Thursday, January 31, 2013


After spending the early 1970s making documentary films detailing the displacement felt by many varied Japanese citizens following World War II (beginning with his landmark A Man Vanishes, ending with Karayuki-san, the Making of a Prostitute [both reviewed here]), innovative director Shohei Imamura returned to narrative storytelling with a film that is as cold, calculated, and irreverent as its subject, a sociopath as lost and disappointed as any of the veterans or victims Imamura profiled in his nonfiction work.

Reality is also a basis for Vengeance is Mine, though the presentation of the facts is a bit fast and loose. Masaru Baba, who also wrote the existential yakuza picture Pale Flower [review], based his screenplay on a true crime novel by Ryuzo Saki. The story follows killer Iwao Enokizu (Ken Ogata, Mishima [review]), a small-time con man who went on a five-person killing spree, eluding police for over two months. Vengeance is Mine begins after he has been arrested, and it follows a circuitous route through his confession, weaving around different points in the investigation, backtracking to cover the killer's history, and also splintering off to follow what happens to his immediate family and two women, a mother (Nijiko Kiyokawa) and daughter (Mayumi Ogawa), who run an inn where Enokizu ends up staying. There, he poses as a professor. In one of his other assumed identities, he is a lawyer. In reality, he is nothing so erudite. He is a common laborer with pretensions of something higher. Before he turns homicidal, Enokizu is actually working as a truck driver.

Two other truck drivers are his first victims. One of them he knows, the other he doesn't. He kills them without much emotion, immune to their pleas for mercy, improvising the deaths as he goes. There is a comical pause between the separate slayings when Enokizu goes to buy a knife for the second man. When faced with more than one option, he opts for the cheapest blade. No use spending more than necessary. There is a haphazard practicality to all the murders. His third victim seems to mostly be chosen because Enokizu can hide in the old man's apartment. Another macabre joke: Enokizu befriends this man, a real barrister, pretending to be visiting the jailhouse to buy property from a prisoner. The lawyer offers to help broker the transaction.

He chooses the last of his five victims for a variety of reasons: he has worn out his welcome at the inn, they've gotten too close and/or know too much, and, by the looks of it, an irresistible compulsion takes command of his faculties. Also, as Iwao himself explains it, these women, and really all the victims, posed no threat, and thus they were ideal targets. The pathology of this serial killer, pointed out both by his father (Rentaro Mikuni, Harakiri [review]) and the mother of the inn's proprietress (who in years past committed murder herself), is to only go after victims who offer no resistance and who have done him no real offense. The armchair psychology would be that a young Iwao Enokizu, having witnessed his father humiliatingly kowtow to a bullying naval officer, lost faith in Japanese authority, yet became psychologically crippled by the experience. He is impotent to attack anyone who wields any power over him, meaning that he can't even strike back at the one person whom he really wants to destroy: his old man. Father Enokizu gives him plenty of reason to want him dead. Theirs is a complicated relationship with Oedipal overtones, exacerbated by an overly close connection between the older man and his daughter-in-law (Mitsuko Baisho).

Where then is the vengeance? Enokizu's rampage is one with no obvious purpose. His victims are chosen at random, their deaths prove no point. When the cops press him, the killer has no great statement to make, he's not even really interested in explaining himself. He's ready to accept the death penalty, his run was basically an elaborate "suicide by cop" scheme. I suppose one could argue that this dishonorable death is a repudiation of the old ways, of the near-mythic image of samurai self-immolation. Yet, my interpretation is that Enokizu's intentions are both more broad and more personal, and his success is revealed in the bizarre coda at the end of Vengeance is Mine.

Picking up the story five years after the murders, Imamura shows us the father-in-law and Enokizu's wife, Kazuko, heading up a mountain to discard Enokizu's bones. He has been excommunicated from the Catholic church--a fact Imamura reminds us of by showing a group of nuns in the aerial tram going down while the elder Enokizu and Kazuko are in an opposing tram going up (ironically)-- so Iwao can no longer be buried in consecrated ground. Instead, his surviving family decides to toss his bones from the mountain. Only, every time they throw one bone out, it freezes in mid-air, hanging there, never dropping. It's a metaphor for all the damage he has done to them. He has ruined the Enokizu name, destroyed their reputations, upended their lives, ensuring that they will never be free of him. True happiness will always be denied his so-called loved ones, because they'll never escape the terrible crimes he committed.

