Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Top Ten Favorite Scenes in Japanese Cinema: Marc Saint-Cyr

There are certain moments in cinema that capture your imagination, images that burn into your mind, lines of dialogue that we end up quoting again and again. It's no different for us at the Pow-Wow, so for the next few months each of the Pow-Wow writers (Chris, Bob, Matt, Marc, and Eric) will be sharing their Top Ten Favorite Scenes from Japanese films with all of you.

To kick things off Marc Saint-Cyr has put together the following list of ten scenes, in ascending order, that stand out for him as being truly special and noteworthy. This is not a “definitive” list by any means, but simply a handful of moments in Japanese cinema that, for one reason or another, have stayed with Marc since he first saw them. **Please note that the following entries are fairly SPOILER-HEAVY.

10. “Every inch of me will resist you!” – Battle Royale (Kinji Fukasaku, 2000)

I thought I’d start things off with a nostalgic pick from around when I was still first getting into Japanese cinema. I was getting a lot of help in this area from Jeff, a good high school buddy who introduced me to a number of quality Japanese films, many of which still rank among my favorites today. One of them was “Battle Royale.” In late 2003, when I was in Grade 12, that film had become fairly popular due to the then-recent release of “Kill Bill: Vol. 1,” circulation of a copy of Koushun Takami’s source novel among my circle of friends and ever-present air of taboo that surrounded both the book and the film. I first saw a few snippets of the film one day when I was over at Jeff’s place. There were many memorable elements amongst the scenes I saw, including Takeshi Kitano’s equally terrifying, touching and hilarious performance as the teacher-turned-death tournament overseer Kitano; the sadistic, mute killer Kiriyama (Masanobu Ando) and the numerous betrayals between the students who, forced to fight for their lives, adopt more cold-blooded methods of reasoning. But the one scene that especially stuck with me was the one in which Chiaki Kuriyama’s character, Takako, fends off the unwelcome, desperate sexual advances of male student Nîda (Hirohito Honda). He threatens her with a crossbow, but it does him little good when, after scarring her face with an arrow, she draws her knife and utters in barely-contained fury, “Come at me – every inch of me will resist you!” before chasing him down, stabbing him twice in the groin and finishing him off. No wonder Quentin Tarantino wanted her to play the similarly chilling Gogo Yubari in “Kill Bill.” Apart from being a great scene, it also marked one of the first of many instances in which Tarantino’s opus pointed the way to the rewarding original sources from which he plucked his many homages, thus inspiring me to dig deeper into the rich bedrock of Japanese film.

9. The Che Kids – Bright Future (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2003)

This entry illustrates one of the many benefits of writing for the Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow: exposure to films that I might not have ever discovered. Prior to receiving “Bright Future” from, the only Kiyoshi Kurosawa film I had ever seen was the excellent, ambiguous “Cure,” but I knew just enough about him and his work to know that this was not going to be one of his typical, horror-oriented films. Essentially, this meant that I really had no idea what to expect from it, even less than if it HAD been one of his horror films (which still wouldn’t have amounted to much). What I discovered was a stark and moving drama about alienation of the young and old alike and the considerable gap that lies between them. Excellent performances are given by Jô Odagiri, Tadanobu Asano and Tatsuya Fuji, but the film’s final scene features none of their characters, but instead a group of young hoodlums who, near the end, break into an office building with Odagiri’s help and wreak all kinds of havoc before getting nabbed by the cops (Odagiri manages to escape and, at least for the remainder of the film, never sees them again). Days later, the group of kids briefly talk about the weird guy who joined them for so short a time, then set out to find something else to do. All dressed in identical white t-shirts that sport Che Guevara’s face, they walk down the street and kick around empty cardboard boxes as the song “Mirai” by the Back Horn plays on the soundtrack and the credits roll. It’s an unconventional but just-about perfect way to end the film, inviting one final consideration of aimless, naïve contemporary youth in a highly effective and memorable joining of image and music.

