#24 (tie) – Rashomon (1950), dir. Kurosawa Akira

Rashomon (1950)

I might have been lying when I said I was lying. Actress Machiko Kyo takes in the horror of her situation — at least in her version of the story — in Kurosawa Akira’s landmark film Rashomon.

A man lies dead in a forest clearing, his wife has been assaulted, and a bandit has made off with their horse and possessions. This much is known, but everything else is called into question as the bandit, the wife, and the dead man (speaking through a medium) tell drastically different versions of how this came to be. And a story level beyond, three men discuss these testimonies as they take shelter from the pouring rain and, confronted with an apparent web of death and lies, ponder the nature of the human soul. Kurosawa Akira’s Rashomon (1950) was a major landmark in world cinema, breaking Japanese film into the global consciousness in a major way (and generally letting the West know that their was more than Europe and Hollywood out there). The film — which essentially tells the same story four times from radically different vantage points — is a remarkable deconstruction of narrative convention and calls into question the supposed impartiality of the camera’s gaze. Endlessly influential — the “Rashomon effect” has even entered standard legal parlance — the film calls into question the nature of truth and examines the urges and self-serving motives that obscure the pure core of our common humanity. (88 min.) Continue reading

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#17 – Seven Samurai (1954), dir. Kurosawa Akira

Seven Samurai (1954)

The Magnificent Seven. The great Toshiro Mifune leads a stellar ensemble cast in the grandest of Japanese epic films, Kurosawa Akira’s Seven Samurai.

These days Ozu Yasujiro is probably considered to be Japan’s greatest filmmaker, but it’s a good bet that more people have gotten their introduction to classic Japanese cinema through Kurosawa Akira. This is perhaps not terribly surprising, given Kurosawa’s eye for spectacle and a well honed populist streak that makes for stellar entertainment. It also doesn’t hurt that Kurosawa’s films frequently draw from Western cultural touchstones like film Westerns, noir detective fiction and Shakespeare, making his work more accessible to Western viewers. Though a versatile filmmaker who did everything from quiet domestic dramas to urban thrillers, Kurosawa is probably most famous for his samurai pictures, and there is no film in the genre as epic and grand as 1954’s Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai). The plot of the film is quite simple: a village hires seven samurai to defend it from bandits. But within that simple framework Kurosawa creates a sprawling epic touching on issues of class and economy, bravery and cowardice, selfishness versus community, and the nature of loss. Exciting and funny, smart but not preachy, Seven Samurai pretty much defined the action film, giving movies an energy they had never previously known. (209 min.) Continue reading

#15 – Late Spring (1949), dir. Ozu Yasujiro

Late Spring (1949)

So happy together. Chishu Ryu and Setsuko Hara are quietly powerful as a father and daughter living together in post-war Japan in the Ozu Yasujiro masterpiece Late Spring.

This is it for the 1940s at Fan With a Movie Yammer, and we had the pleasure of finishing off this decade of Sight & Sound films on pretty much the highest of high notes. Late Spring (Banshun, 1949) is the second list film from acclaimed director Ozu Yasujiro, and also the first post-war Japanese movie to make the list. Japanese cinema is going to play heavily in our viewing of 1950s films, and it seems singularly appropriate that Ozu would be sending us off into that decade in grand style. Late Spring is a deceptively simple tale of a young woman resisting family and friends who are pushing her to marry. That is basically the whole of the plot, but Ozu and his exceptional cast imbue the scenario with a depth of feeling and provide such intimate shading of the core characters. Precise but never fussy, heartfelt and sad, but hopeful and very funny, Late Spring captures the essence of the human condition with confidence and a generosity of spirit. (107 min.) Continue reading

#183 (tie) – The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939), dir. Mizoguchi Kenji

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Journey to the end of the night. Otoko (played by Kakuko Mori) prays beneath the stage, hoping her husband will finally put on the performance that will redeem him, in Mizoguchi Kazuo’s exquisitely shot tale of devotion in the face of social rigidity.

We finally get a little break from 1930s French and American movies to tackle the oldest Japanese sound film on the Sight & Sound list, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (Zangiku monogatari, 1939). Japanese cinema didn’t get much international recognition prior to the Second World War, but it roared into the global consciousness in the 1950s, in no small part due to the work of director Mizoguchi Kenji. A prolific filmmaker, Mizoguchi produced somewhere in the neighborhood of 90 films in his career (many of which, sadly, are lost), but The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums is considered to be the moment his style fully crystallized. The movie follows the career trajectory of a kabuki actor in the late 19th century. The adopted son of a famous Tokyo stage actor, Kikunosuke is a bad performer coasting on the coattails of his father’s name. Otoko, the wet nurse of his infant brother, is the first person to be honest about his poor acting and urges him to really focus on his craft. Bolstered by Otoko’s encouragement and love, Kikunosuke disobeys his parents and heads off to make his own name on the stage — but that path is destined to be arduous, if not tragic. Though leisurely paced and restrained in mood, Last Chrysanthemums is a bravura exercise in lighting, choreography, and camera movement that never fails to impress. (143 min.) Continue reading

#183 (tie) – I Was Born, But… (1932), dir. Ozu Yasujiro

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Ah so desu ka. Kids peer on with interest as a friend tricks his dad into removing his dentures in Ozu Yasujiro’s I Was Born, But…, a coming of age comedy set in the suburbs of Tokyo.

I Was Born, But… (Otona no miru ehon – Umarete wa mita keredo, 1932) is an adult story from a child’s eye point of view. Having just moved to a suburb of Tokyo, brothers Keiji and Ryoichi find themselves as outsiders among the neighborhood children. The movie deals with their struggle to ingratiate themselves with the local kids and to come to terms with the importance — or non-importance — of their family in the world at large. Oh, and it’s also extremely funny. I Was Born, But… is the latest totally silent film on the Sight & Sound list (1936’s Modern Times doesn’t quite count), and it is also the oldest Japanese film in the Top 250. The movie is by the prolific director Ozu Yasujiro, whose very formal directorial style works surprisingly well with the kinetic shenanigans of the children in this movie, creating something like an art house Little Rascals movie. Alternately beautiful and supremely silly, I Was Born, But… is the rare movie that let’s children be children, instead of being participants in a sanitized fairy tale or a live-action cartoon. It also let’s adults be adults, acknowledging that they can be nearly as ridiculous as their kids. (91 min.) Continue reading