Backing up for a second, though, it's worth considering this idea of the murder spree as an elaborate suicide. In his final conversation with his dad, the same conversation where Iwao Enokizu finds out that he has been kicked out of the church, he also rejects God. He says he has no need for God, implying that he has taken over the role of Supreme Being himself. "'Vengeance is mine,' sayeth the Lord;" except now Enokizu has claimed vengeance as his own. From an existential standpoint--though a particularly bleak reading of the philosophy--he is asserting his true essence as a man by rejecting the boundaries of outside morality, breaking common law, and accepting the consequences. Like in Albert Camus' The Stranger, when Meursault kills the Arab. Imamura's film is divided into the same basic narrative chunks as Camus' novel: during the crime and after the crime. Though where Camus splits them evenly, Imamura shuffles them up.

The way Vengeance is Mine is put together is strangely dichotomous. The film is anarchic, yet it has the exacting approach of a procedural. Imamura is quick to orient his audience in the timeline, giving us dates and catching us up on developments via title cards. There is very little abstraction, most of the film is shot with a straightforward aesthetic, it's only in the editing that things get jumbled. (The photography is by Imamura's regular cameraman Shinsaku Himeda; the cutting is by Nagisa Oshima's editor, Keiichi Uraoka.) As I suggested at the outset, though, this reflects the personality of the protagonist. The timeline is scattered, but there is also a clarity. Iwao Enokizu kills on impulse, but he is increasingly exacting.

Ken Ogata turns in an outstanding performance as Enokizu. He is charming, even when unhinged, ready with a laugh and possessed of a gift of gab. At the same time, he moves as if there is always a forcefield around him, as if he is aware of every atom darting around his immediate vicinity. Passion only ever overtakes him when he is having sex, when he indulges his animal nature. Actually, it might be that sex is another outlet to impose his will on a victim who has done him no harm, though this time one that willingly accepts his punishment (even if it's for money). It could be telling that the one person who fends him off is the mistress who, when he tries to get rough with her, threatens to cut his testicles off, sending him running.

It's also telling, and eerily apropos, that this fugitive should, at a crucial point in Vengeance is Mine, be exposed by cinema. The last piece of the puzzle is Haru, the woman from the inn, discovering the truth, and she does so during what is maybe the only romantic sequence in the film. They are on a date, out at the movies, and the newsreel shows her the real face of her companion. It makes me think of the famous story of John Dillinger being tracked down and shot while taking in the flickers with his girl. Though no cops wait for Enokizu outside the theater, he is seen by a second person, an agent of the law, whom he has lied to when he rejoins the throngs of people on the streets of Tokyo. It's the cinematic truth that Imamura has been hunting for. In the motion picture era, the camera will always see you, and the audience will be there waiting to peep on your undoing.

Note: I have now also published a follow-up review for the 2014 Blu-ray edition.

Saturday, January 19, 2013


Respected Japanese film director Nagisa Oshima died at the beginning of this week. He was 80 years old. Part of the Japanese New Wave that took over cinema in the 1960s, Oshima was known for his bold flaunting of social mores. His films detailed obsessions of all kinds, though his own main obsession was exploring sexual desire.

I was not a fan of all of his films, so deciding to review the only movie of his left in the Criterion Collection that I had not seen was a risky proposition. I didn't want what should be a tribute to end up being a hatchet job. As luck would have it, his 1978 Cannes prizewinner Empire of Passion turned out to be my favorite of what I've seen. By embracing a more typical genre story, Oshima found a nice balance between traditional storytelling and the extreme impulses that made me think some of his other work was a tad adolescent. Here he manages to walk a carefully drawn line, spinning a good yarn while also addressing his usual thematic concerns and even finding room for at least one shocking scene. This disturbing occurrence--and you'll know it when you see it--is all the more startling for its late arrival, and for standing out as the one time in the when film the auteur strikes for the eyes--both literally and metaphorically.

