Thursday, November 30, 2017

Interpreting the Smoke

Perspective is everything in 1953's Where Chimneys are Seen (煙突の見える場所), even when it comes to the chimneys. In some parts of town, you can see four of the great smokestacks at a nearby factory, from other places it looks like there are only two, or three, or one. They preside over a drama in the town about relationships, the roles of women, and the nature of marriage and parenthood in this charming post-war film from Heinosuke Gosho.

The film begins with narration from one of the central characters, Mr. Ogata (Ken Uehara), telling us about those magic chimneys and seguing into describing the tenants of his ramshackle boarding house. But the film doesn't follow Ogata's point of view, focusing instead more on his wife, Hiroko (Kinuyo Tanaka), and two young people living upstairs, Kenzo (Hiroshi Akutagawa) and Senko (Hideko Takamine).

We soon learn that Hiroko is secretly working at the racetrack selling coupons--when an acquaintance spots her, she begs him not to tell her husband. It's not that she's unhappy her marriage, she just likes to have some of her own money. In fact, the Ogatas otherwise seem to be very conservative, Hiroko generally wearing traditional Japanese clothing. Hiroko is mortified when Senko comes home one day and accidentally catches sight of the older married couple embracing. Senko, though, has no idea why a married couple should be ashamed of being seen showing each other relatively mild physical affection.

But a bigger issue than a secret part time job causes a rift between the Ogatas when a baby suddenly turns up in their home with a note informing them that the baby is Hiroko's. A man having an unknown child is plausible but Hiroko's startled denial of any claim to the child isn't enough to satisfy the paranoid and possibly a bit ignorant Ogata, partly because he's learned that Hiroko's first husband, whom they thought had died during the war, is actually still alive, possibly nullifying their own marriage. If they were nervous about making out as a married couple, they're both petrified at the prospect of having been engaging in physical contact technically out of wedlock. They immediately dig up the marriage license and both are a little relieved to at least see the paper still exists.

Meanwhile, Senko and Kenzo are debating about how reasonable it is to interpret certain signs between them as indicators that they love each other. Senzo even, quite sincerely, suggests they play simple games like Janken (a Japanese game similar to Rock Paper Scissors) where Senko promises to agree she loves Kenzo if she loses, but he's unsatisfied even when she says she wants to lose on purpose. Both are troubled when they constantly reach a tie.

Like many post-World War II Japanese films, this film is filled with subtext about the conflict between the emerging, rapid prosperity brought by Western cultural influence and attachment to more traditional ways of thinking. A nice moment near the end has a carefree young woman in expensive Western style clothes gamely lending one of her pumps to a poor woman whose geta had broken. But the poor woman solemnly returns the shoe after walking in it a bit--it's the rich who can afford to so easily cast off old ideas. The young woman's response is to happily remove both her shoes and walk barefoot with the other woman.

Twitter Sonnet #1059

The jagged hand completes a circuit twice.
A bending face resorts to single meals.
A thousand years preserved in ticking ice.
Reflected moons collect in frozen reels.
A purple beam of light has slipped the reins.
A waiting rift returned to glue the boats.
Decisions hem the horses in their lanes.
Collecting in the net a thousand motes.
The rapid eyes aboard the train arrive.
A staggered carpet claimed a pretzel bag.
A wad of teeth as organs can't survive.
The wild brains were tranquillised and tagged.
Rotated views afford transforming towns.
The burger buns'll make for flaky crowns.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Returning Piano

Last night I went to the Balboa Theatre downtown here in San Diego to see Tori Amos perform. It was a very nice concert in a lovely, relatively small venue. I was with my friend, Theresa, who had invited me to join her. We both became big Tori Amos fans in the 90s and Amos' first five solo albums remain among my favourite rock albums of all time. Lucky for me, she mostly performed songs from those albums last night, completely omitting songs from her new album, Native Invader. Which seems a strange move, considering the tour is presumably meant to promote said album. She's been asked about this in at least one interview and her response is a big vague. "The new record," she says, "has been a bit shy." She adds, "Because it was so produced it's been tricky on how to rearrange it to make it work live."

