Friday, November 23, 2007

Japanese Screams Volume 4

And now friends we come to what may be the last in this series (at least until next Halloween) of horror movies from the land of the rising sun. This time we have a truly cruel look at society through the eyes of someone whose eyes are the only thing left intact on his face. It features a performance from one of my favorite actors of all time and it has a great look, one that rivals all 60s freak-outs (and it helps that it's done with a straight-face and doesn't once mention drugs or hippies).

The Face Of Another
by Hiroshi Teshigahara
This film owes a significant debt to another black-and-white psychological horror film; Georges Franju’s The Face Of Another. Those of you who’ve seen it should know then the subject matter dealt with in Hiroshi Teshigahara’s artistic tale of loss and alienation causing the mind to turn stale is not exactly groundbreaking, but it was still effective, especially in the context of post-war Japan. The story, based on a novel by Kobo Abe, someone director Teshigahara had an informal partnership with for the first ten years of his career, follows two people affected by cosmetic disorder. The first, a man called Okuyama (a particularly crazy Tatsuya Nakadai) has been disfigured by an industrial accident and now has a bandage covering his entire face (the implication seems to be that it is permanent). The second, far less developed story follows a woman with a radiation burn on one half of her otherwise beautiful face. These stories, in case you couldn’t tell, are really about Hiroshima and the loss of identity that followed. Okuyama, who we will primarily concern ourselves with is one sick dude. He purposely bugs his wife because he knows that he repulses her and makes a point of unnerving everyone he comes in contact with (talk about self-pity). The answer to his problems (or the beginning, depending on how you look at it) comes when he meets a nameless psychologist who moonlights as a plastic surgeon. Together they come up with a plan – mold a mask for Okuyama out of someone else’s likeness and give the scarred man a new face. Now the psychiatrist, understands just how dangerous such a procedure is (“it’s like a drug that turns you invisible”) and knows Okuyama is probably going to do some truly ghastly things with his new face, but he’s too tittilated by the prospect of studying him to say no. So, against his and his nurse/mistress’ better judgment, they craft a face for Okuyama, and unsurprisingly Okuyama becomes unrecognizable, physically and mentally, to everyone with two exceptions: the mentally handicapped daughter of a hotel manager and someone I won’t mention, as it would ruin the film for you. I will say this, both act as Okuyama’s undoing as the real reason he decided to adopt the new visage was to try and seduce his wife to teach her a lesson, but that doesn’t exactly pan out. The second story, of the girl with the hideous burn on her face could be in any Italian modernist film of the 1960s in its minimalist intensity. She moves from location to location, experience-varying degrees of mistreatment, deciding ultimately that she was not meant for the world – such a world where a war could start at any moment. It isn’t exactly linear logic, but it uses pretty effective imagery.

