Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Rickshaw Man

I know what you're thinking: "What, another non-shocking Asian film post? Jeez, Galloway's really lost it. I come here for gore!" Well I admit there's been a bit of mission drift lately. This blog has come to encompass my samurai film thing as well. But I usually don't write up a film unless I think it's worthwhile, so you might want to keep reading about this film, heart-warming tear-jerker that it is. I know terms like "heart-warming" and "tear-jerker" get a bad rap these days. Everyone is so hip and cynical -- it's just not cool to get emotional at the movies. But this film really warmed my heart (and jerked some tears, I'll confess) in a good way. Maybe I'm just getting sappy as I get older, but I had a great time.

The film was The Rickshaw Man (1958), a Toho production starring Toshiro Mifune. The film was directed by Toho's own epicmeister Hiroshi Inagaki (although the film is not an epic) and features a fine supporting cast including Yoshio Inaba, Bokuzen Hidari, Hideko Takamine and Chishu Ryu.

The film is set around the turn of the 20th century. Mifune does his blustery tough guy routine, a la Gonzo in Red Lion or Kikuchiyo in Seven Samurai, as the title character, Matsugoro, or Wild Matsu as he's known around town. He's a troublemaker, always getting into brawls and taking on all comers. He's a pain in the ass, but he's got a good heart. When a close friend dies, leaving a wife and small son behind, Matsu steps in to provide a male role model (although keeping a respectful distance from the widow whom he, of course, worships from afar).

We observe Matsu's life and death and it's all very sad in the end, but overall the film is suffused with such a joy in just being alive and having a shared human experience in a small Japanese town -- it's very transporting. That's what I appreciate about Japanese period pictures: You can't get much further away from contemporary 21st century America than, say, Tokugawa-era Japan. People speak of escapist entertainment -- well it doesn't get any more escapist than this in my book. So what are we waiting for? Let's bust out of this mother!

Here's a trailer.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Shintaro Katsu: The Early Years Pt. 4

Tamao Nakamura was born July 12, 1939, the daughter of famed Kabuki star Ganjiro Nakamura. Although she was brought up and trained in the world of Kabuki, young Tamao realized early on that, as a woman, she could only rise so high in her father's profession. Tamao’s initial ambition was to earn a college degree in order to broaden her options in life. She entered Kyoto Joshi Gakuen Junior High School as a freshman, but  was soon scouted by Teruo Hagiyama, a director from Shochiku studios.

In 1953, Tamao was used as a child actress in Keiko To Yukie.  After this experience, young Tamao’s dream shifted from a college career to one as an actress.  Daiei’s top male star, Kazuo Hasegawa, just happened to be Tamao's uncle, and took young Tamao under his wing at the studio. It was there that she met Shintaro Katsu. Tamao graduated from Kyoto Joshi Gakuen Junior High School and officially entered Daiei studios as a full-time actress in 1954. Her debut film, Zenigata Heiji – Yurei Daimyo, starred, surprise surprise, uncle Kazuo.  Following her debut, Tamao and Katsu started seeing each other, and before long the two were an item. 

Coincidentally, the hot young heartthrob on the Daiei lot, Raizo Ichikawa, had been a childhood friend of Tamao’s. A very interesting relationship developed between Raizo, Tamao and Shintaro at Daiei. In Tamao’s recent book, she describes how she had fallen deeply in love with Katsu fairly early on, but was too shy to tell him. To complicate matters, Tamao was also well aware that Katsu had other favorites at the studio. Tamao felt that a "new face" like herself had no business trying to compete for the attention of an exciting actor like Katsu. 

