A blog about movies and filmmaking.

East and west collide in literary translations

In classics, drama on August 19, 2009 at 4:06 am

Slightly unplanned but I’ve kind of gone through a bit of a Japanese movie fest. It started last week when I saw (received via DVD, from Netflix – as I did all these movies) BIG MAN JAPAN; a movie about a family of super-men, who grow to skyscraper size to battle creatures in Japan. The movie incorporates a fun documentary feel, as we follow around this man who seems to not be very popular with the public – as we see from numerous spray-painted tags on his house, his way to the buildings where he “transforms” into Big Man Japan. It was a fun movie, until the end where there’s a strange ambiguity on what happened. Then, I believe tomorrow, I ought to receive the not Japanese movie, INFERNAL AFFAIRS – which will be famous to American audiences in the remake, done by Martin Scorsese, THE DEPARTED.

Other than that, the remaining two movies are older and considered classics, and take interesting turns in their adaptations of literary works. The first is the Akira Kurosawa movie, THRONE OF BLOOD. Starring Toshiro Mifune and Isuzu Yamada, THRONE OF BLOOD, is a Japanese take on the play of William Shakespeare (as a number of Kurosawa’s work has been) Macbeth. A story of betrayal and fate. The other is MISHIMA: A LIFE IN FOUR CHAPTERS, the Paul Shrader movie about the real life author, and Japanese celebrity, Yukio Mushima. Starring Ken Ogata, MISHIMA, is an art-film done by a westerner (Shrader), and very controversial in that it has still never been released, theatrically or on home video, in Japan.

THRONE OF BLOOD, starts with a chorus singing us into the story – apparently in the ‘Noh’ tradition of Japanese theatre – as fog whips around a desolated landscape, revealing a set of ruins and then a castle on Mount Fuji. We see a king and his council sitting around as a messenger comes riding in, exclaiming that a rebel has attacked a compatriot’s castle. Round after round of messengers come in, through a series of wipes, revealing that the traitor has been pushed back by the general Washizu and eventually has committed suicide. Then we see Washizu and his partner Miki, riding through the Spider Castle’s forest, which is sort of a maze. When they can’t find their way out, they (correctly) assume that they’ve been bewitched by an evil spirit. Which, they are lead to through thunder and lightning strikes, and creepy omniscient laughter. When they come upon the hut, the spirit prophesizes that Washizu will become the kind and while Miki will not, himself rise to the same position, he will sire a long line of kings.

After the spirit disappears, and they find their way to the castle, they soon see the start of the prophesies come to fruition. Later we see Washizu in his own home, listening to his wife (Yamada) state that the prophesies will come true and he needs to be active about taking over and fearing that Miki might reveal to others what is to come. At that same time, it’s revealed that the king is on his way, and Washizu suspects that the king has come to kill him. Instead he and his wife plot to kill the king only feet away. Again, causing the fortune coming true. Through this we see Washizu being hesitant and not wanting to listen to his wife’s goading.

Eventually, everything the evil spirit says comes true – and I don’t want to spoil everything  that happens in this fun take on a classic story, that most everyone will at least be familiar with, if not having actually read Macbeth. This is not the first movie of Kurosawa’s that I’ve seen, but I kind of feel like, because I’m actually not that intimate with Macbeth, this is the first story I wasn’t sure where it was going to go. (As opposed to the remakes of his movies, SEVEN SAMURAI and YOJIMBO, which I saw first – THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS.) I loved how he works with the frames – placing objects in the foreground and action occurring in the mid-ground with fogged out, or woody backgrounds. There’s also his use of tele-photo lenses, where he manages to flatten out the scenes, with many moments of close-ups and clearly seen backgrounds – which would more modernly be utilized with split-diopter camera techniques, or even blue-screen. The movie is actually pretty circular in the way that it’s setup, with the foggy ruins appearing at the beginning and end; as well as a number of other elements repeating as well.

The acting in the movie is also fantastic, beyond the already written about Toshiro Mifune. The biggest stand-out is Isuzu Yamada, who plays Mifune’s wife, Lady Asaji. She spends the movie, also wearing makeup similar to a mask worn in the ‘Noh’ theatre (THRONE OF BLOOD being one of the few movies that Kurosawa allowed his love of that style – more than Kabuki – shine through in his work.), and she is just plain creepy throughout. I guess she was directed to not blink on camera, and she remains very still or moves in ways that are just unsettling. In one scene, she has to go through a doorway into pure black and reappear a moment later with her arms full of a wine cask.

The movie also features a number of Kurosawa regulars – in particular in a scene with the evil spirit, we get a sort of reuniting of the seven samurai, as three of those actors reappear as warrior spirits. Minoru Chiaki, who plays Miki, also gets a great moment as a spirit, who haunts Washizu close to the end of the movie, and was another actor from SEVEN SAMURAI. Playing the evil spirit is Chieko Naniwa, who is also creepy but does a great job at playing the classical “witch” or “spirit” of Shakespeare, or Japanese stories.

