Wednesday, April 29, 2009

R.I.P. Tadao Nakamaru

You may know him as the egg salad-addicted Shepherd Wong from Woody Allen's What's Up, Tiger Lily? (originally International Secret Police: Key of Keys). He was, in fact, a contract player for Toho studios and a fine actor, appearing in classic samurai films like Kill!, Warring Clans, Samurai Assassin and Sword of Doom. In addition, like his Toho cohorts, he played roles in a variety of genres including yakuza flicks (Fangs of the Underworld, Bloody Territories), sci-fi (The Secret of the Telegian, The H-Man), kaiju-eiga (Mechagodzilla vs. Godzilla) and war pictures (Desperado Outpost, Japan's Longest Day).

More on his death here. He will be missed.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Music for the Movies: Toru Takemitsu

This is a documentary from 1994 about the brilliant contemporary and film composer Toru Takemitsu. If you're into Japanese cinema, you probably already have an awareness of his moody, abstract and utterly atmospheric work on such films as Kwaidan, Woman of the Dunes, Samurai Spy and tons of others. He was the first to score a Japanese film with traditional Japanese instruments (before Takemitsu, all Japanese film scores were Western-style). Additionally, unlike most other film composers, Takemitsu was involved with each film project from the beginning, developing his ideas in collaboration with the director, in many cases influencing the course of the film itself.

The documentary features a treasure trove of interview footage with such luminary directors as Hiroshi Teshigahara, Masaki Kobayashi, Masahiro Shinoda and Nagisa Oshima, as well as plenty of illustrative film clips. I found a copy (VHS) online for $10. Can't beat that with a bo stick!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


Saw a couple of good kaidan-eiga (supernatural period dramas) recently. Crest of Betrayal (1994) takes the Ghost of Yotsuya story and mushes it together with the Chushingura, resulting in the wicked ronin Iemon (actually not so wicked in this version) as a member of the Loyal 47 Ronin of the Asano clan. (He was apparently hired on right before Lord Asano lost it and tried to hack up the manipulative Lord Kira; Asano's subsequent enforced seppuku has, of course, left his retainers bent on revenge.) Iemon's wife, Oiwa, is poisoned by the family of Oume, a rival for Iemon's affections, and becomes the classic long-haired, vengeful lady ghost. Kinji Fukasaku directs with style and flair. Playing Iemon is Koichi Sato, whom you might have seen in the Shinsengumi flick When the Last Sword is Drawn (2003, reviewed in my forthcoming book, Warring Clans, Flashing Blades, due out in June). Oiwa is played by the beautiful and buxom Saki Takaoka (who'll be co-starring in a film with Danny Glover this summer). And you won't want to miss cult film fave Renji Ishibashi in a bizarre turn as Oume's rich weirdo daddy.

Demon of Mt. Oe is an all-star Daiei epic from 1960 starring Raizo Ichikawa, Shintaro Katsu, Kazuo Hasegawa, Tamao Nakamura, Kojiro Hongo, Jun Tazaki and many others. Raizo plays Yorimitsu "Raiko" Minamoto, a storied samurai warrior of Japan's medieval period known for going up against supernatural foes. (Kei Sato played Raiko in the classic Kuroneko, another film drawing on the spooky folklore of the period). Demon of Mt. Oe offers a thrilling blend of samurai sword action and fanciful (and at times cheesy) special effects involving a giant spider, demonic creatures coming down from the skies, spectral sorcerers and the like. I highly recommend this forgotten gem to anyone interested in Japanese film and folklore.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Toshiro Mifune

Was digging through some old production stills and found these featuring the legendary Toshiro Mifune. Enjoy (click to enlarge).

1949's Stray Dog with Takashi Shimura (and the very hot Keiko Awaji, between).

From The Bad Sleep Well (1960). That's the great character actor Ko Nishimura on the right. Mifune's character is slowly, methodically driving him insane.

From the taut kidnap thriller High and Low (1963), my hands-down, all-time favorite Kurosawa picture.

As farmer-cum-swordsman Kikuchiyo in Seven Samurai (1954).

One year after Seven Samurai, Mifune transformed himself into a paranoid, A-bomb-obsessed old man for I Live In Fear (Takashi Shimura, right).