Gozu (2003)

Gozu (2003) movie poster

director Takashi Miike
viewed: 08/09/2017

It’s gotta be said, Takashi Miike is outré there. Or at least he was at one point, for quite a while.

The iconolclasts of contemporary cinema are rather few and far between. Or otherwise maybe too obscure?

Gozu comes from Miike’s ripest period and seems to rank for many among his best movies. And that seems a fair assessment.

Absurd and comic, Gozu is the spiritual journey of a young yakuza flunky, Minami (Hideki Sone), and his crazy (really, really crazy) boss and best friend, Ozaki (Show Aikawa), who winds up dead and then disappears.  Minami finds himself adrift in a very David Lynchian world, trying to figure out where his “brother” got off to. The journey is a prolonged and surreal, punctuated with strange and awkward humor.

If you think you know where this film is going,…well, let’s just say that the last half hour features twists that aren’t just unforeseen but gruesome and vivid.

Of all of Miike’s films I’ve seen, Gozu feels the most Lynchian. I’m not sure I’ve thought of David Lynch in his other works, but this one takes that vibe, runs with it, and then smacks down with some of Miike’s most intense stuff.

Massacre Gun (1967)

Massacre Gun (1967) movie poster

director Yasuharu Hasebe
viewed: 07/02/2017

The jowliest of the jowly, Jō Shishido, stars in Yasuharu Hasebe’s yakuza picture, Massacre Gun. Shot in black-and-white, it’s as stylish as it is by-the-numbers, featuring a plot of escalating violence in a local yakuza rift.

Really, what else would you ask of genre film?

I had never realized that Shishido got cheek implants (or some sort of cheekbone surgery) to give him that look like a chipmunk. Is this where Brando got his Godfather inspiration?

I’d be interested to read an analysis of the relationship between the yakuza genre and the samurai genre. So many elements of Japanese culture is deeply imbued in these archetypes: loyalty, the individual, hierarchy, duty, violence.

What else would you ask of genre film?

Tokyo Drifter (1966)

Tokyo Drifter (1966) movie poster

director Seijun Suzuki
viewed: 06/21/2014

What can I tell you about Seijun Suzuki and Tokyo Drifter that you don’t already know?  I suppose that depends on who you are and what you know.

Seijun Suzuki is in a kind of class by himself.  I can’t really think of anyone remotely like him, though his work verges into areas like surrealism and uber-stylized action.  Still, working almost exclusively in the yakuza gangster film, he veered away from conventions while actively flouting and flaunting those conventions.

The most typical cases in point are Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill (1967) because these were two of his final films as a director at Nikkatsu Studios, the ultimates in stylized genre movies that became less and less about the story that was being depicted and more and more abstracted and strange.  Both films are the exemplars of his sort of wacky approach that got him canned and made him a legend.

I think I prefer Tokyo Drifter but I’m not sure.  Suzuki pulls from a lot of varied things to put together this particular film.  In fact, it’s got so much going on in it, it’s kind of hard to discuss in brief.  Any one scene may feature sequences of abstraction or strange artifice, jump cuts, genre jumps.  It’s most like perhaps some of Jean-Luc Godard’s early work but with a lot more emphasis on style and less on pure audience awareness.

Style Suzuki has in spades.  In fact, he uses style like he has it in spades.  Abstracted into weirdness.

So what can I tell you?

Drunken Angel

 

Drunken Angel (1948) movie poster

(1948) director Akira Kurosawa
viewed: 12/30/10 at the Viz Cinema, SF, CA

To celebrate the centennial of the birth of Akira Kurosawa, one of the great film directors of the 20th century, I was expecting to see a lot of his films playing at local repertory houses.   Outside of catching Ran (1985) at the Embarcadero earlier in the year, I didn’t get a chance to see any other of his films on the big screen in 2010.  It turns out that the films primarily played at the not so heavily advertised Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley and the small Japantown movie theater Viz Cinema in San Francisco.  On randomly checking around, I saw that Viz was showing a series of six films to close out the year.

