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August 2016

52 Movies: Week 35 - Red Beard

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When I sat down to watch Red Beard, I had no intention of writing about it since this will make the fourth film by Akira Kurosawa in this series.I changed my mind. It wasn't just because I enjoyed the movie; it was because it was so unlike the Kurosawa movies that I had already seen.

It didn't start that way. As the movie opens, we see a man with topknot, kimono and sword walking into what seems a rundown village. This is a black and white movie set in the 19th century, and this scene is reminiscent of the earlier samurai movies. Soon, though, we find this is something different.

The young man, Dr. Noboru Yasumoto, has just completed his medical training and is expecting that he will soon follow in the footsteps of his very successful father. He is arriving for what he thinks is a visit at a government-run clinic in a poor suburb of Edo (Tokyo). He is surprised when he is eagerly welcomed by the doctor who has been working at the clinic for three years who can't wait to get his replacement, Dr. Yasumoto, settled in. The departing doctor gives Yasumoto a very disheartening tour of the small, inadequate facility. The waiting room is packed wall-to-wall with sick patients awaiting treatment. The current patients are lying in a room where their mats are laid out like floor tiles with no space in between. But worst of all, Yasumoto hears, is that he will be constantly watched by Dr. Kyojô Niide, Red Beard (Toshirô Mifune).

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Yasumoto is filled with resentment as he begins his internship at the clinic. He resists Dr. Niide's authority, refusing to even put aside his sword and wear the uniform of the clinic doctors. As the story progresses, however, we see his transformation through a series of encounters with the patients of the clinic, and his increasing appreciation of and respect for Red Beard.

Even before his arrival at the clinic, Yasumoto has had another disappointment when he was betrayed by his fiance, so he isn't exactly a stranger to suffering; however, in treating these indigent patients, Yasumoto comes face-to-face with suffering in away that he had never experienced before. For the first time he watches as a woman undergoes excruciatingly painful surgery without anesthetics. He sits with a man who is dying in agony. He also witnesses the death of Sahachi, a permanent resident of the hospital who spends all his time making objects to sell in order to buy things for the other patients. In Sahachi's final hours Yasumoto learns the tragic story of his life.

There is one patient who is not poor, and who is not bodily, but mentally ill. She is kept in a small house on the clinic property and watched over day and night by a female employee of the clinic. Only Red Beard is allowed to treat this patient. She is called The Mantis, and during an encounter with Yasumoto, we find out why.

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The most touching of all these vignettes it the story of Otoyo, a twelve-year-old whom Yasumoto rescues from a brothel. Otoyo has never known kindness and is completely withdrawn into her own little world until Yasumoto takes over her care. Eventually, she begins to improve and in her turn, offers help to another child in desperate straits.

Of all the Kurosawa films that I have seen, this is the most realistic. The characters and situations in Red Beard are characters and situations that are familiar to us. The acting for the most part is not exaggerated. It could very well have taken place in the United States with only a few costume and set changes. In a way it reminded me of old Dr. Kildare movies with Lew Ayres and Lionel Barrymore, although I don't really remember much about those movies and I'm sure Red Beard is much better.

Robert Reineke, the author of this very interesting website, says that in many ways Red Beard was a turning point for Kurosawa.

Reineke:

Although they likely didn’t know it at the time, Red Beard marks the end of an era. It’s the end of Kurosawa’s most productive period where he directed 23 movies in 22 years; he would end up directing only seven films over the last 28 years of his career. It’s Kurosawa’s last black and white film. It was the end of a contract with Toho Studios who was finding it increasingly difficult to fund Kurosawa’s films due to their cost since television was changing the Japanese film industry, even though Kurosawa’s films were proven money winners. And it would be Kurosawa’s last film with Toshiro Mifune.

Reineke's review of the film is very good, but replete with spoilers. I would not advise reading it before watching the movie.

The 52 Movies series has become for me an elementary education in Asian films. The more I watch these Japanese movies, the more curious I am about them, and I really wish that I could take a class in the history of Japanese film. Maybe I can find a book.

