Eclipse Series 7: Postwar Kurosawa

Discuss DVDs released in the Eclipse and Essential Art House lines and the films on them.
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HerrSchreck
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#101 Post by HerrSchreck » Wed Apr 09, 2008 4:20 pm

Michael Kerpan wrote:I didn't see Mifune as remotely "hammy" in this.
Agreed. Particularly vs some of his other work in say 7Samurai & Rashomon etc, with that typical snarling blast of atomic energy that can be Mifune at times. I really enjoyed Scandal, and actually dug Mifune's sort've refinement as a genteel dude staying calm while his life was being flushed before his very eyes..

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Michael Kerpan
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#102 Post by Michael Kerpan » Wed Apr 09, 2008 4:32 pm

What surprised me with Scandal was just how visually stunning so many of the scenes were. His Shochiku cinematographer (Toshio Ubukata) did a spectacular job in both this and Idiot.

I found the courtroom climax a hoot -- sort of like a Perry Mason episode that ended up with him fingering himself as the criminal.

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#103 Post by HerrSchreck » Wed Apr 09, 2008 6:46 pm

The cinematography in Idiot is absolutely sublime. It verges at times on the emotional richness of, say-- rather than German Expressionism-- French Impressionism. LHerbier, Gremillon, Kirsonoff, Epstein et al were fantastic at getting the moods (more often than not melancholia, or verging towards) of nature captured in ways that speak of and with the moods of the characters and narrative. All those snowy locationscapes of (Hokkaido I think?) north Japan so beautifully accent the bleak emotional terrain of not only the central character but the sum narrative itself. The deft interplay of location and studio is also impressive (there are if I remember correct some studio shots here and there, early on, replicating snowy winter streets.. there's one static shot in particular I recall). I still hold out hope that the rest of this film can be found... though of course its not looking good. Not as hopeless-- yet-- as Greed or Ambersons.

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Michael Kerpan
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#104 Post by Michael Kerpan » Wed Apr 09, 2008 7:52 pm

Kurosawa rummaged through the Shochiku archives -- and found no trace of the missing materials.

Toshio Ubukata was an old pro -- who had been involved in movies since the silent era (perhaps one reason why his work is so good) in Scandal and (even more so) Idiot.

A few screenshots from Lights of Asakusa (which he shot for Shimazu back in 1937):

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#105 Post by My Man Godfrey » Wed Apr 09, 2008 9:01 pm

Ha -- Kerpan, it seems like every time I post a comment on this forum (it happens once in a blue moon), you promptly and curtly express your disagreement. I'm tempted to claim, just for the sake of experiment, that Ran is a bad movie.

Not remotely hammy? Everyone agrees?

The head-scratching thing Mifune does while he makes his thinking-really-hard face? Not a little hammy?

The whole "preposterously-macho-but-also-attuned-to-the-hidden-colors-of-the-earth-motorcyclist-painter" shtick? Not slightly hammy? A lot of that corniness is in the script, of course -- but Mifune plays it to the hilt.

Come on, y'all: slightly hammy. In spots. Give me "slightly, in spots."

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#106 Post by Michael Kerpan » Wed Apr 09, 2008 11:27 pm

My Man Godfrey wrote: I'm tempted to claim, just for the sake of experiment, that Ran is a bad movie.
Bad movie? I don't know. Certainly one I thoroughly dislike. Not necessarily the same thing at all.
Not remotely hammy? Everyone agrees?
I don't see his performance here as hammy. Sorry. Perhaps you have a different notion of "hammy" than I do. Shimura is utterly hammy in this film (in a mostly quite entertaining fashion). But not Mifune, not in this role.

