Archive for the ‘Reviews’ category

4th of July

July 4, 2008

paul giamatti as john adamsToday is the 232nd year of our nation, the 232nd year since the signing of the Declaration of Independence. I kinda pre-celebrated by watching the HBO special John Adams. I don’t get HBO but it went to DVD a couple of weeks ago and I devoured all seven hour long episodes in a few days. I thought it was very good, although I have to admit to being a bit of a fan of historical movies, and I mean historical. I’m not much for new history, like 9/11. That isn’t history to me; it’s recent news.

In any event, I found John Adams quite entertaining and I was rather surprised to see Paul Giamatti actually pull it off. I have to admit I was skeptical. My image of Giamatti is closer to his character in American Splendor and Sideways. Although perhaps I shouldn’t have sold him so short after his performance in Cinderella Man, although it was a supporting role. So if you are into US history and you enjoy watching the History Channel, then perhaps you will like this one too.

I also want to go to the National Mall today to watch the Capital Fourth, which includes a free concert and a fireworks display. I’ve gone three times before, but everytime–and I mean everytime–there was a thunderstorm and we end up not watching the entire event. Indeed, two years ago, the thunderstorm was so bad, it was rumored that the concert was cancelled. So we went home, I turned on the TV and guess what? The concert was on PBS. *sigh* I think God doesn’t want us to watch it.


Scattered T-Storms
High
85°F

Precip
50%

Wind: WSW 7 mph
Max. Humidity: 61%
UV Index: 8 Very High
Sunrise: 5:49 AM ET
Avg. High: 86°F
Record High: 97°F (2002

Tomorrows forecast is also calling for thunderstorms according to Weather.com; 50% chance of precipitation. But I think we will try to brave it anyway. I know it’s old school, but I wanna watch Huey Lewis and the News. And I wanna beat the odds one of these days, although I doubt I’ll be successful. Maybe we should wear clothes that dries off easily, which would mean no jeans, but I don’t think I have any pants except for blue jeans. It’s like a part of my everyday uniform. I even teach in jeans. Yes, I’m a very dress-down teacher.

Then again, if it looks like it will be too much to bear, I bought some safe and sane fireworks to light up in front of our house. It’s nothing compared to the fireworks on the Mall, but it’ll do if I don’t wanna get drenched.

Everyone enjoy a safe and fun 4th of July.

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Misty Eyed

March 30, 2006

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made the mistakes of showing Grave of the Fireflies in class today. I've shown three WWII- related films–McCarthur's Children, 24 Eyes and Black Rain, so I didn't need to show another one. But I wanted to show at least one animation, and decided on Fireflies.

*sigh*

Spoiler Warning!

The story is about a teenage boy and his four year old sister trying to survive on their own during the air raids of Osaka in WWII. Their father is at war in the navy. In an air raid in the beginning of the film their house is burned down and their mother dies. Seita doesn't tell his sister, and struggles to deal with the death by himself. He takes his sister to their aunts place in the suburbs of Osaka, where they are initially welcomed, but soon treated as a burden–two extra mouths to feed during at time when food is severely rationed. The aunt welcomes the bartering goods that come with taking care of Seita and Setsuko: their connections as the offspring of a naval officer and their mothers silk kimonos. But once rations are depleted and there are no more kimono to trade for food, they are treated as parasites. Seita is a proud boy, willing to try to live by himself and his sister. He is not about to put up with the insults and frigidity of his aunt.

So Seita and Setsuko find an old, deserted storeroom dug into a knoll next to rice fields. There they initially eat the rice they brought and buy what they can with the money left to them by their mother, but they soon start scooping field snails (田螺) from the rice fields and search for nuts and berries in an attempt to survive. But life is hard. Seita even begins to cheer air raids because he can loot the houses of people who have fled to bomb shelters. Still, the food is scarce, and little Setsuko gets weaker and weaker.

I won't spoil the ending, but the story avoids even a tinge of sentimentality. It is hardcore story telling about how difficult it is for children caught in the middle of a war waged by adults. It is a fantastic movie and NONE of my students left the room. There are usually a few who sneak out during the middle, but no one left this time. At the end of the movie, my eyes started tearing up–man, this story is so freakin' sad! Ah shit, I CAN'T let my students see me all misty-eyed! So I started taking deep breaths, trying to hold back the tears. I stretched my arms above me, squeezing some composure back into myself. Damn, I shoulda left and gone to my office! But behind me, I heard a bunch of different people sniffling. When the film ended and I turned on the lights, a number of people had reddish eyes. I had to laugh.

