Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Top Ten Favorite Scenes in Japanese Cinema: Matthew Hardstaff

This Tuesday we continue with our year end feature of Top Ten Favorite Scenes from Japanese Cinema with Matthew Hardstaff's picks. Matt brings us everything from classic Golden Age directors to present day Asian Extreme with his list of favorite moments, but readers beware! Some of these scenes give away key plot points, so be fair warred that SPOILERS abound in the following entries. Once you finish checking out Matt's picks make sure to refresh your memory of Marc Saint-Cyr's, Eric Evans's, and Bob Turnbull's. Coming up on December 22nd we'll end the feature with the Top Ten Favorite Scenes of J-Film Pow-Wow founder and editor and chief Chris MaGee, so make sure to check back!

10. Kenada is about to E X P L O D E - Akira (Katsuhiro Otomo, 1988)

If there’s one scene that was burned into my still developing teenage mind, it was that of Tetsuo during his cathartic and tragic death in "Akira". It’s not just that he battles it out with Kaneda on the grounds of the Olympic Stadium that makes it awesome, motorcycle leaping through the air, laser rifle slicing through flesh. Nor just the fact that it visually looks so damn awe inspiring when Tetsuo finally loses control, and his body bloats and expands, forming an ever growing, cancerous, fleshy mass. No, it’s when he consumes his girlfriend Kaori, and struggles with his own body to keep from crushing her. Its when his lack of self control becomes so pervasive, that he finally crushes her, and is forced to hear her die inside of him. Katsuhiro Otomo combines a breathtaking scene of sci-fi action while breaking your heart. It’s beautiful.

9. Resolution - High and Low (Akira Kurosawa, 1963)

It was hard to pick one scene from a Kurosawa film that stands out above all others. What made my choice easier was when Marc and Bob made their picks, narrowing down the list I had, leaving me with only one clear choice, which also happened to be the most depressing. Kurosawa could have chose to end "High and Low" on a much happier note, having Kingo Gondo realize at least some form of grand resolution for the actions he took and for the moral battle he fought, to allow him to have more of a reward for the loss of his wealth and status than just knowing he did the right thing. But that’s not the point. And Kurosawa is a braver director for having made such a choice. So when Gondo is called to visit the man that was the cause of all the pain and trauma, the man responsible for kidnapping his chauffeur’s son, we expect him to get an explanation. Sentenced to death, he refused to speak to a chaplain, only wanting to see Gondo. Why? Does he want to confess? Why did he choose to do it to Gondo? But when he meets the man, all he gets are the ravings of a lunatic, as he discovers the man only called him so that he would always know he didn’t die crying, that he was pleased with his actions. He didn’t want Gondo to empathize with him, so that he can move on. The performances are riveting. Kurosawa’s choice of shooting through the window between the two men, causing a reflection of the face of one on the image of the other, is brilliant. And the last shot of the film, the metal sliding door crashing down in front of Gondo, cutting him off from any kind of appeasement, is brutal. He must live with the knowledge he made the right moral decision, that’s the only satisfaction he’ll get. It’s powerful, and somehow both depressing and enlightening all at once.

8. Attack on Tokyo - Gojira (Ishiro Honda, 1954)

Few scenes of mass destruction come close to the devastation wrought by Gojira in the landmark original film. Ishiro Honda’s cautionary tale about nuclear weapons was daring in its use of numerous optical and live special effects to create Gojira’s attack, as wells as in its not so subtle metaphor for the bomb. Innocent people are killed indiscriminately, and the government forces are helpless in stopping the onslaught. People are trampled, buildings razed, death and destruction abound. The attack lasts a full 15 minutes, and the level of ingenuity to create something like it is insane. This scene influenced not only an entire genre of films both in Japan and abroad, but it really set the standard for scenes of mass destruction. There was nothing on film that looked like it come 1954, and even today very few scenes come close to its grandiose scale of practical effects. Sure some of them seem low budget by today’s standards, but each frame is a testament to why practical effects are nine times out of ten, leagues ahead of computer generated effects.

