Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Top Ten Favorite Scenes in Japanese Cinema: Bob Turnbull

We've already posted Eric Evans' and Marc Saint Cyr's top ten favorite scenes in Japanese cinema, so today we continue on with selections by Bob Turnbull. Keep checking back for our last two lists from Matt Hardstaff and Chris MaGee in the coming weeks.

10. A masked figure in the field - Onibaba (Kaneto Shindo, 1964)

After trapping and murdering yet another samurai lost in the swampy marshes, a middle aged woman removes the mask he was wearing before abandoning his body in a large hole (alongside many others). She and her daughter-in-law have been living off the personal effects of these men, but now the older woman is afraid that she's about to be abandoned. The younger woman has found herself a new lover to replace her long lost (and presumed dead) husband and has taken to sneaking out for middle of the night trysts. In this particular scene, she is eagerly running to him as the wind rustles the grass and the moon lights up sections of the field like a spotlight. Out of nowhere, the masked older woman moves forward out of the dark with outstretched arms and absolutely terrifies the young woman. She scampers back to their hut wondering what it was that she saw. The mother-in-law is determined to prevent these late night rendezvous and continues to frighten the young woman by using the mask. But there are consequences...This film is one long atmospheric play of shadows - from the blowing fields of tall grass to the shafts of light within their hut. It remains one of the most glorious looking films ever shot in black and white and this scene is a centerpiece.

9. The Forest Spirit - Princess Mononoke (Hayao Miyazaki, 1997)

Possibly the single reason that I became interested in delving further into anime films was my first viewing of this 1997 masterpiece of creativity from Hayao Miyazaki. As stunning as the entire film is, my fate was sealed when this scene occurred late in the film. Specifically, the exact moment when the majestic forest spirit - looking something like a combination of a deer, yak and sheepdog wearing some variety of African mask - feels the sting of the first shot fired at it by hunters. There's an immediate change to its face as its eyes grow wide, its mask like features disappear and it begins to sink into the water upon which it was walking. The suddenness of this event was much like a punch to the gut and its a feeling I expect could only have been achieved with hand-drawn animation. The spirit regains its footing and all manner of mystical and magical things begin to happen, but it was already over for me. That feeling of awe remained and I was hooked.

8. High treason - Throne Of Blood (Akira Kurosawa, 1957)

Things aren't going well for Lord Washizu. His troops are questioning his decisions and the camouflaged enemies outside are closing in. He yells at his men and insists they press on and hold their stations. Someone fires an arrow at him and narrowly misses. He attacks them verbally by calling them all cowards, but down deep he knows he's lost them. More arrows fly. "Murdering a Great Lord is high treason!" he screams, but the comeback, "Who killed our last Lord?" stops him from further debate (since he ascended to this position of power via force). Whap, whap, whap - several arrows land in his chest. He pulls them out and scrambles in a panic. Now filled with more confidence, the troops throw more and more at him and begin to advance. The arrows stream at him in bunches, whistle as they fly by and rattle the wooden wall as they hit. A wide camera shot shows the arrows actually flying across the high balcony on which he is trapped. He looks for an escape, but an arrow to the back freezes him. He backs down some stairs, scrambles and then...one through the neck. Silence. A final push forward. Troops scurry backwards. A frozen grimace. A slow reach for his sword. Collapse.

7. The wife's first return - Survive Style 5+ (Gen Sekiguchi, 2004)

In the first of 5 overlapping, intersecting, funny and warped stories about how people deal with what is dealt to them (ie. how they survive), Tadanobu Asano plays a man who has just killed and buried his wife. Upon returning home, he encounters her calmly sitting at the table in her bright green dress. Without saying a word, she whips up an enormous feast for him and sits quietly watching while he slowly polishes it all off. Just as he sits back to light up an after dinner smoke (perhaps thinking that he's dodged a bullet), he looks up to see her looming over him poised for attack - which she does with a huge flying kick to his head. As he soars backward in slow motion, the soundtrack kicks in with a driving tune entitled "Go! Go! Go!" and she begins to chase him around their brightly coloured house and connecting all manner of uppercuts and flying kicks (all in slow-mo). It's a massive burst of energy and beautifully sets up the rest of this candy-coloured movie which looks at times like a vat of jelly beans exploded on the set. The fight continues while we jump briefly to the other stories (memorably to the family of the third story singing "Go! Go! Go!" loudly in their car) until it ends suddenly - setting up her second return later in the film (and then third and fourth...). This was where I fell for Asano as an actor - his deadpan straight face morphs into wild eyed disbelieving panic and you can almost feel some sympathy for him. Not quite, but almost.