Produced is right. I bought the new album last week in anticipation of the concert and it mainly reminded me of why I'd reluctantly lost interest in her new work about five albums back. I bought The Beekeeper in 2005 but I couldn't tell you about a single song on it. Native Invader similarly fails to leave any kind of impression with sadly, flatly literal lyrics buried in murky, overwrought production.

Rash and reckless won't get us to
Where we want to be
Ancient songlines are singing
To wake lady liberty

She may seem weak
We may be battle-weary
Still those songlines sing
From our Great Lakes
To our sacred Badlands
Over sweet prairies
No, I'm not letting go
I won't be silenced or frozen out
By those who must account
In our Senate and in the House

The song lacks the passion to give it the drive of a Woody Guthrie or Neil Young style political song these kind of lyrics might suggest. Her best lyrics were often strange, surreal, propelled by anxiety and fury that gave very personal meaning to dreamlike imagery, and this was in evidence last night in a wonderful performance of "Space Dog" from her second solo album, 1994's Under the Pink.

This song, written back in the 90s, is far more eloquent about to-day's political and social landscape than any of her new material. It communicates the treachery of an ever changing perspective in the media. The line, "And to the one you thought was on your side, she can't understand, she truly believes the lie," conveys the experience more and more people are having in being alienated from friends and loved ones because of seemingly freshly acquired, deeply held beliefs and faith. The "Space Dog" subject of the song becomes the absurd object of a reflexive faith in a system. "He's our commander still," the line could indicate the pervasive influence of a system of thought or belief long thought overcome yet still manifesting unexpectedly now and then. It could also mean the continued presence of Donald Trump in the White House.

If you ever get frustrated with the tactics of the left in the media to-day or get blindsided by a vitriolic attack in an internet forum or Facebook, whatever your reaction is, I advise you to do one thing before saying anything. Remind yourself that a man was elected president after he bragged about sexual assault. I truly think that, in the long run, all these people being fired and shamed instantly upon news of any allegations is going to do more harm for women, in the industry and the country, than good. But knowing the motivations behind this rashness makes me sad more than angry. It's like watching an enthusiastic cavalry charge leaving behind a vulnerable infantry.

Amos also performed very nice renditions of "Jackie's Strength" and "Liquid Diamonds".

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The World in a Tank

A small group of soldiers from different nations and cultures work together to survive against Nazis in 1943's Sahara. Some of the soldiers have family or lovers back home but they're led by Humphrey Bogart who says only about himself that he has no-one back home and he's therefore less important. Of course that makes him a symbol of the whole team in this wonderful action adventure war film.

An American tank lost in the desert comes upon a small group of British troops as well as a French corporal (Louis Mercier) and takes them aboard. Since it's an American tank, the ranking British officer, Captain Halliday (Richard Nugent), cedes authority to Bogart's character, Master Sergeant Joe Gunn. The Frenchman agrees to come along because, he says to Joe, "I like your cigarettes."

In addition to Bogart, the film also has noir great Dan Duryea as the tank's operator who in this film presents the casual, down to earth guy from Brooklyn as a counterpoint to the scale of the war and the situation. The tank crew is also eventually joined by a Sudanese officer, Sergeant Major Tambul (Rex Ingram) and his Italian prisoner, Giuseppe (J. Carrol Naish).

The film was directed by the Hungarian born Zoltan Korda who, like his brother Alexander Korda, had a career in England until the second World War compelled them to relocate to Hollywood. Zoltan had an executive producer credit on his brother's great 1940 version of The Thief of Bagdad. Also in common with The Thief of Bagdad, Sahara has a score by Miklos Rozsa and features Rex Ingram, who played the genie in the fantasy film.

