MOVIES ON OR ABOUT JAPAN
A SHORT LIST OF THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY
(Originally sent to ISSHO and Friends Sat, 1 Feb 1997)
I'd like to play movie critic on notable movies from and on Japan. Movies that I'll talk about (in Leonard Maltin style) follow in summary.
[if you're the impatient type, click on the title to skip to the movie]:
Modern Visions of Japan:
BLACK RAIN (Ridley Scott's with Michael Douglas)
GUNG-HO (Ron Howard's with Michael Keaton and George Wendt)
RISING SUN (Connery and Snipes)
EMPIRE OF THE SUN (Spielberg)
and in passing MISHIMA, LAST EMPEROR, and KARATE KIDs
Dated Visions of Japan:
Capra's KNOW YOUR ENEMY--JAPAN
TEAHOUSE OF THE AUGUST MOON
BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI
Japan as it sees itself:
Itami Juuzo's TAMPOPO and OSOUSHIKI (The Funeral)
MARUSA NO ONNA (A Taxing Woman)
Oshima Nagisa's AI NO KORRIDA (In the Realm of the Senses) and MERRY XMAS MR LAWRENCE
Fleeting images of Japan:
DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER, M*A*S*H*, DIE HARD, BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S, BACK TO THE FUTURE 2, ROBOCOP 3
Now, while there's no accounting for taste, I'll try to describe why these movies are or are not worth seeing.
BLACK RAIN (Ridley Scott's):
Definitely worth a look, mainly because of the atmospherics (how they converted Osaka into a "Blade Runner backdrop" I'll never figure out--PLUS you can catch the last days of the GLICO Neon Sign) and the completely convincing performance of Michael Douglas as a jaded US cop raging at Japanese bureaucratic tendency. Most important of all is that they used real Japanese actors and real "cop nihongo"; actor Matsuda Yuusaku (who refused to get treatment for his stomach cancer and died shortly after filming), gives a stunning swansong performance as the psycho chinpira. Cute scene with Andy Garcia and Takakura Ken (who speaks English surprisingly well!) doing karaoke--real dynamism. I own the video.
On the other extreme is GUNG HO (Ron Howard's), which shows what happens when directors get out of their depth. ("Richie Cunningham" just can't do much more than modern dramas--cf. FAR AND AWAY). Clever: the factory name (Assan Motors--ÃÒÚY--"pressure-production Motors"), well-cast Michael Keaton (as the "can-do" interlocutor) and George Wendt (as the redneck laborer). Stupid: the movie assumes any Asian can pass for a native Japanese--and we finally get a real Japanese actor only at the end (the big boss Yamamura Sou). Low points: All the bath-starved Japanese employees bathe in a filthy river, Nisei Gedde Watanabe (Chinese exchange student "Long Duk Dong" in SIXTEEN CANDLES) clearly can't speak Japanese and has a wife that is never out of kimono. All the Americans see the light by the end--doing morning jumping jacks--for a happy ending that seems even more contrived than usual for Hollywood. Esp in the light of the recent sexual harassment cases coming out of Japanese transplants in the US and Britain. Don't see it unless you want to be annoyed at how myopic and under-researched a box-office hit can get.
In between comes RISING SUN--which mixes Crichton's purposeful research with some Hollywood image machinery. The book is far better than the movie at creating the "menace of Japanese business", but Wesley Snipes has a great scene where he gets his own back on "do-as-I-say, these-are-Japanese" Connery (who speaks pretty silly Japanese himself) when enlisting African-Americans to help ("you're-White-and-not-a-Brother-so-do-as-I-say"). Not too many "authentic Japanese actors" to give a sense of balance, but the corruption on both sides of the national fence (the bad guy turns out to be a US Senator) is fairly well-depicted. An audacious movie which could have used a better director who actually knows something about Japan (like Paul Schrader, who did a fantastic MISHIMA--the best movie on Japanese literature to come out of Hollywood--so penetrating and controversial in interpretation that it's banned in Japan), esp when Japan Inc is the theme.
And getting the Shikunsho for effort goes
to Spielberg for EMPIRE OF THE SUN. I saw this movie in a 500 yen theater
on my wedding night (No kidding! My wife had to go home to explain to her parents
that we'd just gotten married despite their wishes). Takes place in Shanghai and
a POW camp, where people learn to adapt and mentally combat their Japanese tormenters
in a much better remake of MERRY XMAS MR LAWRENCE (because it is not a vehicle for
David Bowie). They use real Japanese actors again. Lowlight--the leading kid is often
annoying as hell, and a departure from the typical Spielberg love-those-kiddies bent.
