Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Our Top Ten Films/ Filmmakers without English Subtitles

One of the favorite pastimes of Japanese film fans is discussing, debating and compiling lists of films that should be released on DVD, but for some reason never have. We at the J-Film Pow-Wow do this all the time, so for this month’s Top Ten List we thought we’d make our backroom debates public, partially in the hopes that a receptive DVD distributor might be reading. Before you read through Our Top Ten Films/ Filmmakers without English Subs there are a couple things we need to clarify though. First we at the Pow-Wow may occasionally be guilty of grabbing Chinatown bootleg DVDs, but it’s something we do with more than a certain amount of guilt. Also, we don’t condone downloading, especially if films are available through legitimate DVD distributors. So, some of you may read through this list and say “That’s available through such and such a torrent with English fan subs,” but those pirate copies just don’t count in our estimation. Also, this is our list of films or filmmakers that we think should be released on DVD. There may be other equally deserving works out there that are under-represented or totally ignored by Western audiences, but these are films that we personally think need to be seen and also would be bankable releases for any DVD distributor. So without further ado here are Our Top Ten Films/ Filmmakers without English Subs…

10. Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (Nagisa Oshima, 1969)

This past September, Asian film fans got a long-awaited treat in the form of the Criterion Collection’s new DVD of Nagisa Oshima’s "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence." That was the latest in a recent wave of Oshima releases from Criterion in an invaluable effort to make the radical director’s work more accessible to contemporary viewers. However, there are still many key works in his considerable filmography that have yet to be released in any region, one of them being 1968’s "Diary of a Shinjuku Thief." It follows a young bookstore shoplifter as he meets a salesgirl named Umeko (Rie Yokoyama) and descends with her into an odyssey of rebellion and sex in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo. The film’s trailer alone confirms its place amongst Oshima’s daring works from the same period, as it assaults the viewer with a barrage of fast editing, striking images in both black-and-white and color, scraps of dialogue and onscreen text providing such provocative statements as “REALITY DESTROYS FICTION,” “FICTION SMASHES REALITY.” Judging from reviewers’ statements and the trailer, "Diary" seems to have been adopted as a key work of the Japanese New Wave – which is not difficult to fathom, judging from its mix of street footage and staged events and its utilization of cinema less as an opportunity for a story and more as an examination of then-contemporary youth and its ideas and desires. It all looks and sounds grand – especially coming from Oshima at possibly the most fruitful phase of his career. Hopefully a somewhat decent DVD edition will emerge sooner rather than later. MSC

9. Mikio Naruse's Lightning and Mother (1952)

For one of the masters of the so-called second golden age of Japanese cinema, Mikio Naruse is still shockingly underrepresented on the DVD front. Thanks to Criterion, Region 1 has a nice transfer of a single offering from him (the sublime "When a Woman Ascends the Stairs") while Region 2 has a little more selection with two box sets (one from BFI, one from Masters of Cinema, each containing three films) that provide such notable works as "Late Chrysanthemums," "Floating Clouds" and "Flowing." That still leaves plenty of Naruse films from both the silent and sound phases of his career that have yet to be discovered by the majority of present-day viewers – and plenty of possibilities for something juicy on the horizon. Something like, say, a four- or five-film set from Criterion’s sister branch Eclipse, which has so far done an admirable job of rescuing formerly rare films from Japanese greats like Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu and Hiroshi Shimizu. Personally, I would be most eager to see not one, but two Naruse films in particular, both from 1952. One of them is "Lightning," which is based on a Fumiko Hayashi novel and features Naruse regular Hideko Takamine as a young woman who must manage a troubled relationship with her siblings while considering the prospect of marriage. The other film, "Mother," focuses on a family struggling to survive and advance in postwar Japan. Consisting of such familiar Naruse tropes as family, money, hardship, fleeting opportunity and strong female characters, both works would be valuable and representative additions for anyone seeking to see more of the filmmaker’s output. MSC