8. Shima’s Wrath – Dodes’ka-den (Akira Kurosawa, 1970)

With Akira Kurosawa being my favorite Japanese filmmaker and the one whose work I am most familiar with, I could have easily compiled a list of ten favorite scenes just from his filmography. But since I obviously didn’t want to exclude the rest of Japanese cinema, I decided to limit myself to three Kurosawa scenes tops. Of them, this is the least obvious choice; one that might have been edged out by any one of the many brilliant contenders from “Throne of Blood” that I was considering, but won out because of how good it is, and how easily it could have slipped by unrecognized. It comes from 1970’s “Dodes’ka-den,” itself a brilliant but somewhat overshadowed film in Kurosawa’s oeuvre, better known for the woes it brought down upon the filmmaker than its high artistic merit. An imaginative, visually sumptuous portrait of a group of impoverished slum dwellers, it features a wide array of actors in its cast. One of them is Junzaburo Ban, who plays Mr. Shima, a courteous man with a limp and facial tic whose constantly grumpy wife (Kiyoko Tange) is regarded with fear and resentment by all around them. One night, Shima invites some of his coworkers to his house for drinks. After they are greeted with rudeness by the missus, one of them expresses his disgust with how the woman could treat her husband in such an awful way, saying that Shima should kick her out for such behavior. Shima responds by jumping on his colleague in anger, defending his wife and explaining in a heartbreaking monologue how she remained with him even during times of great hardship. The scene is a powerful one because of the torrents of emotion released from all of the actors and the message of love and loyalty it contains. For me, this is one of Kurosawa’s finest moments of compassion.

7. He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Clone – The Clone Returns Home (Kanji Nakajima, 2009)

Kanji Nakajima’s “The Clone Returns Home” is one of my favorite films I discovered in 2009. Greatly influenced by Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Solaris,” it tells the story of astronaut Kohei (Mitsuhiro Oikawa) who permits himself to be cloned in the event of a fatal disaster during a mission. When one, of course, does happen, one clone of Kohei is made, then a second after the first disappears in search of Kohei’s childhood home. Adding both emotional and thematic complexity are the flashbacks that reveal Kohei’s childhood with his twin brother, Noboru, who drowned when they were both still boys. Kohei’s grief and guilt from this loss linger over the film, carried on by the Kohei clones and their efforts to find peace with their memories. At one point, while wandering through the countryside, the first clone finds the dead body of the original Kohei, still clad in his spacesuit (which appears empty to anyone else who examines it), at the river where Noboru died. In a dutiful, brotherly fashion, the clone picks up the body and starts carrying it on his back to where he believes home is. While struggling with his heavy load across a foggy field, he collapses from exhaustion. The shot lingers on the two unmoving forms, then, incredibly, the spacesuit-clad Kohei stands up, then picks up his “brother” and continues the journey. Occurring without (and not needing) any explanation, it is a simple yet incredibly moving moment that indicates the great emotional weight that lies behind the film’s glassy surface and science fiction premise.

6. The Funeral Procession – Maborosi (Hirokazu Koreeda, 1995)

Hirokazu Koreeda’s debut feature “Maborosi” was yet another gem that I had the good fortune of finding in my constant search for films to review for the Pow-Wow. Beautifully crafted, it often seems more like a visual poem based upon the characters’ emotional experiences than a narrative, and surely enough, any recollections I have of the film are inevitably bound to its stunning, unforgettable images. Shot in a semi-documentary fashion, “Maborosi” focuses on Yumiko (Makiko Esumi), a young woman who lives a happy life in Osaka with her husband (Tadanobu Asano) and son. However, her life is thrown into uncertainty when the husband kills himself for no clear reason. Time passes, and Yumiko finds another husband (Takashi Naitô) and moves to his fishing village by the Sea of Japan, where she continues to try to heal the wounds of the past and find peace with its unyielding mysteries. There are many gorgeous, naturalistically-shot scenes in the film, one of the most powerful (and the one that, to me, most resembles a moment of resolution for Yumiko) being one in which Yumiko encounters a passing funeral procession. As snow flurries fall from the overcast sky, she follows the line of people. Koreeda patiently holds a long take of a flat, empty plain near the sea, capturing the line of people as they slowly make their way across the frame, Yumiko trailing behind them. As the sounds of the wind, distantly tinkling bells and Chen Ming-Chang’s stirring music are heard on the soundtrack, Koreeda evokes the forces of nature, death and memory in a moment of pure poetry.