—Janet Cupo has been commenting on this blog for about as long as it's existed, and has her own excellent blog at The Three Prayers.


The Truth About Bagels

This may taste good to someone who has never eaten a biscuit.

--Novelist Lee Smith's mother, on her first bagel

From Lee Smith's memoir, Dimestore. Which I recommend.

Bagels are fine. I've eaten a good many over the years. But they aren't as good as biscuits. And really I never quite got over the fact that they look like doughnuts but aren't.


The Church...

...forgives everything more readily than an attack on truth. She knows that if a man falls, but leaves the truth unimpaired, he will find his way back again. But if he attacks the vital principle, then the sacred order of life is demolished.

--Romano Guardini, The Spirit of the Liturgy

I came to this realization long ago and it became one of my fundamental principles, in a sense preceding the doctrines of faith. But it seems a common error in our time to be unable to distinguish between the failure to live up to a principle and the denial of the principle.

 


52 Movies: Week 34 - Tokyo Story

This is a long movie in which very little happens, which as a rule is precisely not my cup of tea. But it's really good--generally considered a classic, in fact, and consistently places very high in polls of critics and filmmakers. It's by the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, and was made in 1953. I'm always a little surprised that so many good movies were being made in Japan so soon after the war.

I wrote about it once before, something over three years ago. I decided to include it in this series because it's so good, and because I've changed my view of it somewhat since then. Here's what I said then:

It's a really fine film, but it's so slow and so modest in scope and means that I couldn't help being a little impatient with it. It's widely considered to be the best work of the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, whose Late Spring I wrote about a while back. And my reaction to this one is very similar: I admired it more than I liked it, and I think much of my problem is simply cultural: the characters remained somewhat foreign-seeming to me, to a degree that prevented my feeling as engaged by them and their situations as I might have had it been a European movie (I can't really imagine it as an American one).

I had thought at the time that I might want to see it again sometime. A year or two passed and one day I noticed that it was going to be shown on Turner Classic Movies (yes, we still have that AT&T U-verse service that we hardly use--I don't want to talk about it). So I recorded it and watched it again. And this time I liked it much better. On this second viewing, I didn't feel that the characters and the style of acting were as foreign and as hard to read as they had been. It wasn't only that, though. It was also the same effect that one can experience with any art, and which I find especially frequent with music: it may just take more than one hearing or viewing or reading for it to sink in, for me to really hear or see it, to be touched by it. 

As I said in that earlier brief note, the plot could not be much simpler. An old couple, Shukichi, the husband, and Tomi, the wife,  (who are about my age)  travel from their small city (Onomichi) to visit their adult son, daughter, and daughter-in-law in Tokyo. The children are busy with their own cares: the son is a doctor, with children of his own, and the daughter runs a beauty shop. The daughter-in-law is the widow of a son who was killed in the war. Another son works in Osaka, which is on the way to (and from, obviously) Tokyo, and they visit him briefly, but I'm not sure this is even shown.

When they arrive in Tokyo, the couple find that their children don't really have time or energy to for them. Only the widowed daughter-in-law, perhaps because she is not married, or perhaps because she is just that kind of person, seems genuinely happy to see them and willing to spend time with them. In general, though, the visit is not a success, and the couple return to Onomichi. 

There is only one really significant single event, and on the assumption that you haven't seen the film I'll leave it for you to experience. I also won't give you a link to Roger Ebert's review, because it does include that information. But as I'm too busy and distracted to write a real appreciation of this film, the kind of appreciation it deserves, I'm going to quote a couple of paragraphs of Ebert on the movie's craftsmanship:

 "Tokyo Story" opens with the distant putt-putt of a ship's engine, and bittersweet music evokes a radio heard long ago and far away. There are exterior shots of a neighborhood. If we know Ozu, we know the boat will not figure in the plot, that the music will never be used to underline or comment on the emotions, that the neighborhood may be the one where the story takes place, but it doesn't matter. Ozu uses "pillow shots" like the pillow words in Japanese poetry, separating his scenes with brief, evocative images from everyday life. He likes trains, clouds, smoke, clothes hanging on a line, empty streets, small architectural details, banners blowing in the wind (he painted most of the banners in his movies himself).

