Tag Archives: Japanese film

My Thoughts on: Empire of Passion (1978)

I decided to jump into an untouched corner of my Criterion collection by watching Empire of Passion, a film directed by Nagisa Ōshima that I purchased earlier this summer based solely on reading the film’s summary and being intrigued by it. This is one of the most relatively recent Japanese films in my collection, and I don’t think going in that I was completely prepared for how different Empire of Passion would look from a Japanese film that was made, say, in the early 1960s. Because it is certainly different from other period films that I’ve seen before.

To start with, Empire of Passion is set in 19th-century Japan (the story begins in 1895) and tells the story of a wife named Seki and a former Army soldier named Toyoji and how their illicit love affair slowly tears their lives apart. The lynchpin to all of this is the foul murder of Gisaburo, Seki’s husband. From then on, it’s a slow but steady decline into tragedy as the consequences of Seki and Toyoji’s actions ultimately catch up with them.

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It’s fascinating watching the start of the affair between Seki and Toyoji. Even though Toyoji is clearly taking advantage of Seki (including raping her several times in rather disturbing scenes), Seki herself doesn’t seem at all inclined to fight back or reassert control (her denials are half-hearted at best). Indeed, Seki, as far as I could make out, seemed ultimately content for the first half of the film to just let things happen to her. When Toyoji states that Gisaburo must die, Seki doesn’t even blink an eye at the suggestion. It’s unsettling, and that was probably the intention of the director.

If you’re watching Empire of Passion for the ghost story elements, be patient, it does take a while to get there. But once it gets going…oh boy, does it ever. The ghost segments are unnerving, often coming out of nowhere, and one scene (Seki takes a ghostly ride in a rickshaw) had the hair on the back of my neck standing on end. You literally feel pulled into the growing madness surrounding Seki and Toyoji as the story pushes on towards its inevitable conclusion. One of my favorite elements in this whole story is the old well, which has a much larger role in this story than I ever suspected. I liked the shots of snow and leaves falling in from the top of the well, they’re beautiful and more than a little ominous at the same time.

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There’s one moment I didn’t like at all, and that’s late in the film when Seki is unexpectedly blinded. The instant before it happens there’s a split-second take where you see pine needles pressing into Seki’s eyes (but it cuts away before any damage is done). The moment is so unsettling, and for me a little out of left field. I get that Seki is being punished for her part in the murder, but being blinded?? Also, speaking of punishment, I can’t quite wrap my head around the fact that most of these ghostly occurrences happen to Seki. She didn’t act alone, shouldn’t Toyoji be tormented just as much? The retribution seems somewhat lopsided to me.

Ultimately, I think I liked watching Empire of Passion, even if the ending did seem somewhat abrupt. I didn’t like it as much as earlier Japanese films in my collection, but I’m still glad I saw it because it’s important to watch a range of films to better understand the genre.

Let me know what you think about Empire of Passion in the comments below and have a great day!

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My Thoughts on: Double Suicide (1969)

I’m finally getting back into the swing of watching movies again and just recently I finally sat down to watch Double Suicide, a 1969 film that caught my attention because of the obvious implications of the title, as well as my determination to get my hands on every jidaigeki film I can.

The first thing that comes to mind about Double Suicide is that it is nothing like what I expected. Throughout, there is a motif of puppeteers manipulating the action on stage, almost as if the story is a puppet play brought to life (and indeed, the story starts with puppeteers setting up a show). It’s a little strange at times, to have the masked puppeteers appear out of nowhere or sneak along behind or alongside the characters, but you get used to it after a while. It sort of reinforces the idea that the characters are not entirely in control of their actions, that they’re merely puppets telling a tragic story.

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And speaking of the story….Double Suicide has one of the saddest stories I’ve ever seen. The premise centers around a hapless paper merchant named Jihei (married with two children by the way), who is hopelessly in love with a famous courtesan named Koharu. Jihei is determined to redeem Koharu from her life as a courtesan but can’t possibly hope to raise the amount of money needed to do it. Due to his fixation, his life quickly falls apart until only one course of action is possible.

