Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Top Ten Favorite Scenes in Japanese Cinema: Eric Evans

To say that out Top Ten Lists have become one of our most popular features on the J-Film Pow-Wow would be a bit of an understatement. People love lists! But when we kicked off our running list of our Top Ten Favorite Scenes from Japanese Cinema a couple weeks back with Pow-Wow writer Marc Saint-Cyr's favorites it soon became one of our most viewed pages on the blog (read Marc's picks here). Now we're happy to give you the second installment of this series with Eric Evan's Top Ten Favorite Scenes, and he's definitely brought together some classic and lesser known gems for you all... but beware SPOILERS AHOY!

10. Yoshi sees a ghost - Fine, Totally Fine (Yosuke Fujita, 2008)

"Fine, Totally Fine" is a movie practically made of funny, memorable scenes so it's somewhat unfair to single out any one. But it's Yoshiyoshi Arakawa who steals every scene he's in with that face of his. He has a blank, almost childlike affect, so when he smiles or pouts or screams in fear, it really plays.

After being told by a rich uncle that his idea for a super-deluxe haunted house lacked spirit, Teruo (Yoshi) decides to spend the night in a supposedly haunted apartment to see a real ghost and therefore imbue his idea with unbeatable realism. He gets more realism than he counted on when, after a 3am scare, he opens the closet to find a homeless man squatting there. Having heard the whole thing, the old man simply raises his hands and says "Ghost!" which sends Teruo screaming into the night. Teruo is haunted by the vision of the old man "ghost", a fitting punishment for the guy who delighted in terrifying strangers with horror-movie props.

9. Fox Wedding- Dreams (Akira Kurosawa, 1990)

My favorite Kurosawa scene comes from one of his lesser films. A collection of unrelated short stories, "Dreams" is wildly uneven but starts wonderfully with "Sunshine Through The Rain", a fable not too far removed from the Grimm Brothers tradition. A young boy, maybe 5 or 6, is told to stay out of the forest because on certain days, foxes have weddings and they forbid spectators. His interest piqued, the boy roams through the misty woods until he comes upon a procession of Kabuki fox spirits marching to drum and flute music. Their procession is like a performance, and on the off beats they all stop and turn in a various direction in perfect unison, wary of being seen. The boy hides behind a tree spellbound; this spectacle is elegant, beautiful and eerie, and definitely not meant for human eyes. Just as they are about to pass him, the music halts and they all turn, looking right at him. He runs away, straight to his house, where his mother is waiting at the gate. "An angry fox was here," she says, "and he left this"--handing the little child a sheathed knife. "You're meant to kill yourself." The boy is shocked numb, and listens mute as mom tells him to go back to the woods, find the foxes, return the knife and apologize--essentially beg for his life. She closes the gate in his face and says, "Unless they forgive you, I can't let you in."

I saw this film in the theater, and the entire crowd didn't know whether to laugh or cry. The entire short is a masterful example of folkloric storytelling, and it manages to be scary in somewhat the same way as the more esoteric imagery in Stanley Kubricks's "The Shining." The rest of the film may not live up to the first segment's promise, but it's worth a rental for the first 10 minutes alone.

8. The Art of Combat - Zatoichi (Takeshi Kitano, 2003)

As a dyed-in-wool Kitano fan I wanted at least one scene from his filmography on this list, and I had a tough time picking just one. Thinking back over "Kikujiro" and "Sonatine" and even "Hana~bi", the scenes that jump out at me are the brief bits of humor. Kitano was, after all, a humorist before he was an award-winning filmmaker, and his brand of humor works particularly well on me, so I decided on this bit from his masterfully commercial but not pandering reimagining of Zatoichi. It's Three Stooges meets Jidai Geki, a perfect little interlude before the high drama of the film's finale, complete with coconut-shell bonk sound effects as the "teacher" gets hit on the head repeatedly, displaying how little he knows about swordplay. I can imagine Kitano behind the monitor, chuckling to himself that he gets paid to do this kind of work…

7. Last sight before I die… - Hardest Night (Masahiko Tsugawa, 2005)

Kimura Yoshino's character is told that the last thing her husband's boss wants to see before he dies is a woman's… fundament. Though shy and reluctant, she eventually obliges. Technically this is a series of scenes, since half the humor is in convincing her to flash, but the act itself is irresistibly comic and representative of the film as a whole: it's bawdy and funny and charming.