His visual strategy is as simple (therefore as profound) as possible. His camera is not always precisely three feet above the floor (the eye level of a Japanese person seated on a tatami mat), but it usually is. "The reason for the low camera position," the writer Donald Richie explains, "is that it eliminates depth and makes a two-dimensional space." So we are better able to appreciate a composition because Ozu lets us notice its lines and weights and tones -- which always reflect his exact feeling about the scene.

 And I'll leave it to you to discover the richness of the simple, subtle portraits of these people which Ozu gives us. The trailer will give you some idea. It appears to be the original trailer. The film itself is visually crisper and brighter than this.

 

I now very much want to see Late Spring again. I think it may be as good or nearly so. 

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.


Dante Update

Several months ago I asked for recommendations for a Dante translation. Since then I've taken a look at Esolen, Musa, and James, and have settled on Esolen. I would have looked at Sayers, too, but it would have required inter-library loan, which I didn't want to bother with, since there seems to be general agreement that her translation is a little flaky. I may try to get hold of it at some time in the future, because I read her Inferno many years ago and thought the notes were really fine (on which there also seems to be general agreement, at least among Christian readers). 

James's translation is the one that in the pursuit of poetic vividness plays somewhat loose with the original, and eschews the heavy annotation and commentary that usually go with a translation.  It is an interesting effort, and it does seem to be lively. But I know it can't be Dante, and if I can't have Dante's poetry I want to at least have his vision and theology, for which I need the assistance of notes and commentary. Also, I wanted the Italian text, even though I don't know Italian.

Esolen and Musa seemed, at a brief look, more or less comparable poetically, so I chose Esolen because I know from various other writings of his that his commentary will be sound and insightful. 

So I picked up reading the Purgatorio with Esolen at about Canto 27. In Canto 30, where Dante encounters Beatrice, I looked at the Italian on the facing page, and saw

Guardaci ben! Ben son, ben son Beatrice.
(Look at me well! I'm Beatrice, I am she.)

And even though I only have a rough idea of what that should sound like, it gave me a thrill, and I think I heard a few notes of the real Dante there. It made me wonder if I could possibly learn enough Italian in a short time to read along in the original with the translation. 


52 Movies: Week 33 - Kwaidan

Kwaidan is a 1964 Japanese anthology film by director Masaki Kobayashi, based on four Japanese folk tales as transcribed by late 19th century American writer Lafcadio Hearn. Hearn stayed in Japan after a visit there in 1890, taking a Japanese bride and assuming the name Koizumi Yakumo, the name by which he is still primarily known in Japan. The title, pronounced Ki-dan, (with the ‘w’ silent) comes from a Japanese word meaning “strange stories” or “weird tales.” Although only two of the four are technically “ghost stories,” the film has the reputation of being one of the best ghost films ever made. It won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes in 1965 and was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar that same year.

When it was filmed it was at that time the most expensive Japanese movie ever. Almost the whole thing was shot in a Nissan automobile warehouse, a former airplane hangar, because the studio buildings were not big enough to hold the huge, hand-made and hand-painted sets. The film thus seldom looks “real,” but this is intentional. According to those who have commented on the film, Kobayashi was trying for a semi-artificial, stylized look that has roots in Japanese art and theatre, creating a world that walks the line between realistic and fantastic.

What is almost immediately striking about the film is the use of colors. They are not only phenomenally rich and deep, but they are used in such a way as to give the whole endeavor an otherworldly quality. This, and the highly stylized sets and backdrops strongly communicate the idea that you’re watching the playing out of myths and legends, not stories of the “real world.” This was Kobayashi’s first color film, and one gets the sense that he really wanted to go for broke and make the colors a major aspect of the film. I believe it was only his second period film as well, as his previous work had been mainly contemporary dramas.

