Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Top Ten Japanese Films-Within-Films

In the year or so that we've been posting our top ten lists we've covered various genres of Japanese films - our favorite horror films, yakuza films, gay and lesbian films, even our favorite documentaries. This month we thought we'd present a different kind of list, one that is a genre unto itself, although a very specific one - The Top Ten Japanese Films Within Films. These films turn in on themselves with the mechanics of filmmaking being shifted from behind the camera to in front of the camera and has the filmmakers becoming characters in the drama unfolding onscreen. This cinematic moebius strip isn't an easy one to pull off, but here we present those we feel are the best examples of this genre. Enjoy! And have your say in the comments if you think we've missed one of your favorites.

10. Peep "TV" Show - Yutaka Tsuchiya (2003)

Yutaka Tsuchiya is a politically and idealogically revolutionary documentary filmmaker who rose to prominence with his 1999 documentary "The New God" that highlighted the right wing punk band The Revolutionary Truth and its charismatic lead singer Karin Amamiya. What started as a portrait of youthful rebellion and political uncertainity quickly morphs into a love story between Tsuchiya and Amamiya who by the end of "The New God" have become a couple. The two would go on to collaborate on a part fact and part fiction film in 2003 titled "Peep 'TV' Show" based on a story idea by Amamiya. Hasegawa, a voyeuristic "terrorist" obsessed with the attacks of September 11th secretly streams video of people he stalks between images of the collapsing World Trade Center on his website PeepTVShow.com. He quickly gains a following of disaffected and socially isolated people. One of these, Moe, a Gothic Lolita seeks out Hasegawa wanting to become a part of his plan to "peep at the corpses under the rubble". The gap between the watcher and the watched becomes narrower and narrower as "Peep 'TV' Show" goes on, and we very quickly realize that we are one in the same as the characters who spend a great deal of time staring impassively at screens - internet video, cellphone cameras, security monitors, etc. Like a set of Russian stacking dolls we are sitting and watching a film about people watching "reality" through films. Even though the political overtones get a bit heavy handed at time the end result of Tsuchiya's and Amamiya's dystopic vision is as timely today as it was upon its release seven years ago. CM

9. Fall Guy - Kinji Fukasaku (1982)

Director Kinji Fukasaku is known as one of the defining filmmakers of Japanese cinema, with his yakuza dramas like "Battles Without Honour and Humanity" and "Yakuza Graveyard" defining the genre and his final film "Battle Royale" introducing whole new audiences to Japanese film. Fukasaku's output was much more diverse than just bloody action films though. He helmed everything from dark drama's like "House on Fire" to cheesy sci-fi adventures like "War in Space". In 1982 Fukasaku had one of the biggest hits of his career with "Fall Guy", a screen adaptation of Kouhei Tsuka's stage play "Kamata Koshin-Kyoku". Yasu (Mitsuru Hirata) is one of movie star Ginshiro's (Morio Kazama) fawning posse who shadow him both on screen and off. When Ginshiro gets Konatsu (Keiko Matsuzaka), one of his many girlfriends, pregnant he convinces Yasu to tell the world that the baby is his. In order to support his new girlfriend and unborn child Yasu takes on work as a stuntman in everything from gangster movies to jidai-geki epics, ultimately agreeing to take a life-threatening tumble down a mammoth set of stairs, a stunt that even scares Ginshiro. Like "The Magic Hour", "fall Guy" is a laugh-filled tribute to filmmaking in Japan. The opening credits are a literal kaleidoscope of Golden Age Japanese stars and starlets, but this being a Fukasaku film there's darkness in between the pratfalls. Like so many of Fukasaku's protagonists Yasu is an underdog who uses his rage at being taken advantage of by Ginshiro as much as his growing love for Konatsu tobecome one of the backlots most sought after fall guys. CM