8. World Apartment Horror (Katsuhiro Otomo, 1991)

A live-action film directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, the man who brought us the anime masterpiece “Akira”, with a screenplay written by the late Satoshi Kon and starring Hiroyuki Tanaka, better known to Japanese film fans as Sabu, the director of such films as “Dangan Runner”, “Monday” and “The Blessing Bell”. I can hear all of you out there rushing to your computers to track down a DVD you can order right now. The only problem is you can’t. 1991’s “World Apartment Horror” is a blackly comic supernatural thriller that has razor sharp observations about Japanese xenophobia and it hasn’t ever been released on DVD with English subtitles. Based on the Satoshi Kon penned manga “World Apartment” tells the story of Ita (Tanaka) a yakuza thug sent to a flea-bitten Tokyo apartment block to chase out its tenants so the gang can sell the property. The only problem is that these tenants aren’t Japanese. They’re immigrants from across East and Central Asia and they just don’t seem to respond to the yakuza’s strong arm tactics like the Japanese do. Add to this that Ita’s gang already sent another yakuza into the apartment with the same mission and he went insane, driven mad either by the stubborn tenants or by a mysterious and malevolent spirit that haunts the building. Ita moves into the building and the antics that follow include katana swords, touches of slap stick comedy and voodoo. “World Apartment Horror” also addressed Japanese attitudes towards foreigners years before Shunji Iwai introduced us to the near future Tokyo of Yentown from his 1996 film “Swallowtail Butterfly”. With the recent passing of Satoshi Kon a DVD release of “World Apartment Horror” would be an absolute no-brainer hit. CM

7. Boy (Nagisa Oshima, 1969)

Nagisa Oshima’s “Boy”, made during a prolific late ‘60s/early ‘70s period, is something of an enigma in the director’s oeuvre. Humorless and by comparison restrained, it documents in stark relief the disintegration of a family of traveling grifters as they descend into amorality. Adapted from a news story, “Boy” follows a family who go from town to town and stage automobile accidents by sending their young son into traffic to be glancingly ‘hit’, his stepmother reacting with hysterics, father with rage, forcing the driver to pay to avoid involving the authorities. Boy, as he is named—all the characters are titled, denied the individuality of given names to better represent the roles they play in the scam and in life—grows emotionally distant from his day to day life, instead creating an imaginary world in which he is an alien. Father is a tyrant who seems capable of a normal life, but relishes the control he exerts over his wife and son. The short con they run provides equally short security: the family spends every penny they make in buy-off money living an extravagant sort of day-to-day, hand-to-mouth existence. This lifestyle drives stepmother and boy into a sort of amoral haze, forcing father to eventually reinforce his place as leader with brutality. That a director of Oshima’s pedigree would be denied legitimate subtitled DVD release* is troubling; work this enigmatic and potent deserves to be seen and discussed. Perhaps the recent Criterion editions of “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence”, “In the Realm of the Senses” and “Empire of Passion” will spark interest in further releases. Oshima’s lesser-known work seems ideal for an Eclipse box set at very least. EE

6. Ghost of Kasane Swamp (Nobuo Nakagawa, 1957)

San’yutei Encho wrote many tales that have been adapted into films many times over. Nobuo Nakagawa has made several of these into films, two of the most famous being "Ghost of Kasane Swamp" and "The Ghost Story of Yotsuya". Whilst both aren’t available on DVD in this hemisphere, and both could justly be placed on this list of must have’s, it was Hideo Nakata’s adaptation of the same Encho tale, "Kaidan Kasane ga Fuchi", which he made into "Kaidan" that got me really intrigued by this film. Not to mention the fact that Nakagawa is responsible for shaping the evolution of Japanese horror into what became the j-horror boom. North America needs to see more Nobuo Nakagawa. Damn it, I need to see more Nobuo Nakagawa. Besides "Jigoku", which has made more of an impact here because of the level of violence depicted in hell, most of Nakagawa’s films focus more on drama, using horror elements to enhance the story telling. Heck, that’s what they do in Jigoku too, but in a far less subtle manner. Perhaps that’s why his films don’t get much play here, because they don’t typically have the level of shock and awe that Westerners have become accustomed too with the current crop of Japanese horror films. Which is a shame, because Nakagawa has a lot to offer in terms of cinematic skill and introduction of practical special effects that culminated in his masterpiece "Jigoku". MH

5. Satan’s Sword Trilogy (Kenji Misumi, 1960-1961)

"Sword of Doom" was a life changing film for me. Not only did it introduce me to Tatsuya Nakadai and Kihachi Okamoto, but it also presented a samurai film like no other I had ever seen. Whilst the abrupt ending works for the film, and didn’t seem out of place to my young, fertile mind when I first saw it, eventually I discovered it was meant to be the first in a series of films detailing the life of the morally corrupt Ryunosuke Tsukue. The "Satan’s Sword" trilogy swaps Nakadai for the equally incredibly Raizo Ichikawa, and Okamoto for Kenji Misumi. Yes, you can order ‘remastered’ dvd’s over the internet with subtitles, but the inferior picture quality doesn’t appear to do the films justice. Damn it, this is Raizo Ichikawa and Kenji Misumi! This is the complete story of one of the most compelling fictional (or is he?) samurai characters I have ever seen. Its very surprising, given the notoriety that "Sword of Doom" has, that the trilogy has not be released here. Especially considering, again, Raizo Ichikawa and Kenji Misumi. The star of the "Shinobi No Mono" films in a trilogy directed by the guy who made many "Zatoichi" and "Lone Wolf and Cub" films. That practically sells itself! MH