In a stroke of brilliance, Jihei’s wife Osan is played by the same actress who plays Koharu. I think it’s a great choice because to me it shows that if Jihei would only open his eyes and look at the life he has with his shop, his wife and his children, then he’d see he already has a woman like Koharu in his life (in terms of looks anyway). But while Osan is loyal to an absolute fault, it’s demonstrated several times that Osan will say whatever needs to be said to get out of her situation as a courtesan. But none of this ultimately deters Jihei, he must have Koharu…or life is not worth living.

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It’s also striking to me how honest the film is with how selfish the actions of Jihei and Koharu are. Unlike other tragic love stories, there’s no real attempt made to disguise this love affair as anything close to noble. Jihei and Koharu are unbelievably selfish for abandoning their respective duties to die together and openly state as much several times. And really Jihei is the more selfish of the pair because he’s abandoning his wife and two young children all for a courtesan he can’t possibly afford. His persistence leads to a horrifically sad moment when Osan’s father summarily dissolves her marriage and drags her home (without her children it should be noted). All of that because Jihei wants what he can’t have.

And finally, going back to the title of the story, I almost feel like it’s misleading. Double Suicide implies that the couple willingly kills themselves. But when you watch the scene play out….it’s not like that at all, it’s actually closer to a murder-suicide in my opinion. It just really struck me at the end that it didn’t seem like Koharu really wanted to die.

In the end I think everyone should watch Double Suicide at least once because of the unusual way the story is put together (with puppeteers controlling the story and popping in and out). It’s not my favorite jidaigeki film, but I did enjoy it.

Let me know what you think about Double Suicide in the comments below and have a great day!

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My Thoughts on: Sword of the Beast (1965)

After checking out Kill! the next Criterion film I checked out was Sword of the Beast, another samurai film, this time from 1965. The film was directed by Hideo Gosha and is set in 1857 toward the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate. The story follows Gennosuke (Mikijiro Hira), a samurai on the run after assassinating a counselor in his clan. He is relentlessly pursued by Misa, the daughter of the counselor he killed, and Daizaburo, her future husband.

As with several films of this genre that I’ve watched recently, the reasons behind Gennosuke’s actions are…well, complicated. The gist though, is that like other protagonists, Gennosuke was tricked into doing what he did, expecting to be rewarded afterward. Instead, he’s double-crossed and forced to go on the run.

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That much of the story I can understand, as well as Gennosuke’s rightful claims that the clan he formerly served is corrupt to its core. Apart from that though, this story actually disappointed me. I was expecting and/or hoping for Gennosuke’s issues to be properly resolved in some way by the end of the story…but they’re not. Sure, by the end Misa appears to have given up her wish to see Gennosuke dead, but the story just ends with the rebel samurai walking away. It’s an ending that doesn’t satisfy me at all, as I feel like Gennosuke’s story doesn’t have any closure. After all, isn’t the clan still going to be after him for what he did?

Also, I found parts of the story to be a little jarring. Some characters are introduced that seem to have no relevance to Gennosuke’s story, and even though their connection to the story is later explained, it was still a bit awkward for me.

I did like watching Sword of the Beast for the most part, but it’s not my favorite samurai film by any stretch of the imagination. It has its moments, but I can’t get over how disappointed I was with the ending of the story.

Let me know what you think about Sword of the Beast in the comments below and have a great day!

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My Thoughts on: Casshern (2004)

Note: This review is in fulfillment of a Patreon pledge

My apologies for being late with this review, but last night I was finally able to sit down and watch Casshern (2004), a Japanese film based on the 1973 anime of the same name. I’d never heard of this film specifically before being asked to watch it, though I had heard of Casshern Sins, a reboot of the anime that aired in 2008.

