Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Tokyo Filmex '11 REVIEW: The Catch

魚影の群れ (Gyoei no mure)

Released: 1983

Shinji Somai

Ken Ogata
Masako Natsume
Kocihi Sato
Yukiyo Toake
Saburo Ishikura

Running time: 140 min.

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

The 12th annual Tokyo Filmex film fesstival (November 19 to 27) is currently holding a full retrospective of filmmaker Shinji Somai at Shochiku's Togeki Theatre in Higashi Ginza.

Tokiko (Masako Natsume) is a lovable and vibrant young woman, so much so that she can make a young man like Shunichi (Koichi Sato), who works in a café, dream of being fisherman. You see, Tokiko comes from a fishing family, or at least has a father, Fusajiro (Ken Ogata), who operates his own small tuna-fishing boat, the Toki-Maru #3. Tokiko's life is so tied in with the sea that if Shunichi loves her he must love the other. He must also learn to love the sea in order to win the approval of Fusajiro and this marks one of the central crisis of Shinji Somai's 1983 film "The Catch". While Shunichi loves the sea (ie: loves Tokiko) Fusajiro depends on it, and the sea has been a fickle, unforgiving and often dangerous taskmaster. If Fusajiro can hook and haul in a 140kg tuna that will fetch him ¥540,000 his life is paradise, but it's the hell wrestling these beasts from the deep that more often than not has made his life a living hell. Fusajiro can't even remember exactly when he began fishing. All he knows is that he's had his own boat since he was 23. The rest has been lost in the salt air and in umpteenth magnums of sake. So in order to enter Tokiko's life Shunichi, in essence, must become this disillusioned, ocean-weary man, a daunting proposition that will nearly take his life. Director Somai is tasked with taking us into this thankless and mysterious brotherhood of men who live off the sea.

Shinji Somai is not a filmmaker who is little known outside of Japan, aand when he is mentioned it is normally in conjunction with films like the high school drama "Typhoon Club" or the action film "Sailor Suit and Machine Gun", both that explore and expand upon the idea of youth. It's because of this reputation that many would be forgiven for thinking that "The Catch" would center around the familial and romantic life of Tokiko and that her father Fusajiro would be a charismatic supporting character. Not the case. "The Catch" is in fact split into three sections -- The First Summer, One Year Later and The End of Summer. Once Shunichi heads out to sea for a tragic fishing trip with Tokiko's father the film shifts gears and we discover that main protagonist of "The Catch" ends up being Fusajiro himself. Soon we're in gloriously anti-heroic territory, both both in terms of narrative and and in the construction of the film.

The one defining mood of "The Catch" is one of hard-drinking, calloused-handed machissmo. Along with Mutsuo Naganuma's showy cinematography which pitches, chops and flows dramatically like the sea itself, this alpha-maleness is probably the film's biggest strength, as well as some troublesome weaknesses. This is the realm of Ernest Hemingway and in some ways Werner Herzog. We're introduced into a world where men are men and life is uncomplicated by delicate emotion. We are also made witness to long documentary sequences in which it appears that screen legend Ken Ogata is actually hand fishing giant tuna, stabbing at them with hooks and tying them to the side of his boat. Fact and fiction begin to blur, but in a wonderfully watchable way. In many ways "The Catch" feels like an old, hard-done-by enka song come to life. It's also refreshing to see a mainstream Japanese film (albeit one from the early 80's) that is so unashamedly comfortable with its masculinity, so full of bravado. In an age of studio features almost exclusively geared to young female and family audiences male characters have become limited to talent agency-groomed pretty boys and nostalgic "oji-san" characters portrayed by once formidable actors. Still "The Catch" goes a long way in continuing the stereotypical screen violence against women that plagues so much male-centric Japanese filmmaking.

Watching "The Catch" makes us pine for the days when Japanese film had bone and muscle, as opposed to hairspray, twinkle and the occasional bloody transgression. There may be hints of the blue collar heroism of Ogata's lone fisherman in the work of some of Japan's independent filmmakers; although today we are more likely to have our protagonists be beaten down bohemian freeters as opposed to hard-bitten "shō ga nai" pragmatists. In that way "The Catch" may very well fall into the Japanese cinematic love for nostalgia, but when it is this forceful, unflinching and brave it is hard to complain.

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