The American actor is never convincingly Sudanese but he gives just as assured a performance as he does in Thief of Bagdad but with the casual air of a human soldier rather than a mischievous godlike being. In a nice scene with one of the American soldiers, Waco (Bruce Bennett), the two express appreciation at the opportunity to learn more about the world in finding each other far more recognisably human than their seemingly disparate cultures might have led them to suppose. This is presented in opposition to the perspective of a Nazi pilot captured after an effective action scene where his plane crashes after strafing the tank.

He, of course, is disgusted by being in proximity to a black man, something Joe mocks him for. Yet Joe's capacity for empathy extends even to the captives as the Italian soldier, despite being concerned for his wife and child back home, finds his sympathies going decidedly over to the Allied side due to the treatment he receives from Joe.

The film's climax pulls no punches, being effectively directed action and stirring storytelling, helped immensely by the lack of sound stages. Shot entirely in California's Imperial County, the heat of the desert is constantly in evidence from the beams of light on sweat and threadbare uniforms in Rudolph Mate's beautiful cinematography.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Lord of the Silhouettes

If I had a nightmare after staying awake for two days spent drinking and reading Tolkien it might be something like Ralph Bakshi's 1978 Lord of the Rings. I have a lot of respect for Bakshi and there are a lot of good ideas in this movie. It is often effectively frightening but it comes nowhere near being all the things a Lord of the Rings adaptation needs to be.

I don't think all the horror is intended. Bakshi's extensive use of rotoscoping gave some of his films the infamy to make them the Final Fantasy: Spirits Within and Polar Expresses of their day. It's been pretty well covered so I won't harp too much on it except to say it's one of the aspects of the film that makes it feel like a curiously degraded transmission. Almost like a found footage horror film. Watching the silhouettes of Ringwraiths stop across the river from Frodo (Christopher Guard), himself a man obscured behind flat, unshaded moving illustration, the figures' separation from the abstract or washed out backgrounds not only prevents anyone from seeming like they're actually in any of these places but combines to give one the constant feeling of inaccurate perceptions. Maybe it's the effectiveness of Bakshi's compositions and the anxious energy he succeeds in bringing across that makes this inability to see so disturbing. It's like going downhill blindfolded in a cart with no brakes.

There was clearly a lot of work put into the backgrounds. There's a lovely Arthur Rackham quality to a lot of them, with muted colours and dark contours. This was likely part of a 1970s reaction against the myriad colours found in Disney movies of previous decades but unfortunately an expansive Disney palette would have been pretty useful in conveying the sense of a fully realised Middle Earth. Still, these chromatically restrained backgrounds might had worked fine if the characters actually seemed to inhabit them.

And yet there is a weird charm to it. It kind of reminds me of Lotte Reiniger's 1926 film The Adventures of Prince Achmed, the oldest surviving feature length animated film. Composed entirely of black silhouettes against solid colour backgrounds, it has some of the same mystery about it, though Bakshi's film seems to jar with his subject matter and intentions.

I hadn't seen the movie since I was a kid and I barely remembered it. Watching it last week, I was surprised how many times I spotted compositions Peter Jackson had borrowed for his film. I hope Bakshi's not bitter about that because it's nice to think something about his film endured in a good way.

Twitter Sonnet #1058

Divined in crumbs, a hasty message lost.
Departure took the books and princes up.
A crown confers a long and heady cost.
Reflections top the toxic metal cup.
Recumbent cloaks assign a party hat.
To ev'ry infantry the air's a lance.
In troughs of charging lamps there swung a bat.
The trees in silhouette begin to dance.
A jacket kept from dust and sight the book.
Amassing drapes, a rain of cherries fell.
The curtain call compelled another look.
Again unheeded rang the broken bell.
In decades claimed for starchy billing rooms
A baking shroud in foil softly looms.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The House that's Always Building

I'm glad I spent a couple years at a university before reading Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves, a remarkable and enjoyable work of fiction that doesn't merely satirise academic analyses. Though they're frequently filled with colourful and fascinating insights, the book uses these analyses as a setting, using them to effectively evoke the impression of a labyrinth, of disconnect through obsessive focus. It captures that strange feeling that too deep a dive into analysis can lead to one feeling trapped in a state of ever circling but never touching an object. Using footnotes as a storytelling device, as well as creative formatting involving margins and blocking, Danielewski weaves together the probably false ramblings of a troubled young man, Johnny Truant, with the possibly false critical analysis from a dead blind man, Zampano, of a film that may not exist.