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#107 Post by HerrSchreck » Thu Apr 10, 2008 2:40 am

In a sense (and I don't know how accustomed to Japanese acting My Man Godfrey is) all Japanese acting is-- at least vs the west-- "hammy". Many occidentals are initially taken aback when they see 7Samurai for the first time (most westerners initial starter into Japanese film, at least 25 years ago... not sure today w so much home vid option)... the guttural bug eyed delivery, the male grunts w stiff necks, etc. The loud fake machoman laughs looking up and to the side and to no one in particular when challenged (Nakadai could do that one to the hilt).

So many wonderful exceptions to this of course.

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#108 Post by Tommaso » Thu Apr 10, 2008 5:57 am

HerrSchreck wrote:In a sense (and I don't know how accustomed to Japanese acting My Man Godfrey is) all Japanese acting is-- at least vs the west-- "hammy".
Isn't that a little overstated, even if you say there are exceptions? I completely agree with your point on the westerners reaction to "Seven Samurai", and would also throw in the Mifune performances in "Rashomon" and even "Throne of Blood"(though here they get another drift due to the Noh-style). It came as a complete surprise to see Mifune later in films like "The Lower depths" and "Stray Dog", where he acts in a completely different and for me much more interesting way. What you describe seems to me only to go for the Kurosawa period pieces. If you compare this to the completely different, almost subdued acting in a period piece like Mizo's "Chikamatsu", for example, there may indeed be a difference to 'western' acting, but not in the way you describe it. I guess the problems that westerners encounter with (older) Japanese films are rather that they are not 'hammy' enough,and not as an exception, but rather as a rule.

But I would agree with My Man Godfrey. Mifune is hammy in "Scandal", "slightly, in spots", for the reasons Godfrey has mentioned, much in the way I would expect this from a not-so-good American film made around the same time. Which doesn't mean that it disturbs me in any way. My problem with the film is not the Mifune character, but the somewhat unconvincing end and the lapse into melodrama associated with the Shimura character.

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Michael Kerpan
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#109 Post by Michael Kerpan » Thu Apr 10, 2008 9:21 am

Very little of the acting in the work of Shimizu, Ozu, Naruse and the other Tokyo "neo-realists" is hammy, by any stretch of the imagination.

The acting in Kurosawa's films tends to be far "hammier" on average than was the norm in top-quality films by his peers (which is not to say that all -- or even most -- performances in his films were especially hammy). I can't assess the hamminess quotient of low-budget chambara -- having not seen any.

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#110 Post by HerrSchreck » Thu Apr 10, 2008 9:47 am

Tommasso wrote:Isn't that a little overstated, even if you say there are exceptions
I'm no expert on this, nor can I lay claim to having seen anywhere near the percentile of Japanese output to posess Survey Data... but the perception does exist, and it can be one of those adjustments a neophyte westerner needs to make when confronting-- in particular-- the Japanese male in films. I'll quote from Donald Richie's (and Joe Anders) book "The Japanese Film; Art & Industry", page 397... "Actors"--

"Perhaps one of the main problems of the Japanese director is not how to bring out strong performances but how to surpress them, since Japanese actors, more than most, tend to overact. One might even venture that, as a people, Japanese people are more histrionically inclined than most: the playing of roles in the family is common. Hiding feelings is usually considered a virtue and it is equally thought necessary to counterfeit emotions. This has given the Japanese people a certain facility in the art of acting, that ability to step outside of ones sellf to create the semblance of an emotion not actually felt. At any rate, overacting is much more common than "underacting" in the Japanese films and the professional movie actors in Japan cultivate a personal quality or profile which is considerably stronger than actors elsewhere."

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#111 Post by Michael Kerpan » Thu Apr 10, 2008 10:56 am

In retrospect, just one of many things that it would seem that Richie and Anderson got wrong in this very early work. See also the claim that the Japanese film industry of that era was virtually incapable of coming up with good scripts.

