analyses, I will defer to two of the better known statements on his work.

The first comes from David Thomson's Biographical Dictionary of Film.
Ozu’s most important characteristic is his way of watching the world. While that attitude is modest and unassertive, it is also the source of great tenderness for people. It is as if Ozu’s one personal admission was the faith that the basis of decency and sympathy can only be sustained by the semi-religious effort to observe the world in his style; in other words, contemplation calms anxious activity. As with Mizoguchi, one comes away from Ozu heartened by his humane intelligence and by the gravity we have learned.

The intensive viewing of Ozu—and such stylistic rigor encourages nothing less—makes questions of Japaneseness irrelevant. There have been attempts to explain Ozu by reference to his native culture, and it is easy to pin his mysticism to facile notions of the East. Even Ozu himself believed that his subject matter was too provincial to travel outside Japan. Some critics have tried to illuminate his films by reference to Buddhism, Japanese pottery, domestic ritual, and haiku.

All of those are worth considering. But the most useful point to make is that Ozu uses a minimal but concentrated camera style: static, a little lower than waist height, with few camera movements, dissolves, or fades. The intentness of the image, and its emotional resonance, is not only as relevant to the West as to Japan; it is a return to fundamental cinema, such as we can see in Dreyer, Bresson, Lang, and even Warhol, whose characters sit as habitually as Ozu’s. Nor is there anything limitingly Oriental in Ozu’s ability to create deep anguish or joy in the cross-cutting of faces. There are similar moments in Hitchcock or Lang, when we are made to apprehend the unverbalized feelings that rush between people, and which are only defined by the constructive power of editing.

The second comes from Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell's Film History: An Introduction.
After 1947 Ozu began a collaboration with screenwriter Kogo Noda that was to result in a string of major works. These films usually center upon family crises: marriage, separation, and death. In Late Spring (1949) a dutiful daughter faces the necessity of leaving her widowed father alone. In Early Summer (1951) several generations of a family are shaken by a daughter's impulsive decision to marry. Tokyo Story (1953) chronicles an elderly couple's visit to their grown, unfeeling children. In Equinox Flower (1958) and An Autumn Afternoon (1962) a father must accept his daughter's wish to leave the household. Ozu and Noda explore a few dramatic issues from various angles. Usually the film is suffused with a contemplative resignation to life's painful changes—an attitude embodied in the gentle smile and sigh of Chishu Ryu, Ozu's perennial actor of this period.

A comparable calm pervades the director's style. The films adhere to the "rules" he set for himself in the 1930s: low camera position, 360-degree shooting space, cutting for graphic effects, transitional sequences that obey a logic of similarity and difference rather than strict spatial continuity. Ozu forswears dissolves and fades entirely. He stages conversations with the characters facing the camera head-on and looking over the lens. His color design turns mundane settings into abstract patterns. His camera is attracted by humble objects in the corner of a room, down a hallway, or on a thoroughfare. The peaceful contemplation at the heart of the drama finds its correlative in a style that allows us time to look closely at the characters and their world. This quietude, sometimes broken by sly humor, makes Ozu's films seem undramatic. But he came to be recognized as one of the cinema's most sensitive explorers of everyday life.

Here are some shots from a scene early in Late Autumn. The sequence exemplifies some of the features to which these scholars refer. Note especially Ozu's preference for the so-called "pillow shot" (shots of scenery or empty rooms used to set up a scene).

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Late Autumn Trailer

Here's the original theatrical trailer for Ozu's 1960 masterpiece, Late Autumn.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Technical Difficulties II

My apologies for the temporary glitch with the sound. According to the projectionist, the problem was with the sound track on the print and not the equipment. He did a quick sound check after the screening was over and everything is fine for next week.

Speaking of which, we'll be showing an absolutely wonderful film by Yasujiro Ozu. The print is from Criterion and it's brand new, so there shouldn't be any problems.