7. Don’t piss me off! - Electric Dragon 80,000V (Sogo Ishi, 2001)

Somewhere past the halfway mark of the scant 60 minute running time of "Electric Dragon 80,000V", its been established that Dragon Eye Morrison is able to express his reptilian brain’s anger through the use of his electric guitar. Of course Thunderbolt Buddha figures this out, and one day Dragon Eye returns, and his guitar is in pieces. But that doesn’t seem to bother Morrison. He reassembles his guitar into a make shift mish mash of metal and strings. And then he starts playing. At first the sound is crude, rough, and grating. But slowly his reptilian anger springs forth, and he unleashes it on the guitar. And the more he unleashes, the better its sounds. Loud, abrasive and angry, the music played by Tadanobu Asano grinds into your soul as he shifts around the screen, finally mashing the guitar strings with a beer can. The pulse pounding soundtrack by Mach 1.67 reaches its climax when the electricity generated by Dragon Eye Morrison pulses out from his body, destroying all electronic devices and blasting out the windows of his home. Sogo Ishii is the godfather of the grungy Japanese cyberpunk film that Shinya Tsukamoto made famous, and this scene is the perfect example of how he’s able to brilliantly mix sound and image into a beautiful ode to joy.

6. Genjuro comes home - Ugetsu (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953)

No one makes films like Kenji Mizoguchi use to. This cinematic style is so seamless and subtle, yet ultimately intricate, and technically astounding. It doesn’t draw attention to itself, you when you think back, you realize scenes are made up of only a few long shots, but they cover so much action, its insane you didn’t notice. When Genjuro returns home after effectively abandoning his family for ambition and fame, along the way being seduced by a beautiful female ghost, he expects to find his wife and son waiting. Why shouldn’t he? In one amazing, iconic shot, Mizoguchi’s camera follows Genjuro through his dark, empty home and out the other side. However, as he walks around its exterior, the room lights up, and as the camera moves back across the home’s interior, the fire is a blaze, and Genjuro’s wife Miyagi is waiting patiently at the fire. Her spirit spends one last evening with her husband, her heart aching, and then departs in the morning, leaving him to be in there empty, abandoned home. Mizoguchi takes a morally devastating ending and turns it into a beautifully haunting finale, his roving camera always patient, paced deliberately and perfectly.

5. Bullet Man - Bullet Ballet (Shinya Tsukamoto, 1998)

Body horror expressed through the barrel of a gun. Goda, played by Shinya Tsukamoto regular Shinya Tsukamoto, is consumed with discovering why his girlfriend shot herself. To really know, he needs a gun. He needs to know what it feels like to have one, to hold one, and to shoot one. After many failed attempts, some painful, Goda comes home to discover a woman, an illegal immigrant, brandishing a gun. She’ll give him the gun, in exchange for marriage. He agrees, and the moment he holds the gun he’s transformed. What follows is the transformation through montage, in a brilliantly editing kaleidoscope of violent stock footage and raw images of Goda, raising from the ashes, brandishing the gun. And all this cut to Chu Ishikawa’s pulse pounding industrial score. Be amazed by the imagery as it’s blasted into your skull.

4. Journey into hell - Sword of Doom (Kihachi Okamoto, 1966)

There are a few stand out scenes in "Sword of Doom", but my favourite is the one that moves the film into more metaphorical filmmaking. Ryunosuke Tsukue, played by the great Tatsuya Nakadai, the epitome of the anti-hero samurai, always dark, brooding and seemingly without morals, has been guided by fate and joined the Shinsengumi, a special police force that operated under the Tokugawa Shogunate. Spending a night at a Geisha house, Ryunosuke is ordered by one faction leader to kill his rival. His world seems to crumble when he confronts a geisha, who happens to be the granddaughter of the old man he kills at the films opening. The ghosts of Ryunosuke swarm around him. He lashes out in anger, slicing through the walls, spilling lanterns, causing the building fill with flames. His insanity spills out into the halls, and droves upon droves of samurai attack Ryunosuke. He rends them limb from limb, his own body becoming a bloody mess as he receives slash after slash. And then we end in a freeze frame, as he lashes out towards his next foe. Despite the fact that the film was meant to be the first in a trilogy of films that were never made, leaving many subplots unanswered, Kihachi Okamoto seems to end it in such a perfectly abrupt way, that those questions don’t need to be answered. The scene, and the climax of the film, becomes a beautifully dark expression of Ryunosuke’s descent into madness, and hell, as he battles an endless hoard of faceless monsters in a maze of flame and ash.

