Happy Holidays Dear Readers!! Marcus Pinn from Pinnland Empire has tapped me to share my review of Nagisa Oshima‘s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. This isn’t really a holiday film, it’s just a very excellent one. Thank you for reading.
Watching this infamous piece of cinema from 1976 is exhausting, but not in the way you’d think. The plot, based on a true story, isn’t too complicated: Sada Abe (Eiko Matsuda), a comely servant at an inn in 1930’s Japan becomes involved in a torrid love affair with the master of the house, Kichizo Ishida (Tatsuya Fuji). He pursues, she demurs, then the power flips, she dominates and ultimately kills him. This story is told in a repetitive manner which becomes draining of your attention. It’s all very well planned out; each scene moving the plot forward, lovely surroundings, and it’s incredibly, insanely sexually explicit. Nothing much is left out; it’s stunning in the forwardness and the great acting displayed. That’s the trick; Matsuda and Fuji’s performances are heartfelt, terrifying, moving, and they just happen to also be having sex. It’s jarring throughout; I’m not going to claim that watching this is not unsettling. There is a lot of imagery that is highly upsetting, but not in a standard pornographic mode. Elder sex, food, toys, orgies; you have it all but it feels like it should be in this film. The true story of two people who engage in risky public sex while drinking lots of sake can be explicit in content if produced well, which Nagisa Oshima did. The audience for this film is limited; many would feel squeamish to watch alone or with others and many would find it boring. What would generally be considered pornography becomes banal when filmed with an intent on story in mind and attention to detail. Give this a look if you want a glancing take on the changing modes of Japanese society in the 1930’s intercut with an amazing amount of blatant real sex and terrible violence.
Documentaries about food have seldom been so engaging and uplifting. Jiro Dreams of Sushi(2011) follows the operations of a miniscule sushi restaurant in Tokyo which happens to be regarded as producing the best sushi in the world. Jiro Ono is an octogenarian who has been honing his craft of sushi-making for most of his life. His fastidiousness, indefatigable work ethic and a passion for sushi are highlighted throughout the film with quiet care. The relationship between Jiro’s sons (also sushi chefs) and himself brings an element of drama that is unexpected from a story about fish. This documentary is a lovely illustration of a passionate senior and his gift to the world of meticulously-crafted sushi.
Outrage is a gangster film by the prolific Japanese director Beat Takeshi which was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2010. This is not a film for the faint of heart; few films reach this level of graphic violence. Though this film is brutal in its portrayal of a yakuza gang war, the absence of any “good guys” lends immediacy to the action that is rarely found in this genre. Beautiful camera work helps to elevate the cruel and merciless actions of the characters and delivers a shocking but engaging film experience.
Please take the time to read Pinnland Empire’s recent post about Kitano. You should really check out Pinnland regularly. Fantastic stuff including a series titled, Kidneys on Film: An exploration into the world of kidney transplantation in film. Now you’re interested. Go, read, enjoy!
Author’s Note: This piece was written due to the fact that I attended four performances of the play ‘Sleep No More’, an adaptation of ‘Macbeth’, in 2012. Four sounds like a lot, but SNM is not a usual play. It is an immersive theater piece which in staged in a six-story warehouse outfitted as a hotel from the 1930’s, the story told in dance, the audience following the actors while wearing masks. Yes, you must wear a mask and run about the most magical, errie set while watching the murder’s unfold. I had to research a lot of ‘Macbeth’ while attending because there is no speaking by the actors and you enter the scenes while already in progress. You must piece together who is who and what part of the play you are in. There are also characters from Hitchcock films thrown in to confuse you more. Trust me, this is the most reality-alterning art experience; you feel strange, changed for days afterward. A tip: play cards with the Speakeasy Bartender or flirt with him(no talking allowed) and you may receive a shot of whiskey. Cheers.
William Shakespeare’s 1606 play Macbeth has spawned many film adaptations which vary greatly in their presentation of the tragic tale. The play begins with prophecies that Macbeth is told of by mysterious witches of his impending rise to power. Macbeth and his wife are so enraptured by the prophecies of power and wealth that they plot to murder those obstructing their rise. Inevitably, the toll of deceit and murder destroy Lady Macbeth and Macbeth’s psyches and lives. Macbeth’s famous soliloquy from Act 5, Scene 5 epitomizes the depth of human misery that the play conveys:
“She should have died hereafter.
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Macbeth (1948) directed by Orson Welles
Welles version of Macbeth is a fairly odd, yet successful adaptation of The Scottish Play. Fairly odd is an apt description due to the fact that this film was produced very quickly and has the feel of a low-budget feature. Neither the costume design nor the set are indicative of Scotland in the 11th century and the actors put on rather questionable Scottish accents, yet this film is a strong example of a Shakespearean play adapted to screen. Welles plays the title character himself and fills the doomed man with insistent ambition and later, complete emptiness. A director playing the main character may seem egocentric, but Welles is restrained with this delivery. The famous Act 5 soliloquy does not even feature Welles’ face; instead a shot of clouds appear with the morose words in voice-over, which lends well to the complete despair of that speech. The director’s cinematic gifts are in high relief in this film. The tracking shots and dynamic performances from the cast illustrate that even with a rushed shooting schedule and sparse budget, Welles could deliver an engaging tale.
A Performance of Macbeth (1979) BBC TV
A Performance of Macbeth is a highly unusual staging of this play; comprised of a sparse set and modern costumes. If one ventures to watch this, one must be very familiar with the play or they may find themselves utterly confused. The acting in this film is exceptional; Ian McKellan as Macbeth and Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth deliver their lines with expertise and authority; as well as Ian McDiarmid, famously known as the The Emperor in Star Wars, playing a drunken Porter. Despite the masterful acting, this interpretation expects that the audience knows all of the nuances of the play, which if not well-versed, will leave the viewer cross. Actors appear and disappear from the frame randomly, and a few actors play multiple roles, which is hard to follow with such pared-down sets and costumes. This is a worthwhile adaptation for those who have a great deal of Shakespearian knowledge, but for the novice viewer this is not the best avenue to start exploring this turbulent tale.
Throne of Blood (1957) directed by Akira Kurosawa
Throne of Blood would seem at first glance to be exceedingly different from the original Shakespearian text, yet that is not the case. Kurosawa’s interpretation of Macbeth translated to feudal Japan is exceptional in that it illustrates that the appetite for power infects all men. The literary critic Harold Bloom described this film thusly:
“There is nothing specifically anti-Christian in his crimes; they would offend virtually every vision of the sacred and the moral that human chronicle has known. That may be why Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood is so uncannily the most successful film version of Macbeth, though it departs very far from the specifics of Shakespeare’s play. Macbeth’s tragedy, like Hamlet’s, Lear’s, and Othello’s, is so universal that a strictly Christian context is inadequate to it.”(Bloom, p. 519)
This interpretation is entirely correct; though the characters and settings in Kurosawa’s film are not what Shakespeare would have envisioned, the story of damning ambition still shines through. The special effects in this film are also not to be missed; the final battle is a feat of cinematic brilliance. The scale of this film is not as grand as Kurosawa’s Ran (his version of King Lear) but is a worthwhile viewing experience due to the creativity of the director’s vision.
Bloom, H. (1998). Shakespeare: The invention of the human. New York: Riverhead Books.