After well over a year we are finally finishing Yasujiro Ozu’s Noriko Trilogy with the first in the series, Late Spring. While Early Summer remains our favorite of the bunch, Late Spring serves as a more overt reckoning with Ozu’s view of post-war Japanese society. It is rather different than, say, Suzuki’s. As such we have a talk about false nostalgia, and how occupation is bad, but that doesn’t mean that life before the occupation was good.
We round out Akira Kurosawa’s Shakespearean adaptations with the loosest of the bunch, so loose in fact that we posit that the “adaptation” is a construction of Western critics grasping at straws instead of a purposeful, or even unpurposeful, decision by Kurosawa. In any case, as Kaori Ashizu argued in the journal of the Shakespeare Society of Japan, going into The Bad Sleep Well understanding it to be a Shakespeare adaptation actually undermines a lot of the excellent storytelling Kurosawa is doing.
Donovan Hill joins us, and along the way we also talk about public office corruption in Japan and Ohio. Good times!
The Criterion Collection sure loves Shakespeare. Turns out so does Akira Kurosawa, though sometimes by accident? Throne of Blood is rather objectively the best adaptation of MacBeth that exists. Soon we’ll watch The Bad Sleep Well which could be Hamlet but it might be better to not think of it as Hamlet — we’ll get into that in a few weeks.
This week in the middle is Ran, which Kurosawa wrote, then someone pointed out that it sounded a lot like King Lear, so Kurosawa rewrote it to lean into the comparison.
Our final film in the Rebel Samurai boxset is also the craziest, a parody of samurai films from the preceding twenty years or more, 1968’s Kill! directed by Kihachi Okamoto. Donovan H. finishes us out as well, though he’ll be back soon enough I’m sure.
Movie three in the Rebel Samurai boxset is Masahiro Shinoda’s Samurai Spy, the 1965 Le Carre-ian Cold War espionage film that happens to take place in the political turmoil of the early part of the 17th century in Japan. Also the main character is a traditional Japanese folk hero who the audience should know about but that’s not at all important until it is very, very, incredibly very important to understand the plot in the last ten minutes of the movie. We talk cold war politics, historical analogues, and secret knowledge on this week’s Lost in Criterion.
Number two in the Rebel Samurai boxset is Hideo Gosha’s 1965 Sword of the Beast, also known as — as Pat delightfully points out — Samurai Gold Seekers. Donovan H. joins us again as we talk more about Samurai mythos deconstruction and economic systems of the past! Hurray!
We kick off the Rebel Samurai boxset this week with Masaki Kobayashi's aptly named Samurai Rebellion. Toshiro Mifune stars in a film that plays as a companion piece to Kobayashi's great Harakiri that we talked about back in July. Donovan Hill joins us this episode and for the rest of the boxset, and it's always a joy to have him.
We get another great Japanese ghost story and another loose Guy de Maupassant adaptation this week with Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu. Like a lot of films made in the years after World War II in Japan it is decidedly anti-war. That already gives it a lot of points in our book, but it's also brilliant, beautiful, melancholy, and just downright among the greatest films ever made period.
We'll be exploring a string of samurai deconstruction films in just a few months as we tackle the Rebel Samurai boxset. Though virtually every Jidaigeki samurai film we've seen so far is a deconstruction of the genre, the deconstructionists hit hard in the 60s as young men disillusioned by the war became the nation's primary voices in film.
This week we have Harakiri, Masaki Kobayashi's hard-hitting 1962 entry in the genre (and we'll see more from him in the coming boxset). While the title is more properly Seppuku in Japanese, the "vulgar" term harakiri better sums up the films attitude toward the traditional practice. Donovan Hill joins us, as he often does for these sorts of films, and we're better off for it, though as is often the case he leads us on a longer than normal conversation.
We had a good run with Seijun Suzuki, but like most heroes, eventually you find something you have to step back from.
While much of the message of Story of the Prostitute is similar to and on par with the anti-militarism, anti-toxic masculinity themes of his great Fighting Elegy, the framing element here leaves quite a bit to be desired about the true nature of Japan's history with so called "Comfort Women". Historically these women were (mostly) kidnapped and forced into prostitution for the army, but in focusing his themes against militarism Seijun allows for the cultural myth that the Comfort Women were all willing, even patriotic, volunteers to settle in. Still by no means does he present their lives as pleasant or good, so...what do we do with a very progressive message that is not as progressive as it could, and should, be.
In any case this is the most ideologically complex of Seijun's films that we've seen, and it's the last in the collection at this time, which means we've got at least 646 episodes before we see him again.
We love Seijun Suzuki here at Lost in Criterion, and sadly we only have two more of his films to watch before we're all out of them. Well, unless the Criterion adds more before we're done. There's certainly an incredibly good chance of that.
We finish with two of the earliest of his that we've seen (though Youth of the Beast was earlier than either). This week it's Gates of Flesh a story of post-war desperation.
