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film writing by nicholas vroman

Archive for July 2011

Journey to Onomichi

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“Sometimes I don’t have a clue anymore

how to retrace, let alone explain the complexity

of even the simplest thing,

or the history of its influences…”

– Wim Wenders, Journey to Onomichi

Wim Wender’s photo book, Journey to Onomichi,begins with a panoramic shot of the sea near Naoshima – looking out from the town of Onomichi toward misty islands. Away from the city he’s ostensibly looking at. The early morning sky fades up from the horizon, a faint yellow ochre to the dull indigo of Japanese woodblock prints. The technology of the split fountain printer’s technique exists in the sky here.

Next come a pair of close-ups. A twisty leathery vine splits the frame. A mound of lichen encrusted Buddhas are dappled by yellow sunlight.

Then there is the establishing shot. The town itself. The shoreline twists away. The roofs of the house glint in the setting sun, peaking from behind a dead tree, its trunk and branches cutting across the frame. The still and tortured tree appears to be holding up dark clouds, if only for the moment of the shutter’s click, letting the sun shine down on the quiet village.

In 2005, Wim Wenders made a pilgrimage to Onomichi, a town on the southeastern edge of Honshu off the Inland Sea about 50 kilometers away from Hiroshima.

In 1953, Ozu Yasujiro set much of his masterpiece, Tokyo monogatari (Tokyo Story), in this village. The old couple at the heart of the story, Shukichi (Chishu Ryu) and Tomi Hirayama (Chieko Higashiyama), live here. In the film they visit their distant and distanced children in Tokyo and Osaka, only to finally return to their hometown where Tomi dies. The shattered yet upright Shukichi is left to mourn not only his wife’s death, but also the passing of family, tradition, even culture. The story is a simple, but the tragedy is profound. Shukichi is like the lone tree in Wender’s photograph, not only bearing witness, but also bearing the burden of these passings.

Tokyo monogatari* opens with a set of shots that will repeat themselves later in the film. The first is of a stone lantern. In the foreground, the perspective makes it look huge. It towers over the waterfront and distant hills. The next shot shows schoolchildren walking to school, away from the camera. A pair of large gabled warehouse buildings form the backdrop. They are white in morning sun. In the foreground, a couple of sake bottles, one of Ozu’s favorite motifs, and seller’s cart complete the composition. The third shot shows village rooftops climbing up a hill. From this stillness a train cuts though from right to left through the center of the frame. Then we cut to a reverse shot, looking down the hill toward the water. The train cuts through again. Some white laundry hanging in the foreground rustles and blows as the black locomotive passes. The fifth shot shows a Buddhist temple sitting on small bluff. The sixth takes us into the shitamachi where the old couple lives. Worn wood and stuccoed walls and a narrow street where a young woman in a crisp white blouse and conservative dark skirt, holding a briefcase walks away from the camera. The next shot finds us in Shukichi’s and Tomi’s house.

In Journey to Onomichi, Wenders next takes us on a walk through the city streets of Onomichi nearly 50 years later. Down to the old quay, little changed, still dull concrete. Then to a wall covered with leftover dabs of paint, stickers, tape, looking like an abstract map of chromosomes. The next shot looks downhill, a graveyard in the foreground, a swimming pool in mid-frame, the new city stretching beyond. A visit to a battleship – two shots, one with a woman in a red dress in the foreground, the other with a red bench – and the empty submarine factory give way to a series of photos of architecture. The juxtaposition of old and new. Crass advertisements, traditional blinds, the way Japanese have no compunction of constructing jury-rigged additions to solid clunky buildings. The way traditional buildings crowd the streetscape with bastard modernism. With Curved Street, Wenders finds light reminiscent of Hopper’s, similar to his photos of Butte storefronts. With The House on the Corner a lone building fills a triangular lot with layers, cubbyholes, odd windows and strange architectural detail. The next section takes through a couple of shots of photo-abstraction to interiors. These are definitely not the interiors of Tokyo monogatari. A coffeehouse sofa, caught in the amber light of a mean 60s/70s décor. Four photos of Audrey Hepburn being stared at by a gallery of stuffed animals. A row of multi-colored, but similar Teddy bears seem to be particularly enamored of the iconic star – as are many folks of a certain generation in Japan. Near the end is shot, a road at dusk, leading out or leading into Onomichi? It’s up to the viewer to decide. Two final pictures recap with moody skies, one of a dot of a helicopter going out to sea, the other a panorama of the town, a moody ceiling of dark clouds tempering the afternoon light into a dull bronze sheen, capturing Onomichi like a bas-relief. A final casting of the village into history.