Empire of Passion is a ghost story set in a remote village of Japan at the very end of the 19th-century. Humble rickshaw driver Gisaburo (Takahiro Tamura) is married to Seki (Kazuko Yoshiyuki), a waitress who, despite being middle-aged, has retained her youthful beauty. They have two kids together--a toddler and a teenaged daughter, Shin (Masami Hasegawa). Shin lives away from home and, like her mother before her, works as a nanny.

Seki also has an admirer, the recently discharged soldier Toyoji (Tatsuya Fuji, Black Sun [review]; In the Realm of the Senses [review])--though she doesn't actually realize that's even a possibility until Gisaburo makes a joke about it. Up until then, she assumed the young man, who is half her age, has been visiting with treats because he is lonely and likes her company. While this is still true, there is also more to his attentions, and when a drunken Toyoji finally decides to act on his desires, Seki gives in. Unfortunately, this is not enough for the young hothead. He is jealous of Seki's relationship with her husband, and he drags Seki into a plot to kill Gisaburo so he can have Seki all to himself. They strangle the older man and toss him in a well, telling the rest of the townspeople that he has gone to work in Tokyo.

Three years pass amidst much gossip, but it's all just speculation until Gisaburo's ghost starts showing up around town. This unnerves Seki, who is undone further when a police officer (Takuzo Kawatani) comes to town to start investigating the rumors. Toyoji, whom so far the specter has avoided, tells his lover to play it cool, but there is no putting this string back on the spindle. Everything is unraveling.

Empire of Passion was shot by cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima, who also photographed Masaki Kobayashi's Kwaidan, one the spookiest and most artful Japanese horror movies ever made. While Oshima's ghost story is neither as surreal nor as lush as Kobayashi's, Miyajima captures some of the same otherworldliness. Gisaburo appears as a pale figure, painted an ashen color, undeterred by doors and walls. In one memorable scene, he forces his wife into his ghostly rickshaw and takes her on roads she doesn't recognize, claiming to have forgotten the way home. When she tries to stop him, his features disappear, and he becomes a faceless apparition reminiscent of the dream figures the old professor sees in Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries. It's a great pit stop on the way to full-blown madness.

If sexual urges compelled Seki and Toyoji to murder, then it's fitting that the crime not only makes it impossible for them to be a real couple, but also that the haunting pushes them further apart. Their celibacy is a consequence of their guilt, and the closer they get to the truth coming out, the hornier they become. Oshima has structured his story to have a delicious symmetry. Hoping to recapture happier days, Toyoji proposes role-playing where he and Seki pretend they are just as they were before they first gave in to their lust. This grotesque reset plays essentially just as it did the first time, but only now their true natures are exposed and they can't cover them up again. Like Adam and Eve eating of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge and realizing they are naked, the killers can't bring their victim back to life and rekindle their passion. They both revert to something primal, driven only by impulse, and punished for their lack of discretion.

Unsurprisingly, the judgmental folks around the killers are just as bad as the people they would condemn. All are driven by passion in some way, be it the gossipy villagers who thrive on their scandal or the police officer who resorts to torture to get confessions out of Seki and Toyoji, succumbing to barbaric tactics he previously claimed to be above. Their empire claims him and his inhibitions, no matter how pure he tries to remain, no matter how white his uniform. There is poetic justice in Oshima's scheme, then, when a chill settles over the town after their would-be king and queen are removed. The final shot of Empire of Passion is of Toyoji's brother, the village idiot, alone in the snow, fighting against some invisible presence. He carries on chasing ghosts, and he represents them all, still haunted by what happened.

And chances are, when you finish watching, it's this image that will haunt you, too.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

GODZILLA (Blu-Ray) - #594

Just about every kid in my generation--or quite possibly every generation since the film's release in 1954--has grown up with Godzilla. I remember waiting every year for the days when the local Los Angeles TV station would run nothing but Godzilla-related movies for 24 hours. They were always in chronological order, so they'd build to my favorite movies, the later ones with all the different monsters coming together for various combinations.