To go along with the stylized visuals Kobayashi chose as his musical composer the great Japanese modernist Toru Takemitsu. What’s fascinating about this collaboration is that Takemitsu’s score, albeit “modern” in many ways, fits perfectly with the ancient subject matter. The music includes a large number of sound effects, some strictly musical, some not, like the breaking of sticks and the creaking of floors. It adds immeasurably to the atmosphere, but is in no way distracting or obstreperous, so that after a time it becomes so much a part of the filmic experience that you almost forget it’s there.

Kwaidan runs a bit over three hours, and includes an intermission. As it’s an anthology film, one with no framing device, it can easily be watched in sections. The first two stories run approximately 50 minutes each, the third lasts about an hour, and the final one about 20 minutes.

The opening tale, “The Black Hair,” is the probably the creepiest of the four, and comes closest to what Westerners would consider a traditional ghost story. The second one, “The Woman of the Snow,” with its marvelous snowstorm sequence and highly stylized sky full of eyes, stars and comets, is more like a dark fairy tale than a ghost story. It features Yuki-onna, a well-known figure in Japanese folklore. It’s astounding to consider the effort it must have taken both to create the sets for this sequence and to film it.

The third story, “Hoichi the Earless,” is the longest and cinematically most ambitious. It includes a full sea-battle, and two large “outdoor” sets – a monastery and a ruined palace or temple, all, it seems, filmed indoors. Its story about a renowned minstrel called upon to play and sing for a supernatural retinue has its roots in Japanese medieval history. The final short segment, “In a Cup of Tea,” concerns a man who keeps seeing another man’s face in his cup of water, and becoming increasingly unnerved in the process. It’s a somewhat comic story, with a pointedly ambiguous ending, which serves as a fine way to close the film.

As these stories are based on folktales, they do not necessarily have any sort of direct lesson or moral to impart, although two of the four involve consequences of the breaking of vows (a theme of course prominent in folktales the world over). These aren’t parables, however – there’s more Grimm here than Aesop.

The best way to enjoy Kwaidan is to let yourself be carried along by the sounds and the visuals in an impressionistic, as opposed to an analytic, way. In some ways the stories do not “make sense” in a Western manner, as we’re dealing here with the folklore of a very different culture. Above all it’s a work of true beauty, such that some critics consider it one of the most beautiful films of all time. I’m inclined to agree, as some of the imagery will stay with you long after the film is over.

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—Rob Grano has a degree in religious studies which he's put to good use working on the insurance side of the healthcare industry for the past 20 years.  He's published a number of book and music reviews, mostly in the small press, and sometimes has even gotten paid for it. He lives outside of Pittsburgh, Pa.


Liberated

One personal silver lining in the dark cloud that is the Trump candidacy is that I no longer have to try to defend the Republicans, or at least those who don't really deserve it. I've been voting almost exclusively for Republicans for a long time despite never having had the slightest inclination to register myself as one, and knowing that their principles are not entirely mine. To quote myself (again--I'm sure I've done it before), the difference between the Democrats and the Republicans for me has been the difference between an enemy and an unreliable ally. It's not possible to see Trump himself as any sort of an ally, and it's only common sense to assume the same about the segment of the party hierarchy that supports him. 

Now when some Republican politician says or does something stupid or offensive, or that can be made to seem that way by the ever-vigilant media, I don't have to cringe, or try to explain that he didn't really mean that, or put it in context, or be angered by the media bias and distortion. 

So go ahead, Democratic media. If you want to twist or exaggerate something Donald Trump says, have at it. If you want to shout for three days about some trivial remark from him, while going easy on Hillary Clinton, well, you will still have disgraced yourselves, but I won't much care. You can even make stuff up if you want to, because it probably won't be any worse than something he really said. You'll only have the constraint of limiting yourself to what people will believe he said, and that's not much of a constraint at all.

I'm like, whatever. I'll just shrug, and it's quite a relief.