4. Abashiri Prison series (Teruo Ishii, 1965-1972)

Ken Takakura is one of the biggest Japanese screen superstars of all time, but presently only a handful are available on legitimate English-subbed DVD releases, with many more on bootleg discs with subs with some rather suspect translation. You’d think that more of Takakura’s films would have made their way to North American fans through proper DVD releases during the past decade, but so far they haven’t. A good way to break this drought would be to release the films that launched Takakura’s career in the mid-1960’s – the “Abashiri Prison” series. In 1965 Ishii, best known to North American Japanese film fans for his films like “Horrors of Malformed Men” and “Bohachi Bushido Porno Jidai-geki”, directed Takakura in Japanese variation on Stanley Kramer’s 1958 Hollywood prison break film “The Defiant Ones“. Takakura portrays Shinichi Tsukibana, an inmate at the notorious Abashiri Prison in Hokkaido who is serving the last few months of his sentence. All he wants to do is keep his head down and finish up his time and go free, but he ends up on the outside sooner than he expected after being handcuffed to an escaped prisoner and he finds himself the focus of a major manhunt. Toei would release three “Abashiri Prison” films in theatres in 1965 to eager audiences who couldn’t get enough of Takaura as Tsukibana. Soon Takakura was one of Toei’s, and Japanese cinema’s, most bankable stars and the studio would end up making 15 “Abashiri Prison” films between 1965 and 1972. One would think that someone could at least release the first three films in this wildly popular series of prison break/ yakuza dramas. We’ll keep our fingers crossed. CM

3. Belladonna of Sadness (Eiichi Yamamoto, 1973)

Eiichi Yamamoto’s art house animation feature is influenced by Jules Michelet’s book "Satanism and Witchcraft", Gustav Klimt and Aubrey Beardsley and features the vocal talents of the great Tatsuya Nakadai. It features enough psychedelic imagery and visual panache to cause any animation enthusiast to smile with glee. Created by Osamu Tezuka’s Mushi Productions 2 years after he left to focus on writing comics, his intent was to create a group of films made for adults called "Animerama" (the second film in the series "Cleopatra" was the first X rated anime). "Belladonna" was the third and last film in the series, and the only one made without Tezuka’s assistance. Despite its kinship to the then emerging pinku eiga the film had little to no effect upon its release and has been relegated to bootlegs on this side of the globe. This is sad, because the animation still remains ground breaking and incredibly original. You will never see another animated film like this. But hopefully you will at least get to see it! Granted you can find it without subtitles, and I am a big advocate for absorbing the emotional impact of visually based films such as this sans subtitles, but it still helps if you have a better understanding of the plot! Especially with something like this. Yes Yamamoto is able to use his avant garde visual style to tell much of the story though action, and there are enough marvels of colour and shape to keep your mind occupied for the films running time, but you can’t feel the brunt of a films meaning and form without some of its narrative guidance. MH

2. The films of Tomu Uchida

Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi, Naruse – all of these names shine in the pantheon of Japanese cinema’s greatest filmmakers, but one name should be just as well known, that of Tomu Uchida, but sadly his works are unavailable on English-subtitled DVD. Originally contracted at Nikkatsu Uhida would eventually work in Manchuria for the Japanese run Manchukuo Film Association. In 1945 he began 9-years of captivity in a prison camp in Manchuria only to return to Japan and the director’s chair at Toei. He would go on to make some of the most critically-praised films in Japanese cinema history… at least by Japanese film critics. 1955’s “Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji” would win its star Daisuke Kato a Best Supporting Actor at that year’s Blue Ribbon Award. 1959’s kabuki and bunraku inspired “Chikamatsu’s Love in Osaka” would make Kinema Junpo’s list of the top ten films of that year. Kinema Junpo would also honour Uchida’s work again when it named his 1962 film “A Fugitive from the Past” (above) the third best Japanese film of all time behind Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” and Mikio Naruse’s “Floating Clouds”. Very high praise indeed, but still no English-subtitled releases. What makes this even more frustrating is that English-subtitled prints exist and were part of a Cinematheque Ontario retrospective of Uchida’s work that happened here in Toronto in 2007. This master filmmaker has been overlooked for two long, and only DVD releases outside of Japan will remedy this. CM