Danielewski self-consciously introduces a variety of references and allusions. They serve as grist for the mill of endless critics and psychologists, whose 300 page books focus on minute aspects of the film which Zampano quotes in his own footnotes. The most prominent motif is that of the labyrinth, something evoked most spectacularly in the ninth chapter. Zampano's description of a film called The Navidson Record, which reminded me of a few books of I've read on films, and dry gathering of various analyses, is taken over by footnotes crowding from the margins, some providing only insanely long lists of examples. One footnote becomes simply a list of names of filmmakers whose work The Navidson Record in some way resembles, these list footnotes printed sideways or in little boxes. The effect this has is to make one feel lost and a bit dizzy in a chapter about a group of men lost in a supernatural structure that generates new rooms and hallways. I don't know about you, but my eye always automatically wants to search out the footnote corresponding to a number, or if I don't, then trying to keep it in mind makes it harder for me to focus on the main narrative. When footnotes start to pile up, it can drive me to distraction--this is one of the reasons I tend to prefer older history books. I have a really nice book on 17th century England edited by Blair Worden that has lots of full colour illustrations but I find it hard to read because of how many inserts and side notes it has. I think a lot of people putting text books together assume the way attention spans work now--because of the internet--requires texts that can never stick to one narrative flow. And maybe some people do prefer that but I'll take one thread over a ball of yarn any day. Though I appreciate Danielewski exploiting my possible cognitive deficiency.

Johnny Truant's footnotes quickly become personal stories one suspects are almost all lies. He talks about his shyness and his addictions while also talking about a series of gorgeous women he sleeps with. His rambles feel Beat inspired with their focus on messy and dirty life and casual insertion of rhetorical playfulness, as when he adopts the long s, that looks like an f, after Zampano quotes from a 17th century journal. Though Johnny flatters himself a lot more than the Beat writers--his description of attacking a man near the end has the violent wish fulfilment juice of a Frank Miller comic--he becomes a more organic counterpoint to Zampano's stuffiness, sometimes a welcome respite though the main attraction for me were the Zampano sections and the Lovecraftian Navidson Record. Danielewski takes the sinister "wrong geometry" concept Lovecraft employed so well in stories like "The Dreams in the Witch House" and uses it in a nice way to reflect the psychological themes of a couple growing more distant. Navidson's ambitions to explore the dangerous mystery of the house (a word always printed in blue in the book) is like a manifestation of a repressed urge to break away from the domestic life he's agreed to live with Karen, his lover and the mother of his children. There's effective horror in this and black humour, too, as Navidson's brother, in reference to his drinking, quotes Dean Martin to say that you can always depend on the floor to be there for you. And then the floor betrays him.

Truant and Zampano form a dichotomy that parallels Navidson and Karen in that both seem to be circling a problem from opposite poles while existing in realities where it's absolutely impossible to bridge the gap or reach the centre. Johnny with his obsessive focus on himself and Zampano with his obsessive focus on other voices. Yet in this book the two are bound together.

I've said before I love stories about people trapped in a house or hotel and this book really took that genre to new heights. A really enjoyable read.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

The Tangle in the Time Cabinet

The Fifth Doctor influences the future of the Fourth Doctor by going to the future to take part in the past of the villainous Magnus Greel in The Butcher of Brisbane. A 2012 audio play that serves as a prequel/sequel to the great Fourth Doctor television story The Talons of Weng-Chiang, The Butcher of Brisbane never matches the effective fun and menace of that serial but it is pretty good.

