Sunday, October 16, 2011

NYCC Film Festival: Nikkatsu & Chaplin

The 49th Annual New York Film Festival ended yesterday, and in addition to provocative new features like the latest Lars von Trier mind fuck Melancholia, Pedro Almodovar's The Skin I Live In, David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, and Roman Polanski's Carnage, a number of interesting retrospective screenings took place. The crown jewel of the festival, in my opinion, was the series "Velvet Bullets and Steel Kisses: Celebrating the Nikkatsu Centennial", 37 films representing the proposed best the renowned Japanese production company had to offer, from its very beginnings to just last year. In addition to the Nikkatsu films, I was able to take in a once-in-a-lifetime screening of Chaplin's The Gold Rush! As with all blog entries here, the posters sometimes offer links to video of the films and the titles are sometimes linked to where you can purchase the films.

Oct. 9:

The method to my madness in selecting which Nikkatsu films to see generally relied on which were available on video in this country. Prepared for some primo Japanese entertainment, I ventured uptown to visit the Film Society at Lincoln Center for the first time. The facilities of this venue are absolutely stunning; the Nikkatsu series was screened at the new Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center (144 W. 65th St), specifically the Howard Gilman Theater.

LinkSuzaki Paradise: Red Light (1956) - This early Nikkatsu melodrama held particular interest for me because of its setting in and near a notorious red light district in Tokyo. In the film, it even has a garish neon sign beckoning customers across the bridge over the Suzaki river. Wandering unemployed Tatsuya Mihashi and his frustrated girlfriend Michiyo Aratama (pictured at left) find themselves desperate for income and a place to live, but stop short of crossing the bridge when Aratama gets a job at a roadside cafe run by kindly Yukiko Todoroki. Todoroki still pines for the husband who left her and their two sons for a red light girl two years previously. Mihashi's aimlessness drives Aratama into the arms of rich radio store owner Seizaburo Kawazu, leading our love sick protagonist to search the busy streets of Tokyo for her while ignoring the interest of sweet noodle bar waitress Izumi Ashikawa. All of the performances in this film are superb, but special mention must be made of Aratama's portrayal of an ambitious modern woman tired of supporting and cajoling her dead beat lover and Todoroki as the wise middle-aged cafe owner. Thankfully this is available on DVD in Japan, though I'm not sure if it features English subtitles; if it does, I intend to add this to the home video collection.

Till We Meet Again (1955) - Also known as "The Neverending (Love) Story". This was an absolute chore to sit through, especially after the pleasantly surprising and engrossing SUZAKI PARADISE. The sole point of interest was seeing that film's leading couple Tatsuya Mihashi and Michiyo Aratama together again as a pair of mismatched lovers, a mountain climber and a fashion designer respectively, kept apart by the climber's wife and the designer's rich lover. The twist is that the rich lover and climber's wife are father and daughter. And there's a geeky scientist thrown in for good measure as a potential love interest for the climber's wife. Easily one of the worst movies I've seen in NYC theaters so far.

Take Aim at the Police Van (1960) - This is available on DVD as part of Criterion's Eclipse Series 17: Nikkatsu Noir, but I figured I was at Lincoln Center already, so why not see another movie? This super stylish crime story was a jolt of electricity to the heart after the dismal TILL WE MEET AGAIN, though the screening was regularly disrupted by the distracting laugh of a girl sitting in the same row as me. The kicker? She's a second year cinema studies MA student at Tisch, and I have her in a Tuesday night class. She did the same thing at the Tisch Cinematheque screening of STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR. My question is, if you're studying film, is it the best idea to just go and laugh at movies because they're not contemporary? In America, the film noir genre had pretty much ended by 1960, but Nikkatsu continued in the grand tradition of hard-boiled detectives, vampy femme fatales, and mysterious villains with a series of crime thrillers like this one. Disgraced prison guard Michitaro Mizushima, suspended after he fails to protect two prisoners in a transport van from being shot by a mysterious gunman, investigates the ambush on his own, discovering a trail leading to a sleazy modeling agency run by sinister female archer Misako Watanabe. A woman is shot in the breast with an arrow, underage girls are drugged in preparation to being forced into white slavery, and other sordid surprises are in store for you in this delicious pulpy thriller. Oh, that surprise ending is a doozy, too!

Intimidation (1960) - Another film available through Criterion (Eclipse Series 28: The Warped World of Koreyoshi Kurahara), this gripping drama is an entirely different kind of animal from POLICE VAN, though the two were made by the same company in the same year. Running a tight 65 minutes, this fast-paced thriller focuses on Nobuo Kaneko, a bank executive blackmailed by new kid in town Kojiro Kusanagi, who has evidence of Kaneko's illegal dealings to make his way to the top. The blackmailer will destroy the paper trail if the executive robs his own bank. After all, who would suspect the bank vice president as the culprit? The intense robbery centerpiece of the film is turned on its ear when Kaneko's childhood friend and co-worker Ko Nishimura gets involved. This is an absolutely brilliant little film, injecting a number of interesting surprises into what could have been a pretty standard blackmail storyline.