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Set in the far future, Casshern begins at the end of a fifty-year war between Europa (which uses robot armies) and the Eastern Federation. The Federation emerges victorious, but is soon fighting again when an uprising begins in Zone 7. Tetsuya Azuma (Yusuke Iseya), the son of a brilliant scientist, enlists in the army and ends up killed in action, only to be resurrected with the help of strange “Neo Cells” and gains incredible abilities as a result. The Neo Cells themselves are allegedly capable of forming new body parts, but it turns out they’re actually something else entirely.

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Having never seen Casshern before, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I do my best to give every film I watch a fair chance, but while Casshern does have its moments (more on those in a moment), by and large the film did not impress me. The biggest failing of the film is its special effects. It’s painfully obvious when CGI is being used, so much so that in several scenes it took me right out of the action because of how fake it looked. The plot is also really confusing, though I’m not sure if that’s the fault of the film itself or the subtitles (which I’ve heard aren’t the best in the world). There are multiple scenes that seem like they’re supposed to be big moments, but instead come across as head-scratchers. A good case in point: in one early scene, it seems like we’re building up to an explosion in a secret laboratory, when suddenly a stone thunderbolt crashes through the ceiling and lodges itself into the lab. Said thunderbolt is the most blatant example of a deus ex machina that I’ve seen in years because the main plot doesn’t really get going until it inexplicably arrives.

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That’s not to say that the film is all bad, there is at least one moment that I thought was very well done. In a really creepy moment, the stone thunderbolt seemingly turned the Neo-Cell body parts into whole people. The military inexplicably shows up to slaughter them but a handful escape into the mountains. The bulk of this scene is done with no dialogue (aside from some crying and screaming), only music to give a sense of what is happening. It’s the one moment in the entire film where I was completely engrossed in the story.

I will also say that, having looked at images of the original anime, there are some Easter eggs paying homage to the 1973 series. For one, you can see the helmet that Casshern wears in the anime and Tetsuya later meats a dog named ‘Friender’ which references the cyborg’s canine sidekick in the anime.

Would I recommend Casshern? I’ll put it like this: if you’re a die-hard fan of all things Casshern, then I say go for it, you’ll likely find something to love about this film. But if you’re only a casual viewer then I would recommend avoiding this one, the visual flaws and confusing plot don’t add up to anything meaningful (though you can tell they’re trying).

What did you think of Casshern (if you’ve seen it)? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below and have a great day! If you sub to my Patreon for $5 or above, you can also request a film review of your choice 🙂

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My Thoughts on Throne of Blood (1957)

Have you ever wondered what Macbeth would look like if William Shakespeare had been a Japanese playwright living in 17th century feudal Japan? Legendary director Akira Kurosawa pondered the exact same question and as a result created Throne of Blood (known as Kumonosu-jō or Spider-Web’s Castle in its original Japanese title). The plot is largely faithful to Shakespeare, but the characters have undergone some changes, so first I’ll list the main characters and their Shakespearean counterparts:

  • Washizu/Macbeth: a loyal retainer of the Great Lord who is unexpectedly promoted to commander of the North Garrison after helping subdue a rebellion.
  • Miki/Banquo: Washizu’s best friend since childhood. He also meets the Witch in Spider-Web Forest
  • Lady Asaji/Lady Macbeth: Washizu’s scheming wife who continually pushes her husband to fulfill his “destiny” as laid out by the Witch.
  • The Great Lord/King Duncan: Ruler of a large territory who places great trust in Washizu and Miki.
  • The Witch of Spider-Web Forest/The Three Witches: Instead of three witches, Washizu and Miki meet only one, who, after singing a morbid song about how all life is connected to the corruption of death, foretells that Washizu will be promoted and shortly thereafter become Great Lord of Spider-Web’s Castle.

 

As I said before, the film is largely faithful to Shakespeare’s plot: After defeating a rogue lord in battle, Washizu and his friend Miki are on their way to meet the Great Lord when they come across a strange witch in the forest. The witch foretells that Washizu will shortly be named lord of the North Garrison and become ruler of Spider-Web’s Castle thereafter. Miki asks his fortune, and the witch replies that while his son will one day rule, he (Miki) will not. The friends attempt to laugh off the encounter, but when the first set of predictions come true (both are rewarded as the witch said they would be), they begin to wonder if the second prediction will also come true (because the Great Lord has a son of his own).