According to the TARDIS wiki, Greel is referred to as "The Butcher of Brisbane" in Talons of Weng-Chiang--it's been a while since I watched it so I'll take its word for it. But it provides a neat connexion to the Fifth Doctor's (Peter Davison) companion Tegan (Janet Fielding) as the Doctor makes yet another unsuccessful attempt to bring her home. The TARDIS arrives in Brisbane true enough but in a distant post apocalyptic future where Australia is covered with ice and snow.

Played now by Angus Wright, taking over from Michael Spice on the show, Magnus Greel is here presented in what would be his former glory as Supreme Minister of Justice of the Supreme Alliance of Eastern States in Beijing. He presides over a system that punishes criminals with hard labour--Turlough (Mark Strickson) and Nyssa (Sarah Sutton) quickly discover that a secret part of this punishment involves time travel.

The story features some effective, complicated time travel hijinks mixed with complicated politics. There's also a surprisingly effective romantic subplot between Nyssa and Magnus. Peter Davison is in fine form in this one, writer Marc Platt making him come across as brilliant and mysterious in ways that recall the Seventh Doctor. Five plays cards close to his chest, having to dance around the fact that his previous incarnation is currently serving in the Filipino army and avoiding giving any hint to Magnus that he's aware of the villain's future. Davison delivers all this with nuance that suggest the layers of necessary secrecy and anxiety.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Thunder, Muscle, and Ships

The end of the world is a really colourful, light hearted adventure in 2017's Thor: Ragnarok. Far from the layered family drama of the first film but a lot better than the weak sitcom tone of the second film, this third entry in the Thor series directed by Taika Waititi is about as far from grim as you can get for a superhero film that still takes itself relatively seriously.

Right from the beginning the film indulges in some mildly self-aware, ironic humour that would have been perfectly at home on Harvey Birdman when Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in chains chats with a massive fiery demon about whether the thing on his head is a crown or eyebrows. But there's sincerity in the film, too, with scenes between Thor, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), and Odin (Anthony Hopkins) played straight to get at some of the pain in their frequently strained family bond. Though it's hard to see this glib Thor as the earnest, slightly simple jock from the first film or this Loki the man burning with jealousy as his superior intelligence has gone unrecognised throughout his life. Thor and Loki in this film are closer to Bing Crosby and Bob Hope and they have some of that charm, too.

Added to their party is Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and the Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo). Valkyrie is an entertaining, cynical, drunken slave trader, mostly played for laughs but she's effective, too, in moments that refer to her history in Asgard. For all the space opera and flippancy, there are still moments in the film that celebrate the Norse mythology aesthetic in ways that any metal head would be proud to see painted on the side of his van.

Mark Ruffalo, meanwhile, is good as the surprisingly easy going Hulk and the fish out of water Banner, playing the former like a football player and the latter like he's in a perpetual state of just having woken with the worst hangover with no idea where he is.

Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster is fine and takes to the film's camp humour like a fish to water but Cate Blanchett definitely wins best villain in this film.

Combining a fantastic visual design augmenting the character's original comic look with a wonderfully vicious performance she's a first rate Goddess of Death. The action scenes lack the urgency of scenes where we sense people can actually get hurt but they're nicely choreographed and have some basic kinetic joy to them. All in all, a fun little Technicolour romp.

Twitter Sonnet #1057

The flour drain sustained a bucket hat.
Ignoble rows of damaged crops returned.
In lines of dots the printer gave a bat.
A breath of air dispensed to all concerned.
A line of faces shared a single wig.
Upon the rocky edge were painted hills.
In flying east we sought the crimson pig.
A trail emerged of sev'ral tardy bills.
A wind's connecting verse to muted chimes.
Of salt and gold and grain the Sampo yields.
A lemon kind and tall'll jump in times.
A single moose becomes a dozen fields.
The iron pot above the bed's for dreams.
But boiling thoughts escape the rigid seams.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Quatermass Nutrition

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone, and while I think it's perfectly fine to enjoy artificial food, if that's your thing, it's important to make sure this food was manufactured for your species. For your edification I recommend Quatermass II, either the 1955 television serial or the 1957 Hammer film adaptation, though the TV show is a lot better.