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#112 Post by the dancing kid » Thu Apr 10, 2008 11:26 am

Without entering the discussion on hamminess I think there are two things that are important to remember when thinking about actors like Mifune. The first is that Japanese cinema experienced something of a crisis of masculinity during the immediate post-war period. There was an intense feeling of male responsibility for the war, so filmmakers were uncomfortable using male figures in roles of power and authority (there were also of course issues of censorship during the Occupation as well). As such, most male roles in the period were either villainous or the part of the fool. In both cases the audience's enjoyment usually came at the expense of male characters, and being able to laugh at those kinds of characters was part of the "recovery" from the trauma of the war. This crisis was resolved in large by the appearance of actors like Mifune, who were able to transform that part of the cinematic landscape through their onscreen personas.

The second part is that actors like Mifune, Nakadai and Ishihara Yujiro were popular because of their unusual physicality, and perhaps moreso than their acting abilities. I think Nakadai is a legitimately great actor, which isn't to say the other two aren't, but they were also both icons of the resurrected post-war masculinity through their unusual body types and modes of expressing their physicality. A lot of film stars were also transposed from other industries (mainly music), and relied more on their talents and fanbase from those ventures than their film specific talents.

I don't think all of that is unique to Japan though. There are plenty of cases of music stars breaking out into film in American and Europe, although I suppose the ephemeral nature of those types of figures tends to erase them from the popular memories of film history. I don't think it would be difficult to find overacting in any national cinema though.

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#113 Post by HerrSchreck » Thu Apr 10, 2008 2:40 pm

Michael Kerpan wrote:In retrospect, just one of many things that it would seem that Richie and Anderson got wrong in this very early work. See also the claim that the Japanese film industry of that era was virtually incapable of coming up with good scripts.
Regardless how you or I or anyone regard Richie, or his book, the simple fact is that the perception exists.. rightly or wrongly-- the only reason I provided the quote.

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#114 Post by Michael Kerpan » Thu Apr 10, 2008 2:52 pm

HerrSchreck wrote:Regardless how you or I or anyone regard Richie, or his book
I find Richie quite admirable. And that ancient book by him and Anderson is like a window into the past -- into a time when Americans knew absolutely nothing about Japanese films and cared even less. This was an ambitious first step to change American attitudes. Fascinating, from a sociological point of view -- but not anything to consider canonical on aesthetic issues. ;~}

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#115 Post by My Man Godfrey » Fri Apr 11, 2008 2:45 am

Apologies for turning this into the ham thread.

I'm not a film scholar, and while I have watched untold hours of Japanese cinema, I wouldn't call myself an expert. I'm sure I'm getting a lot of stuff painfully wrong. I do resist this idea that "all Japanese acting seems hammy by Western standards." "Stylized" and "corny" are not the same thing, as even thick-skulled western viewers know. Much of the acting in Rashomon, for instance, is highly stylized but very effective; at times, it's almost like dance.

If there's a problem with Mifune's performance in Scandal, perhaps it's that his performance is stylized as though he were appearing in one of Kurosawa's samurai pictures. The performance seems discordant in the Capraesque environment of Scandal. And the other performers in the film don't seem equally hammy to me, for that matter. The sick girl: hella hammy. The magazine's lawyer: totally realistic, even subdued.

It's funny: on the Ozu threads, it seems like I hear things like "if the performances seem low-key, that's because the film is Japanese." Here, performances are over-the-top because the film is Japanese. Oh, well.

And by the way, I didn't hate Scandal.

Dancing kid: fascinating comment. Watching Scandal, I definitely felt that Mifune's iconic stature was being used by Kurosawa for some purpose not strictly related to the story he was trying to tell. Mifune is a kind of superman in this film; unless I'm forgetting something, he's a perfect physical specimen who's totally devoid of character flaws. Even when he's punching the paparazzo in the face, he makes this mistake because he's too damned sincere, unable to suppress his pure and powerful sentiments. The perfection of his character -- and the spiritual perfection of the lawyer's physically imperfect daughter -- is what I find a little silly. But it's easy for me to imagine that this kind of a portrayal would be significant after the postwar period of emasculation that you describe.