5. “Kirikirikirikirikirikirikiri!” – Audition (Takashi Miike, 1999)

Here is one of the more famous moments in Japanese cinema, from one of the first Takashi Miike films my friend Jeff showed me (the others including “Ichi the Killer,” “Visitor Q” and “Dead or Alive”). Needless to say, it kicked my ass on my first viewing, and probably would have done so even if I was more familiar with Miike’s work, because you never really know what you’re going to get with Miike. With “Audition,” what I got was a film that is still deservedly known as one of the greatest horror movies ever made. Most of it unwinds harmlessly enough as a love story about widower Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) looking for a new wife, with some mystery sprinkled in. Things don’t become overtly menacing until late in the film when Aoyama, at this point head over heels in love with the seemingly perfect former dancer Asami (Eihi Shiina), takes a sip of scotch in his home only to discover it is laced with a paralyzing drug. I could have expanded this entry to include the hallucinatory flashback/dream sequence Aoyama experiences that reveals the disturbing true nature of Asami and her previous victims, but for me, the film doesn’t really put on its game face until he snaps out of it, still paralyzed on the carpet, and catches a glimpse of Asami dressed in a leather apron and gloves, preparing herself for one of the most painful movie torture sequences ever shot. Carried out with acupuncture needles driven into Aoyama’s skin to the sweet cooing of Asami’s voice, razor-sharp piano wire and the world’s longest hypodermic needle, it is a masterstroke of audience manipulation that almost – but, thankfully, not quite – puts you in poor Aoyama’s place as he is thrown further and further into a world of pain and helplessness. Even after multiple viewings, when I know exactly what’s coming up next, the scene is still both magnificent and excruciating to watch. Of all of the unforgettable moments Miike has given us in his long and diverse career, there are few that can contend with this one.

4. The Standoff – Sanjuro (Akira Kurosawa, 1962)

I think it’s kind of unfair to label “Sanjuro” as the sequel to “Yojimbo,” as it gives the impression that seeing the latter is necessary in order to enjoy the former. Instead, I like to think of them as two separate stories that both happen to star Toshirô Mifune as the grouchy, badass, self-named ronin Sanjuro. “Sanjuro” is an especially fun and well-rounded adventure involving nine young, naïve samurai who, with Sanjuro’s help, try to rescue a kidnapped chamberlain from a corrupt superintendent and his collaborators. In fact, so rousing, funny and enjoyable is the bulk of Akira Kurosawa’s film that I often completely forget about its climactic moment: the final showdown between Sanjuro and Tatsuya Nakadai’s villain Hanbei Muroto. While “Yojimbo” is often cited as being the inspiration for Sergio Leone’s “A Fistful of Dollars” and scads more Westerns, it is “Sanjuro” and this scene in particular we have to thank for setting the gold standard for Mexican standoffs. After the two fellow warriors gravely exchange a few words, they silently ready themselves, then begin their final confrontation. Everything is perfectly still and not a sound is made as the two men coolly stare at each other. The audience waits with bated breath. Then, after what seems like an eternity, the two men strike, there is a sudden, explosive geyser of blood, and one of them collapses to the ground. It’s all over in a matter of seconds, but in those seconds, Kurosawa once and for all immortalized the skill and greatness of one of cinema’s most legendary heroes.