This is the least scary and most meditative of all the films reviewed here (and Kwaidan is pretty meditative), but that’s because it was the only one made by a card carrying new waver. Hiroshi Teshigahara made precious few films in his lifetime, but those that he did were designed to burn bridges and break hearts. The Face of Another or Tanin No Gao has very few scares in it – and the ones in there mostly derive from just how upsetting it is to see Okuyama probing the depths of personal space. The strange shape of his bandaged head makes every movement a nerve wracking one. This film is incredibly interesting because of the bizarre mixture of elements and influences – The similarities between Okuyama’s appearance and that of The Invisible Man, The bizarre design of the plastic surgeon’s office (which really has to be seen, it’s amazing), the appearance of projected images on doors and windows, the nod to Chris Marker’s La Jetee at the end of the girl’s story, the symmetry that exists between Okuyama’s life and that of his new face, the very perplexing issues brought up by the surgeon as he watches someone with no redeeming qualities live with no boundaries and the extent to which he is willing to help in order to live vicariously through Okuyama – it really is a provocative film. The design and cinematography and execution are pure 60s art house, but the subject matter and imagery are of another school altogether, one I’m not sure I can place. The film’s main purpose is to show just dark it gets inside the soul when the thing that everyone sees, the face, is purposely ignored. Take that humanity!
I’d like to take a moment to discuss Tatsuya Nakadai, the star of half of the above entries. As this movie has an operation that significantly changes the psyche of its main character, discussion of a mad scientist is inevitable. The surgeon in this movie however is not him. No, the mad scientist behavior belongs to Okuyama, who only lacks any real scientific knowledge. His mannerisms, inflection, behavior and logic all seem to belong to Dr. Frankenstein or Pretorius or some such mad genius. Nakadai was about as versatile an actor as you could find in the 60s and doesn’t get nearly the credit he deserves (not that a mention on a blog concerned with Zombie movies is going to give it to him). It’s because Nakadai was such a strong actor that his character far outweighs everyone around him and even though he is an unsympathetic bastard, you can’t help but wish him to succeed. Nadakai’s first real acting job came in Kobayashi’s aforementioned Human Condition trilogy, extraordinary films that don’t feel their length. Many have heralded them as the best films ever made and they certainly deserve all the praise they receive (any film with pacing decent enough to make 9 hours seem justifiable deserves all the acclaim it can get). There are two exceptional things about these movies. The first is that they are not, like Musashi Miyamoto or most other Japanese epics, based on a sprawling prose-filled novel, they’re based (loosely) on Kobayashi’s life. Second is that he is such an eloquent and skilled storyteller. The second goes a long way toward explaining the absolutely gorgeous Kwaidan. The other thing that makes these films remarkable is that they are carried by Tatsuya Nakadai, who not four years ago had been an extra in Seven Samurai. It takes real talent to move up that quickly in the film world, and Nakadai could have built a house with his. Watch him in his two early Okamoto films the Sword Of Doom and Kill! He goes from being the very definition of evil to perfectly deadpanning his funniest role in a satire of the samurai films that have made him a star. 

He did everything – comedy, drama, horror, sword play – nothing was too much for Nakadai, and beneath those hollow eyes was someone who could make you believe he was suffering for all of humanity or chillingly making all of humanity suffer. Though Toshiro Mifune gets most of the credit (though I surmise this has more to do with him being older and getting an early start with Rashamon and Seven Samurai. Not that he isn’t terrific…) as Japan’s leading man, I’d almost always prefer Nakadai, who with ten times the subtlety of his grumbling peer gave just as splendid a performance.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Japanese Screams Volume 3

And so it's time to return once again to Doylestown's first and only in depth, online look at Japanese art-horror from the 1960s. The way i see it is that as long as it is the world's only something, it's special, but if I have to settle for something smaller, then so be it. Anyway, we're not here to sell something, we're here to give my favorite Japanese horror films their due, as no one else has the sense to. Today's entry is perhaps the most original ghost story ever put on film.

by Masaki Kobayashi

Masaki Kobayashi knew hardship more than most; though he despised violence, he was sent to the frontlines of World War II and refused promotion because he didn’t want to compromise his beliefs and for his troubles he was taken prisoner (something he supposed to kill himself before he allowed to happen, but if he wasn’t going to take a promotion you can bet he wasn’t taken a sword to the gut either). When he returned he became a film director; a hired gun making pretty dull sounding dramatic pieces. It wasn’t until the late 50s that he made the film he wanted to make, a three piece, nine-hour plus epic called The Human Condition, a dramatization of his experiences in the war. It was lofty, to be sure, but what it proved to everyone was how exquisite a storyteller Kobayashi really was. After making the universally revered Harakiri or Seppuku with his Human Condition leading man Tatsuya Nadakai, he and his team made their first color film, one of the most spectacular, haunting films ever made. I’ve seen more horror films than I know how to sort through, and Kwaidan (which means ghost story) is without competition. Based on stories by Lacfadio Hearn, globetrotting collector of folk tales, Kwaidan is a rarity in Japan’s cinematic legacy: a three hour horror anthology with little to no dialogue, shot in feverish color, where the existence of ghosts is an unspoken truth and in which each story has an identical story arc. Before I being I’d like to say that every visual and sound in this film is perfect. Every last one.

