Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Japan's Masters

Japanese Screen Classics in Honor of Mme Kawakita
July 30–August 14, 2008
Walter Reade Theater, 165 West 65th Street

Ichikawa's Conflagration (courtesy Kawakita Memorial Film Institute)
This summer has been a godsend to Japanese film fans: Film Forum’s tribute to actor Tatsuya Nakadai, Japan Society’s second annual festival of new films, Japan Cuts, and now the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s new series of two dozen classic features.

Japanese Screen Classics in Honor of Mme. Kawakita might be a mouthful, but this celebration of the lifelong passion of one of Japan’s best ambassadors of film presents 24 films, three each from eight of the most influential Japanese directors, all of whom received the prestigious Kawakita Award, named for Kashiko Kawakita–with her husband Nagamasa Kawakita, Kashiko formed a distribution company which gave needed exposure to many Japanese films at film festivals and other international platforms.

These directors are a cross-section of post-World War II Japanese filmmaking: the documentary maker Sumiko Haneda, the commercially successful Yoji Yamada, the visual stylist Seijun Suzuki, the Japanese New Wave’s Nagisa Oshima, and a quartet of legendary artists: Kaneto Shindo, Kon Ichikawa, Shohei Imamura, and Akira Kurosawa.

Shindo’s films, which cut across genre boundaries, showed off a profound chronicler of Japanese culture. Two of his classics will be shown: the dialogue-less exploration of a family living on a remote island, The Island (1962), and the chilling ghost story Onibaba (1964); in addition, one of Shindo’s last films–1995's A Last Note, the final one featuring his wife, actress Nobuko Otowa–gets a rare local screening.

Several of Kon Ichikawa’s subtle, witty dissections of Japanese society were shown during Film Forum’s recent Nakadai retro, and one of those–his brilliant adaptation of Yukio Mishima novel’s Conflagration (1958)–makes a welcome return; also appearing are two obscure works, both from the same era when he made his anti-war masterpieces The Burmese Harp and Fires on the Plain: A Full-Up Train (1957) and Her Brother (1960).

The films of Akira Kurosawa certainly need no introduction, although their breathtaking artistry and wide-ranging subject matter are still striking in their uniqueness. The trio shown during this series may not be representative of his prodigious output, but what could? There’s Stray Dog (1949), whose vivid critique of post-war Japan finds Toshiro Mifune as a naive cop whose stolen gun becomes catalyst for a murderous spree; Rashomon (1950), the key film in introducing Kurosawa’s art and Japanese film to an astonished world; and Ikiru (1952), a devastating portrait of a true saint that forever belies Kurosawa’s standard rep as a director of widescreen samurai spectaculars.

Lastly, there’s Shohei Imamura, whose films display ordinary men and women going about living their quotidian lives. Murderers, thieves, adulteresses and pornographers are shown without hypocrisy or artifice: they stink gloriously of real life.

Imamura’s first creative peak came in the mid-60s with films whose crudely descriptive titles perfectly encapsulate his concern for the full-bodied, hot-blooded characters who populated his works: of these, the passionate Intentions of Murder (1964) will be screened. Following several years of documentary making, Imamura returned to feature directing with a vengeance: the startling Vengeance Is Mine (1979) morphs from a detached serial killer study to a helter-skelter fever dream that touches on various facets of 1970's Japanese society.

Perhaps the greatest of Imamura’s bizarre but humane films is 1989's Black Rain, which shows, with exquisitely poetic restraint, the literal fallout from the bomb dropped on Hiroshima: after the explosion (shown in harrowing detail), the survivors stoically, even heroically, carry on. Blessed by the hushed, uninsistent music of Toru Takemitsu, Black Rain is an unforgettable experience that–even in this exalted cinematic class–is one film that is simply unmissable.

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