I’d never seen Drunken Angel before.  It’s the first of sixteen cinematic collaborations between Kurosawa and star Toshirō Mifune, who is young and slim and clean-shaven as a suave tough in this film.  The “drunken angel” of the title is Takashi Shimura, another Kurosawa regular, as an often besotted doctor, whose drunkenness and outspoken attitude has kept him in the poorer reaches of Tokyo, servicing the working class and also the criminal element, rather than having achieved a larger, more successful practice.

The film is considered a social critique of post-war Japan in the years immediately following WWII and the humbling occupation by American troops.  The film is set around a festering mire, laden with trash and oozing with disease.  If anything, it is the film’s central image, a stagnation that stands in for perhaps the Japanese psyche at the time.  The mire is surrounded by the young toughs, the prostitutes, and the destitute.  And whether suffering from alcoholism, tuberculosis, venereal disease, or depression and malaise, it’s a bleak place.  But Shimura, as the doctor, still seeks humanity and hope amidst the garbage.

The film opens with Shimura treating Mifune, who has been shot in the hand in a skirmish.  The scene is the best in the film, deftly sketching the characters, the brooding yakuza and Shimura telling it like it is to him.  He diagnoses Mifune with TB and gruffly tells him to clean up his life.  There is much colorful detail played out, from a door that won’t stay open to Shimura’s handling of his instruments.

The film is a melodrama primarily, with touches of humor.  And while I’ve seen it referred to as film noir as well, I would think that perhaps portions of it could be seen in that light but I don’t know if it fits neatly into that category.  It’s an excellent film however its sorted, and it shows Kurosawa’s masterful hand throughout.  I’ve come to appreciate Kurosawa immensely in recent years, joining the chorus, perhaps in that regard.  But I am eager to see more of his films and when I can, see them on the big screen.

Dead or Alive

Dead or Alive (1999) movie poster

(1999) dir. Takashi Miike
viewed: 02/05/08

For the uninitiated, Takashi Miike is one of the most prolific, bizarre, cult filmmakers out in the world today.  And Dead or Alive is one of his more notable films, a film popular enough to have two “sequels” made.  And I have to say, Dead or Alive, which I’d been meaning to see for ages, is one of his best films.  Typically violent and at times just plain surreal, Miike takes the yakuza gangster film to places it’s really never been to.  And it’s hard to imagine anyone else who could have pulled it off in this way.

The story is chaotic and there a dozens of characters to follow, so it’s no cake-walk even making it through the first 10 minutes.  In fact, the film opens with a heavy metal rage, a montage sequence where images appear just barely long enough to eke out their meaning.  But it’s not just sex, violence, drugs, and gluttony, it’s actually laying out the first part of the narrative in hyper-fast fashion.  I think I caught up about half-way through the movie.  One can only be grateful that this pacing isn’t sustained throughout.

Beyond the narrative, about Chinese triad wannabes trying to kick their way into the Japanese mafia and the cop that want to take them all down, the film is interspersed with truly bizarre moments of Surrealistic nonsense.  In one scene, in a shoot-out, one gangster batters his hand and deep fries it for no apparent reason just before he is shot.  The ending itself is a total break-away from reality, so over-the-top that it’s outright comedy.

And Miike is known for both his violence and perversion.  Bestiality is implied quite explicitly, and one female character dies in a kiddie swimming pool full of her own feces.  Miike’s world is gross and chaotic, violent and insane, and one in which just about anything can happen.  It’s one of the exciting things about his films.  You really don’t know what to expect.  And he’s not just a hack.  His films have interesting development and camerawork, they’re insanely interesting.

Personally, I recommend Dead or Alive, Audition (2000),or Ichi the Killer (2001) as his best work.  Audition is probably the most accessible of the three, while Ichi the Killer is probably the most extreme.  His other films are always interesting, but sometimes less effective in their out and out weirdness.  Anyhow, Miike is the man.

Branded to Kill

Branded to Kill (1967) movie poster

(1967) dir. Seijun Suzuki
viewed: 10/29/07

Here’s a film that I’ve been meaning to see for 13 years.  Nothing like finally getting around to it.