8. Reincarnation - Takashi Shimizu (2005)

Although the J-Horror Boom got kicked off in 1998 with Hideo Nakata's "Ringu", a film about a video tape that kills anyone who watches it, the best example of a J-Horror film within a film has to be Takashi Shimizu's 2005 chiller "Rinne (Reincarnation)". Filmmker Matsumura (Kippei Shiina) is cashing in on a decades old multiple murder case by turning it into a film. Young actress Nagisa Sugiura (Yuka) has been cast as the daughter of a university professor who 35 years before killed 11 guests at a small inn as well as his own children in an insane attempt to test the veracity of reincarnation. As the cameras begin to roll on Matsumura's film Nagisa and the crew begin to experience horrific visions and are haunted by the ghost of one of the homocidal Professors daughters. Soon Nagisa comes to realization that those working on the film are in fact the reincarnated souls of those who were savagely murdered all those years ago, but the real surprise is who Nagisa may in fact be a reincarnation of. While Shimizu would use the film within a film formula for the sequel to his genre-defining "Ju-on", with the film crew inciting the wrath of the vengeful ghost Kayoko by filming in her house, "Rinne" takes the film motif even further. Sadly this film was released as the J-Horror Boom was waning, so despite Shimizu's continued dedication to the horror genre this 2005 film didn't get the same kind of exposure that it so richly deserved. CM

7. A Man Vanishes - Shohei Imamura (1967)

Of all the films on this list none can claim to blur the line between filmed fact and filmed fiction better than Shohei Imamura's 1967 "documentary", "A Man Vanishes". We intentionally put documentary in quotes because Imamura never intended this film to be a straight record of facts. "A Man Vanishes" follows the investigation into the disappearance of plastics salesman Tadashi Oshima by his wife Yoshie, but the first clue that this isn't your typical documentary film comes when actor Shigeru Tsuyuguchi, who starred in Imamura's "The Insect Woman" and "Intentions of Murder", accompanies Yoshie on interviews with her husband's friends and work colleagues. What they uncover is true - that Oshima was under suspicion for embezzling funds from his company, and that he may have been having an extra-martital affair, and in fact may have gotten the woman pregnant. It's also a fact that Yoshie's sister Sayoko, a failed geisha, may have been another of Oshima's lovers. Fact shifts to fiction when Yoshie begins to express feelings for Tsuyuguchi and when the actor discusses this development with Imamura the director's response is that this is exactly what he wanted to happen, that they shouldn't discourage Yoshie's growing love for Tsuyuguchi. It's a curious attitude for the director of a documentary, a film form that prizes objectivity above all else. Once Yoshie, Sayoko, and Tsuyuguchi assemble at a tea house for a heated confrontation Imamura's true plan is revealed - the tea house turns out to be a film set and "A Man Vanishes" turns out to be a work of fiction, one based on a true story, but that Imamura has manipulated to make us question what exactly documentary reality is. When a director points his camera to tell a story isn't it already a fiction? Is it possible to be totally objective? A fascinating film presenting and equally fascinating dilemma. CM

6. The Magic Hour - Koki Mitani (2008)

The work of 49-year-old playwright, screenwriter and director Koki Mitani has often been described as carrying on the traditions of the Hollywood screwball comedies of Howard Hawkes, George Cukor and Preston Sturges, but one of Mitani's films does more than just take inspiration from these 1930's and 40's classics. With 2008's "The Magic Hour" Mitani pays homage to the film industry by creating a story about a bit part actor who is tagged to play the the role of his career in a very dangerous real-life drama. After a hotelier named Bingo (Satoshi Tsumabaki) gets caught having an affair with the girlfriend of mob boss Teshio (Toshiyuki Nishida) he's given two choices: recruit the infamous hitman Della Togashi for Teshio's gang, or end up getting fitted for a pair of cement shoes. The choice is clear, but Bingo has one problem - no one knows the identity of Della Togashi, not even Teshio. Solution to this problem? Bingo poses as a young film director and hires Murata (Koichi Sato), a body double and small time actor, to portray Togashi in a very unorthodox gangster film. Murata puts everything he's got into the role of Della Togashi, never suspecting that his co-stars on this film are in fact real mobsters. Don't expect tattooed yakuza in Mitani's gangster film. "The Magic Hour" exists in the imagined world of tommygun toting mobsters and breathy femme fatales straight out of Hollywoods Golden Age while incorporating real-life director Kon Ichikawa and a fictional sequel to his 1961 crime drama "Kuroi Ju-nin no Onna". CM

