Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Human Condition

It's a crying shame that one of the great films of world cinema, Masaki Kobayashi's immortal World War II saga The Human Condition (1959 - 61, Shochiku Studios) is unavailable on DVD. US-based Image Entertainment had previously offered this epic nine-hour, three-film opus but has shamefully let it drop from their catalog. Film enthusiasts worldwide are the poorer for it.

The Human Condition trilogy follows the trials and tribulations of pacifist and conscientious objector Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai) as he struggles to preserve his dignity and sanity amid the various horrors of enlisted service during World War II. In the first film, No Greater Love, Kaji is sent by his company to Japanese-controlled Manchuria where he witnesses the deplorable living conditions and suffering of Chinese slave laborers put under his charge. His attempts to treat these men with respect result in his being tortured, charged with conspiracy and sent to active duty. Part two, Road to Eternity, follows Kaji as he endures active duty (and the cruelty of his fellow officers) in the Imperial Japanese Army. In part three, A Soldier's Prayer, Kaji is captured and interned in a Siberian POW camp, eventually to escape into the frozen white wasteland ...

The character of Kaji is a stand-in for director Kobayashi, himself drafted in January of 1942. Unlike directors who would later become his contemporaries (like Akria Kurosawa), Kobayashi spent four years as a soldier in the hell that was WW II. The Human Condition is his passionate castigation of war and martial culture, and a revelation for anyone who thought the Japanese people supported the war en masse. Tatsuya Nakadai is devastating as Kaji, his large, soulful eyes communicating the earnest decency of his character, caught as he is in an impossible situation. Nakadai was discovered by Kobayashi, and the role of Kaji brought him to the world's attention for the stellar talent he is -- his performance is simply shattering.

The Human Condition is one of those films that should be seen by everyone. What a pity then, that it is unavailable on DVD to be seen by anyone.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Nice piece in the SF Chronicle

I grew up in San Francisco, and the SF Chronicle was always the paper in the house. So this article is particularly gratifying. I should be at my favorite SF watering hole with a bunch of friends, celebrating my good press. Meanwhile I'm buried under a snowdrift 500 miles north in Eugene, Oregon. What's wrong with this picture? When I was down in SF last month it was sunny and in the mid-50s every day. Hmm ...

Friday, January 5, 2007

Rue Morgue digs Asia Shock!

I was overjoyed to open the Jan/Feb 2007 issue of Rue Morgue Magazine and find Asia Shock in a sidebar of the feature article. I put a scan here.

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Violent Cop

I watched "Beat" Takeshi Kitano's directorial debut Violent Cop (1989) again after many years, and was amazed by how much better it was than I'd remembered. The first Beat Takeshi film I ever saw was Sonatine (1993), and I, along with many an unfortunate yakuza in that film, was completely blown away. I saw Violent Cop soon afterward, and the difference in style caused me to regard it an inferior early work; indeed, in contradistinction to the refinement, the existential stillness and Kubrickian pacing of Sonatine, Violent Cop seemed somehow tawdry and base. But I was hasty in my judgment. Now, after years and hundreds of Japanese films (including a few more from Kitano), I can say that Violent Cop is a terrific film that stands on its own merits. It is also a tribute to Kitano's abilities as a fledgling director, stepping in as he did when the original director, Kinji Fukasaku, stepped out due to scheduling conflicts (the two finally worked together a decade later on the mind-bendingly bloody ballet that is Battle Royale).

Returning to Violent Cop was like finding the source of a river; from here would flow and expand various themes and recurring imagery in subsequent features, such as the long take on the stone face, the sudden, unexpected bursts of punishing brutality, and Kitano's enigmatic film presence itself -- stoic, unpredictable, and immovable as a mountain. After Fukasaku's departure, Takeshi extensively rewrote the shooting script for Violent Cop, making it his own. For example, he added long sequences of himself walking (another recurring image in his films), his hurried, bowl-legged stride somehow menacing when colored by his character's explosive physical assaultiveness. When an interviewer later asked about the prevalence of walking sequences in his films, Kitano reportedly joked, "Because that's part of the TV cop show formula." Really, it's a way of communicating the energy of the central character; compare the walking shots of Lee Marvin as Walker in John Boorman's Point Blank (1967). Other recurring Kitano film elements include the aforementioned existential calm at the heart of the maelstrom and the appearance of a gay character, not exactly a commonplace in Japanese film.

Now I think I'll move forward from Violent Cop through the rest of Takeshi Kitano's filmography, in chronological order, to follow the development of his filmmaking style through the 90s to the point when his films start to falter in the early 2000s.