Sunday, September 30, 2012

Behind Older Lenses: Considering Previous Norms

 Ever wonder why it is many people tend to find themselves disconnected with a creative work that features ideas that do not gel with them on a societal level? Something that often intrigues me about even cult media, is its acceptance or denial by those who claim to be that much more well-rounded in their manner of discourse. It's like this wall that they've run against that is simply too high to even be bothered with it. That's the nature of subjectivity. But this isn't a post centered on say the current state of certain mediums. In no way are we talking about some of the more skeevy pander material either. In this case, I speak largely of works of the past that are capable of carrying what were even considered social norms of another era. From gender roles, to social habits. It turns out that upon spending more time to reading the blogs of contemporaries, or even listening to podcasts, there is at times an expressed deep urge to dismiss certain works because they either engender a world purview that doesn't jibe well with them, or makes the work seem regressive in thematic nature.

Take for example, my most recent post at Anime Diet... Some new thoughts regarding Wicked City (1987). It's a film that continues to burst with 1980s Japanese thoughts on sexuality, relationships, with a little extra grafted on to its dark fantasy milieu. The lead character starts the film as something of a playboy type, making bets on who gets to bed an attractive lady. It's an opening that many seem to take for granted, or at least seem to forget about because the scene following this is infamous for presenting one of the most terrifying visions of the female gender ever captured on celluloid. Skip to later though the film, we are then offered a vision of this man, inevitably settling down with someone who could more than capably be his equal, and yet the angle hovers very closely toward making this strong-hearted, independent character into something of a domesticized creature. And while Wicked City never spells out a complete transformation, it could very easily be construed that throughout the often terrible humiliation she goes through, that the narrative is something of a molding process. Adding the fact that she is of another race from a dimension dubbed, The Black World, there are some mildly intermingled messages happening here. And while it can also be considered, she retains a good amount of her own special nature come the finale, the finale takes its last moments of focus back to the male lead, who's role has been transformed from slick, tough guy lothario, to stone-jawed breadwinner. As expressed throughout the existence of Through Older Lenses, it is in many ways less a review series concerning older titles, but rather a way of looking back at something that might have had different meaning at one point in time/outlook, and coming up with new things to consider. It would be much easier to merely dismiss a work for some of a certain work's undertones, but some might also carry some hidden heft, some tiny hint of a more contemporary world view just scratching at the surface. Even if much of said film's views on male/female relationships seems dated, and perhaps even a bit sexist, it is also important to consider the time in which a work was made, and the audience it was specifically made for, where their minds were at this specific point. A bubble era, mostly male-driven society is not going to be the best place for any full barrage of progressive ideas, regardless of the industry's often impressively left-wing nature in those days. A production would grant some here, and lose some there. One has to appease sponsors and general audiences somewhere.

So when we look at other films of the era, like even John McTiernan's Die Hard(1988), and the dynamics regarding the marriage between the estranged McClane's, one can also see such notions snapping hard back toward the status-quo. One can still enjoy that film as the influential action spectacle that it is, but the subtext regarding Holly's gift Rolex remains more than a little suspect. For those partaking in the general discourse, it is perfectly fine to dub a work as something qualitatively strong or weak, but the layers past this are equally, if not more substantial.

But does this make a work worth dismissing outright? If art is the place where certain conversations, debates, and declarations can be made manifest in ways beyond the word, then isn't it important that those who comment either do so to further the discussion, or for those who make to respond in kind? If a work is able to successfully convey a hypothesis, or a political viewpoint, or even social norms, it is our role as those who are hosts to them to either confirm or deny them. It isn't enough that it didn't lose our attention, and more that we see where the author(s) involved were attempting to go with their project. Now this doesn't mean that works cannot disconnect, or even offend on an individual level. There are some creations where the lack of insight, or education, sensitivity, or whatever simply will not work with a person's internal worldview. So this is not so much about that manner of discord, so much as about bigger thoughts that concur with the mainstream of a specific era. If it succeeds in getting its ideas across, that is success on a level, but to be able to see how it connects to the population at large might be worth considering too.

Any form of expression is borne from the moment. It's a snapshot of a given time, place, or thought. And like any form of communication, the key invitation is for us to listen and consider. We're capable of doing much more than what a history textbook has ever done. And if this is all a matter of study, perhaps true discourse is about the consideration, and questions that follow.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Onimasa (1982) Movie Review

When young Matsue and her small brother are given away as payment by their poor business running parents, local Shikoku gang boss, Onimasa Kiryuin (Tatsuya Nakadai) sees potential heirs to his powerful Shikoku  gumi. But when the younger of the two runs away, leaving his elder sister alone to become a conflicted servant, it is an odyssey for this entire family of criminality as the modern world threatens to swallow them up. Dark samurai film master, Hideo Gosha's first major film of the 1980s, Onimasa (Kiryuin Hanako no Shogai) is at one instant an attempt to send off the classical gangster drama with a manner of grace, but on another, an admission of an auteur's inability to let go within a changing landscape. Based upon Tomiko Miyao's novel, "The Life of Hanako Kiryuin", for a film made in 1982, it is an unapologetically old-fashioned work that flirts with the pre-Fukasaku mindset in regards to the yakuza, but also reinforces the less-than-flattering-elements that are best seen through the eyes of Matsue (Nobuko Sendo- then later Masako Natsume) who recalls much of this story in flashback after the discovery Hanako's body by locals in 1940. - A choice that immediately makes for an unusual, almost sudsy opera with a feminine edge.