6. Train station farewell - When A Woman Ascends The Stairs - (Mikio Naruse, 1960)

Mikio Naruse's masterpiece "When A Woman Ascends The Stairs" is a bleak film, and never moreso than when weary and lonely bar hostess Keiko (an excellent Hideko Takamine) has to put on a brave, placid face, go to the train station, and watch the man she loves disappear with the wife she envies and the child she'll never have. Adding insult to injury, she also returns the money he left her the night before after sleeping with her--an encounter which she assumed, quite understandably, would lead to a relationship. She needs the money, and she certainly deserves the money, but to accept it would essentially be the same as lowering herself to prostitution. Her feelings for him are real, and despite how she was treated she obeys her own code of conduct and honor, returning the money and wishing the family well on their journey. A hint of shame creeps over his face watching this heartbreaking display, but he maintains a blank demeanor and she smiles blandly as the train leaves the station--taking with it her last hopes for a quiet life and a man to love. It's a quintessentially Japanese moment. Takamine's face has a calm smile but her eyes express all the pain she's feeling. It's heartbreaking.

5. "All Japanese can do this" - Jam Films 2: Armchair Theory: Kosai (Junji Kojima, 2004)

Comedy team The Rahmens (Jin Katagiri and Kentarō Kobayashi) have found a good deal of YouTube success with their expert spoofs of Japanese culture as seen though western eyes. "How To Eat Sushi" plays upon the otherness of Orientalism and the myth of Japanese manners; According to these shorts, no Japanese ever makes a move without first considering Bushido code and no action, no matter how insignificant, is without precedent. Finally given a budget and a cast, Rahmens' first foray into movies is "Armchair Theory: Kosai (Man + Woman)", a spoof of Japanese dating culture. Presented in two halves--the first a "how to" presented documentary style with a host, the second a dramatization of all the rules just explained--"Kosai" is a blast. Literally a blast, as the documentary portion explains about video-game style fighting techniques like "rolling thunder" and throwing fireballs at an opponent, adding quite matter-of-factly, "All Japanese can do this." Westerners think all Japanese eat sushi at every meal and hold black belts in karate, and the Rahmens take that to its illogical extreme--claiming that all Japanese are like characters from Tekken. It's a scream, and the short film hints at a promising cinema career for the duo.

4. Poochy's visit - All About My Dog (Isshin Inudo, 2005)

Quick: when you think of Shido Nakamura, do you think of touching and sentimental roles? If not, don't feel bad. No one does, unless they're a fan of 2006's overt tear-jerker "All About My Dog". Nakamura rose to fame in the romance "Ai ni Yukimasu" opposite Yuko Takuchi, but he's probably best remembered for his tough guy roles in "Neighbor #13", "Fearless" and especially "Red Cliff 1 & 2". The same year as he played the terrifying 13-go, he portrayed Kentaro, a reporter assigned to a dog story. But Kentaro is frightened of dogs… cue flashbacks to his childhood where he meets a stray shiba inu and slowly but surely befriends him, naming him "Poochy". They play fetch in a field each day until they're separated by events beyond either of their control. Fast forward 30 years, and Kentaro has got to get over his problem. Cue a sound at Kentaro's door late one night: As he opens the door to see what's going on, he finds an old, worn tennis ball bearing Poochy's name, written in his own hand decades earlier. He runs through the streets of the city until he comes to the small, still-undeveloped field where he and Poochy used to play, and finds the little scamp there waiting for him. Recognition floods through Kentaro from his face down through his body, and he visibly softens and embraces the dog. They play as they used to, and in so doing Kentaro rediscovers their bond. His job done, Poochy begs for one last good throw of that tennis ball, and disappears after it into the underbrush--after he gives Kentaro one long, last loving gaze. If this sounds like sentimentality bordering on the maudlin, it is. It's essentially "Truly, Madly, Deeply" compressed into 10 minutes, but it's beautifully executed and every time I watch it I cry like a baby. I admit I'm a soft touch, but if the thought of the kind spirit of your childhood pet returning to help you through a trauma doesn't touch you at least a little, you should see a doctor.