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Behind the scene with the arrows in Throne of Blood

Washizu (to me) makes the great mistake of telling Lady Asaji about the prophecy and everything that’s happened and from that point on she can’t let it go; Washizu MUST fulfill the rest of the prophecy or he is no man at all. I have to say that Isuzu Yamada’s performance as Lady Asaji is one of the most chilling renditions of the Lady Macbeth character that I have ever seen. Part of the eeriness comes from Kurosawa instructing the actress to never blink on-camera. This gives her a not-quite-human affect and makes it like she’s wearing a mask (which is a reference to traditional Japanese theater, where the actors wore masks to denote their character). Asaji is near-sociopathic when it comes to getting what she wants, especially when she speaks of killing the Great Lord (which, as Washizu points out, would be an act of treason).

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Great Lord Washizu sees Miki’s ghost at a feast

Despite Washizu’s doubts, he finally gives in and murders the Great Lord off-camera when the latter comes to stay at the garrison for a night (Asaji having convinced him that all of this is a ploy that will eventually lead to Washizu’s execution). Despite successfully becoming the next Great Lord, Washizu is far from happy. But he at least sees one happy ending for his story: his dear friend Miki will be named his heir, as will Miki’s son, since Washizu has no children to succeed him. But while Washizu is content to reign and then turn the castle over to someone else, Lady Asaji is not. In a twist specificially created by Kurosawa, the devious wife drops a bombshell on her husband:

Asaji: “I am….with child.”

Washizu: “Truly?!”

Asaji: “….yes.”

The revelation that Asaji is pregnant (and she truly is, it’s not a lie) changes everything and gives Washizu a true motivation to eliminate Miki and his son from the picture. This is done, though Miki’s son escapes. At a feast later that night, Washizu sees Miki’s ghost sitting at his usual place in the hall, which terrifies the guilty lord who nearly reveals the whole truth to his entire court! I love Mifune’s performance in this scene, he is clearly wrestling with his fear and guilt and a part of him wants to badly to scream his sins in front of the world. But there’s still the child…isn’t there? Well, when the time to give birth arrives, a maid delivers the news: Asaji delivered a stillborn child, one that had been dead in the womb for some time, meaning Washizu ordered his best friend murdered for nothing. The loss of the child and the weight of her guilt combine to drive Asaji mad, and we last see her frantically trying to clean the phantom blood from her hands.

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Washizu with the fatal arrow in his neck

Washizu dies just like Macbeth at the conclusion of the story, but it’s the manner of his death that I’d like to talk about. Just like in Shakespeare, Washizu receives a final prophecy from the witch: he will not be overthrown until Spider Web’s Forest marches up to the castle. Since forests can’t walk of their own accord, Washizu assumes this means he’s invincible and he tells his men as much. But then, one night, an army organized by the son of the murdered Great Lord arrives and strange noises are heard in the forest. In the morning, the soldiers keeping watch cry out in panic, for there is Spider-Web’s Forest walking up to the castle!

In actuality, the invading soldiers had chopped down the trees to 1) make it easier to reach the castle and 2) disguise how many soldiers and wagons they had with them. Seeing the prophecy come true, Washizu’s men turn on him and suddenly a few arrows are shot at the terrified lord. When he calls them out that killing the Great Lord is treason, a soldier yells back “And who killed our last lord??” Dozens of arrows pursue Washizu as he runs for his life, but every way is cut off by arrows. He’s pierced dozens of times, but he still struggles to get away until suddenly (in one of the best executed jump-cuts you’ll ever see), an arrow pierces his neck, killing him, and bringing an end to the tragedy of Washizu.