1. Teinosuke Kinugasa's A Page of Madness (1926) and Jujiro (1928)

Films should be seen and then written about, not written about, read about and then written about some more. Two works by director Teinosuke Kinugasa top our list of films that we'd love to see released with English subs for the reason that they suffer the fate of being discussed more than than they ever get screened. These two films would be Kinugasa's "A Page of Madness" (1926) and "Jujiro" (1928). “A Page of Madness” (above left) is a German Expressionist inspired descent into the bowels of an insane asylum where a janitor must watch over his wife, one of the asylum’s patients. Kinugasa followed up this visionary film with an only slightly more traditional jidai-geki tale, “Jujiro” (above right). With the alternate title “Shadows of the Yoshiwara” the film tells the story of a poor young man who becomes obsessed with a courtesan in old Edo’s notorious pleasure district, a place that Kinugasa depicts as a hallucinatory circus of depravity. “A Page of Madness” was thought to have been one of the hundreds of early Japanese films that had been lost, but a print was finally discovered in a shed in 1971. Both it and “Jujiro” are screened occasionally, but only “Jujiro” is available on a non-subtitled Japanese DVD. The legal wrangling that has kept kept these films unavailable in a non-Japanese release is a crime unto itself. You have Kinugasa's estate not wanting "A Page of Madness " tampered with, then you have the 2006 Tokyo court ruling that all films made before 1953 fall within the public domain and then you have others wanting to have films protected for 38 years after the director's death. We are by no means legal experts, but somewhere there has to be a distributor with the financial backing and the pure love of cinema who can do these two founding works of Japanese film their just due. CM


Dr. Stan Glick said...

I saw Oshima's "Boy" with English subtitles on a screener DVD when it played in a series awhile back, at Lincoln Center, I believe. It's a good film and you're right, it would be suitable in another Eclipse box set. But I can't see anyone putting it out as a single DVD release. There's simply nowhere near a reasonable demand for it alone to make it economically worthwhile. That's the world we ive in, for better or worse.

Michael E. Kerpan Jr. said...

Shinji Somai's Ohikkoshi / Moving -- the best film ever made about a child coping with the divorce of her parents. Almost like a live action Ghibli film (albeit one by Takahata, not Miyazaki).

Kazuyoshi Kumakiri's Nonko 36-sai [kaji-tetsudai] / Nonko, 36 years old (household helper) -- There are other neglected Kumakiri films out there, but this film about a past-her-prime (minor) idol who has returned (rather resentfully) to her rural home is my favorite.

Akihiko Shiota's Gaichu / Harmful Insect -- one of the best girl-gone-down-the-drain films ever. (Well, I like it a good bit more than Mouchette). Aoi Miyazaki's excellent follow-up to her superb performance in Aoyama's Eureka.

Kon Ichikawa's Kuroi junin no onna / Ten Dark Women -- My favorite Ichikawa black comedy (though there are plenty more that are sadly invisible in the West). Here a philandering cad infuriates his wife and nine girl friends -- who vow revenge.

Diego said...

"Belladonna of Sadness" is an amazing piece of art. a must-see.
never saw any other animation like that.
you can find it on the internet with english subtitles. i think it´s a bootleg DVD ISO file. don´t know if it´s online still.

Peter Nellhaus said...

Had I not been busy with the Denver Film Festival, I would have contributed something on why AnimEigo is the best American DVD label for Japanese movies.

Considering the other period films they've released starring Raizo Ichikawa, I'm sure AnimEigo will eventually get around to the "Satan's Sword Trilogy".

Cathy Munroe Hotes said...

Oshima's The Ceremony (1971) would be on my list in addition to Boy - I saw it on film once at UWO and have always wanted to see it again.

Cathy Munroe Hotes said...

p.s. add more than half of the films Kon Ichikawa ever made to the list ;)

Unknown said...

I would add Fine, Totally Fine. I know it's modern, and out in the UK, but I want my us copy, dammit :)

Also, for those who want a region free copies of the Abashiri prison films, they do have them on

keeperdesign said...

Stan, you're right: "Boy" as a standalone would be folly. I'd buy that Eclipse set in a flash, though!
Michael, "Nonko 36-sai" is an excellent suggestion--I've wanted to see that from the moment it hit my radar, but so far I've balked at the $50+ price tag for the Japanese nonsubtitled version.
Physics, agree "Fine, Totally Fine" would be great on R1, but region-free players are so readily available now that I consider Third Window releases automatic purchases. And as much as I appreciate online DVD sellers who specialize in otherwise unavailable films, there's nothing like a legit release that pays the filmmakers! I hear you, though.

truenature said...

HI, i was wondering if anyone knows of any movie theaters in the gta the play newly released japanese anime/live action movies with subtitles, the new beach movie is out in dec and gantz in jan i really want to see them in an actual theater, if anyone know of any please post some info.

Henryjones said...
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