6. Initial character introductions - Battles Without Honor And Humanity (Kinji Fukasaku, 1973)

A three and a half minute sequence at the very beginning of this epic 9 hour story (split over 5 films) not only kicks things off with a bang, but also sets the tone for what is to follow. It introduces in quick succession 10 separate characters by using hand held cameras, freeze frames and rapid cutting to show the confusion and desperation these men are currently facing. Having just returned home from the war (the film starts in 1946), these men are frustrated and see little to no opportunities ahead for them. Therefore the yakuza easily fall into place as an option. Our first encounter is with Shozo Hirono (played throughout the entire set of films by Bunta Sugawara) and he's immediately shown to be tough, scrappy and a man of principle. As we meet the others, things start to get bloody pretty fast which is very much in keeping with what their lives will become. When violence occurs in their world, it's quick and usually very messy. It's an exhausting way to start the proceedings and it's hard to keep up with, but it's very apropos.

5. Dream sequence - Black Tight Killers (Yasuharu Hasebe, 1966)

Any film with a weapon called the Ninja chewing gum bullet simply cannot be bad. Enter Yasuharu Hasebe's 1966 film "Black Tight Killers" - a film seemingly designed to put a big smile on my face. It takes what could have been a lame Z-grade picture and enlivens the story by making use of the medium to help tell it. A rainbow of colour, surreal sets, plenty of shadows and every possible camera angle are all used to move the story forward instead of relying on too much exposition. It isn't really much of a plot, but if you also have a whole whack of go-go dancers, female ninjas and guys in trenchcoats things should at least stay interesting. My favourite moment comes during a dream Daisuke (Akira Kobayashi) is having in which poor Yoriko is being chased by those pesky Black Tight Killers. She crashes through several brightly coloured paper walls one after another and each time finds herself surrounded by a different hue and little to no other defining characteristics to the area around her. The non-dream world of the film isn't actually much different at times (given its changing background colours, etc.), but this scene stands out in a film filled with great images.

4. Three consecutive killings - Branded To Kill (Seijun Suzuki, 1967)

Seijun Suzuki brings such a sense of fun and creativity to his filmmaking that I could have easily made a Top 10 list consisting of only scenes from his films. The wonderful ending of "Tattooed Life", the opening of "Take Aim At The Police Van" or pretty much any random scene from the stream of consciousness "Pistol Opera" could have vied for a spot on this list, but I have to go back to the film that got me started with the man: his last feature with Nikkatsu Studios called "Branded To Kill". Of course, it's still hard to pin it down to one scene within this movie since the whole thing is a touchstone in visual storytelling and pretty much the antithesis of exposition (is it any surprise Hasebe learned part of his craft with Suzuki?). Out of all the strange goings on, rice sniffing, botched assassination attempts and mysterious women, I have to pick the rapid fire sequence of Hanada's take down of three separate targets - each one more ridiculous than the one before it. The first victim gets it via a long rifle shot as Hanada hides behind a huge lighter on a billboard while the second, an optometrist, meets his maker through the plumbing of his sink. After dispatching the third, Hanada escapes by jumping out the window of the high rise and onto the top of a hot air balloon that is lifting into the air. That's how good this guy is.

3. Snowstorm - Kwaidan (Masaki Kobayashi, 1964)

Two men are wandering through the forest trying to get back to their village when a blizzard whips snow and cold all around them. Disoriented, they struggle to stay on their feet while the heavens watch their every move through what seem to be hundreds of wispy, painted swirls. These lovely and colourful eyes in the sky open up the second of four ghost stories in Masaki Kobayashi's Cannes-praised and highly influential "Kwaidan" (which essentially translates to "ghost story"). The painted backdrops add a very surreal feel to the story (titled "The Woman Of The Snow") of a female spirit that encounters these two men and threatens to kill the surviving one if he ever reveals what he has seen that day. As with many of the older Japanese horror stories, sound is a major component in getting across the spookiness of the situation, but in this case it is matched by the stunning visuals. Kobayashi's camera swoops in and around the forest providing an omniscient eye to the situation and a feeling that the men will not easily escape what lies ahead. Still one of the greatest films ever made about ghosts.

