Monday, December 21, 2009

Top Ten Favorite Scenes in Japanese Cinema: Chris MaGee

Well, we've come to the end of what has proven to be the most popular feature that we've ever featured on the J-Film Pow-Wow, Our Top Ten Favorite Scenes in Japanese Cinema. All five of us who write for the blog have very diverse tastes, so each of us have had a chance to share the cinematic moments that inspire us, move us to tears and laughter, and just make us go "Wow!". You can check out Matthew Hardstaff's here, Bob Turnbull's here, Eric Evans' here, and Marc Saint-Cyr here, and now to end of the feature we bring you Chris MaGee's list of favorite scenes. Be forewarned, there are some serious SPOILERS ahead, but still... Enjoy!

10. He Shoots! He Scores! - Bastoni The Stick Handlers (Kazuhiko Nakamura, 2000)

Flowers blooming, rockets blasting off into space, trains speeding into tunnels, the curtains blow and then the inevitable fade to black. There have been a lot of ham-handed cinematic tricks used in motion picture history to represent the act of love, but I can't think of a more ingenious visual trope than what Kazuhiko Nakamura cooked up for his 2000 film "Bastoni: The Stick Handlers". Nakamura got his start as a filmmaker in the early 80's penning scripts for pink films like "The Red Shoe Incident", "Taboo X", and "Teacher, do not put a fire in my body" and working as an assistant director on the adult films of Rokuro Mochizuki. When it came time for Nakamura to direct his own feature film he, along with his old boss Mochizuki who went on to direct such contemporary yakuza classics as "Onibi: The Fire Within" and "A Yakuza in Love", wrote what they knew. The result, "Bastoni: The Stick Handlers" was a behind the scenes look at the adult film industry as seen from the viewpoint of a pair of adult film stars, Ryo (Shunsuke Matsuoka) and Natsuo (Yuka Kojima), who also happen to be engaged. Lord knows that getting ready for a wedding can be a stressful and complicated time for a young couple, but when you factor in that fact that you're having sex on camera as your day job... well multiply that stress and complexity a hundred fold. One such hard day on the job has Ryo filming a scene with a new actress named Midori in the back of a jeep that's being driven through Tokyo. Ever wonder what keeps a male porn star motivated (for lack of a more polite word) when the cameras are rolling? Nakamura gives us a hilarious scene where we enter into Ryo's imagination and witness him going up against his co-star in a one-on-one soccer match. Ryo advances up the field with Midori as the goalkeeper. He's maneuvering, psyching Midori out with his footwork and, strangely enough, the closer he gets to making a goal the skimpier Midori's uniform becomes. For me it's Shunsuke Matsuoka's facial expressions and his ridiculous victory dance once he scores on Midori that makes the scene for me. After that I doubt I'll ever look at a sex scene the same way again.

9. Lucky Hole striptease - 9 Souls (Toshiaki Toyodo, 2003)

There are some scenes that take a film and make them better, that if that one scene were to have ended up on the editing room floor the rest of the film just wouldn't be the same. For me a perfect example of the is the Lucky Hole strip club scene in Toshiaki Toyoda's "9 Souls". Now, I can hear you all out there saying, "Yeah, Chris, of course you'd like that scene. It's got Misaki Ito stripping down to her underwear!" True enough. It does have that, but there's more about this scene than a little bit of bump and jiggle. Inspired by such classic jailbreak films as John Sturges' "The Great Escape" Toyoda's "9 Souls" adds this young director's own twist on the genre. The film follows nine convicts (murderers, street punks, a mad bomber, and a porn king amongst them) as they escape from prison and go on a quest for a stash of counterfeit yen at the foot of Mt. Fuji. The first time a saw "9 Souls" I was entertained, but not much more for the first 48-minutes. It only takes the prisoners about 10-minutes into the film for them to escape with the help of Shiratori, a midget escape artist (played by Mame Yamada) and then Toyoda has them go on a series of (mis)adventures in rural Japan - robbing convenience stores, hiding out at an old buddy's house, spending some "special time" with a flock of unfortunate sheep, even car-jacking a stoned young man's van after he stops to pick them up. Toyoda does give us some glimpses of who these men might be under all the hijinks, but there are few and far between... that is until the escaped cons unexpectedly reunite with the owner of the van. It turns out that he's opened up a strip club, named The Lucky Hole, and soon the "9 Souls" of the title are enjoying the hospitality of this establishment; but again, this isn't just a chance for a bit of gratuitous T&A. Not only is the lovely young actress Misaki Ito's dance made instantly memorable by setting it to avant-jazz/ blues singer Maki Asakawa's funky 1970 hit "Chichana toki kara", but it comes hot on the heels of a vicious fight between the two alpha males in the group of convicts - Michiru (Ryuhei Matsuda) and Torakichi (Yoshio Harada). The fragile alliance between these men is crumbling and this scene represents the turning point of their journey together. Just as Ito is about to slips off her bikini top Shiratori pipes up and we learn that he and this girl have a very important history. The Lucky Hole scene goes from being the epitome of cool to utterly emotionally vulnerable as Shiratori reaches through a peephole and gently touches Ito's belly. In that moment "9 Souls" goes from being hip and ironic to a deeply felt and moving masterpiece.