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An interesting note about the final scene with the arrows: Toshiro Mifune was really being shot at by live arrows (for the most part, a few are guided by wires which can be seen if you watch for them). His frantic arm movements are actually directing the archers as to which direction they need to shoot in next. This is why Washizu looks so terrified: because Mifune is genuinely terrified!

I would also like to give a quick mention to the wonderful score composed by Masaru Sato (1928-1999), who composed music for Kurosawa’s films for over a decade. He created music that highlights both the good and bad moments in Washizu’s life, and it really adds to the quality of this film.

If you’d like to watch Throne of Blood (which I highly recommend), the Criterion Collection has a restored copy on DVD/Blu Ray. It can also be streamed via FilmStruck. If you’ve seen Throne of Blood, what did you think of it? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. Have a good day!

See also:

My thoughts on: Yojimbo (1961)

Live-Action Films/TV

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My Neighbor Totoro (1988): One of My All Time Favorite Cartoons Blogathon

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This post is part of the One of My All Time Favorite Cartoons Blogathon hosted by MovieMovieBlogBlog

My Neighbor Totoro is set in post-World War II Japan (presumably in the 1950s based on the types of cars and technology visible in the story) and follows the Kusakabe family as they move to a new house in the countryside because the mother is in a nearby hospital. Mr. Kusakabe is a professor at a university in Tokyo; eldest daughter Satsuki is in grade school, while youngest daughter Mei is only four.The girls encounter a variety of spirits, starting with dust sprites (black puff balls with eyes), and forest spirits collectively known as “totoro”. Mei sees them first, in a hilarious sequence that has me giggling every time. The two smaller totoro she meets end up leading her to the magical home of Totoro, THE forest spirit of the local area. Totoro is a huge grey spirit, with a big fluffy belly, long rabbit ears and the biggest smile you ever saw (and he also loves to sleep a lot).Satsuki is initially skeptical, but once she meets Totoro at a bus stop one night, both of them become good friends with the forest spirit.

I love the bus stop scene; the smile that grows on Totoro’s face is just infectious. He doesn’t have an umbrella of his own at first, so Satsuki offers him the umbrella she brought for her father. When Totoro hears the sounds the rain makes on the umbrella, it makes him really happy, like, super happy! And the Catbus….well, I love it, but you can’t really describe it. The Catbus must be experienced 🙂

Their mom has been in the hospital for what is implied to be a long time. Her illness is never disclosed, but it is believed to be tuberculosis (as Miyazaki’s own mother spent a long time in the hospital for that reason). Towards the end of the film, the girls receive news that their mother will be allowed home for a short visit, but shortly before the visit, Satsuki receives word that her mother actually can’t come home after all due to a small relapse of her illness. The older Satsuki does her best to take this news in stride, but little Mei won’t have it. Frustrated with having to hold in her feelings for so long, Satsuki finally snaps and yells at Mei, asking if she wants their mother to die. A horribly upset Mei ends up running away to bring some fresh corn to her mother (she gets the idea after hearing a neighbor tell her and her sister earlier that if their mom ate some fresh vegetables she would get better right away). The little girl soon becomes lost and the whole village turns out to look for her. Satsuki is guilt-ridden, but she knows what to go to for help: Totoro!! She finds Totoro in his tree and begs for help, and Totoro is more than happy to oblige! He summons the Catbus who takes an astounded Satsuki to where Mei is sitting lost. And once the sisters are reunited, Catbus offers to take them both to see their mother (and of course they agree!)

The story ends shortly thereafterward, with the girls being brought back home. A series of still images during the end credits reveals that their mother finally does come home for a visit (or possibly for good) and alls well that ends well.

My Neighbor Totoro is one of the greatest animated films I’ve ever seen. For me, it embodies what childhood should be, and I highly recommend it for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet!

I also love all the spirits: the dust sprites, the mini Totoros, and of course Totoro himself, they’re all so beautifully animated, I find myself wishing things like them existed in real life.

Thanks to MovieMovieBlogBlog for hosting this great blogathon! -Becky

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