The edge-of-your-seat bank robbery sequence in "Intimidation"

Oct. 10

The Gold Rush (1925) - A $35 student membership to Film Society at Lincoln Center seemed a decent deal for the reduced member ticket prices alone (much like Film Forum's student membership). However, who knew the additional benefits would pay off a mere week into the membership? I received an e-mail on Saturday the 8th giving members the opportunity to receive free tickets to a screening of Chaplin's THE GOLD RUSH on Monday the 10th at Alice Tully Hall. Not only was this a restored print, the closest to Chaplin's original 1925 version since its initial release, the film would feature musical accompaniment by members of the New York Philharmonic! This was truly a once in a lifetime motion picture event, with tickets going for $35 a pop, and here was my opportunity to go for FREE! I received my confirmation e-mail that a ticket was reserved for me, and in the nick of time, too. The event had sold out! Seeing a silent film with orchestral accompaniment is something every movie lover should experience. I will never forget seeing Chaplin's classic with live strings, percussion, and piano providing the marvelous score. The tale of the Tramp seeking gold in Alaska and falling for alluring dance hall girl Georgia Hale is still a funny and heart-warming one. Many parents and grandparents brought their kids for this Columbus Day screening and they ate it up. There is something marvelously touching about new generations of film lovers being introduced to the classics. I could tell that some of these kids would be going down the same route I have, devouring any movie they could get their hands on and experiencing a life long love affair with the cinema.

Oct. 13

Retaliation (1968) - Returning to the Nikkatsu centennial, RETALIATION was a rare late 60s Nikkatsu that is not available on DVD anywhere, so I knew I had to see it. It was also directed by Yasuharu Hasebe, responsible for some of the best Nikkatsu action films of the 60s and 70s. Studly Akira Kobayashi is a Yakuza recently released from jail who discovers that his gang fell apart when its elderly godfather fell ill. He is recruited by a rival gang to help them usurp another vicious family from power in a small farming town; in return he will be put in charge of the area's gang division. Accompanying him on his mission is legendary Shishido Joe, who has vowed revenge for his brother's death in the gang fight that sent Kobayashi to prison. Meiko Kaji, shortly before she became a Pinky Violence idol, is the innocent farm girl Kobayashi falls in love with. Of course, this being a Yakuza movie, the plan goes wrong when it is revealed that Kobayashi was merely being used for the gang's villainous ends, and all hell breaks loose in a memorable blood-drenched finale! Immediately after seeing this, I wondered why it remains unavailable. The expected Yakuza violence loved by contemporary fans of this gritty genre is here in spades, and considering how many Nikkatsu films of this type have been released on DVD, what's the hold up with RETALIATION? Unfortunately for a screening of a film this rare I had to deal with two middle-aged women talking in the back row for the entire movie. Apparently, even with subtitles, they didn't understand what was going on and, in a pretty boldly racist move, said they couldn't tell one Japanese man from another, so didn't know which character was which. Sigh...

Oct. 14

The World of Geisha (1973) - One of many 'roman porno' films being screened at Lincoln Center (others included THE WOMAN WITH RED HAIR, THE HELL-FATED COURTESAN, THE OLDEST PROFESSION, and TATTOOED CORE OF FLOWER), I went into this one with hesitation. While I've seen a number of these graphic sexploitation films on home video, I didn't know what it would be like seeing one with an audience. The turn-out was surprisingly large for a film of this type. We follow roman porno royalty Junko Miyashita as a geisha who falls for a client and eventually marries him. That's the bare essentials of a plot, though director Tatsumi Kumashiro injects random scenes of geisha life, including a madam training a scrub girl to control her vaginal muscles before basically raping her in a drunken stupor, a bumbling soldier's relationship with a popular, worn-out geisha, and a rich client forcing his man-servant to hang himself, to the horror of his geisha companions. Some attempted political (?) commentary appears in dated photo slides indicating the film's timeline through important moments in Japanese military and social history. This is available on DVD in the U.S. but I couldn't resist seeing two Japanese exploitation films in one day.

Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter (1970) - The only Pinky Violence Nikkatsu film shown at the festival (a major faux pas, in my opinion) was one of a series of STRAY CAT ROCK films, all starring the peerless Meiko Kaji as Mako, the no-nonsense leader of a delinquent girl gang. This is also available on U.S. DVD, but who could say no to seeing this in a theater? Mako and the girls aim to help new kid in town Rikiya Yasuoka find his missing sister, who he hasn't seen since childhood. A racial angle is thrown into the mix when the girl gang's male counterparts decide to attack and rid the town of any mixed-race people, most of whom congregate at a back alley bar called Mama's Blues. Being half-black and half-Japanese doesn't help Yasuoka in his search for sis. In terms of Pinky Violence, NYFF could have picked a better film, or several, to represent the concept of violent rebel women more appropriately. One of the key criticisms aimed at this film is the fact that it spends too much time with the male gang and telling the story of the new half-breed in town. The film works best when the girls are doing what they do best: destroying vicious men who try to take advantage of them. In this case, the film does deliver in a sequence where the girls are set up to be man-handled by European businessmen at a party. Mako ambushes the party with Molotov cocktails!! She also gets into a knife fight with dizzy fellow gang member Miki in a gripping opening sequence. Plus you get Japanese girl pop group The Golden Half (so-named because they were all half-Japanese, half-American) performing two great songs in a club, "Yellow Cherries" and "Kiroii Sakurambo". The less said about the cheesy song sung by Yasuoka and Kaji the better... You can see the Golden Half performing "Yellow Cherries" in yet another Pinky Violence movie, DELINQUENT GIRL BOSS: BLOSSOMING NIGHT DREAMS, here. This scene is very similar to SEX HUNTER so you'll get a good idea of how they appeared there. Honestly, folks, if I were asked to name my favorite genre of Japanese film, it would be Pinky Violence. There are plentiful examples available in the U.S. market...not enough for my cravings, but enough to whet your appetite and give you insight into this popular sub-genre that was soon replaced by the much more sexual 'roman porno' film movement.

Meiko Kaji as Scorpion, Female Prisoner #701, her other trademark role
Trailer for a Female Prisoner film linked above

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