3. All Alone – In the Realm of the Senses (Nagisa Oshima, 1976)

“In the Realm of the Senses” is mainly known for its no-holds-barred graphic content – namely, its unsimulated sex scenes and strong violence. In his account of the notorious Sada Abe incident of 1936, Nagisa Oshima decided to go all the way, depicting in detail the obsessive relationship between Sada (Eiko Matsuda) and Kichi (Tatsuya Fuji), the married man with whom she falls in love – and lust – with. As the true story famously goes, the two of them shut themselves in a room at an inn for days, fulfilling their sexual desires until Sada, with Kichi’s consent, strangled him in order to further her pleasure, then severed his penis from his body, which she kept on her person until she was arrested a few days later. Now, while this behavior may seem shocking and extreme, it would be a mistake to think of Sada as a cruel or sadistic person because of her actions, especially when considering her through Matsuda’s excellent portrayal in Oshima’s film. True, throughout “In the Realm,” she can often be impulsive, clingy, selfish or downright mean-spirited (as she sometimes is towards the maids who serve her and Kichi), not to mention more than a little crazy. But it is clear that, as much as her relationship with Kichi is based on sex, she still has genuine feelings of love and affection for him, making the moment when she kills him all the more tragic. As she does so, the film cuts away to a fantasy sequence in which Sada is in a sort of arena amid several empty rows of wooden benches while Kichi runs around her with a little girl, her voice on the soundtrack asking him, “Ready?” to which he replies, “Madadayo!” – “Not yet!” Suddenly, Kichi falls silent, and Sada sits upright only to find herself completely alone, with no one to answer her calls. In that moment, it hits home that she has extinguished the man who might have been the love of her life, and no matter how fiery or intense her passion might have been with him, she will never again be able to experience it. When the film cuts back to reality, she is standing over his dead body, about to embark on the rest of her lonely life.

2. Reunion on the Beach – Sansho the Bailiff (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1954)

“Sansho the Bailiff” just might mark the high point of Kenji Mizoguchi’s artistic legacy. While impeccably made, the film also stands as a perfect rendering of the themes he explored throughout much of his career – specifically the terrible influence of human cruelty and the suffering of people in general and women in particular. The director surely must have felt that he had found his ideal subject in the classic tale of a family torn apart and subjected to the hardships of slavery. “Sansho” mainly follows siblings Zushiô and Anju as they grow from children into adults under the tyrannical rule of the titular slave master. Their journey back to their mother and father, who, as they are aware, may very well be dead, is long, fraught with challenges and the stuff epics are made of. But no other single scene in the film can even begin to match its final one, a definitive ending point built up and elevated by all the events that come before it. The son Zushiô, now a grown man (Yoshiaki Hanayagi), finds himself at the end of his travels on a lonely beach. He briefly encounters another man busy sorting through clumps of debris, but then is led by a haunting, familiar song to a grey-haired blind woman sitting alone by some huts. Stricken with tears at the sight of his mother, Zushiô shows her the small Kwammon figure that his father gave him so many years ago. She is convinced that he is in fact her son, and the two embrace. He is forced to tell her that both his father and sister have passed on, leaving them all alone in the world, but at least they are finally reunited with each other. Beautifully executed and emotionally devastating, this is surely one of the finest and most complete endings to a film one could hope to find.

1. The Siege of the Third Castle – Ran (Akira Kurosawa, 1985)

It seems so typical that the one scene that could beat out one from a Kenji Mizoguchi film on my list comes from an Akira Kurosawa film. I could (and very well might) have given the former the top honor, thus avoiding yet another instance in which the most popular and loved Japanese filmmaker in the Western world takes the glory yet again, and “Sansho”’s beach scene is indeed a perfectly worthy candidate for the number one spot. But try as I might, I can’t deny or short-change the sheer magnificence and beauty of Kurosawa’s late masterpiece “Ran” or its finest scene – the siege of the third castle. The scale of it alone is something to marvel at, as Kurosawa and his team actually constructed a massive castle on the side of Mount Fuji solely for the purpose of burning it down for the film. In the narrative, Lord Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) finds himself shunned by his first two sons and, seeking shelter, retreats to a castle abandoned by his third son’s men, who go to join their exiled lord. This presents the perfect opportunity for Hidetora’s advisors to betray the old emperor, and soon enough he is awakened by the sounds of charging men and flying arrows. He peers from his windows to see armies of red- and yellow-clad warriors led by his first tow sons mowing down with rifle and sword his loyal but ultimately outnumbered men. So begins a silent onslaught of carnage set to Toru Takemitsu’s woeful score. Rifles flicker and flash through clouds of smoke. Countless men are pierced with arrows and bullets. Blood flows in rivers. The enemy troops scurry across the black slopes like angry ants. Hidetora’s concubines commit hara-kiri and are cut down by rifle fire. A man sits holding his severed arm. Then, suddenly, the din of battle is startlingly reintroduced on the soundtrack, completing one of the most magnificent and chilling depictions of war in all of cinema, Japanese or otherwise.

Read more by Marc Saint-Cyr at his blog.

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