"I'm glad I'm not the only one crying," I squealed, as I whisked away the moisture from the corner of my eyes with my fingers.

They had to laugh, too.

Reflecting in a Film

March 23, 2006

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n yeserday’s film class, I showed another movie for the first time. This semester, I am trying to introduce more films. I was certainly getting tired of showing the same ol’ same ol’ for the past eight years–Seven Samurai, Ikiru, Woman of the Dunes. But there were so few new Japanese films available with English subtitles. I mean, there were Anime, but there aren’t very many I would show in a Culture Through Film Course. There were also the horror flicks–Ring, Juon (Grudge), Uzumaki, The Cure–and of course, the extremely violent ones like Ichi the Killer, Tokyo Fist, and Suicide Club. If my class were strictly a film course, then I could probably get away with showing some of these films, but the course is supposed to show films that reflect the culture in one or another, so I was stuck.

But 2005 was a banner year for new J films. Some of the old ones that were NOT by Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Imamura or some of the other “internationally acclaimed” directors, have been released like Kill and Matango (Attack of the Mushroom People!). So I have been getting the library to purchase these new films to show in class. I’ve already shown Kill and Samurai Fiction. Today I showed Black Rain, a film on the struggles of a young woman who was near Hiroshima when the atomic bomb was dropped. The hero, Yasuko, is far away when the blast hits but she as she makes her way to Hiroshima to see if her relatives are okay, she is splattered with black rain–radioactive condensation from the atomic plume. The story follows her trials of being unable to get married after the war because of fears that she is too ill from the radiation. Others in her village also suffer from the effects of the war, psychologically and spiritually as well as physically. It is a sad and moving anti-war statement.

Some may view the film rather skeptically, as the Japanese are portrayed as victims of the war and the atomic bomb. Indeed, there are many elements in Japan who gladly remind the rest of the world that Japan is the only country to be attacked by an atomic bomb, but conveniently forget that Japan colonized and terrorized much of East Asia during the first half of the 20th century.

Still, there are those Japanese, like young Yasuko, who lived lives typical of many East Asian cultures–obedient to a fault, submissive to the dictates of superiors–and they end up paying for there obedience by suffering and ultimately dying. So perhaps we can accept this film as representing the suffering of the many innocent Japanese individuals rather than the suffering of Japan as a whole. Of course, I might be biased here. As many of you might remember, my mother was in Hiroshima back then, as well. I even began to write a bit about her actual experience–although I have yet to finish it. Even more, my mother’s name was Yasuko, too, so whenever I watch this movie, I can’t help but superimpose her over the character in the movie. Sadly (and I swear I didn’t plan it this way), today marks the 4th year since her passing…

Samurai Fiction

February 11, 2006

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very spring semester, I teach a course called Japanese culture through film. It is not really a film class, because I’m not really a film instructor. I can view films and critique them in my own way, but I don’t consider myself a film expert. I couldn’t break down a mis-en-scene if my life depended on it–well, actually, I could but don’t tell anyone at school because they’d just have me teach one more class. I have seen a number of J flicks, but no where near as many as a true film experts. Geez, I’ve probably seen fewer J films than Whonose. Still, I do know Japan and its culture–albeit from a personal point of view–and I have lots of opinions about how it is reflected through film. Take samurai films for example…

Mild spoilers

Note: The following presents basic plot lines and possible spoilers–although I think most have already seen or heard of these movies. But it might, in a small way, provide insights that could make the film more enjoyable to watch.

Chushingura

I have not seen any of the older, silent samurai motion pictures (katsudo shahin), although maybe I should as they are not that old. Bloody Town directed by Yashiro Takeshi was relieased in 1938, eleven years after the first American talkie The Jazz Singer (1927). While there is no audio, the action sequences are purportedly superb. If nothing else, I am tempted to see Makino Shozu’s Chushingura (The 47 Ronin, 1910, 1913), the oldest extant version of the 47 loyal samurai, but to get a good grasp of the symbol of the samurai in J films, one only has to see Mizoguchi Kenji’s version, Genroku chushingura (1941).