5. One Fine Day - Takeshi Kitano (2007)

To mark the 60th anniversary of the Cannes Film Festival its organizers commissioned 34 world renowned filmmaker to each direct a 3-minute short that would encapsulate "their state of mind of the moment as inspired by the motion picture theatre." Some truly impressive talent got involved - Roman Polanski, Wim Wenders, Ken Loach, and Oliver Assayas to name only a few. All brought their own feelings about cinema to the project, but it was auteur, media court jester and all around Renaissance Man Takeshi Kitano whose short "One Fine Day" reveals the an accident prone tinkerer behind the wizard of moving pictures. The set up is dead simple - a scruffy looking country bumpkin buys a ticket to see Kitano's 1996 film "Kids Return" at a rundown movie theatre. Inside he discovers he's the only one in the audience and shortly after the opening credits roll the film breaks. "Chotto matte kudasai!" the projectionist (played by Kitano himself) shouts out, leaving the man to share his lunch with a stray dog who sits in the aisle. A few more abortive attempts and the film finally gets going... but for the end credits. The lights come up, but there's no refund for this 3-minute screening. We could have easily included Kitano's deconstructed 2007 comedy "Glory to the Filmmaker!" in this top ten, but "One Fine Day"'s 3-minutes summarizes Kitano's minimalist aesthetic, wicked sense of humour, and nihilistic philosophy that carries through his entire filmmography better than "Glory"'s nearly 2-hour run time. CM

4. Who's Camus Anyway? - Mitsuo Yanagimachi (2005)

Mitsuo Yanagimachi, the director of such contemporary classics as "Godspeed you, Black Emperor!" and "Himatsuri", contributes one of the most self-referential film-within-a-films on this list with his 2005 film "Who's Camus Anyway?" The story follows a film student named Matsukawa (Shuji Kashiwabara) and his crew as they move from pre-production to shooting of a film titled "The Bored Murderer". The plot of this film within a film is a young man, portrayed by Hideo Nakaizumi, who kills an old woman simply to have the experience of murder. The director of the film ("The Bored Murderer" not "Who's Camus Anyway?") gives the actor a copy of Albert Camus' existential classic "L'Etranger", which chronicles a similarly pointless murder, to help him with his motivation. Soon actor and role begin to merge in surprising and dangerous ways. "Who's Camus Anyway?" revels in its referencing of other films (Matsukawa's obsessively jealous girlfriend is nicknamed Adele after a character in Francois Truffuat's "The Story Of Adele H" as well as incorporating stylistic touches from other filmmakers (the main characters are introduced in a one-shot/ one-scene tracking shot reminiscent of Mizoguchi). "Who's Camus Anyway?" comes to a violent climax during which Matsukawa and his crew film the murder scene from "The Bored Murderer". In a post-Tarantino age of films based on films it's interesting to see a veteran filmmaker like 64-year-old Yanagimachi take his cinematic and literary influences and put them into his creative blender. CM

3. Millennium Actress - Satoshi Kon (2001)

If there's a narrative thread that weaves its way through the films of anime director Satoshi Kon it's that what seems real isn't always real. Not since sci-fi author Philip K. Dick has an artist played with the reliability (or unreliability) of our perception of reality. He established this mind-bending aesthetic with his 1998 adaptation of Yoshikazu Takeuchi's novel "Perfect Blue" and took it to elaborate new heights with his surreal take on Yasutaka Tsutsui's sci-fi mystery "Paprika"; but it was the melding of his mutable world view with a story based on one of Japan's most beloved screen starlets that lands Satoshi Kon at the number four slot on our list of films within films. 2001's "Millennium Actress" follows Tachibana, a TV documentary filmmaker, and his cameraman as they go on the assignment of a lifetime - an on camera interview with Chiyoko Fujiwara, an actress who mysteriously retired from the screen at the peak of her popularity to live a life of seclusion. What could have caused her to turn her back on fame? Didn't she feel a responsibility to her fans to keep acting? What has she been doing with herself? All these questions are put to Fujiwara as they'd been put to real-life actress Setsuko Hara, star of Yasujiro Ozu's "Tokyo Story" and Akira Kurosawa's "No Regrets for Our Youth", in 1963 when she unceremoniously quit acting, refusing to give interviews or appear on camera to this very day. While at the time of her retirement Hara revealed that she never really enjoyed acting all that much Satoshi Kon's Chiyoko Fujiwara's reasons for leaving the limelight center around a lost love, a dissident artist she fell in love with as a teenager. Throughout "Millennium Actress" Tachibana and his cameraman literally follow Fujiwara through her entire career - from propaganda films in Manchuria to outer space epics - as she searches for her the man she loves. It's an ingenious creative decision that has Kon making a film about filmmakers making a film about an actress performing in films as a way to fulfill her unrequited desires. CM