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#116 Post by Murasaki53 » Sat Apr 26, 2008 6:24 am

Michael Kerpan wrote:I find Richie quite admirable
His Japan Journals: 1947-2004 is extraordinary and one of the best books I read last year.

And he's still doing arts reviews for the Japan Times which I find reassuring, given that he must be about 85 by now. It's nice to know he's still out there.

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#117 Post by Michael Kerpan » Sat Apr 26, 2008 12:34 pm

Murasaki53 wrote:His Japan Journals : 1947-2004 is extraordinary and one of the best books I read last year.

And he's still doing arts reviews for the Japan Times which I find reassuring, given that he must be about 85 by now. It's nice to know he's still out there.
Mainly he seems to do book reviews these days. It is nice to see these from time to time. He used to have occasional pieces in the International Herald Tribune too -- but I haven't seen any of these lately.

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#118 Post by ltfontaine » Sun Apr 27, 2008 8:32 am

Murasaki53 wrote:His Japan Journals: 1947-2004 is extraordinary and one of the best books I read last year.
Yes, and the unexpurgated version Richie promises will be published after his death should be really interesting.

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#119 Post by Jimaku » Sun Apr 27, 2008 5:17 pm

Michael Kerpan wrote:
HerrSchreck wrote:Regardless how you or I or anyone regard Richie, or his book
I find Richie quite admirable. And that ancient book by him and Anderson is like a window into the past -- into a time when Americans knew absolutely nothing about Japanese films and cared even less. This was an ambitious first step to change American attitudes. Fascinating, from a sociological point of view -- but not anything to consider canonical on aesthetic issues. ;~}
Do you seriously mean to suggest that Richie and Anderson, writing in the late 1950s, somehow had less of a handle on what constitutes hammy acting than we do today? That somehow there's been some kind of "progress" in that regard?

Or are you suggesting that they didn't quite "get" the Japanese, unlike yourself? This despite the fact that Richie had already been living in Japan for over a decade at that time (1959) and Anderson had an excellent grasp of Japanese?

The first argument is specious: it's doubtful whether there is any such thing as "progress" in aesthetics, whether it be in the production of art of in its appreciation. One could just as easily make the case for decay and degeneration. Or one could simply split the difference and argue that different eras simply have different sensibilities. I see no reason why an American writing in the late 50s should have registered a "false positive" for hammy acting, especially when there was plenty of hammy acting in the American cinema of the time to serve as a baseline for judgment.

If, on the other hand, you're implying that you know and understand the Japanese better than Richie and Anderson do, or did... I call bullsh*t.

You're certainly free to disagree with Richie's assertions in that or any other book (I disagree with many of them myself). But if you do, it's incumbent upon you to make a proper case and not content yourself to smugly dismiss them as the products of a benighted age. Even if it were possible in principle to earn the right to such condescension, you have not.

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#120 Post by Mr Sausage » Sun Apr 27, 2008 7:00 pm

Jimaku wrote:The first argument is specious: it's doubtful whether there is any such thing as "progress" in aesthetics, whether it be in the production of art of in its appreciation.
Kerpan said nothing of the sort. The only progress implied is that of the writers' themselves. Would you deny that people are capable of improving their aesthetic judgements/standards, to say nothing of merely gaining more knowledge as time passes?

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#121 Post by Michael Kerpan » Sun Apr 27, 2008 7:09 pm

Mr_sausage wrote:Kerpan said nothing of the sort. The only progress implied is that of the writers' themselves. Would you deny that people are capable of improving their aesthetic judgements/standards, to say nothing of merely gaining more knowledge as time passes?
Thank you for actually reading what I wrote.

Richie himself often jokes about how he misunderstood this or that back in his earlier days. Anyone who compares his 1959 views with his current ones will see quite a bit of change between then and now.