2. Crab lady - Pulse (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2001)

"Pulse" (aka "Kairo") is not your average doomsday movie. The resulting ugly, grey, abandoned world is still very much the same, but it happens bit by bit, person by person. It's an end of the world scenario where humanity actually participates somewhat willingly. While more and more people are getting connected to the Internet (in the day when modems were still commonplace), there seems to be a greater disconnect in the population as a whole. The streets are becoming deserted, people are staying inside their personal shelters and the souls of the dead have made their way back to our world. In this scene, a young man enters an abandoned room (friendly tip: if a room is sealed off with red tape, do NOT go into it) and encounters a ghostly presence that slowly starts to drift towards him. You can barely see her in the shadows, so you begin to extrapolate a bit and make assumptions about where she'll be in the next few seconds. When her right leg buckles, it's a bit off-putting to say the least, but even worse when she steadies herself and then continues on. What I love even more about this scene, though, is the sound field. Kurosawa creates an overwhelming dread that just drips off the screen. Whether it's things that go bump in the night or a sudden loud crash that jump starts your heart, he knows that sound is an essential component to being frightened. The unforgettable images are paired with eerie moans, almost inaudible low rumbling and, worst of all, occasionally no sound at all - in particular when the female ghost begins to move and the sound drops out completely. It's as if the ghost has simply sucked out all the sound around you. That's just creepy as hell.

1. Final band performance - Linda, Linda Linda (Nobuhiro Yamashita, 2005)

A good scene can stand on its own. You can show it to friends who haven't even seen the movie or watch it as a stand alone and still enjoy it completely out of context. I fully admit that I've watched this particular scene numerous times by itself and it puts a huge smile on my face each and every run through. What makes a good scene great, though, is how much better it becomes when viewed within the context of the film. That's what puts these closing moments of "Linda, Linda, Linda" on my list. By this point in the film, we've spent a great deal of time with these 4 girls getting to know them and watching their struggles through not only learning their songs, but also through the obstacle course that is their teenage years. So when they take the stage to finally participate in the school rock festival, you're almost as nervous as they are and you revel in their success. The rush to the stage of the kids in the audience may be a bit cheesy, but it's well-earned since they power through a couple of classic punk-pop covers from famed Japanese band The Blue Hearts. Throughout the scene we catch glimpses in the audience of other characters from the film - not to wrap up any story lines, but to show that this is just a moment in all of their lives. Relationships don't mend at the drop of a hat and young love is complicated and confusing, so these characters have much more to figure out. As a special bonus, the performance of the title song is followed by an even bouncier tune that plays over empty locations from earlier in the film. I could have easily picked one of the closing scenes from director Nobuhiro Yamashita's lovely follow-up film "A Gentle Breeze In The Village" (as the young girl says goodbye to her old schoolhouse) since it is another scene that benefits greatly from all the time spent with the character. This is the one that I keep coming back to though - a scene filled with exuberance and joy that is simply contagious.

Read more from Bob Turnbull at his blog.


Chris MaGee said...

That least scene in "Linda, Linda, Linda" is a real winner... plus what a great song!

I was actually surprised that there weren't more Suzuki clips in here. You love him so...

Chris MaGee said...

I mean "last scene"... Duh!

Bob Turnbull said...

Heh, like I said, i could've packed the list with Suzuki. And Kiyoshi Kurosawa. And Masaki Kobayashi. But these were the ten scenes that came quickest to mind. Having said that, I think I filtered as I did it to one director per...So I stuck with that.

Marc Saint-Cyr said...

Excellent list, Bob - and filtration system too! Like Chris, I admire your restraint - especially with the Suzuki!

Thanks to you, I've been re-reminded that I really need to seek out Kwaidan, Onibaba and Linda Linda Linda.

Robert-Philippe Masse said...

Tates are so different. I've seen hundreds of asian movies and I who have never listed these scenes. But at least, that interresting.

Bob Turnbull said...

Thanks Marc...I think you'll dig all 3 of those films.

Robert-Philippe, It is amazing how tastes span a broad range...Feel free to share your own list!

Robert-Philippe Masse said...

I will share mine if you're interested. But at least, I'll take some time to make it...