Wenders, who so loves Tokyo monogatari, went to Onomichi to walk the streets, see if he could find the ambiance, the feel of Ozu’s old town and walk away with his own remembrances, photos, still lives, memento mori of a place that he would maybe never see again. Ozu’s Onomichi, from the few exterior shots in his film, is long gone. Like all Japanese cities, what the war didn’t destroy, the economic miracle took care of.

But what Ozu’s film is about is continuum and the rifts that make that continuum difficult or impossible to maintain.

In 1985, I went to pre-Guggenheim Bilbao to take photographs. Partly inspired by Wenders. He was scheduled to shoot a film there in the early 80s, an historical drama about the evacuation of Jews from one of the last open port towns during World War II, as I recall. I could be wrong about the story. It was so long ago and it never got made. I however made my pilgrimage to the place where he would have made the film, documenting city streets, places, graveyards, frontons. A film called Bilbao.

A continuum of something that never happened in my case. In Wenders case, a continuum of a fiction. In Ozu’s, the fiction itself.

When Tomi dies in Tokyo monogatari, the film suddenly breaks from its mooring. It’s as if the tragedy is too much to bear and the film, the audience must cut away. A sequence of shots follows as a mournful tune swells. A covered dock, empty, with a misty hill in the background; the stone lantern, again, but from a slightly different angle; ships, pulled up on shore; the warehouses, but this time with no children; and finally a shot of the train tracks and the laundry. Things change profoundly. A woman dies. Things change subtly. The angles of the shots are slightly different. And things don’t change. There are ships, trains, warehouses, docks, the instruments of human commerce. They may have stopped for a moment, in respect to the dead, but they will continue on.

As artists, we not so much heal the rift in the continuum, but perhaps salve the wounds as best we could with our images, our movies and our words. Whether the big events of history, the stories of loss, or the things left undone and broken, with love and care we hope to make this world of concrete and dead trees a bit more human and understandable.

I’ve never been to Onomichi, but Ozu and Wenders took me there. Wenders literally walked its streets, but he never found Ozu’s Onomichi. He found his own. Just as my Bilbao is different than Wenders.

I wonder if Ozu ever dreamed of Bilbao? I’m quite sure, though, if he had made a film called Bilbao monogatari, I’m sure it would probably have taken place in some Japanese furusato, Bilbao far away, pointing back home.

*For a film called Tokyo Story much of it takes place outside of Tokyo. Ozu may be thinking more of the Tokyo-ization of Japan.

Originally published on Ajimi, Tuesday, July 12, 2011


Written by Nicholas Vroman

July 12, 2011 at 11:35 pm

REVIEW: Quick Change Tanuki Palace

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七変化狸御殿 (Shichihenge tanuki goten)

Released: 1954

Director: Tatsuo Ohsone

Chizuko Ashihara
Misora Hibari
Chikako Miyagi
Koukichi Takada

Running time: 101 min.

Reviewed by Nicholas Vroman

By 1954, the 17year-old Misora Hibari had made over 50 films. Hitting the screen in 1949 (age 12) as a Japanese Shirley Temple in “Nodojiman-kyô jidai,” she also hit the airwaves with “Kappa Boogie-Woogie,” the first of her many hit songs. This phenomenal talent had a voice that no young girl should have – deep, full and already world-weary. Rushed into a grueling production schedule, in film after film, recording after recording she quickly built on her natural talent and presence to become a superstar. Even with 170 or so films to her credit – apart from her iconic role as the optimistic post-war orphan in “Tokyo Kiddo” (1950) – much of her film oeuvre remains largely unseen or neglected (at least outside of Japan).

Director Tatsuo Ohsone, a Shochiku stalwart since the silent era, allowed not only Hibari, but a host of great comic actors and musical talent to strut their stuff in “Shichihenge tanuki goten”* (Quick Change Tanuki Palace). He also threw in a lot of trick photography and simple, but inspired, sets and costumes, in his black and white opus that creates an equally camp and magical world. And it’s completely nutty, hilarious and totally enchanting.