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#122 Post by Jimaku » Sun Apr 27, 2008 7:39 pm

Michael Kerpan wrote:
Mr_sausage wrote:Kerpan said nothing of the sort. The only progress implied is that of the writers' themselves. Would you deny that people are capable of improving their aesthetic judgements/standards, to say nothing of merely gaining more knowledge as time passes?
Richie himself often jokes about how he misunderstood this or that back in his earlier days. Anyone who compares his 1959 views with his current ones will see quite a bit of change between then and now.
Of course people are capable of revising their opinions, and of course Richie has revised a number of his own, but where exactly does he rethink the quotation in question? The fact that he, like everybody else, changes his mind from time to time doesn't give you the right to presumptively attribute revised opinions to him.

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#123 Post by Michael Kerpan » Sun Apr 27, 2008 9:15 pm

I don't know what your problem is jimaku.

Richie has acknowledged that he did a lot of stereotyping in his earlier work -- things that he doesn't really agree with anymore. He has learned a lot since the 1950s -- and lots more study has also been done by others since then.

What makes _you_ think that he _still_ considers Japanese actors naturally hammy? You might want to look at his more recent work and see if this is one of the notions he carries over from 1959 into the present. I don't think you will find any comments remotely like this in his most recent work.

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#124 Post by Jimaku » Sun Apr 27, 2008 10:08 pm

Michael Kerpan wrote:I don't know what your problem is jimaku.

Richie has acknowledged that he did a lot of stereotyping in his earlier work -- things that he doesn't really agree with anymore. He has learned a lot since the 1950s -- and lots more study has been done by others since then.

What makes _you_ think that he _still_ considers Japanese actors naturally hammy? You might want to look at his more recent work and see if this one of the notions he carries over from 1959 into the present. I don't think you will find any comments remotely like this in his most recent work.
Why? Because that statement exists in print and I haven't heard him say otherwise, either in print or in person. And he still, alas, does have a penchant for sweeping generalizations about "the Japanese." Sorry, it's not my responsibility to substantiate your claims otherwise.

That said, his observation at the time was based on a lot of time spent watching Japanese films (both in the theater and on set) and a lot of time spent among the Japanese. He had a great deal of vivid, lived experience of what constituted "normal" or "natural" or "understated" behavior in Japanese society at that time against which to compare the acting that he was seeing--a great deal of which, apparently, was quite hammy. I'm not sure I agree with his culturalist explanation for the phenomenon--it might just be that Japan didn't really have a conservatory system to speak of and most film actors had to learn their craft "on the job" so to speak (certainly true of Mifune and Nakadai)--but the observation was still based on experience, a kind of experience that's no longer available to us--even to Richie himself, except in the fading vestiges of memory. As for the situation today, have you watched any Japanese dramas lately? Or run-of-the-mill feature productions? Again, I don't think the reason for the atrocious acting is necessarily cultural--today it's just because most so-called "tarento" get chosen more for their looks than for any kind of detectable talent. This is not to dispute that Japan, then and now, had and has some truly outstanding actors.

My "problem," as you put it, is not that I'm particularly wedded to his diagnosis, but that I found your dismissal of it lazy and condescending. For all of his shortcomings, he's one of the giants on whose shoulders we stand, and even his earlier self deserves a little better than snarky little kicks to the head. My problem is with the many contemporary Western specialists of Japanese film who make a pastime of sniping at him to inflate their own sense of importance.

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#125 Post by Michael Kerpan » Sun Apr 27, 2008 10:21 pm

If you want to treat what Richie and Anderson wrote in 1959 as gospel, be my guest. Richie himself does not. (I don't know what Anderson's attitude is). I prefer to see it as an intriguing, tentative "first look" at an area Americans knew nothing about (and would largely continue to ignore for at least a couple more decades).

Yes, I have seen "run of the mill" Japanese films (some older ones and more newer ones) -- and I don't see that Japanese performers in these are any more or less hammy (on average) than in comparable American films.

So -- just how many Japanese films of the 20s through 50s have YOU seen?

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