Of course, I had never seen the real original Godzilla. Not until the mid-1990s when a friend got the Japanese cut on laser disc. While I doubt that when I was a youngster seeing the actual Gojira as director Ishiro Honda intended it would have swayed me from thinking all things Monster Island were better than a lone prehistoric mutation squashing Tokyo Bay, I still might have had a better impression of the series overall. There is a misconception that Godzilla is silly, just a guy in a rubber suit causing mayhem; as evidenced on this Criterion edition (which also includes the American remix), the franchise began as so much more.

Honda's Godzilla is essentially a combination of the monster and disaster movie genres. Two fishing vessels and then a rescue boat are inexplicably blown up in the same part of the ocean. There are no survivors to relay what happened, but local legend from a nearby island is that there is a monster named Godzilla that lives under the sea. News of this filters back to Tokyo, and a noted zoologist, Professor Yamane (Kurosawa-regular Takashi Shimura), theorizes that Godzilla was a dormant creature awakened by underwater hydrogen bomb tests. He puts a group together to go hunting, including his daughter Emiko (Momoko Kochi) and a family friend, Ogata (Akira Takarada), who captains a salvage business.

The early part of the movie and the hunt for the monster have echoes of King Kong: a small expedition heading to a remote island in search of something that should not be, leading up to the big reveal. Then the movie shifts to Tokyo, where disbelief turns to acceptance as the mainland must prepare for the inevitability that Godzilla will come their way. It doesn't take a ton of convincing, the entire populace pretty much gets on board without batting an eye. Then again, as one weary train commuter notes, the Japanese have already been subject to plenty of inconceivable terrors, including the most significant man-made cataclysm our species has unleashed to date. After seeing cities leveled in a flash, the idea of  a big reptile rising up out of the water pales in comparison.

As the threat of the monster escalates, it's not the potential destruction that is the most compelling--for as fun as it is to watch Godzilla trample things, the age of the special effects has caused them to appear a bit toothless--but rather the question of how best to react to this menace. On one side, you have the zoologist demanding that you respect life for what it can teach us. In this case, the creature's resiliency to atomic radiation could help mankind figure out how to withstand any future nuclear warfare. The other side is basically everyone else, who would rather not die under the monster's big feet. With them, whether he likes it or not, is Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata, Samurai I and II), the scientist with the key to destroying the monster, the one who has uncovered an even more lethal process to eradicate one's enemies.

With as fresh as the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would have been for the Japanese public in the 1950s, the shots of rubble and refugees following Godzilla's first mainland rampage must have packed a real emotional wallop. These raw memories alone give good enough reason for the debate to swing toward protecting the greater good. Serizawa's invention must be put to use. At the same time, Godzilla does not serve as some kind of justification for Truman's decision to drop the hydrogen bomb on Japan; rather, it is more like a stern lecture. "This is how you should have done it," the film says. "The honorable thing is to make sure such extraordinary measures are never used again." Thus, Serizawa dies using his discovery, the "Oxygen Destroyer," preventing it from ever being replicated. Of course, it helps that he never intended his creation to be a weapon, it was just an accident. He actually started off on the right foot. And it also doesn't hurt that Serizawa is a veteran, having lost an eye in the war, rather than just some sissy pacifist hiding in a lab. He knows what combat can do.

The battle is won by science, but the battleground is mythic. I don't think I ever really considered what all was in the monster's name: Godzilla. He is the God lizard, a supreme being in dinosaur form. To battle him is to battle all of nature. Yet, an occurrence of nature that has been altered by our irresponsibility and arrogance. Any update of Godzilla would be foolish not to expand on this. Godzilla is a symbol of pollution and for conservation from long before the Green movement becoming hip.