Highlights: the Japanese takeover of Shanghai, the aerial attack on the POW camp,
and the economics of prisoner life. Although the timing might have heightened my
experience (I saw it again last year, and got the same rush), it rings true, and
shows Spielberg finally coming of age after fluff like E.T. and rubbish like THE
COLOR PURPLE. The training movie for SCHINDLER'S LIST.
In passing, THE LAST EMPEROR is a European treatment of Japan's invasion of Manchuria, but focusses on China so much as to leave Japan plastic, and has the typical Bertolucci touches of women sleeping with women to show decline and depravity; more hystery than history. Also, avoid all KARATE KIDs, which have Pat Morita (who is about as "Japanese" as I am, if not less) catching flies with chopsticks and hammering nails with one blow to show martial arts and Asian mystique at its "best". I saw Part 2 with my Mormon friend in Utah just after coming home from my first visit in Japan, and the first thing she said to me was, "Did Ayako give you a tea ceremony to show you her love?" And another really stupid one has a short appearance by "Rare-as-Jackie-Kennedy-O" Mifune Toshiro called KABUTO, which has a Tokugawa-Era (?) Japanese travelling the world by boat, using a samurai sword like a ginsu knife everywhere, and seducing a coveted blond girl in this European-produced piece of trash.
DATED VISIONS OF JAPAN:
Auteur Frank Capra (IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE)'s KNOW YOUR ENEMY--JAPAN is a must-see. Only a short (30 minutes, if I recall), it makes the wartime Japanese into evil automatons in the best WAR WITHOUT MERCY (book by John Dower on dehumanizing propaganda on both sides) tradition. Uses stock footage and dramatic narration for a time capsule that affects the viewer on several levels, as the best political films should. The problem is that too much of what it says can ring true if you are in a bad mood over here!
BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, about building a bridge in Burma using POW labor, seems overlong, but it does get capivating as the characters grow on you yet everyone remains an antihero (Alec Guinness turns into a collaborator, William Holden seems slimy). Depicts the confusion of war well. Highpoint: the incentives which compel the proud Brits into working for the Japanese. Lowpoint: Sessue Hayakawa is a cartoon of a Japanese soldier who speaks Kitchen Japanese at best.
TEAHOUSE OF THE AUGUST MOON lampoons the Occupation's self-divinity, but also portrays the Okinawans in an odd light. Lowlights: a fixed sumo fight, a ridiculous seduction of the main character by a "geisha", and a general view of Japan from a military eye that belittles more than it tries to understand. Even the title sounds more Chinese than Japanese.
NOTE: I haven't seen the *movie*, but I have actually *done the play*--I played blustering commander Col. Purdy in our high school production that butchered the Japanese language and thankfully can't come back to haunt me.
JAPAN AS IT SEES ITSELF:
I'll skip Kurosawa's movies. How dare I?! Honestly, I've only liked overlong RAN and KAGEMUSHA, remaining lukewarm towards RASHOMON, while any version of SEVEN SAMURAI never really did much for me. He's become such a sensei that he's above criticism and can't take an edit. If you want somebody to gush about anything Kurosawa does, read Donald Ritchie.
My favorite Japanese director was by far Itami Juuzo--who is able to step back and see Japan with a critical (and hilarious) eye--not to mention provide great sex scenes. TAMPOPO (a ramen shop-cum-Western) has food as its motif (every scene has cooking--you get hungry watching!), with tangents that have you hanging on the edge of your seat wondering what'll happen next. Highlights--too many to mention, but the spaghetti-sucking class, the foody sex scene, and particularly the salariman's dying wife's last cooked meal have intrigued even social scientists. I own this video too.
OSHOUSHIKI (The Funeral) is also great for social studies--with parodies of elaborate Japanese customs interspersed with commentary on the money machine that makes death a perennial boom industry in any country. Highlights: video lessons on the proper language levels in aisatsu that terrify the master of ceremonies, a discussion with the cremator on how long they have to burn bodies so nobody loses face, and the touching final speech by the widow that shows that propriety should not take the place of feeling. I own this one too.
