Thursday, December 15, 2011

Gangsters in Japan: House of Bamboo and Outrage

I've been taking a Japanese language course for the past few weeks, but I would have been seeing both of these movies anyway. The House of Bamboo preview played before just about every ArtsEmerson screening for a month (right after the one for Adam's Rib), and I don't know how effective it was considered back in 1955, but I found myself lapping it up. Sure, there's a bit of kitsch to it 55 years later, but even if big-budget movies made in Tokyo aren't that big a deal now, there still aren't many chances to see that Tokyo shot with old-school Cinemascope and Technicolor. The closing shot of a chase through an amusement park, with Robert Ryan and Robert Stack shooting it out across the screen, high above ground surrounded by flashing lights, is pretty killer.

I actually didn't see any previews for Outrage at all; I don't know if that's a matter of just not spending much time at Kendall Square or not seeing the right movies there, but I tend to at least find Takeshi Kitano interesting. I think the last thing I saw him in was the anniversary screening of Battle Royale at Fantasia, where he's just a tremendously over-the-top monster, a far cry from the guy who drove me nuts by seeming so vacant in Fireworks (a film I may have to revisit; I wasn't quite so smart as I tried to be at 22, and I strongly disliked it). Come to think of it, I don't recall particularly liking Brother - his last crime film was his only real attempt to penetrate the American market, with him as a cool, mostly-silent (because he didn't speak much English) enforcer brought in by a local gangster with some yakuza connections. Looking at the things he's done that I've seen, I think playing it cool does him no favors. He's at his best when he can be a little schlubby or unhinged.

As for how much those Japanese classes have helped so far: Well, I can now recognize the word "iie" (pronounced ee-ee-ay) as "no", so there's that. I haven't yet learned a lot of vocabulary, although I'm starting to get sentence structure down. I'm convinced that every language but English is spoken very fast.

Another thing I have trouble understanding: Yakuza movies in general. It's kind of weird, actually - I can follow triad movies out of Hong Kong and western mafia movies, and Japanese culture doesn't trip me up that much, but somehow this stuff leaves me scratching my head. I usually have a little notepad with me so that I can jot down names of characters in foreign movies that I may wind up reviewing, but I forgot it this time. The solution was to scarf down my popcorn extra fast, fold the bag up, and be thankful that Landmark goes for a fairly plain light-brown bag that isn't tremendously waxy on the outside:

Popcorn bag, 11 December 2011, Notes on a popcorn bag

Supposedly Kitano is working on a sequel, and let's just say that from the body count of this one, it's going to need a whole popcorn bag of its own.

House of Bamboo

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 12 November 2011 in the Paramount Theater's Bright Family Screening Room (new prints)

There's a new 35mm print of Samuel Fuller's House of Bamboo making the rounds, and while it probably won't be as widely booked as other restorations, it hopefully means that Fox has plans for a new DVD and Blu-ray release. This movie may not pop up in many lists of "essential" films, but an American crime film in post-war Japan is certainly novel enough to be worth a look.

In the mid-1950s, Japan was still struggling to get back on its feet after the war, and the U.S. Army still had a strong presence. As the movie opens, a weapons shipment is robbed, the work of a gang of former GIs led by Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan). Part of the reason they've never been brought to justice is that they kill their own wounded men. This time, one survives, though only for long enough to point the investigators - Army Captain Hanson (Brad Dexter) and Tokyo Police Inspector Kito (Sessue Hayakawa) - in the right direction. So when one Eddie Kenner (Robert Stack) gets off the boat and makes contact with the gang and Mariko (Shirley Yamaguchi), the dead man's girl, they've got no reason to doubt his bona fides.

If you were to line crime movies up and rank them by their moral ambiguity, House of Bamboo would probably be considered one of the simpler ones. Dawson and his gang are ruthless and opportunistic, while there's never much doubt about what "Spanier" will do when the chips are down, even before he and Mariko find themselves growing closer. Indeed, when the time comes that Eddie must do something a bit ruthless himself to maintain his cover, there's an especially loathsome guy there to take the fall. It's still film noir; just maybe not the most challenging form.

Full review at EFC.

Autoreiji (Outrage)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 December 2011 in Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run)

Takeshi Kitano has apparently been doing unusual stuff lately, with Glory to the Filmmaker and Takeshis apparently being considered weird for even Japan. Those projects haven't been doing quite so well, so Kitano has gone back to the material that he's best known for, making his first crime movie since Brother came out a decade ago. It seems like he's been accumulating ideas - there may be two movies' worth of story in here, which makes things a little crowded.

The setting appears to be Kobe, and the chairman of the local yakuza is displeased with a few things. Apparently Murase (Renji Ishibashi) and his family are dealing drugs where they are not supposed to, but Ikemoto (Jun Kunimura) is reluctant to take action because he and Murase became sworn brothers in prison. Thus, it falls to Ikemoto's former protege Otomo (Kitano, credited as "Beat" Takeshi), now a boss himself, to settle things. The trouble is, it's tough to hit on exactly the right response without looking weak or inciting further retribution. Things get further complicated when one of Otomo's men, Ishihara (Ryo Kase), commandeers the embassy of a small African country to set up a casino that the police can't touch.

I must admit - I often just don't get yakuza movies. I love Japanese cinema, and I think director Takeshi Kitano has done some very good movies. Mob films aren't my favorite, true, but I like some (Hong Kong's Johnnie To is especially good) and I usually can at least understand what's going on. Something like Outrage, though, has me scrambling to take notes so that I can figure out the hierarchy and obligations of the characters. It's not that complicated, really, but there's no exposition or new recruit that can serve as a yakuza-for-beginners primer. It's a little bit more confusing, perhaps, because while the two story lines are related, Kitano gives the audience a large chunk of the "retribution" story before spending some time on the embassy one and then starting to tie them together.

Full review at EFC.

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