Now, don’t take any of those qualities to mean this is anything short of stunning. The first story The Black Hair shows a samurai who leaves his wife to find fortune, only to realize that he was happier as a married pauper than he is dealing with the squabbles of the rich. He returns several years later and finds his wife right where he left her, exactly the same, except for one small detail. The second story The Snow Woman features Kobayashi’s frequent lead Tatsuya Nadakai as Minokichi an 18-year-old pilgrim (just three years after he played a sexagenarian in Harakiri) and his master who are caught in a blizzard. They seek refuge from the snow in a hut by a river, but the small building doesn’t do much to keep the cold out, or a tall ghastly woman who breathes on the old man, killing him instantly. The woman makes to do the same to Minokichi, but stops, inspecting his youthful countenance and liking what she sees. She tells him that she will let him live as long as he never tells anyone about the events of that evening. Understandably he agrees and it seems Minokichi’s luck has turned around; he meets a beautiful girl who bears him three children and the two of them lead a prosperous life. One night, the light hits his bride’s face just right and it reminds him of something he never told anyone… 

The third story Hoichi The Earless has an image I have never seen bested anywhere. The story unfolds after a battle at sea between the Heike and Genji clans ends with in the death of all involved (the battle scene is unbelievable). Because the site of the battle is supposed to be haunted, a Buddhist temple was built near the site of both the battle and the cemetery where the collected bodies were buried. Hoichi, a blind attendant at the temple is left by himself one night and uses the time to play his biwa, a four-stringed instrument, and sing about the epic battle his bosses were placed to pray over. Well, before too long Hoichi gains an audience of one, after a giant armored man appears from the mist and request Hoichi play for his master, a man of real prestige. Not wanting to offend this powerful man, Hoichi obliges again and again, each time becoming weaker and weaker. Well, before long the head priest (Takashi Shimura, who was in just about every Kurosawa film ever made) is alerted to the ritual, he and his partner can think of only one solution (those of you who’ve seen this picture know what I’m talking about). They paint him from head to toe in a scripture designed to make him invisible to evil spirits, but because nothing horrific has happened yet, we know some grave misfortune is about to befall poor Hoichi; ghosts don’t take no for an answer. The fourth and final story In A Cup Of Tea is both a ghost story and a comment about Japanese literature. An author is cataloging old folk tales (not unlike the ones we’re being told) and stumbles upon one that is only half finished. It concerns a samurai who while on duty makes to drink a cup of tea, but, much to his displeasure, he sees a pale, maniacally smiling face in the reflection of the beverage. Try as this man does, he can’t get rid of the face. Not knowing what else to do, the samurai drinks the tea and the face inside it. That night while on guard duty someone pays him a return visit, and he’s not alone. Before the story closes, we are brought back to the author telling this story, who has a guest of his own. When his landlady can’t find him, she just about has a heart attack when she looks in the old man’s teapot.