Though since I'm referencing an American holiday, maybe the film version is more appropriate since, although still being a British production, the second film in the Quatermass series again stars American actor Brian Donlevy as Quatermass, again paling in comparison to his television counterpart, this time John Robinson.

Robinson actually seems horrified by the details he slowly uncovers about a secret alien menace while Donlevy plays everything like he's giving dictation for a letter of complaint addressed to the water company about interruptions in service. But there are a few things I like about the film version--at least this time Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale contributed to the film's screenplay and the film does a much better job of tying Quatermass' work to the crisis at hand, showing how he'd been developing domes to grow food on alien worlds very similar to the ones he discovers operating in rural northern England.

Both versions spend a lot of time on the common workers from a nearby village hoodwinked into working at the plant. The first Quatermass spent a lot of time focusing on a variety of ordinary people, too, to show a contrast between the human and the alien. In Quatermass II, the alien becomes a metaphor for cold, mechanised human organisations and philosophies, and could be seen as both a metaphor for the legacy of the Industrial Revolution in northern England or the fear of Communism spreading in the 1950s. Or a lot of other things.

The movie's only an hour and twenty one minutes while the series is six episodes, about a half hour each. What the film runs through at breakneck speed is established much more slowly on the series for an effective sense of the horror of subverted government institutions. As Quatermass goes from finding something fishy in the north, to finding one government official after another either ignorant of what's going on or eerily complacent, it conveys something closer to the actual pace of growing horror such discoveries would likely come at.

Although I liked seeing Hammer's trademark barman Michael Ripper in the film version, the trip to the local pub and exploration of ordinary village life comes across so much more naturally on the show, with Quatermass showing much more sympathy and interest in their lives. It makes it more effective when, after he and the workers have stormed the plant, it's shown that even good average men and women need competent leadership as it proves fatal when the blue collar workers ignore the dire warnings of the scientist.

The television serial is also superior for its cliffhangers, particularly in the first episode which ends with Quatermass horrified by the sight of something strange on his friend's face. "There's something on your face!" he says as the other man clutches at his face but because his back is to us we don't actually see what it is. I like to think what it must have been like in 1955 when the credits rolled and everyone had to go a whole week imagining just what could be on that man's face.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

A Forest of Abuse and Suffering

In the third and final portion of The Human Condition (人間の條件), released in 1961, two years after the first two, Kaji finds himself wandering China in the immediate aftermath of World War II. In many ways the best film of the series, it still has a very simple message but manages to evoke a real sense of the injustice of persistent human suffering.

Accompanied by a handful of men left over from his unit, we join Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai) trudging through Chinese wilderness and it becomes increasingly clear the remaining Japanese military is in tatters, few even sure what the state of the war is. After Kaji and his men join up with a group of Japanese civilian refugees in the woods, Kaji finds himself finally forced, in desperation, to assert command. The fact that he's become a Communist who insists on taking charge is an irony not lost on him or the people he leads, some of whom mock him relentlessly for it.

But they're starving and Kaji's bag of rice is the last bit food so he has little choice but to exercise control of the group's resources. Otherwise, any one of the refugees would take it all for him or herself. Furthermore, Kaji has to deal with other roaming Japanese units, may of whom are hostile or wish to assert command over him.

This third film focuses a lot more on women and sex. The first two films both argued for the necessity of sex--the prostitutes brought to the prison camp in the first film, the hidden pin-up and the conjugal visit in the second film--this film goes further in that argument when Kaji's group comes upon a Japanese refugee camp where they find Chishu Ryu and Hideko Takamine in prominent guest roles.