Three years passed. One day, Katsu's manager informed Tamao that Katsu was very interested in her romantically and asked if she felt the same. Her answer was a big “YES!” Tamao remembers Katsu as a beautiful man, and Katsu remembered her as a lovely and well bought up lady. He was particularly fond of her cute smile on the studio lot. Tamao’s brother was also a well-respected and popular Kabuki actor. Since Katsu performed frequently as a Nagauta musician on the Kyoto Kabuki circuit, he had been aware of Tamao prior to her arrival at Daiei. Tamao and Katsu's first major film as co-stars was Shiranui Kengyo, but this was not the two young lovers' first film together. Tamao first appeared with Katsu in the aforementioned Kan Kan Mushi wa Utau in 1955, when she was 16 years old. 

When Shintaro Katsu was 29 years old, he caught a live Kabuki performance of the play Shiranui Kengyo in Osaka at the New Kabuki Theater (Shin Kabukiza). He loved the play and decided it would make a great film vehicle for him. In pursuing his plan, he enlisted the help of director Nobuo Uno at Shochiku Studios. Shochiku had plans for a movie version of Shiranui Kengyo starring Kanzaburo Nakamura (who had starred in the stage version) but since Uno and Katsu were acquainted (through Katsu’s father), Uno agreed to shoot the film with Katsu. 

Since Shiranui Kengyo is now considered a legendary work, it's no surprise that there have emerged differing accounts of who exactly had the original idea. The studio manager and president of Daiei at the time, Masaichi Nagta, has laid claim to the inspiration, as have a host of others. 

When Shiranui Kengyo opened in September of 1960, it had an immediate impact and was a stunning success for Katsu as an actor. Katsu's performance in Shiranui Kengyo, that of a blind masseur who murders and schemes his way to the top, was so compelling that it paved the way for the character most associated with Katsu, Zatoichi (26 films and a television series).

A new type of film icon was taking shape, one whose charisma and screen presence overshadowed his lack of typical matinee idol looks. That icon was Shintaro Katsu, and his performances ushered in the dawn of a new era of the "bad dude" in Japanese cinema. Katsu had also acted in a few stage plays that fed into his emerging image, such as Shamisen Yakuza. By 1961 Katsu had made the title film in what would become his first blockbuster series, Akumyo (Bad Reputation).

As for Tamao, certain protocols had to be instituted to balance the couple's growing popularity with their deepening relationship. For one thing, the two actors had to arrange their dating in a somewhat more discrete manner. Tamao recalls her two-year courtship as a heady and exciting time. On the release of Akumyo in 1961, Katsu officially proposed to Tamao in a night club in the Gion district, Kyoto.

Well, that's it. That's as far as I got. However, you can read more about the life and times of Shintaro Katsu in my books Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves and Warring Clans, Flashing Blades.

Shintaro Katsu: The Early Years Pt. 3

In September of 1954, the alluring Kabuki performer Tamao Nakamura came to work at Daiei. She debuted in Zenigata Heiji – Yurei Daimyo, a well-known Edo-period cop series. Also, Katsu's older brother Masaru became a contract player at Shin Toho studios, taking the stage name Tomisaburo Wakayama. Soon Nakamura, Wakayama, Katsu and Ichikawa would all be big stars, their personal and professional lives intertwining for years to come.

Katsu appeared in three movies in 1954 and, due to the popularity of jidai-geki (period dramas), acted in another ten films from 1955 to 1958. One of these films, Kan Kan Mushi wa Utau (1955), also featured the stunning Tamao Nakamura. Here the future Mr. and Mrs. Katsu met and acted together for the first time.

In 1956, Katsu first appeared in color in the motion pictures Tsukigata Hanpeita: Hana no Maki and Arashi no Maki, both directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa.  Katsu continued to play minor rolls alongside then top Daiei stars Kazuo Hasegawa and Raizo Ichikawa throughout 1956-57. Then in 1958, at the age of 27, Katsu took a step up the movie star ladder with larger roles in Daiei’s first Vista Vision movie, Yukyou Gonin Otoko, and first all-star Cinemascope feature, Chushingura (Loyal 47 Ronin).  In contrast to his high standing in the flamboyant Nagauta/Kabuki community, Katsu’s popularity in movies at this time was still somewhat less than phenomenal.  However, he continued to work steadily, appearing in over 10 movies in 1959 alone.