Starting her life under the wing of the charismatic, and old-world Onimasa, her greatest wishes to become more worldly comes at great odds with her new father's vision. So when he and his gang abduct Otsuru (Akiko Kana), a rival gang leader's servant who later gives birth to his only biological heir, it is this disconnect that bears the brunt of the film's thematic heft. While the headstrong Matsue grows into a well-rounded schoolteacher, it is his daughter, Hanako, who has become an insufferable brat of an adult. Gosha's delivery of this smoldering ball of hubris feels a less like a Coppola-esque epic, and something closer to a stage play rendition-- which is made all the more bombastic through Nakadai's larger-than-life performance. His pride & belief in a romanticized Japan of noble men, and sidelined women becomes more and more undermined by history, with new angles slowly caving in throughout the two-hour plus running time.

From her younger days, Matsue is seen able and more than willing to make her new family happy, without sacrificing her dreams in the process. Sendo's scenes carry with them a notable amount of bravery, especially in a sequence where Matsue not only is tasked with facing up to a potential lie with an elder boarder, but becoming a young lady in the process. Scenes such as these are hints of a much more contemporary nature for Gosha, and imply what will only become a deeply complex relationship between father and adopted daughter. As externally tough as his wife, Uta (Shima Iwashita) seems to be, it is the heart of Matsue that offers up a world beyond anything he is equipped to deal with. It's the kind of relationship that renders him completely out of his element, resulting in some truly challenging stumbles along the path. So when she grows up, and eventually falls in love with a local labor (Eitaro Ozawa) leader during a railroad strike, Onimasa is torn between his enduring love of Matsue's defiant nature, and her ultimate act of departure from him. What culminates here could so easily disturb some, but offers up such a payoff that says more implicitly than any hackneyed speech ever could.

And despite the original source material which was centered largely on Hanako, Onimasa's biological daughter, it is the weighty counter of Matsue that provides much of the film's drive. With her as the more cinematic odd-one-out, the film's use of objects (ex. her wish for money to buy a pencil VS. Hanako's wishes for a hair bow) makes for some non-subtle leaning. In fact, when she falls for a man, Onimasa bullies early on, and eventually acquiesces to, it is made clear by way of a German language book that she brings with her during her visit to him in jail. An educated, essentially cut-off man of society, he is of a quantity almost completely alien to the world of gambling, dog fights, and gang violence. Hanako herself (Kaori Tagasugi) becomes less a central character, and more a shadow of the world Matsue is attempting to carve. Even when the spoiled daughter becomes the lynchpin to the piece's finale, one wonders if the poor thing ever had a chance at all with such an upbringing.

Not unlike the title character, Gosha defiantly creates a film that fits firmly within the gangster and costume dramas of the past as if to openly admit that the 1980s is simply lost on him. The cinematography is at times classical, and often retro in heavy lighting. For as straightforward as the narrative plays out, events skip forward not unlike taking a peek at an aged novella with rotted pages beginning to fall out. What isn't seen is not always missed however, and the almost TV movie aura lends itself to the script's often soapy nature. Which is again largely buoyed by Nakadai's strangely appropriate turn as a remnant of the past on a single-minded quest to become a chivalrous businessman, to often tragic results. But the director also harbors a glimmer of hope, embodied especially in the radiance of Natsume who only a few short years later, passed away to leukemia in her late twenties. Somehow, their work here shines beyond what is ostensibly a heavy-duty melodrama in the old tradition.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Farewell To Inspirations

I wanted to just go ahead and mark today for a new post, not to share more thoughts regarding the ideas and work behind amazing works of fiction that infiltrate our minds, but rather to acknowledge and celebrate the passing (literally and figuratively) of a singular human icon that made its final pass over the skies of LA midday today. Was pretty much an ordinary Friday at work when the space shuttle Endeavour passed over the workplace during lunch hour roughly around 12:30 PM PST today. Making one of it's numerous passes over the LA/OC area today, I was able to get an ample look at the craft mounted atop an airliner at an impressively low altitude. Low enough to get a good look at the finer details as the suns rays bounced off their mutually sparking frames.