2. The Man Who Left His Will on Film - Nagisa Oshima (1970)

Nagisa Oshima is probably one of the most intellectual and didactic directors in Japanese film history. By the late 60's and early 70's Oshima's films weren't just about the narratives on screen. Theory and ideas became just as if not more important than characters and situations. His intensive exploration of political, social and cinematic theories culminated in his 1970 film "The Man Who Left His Will on Film". In terms of basic narrative the film tells of a poltical and cinematic activist who, with Bolex 16mm movie camera in hand, jumps to his death from the top of a building. A young man named Motoki (Kazuo Goto) takes the camera from the dead man's hand only to have it confiscated by police. He fights to get the camera back, does and then screens the film, the suicide's cinematic will, and tries to piece together this man's last moments. Soon the filmed footage and Motoki's existence begin to dovetail together. That's pretty much where the narrative ends and the theoretical conundrums begin - Did this man exist or not? Was he a fiction created by Oshima? (who appears on camera with his film crew), Is Motoki in fact the man who threw himself from the building? Can what we see as reality really be trusted? What role does cinema play in social and political action? "The Man Who Left His Will on Film" continues to be endlessly discussed and debated in film studies classes around the globe, something Oshima probably would be happy with. CM

1. Pastoral: To Die in the Country - Shuji Terayama (1974)

For his third feature film avant-garde poet, playwright and fillmmaker Shuji Terayama not only mined his past for inspiration, but sent a cinematic other into the middle of the story in order to right the percieved wrongs of his boyhood years. Like the nameless protagonist (played by Hiroyuki Takano) in 1974's "Pastoral: To Die in the Country" Terayama grew up in the remote Shimokita Peninsula in Aomori Prefecture near the volcanic Mt. Osore believed by the locals to be a gateway to hell. Our young protagonist grows up surrounded by these kind of superstitions and constantly watched over by the narrow-minded and unforgiving townsfolk of his village. The boy's mother is one of these. So determined to keep her son as part of this pathetic little community the boy is nearly kept a prisoner in his own home. If it weren't for the lovely young woman next door and the circus with has pitched its tent at the edge of town our protagonist would have no hope of escape. For nearly half of the film the audience tries to grip onto any kind of narrative foothold as Terayama seduces and assaults them with one surreal sequence after another, but the colour and chaos comes to an abrupt halt as the film switches to black and white and it's revealed that "pastoral" is in fact a film being directed by a filmmaker (played by Kantaro Suga) about his childhood memories and traumas. One of these traumas is his over-protective and narrow-minded mother. Through his film he hopes that either his grown self or his younger self will be able to work up the courage to kill his mother and free him from his small town roots. The remainder of "Pastoral" feature the adult filmmaker and his young self engaging in philosophical discussion about memory and free will. The filmmaker also confronts the object of his anger and fear - his mother. What starts out as a dream tale of days past quickly becomes one of the most powerful films within films in cinema history. CM


Peter Nellhaus said...

I'll have a chance to revisit Millennium Actress next weekend when it plays as part of a Japanese film series in Denver.

One film I thought was interesting because it was about the remaking of a real film was H Story.

Julian Ross said...

Great list! I'd add Ozu's I was Born But...!

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