Takamine tells Kaji how the women in the camp have sex with any soldiers who happen by. She gives a wistful soliloquy about how during those nights of physical intimacy they can trick themselves into thinking the war isn't real and that there's hope. But then the soldiers are always gone by the next day.

The subject of rape is introduced in this film and two women join with Kaji's band, both there essentially to explore the issue. The first (Kyoko Kishida) is menaced by one of the villainous Japanese soldiers in Kaji's group--again, all the characters are evenly polarised into good people and bad people--and Kaji intervenes to save her. But I was reminded of Hooded Justice in Watchmen when Kaji also chastised the woman for teasing the man. She hadn't really seemed to be doing so--she'd only told him that she was going to undress in order to bathe--but her reply to Kaji is a perplexing admission that she finds the man attractive. What the film is trying to say at this point isn't clear and suggests uncertainty in the filmmakers' own perspective on sexual assault.

Still, it's hard to see how they thought it made sense for Kaji to let an 18 year old girl (Tamao Nakamura) leave accompanied by only three men Kaji had already singled out as would-be rapists. Mostly rape is in the film as another aspect of human nature Kaji is forced to ponder how, or if, he should regulate. Ironically he and another Communist in the group, Tange (Taketoshi Naito), have faith that the Russian Red Army will be better than the Japanese and they're horrified to come across a large group of Japanese refugee women who talk about some geishas among them who sacrificed themselves in order to prevent assault on all of them by Russian troops--and how the sacrifice had been in vain.

But at the camp where they meet Chishu Ryu and Hideko Takamine they learn that normally the Russian troops they encounter are generally civil while the Japanese troops tend to be cruel and obnoxious. In the last portion of the film, Kaji becomes a prisoner of the Russians, now finding himself at last on the other side of the kind of barbed wire fence we saw in the first film. And he discovers in fact the Russians are better administrators than the Japanese officials Kaji worked with. The Russian officers insist the Japanese prisoners not be physically abused and are provided with medical treatment when necessary. Unfortunately, a hierarchy is enforced within the prisoner community so Kaji finds himself once again at the mercy of villainous Japanese officers.

In a particularly effective, insightfully cruel scene, Kaji tries to communicate his shared philosophy with the Russian officers but he's forced to go through a villainous Japanese interpretor who twists all his words. This moment is one of the more successful in the film because it really does get at something at the heart of "the human condition", miscommunication leading to conflict. Though ultimately the problems in the Russian camp seem essentially to be there to simplistically argue that the problem with the Russian army is that they're not Communist enough.

The end of the film is effectively grim but of a piece in a series that has essentially been about Kaji enduring various forms of abuse and physical suffering in the name of humanism. Finally he becomes a martyr in a world dominated by the selfish and the greedy. Which is an effective ending for a simple morality tale but one of the reasons I found this film less effective than the post-war films of Kurosawa or Naruse is that it seems to be arguing that the good Japanese people are people like Kaji who long before the war already knew the cause was bad, and the bad people are the ones who believed in the Emperor and everything Japan stood for in going to war. I doubt many in the audience at the time of the film's release could truthfully claim to be a Kaji so the film is more escapist than it is an honest piece of soul searching. But Nakadai's performance is admirable, it's well shot, and has many really nice moments.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

A Cup of Anime

I'm taking a third semester Japanese language class at the moment so I thought this would be a good time to catch up with the world of anime. I watched the first episodes of several recent series, mostly from the current 2017 fall season, and was pleased to find a few shows I didn't hate and two I actually liked.

Sangatsu no Lion (3月のライオン)

Released in the U.S. under the cumbersome title March Comes in Like a Lion, the title is more accurately translated The Lion of March, this series focuses on a shy professional shogi player named Rei Kiriyama (Kengo Kawanishi). Coming from Studio Shaft, this series began last year. Having only watched the first episode, I can say I don't hate it. There's a too precious feeling in shots of Rei on the train accompanied by delicate piano but the visual design is gorgeous, exhibiting a strong Impressionist influence, and the character design is good.

