Sunday, April 21, 2013

Against The System

So this week Criterion has released it's newest Eclipse box set, and much to my delight, it's subject was none other than Masaki Kobayashi.  Kobayashi was responsible for some of my favorite films coming from Japan in the sixties, and this newest box set takes it even deeper into the mid-late fifties.  While that might seem a little extraneous, I feel that in that period of films, every year meant something different.  It was a period of financial success in much of Japan, but for many people (and many filmmakers, for that matter), the adjustment to post-war life carried the same sting as the war itself; there is no official end to animosity, and many found it hard to adjust their ideals and distrusted the current government who they felt had grown corrupt with commerce and industry.

The post-war treaties had made it impossible to make patriotic films for quite some time, and the jidaigeki genre, which served filmmakers in Japan since even before the war, had matured with the times, and by the sixties, it was being used to even greater social effect.  Akira Kurosawa once said that it was pointless to make a period drama if it didn't have something to say about what was going on now, and there were few who did that to greater effect than Masaki Kobayashi.

Kobayashi spent the earliest part of his career as prisoner of war.  Being drafted almost immediately after he began his apprenticeship, Kobayashi refused being promoted beyond the rank of private and considered himself a pacifist, and it wasn't until his release in 1946 that he was able to return to Shochiku Studios and assist director Keisuke Kinoshita.

It's worth mentioning Kinoshita briefly, as it is very probable to believe that he was a major influence on Kobayashi at the time.  Though working at Shochiku for most of his career, Kinoshita was constantly changing throughout, giving himself new subject matters and genres, or at least new ways of approaching them.  Shochiku was known for it's tales of everyday, working class people, known as shomin-geki, and though directors like Ozu and Naruse were both creating beautiful pieces that reflected the outlook of many Japanese in a more austere, ever simplifying aesthetic, I feel like Kinoshita was more interested in pushing boundaries in new ways of film-making,  as well as exploring the subject of lost innocence, which would become a hallmark of his style.  It is wholly possible that this is where Kobayashi found his voice, among a like-minded mentor who appreciated democracy and who never shied away from his own ideals, and who in fact, grew ever more nihilistic as the sixties approached.

With several of his own films under his best, and after already tackling the direct effects of World War II in The Thick Walled Room (Kabe Atsuki Heya), it was Kobayshi then, who would explore even further into a more pessimistic worldview, directing such masterpieces as The Human Condition (Ningen no Joken), and Harakiri, both startling criticisms of Japan at the time.  The Human Condition especially, was Kobayashi's firm and unrelenting criticism of war and the macho indoctrination of Japanese males at the time.  Ever the pacifist, Kobayshi was able to say more about the war with single gunshots than near any other film of that time, as in any of his films, violence never supplements morality.
It is also very important to mention Kobayashi's relationship with actor Tatsuya Nakadai, of who Kobayashi would help to launch the career of and form a like-minded friendship with throughout his career.  Though overshadowed in cinematic history by Akira Kurosawa (and it would be Kurosawa's films that Nakadai is often famous for), Kobayshi and Nakadai made 11 films together, and those films are more important to me than any such films by Kurosawa.  That isn't to say that I don't love Kurosawa, but there is something about the almost counterculture nature of Kobayshi's films, along with his beautifully sweeping camerawork and collaborations with Toru Takemitsu (who was also more well know in his collaborations with Kurosawa, as well as countless other directors of the time) that resonated more with me.  It's not that the elements of his films aren't seen in the corners of popular Japanese cinema at the time, but what is so appealing about Kobayshi is that he was able to fashion all of those elements into something edgier; whittling his blunt stick into a sharp, stabbing tool, ever piercing and ever haunting.
Also, to point out, spell check tries to correct me when I write the name Kobayshi, but not Kurosawa, and that's kinda bullshit.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