Imagine if a 20 year old Donald Trump had written a book about how bad the kids are. Or Marine Le Pen. Or Nigel Farage, etc. etc. you get the idea.
Crazed Fruit is based on a book by Shintaro Ishihara, a right wing populist politician with some pretty terrible opinions as well as delusions -- he once said that if he'd continued directing films (and he's only directed one full length) he'd be at least better than Kurosawa. He didn't even direct this movie -- though from certain set stories it seems he wished he had -- an honor that instead fell to Ko Nakahira. Nakahira, with great help from cinematographer Shigeyoshi Mine and first time composer Toru Takemitsu, produces a visually and aurally great film and I regret that we won't see more from him, but it's pretty hard to get beyond the politics of the film, the author behind it, and the cultural movement it kicked off.
Donovan Hill joins us as our resident Samurai film buff, and that's always fun. If you like hearing Donovan rant, and I know I do, he joins us for non-Samurai films over on the Patreon bonus episodes more often and it's always a treat.
We're talking Kihachi Okamoto's The Sword of Doom from 1966 and boy is it nihilistic. That's something Donovan knows a bit about as well. Good times! But for serious, this is good conversation. It's also long. Clocking in as one of the longest episodes Lost in Criterion has had because of the enlightening exploration of Japanese cultural history that Donovan and Pat provide.
The year is 1966 and Seijun Suzuki's relationship with his longtime studio Nikkatsu is strained to say the least. Tokyo Drifter left him on double secret probation and barred from using the companies color film stock. Branded to Kill would ultimately get him fired. But between those two brilliant pieces of art comes Fighting Elegy, an anti-"red pill" film attacking toxic masculinity and militarism. Written by Kaneto Shindo who directed Onibaba and, turns out, was a left-wing activist, Fighting Elegy is a farewell to arms and the ideas of manhood, sex, and power that fed authoritarian nationalism that led to nearly 3,000,000 Japanese dead in World War 2. It's also funny -- like Vonnegutianly so -- and shot with all the beautifully off-the-wall style we expect from Suzuki, but in this case those wacky visual choices actually land in a philosophical style, too.
It's been 4 years since we last saw a Seijun Suzuki film.
It's been too long.
Branded to Kill and Tokyo Drifter were early favorites for Seijun's ridiculous sense of style and clear disdain for being told what to do. Made a few years and a few dozen films earlier in 1963 is Youth of the Beast, a Yojimbo-tale of an ex-Cop investigating his former friends death. Of course that plot synopsis glosses over the Seijun flare that makes it a film worth watching. And it is very much worth watching.
Donovan Hill often joins us for discussions on the works of Akira Kurosawa because he has a long history with the films, having had them thrust upon him by his obsessive father from a very young age. Dr. Hill passed away recently and Donovan joins us in an episode dedicated in his father's memory, and dedicated to a discussion of the rose-tinted view of Japan's national memory. Kagemusha (1980) is one of the few Kurosawa period films that could be accurately described as historical fiction, not just being set in his normal nebulous samurai period, but specifically being about real people and real battles drawn from history, even if certain elements make it about as historically accurate as Inglorious Basterds.
Yasujiro Ozu is brilliant.
We've already seen the final chapter of his Noriko Trilogy -- three films about family that each star Setsuko Hara as a 28 year-old woman named Noriko and are otherwise unrelated -- and now take a step back to the second, 1951's Early Summer. In about two years we'll finish off the sequence with the first film, Late Spring, but until then we can bask in the perfection that is Early Summer.
Two movies for the price of one with this week's outing. In 1902 Maxim Gorky debuted his play The Lower Depths about a group of people living in a flophouse in Russia. It was an international hit of a character study, leading to localizations around the world. In 1957 Akira Kurosawa made a version that was fairly faithful to the source material except transported to 19th century Japan. In 1936 Jean Renoir made it into a romantic comedy.
Reportedly, Gorky actually liked Renoir's version, but even Renoir recognized that Kurosawa made the better adaptation. They're both wonderful movies and are both included in the Criterion Collection's The Lower Depths double disc.
Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura are two of the greatest actors of the 20th century. It happens that they also frequently collaborated with one another and with some of the greatest film directors to come out of mid-century Japan. As such, it seems they may be the actors who most often appear in the Criterion Collection as well, though it's hard to track that information without it becoming a whole new obsession.
They costar in Stray Dog under the helm of Criterion standard Akira Kurosawa from 1949 and it would be a feat of pure disaster if all that talent didn't make for an amazing film. Plus it's a police procedural! Who doesn't love a good police procedural?
We return to the Yasujiro Ozu well with a double feature, or as Pat corrects me, a one and a half feature. Ozu made the silent black-and-white A Story of Floating Leaves in 1934 then during a break in his production schedule after finishing Good Morning early in 1959 he remade it as Floating Leaves in color and with sound. Fascinating to see a great artist approach the same basic material a quarter-century apart. It reminds me of Loudon Wainwright III's album Recovery in which he rerecorded some of his earliest work.