Kwaidan, an extension of the prose with which Kobayashi presented the inner conflicts of man and his struggle with societal pressure, is different from any other project he would ever involve himself with. The only horror film he ever attempted, Kwaidan (pronounced Kai-dan) is like a filmic version of one of the songs Hoichi plays on his biwa. Indescribably terrible things happen but their beauty (at least, to a lot of dead Japanese sailors) prevents us from diverting our attention for even a minute. The score here (all nerve-wracking percussion, from the clanking during the Black Hair to the aforementioned Biwa) deserves an oscar for it’s ability to instill fear independent of the images (one of many this film earned but never saw). Interestingly (to me, anyway) the stories Kobayashi chose to film weren’t meant strictly to scare. Two of the tales taken from Hearn’s many volumes on Japanese lore, the Snow Woman and The Black Hair are almost identical to two stories used as fuel for another Japanese filmic masterpiece, Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu. Mizoguchi took two parables from Japanese history (as well as one French short story) and tweaked them to craft a broader narrative, which became Ugetsu. The first, The House In The Thicket by Akinari Ueda is about a young man who leaves his wife behind, believing her to have died when samurai besieged their town. When he returns many years later, she is there, just as he left her, but by morning is gone again. Now, granted Kobayashi’s version doesn’t end with an elegy trading between the husband and a neighborhood monk, but the stories are basically the same. The other, A Serpent’s Lust has much in common with the Snow Woman. Japanese films have a history of reinterpretation almost as notorious as American films (Kihachi Okamoto’s Kill! Is a retelling of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, itself a filmic version of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest; the 47 Ronin have had as many films made about them, etc.), and so it’s interesting to see that the same stories can give birth to retellings and inspired tales so wildly different in Japan that it puts the best American remakes to shame.
Before I go I have to speak about the best image this movie has to offer; that of Hoichi covered in the Japanese characters. It is arrestingly beautiful and terrifying in its own right. This image would be haunting in any movie but with the wonderful scene composition Kobayashi provides – the impending horror, the scary music – the image is made thousands of times more urgent. And when Hoichi is called to move about when he is jostled around by the warrior’s ghost, he looks unreal, like a computer generated image, making the scene even more dreamlike and stunning. And no, you don’t get a picture from me, go find the movie and see it for yourself, to see it before hand is to do cheat.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Japanese Screams Volume 2

Welcome back to my look at the underappreciated, beautiful world of Japanese horror films in the 1960s. This time around we have a captivating number from a director whose work is completely unavailable in the US with one exception (well two if you count his documentary on Kenji Mizoguchi, but that thing is so long and meandering it feels more like someone's home movies than it does a documentary).

by Kaneto Shindo
Onibaba (Demon, to us westerners, again, short and to-the-point) begin in 16th century Japan and is proof that anything watched alone and at night is worlds more frightening than the alternatives. The whole country is in crisis and men are fleeing from their positions with their armor still tied to them. It is because of these cowardly acts that two women have managed to survive in their small hut surrounded by miles of tall grass. Their sustenance comes from trading in pilfered goods from weakened samurai to a disgusting entrepreneur who lives in a cave. Samurai hobble in to the grass; the women see to it they don’t hobble out, strip them of their possessions and turn their gear in for food, dumping their bodies in a deep hole in the ground. In the 16th century anywhere, I’m fairly certain this was considered an honest living, and to be fair the women only do this, stay together, because they are bound by the fact that the older of the two women’s son is the younger woman’s fiancée and right now they’re both waiting for him to return from the same war that keeps these alive. Things change irrevocably for the would-be family when Hachi, their deadbeat neighbor with whom their mutual relation joined up with returns without money or company. Clearly, through some fault of Hachi’s, the young man was killed, leaving both women vulnerable. The older woman is content to keep robbing (and making) corpses as if nothing had happened, but the younger woman has more than food on her mind. It isn’t too long before she and Hachi begin making love behind the old woman’s back. Naturally the old woman fears for herself as it would mean having to kill men twice her size without help. Well, the ultimate test of her forced independence comes when one such injured samurai happens upon her hut one night bearing an unlikely gift.