I first stumbled on Seijun Suzuki when I was living in England in 1995.  I’d gotten deeply into Hong Kong cinema in the previous years and had fairly ample access to those films in San Francisco, but in Sheffield, England of the time, they were none too prevalent.  One comic book shop that was in the city centre had both Tokyo Drifter (1966) and Branded to Kill available for purchase as well as Takeshi Kitano’s Violent Cop (1989), Boiling Point (1990),  and Sonatine (1993).  Neither director had I encountered, but was titilated by other Asian gangster films and was lucky enough to find a couple of Kitano Takeshi’s films at a local video shop.  Suzuki ended up having to wait.

In film school back in San Francisco, a professor of mine, highly knowledgeable in Japanese film, laughed a lot about Suzuki’s films and showed some clips of them, so I started to get a sense of what he was all about.  I think at some point I finally rented Tokyo Drifter, but for some reason it hadn’t made the expected impression.  Yeah, I know, it’s all about me so far, right?  Well, it is a “film diary”, not a pure review-oriented site nor anything purely academic (not that I would be accused of the latter).

Branded to Kill is considered to be Suzuki’s masterpiece, his most interesting and bizarre film.  Suzuki worked for a film studio Nikkatsu, churning out what were intended to be B-movie yakuza films, handed down scripts, and simply made to bang out in formulaic style.  Now, as I have mentioned, I haven’t seen the scope of all of Suzuki’s film, but Branded to Kill is about as far from formulaic as one could imagine.  It’s referred to as “avant-garde”, “surreal”, “new wave” and all of those adjectives came to mind throughout the film.  It’s intensely nutty.

With a narrative about a top hit man who, after a botched hit, becomes the target of the #1 hit man in Japan, one might imagine a pretty straight-forward potboiler.  But the film is all over the place, with some more blatant Freudian weirdness with star Joe Shisido lusting for the smell of freshly boiled rice, a femme fatale who opens a conversation with a death wish and turns out to be obsessed with dead birds and butterflies, to a silhuoetted killing in which gun as phallus hits the female right about in that part of her body.

But beyond all that, the film cuts from thing to thing, throwing in bizarro shots and compositions, breaking off narrative in directions that don’t make a lot of sense, toying left and right with anything and everything imaginable.  It’s little wonder that the studio fired him after this film.  It’s even more amazing that they released it as it is.  I was reminded of the way that writer Jim Thompson worked for pulp fiction publishers yet took his style to Modernist heights within the genre.  This is way more out there in some ways, but in others, maybe that is not so inapt a comment.

Tons has been written about Branded to Kill and I don’t know how much more I can offer after my vieweing, but it is a totally amazing film that harkens all kinds of strange things like David Lynch and Jean-Luc Godard and was clearly as avant-garde as anything that would have come out of any studio system at the time.  The film doesn’t merely subvert genre, it does about anything and everything it can with cinema.  It’s a greatly bizarre and challenging film while being totally funny and entertaining, too.  It certainly deserves its noted reputation.

Brother

Brother (2000) movie poster

(2000) dir. Kitano Takeshi

I love Takeshi Kitano.

The man is a genius. He is a great screen presence, like a small, bemused, Japanese “Man With No Name,” a la Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti western film persona. He’s always on the verge of laughter or violence, yet he is almost always expressionless. One of those faces that it’s impossible not to project upon, yet impossible to comprehend.

As a director, I personally think that some of his films are brilliant, particularly Sonatine (1993), another film about yakuza who are taken out of their element. However, Sonatine‘s brilliance is not matched here, even though some similar ground is tread and like metaphors abound.

In Brother, Kitano’s character escapes from Japan, following a change in mafia family loyalty by his best friend. He winds up in L.A. with his half-brother who is a small time drug dealer on the fringe of the American mafia with his multi-cultural gang, of which, Omar Epps is a primary figure. Kitano winds up taking charge of thier operation and starts gunning for the top.

It’s certainly an area full of potential, the culture clash of the two strong forms of mafia is set against the personal culture clash between Kitano and the American culture, which tends to underestimate him.

The strongest moments occur during sequences in which Kitano and Epps are playing games with one another, Chinese checkers, simple dice games. The best moment occurs during a basketball game in which Kitano’s aide from Japan tries to play, but is not allowed to play.