“Shichihenge tanuki goten” is a tanuki musical. The tanuki (AKA raccoon-dog) is an animal native animal to Japan. Through legends and lore tanukis are considered to be shape-shifting tricksters and often portrayed as comic characters. They’re also famous for their big balls. Tanuki musicals enjoyed a certain popularity through the 50s (Hibari made another tanuki film in 1958). Seijun Suzuki’s “Raccoon Princess” famously capped the tradition, even featuring a loving homage to Hibari, bringing her back to screen life through CGI.

“Shichihenge tanuki goten” opens with a tanuki mambo odori, setting up the wild clash of contemporary signifiers, reworked traditions, inventiveness and mythical references that makes the film still lively after all these years. Quickly transported to the walnut grove where the tanukis live, we’re introduced to Ohana (Misora Hibari) and Ponkichi (Shunji Sakai), her comic sidekick – a sort of less menacing Ray Bolger. Hibari sings a bluesy number about how alone she is. Bringing her nuts to the tanuki palace she stumbles upon a talent competition. Here we are introduced to the sultry O-Yuu (Keiko Awaji), moll of the bat clan, dancing or rather striking poses to a rumba that would make Martin Denny Proud. Ohana appears as a scarecrow painted with the traditional henohenomohe face…

へ へ
の の

… patchwork clothes and arms tied to a pole, she blows the competition out of the water with a novelty song and dance. The prince of the Taro clan (Chikako Miyagi, in full Takaruzuka male drag) takes notice, adding a frisson of genderfuck to the whole thing. Next comes the bat clan – an inept group of semi-ninja clad umbrella-wielding bats headed by the ridiculously mustachioed and brilliant comic, Ichiro Arishima. The bats carry umbrellas to keep the radioactive rain from destroying their delicate wings. The bats capture the prince, shrinking him into in a bottle. This sends Ohana and Ponkichi on a series of adventures and set pieces to get the magic stuff – spider lilies and water from a holy well – that will free him. Along the way there’s some business with a quartet of Meiji period gaijin stereotypes – an American, a Chinaman, a Russian and a Dutch priest with a crucifix hanging from his nose; a few border crossings; lots of opportunities for costume changes; singing yakuza; a full-on kabuki battle with a spider; several appearances by ghostly spirits; and most famously, a swinging dance number with Frankie Sakai as Drum Tanuki. In this scene our heroes hear some drumming in the woods and find Frankie, in tanuki regalia, pounding the skins of a trap set. They have a percussion face-off, Frankie on the drums and Ohana on her stomach. Suddenly, Frankie’s in a white suit with a horn section behind him and Hibari’s in a fetching little bug costume going into a big band number. This gives a chance for Frankie out-Krupa’s Krupa and Hibara shows her chops as a tight scatting jazz vocalist.

Finally it all comes to a head at the bat cave. In freeing the prince a final face off – bats armed with brollies and Taro clan with swords – the film falls into a Tashlin-style fast-motion slapstick free-for-all. Various impediments – bats, tanuki bullies, more – out of the way, girl-prince and girl-tanuki drive away in their fairy-fey coach to a chorus of tanukis wishing them a happy ever after.

Hibari at 17 was already a monstrous talent. “Shichihenge tanuki goten” shows what a range she had. Of course, she would get even better and redefine herself as an enka diva until her untimely death at 52. Ichiro Arishima had been working hard in theatre, his film and TV career would take off within the next year. Frankie Sakai was well on the road to become the legend that he is. He would often work with Arshishima in a sort of Mutt and Jeff comic duo. Shunji Sakai would become “the God of comedy.”

Apart from all this great actorly and musical talent and crazy-fun story, what binds “Shichihenge tanuki goten,” and makes it shine, is the music. Tadashi Manjome was the man responsible. A consistent composer of big hits, he’d been working in the film industry since the late 30’s. He and lyricist, Hachiro Sato’s “Ringo no uta” (Song of the Apple) was a huge hit immediately after the end of the war. He went on to write the song “Tokyo Kiddo.’ In “Shichihenge tanuki goten,” the music ranges from what you might call postmodern mashups of popular genres to traditional re-imaginings. Between the then popular mambo and other Latin styles, jazz, traditional Japanese melodies and singing styles, mood music and what have you, Manjome was fearless and had an uncanny knack for writing catchy tunes. His feel for a huge palette of different voices and textures assured nothing but pure tastiness in his music.