With 1960 came Katsu's first leading roll in Gentaro Bune, directed by Kunio Watanabe. Katsu negotiated with Daiei to have the female lead, the wife of his protagonist character, played by Tamao Nakamura.  The two had already been in ten films since 1955, but this picture offered their first opportunity to act as a husband and wife.

While Shintaro and Tamao were by now something of an item, and Tamao was no doubt pleased with the idea of appearing as the wife of her boyfriend, she was not as enthusiastic about the project itself; Gentaro Bune was a rather low budget, black and white affair, not the kind of film an up-and-coming actress would normally jump at. Nevertheless, Tamao wound up co-starring with Katsu in the picture.

Just as Kabuki and Nagauta had kept their important relationship for centuries, so Katsu and Tamao had come together as if fated to. To the Japanese movie industry of their day, they were the ultimate movie star couple, Japan's very own Dick and Liz. They were attractive, talented, appeared in films together and embodied the glamor and excitement of the modern Japanese cinema. Throughout the years, Tamao weathered many ordeals as a result of her husband's outrageous life style, yet throughout it all she remained a loyal and loving wife, until the day of his death. Shortly thereafter she famously stated, “If I were born again, I would certainly marry Katsu again.”

Shintaro Katsu: The Early Years Pt. 2

With a movie contract with Daiei Studios in his pocket, Katsumaru was ready to carve his new screen career. However, little did he know that another great opportunity was about to come his way: In 1954 Katsumaru toured America, performing Nagauta with his father’s Kabuki troupe (along with older brother Masaru). Despite the fact Katsumaru had just signed with Daiei, father Minoru insisted he join the US tour in order to experience that great land of opportunity, America. The troupe embarked in late January and toured the USA for the better part of ten months (according to Katsu’s autobiography, Ore -- in reality, the tour terminated in June).

The first stop on the US tour was Los Angeles. Katsumaru was surprised by the enthusiastic reception he and his family received. Together with the arrival of Seven Samurai and Musashi Miyamoto that year, Japanese culture was definitely a hip ticket. While Katsu talks at length about the great experiences he had on tour in his autobiography, no articles appeared in the Japanese press about the tour; only a handful of small articles in American newspapers mentioned it.

While in Los Angeles, Katsumaru took the opportunity to visit 20th Century Fox studios. A guide showed him around the lot, and paused to point out an elegantly disheveled young actor in t-shirt and jeans. “That’s James Dean,” he said, “one of the most promising young rising stars in the industry.” Katsu later recalled Dean as having “not even combed his hair. He looked like he just woke up, just wearing jeans, a wrinkled shirt, and some slippers, I thought: that’s a movie star?!”

Nevertheless, young Katsumaru was struck by Dean’s aura of star power, as well as his decidedly rebellious persona. This was no preening matinee idol. Here was a dynamic young actor whose unique style and passionate performance would launch him to superstardom the following year in East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause. Gazing at James Dean on the Fox lot that sunny winter day in LA, something changed in Katsumaru. With just a glimpse of Dean, the 22-year-old shamisen player from Tokyo was completely inspired. In the coming years he would channel this inspiration, developing his own rebellious persona in films like The Tale of Zatoichi (Zatoichi monogatari), Bad Reputation (Akumyo) and Yakuza Soldier (Heitai Yakuza). Each of these films would spawn numerous sequels, placing them among the most beloved films series in Japanese film history.

According to Katsu’s autobiography, he returned to Japan in October of 1954. However his first film for Daiei Studios, Hana no byakko tai, was released that same month, so it’s more than likely that, as other sources have it, Katsumaru returned in June.