8. Pootan's fear of whistling - Cromartie High: The Movie (Yudai Yamaguchi, 2005)

Yes, there are going to be a lot of serious, artsy scenes on my list (that's just the kind of guy I am), but I like to laugh just as much as the next guy (really); and each of us have scenes from certain comedies that no matter how many times we watch them they always send you us into fits of giggles. For me one of those scenes is the "Hilarious Heartwarming Pootan Show" in Yudai Yamaguchi's 2005 live-action adaptation of Eiji Nonaka zany manga and anime series "Cromartie High". After Yamaguchi's first indie feature "Battlefield Baseball" became a huge success at midnight screenings throughout Japan the folks at Aries Productions (the people behind "Blue Labyrinth" and "Backdancers!") tagged him for this adaptation. The added support and cash got him CGI effects and a cast that included such heavy duty talent like Takamasa Suga, Itsuji Itao, Tak Sakaguchi, Yoshihiro Takayama, and Hiroyuki Watanabe; but for the pink and white teddy bear and bunny-suited comedy duo Pootan whose TV show is so popular with the hooligans, delinquents, and chimpira gangsters (and robots, gorillas and Freddie Mercury) of Cromartie High, Yamaguchi picked an unlikely pair of actors: popular TV actor Noboru Takachi and Takashi Miike regular Ken'ichi Endo. As unlikely as they might seem for the roles the pair's deadpan performances are hilarious. First off the segment of the "Pootan Show" pops into the middle of the film with zero explanation and then we get treated to that great question that has plagued humankind for ages, "Is it true that snakes come out if you whistle at night?" Hold on! What...? Snakes coming out when you whistle? Coming out of where? We're never quite sure and it doesn't matter. All we need to know is that Endo's Pootan is afraid to find out whether this whole snakes and whistling thing is true or not. Once he does whistle... well, something else comes out and I laugh out loud every time it does. I won't tell you what and I can't really tell you why I find the whole scene so damn funny. Maybe it's like the kid with the afro at the end of the scene says "It must be the costumes." Ah well... Maybe it is.

7. Introduction to the circus - Pastoral: To Die in the Country (Shuji Terayama, 1974)

I have a soft spot for the strange, the surreal and the illogical, but when I was putting this list together I consciously tried to keep a balance and make sure that it wasn't made up of obscure and inscrutable film moments. There was one moment, though, that I couldn't ignore and it comes from one of Japanese cinemas masters of the avant-garde - Shuji Terayama. Terayama, much reviled here in the West for his experimental classic "Emperor Tomato Ketchup" delved further into his surreal imagination while leaving the controversy behind with his 1975 masterpiece "Pastoral: To Die in the Country". The film, which follows a boy who wants nothing more to escape his remote rural village and his adult counterpart who is attempting to rewrite his personal history through film, is a very loose autobiography of its director. With imagery that includes disappearing ninja, literal rivers of blood, shamans, crazed dancers, and a village populated by people wearing white face how could it be anything else? Still Terayama incorporates some tried and true narrative devices to illustrate his young protagonists quest for independence, the main one being a circus that sets up camp on the edge of town. What young 15-year-old hasn't entertained the thought of running away with the circus? This is a Shuji Terayama film, so this circus takes goes a little bit beyond the usual dancing bears and assorted acrobats. The introduction to this traveling troupe in "Pastoral" comes with a charge of children lead by an officer of the Imperial Army waving the Hinomaru flag, a humpback dressed in a Japanese school girl uniform, a midget with a mohawk, and his wife, a fat lady who isn't fat at all - she's just wearing an inflatable fat suit, one that she gets other male performers to pump up in what is obviously a sexual turn on for her. This introductory scene is the window for Terayama's young cinematic other into a larger, permissible, and sometimes frightening world, but the underlying menace is offset by the use of multi-coloured camera filters that add a rainbow sheen to the boy's growing awareness that these circus performers may have more than children's entertainment on their mind. As he peeks through a gap in one of the tents he witnesses a full on orgy that has him falling backwards in shock and exclaiming "Jigoku da! (This is hell!)"