3. What’s that banging on my wall? - Ju-on 2 (Takashi Shimizu, 2000)

I love Takashi Shimizu, and I really love the "Ju-on" mythology. I even spent money on the crappy Wii game. "Ju-on 2" is by far my favourite of his films, mostly because of the way Shimizu plays with the varying narrative threads, each one following one character that the ‘grudge’ effects. This technique is used to chilling effect in the tale of Tomoka, an aspiring TV show host. When she returns home, she sees a figure in the shadows that she thinks is Noritaka, her boyfriend. However when she turns on the lights, he’s not there and to her surprise he walks through the door behind her. That night they wait in Tomoka’s apartment, waiting to hear some ghostly thumping that has been haunting her home for the past few days. It always starts at the same time, 12:27am , and is completely disembodied, appearing to come out of the corner of the room, but not through the walls. The eerie, repetitive thump returns, sending chills down Tomoka’s spine. The following night, Noritaka returns to the apartment, only to be killed by the vengeful spirit. And when Tomoka returns home, at 12:27am , she finds the body of Noritaka hanging from the apartment ceiling, strangled, his legs thumping against the wall! That’s right kids! Tomoka was haunted by the spirit of her dead boyfriend, before he even died! It’s pretty damn creepy and chillingly effective and down right genius. What’s scarier than being haunted by your own ghost?

2. The Hidden Blade – The Hidden Blade (Yoji Yamada, 2004)

I needed to fit Masatoshi Nagase in here somewhere. Yoji Yomada’s trilogy of small but epic samurai tales based on stories by Shuhei Fujisawa are all wonderful films in their own right, depicting the struggle of the samurai to adapt to Western influence and new schools of thought. But it’s when Munezô Katagiri, played by Nagase, is finally drawn into action that the "Hidden Blade" shines above the rest. Yomada’s trilogy of films, including "Twilight Samurai" and "Love and Honour", aren’t action heavy samurai films. They’re meditative and thought provoking. So instead of ending the film with a climatic duel, or a large scale onslaught, Yomada does the opposite. Katagiri employs the hidden blade, first by distracting his prey’s line of sight, causing them to look up at the ceiling. Then, in a fraction of a second, Katagiri’s hand shoots out, stabbing the prey in the chest, his weapon withdrawing before the prey even knows what happened. A death blow disguised as a mosquito sting. It’s the most fitting way to end Yomada’s almost anti-samurai samurai film, and is stunning in its simplicity.

1. Necrophilia is funny - Visitor Q (Takashi Miike, 2001)

Necrophilia is not a typical comedic device you find in films. Takashi Miike has a habit of taking something that people find uncomfortable and using it to make a point. Combine necrophilia and Miike in a film about the decline of the functioning family unit, and throw in the zany Kenichi Endo, and you get possibly one of the funniest scenes featuring a dead female reporter that you will see ever in your life. I guarantee it. After choking and killing his co-worker, Kiyoshi Yamazaki, the father of the disturbingly dysfunctional family played by Kenichi Endo, takes her corpse home, puts her in his greenhouse, and then mulls over the best way to cut up and dispose of her corpse. However, he finds that he gets aroused, and despite his own reservations about this heinous act, he rapes the corpse. Funny stuff, right? What makes the scene brilliant in its insanity are three things. The first, and the most low brow, is when Kiyoshi thinks he’s experiencing a miracle of nature when the corpses vagina still manages to get wet, until he reaches down with his hand, discovering that instead the corpses bowels have relaxed, smearing his genitals in poo. The second is Kenichi Endo’s performance, which is ridiculous, partially because he wields a video camera, filming his actions, narrating everything he does to the camera, which in turn is the audience. The third and final thing is that this vile act is essentially what brings the family together, as they all struggle to help their father after his penis gets stuck inside the corpse after rigor mortis sets in. Disturbing, disgusting, perverse, funny, intelligent, touching, and beautiful. Best scene ever.

Read more by Matthew Hardstaff at his blog.


keeperdesign said...

A fun and surprising list. Great call on "Ugetsu" and "Ju-on 2". The latter was short-listed for me too! The 2 new Grudges ("Shiroi Rojo" and "Kuroi Shojo") are closer to it in style and content than any of the others, utilizing that same 'follow the grudge' narrative to float from person to person, story to story.

Chris MaGee said...

Whole heartedly agree with your picks from "Sword of Doom", "The Hidden Blade" and "High and Low"... and the climax of "Vistor Q" is its own special kind of insanity :)

Marc Saint-Cyr said...

Awesome list! Good call on "Ugetsu," and excellent write-up for your #1 pick! "Best scene ever" - well, you certainly sell it, man!

Bob Turnbull said...

You know, I was "this" close to picking that very scene from Ju-On 2.

Great list and write-ups Matt.