My Most Nostalgic Nightmares

Spring for me is a great time to revisit a lot of works that I've grown fond of over my short lifetime.  Maybe it's the state of transition, much like autumn, that makes me nostalgic, or maybe it's the spring-cleaning inventory that one does that let's me see what I have amassed over the years; and beyond that, what is worth reliving as an almost anniversary.  So: Dylan Dog.
Dylan Dog was admittedly a pretty late entry to my cannon, but for some reason i feel like I've spent my whole life with him.  I can't tell if it's just me, but I would venture to guess, based on the worldwide success of the Italian comic, that quite a few others have shared in my experience.  Unfortunately, English-only readers have had to settle for a measly six issue miniseries plus single special issue published by Dark Horse Publishing in the US.  Not that I am complaining, as the collected edition still clocks in at a respectable 680 pages, but Italian fans were treated to over 300 issues!  Granted, I'm not a huge fan of overly-long running serials (in fact, I would rather take a short, strong, finite story over an ongoing series in most cases), but every time I close this book I can't help but want to read more, and despite being set in London, I haven't been able to find any other English language issues being published even in the UK, though I would love to be proven wrong in that reguard.
To give a quick description of the book, Dylan Dog is a nightmare investigator.  Though mentioned only briefly in the English language version (as again, there are only seven out of 300+ issues), Dylan Dog was once a member of Scotland Yard, and though he is now a private contractor, he is often aided by, or himself aides, Inspector Bloch, his former superior in his previous post.  Bloch functions as a rational father-figure, though he is never one to completely disreguard Dylan's supernatural theories or explanations.  Rather, he acts as a starting point for the reader into the more fact or proceedural-based issues within some of the individual cases.  It's through him that we often learn about what is really going on in the concrete sense, and he often acts as a springboard for Dylan's more far-fetched speculations, even moreso sometimes than Dylan's own assistant Groucho (changed to Felix in the English language adaptation, due to a conflict with the estate of Groucho Marx, complete with alterations to remove the character's signature mustache).  If Bloch functions as the rational father character, then Groucho does his best impersination of the comic relief, though his inexhaustable jokes wear on even the characters themselves, while still managing to squeak out a few chuckles from the reader.  The character itself is almost a running joke, as he is on more than a few occassions always there in the nick of time to throw our hero a revolver, saving his life (much like Hellboy always falling through floors, and Adèle Blanc-Sec's consistantly, similarly bearded men).
An altogether not wholly original concept, Dylan Dog manages to stand out on the merit of it's protagonist.  Instead of taking itself too seriously, the stories have a kind of natural comedy to them, and they almost distance themselves from their subject matter; it feels like for every story that is centered around an actual case he is hired for, there are two more that are based on happenstance, and the character is merely a passanger along with the reader.  There are countless pop culture references, from the theme from Ghostbusters in the background, to even the appearance of Dylan himself, admitted to be based on the likeness of actor Rupert Everett. 
Dylan is a hopeless romantic, and like Chekov's gun, if a woman is introduced, Dylan is almost certain to fall in love with her, further complicating things beyond their already convaluted meanderings.  This sense of romance, perhaps is what makes me hold Dylan Dog in such a nostalgic light.  There are hintings of his past and a sense of melancholy and lonliness in his otherwise mundane demeanor, and despite their unwavering, almost casual violence, his tales have a lightness to them that invites the reader back time and time again.  Though there is some carryover between stories, they remain largely stand-alone episodes, and perhaps that's what is so inviting as well.  As much as I love them, I can always skip over stories like Morgana, which, admittedly can give me quite a headache if I'm not in the mood for it.

If you're a fan of any of the other stuff I have mentioned, I would say to give this one a try as well.  For me, Dylan Dog sits at the same table as Adèle Blanc-Sec and Hellboy, with a place card reading "Pulp-Horror Plus".  Each has the excellent ability to transcend genre conventions and become cultural icons in their own respective decades and countries, and all have become inspirations for films based on thier exploits (in fact, Cemetary Man was based on another novel by Dylan Dog creator Tiziano Sclavi and starred none other than Rupert Everett).  To be totally honest, I couldn't make it past the first five or ten minutes of Dylan Dog: Dead Of Night.  From what i saw, it shared almost no similarities aside from a name and a red shirt, and I don't think I missed too much.  Either way, as is almost always the case with cultural icons in comics, skip the film, read this book.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

I Can Hear The Sea

Ocean Waves, or I Can Hear The Sea (海がきこえる Umi ga kikoeru) is a made for TV film directed by Tomomi Mochizuki and produced by animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli.  Apparently it was based on a novel as well, but I have never read that, so I couldn't really attest to how the film version compares.  Either way, I love this film.  It actually comes in right behind Porco Rosso as my favorite Ghibli film, though it is very much unlike any other film they have made.  This makes sense though, as this film was meant to give the studio the chance to make a much cheaper production using their younger staff members (though it did go over budget and schedule).

The story take place mostly in Kōchi, and is told in a flashback of protagonist Taku Morisaki reminiscing over who he comes to realize was his first love, Rikako Muto, after seeing a familiar woman on a train platform in Tokyo.  It's a simple enough story, and it lacks much of magical realism or fantastical elements that Studio Ghibli is most notable for, but the maturity and subtlety of Ocean Waves is instantly apparent and one could find it's contemporary love story just as whimsical as a flying pig or a bathhouse populated by spirits.

Rikako is from Tokyo and desperately misses home, and manages to offend almost everyone in her new school (of which Taku attends), not the least by making fun of Taku's Kōchi dialect, saying that he sounds like he is in a Samurai movie, and it's this comparative approach that Rikako is taking that is the cause of her social stryfe.  She becomes ostracized from her fellow students by placing herself above them, and though she says she doesn't care what they think, there is still a real sense of isolation and lonliness in her that only adds to her poor attitude towards her peers, and one that Taku is obviously annoyed and angered by despite his willingness to help her with her many problems.

Ocean Waves manages to use it's brevity to it's advantage, as any conflict is easily ascertained and the surrounding emotion is related to the audience immediately.  This is an impressively relate-able film, and despite some moderate predictability, it manages to be engaging from very early on.  In fact, I think that it's that instant relate-ability and predictability that makes it compelling and engaging, and it feels more like you are actually the one reminiscing rather than watching the characters go through the motions; somehow the fact that it is animated actually helps with this, as there isn't the normal relationship that the viewer often builds with the actor playing the part who that viewer may have any preconceived opinions about.  The characters are simply that --characters.  They remain those roles forever, and their story as we know it ends with what we're presented in the film.
If you have ever liked a girl, you should watch this movie.