6. "There are times when victory is very hard to take." - Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (Nagisa Oshima, 1983)

I have a theory and that is that Takeshi Kitano is a better actor in other people's films rather in his own. Not to take anything away from that classic, stoic, surly and prone to sudden violence persona that Kitano takes on in most of his directorial efforts, but check out some of other acting roles to see what I mean. In films like Kinji Fukasaku's "Battle Royale" and even his minor role in Jean-Pierre Limosin's "Tokyo Eyes" he dominates any scene he's in with his inventiveness, unpredictability and sheer screen charisma. Maybe when he doesn't have to worry about the camera angle, the lighting and whether the boom mic is in the shot he can loosen up and muster all his acting energy. I'm not sure, but I do know that I get much more out of watching Kitano being directed by others. For me the best example of this is the first example - Kitano's performance as the sadistic Sgt. Hara in Nagisa Oshima's 1983 WW2 film "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence". At that point in his career Kitano had cemented his reputation as a comedian and TV host, so for Oshima to cast him as bellowing, brutal soldier put in charge of a prisoner of war camp was quite the stretch. Of course Kitano would take that brutality and run with it, but my favorite scene from the film, an one of my favorite scenes of all time, is the final subdued scene between Kitano's Sgt. Hara and his former POW inmate Col. John Lawrence played by British actor Tom Conti. It is the night before Hara's execution for war crimes and Lawrence comes to visit him one last time. These old rivals have now, strangely enough, become dear friends and we watch as Lawrence is slowly torn apart seeing his former captor stoically face death. They reminisce about the night that Hara freed Lawrence and his fellow inmate Jack Celliers (David Bowie) from their own death sentence, but there will be no such mercy for Hara. "You are the victim of men who think they are right," Lawrence tells Hara, "but in the end no one is right." No matter how many times I watch this scene I am a blubbering by the time Kitano gives the famous final "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence!" I can't say Kitano has ever brought me to tears with any of his own films. Worth thinking about...

5. Remember me, but ah! Forget my fate - Pale Flower (Masahiro Shinoda, 1964)

Each time I watch Masahiro Shinoda's 1964 yakuza film "Pale Flower" I find myself enjoying it more even though it has the same stereotypical narrative of umpteenth other yakuza movies: Muraki, played by Ryo Ikebe, is out on the street after a three year stint for murdering a rival gangster. Like so many lone gangsters in yakuza movies he soon discovers that the world has changed while he's been locked up. His gang has made peace with its enemies and formed an uneasy alliance against an encroaching yakuza clan, young chimpira hoods alternately revere and attempt to kill Muraki, but he never lets on that he cares one way or the other. The one aspect of the genre that Shinoda and screenwriter Masaru Baba, working from the source novel by Shintarô Ishihara, play with is the "fallen woman" that Muraki befriends. Unlike the various hookers, junkies, and cocktail waitresses that people yakuza eiga Muraki finds a kindred spirit in Saeko (Mariko Kaga), a wealthy young woman with a taste for gambling and a deep, abysmal dark side. Muraki's only pleasure seems to come from schooling Saeko in the ways of the Tokyo criminal underworld and his tutorial comes to a bloody end when he has Saeko witness him killing the boss of the rival gang in a posh supper club. Judged on the cinematography alone this would be a great scene. With the clubs stained glass windows, spiral staircase and dark wood interior the whole scene has the feeling of taking place in a church and the blood about to be spilled by Muraki a sacrament that he's giving to Saeko. What takes the scene from good to great though is Shinoda's choice of music. He sets this brutal murder to the the famous aria from English Baroque composer Henry Purcell's late 17th-century opera "Dido and Aeneas" in which Dido, the Queen of Carthage, laments the departure of her lover Aeneas for Troy. As she prepares to take her own life she sings "When I am laid, am laid in earth, May my wrongs create/ No trouble, no trouble in thy breast/ Remember me, remember me, but ah! forget my fate/ Remember me, but ah! forget my fate..." Of course the piece is put in a totally different context, but that's what makes it so compelling. As Dido sings her words are like a haunting warning to Saeko that however dark her desires that she should only follow Muraki down his criminal path so far.