There is an added wrinkle to the film's philosophical conflict in that Serizawa is pushed into surrendering his Oxygen Destroyer because of what is essentially a romantic betrayal. He's truly a tragic hero. Emiko is engaged to the scientist, but she's all set to throw him over for Ogata. On the day she is finally going to tell him that it's finished, Serizawa demonstrates the Oxygen Destroyer in a fish tank. He puts his trust in Emiko, believing her when she swears she won't tell anyone what he has until he can figure out how to keep it from being weaponized. After she sees what harm Godzilla can do, she betrays Serizawa again, telling Ogata. When they come to him and coerce him to do the last thing he ever wanted to do, he also finds out that there's really no wedding in his future, either. Being the hero means also not getting the girl.

It's a pretty noble death regardless. I am sure a young Michael Bay saw the closing scenes of Godzilla and, whether he remembers it or not, scribbled down some mental note that would resurface years later when he made Armageddon. The monster's defeat is actually quite gruesome--though not permanent, given the sequels. I haven't seen the second movie in a while, so no idea if they used Professor Yamane's heavy-handed warning as explanation for where Godzilla II came from. Yet, for anyone who spent the rest of Godzilla in denial, insisting it was just B-movie fun times with no political allegory, Honda hits you over the head with it upon the exit. But then, Godzilla is an 165-foot tall monster, there is nothing subtle about how he gets things done, so it's not entirely unfitting that his biopic would do the same.

Bonus sketch by Criterion's Godzilla cover artist, Bill Sienkiewicz.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934 - Blu-Ray) - #643

The old bachelor in me would like to watch Alfred Hitchcock's original The Man Who Knew Too Much as a parable about the smart-mouthed tween who learned to mind her manners. Compare the overly precocious Betty Lawrence, as played by bizarrely named Nova Pilbeam, at the start of the picture to the shaky, defeated Betty in the final scenes. The girl at the start spoils everything, from ruining sports competitions in the Swiss alps to disrupting a nice meal; the girl at the end can barely speak, she trembles so. Say what you want about foreign spies, but they know how to babysit!

The 1934 suspense picture The Man Who Knew Too Much is often cited as a bridge between early Hitchcock and the later pictures that would earn him his reputation as the Master of Suspense. It is agile and funny, with a lithe tone that readily embraces romance, screwball comedy, and, of course, mystery and danger. Hitchcock would remake the film more than 20 years later starring Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day, but this original black-and-white version stars Leslie Banks and Edna Best as Bob and Jill Lawrence, a well-to-do British couple visiting Switzerland on holiday. There, they befriended Louis (Pierre Fresnay), a charming skier who also happens to be an international spy. When Louis is unexpectedly shot while dancing with Jill, he informs her of a secret document hidden in his room. She sends Bob to fetch it, and he beats the bad guys, but they kidnap their daughter as retaliation. If mom and pop breathe a word of what they found, the girl gets it.

Back in England, the police and the secret service are eager to find out what really happened. The absence of Betty has been noted, and Louis' British contact, a man named Gibson (George Curzon), tells them in no uncertain terms that the secret they possess is the key to stopping the assassination of a visiting dignitary. Their lack of cooperation could mean an international incident.

Naturally, parental responsibility trumps global politics, and The Man Who Knew Too Much really takes off when Bob and his brother-in-law Clive (Hugh Wakefield) take to the streets to try to decipher the dead man's clue and find the girl. The trail leads them to a dentist's office and then a cult that worships the sun, and they pick up familiar faces along the way. Both a sharpshooter (Frank Vosper) and a funny German traveler (Peter Lorre) they met on holiday are lurking about. These two have been more than they seemed all along.

That's actually Hitchcock's first genius move in The Man Who Knew Too Much: for those who maybe weren't familiar with Lorre's more sinister screen persona (namely, in Fritz Lang's M), he would appear to be little more than comic relief in the Swiss scenes. Indeed, the whole opening of The Man Who Knew Too Much, right up until Louis taking a bullet, comes off as a kind of family comedy. The men banter over the woman, the little girl gets up to no good--it's fun and frolic on vacation. Hitchcock maintains this breeziness throughout the film. Bob is always ready with a quick verbal jab, and Clive serves as a comedy sidekick, going so far as to lose a tooth and be hypnotized for the good of the mission. While these gags relay a kind of stiff-upper-lip, laugh-in-the-face-of-peril resilience, Lorre's character, Abbott, slowly slips from humorous to sinister. He laughs the entire way, but the more we are witness to what tickles his macabre fancy, the more cruel he appears. He's a bad dude, through and through.