During this period, the Japanese film industry was dominated by six studios, namely Toho, Shin-Toho, Toei, Nikkatsu, Shochiku and Daiei. It was not uncommon for movie studios to own their own theater chains, and during the mid-50s Toei theaters began the practice of double feature releases. Soon other studios followed suit, releasing two movies at a time, a trend that created a demand for new stars. Into the void stepped the newly-dubbed Shintaro Katsu (named by Eiichi Tanaka, a pupil of Katsu’s father).

Joining young Mr. Katsu at Daiei were two more new faces, Raizo Ichikawa (a Kabuki performer from the Kansai region) and Takeshi Hanayuagi (an actor from the Shin-pa school, a modern theater at odds with the stylized traditions of Kabuki). Japanese newspapers at the time featured articles about the threesome, notable for their varied backgrounds in Nagauta, Kansai Kabuki and Shin-pa respectively.

Raizo Ichikawa, or simply Raizo (as he came to be known by legions of adoring fans), was not officially contracted with Daiei at first, but was nevertheless treated as an up-and-coming superstar, due to his dazzling good looks and reputation in Kansai Kabuki. Katsu, on the other hand, was still a raw youth and treated as such. In his autobiography, Katsu talks about the location shooting of Hana no byakko tai: “Raizo had a private car for himself, and I had to take the bus.”  During filming, Katsu apparently refused to play a dead man in one scene and had a little argument with the director (a trend that would lead to his eventual clash with Akira Kurosawa many years later). Raizo was contracted for 300,000 yen per film, while Katsu was contracted for only 30,000 yen. At that time, Daiei had no intention of making Katsu a star ...

To be continued ...

Shintaro Katsu: The Early Years Pt. 1

Years ago I attempted to write a biography of the legendary Japanese actor Shintaro Katsu (aka Zatoichi). The idea was to co-write it with my friend Tatsu Aoki, a noted jazz and traditional Japanese musician. He'd written the liner notes for some of the early Zatoichi DVD releases and is a subject matter expert in all things Katsu. Well, through no fault of Aoki-san's, the book project failed. However, I recently came across what little did get written and thought it might be of interest to readers of this blog. So with that, I give you the first installment of Shintaro Katsu: The Early Years.

Long before pop culture phenomenon Zatoichi was born to Japanese cinema, the man who gave him life, Shintaro Katsu, made his first appearance on the world stage. The year was 1931, the date November 29. His father, Minoru Okuyama, named him Toshio  (his older brother Masaru was born in 1929). Minoru was a player of shamisen (three string Japanese lute), specializing in a classical music style called Nagauta.  You may be familiar with the Japanese classical theater, Kabuki; Nagauta music was developed alongside the Kabuki theatrical tradition. 

The original form of Kabuki theater came to Kyoto in 1603, and by 1750 was an established, and very popular, entertainment among the merchant class in Edo (Tokyo). As both Kabuki and Nagauta developed, the performers and presenters formed family-oriented clans, claiming their own original styles and forms. Minoru Okuyama belonged to the Nagauta classical music family of artisans called Kineya (today they are called Kene-ie). Minoru became a senior accredited master at the age of 15 and received his performing name, Katsutoji Kineya. 

Minoru’s family lived in Fukagawa district, one of the hearts of Edo arts, but they lost their house in the great Kanto earthquake of 1923 and had to move to Chiba (near Tokyo). Minoru’s wife, Yaeko, came from a family that operated a noted cuisine house in Chiba.  She was a popular beauty in the neighborhood, and it wasn’t long before she caught Minoru’s fancy -- his house was across the street from her family’s restaurant.  Soon love flowered and the two were wed. Minoru and Yaeko were enthusiastic about their children’s artistic education, taking young Toshio and Masaru to Kabuki performances, Bunkaku puppet plays and dancing shows. After awhile Minoru brought the family back to Fukagawa.

Toshio started elementary school in 1938.  However, the boy continued to attend Kabuki performances; late nights meant he usually didn’t make it to school until noon. (In Katsu’s autobiography, he confesses that another reason for him being late to school was that he was always wetting his bed.) Young Toshio was a daddy’s boy, his father spending as much time with him as he could.  Normally the father of a traditional performing family at this time didn’t come home everyday, so it was always a treat to spend time with dad. 