4. At the Noh theatre - Late Spring (Yasujiro Ozu, 1949)

I've always thought of Yasujiro Ozu as a miniaturist. He was a director that didn't need to indulge any epic cravings by surprising audiences with a war movie or a historical jidai-geki. Epic is the antithesis to what Ozu the Artist was about. What makes his work so profound and universal was his understanding of the moment - a family sitting around the dinner table, a train ride into the city, a line of middle-aged men slouched along a bar after too much sake, the lead up to a wedding or the aftermath of a funeral (but never the actual wedding or funeral). It was these moments, miniature epics of everyday emotion set in tatami rooms, street corners and nomi-ya, written with longtime screenwriting partner Kogo Noda and strung together by Ozu's famed "pillow shots" that have spoken to film lovers around the globe. When compiling this list I was very tempted to choose one of these quiet moments focusing on landscape and everyday objects that helped to set the emotional and narrative basis for the following scene. Instead I chose what I feel to be the next best thing - the scene in the Noh theatre that comes halfway through Ozu's 1949 film "Late Spring". The film stars Setsuko Hara as Noriko, a woman in her late 20's whose family is trying to find a suitable husband for. Noriko has no interest in marriage though. She's dedicated to taking care of her elderly widowed father, Somiya-san (Chishu Ryu), a university professor. In order to gently nudge Noriko from the nest her aunt and father make her believe that he is considering remarrying, an idea Noriko feels is "dirty". It's while taking in an afternoon performance at the Noh theatre that father and daughter encounter Noriko's potential mother-in-law, Miwa-san (Kuniko Miyake), and it's here that Noriko fully realizes that her life is about to change for good. Ozu crafts this moment expertly, including the entire emotional arch of Setsuko Hara's character in just 7-minutes without any dialogue and without any tears. By setting it during a Noh performance he insures that no hystrionics can take place. Norkio's realization that her life at home with her father is coming to an end is communicated as she looks between her father and Miwa-san. With a few glances ending in Noriko dropping her head on the verge of tears Ozu gives us the emotional core of "Late Spring" in miniature. Masterful.

3. Nishimura-san...? - After Life (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 1998)

To come up with the screenplay for his film "After Life", in which the recently deceased are asked to choose one defining memory from their lives to take with them into eternity, director and writer Hirokazu Kore-eda had to, in a way, take on the role of one of the films after life case workers. Continuing in the vein of his 1996 documentary "Without Memory" which centered around a man who loses his short term memory after a botched medical procedure, Kore-eda interviewed dozens of people, asking them to chose their most important memories, memories he would use for the characters in "After Life". To say that everyone on screen was an actor delivering these shared memories, though, is a bit of a misnomer. Kore-eda cast some of his interview subjects alongside professional actors in the film so that they could discuss their defining memories in person, and even for a hardcore fan of Japanese cinema like myself it's sometimes difficult to tell the actors from the non-actors. It took me a number of years to realize that my favorite character in "After Life", the elderly woman Nishimura-san, was in fact veteran of Japanese stage and screen, 89-year-old Hisako Hara. In her performance as Nishimuar-san, the one interview subject who seems to have no memories at all, Hara is utterly natural, sweet and child-like as she lines up acorns, dried flowers and gingko leaves along the desktop in front of her. Her case worker Kawashima (played by ubiquitous character actor Susumu Terajima) gently questions her, "Nishimura-san... Were there any nice memories? Were you married? Did you have any children?", but the old woman across from him is totally absorbed in the beauty of the objects in front of her. She doesn't have any need for memories. This very moment is her whole world. She only breaks concentration once when she asks if there are any flowers around the way station. When Kawashima answers yes, "they bloom in the spring" her happiness only deepens. Koreeda cuts to a scene in a conference room and has the case workers surmise that Nishimura-san is living life as if she was a 9-year-old, that she may be senile, but in my opinion this absolutely simple scene, with Hara disappearing into her character, is the one reminder in "After Life" that living... even after your dead... is about the very moment you are in. This is a scene that always makes me alternately laugh and well up with tears.