There is a feeling throughout The Man Who Knew Too Much that Hitchcock is going all out. Apparently this film followed a string of flops, and the director maybe realized he had nothing to lose by making the kind of movie he believed in. His deftness with so many different moods, and his uncanny ability to switch from one to the other without it seeming abrupt or jarring, makes for a film that is imminently entertaining, one that dares you not to look away lest you miss what happens next. At the same time, in the filmmaking itself, we can see the young Hitchcock that was influenced by the German impressionist filmmakers, using light and shadow to put the audience on edge, and forgoing any musical score and letting the sound of the action create its own rhythm. This is a film, after all, where both the music of a pocket watch and a live orchestra provide important plot mechanisms. In the final shootout, the metronymic back-and-forth of the gunfire serves as the counting down of a doomsday clock.

There is no one thing that stands out about this go-around with The Man Who Knew Too Much, no special element that makes it more memorable amongst the Hitchcock canon. It's been years since I've seen the 1956 redo, but I do know as a young viewer, I saw that one first, and then I saw the original after, before I had the faculty to understand how to process older films or even the idea that a director would remake one of his own movies for any other reason than he could do it better. Which is the superior version is certainly an arguable point. For as much as a crowd-pleaser as the remake is, complete with an Oscar-winning song from Doris Day, there is something so perfectly entertaining about its ancestor, it really shouldn't be dismissed. The 1934 The Man Who Knew Too Much has no one defining element because all the elements work in concert, aligning exactly as they should to create a whip-smart thriller that stands the test of time all on its own.

For a complete rundown on the special features, read the full review at DVD Talk. Images here were taken from promotional materials and were not taken from the Blu-Ray under review.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013


My reviews for non-Criterion movies, plus other articles, written in December.


Django Unchained. Quentin Tarantino continues to play his perfect game.

Hitchcock, the biopic of the Master of Suspense centered around the making of Psycho. With Anthony Hopkins as Hitch and Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh. It's actually quite fun.

Jack Reacher, a no-nonsense action pic from Tom Cruise and writer/director Christopher McQuarrie.

I also wrote this article for the mini Wes Anderson film festival coming to Portland for Christmas!


* 10 Years, a surprising, funny, and honest high-school reunion movie.

Alpsthe strange second feature from the director of Dogtooth.

Baron Blood, a 1972 monster/slasher movie from Mario Bava, featuring Joseph Cotten as the monster.

Beloved Infidela stick-up-the-butt portrait of F. Scott Fitzgerald's last love affair. Starring Gregory Peck and Deborah Kerr.

* Justified: The Complete Third Season, one of my favorite TV shows gets its third go-around. An Elmore Leonard adaptation starring Timothy Olyphant.

* Looper, the second time around with Rian Johnson's time travel film is just as good, if not better.

Also, be sure to read Natalie Nourigat's Looper reaction comics.

* Lord Jim, Peter O'Toole may star, but James Mason steals the show in Richard Brooks' adaptaton of a Joseph Conrad novel.

Oklahoma Crude, a quirky 1970s western with a sociopolitical twist. Starring George C. Scott and Faye Dunaway, directed by Stanley Kramer.

* The Point: The Definitive Collector's Edition, an upgrade for the Harry Nilsson-penned animated special from 1971.

The Sarah Silverman Program: Season Three. I love Sarah Silverman. 'nuff said.

Upstairs Downstairs: Season 2, the reboot of the BBC perennial is the smarter ancestor to Downton Abbey. So of course it got cancelled.

The Well-Digger's Daughter, esteemed French actor Daniel Auteuil adapts Marcel Pagnol.

To cap it off, the DVD Talk writers have voted for their best discs of 2012. Here are the results! I personally wrote the blurbs for the David Lean/Noël Coward boxed set and also Les vampires.