Since Toshio had been exposed to Kabuki plays from the age of two, he’d developed a talent for imitating the various Kabuki stars of the day and performing for the other kids.  He started his Shamisen training quite early, at age seven, formally apprenticing to his father. In 1944, Toshio entered junior high school, but only temporarily; a U.S bombing raid on Tokyo destroyed the family home.  In September, the family moved to Nikko, just north of Tokyo. The family moved back to Tokyo in 1947. Some time after the family’s return to Tokyo, the house they’d bought caught fire and with the insurance money, they were able to build a new house behind the historic Meiji-za Theater. Also, Yaeko opened a new cuisine house called Okumura.

Once in his teens, Toshio became a full-fledged Kabuki performer playing Shamisen.  He and older brother Masaru began performing regularly and soon were making a living as professional musicians.  Toshio received the accredited name Katsumaru Kineya II, becoming an official “made man” for the Kineya family in 1951.  (Some records like Japanese Who’s Who have his official accreditation date as 1948, at the age of 17, but his autobiography places it at 1951.)

This was also the time of an important relationship in the newly-dubbed Katsumaru’s life. He was involved in a very intimate relationship with a Geisha named Shimako.  She was devoted to Katsumaru and,  according to him, played a significant role in his Shamisen development. Due to the circumstances, Katsumaru being performer and Shimako a geisha in the same circuit, the family disapproved of their relationship and eventually dissolved it.  (An entire chapter of Katsu’s autobiography is dedicated to Shimako.)

The lives of Kabuki performers in those days were usually quite busy, flashy and expensive.  A 20 year old master performer like Katsumaru got around quite a bit, and in the most expensive districts in Tokyo. He spent many an evening out with actor Ken Utsui, one of his close friends; they loved the Tokyo nightlife and did quite a bit of drinking together.

In 1953, Tamao Hayashi, a daughter of famous Kansai Kabuki actor Ganjiro Nakamura, made her film debut at Shochiku studios. Before long she would become Mrs. Shintaro Katsu, and remain so for the rest of Katsu’s life. Also in 1953, a movie actor named Haruo Tanaka encouraged Katsumaru to pursue a movie carrier, taking him to the president of Daiei Studios in Kyoto.  President Masaichi Nagata knew Katsumaru’s father well, and he arranged the camera test the same day.  A month later, Katsumaru received a letter from the studio, offering him a contract as an actor. This was his ticket movie stardom.

To be continued ...

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Red Shoes

As noted in Asia Shock, J-horror and K-horror are film genres wherein just about anything can be haunted; video cassettes, cell phones, computers, you name it. In this Korean film from 2005, guess what? It's a pair of shoes. But make no mistake, this ain't your grampa's The Red Shoes, the boring 1948 Powell/Pressburger flick about a ballerina (although the film does involve ballet -- a thematic nod). In fact, the shoes aren't even red, they're pink. They're plenty wicked, though. Rip your feet right off, they will, as well as possess you with the spirits of killers and eventually drive you insane. Pump it up!

As usual, there's a decades-old backstory that's gradually revealed over 100 minutes or so, in this case dating back to the bad old days of Japanese occupation. The main character is a single mom who may or may not have done away with her asshole husband. She lives alone with her tiny daughter in a dingy apartment across the street from a haunted subway station (where she finds the shoes and thus embarks on her harrowing journey). It's a fairly outlandish premise that nevertheless works. I had my doubts at first; things were moving pretty slowly and once or twice I considered bailing. However something about the film held me, and I found myself gradually sucked in (although the pacing is a little uneven throughout).

I would really only recommend this film to folks who are really into Asian horror. It might be a bit too bleak and/or slow for your average film goer. Still, worth a look I think.