Code: Realise

With a title seemingly designed to attract Code Geass fans, this is a rare bird, being a josei series (aimed at women) based on a video game. It's funny how often series aimed at girls and women seemed like series aimed at boys and men but with all the genders swapped--this one could even be called a harem anime with a selection of attractive stock male characters--a wild guy, a stuffy scientist, a sincere bodyguard--all in love with a central female character named Cardia Beckford (Saori Hayami). Like many female protagonists of such series, she seems to have no personality but is possessed of moral purity, hidden magical power, and is at the centre of a grand destiny. In this case, the show has the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen style premise mixed in as the guys happen to be Arsene Lupin (the original literary character of no relation to the hugely successful anime character), Abraham Van Helsing, and Victor Frankenstein. Based on one episode, the show is fun if not remarkable with an average visual style apart from the lovely, complicated character designs likely inherited from the video game.

Children of the Whales (クジラの子らは砂上に歌う, "Whale Calves Sing on the Sand")

This series from JC Staff looked a lot better before I saw the first episode. The intriguing premise of a civilisation living on a floating island turned out to be a pretty generic looking Hayao Miyazaki knock-off with flat characters. Everyone on the island conforms to a system, they have magic powers, one boy starts to rebel after meeting someone from another island, etc. The visual style looks good sometimes but corners cut with computers start to show through with too clearly repeating patterns of artificial grain.

Shokugeki no Soma (食戟のソーマ)

Now this series, also from JC Staff, is a lot of fun. Sort of like Eat Drink Man Woman on a sugar high, it's the story about a young cook (Yoshitsugu Matsuoka) who aspires to become a great chef. The comedy here is in how much this is played up into a broad action adventure. Gratuitous flames and winds of fate accompany the adding of oil or herbs and successful dishes provoke orgasm in the tasters. The recipes the characters come up with are surprisingly detailed, a dish at the climax of the first episode involving potatoes wrapped in bacon is put through a complicated cooking process to allow the juices from the bacon to soak into the potatoes in a particular way, something that makes the show intriguing and even funnier.

Mahoutsukai no Yome (魔法使いの嫁)

By far my favourite so far, I'm actually all caught up on this one, the newest episode, seven, having aired a couple days ago. From Production I.G., the visuals on this show are all top notch--character design, animation, and especially the gorgeous backgrounds. The story, too, is refreshingly weird, being a sort of Beauty and the Beast tale of a Japanese girl named Chise (Atsumi Tanezaki) who becomes the apprentise and prospective bride of a strange humanoid with an animal skull head named Elias Ainsworth (Ryota Takeuchi). Set in England, the story reflects a real love for western fairy tales and gothic horror with episodes involving tragic murder. The fourth episode introduces H.P. Lovecraft's town of Ulthar where cats are revered. The cats, like all animals on this show, are extraordinarily well animated and have beautiful, distinct designs. In Ulthar, Chise uncovers a ghost story about a man who murdered cats in an effort to prolong the life of his dying wife. With the ongoing story of Chise and Elias' strange relationship, the episodes feature them encountering shorter problems often involving murky and provoking morality which reflects the relationship between the two protagonists themselves. This is one I will very happily continue to watch.

Twitter Sonnet #1056

Across the thinnest ice a lantern glows.
A passing song reports in vivid clouds.
Behind the morning veils are tender rows.
Ideas of post repair 'neath soil shrouds.
The fading bulbs suspend above the bowl.
A gleam implies inverted worlds of food.
In tightened scribbles notes become a whole.
The story tells no plot but lots of mood.
Remembered pens amend the threaded shape.
The growing skull resumes a fractured height.
In faded chalk the marks direct the ape.
A mall repels the shopper's pastry light.
A glass contrived of flaked croissant illumes
The work of solemn breakfast breading looms.