2.Train ride to Swamp Bottom - Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)

It was only after I had assembled this list of favorite scenes that I looked back and realized that the vast majority of my choices were those that relied almost entirely on visuals and music to either forward the plot, or to heighten the emotional tenor of the film. From numbers ten through three there have already been some stellar examples of this, but for me one of the most perfect combinations of visuals, mood, and music has to come near the end of Hayao Miyazaki's "Spirited Away". After an action-packed sequence that that has our young heroine Chihiro saving her friend, the dragon-boy Haku, from the witch Zeniba and facing the voracious No Face in a one-on-one battle she is left with one final and crucial task. Teetering between life and death from a curse put on him by Zeniba young Chihiro is told that the only way to save Haku is to go to Zeniba's home in Swamp Bottom at the end of the train line that runs outside of the spirit's bath house. Many animated films would make quick work of Chihiro's trip out to Swamp Bottom to make sure the momentum of the last act doesn't lag and that the kiddies don't start fidgeting in their seats, but Miyazaki goes against popular wisdom and delivers a nearly dialogue free 4-minute scene to get her there. To set the mood for Chihiro's journey Miyazaki's longtime musical collaborator Jo Hisaishi provides a delicate and evocative piece of music that perfectly compliments the cool blue flooded landscape passing outside the train's windows. This trip to Swamp Bottom isn't just about music and color though. It marks a decisive emotional turning point for Chihiro. If you're one of the unfortunate few who hasn't seen "Spirited Away" and is reading this thinking, "Dragon-boy? Witches? No Faces?" well, all I can say is don't let these fairy tale elements fool you. Up until this point in the film Chihiro has lost her parents, has been forced to find employment in a world that she barely understands, made a handful of good friends and a few rivals, and has experienced true love for the first time. As the train trundles along, making stops to let off its ghostly passengers, Chihiro (accompanied by a trio of the film's former villains) looks out the window... and thinks. Miyazaki doesn't provide any voice over, nor does he have to. This scene may not forward the film's plot, but as Chihiro sits and contemplates everything that's lead up to this lonely train ride we witness her transformation from a whiny 10-year-old to a courageous little heroine.

1. Life is Brief - Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa, 1952)

There are so many amazing scenes in Japanese cinema, so it was a lot of hard work and brow beating to come up with just ten. I must admit though that the number one scene was in slot right from the very start and didn't budge from that place as the list went through its various permutations. That scene is the juke joint scene from Akira Kurosawa's 1952 classic "Ikiru". There are so many scenes from "Ikiru" that I could have included in this list, but this climax from a sequence of scenes that has the film's protagonist Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), an elderly municipal bureaucrat who has just learned he has terminal stomach cancer, being ushered around various dance halls, pachinko parlours, bars and strip clubs in Tokyo's red light district by a bohemian writer (Yunosuke Ito). This one last grand cathartic drunken night culminates (or finally fizzles out depending on your viewpoint) in a half full juke joint where the beer is flowing and a fat piano player is banging out jazz swing tunes. What is immediately evident when watching this scene is Kurosawa's technical mastery. Like the woman who boogie woogies to the music the camera just can't stay still. It pans out to capture her impressive dance floor skills, then pans up and shoots the piano player falling off his seat from an overhead mirror. You don't have to be drunk to catch a buzz from this scene, but when the song some to an end and the piano player calls out for requests it's Watanabe's hoarse whisper that calls out for "Gondola no Uta (The Gondola Song)" and the whole mood shifts. As this old Taisho Era classic ballad begins Kurosawa shoots the couple dancing through a beaded curtain that sways along with their movements. The dance doesn't last long though. At first quiet and then wavering over the piano we hear Watanabe singing the lyrics, "Life is brief/ fall in love, maidens/ before the crimson bloom/ fades from your lips/ before the tides of passion/ cool within you/ for those of you/ who know no tomorrow..." It's then that Kurosawa's filmmaking wizardry gives way to pure emotion. Everyone stops dancing and listens as Watanabe sings the entire song, tears welling in his eyes. It's as if they are hearing this song for the very first time, it's meaning chilling the room - No matter how much you drink, dance, make love all this pleasure is fleeting and will come to an end. This is a scene for the ages, one that gives me goosebumps every time I watch it.


Marc Saint-Cyr said...

Woo! Awesome list, Chris, and very good call on Ikiru and Spirited Away!

And thank you for reminding me that I still need to see After Life...

Katie Muffett said...

Beeeeautiful writeup! 'Atmospheric' is definitely the mood to be in for this list.

It's so difficult to pick my next Kurosawa, but Ikiru has to be it. I expect to be crying like a baby at the end.