Summer In Japan Part One: The New Japanese Male

Posted in Movies, Retrospective, Theatrical by - July 04, 2018
Summer In Japan Part One: The New Japanese Male

During its existence, Cinematheque Ontario played Rashomon during one of its retrospectives for that movie’s director, Akira Kurosawa. The movie bewilders. One can imagine that its initial Western audience at the Venice Film Festival in 1951 felt the same way. My screening had two walkouts, two friends who walked out with their shopping bags. I understood how they felt but I eventually came around to the film. It predicts the end of historical objectivity. That’s quite the lofty message attaching itself to the conflicting stories of an alleged rapist, Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune). He runs into a samurai (Masayuki Mori) and his wife (Machiko Kyo). And the rest, as we say, is cinematic history.

Welcome to Summer in Japan. That’s TIFF’s new retrospective of three decades of that country’s classic cinema in both its Golden and Silver Ages. A time when violence, if it’s on screen, wasn’t vulgar and was actually purposeful. The retrospective reworks its previous ones that simply focused on one director or the specific gender of the characters onscreen. That said, the retrospective has its share of classics that some audiences might be seeing for the first time. And the people who have seen said classics have an excuse to revisit them.

The retrospective provides a window into its directors’ and actors’ interests. For one, there’s Kurosawa focusing on violence, abnormal psychology, and social reconstruction. His muse, Mifune, is on board with him for the most part. Kurosawa uses Mifune well, letting the latter start out playing damaged, angsty young characters like Tajomaru. Kikuchiyo, Mifune’s character in Seven Samurai, is a more benevolent version of that archetype. He is the more volatile member of the titular band of swordsmen. And they teach a farm town about both armed and unarmed defense. Eventually he will play more stoic characters like Kingo Gondo, a shoe magnate. However, rebuilding oneself always comes with threats from the outside. Here he has to hire a detective (Tatsuya Nakadai) to find his chauffeur’s kidnapped son.

Kurosawa expresses all those conflicts through simple, Miro-esque lines and composition. And speaking of subtle simplicity, the retrospective has its share of Yasujiro Ozu movies. The latter’s films are full of low level, low angle shots and counter shots capturing his characters’ domestic conversations. However, his films goes beyond the minutiae. He also has his version of the new Japanese male. While Kurosawa chose the virile Mifune, Ozu chose Chishu Ryu, statesmanlike, wiry, and empathetic. Ozu also places Ryu in one side of an inter generational conflict between older men and their younger daughters. And in three of those movies, these conflicts play out differently.

Ozu sets his films in modernity where cooperation is king. That doesn’t mean that there are outliers within the citizenry. In Tokyo Story, Ryu plays Shukishi Hirayama, who has one loving daughter, Kyoko (Kyoko Kagawa). His daughter in law Noriko (Setsuko Hara) is also on their side. However, his older adult children neglect him. The love of just one daughter and a daughter in law can’t be enough. This predicament puts critics on Shukishi’s side. But a revisit can show that his children have valid reasons for resenting him. Ozu’s deft eye for nuance is what attracts audiences to him to this day.

The retrospective also shows two more Ozu movies where Ryu plays two more fathers. In both times they’re trying to marry their daughters off. In Late Spring he plays Somiya who has a daughter, also named Noriko (Hara), recovering from physical and emotional scars. On the other hand, An Autumn Afternoon, puts Ryu in a larger canvas. He’s part of a group mean men and the women who have to manage their finances. Despite these heavy topics, Ozu keeps the tone light, making his characters and sets shine through modernity. He’s a positive chronicler of his time whose work audiences deserves to see in theatres.

TIFF’s Summer in Japan goes on for more than two glorious months, starting at July 5 and ending in September 1. For showtimes and ticket information go to https://www.tiff.net/#series=summer-in-japan. This piece is Part 1 of 2 pieces about the retrospective.

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While Paolo Kagaoan is not taking long walks in shrubbed areas, he occasionally watch movies and write about them. His credentials are as follows: he has a double major in English and Art History. This means that, for example, he will gush at the art direction in the Amityville house and will want to live there, which is a terrible idea because that house has ghosts. Follow him @paolokagaoan on Instagram but not while you're working.
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