Paul Shrader gained notoriety for his screenwriting including TAXI DRIVER, THE YAKUZA (A Sydney Pollack movie), RAGING BULL, THE MOSQUITO COAST and THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST; but is almost as well known for his directing with some movies, such as AMERICAN GIGOLO, the Nick Nolte and James Coburn movie AFFLICTION, and the very controversial movie DOMINION: PREQUEL TO THE EXORCIST – which was a movie he had completely shot and completed, only to then be fired and the studio hire a new director (Renny Harlin, no less) and create a whole new movie. But, it’s MISHIMA: A LIFE IN FOUR CHAPTERS, that Shrader considers his best work as a director.

The movie opens with Yukio Mishima preparing for the start of his day. He shaves, reads a newspaper over breakfast and then gets out a uniform and gets dressed. He mysteriously places a couple of knives into a briefcase along with some rope and other tools. We then cut to a scene of a young Mishima, who has been taken from his parents to live with his grandmother. She keeps him isolated and instills in him a sense of superiority over other people, which also leads us to another story that we get introduced to in the form of one of Mishima’s actual stories called, “The Temple of the Golden Palace”. This part is about a young boy who has a severe stutter, and he befriends a boy with a club foot. They use these disabilities to try and score with the ladies. The movie, as it moves through the chapters (titled, Beauty, Art, Action, and Harmony of Pen and Sword), it continues with the story of older Mishima moving through his day and ultimate fate – shot in a more realistic, documentary style; and the flashback type of segments of Mishima’s youth and upbringing, which is shot in an old-style, black and white. But, each chapter (except the last) also has scenes from stories that Mishima wrote, acted out and sort of giving us insight into where the character’s mind might have been as his life went on. Each of these stories are done as though – and are indeed – shot on theatrical sets, with one moment even revealing the style, where we see sets recede and in one shot see how the actor had to change clothes and go from one stage position to another.

As the movie continues, we see that Mishima – and his characters – move into a more conservative and old-time thought process. Wanting the return to a defied emperor, and the Samurai code – he creates his own army and trains them in the ways of Bushido (The Way of the Samurai). The climax of  the movie is seeing his, and again his characters, ultimately self-destructing and either destroying something or themselves. The controversial part of the movie, really comes from the black and white sections – when the production first started on this movie, Shrader and his producers had access and the blessing of Mishima’s widow, and a lot of access to Japanese locations – which give us a lot of insight into Mishima’s forays into homosexual encounters, body-building and confrontations with people who are supposed to be on his side of the political line. (It was with the movie’s inclusion of the homosexual stuff, that most everyone pulled out their support of the movie.)

Playing the lead role, is Ken Ogata, who is amazing as Yukio Mishima. There’s a part in the flashback/black and white section, where he appears on a younger, adult version. And I completely buy him in all the different position this character is placed in. We see him in a gay bar, dancing with another man; setting up a photoshoot, and the resulting photos and working out to try and develop his upper-body after being called “flabby”. Then there’s the final part of the movie, where we have “present day” Mishima take over a military general’s office, with sword out and attacking soldiers trying to get into the room and eventually giving a speech to the masses gathered outside.

Also, as kind of a strange contrast to the rest of the movie, all in Japanese with subtitles, is a narration in English – and given by Roy Scheider (y’know, from JAWS), although there is an alternate version with an actual narration by Ken Ogata. There are a couple of other westerner’s names attached to this movie that are kind of a strange thing to see. The names are Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, who under the banner of Coppola’s production company, American Zoetrope – before the whole enterprise caused him  to file for bankruptcy – but they apparently had to step in when the Japanese financiers walked away. But, the movie is really Shrader’s. He says in the commentary that he was originally looking to do a biopic on Hank Williams Sr. Then his sister-in-law, brought him the story of this man who was an author and poet and just a sort of pop-celebrity, who on November 25, 1970, committed seppuku in a government office. It’s a story, that I think has kind of disappeared from the mainstream culture, and is one of an artist – who might indeed be slightly crazy – giving his life for his art and beliefs. And it’s that that has power for me.

The final moment of the movie, has a freeze from on Mishima’s face, as he plunges the knife into his gut and then we cut between the other three main characters of his fictional stories and them paying for their own beliefs. It’s a powerful movie – made even moreso, because of the pulsating and droning of Philip Glass’ score.

The score, actually is the first place that I’d ever heard of this movie. And to specify, it wasn’t even having heard the music; it was in a design class in college. Where with a product design assignment, I was assigned (don’t remember how I wound up with this one) redesigning the cover to the soundtrack. I don’t have that piece anymore – and if I do, I’m not going to be showing it – but I’m sure, having now seen the movie, I totally had approached that from the wrong direction. Maybe I ought to try a new version now. Might be interesting.

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