“Shichihenge tanuki goten, ”as far as I know, remains unsubtitled but it’s broad enough and loaded with so much fun stuff that it’s well worth tracking down, even if you don’t speak the lingo.

* “Shichihenge” literally means “seven changes,” a reference to a kabuki dance in which an actor changes clothes quickly seven times and to the lantana flower – which goes through many changes as it blossoms.

Originally published in JFilm Wow-Wow, Saturday, July 9, 2011

Oshika-mura Sodoki / 大鹿村騒動記

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Building a fiction around the real biannual community kabuki festival in the little town of Oshiki, director Junji Sakamoto has crafted a delightful “let’s-put-on-show” tale while exploring the dynamics of community. It helps that Sakamoto has gotten together a magnificent set of character actors – Yoshio Harada (Zigeunerweisen), Michiyo Okusu (Zatoichi), Ittoku Kishibe (13 Assassins) and Denden (Cold Fish) are just the tip of the iceberg. Oshika-mura Sodoki is on some levels a bit of rote situation comedy  – with a few tragic asides. But Sakamoto’s sure handed direction, visually and emotionally, with the help of journeymen and women actors who slip into their roles naturally and easily, Oshika-mura Sodoki flies much higher than your usual backwater slice-of-life. The kabuki play-within-the-movie is lovingly rendered, highlighting the simple transformational magic of theatre. Again, the trope of contrasting the artifice of the play while the performers live out their lives and address their issues in the wings can be bit long in the tooth, but Sakamoto and company make their struggles, travails and joys believable.

Originally published in EL Magazine, July 2011.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

July 2, 2011 at 1:12 am

Love Addiction / ふゆの獣

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Love Addiction follows the story of a young ménage a quatre. The otaku romantic, Noburu (Kosuke Tataki) has an unrequited jones for kawaii Saeko (Momoko Maekawa) who’s seeing the jerk, Shigehisa (Hiroyuki Sato), who’s two-timing his girlfriend-in-denial, Yukako (Megumi Kato). Ripping a page out of Cassavette’s handbook on making films of intense emotion and letting actors fly on the improvisational highwire, Love Addiction reaches high and falls short. Way short. There is a moment or two – as when Shigesa concocts a story/alibi/lie that reaches toward the rambling riff inspiration of Ben Gazzara or Elliot Gould. But a moment or two does not a movie make. The handheld camera and quick cuts handle the youthful energy on display, but whatever emotional complexity and character dynamics could have happened are marred by the directionless improvisation of most of the cast. Sato shines best, holding his performance close to his vest. However in the scene where everyone has it out, director Nobuteru Uchida pulls out the cliché of vomiting as emotional catharsis making Love Addiction nearly unforgivable.

Originally published in EL Magazine, July 2011.

Written by Nicholas Vroman

July 2, 2011 at 1:08 am


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Kazuhiro Soda, whose previous outings, Campaign and Mental, revealed a sharp talent in the field of Wiseman-ish observational documentary, was commissioned by the DMZ Korean International Documentary Festival to make a documentary on the subject of peace. Soda took the big subject, subjecting it to a very personal and micro view, creating a genuinely touching and deep look at peace. Peace (the movie) follows the lives of his in-laws, an older couple involved in public service – he transporting elderly and incapacitated people, she visiting elderly shut-ins. The film unfolds gently and with unexpected turns. The seemingly rambling structure, though, reveals its bigger concerns through variations and leitmotifs. We see a couple keeping their lives functioning peaceably, feral cats bringing peace to their community and most hearbreaking, the story of 90 year-old Shiro Hashimoto, an old World War II vet, reflecting on his past while succumbing to cancer from a lifetime of smoking Peace cigarettes. The unexpected pleasure of Peace is how Soda gets images and stories from the quotidian and makes them profound.

Originally published in EL Magazine, July 2011

Written by Nicholas Vroman

July 1, 2011 at 1:05 am