Not merely an unusual sight on a clear Los Angeles sky, but a shining, almost melancholy reminder of humankind's greatest attributes, all well represented in a flight that I'm sure left many with a sense of awe, inspiration, pride, and possibly sadness at the loss of an icon of an age. Of the possibilities inherent in the collaborative best in all of us.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Cold Fish (2010) Movie Review

Small town aquarium fish store owner & family are suddenly rescued from domestic strife by an elder, wildly charismatic business man(Denden) & younger wife(Asuka Kurosawa) with an even larger aquatic life establishment nearby. With a unhappy daughter(Hikari Kajiwara), and lovely but troubled new wife(Megumi Kagurazaka) of his own, the wallflower-like & ineffective Shamoto(Mitsuru Fukikoshi)'s own family seems instantly primed and happy to take in this sudden stroke of small fortune despite his natural reservation. It is only soon after that his worries about his own wayward family life are dwarfed by the revelation that the aggressively showy Murata and wife, Aiko, are in fact not merely con artists of the highest order, but serial killers with plans to make their new friend and family a part of their own freakish carnival of commerce.Yes, it may seem that I often stop up this moreover "genre" geared blog for reviews often concerning the darkest recesses of the human animal, but sometimes a point-blank approach says it better than any giant monster could. The often more subdued and sublime Sion Sono rips off the gloves, and offers us one of the bleakest, nastiest pieces of Japanese cinema in over a decade.

Working with an often incredible script by Sono and Yoshiki Takahashi, Cold Fish begins with some of the most aggressive approaches to what often could be construed as the mundane I have seen in a great while. From rapid cuts of an intense night of instant dinner prep, to a chance meeting, ending in tours of both central locations, it is a solid, tour-de-force of a prologue that sets up Shamoto's inner and outer worlds versus the almost absurdly giddy mirror image that Murata and Aiko present with their larger facilities, Ferrari, and brashy presentation & adoration of almost tourist-trap gaudiness. Almost elated that Murata is aiming to make the young Mitsuko one of his tackily-dressed live-in store staff, Shamoto and wife, Taeko, seem relieved that someone so generous seems so willing to help the couple with a child seemingly on a troubled path. But it is merely stage one of a larger scheme that involves Shamoto's own non-confrontational nature, something that could easily be used to win the confidence of others. It is this nature that also becomes central the the film's central concerns about the contemporary Japanese family, and its occasional flirtation with the morose. And as the film begins gathering steam, it is clear that the truth behind Murata serves as an aggressive, often shocking 180 degree response to such an existence. And the effects on Shamoto bear potential for dire consequences that stretch far beyond his own complicity in crimes that quickly begin to escalate from graphic insanity to almost infectious internal apocalyptic notions, threatening all within arm's reach.

Inspired by terribly true events, the film never shies away from immense heapings of gore,  yet always remains grounded in some relatable universe. With a film that deals with such often-horrific subject matter, it is often a safety button for many filmmakers to throw in an aside, a gag, or something to allow the events some manner of audience decompression. And dare I say, Cold Fish "gleefully" avoids this habit in favor of playing matters totally straight, keeping the dark comedy truly subjective. Sono's choice to keep matters subdued makes for some sobering thoughts concerning the roots of domestic evil, and the occasional monsters who fuel it.

So when I look at the film's "monsters" and see that Denden & Kurosawa are in no manner "classic" movie psychos, but lost souls with little remorse to keep them from making their paths in the world, it's a waking nightmare. Instantly evoking both the borderline huckster-esque, and the genuinely self-righeous, Denden's Murata is easily the film's most spectacular feature. A character so ridiculous in his sensibilities, and yet strangely true to life, that it's easy to see just how long his real-life counterpart was capable of eluding capture. And Kurosawa's Aiko, with her mix between streetwise beauty, and giddy liberation, is both compelling and utterly terrifying. Such laughter and enthusiasm from both him and Kurosawa make for some truly indelible characters, and it will likely be a long time before I can even consider a rival for such a position.

But the movie's most challenging balancing act comes from Fukikoshi, former gravure idol, Kagurazaka, and Kajiwara, who's Shamoto family comes rife with turmoil already primed to burst before this pair of TNT kegs came along. Kagurazaka impresses as the new mother of the family, someone with already enough baggage and guilt plaguing the household as she married into matters not too long after the passing of the original which has incensed the already acting out Kajiwara. A younger step-mother who has also inherited the family business that seems destined to go nowhere. The romance sequestered to merely a corner of a lonely stretch of highway, dosing on a lifetime of instant rice dinners, and tending to a family that is not very welcoming of one's habits let alone presence, or of even discussing matters of the future outside of the stars seems like a recipe for problems that are brought to full boil here. All events of course not going here or there due to Fukikoshi, who's entire life seems to be a giant, immutable compromise. His Shamoto, while on the surface, seems completely inert in his will to make change, is the face of "ganbare" pushed toward the breaking point. While a little piece of heaven is revealed to be Hades incarnate, it is his unwillingness to make any major choices that sets up the story's penultimate thematic detonator that goes off far beyond the monstrous acts happening before and around him. It is this belief that all will be better if he just soldiers on that creates many an undoing, and takes us into some truly unexpected territory.

Even as the film's third act rockets off into sheer fantasyland, the notion is clear; generations of stepping in line, and ignoring the base urge to survive fuels resent, violence, and an abyss capable of ensnaring even the most innocent. Cold Fish, while yet another challenge to ideas of decency, and "civilized" sensibilities, is the kind of response to South Korean revenge films many have been hoping to see from Japan, and a gnarled warning about how close we truly are to the nature we claim to be in control of, and how far we've wandered from stating our truest, deepest intentions.