But my favorite Itami movies are the two MARUSA NO ONNA movies (A Taxing Woman and A Taxing Woman Returns). Director's wife Miyamoto Nobuko is in top form as a woman in a man's world investigating the millions of ways Japanese avoid paying their taxes. The sequel doesn't come up to the level of the original (although greed and organized crime is there depicted well--and better than in AGEMAN or MINBO NO ONNA), but the sheer ability of Itami to take a boring topic that would only be of interest to accountants and make it dynamic (*love* the soundtrack--for all those who believe that Japanese pop is bland phonocopy) is worthy of the praise reserved for Martin Scorsese or Oliver Stone.
Oshima Nagisa was another progressive director, but who's done nothing these days except trade in his anti-ANPO bent for a conservative-yukata-ojisan image on talk shows. But give him a try whenever you can. MERRY XMAS MR LAWRENCE is a psychodrama much like PAPILLON, but has too much Bowie vs Commander to really be taken as anything more than drama. Admittedly, I was a bit young when I saw it.
What got me the most was AI NO KORIDA (In the Realm of the Senses), which an X-rated film that takes place in mid-1930's Japan. A woman of the water trade takes up with a married client, and they spend the movie bonking each other. People debated whether it was art or pornography (you see The Act several times), but there is social commentary (I know, I'm saying that "I read Playboy for the articles...") and pathos to spare. I saw it at Cornell University (twice), and it was definitely a man's flick. The audience was 95% male (and over half of those *Japanese* men--they could actually see it uncensored for the first time!), and the auditorium soon filled up with the funk found in Indian or Islamic cinemas where everyone waits to see an uncensored breast! After the first full frontal nudity and sex scene, the film broke and burned on -creen (the celluloid bubbles were most off-putting), and there we were--all sitting there in the dark for several minutes with swelling anticipation. So I started whistling the "Colonel Bogey March" (otherwise known as "Comet will make you vomit" song to you bratty American schoolkids) from RIVER KWAI. Believe it or not, the whole audience of 500 took it up. A rare moment of US-Japan unity.
Mind you, the finale of KORRIDA is definitely for women--the woman does a "Bobbit" on her lover after strangling him--and it is graphic enough to make all the men clutch their ungular regions. The kicker is that this movie is based upon a *true story*--the mistress Abe Sada, who capitivated Japan then with her brazen covetousness of her lover's Member, so it is in fact a reenActment of the historical record!
FLEETING IMAGES OF JAPAN:
There are no shortage of godawful movies on Japan, so I leave out the interregnum and postwar stuff--which in the bad old days still believed that Chinese and even Westerners could play Japanese. Let's concentrate on Hollywood curios. Look at YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, where Connery as James Bond could pass as a Japanese spy after plastic surgery (yeah, right!). Look at M*A*S*H*, where vacationers from the Korean war stop by a Tokyo where people speak sing-song. How about BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S, where *Mickey Rooney* played a Japanese with buck teeth, Tojo eyeglasses, and an apartment with paper lamps he kept bumping his head against? (Audrey Hepburn even offered to pose for photos if he did her a favor.)
Things got a bit better--Nisei got properly cast as Americanized Japanese, but basically in supporting roles. George Takei in the role of Sulu in STAR TREKs (he actually hates the role for its dearth of lines). DIE HARD had James Shigeta as the transplant Japanese boss of the building (and he got killed off quick). We all know the famous joke scene of a Japanese as Michael J. Fox's boss in BACK TO THE FUTURE II. ROBOCOP 3 had the American cyborg combating a very handsome "Japanese robot" (with the strange character actor named "Mako" popping up as usual as the evil Oriental boss).
But the point is that few people in Hollywood yet know how to make a fair potboiler that would entertain anyone who knows something about Japan, despite (predictably) doing a better job with Europe.
IN SUM: My recommendations for enlightening movies that are either insightful about Japan or about Japanese stereotypes:
INSIGHTFUL: Mishima (can't see it in Japan), Black Rain, Empire of the Sun, Bridge On The River Kwai, all Itami Juuzo's movies, most Oshima Nagisas, and a few Kurosawas (IMHO).
APPROPRIATELY JADED: Know Your Enemy--Japan, Rising Sun, The Last Emperor
I'll stop there. I'm sure I've left plenty out, but again, this is a short list. I welcome comments. Enjoy your viewing.