3. Enter the tough biker chicks - Girl Boss Guerilla (Norifumi Suzuki, 1972)

I really dig these pinky violence pictures: Yakuza molls, biker chicks, sexy thieves, WIP… you name it, I enjoy it. The lead actresses in these pictures played characters that ran the gamut from fully clothed and silent (Meiko Kaji) to nearly always nude and loquacious (Reiko Ike). Splitting the difference is my personal favorite, Miki Sugimoto. Best known for "Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs", Sugimoto is fierce and sexy in "Girl Boss Guerilla"--especially in the opening scene, when she literally stops the biker dudes in their tracks by baring her tattooed breast and proclaiming that they may be girls, but they're just as tough as men. Just as tough, but sexier!

2. Fight under the bridge - Tampopo (Juzo Itami, 1985)

Ask most any film fanatic about the most memorable fight scene and it's a good bet you'll hear about 'Rowdy' Roddy Piper vs. Keith David in "They Live", and rightfully so--as far as fisticuffs are concerned, it's a model of movie excess. But there's a fight scene with nearly the same level of over-the-top absurdity in Juzo Itami's 1985 tour de force "Tampopo". Long-haul trucker Goro (a never-better Tsutomu Yamazaki) rolls into town and agrees to train the lovely but hapless Tampopo (Itami regular Nobuko Miyamoto) how to make the perfect ramen. However, the local tough guy who has eyes for Tampopo doesn't appreciate having a rival. They settle it the way any two grown men would in a spoof of spaghetti westerns--they duke it out. "Tampopo" is full of memorable scenes, and choosing one is a bit like choosing your favorite ingredient in a soup: it's the result, the cumulative impact of all the individual flavors, that makes the meal. Itami's work is almost completely out of print and difficult to find on DVD. Hopefully the folks at Criterion will remedy the situation.

1. Mountain song recording studio - Taste of Tea (Katsuhito Ishii, 2004)

You could make a full-time job out of looking for weird and funny scenes in Japanese film and not find anything with a greater combination of weird and funny than Katsuhito Ishii's "Taste of Tea". And for my money, the weirdest and funniest scene in the film is the recording studio performance of "Oh My Mountain". Indie J-film mainstay Tadanobu Asano is a sound engineer who is struck stupid by the spectacle in front of him: A trio of lamé-jumpsuit-clad people doing awkward choreography while singing an alarmingly catchy folk-polka song. The studio crew reacts to the song with the following:

"Listen to it too long and your brain will melt."

"They're like perverted aliens from some unknown world."

"Taste of Tea" may be weird and it may be funny but it's also a touching, heartfelt and brilliant film. "Oh My Mountain" is not quite representative of the rest of the film, but as memorable scenes go it's right up there. And the song is maddeningly catchy.


Anonymous said...

I love The Taste of Tea :)

Katie said...

Brilliant list - but this site is going to break my bank account with trying to get hold of the things not available through rental in the UK.

Totally agree with Takeshi Kitano's best bits being the little drops of humour. In "Kikujiro" when he comes waddling out in front of the car pretending to be blind and waving his stick around wildly...I had to pause it to stop laughing.

And do you remember when they show that scene in the making of extra feature? "Teacher" got hit way too hard in one take and Kitano was just laughing at him - no sympathy ^^