The plot of this film is based on an old Buddhist folktale, one that has essentially the same plot as the Christian hymn that Ulla Isaksson used when writing The Virgin Spring for Ingmar Bergman. Both are cautionary tales that serve to remind women what happens when you don't go to church. Well feminism’s loss was art cinema’s gain. Onibaba is unlike most Japanese movies at the time in nearly every way; the theme, for once, has nothing to do with honor, and doesn’t have as much to do with family as it does the destruction of family (and in a really intriguing way, one that stabs tradition in the gut). The cinematography by Kiyoma Kuroda is perfect; the simultaneously endless and claustrophobic feel has much to do with his camera. The tall grass that surrounds their home hems in the action and it makes for some of the most arresting photography of a decade filled with arresting photography. Kaneto Shindo must have dreamt this film for months before he made it because every image works perfectly; the two women sleeping night after night with their breasts exposed on the straw floor of their hut; the deep hole in the ground that serves as both livelihood and undoing; the young woman’s lustful flight through the grass to Hachi’s hut hundreds of yards away while the remarkable score matches her every step; the entrance of the titular demon; everything is nightmarish while keeping with verisimilitude. If Sheldon Dick or Walker Evans had photographed medieval Japan it would have looked like Onibaba. The music adds to the feel of desperation that haunts the characters; minimalist drum and vocal music that underscores the chase scenes, making something already primal and erotic downright animalistic. I give this film my deepest admiration because though the odds were stacked against it as a horror film (a shock film with but one shock) managed not only to stop my heart when it needed to, but is a wholly unique entry into world cinema. When has a social critique been so completely bare, honest, lush and infinite; so much said with so few words.
Oh and to seek out any plot information or additional photos before seeing this (or any of these films) is to be really mean to yourself. If you don't go into these films with a blank slate you are doing yourself an injustice you will always regret.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Japanese Screams - Volume 1

Though this post doesn’t deal in the living dead, it is of vital importance to anyone who considers themselves an aficionado of the horror film as an art. One of the tenets of horror appreciation is looking to the past to see what light it can shed on the present. For every Hostel or Captivity, there are 10 Twitch of the Death Nerves and Bird with the Crystal Plumages. Sound silly? Of course it is. You’ve been looking at the wrong country. Friends, the true genius of horror films doesn’t come from Italy, so stop looking. All too often is the contribution of one country’s horror output completely overlooked in favor of the naïve and stage charm of ‘Classic’ American Horror (Universal, RKO, AIP, etc.) and the grizzly professionalism of British Horror (Tigon, Hammer, etc.). That isn’t to say there’s nothing to find in either of the two (a casual glance will yield such gems as Cat People, Curse of the Demon, Scream of Fear, Peeping Tom & assorted other beauties), but to me, nobody has given Japan its due in the pre-70s horror genre. There are a number of reasons why Japans contributions have been passed over by the filthy snobs over here in Americatown. To name but three
1. Japan’s sci-fi/Kaiju films
2. Japan’s jazz culture
3. Japan’s cultural output in the last 20 years (pretty sick, no?)
Admittedly, these aren’t glowing recommendations (well, I like the Noise rock the Japanese make: Guitar Wolf, Boris, brilliant!), but back in the 60s, the Japanese knew a thing or two about scaring the bejesus out of you. I’ve spoken briefly of a few of these films, but today, they get special attention. In honor of Halloween (the only holiday that prompts nerds to watch The Ring, Pulse, Takashi Miike films and the like) we’re going to have a look at some films that work not just as fodder for screams, but the fodder of dreams, readers. These movies aren’t just terrifying, their fascinating, which is more than I can say for 30 Days Of Night. I’ve tried to stick to films that not many other B-horror sites have touched on. As far as I can tell, I must be the only one who’s tried Onibaba and the recent rerelease of The Face Of Another means I’m breaking something like new ground.