Filmed and released during the Pacific War, Mizoguchi’s Chushingura seems to represent many of the values that the Japanese expect from their warriors. The story itself is about a group of 47 loyal samurai who avenge the death of their lord, Asano, who was forced to commit seppuku (ritual disembowelment) because he unsheathed his sword and slightly injured another lord, Kira, within the shogun’s palace. Kira was a petty conniving lord who often insulted Asano. He went too far once, inducing Asano to draw his sword in the palace, a serious crime–can you imagine drawing a gun in the Capitol? The penalty is death–albeit an honorable one, it seems that all crimes commited by samurai are resolved by death. The 47 loyal samurai plot for years to exact revenge, after which they all commit seppuku for murdering Kira, a vassal of the shogun.

The interesting aspect of this film is the fact that there is virtually no swordplay. No, I take that back. There is exactly no swordplay. Every act of violence–the seppuku of Asano and his loyal retainers, as well as the murder of Kira–takes place off screen. It is, for a samurai movie, incredibly non-violent. The movie, however, does focus on the honor and loyalty expected of these warriors: They demonstrate loyalty to Asano by exacting revenge, and manifest honor because they exact this revenge knowing and accepting the consequences of their actions. Mizoguchi (remember this name) was a talented and highly respected director, so perhaps it would not be so far-fetched to suggest that his image of the samurai–in step with the romantic figure already cut in Japanese tradition–became the baseline, the foundation to which future directors would look when creating their own version of the samurai image.

The Seven Samurai

The director most non-Japanese are familiar with is Kurosawa Akira. Indeed, he is more revered overseas than at home, and virtually everyone of his films can be found in the Criterion DVD Collection. My personal favorite is Yojimbo and its sequal Sanjuro, but his most famous film is, I think, the Seven Samurai (1954). In it, Kurosawa tries to recast the samurai not as a retainer loyal to his lord, but as one who is loyal to his profession, one who manifests all the appropriate principles of “one who serves” which is the literal translation of the Chinese character for samurai 侍. The story revolves around a village regularly raided by bandits. The villagers, at the sugestion of its Elder, go to the city in search for “hungry” samurai. The Village Elder suggests ronin–masterless samurai who have no income and wander the country in search of a lord to serve. The subtext, of course, is the idea of a samurai who is hungry to fulfill his purpose in life as well, one who seeks to serve, to do what is right and just. They find Kambei and he assembles a team of seven, leading them against the bandits.

The film presents the image of samurai with which most of us are familiar. Kurosawa’s influence plays no small role in this. As the more represented director of Japanese film, it is his samurai that is embedded in our consciousness: strong, fierce, courageous, independent, just, honorable. And the seven samurai manifest these traits, even the one samurai who was actually the son of a peasant, Kikuchiyo. He was coarse and dirty and often drunk, but in the end, he fought fiercely and bravely for a just and honorable cause, consequently being recognized as a samurai at the end of the movie, as reflected in his burial mound at the top of the hill along with three fallen comrades. His death underscores the rigid class lines established by the Tokugawa Bakufu–no one can cross classes. His fellow samurai (and Kurosawa) allow Kikuchiyo to cross that line, but only in death.

As in Yojimbo, Sanjuro, and the samurai trilogy depicting the life of Miyamoto Musashi (Inagaki Hiroshi), the samurai of the 50s and early 60s continue to manifest the characteristics established in Mizoguchi’s Chushingura. Althought masterless, they all try to live there lives by a code of conduct representing the samurai ideal of loyalty and hard work, righteousness and courage. And indeed, they still want to serve. As Kambei says at the end of the Seven Samurai, the farmers won but they lost. By defeating the bandits, the farmers were able to return to their way of life, but the samurai remained masterless. Kambei’s words underscore their desire to return to a life of service.

Unlike Mizoguchi’s film, Kurosawa’s films are full of action. In the first samurai scenei n the movie, Kambei kills a criminal holding a baby hostage. But like Mizoguchi, the killing is done off screen inside a house. But after that, there is plenty of stabbing and slashing and death. Strong samurai, brave samurai, killing for what they believe is right, even if they have no master. I often wonder if this as a reflection of the times. In the late 40s and through the 50s, immediately after losing WWII, many of the Japanese felt betrayed by the government leaders that led them down the path of national disaster. Is it a coincidence that the samurai warriors depicted in films from this era wander about Japan as ronin–strong, willing to fight for what is right and yet leaderless?

Maybe. Maybe not….

Later, I will write a bit about Okamoto Kihachi’s Kill! and Nakano Hiroyuki’s Samurai Fiction.