by Nabuo Nakagawa
At the dawn of the 60s, Japan kicked off the horror decade with Jigoku (literally Hell, already on the right foot), a film whose narrative logic wouldn’t be rivaled until Jacob’s Ladder some 30 years later. What begins as an angel/devil on the shoulder coming of age story about a boy, Shiro falling in love for the first time takes some kind of fucking turn when his friend (Tamura, the devil on his shoulder) runs a guy over. We first meet Tamura when Shiro is at his girlfriend Yukiko’s house eating dinner. We know this guy’s evil because he has dirt on the whole family, somehow. Well Tamura convinces Shiro to just forget about the hit and run, as the man they killed was just a drunk with no family, but he doesn’t forget so easy. Yukiko helps him muster the gumption to turn himself in, but in doing so gets into a car accident that kills Yukiko, who, it turns out was more than a few months pregnant with Shiro’s child. Well, if that that didn’t want to make him kill himself, a visit to his parent’s current residence surely will. Mom and Dad are both in a resting home for lecherous artists, waiting for Death’s cold embrace (Mom will actually depart within a few days of Shiro’s arrival) and Dad’s attempting to have an affair with a woman who looks shockingly like Yukiko, who Shiro has also taken a shine to (slow down there, didn’t your girlfriend die like three weeks ago?). Well, everything comes to a head in about the biggest way ever put on film. 1. The drifter Shiro and Tamura killed turns out to have a family (a wife and mother, both crooked, violent whores bent on avenging their chief bread winner) they come looking for a fight. 2. A big festival is being prepared at the nursing home (the introduction to which is like something from a Wes Anderson film), for which the planning committee caught a boat-load of poisoned fish. 3. Tamura shows up to point out everybody’s faults, and they’ve been drinking. 4. Shiro accidentally throws both Tamura and the dead drifter’s girlfriend off the same bridge. 5. Yukiko’s parents show up. One by one the elements begin stacking up until you couldn’t possibly accept another coincidence…and that’s about when everyone eats the poisoned fish and Tamura’s ghost shows up.

Wow, that’s a handful. Well, would you believe me if I said everything except the death of Yukiko was completely irrelevant? Of course not, that’s ridiculous. Well, everyone dies from the poison and we spend part III in Hell where Enma, King of Hell assigns everyone the punishment they deserve. The following nightmare world may have influenced everyone from Takashi Miike to Lucio Fulci to George A. Romero to the makers of Japanese cinema for the next 47 years to every graphic novelist born after 1980. I say maybe because I have no proof that Jigoku was seen by another living soul following its premiere. Its criterion release a few years ago marks the first time it became available to the English speaking world. Either way the images we see are enough to inspire a lifetime of horror. We see a river of blood, teeth forked out, eyes gouged out, heads pulled from bodies, legs from torsos, a sea of blind people, rows of heads buried in dirt, disembodied limbs grabbing at nothing, and all manner of spiny demons and giant hoary puppets doling out fiery torture. The blood and maiming depicted (In shocking supersaturated Eastmancolor) was as graphic as it had ever been in films up till then (and for a few years afterwards). This, as El Santo from 1000 Misspent Hours pointed out to me, beat Blood Feast to the punch in terms of sheer gore by about three years. The same year Herschell Gordon Lewis aimed for Drive-in audiences, Hitchcock released The Birds, which showed similarly gouged out eyes to a markedly larger audience. Jigoku observes the rich Japanese tradition of introducing many more plot threads than one can keep track of, something Nikkatsu maverick Seijun Suzuki would perfect in the coming years. The ending, which is what really makes you rethink your life, features Shiro trying to rescue his unborn/redead crying baby from a spinning fiery wheel. It’s jarring enough considering a lifetime in what the Japanese consider Hell, but worse when you realize the terrifying struggle Shiro had to put up with in the first acts doesn’t compare to the misery that awaits him afterwards. What makes this feel so positively evil is that Shiro doesn’t really do anything to incur an eternity of having his head gnawed on by goblins. He’s just a meak high school student with the worst luck in the history of film (or at least until Audition). And all this from the director of The Vampire Moth. Jigoku was remade officially 3 times and ripped off more times than one can count. Someone had to break the barrier.
The highest compliment I think I can pay to Jigoku is that I used to have recurring nightmares as a child that look like this movie. No joke; river of blood, big monster that resembles Enma pretty closely, scary infinity complex. Maybe that's why this got to me the way that it did...and why I don't think I'll be seeking it out for a second viewing anytime soon.