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Rainy day musings on Golden Age Japanese film

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    Ugetsu

    I first got into Japanese film a few years ago when I saw an Ozu film (Tokyo Story) during a festival here in Dublin. I was, I admit, transfixed and transformed – that film literally changed my life, I looked at everything (film and life) with new eyes after seeing it. I started out on his films, then went sideways to the other greats of the period. I don’t have a lot of spare time, so nearly all my other film viewing went by the wayside – I hardly go to the cinema these days and my plans to immerse myself in other favourites – Renoir, Fellini, Ford, etc., just fall by the wayside as there is yet another Japanese Golden Age film to see.

    I haven’t by any means seen all those films available, and being in Region 2 there are plenty of major films I haven’t seen as they are only out in R1 (especially 1930’s releases), but I think I’ve had a pretty good overview over the last 2-3 years. I can’t add anything to the well known writings on the subject, but one thing has struck me – the constant tendency of some writers to rank the great directors of the Golden Age. This usually comes in the form of either talking about a film maker like Naruse ‘joining the big three’ or, even more annoyingly, those writers, probably having read David Thompsons ‘Biographical Dictionary of Film’ insis that there is a ‘big two’ – Ozu and Mizoguchi, with Kurosawa being ‘second rate’. So far as I know, Thompson has partly recanted from this in his most recent addition, but its still a comment I see repeated in various blogs and writings.

    Joan Mellon goes into a lot of detail in her book on Seven Samurai why some critics and later film makers (most notably Oshima) saw fit to criticize and denigrate Kurosawa’s work. Suffice to say, I don’t think history will see the 1960’s generation of radical film makers as being anything other than a footnote to the greater generation before them (this is not to say they didn’t do some excellent films).

    I think its fair to say that due to the work of writers like Prince and Mellon, that Kurosawa is now back on the pedestal he deserves.

    I am, it goes without saying, a huge fan of all the major film makers of the period, and I strongly dislike the tendency of many writers who feel they have to denigrate the rivals of their favored artist. And I’m also skeptical about rankings when dealing with art, even though of course we all love them really.

    Last night, I was watching one of the Mizoguchi films that I’ve overlooked so far – Lady of Musashino. Its a lovely film, but it seems to share the flaws of many of his works – a certain tendentiousness, some too easy moralizing. From my reading of the latest scholarly research into his work, it does seem that he was much more of a studio director than was always assumed (i.e. his work was regularly altered by producers) and that he was not above deliberately introducing Eastern exoticism into his films in order to fluff some western critics. While I love his more mythical films, I do think he was at his strongest with more realistic settings – his last film, Street of Shame is one of my personal favourites of the period and I think the best of that ‘women in brothels’ subgenre so popular with Japanese film makers.

    So, reluctantly, I’ve come to the conclusion that Mizoguchi is overrated by western critics. I think he is more of a type with another great film maker, Ichikawa Kon. i.e. a hugely talented and intelligent film maker who either lacked a real intellectual and artistic vision, or lacked the willpower to drive his vision past the studio system to get it on screen.

    So, in ranking terms, I think Japanese Golden Age cinema had two incomparable giants – Kurosawa and Ozu. I think of them as like the Rembrandt and Vermeer of Japanese film. One is intellectually restless, constantly wrestling with big themes, big ideas, and always stretched his technical abilities to create masterpieces for the ages. The other was more content, settled, and focused his enormous skills on extracting deep wisdom and beauty from the simplest, most mundane of objects. Neither can be placed above the other they are so different. Both deserve that overused description ‘genius’.

    Under these, I think there were three really great master film makers. Naruse, Mizoguchi and Ichikawa all produced genuine masterpieces. But each were ‘flawed’ in a way that places them below Kurosawa and Ozu. In Naruse’s case, I think he lacked a real vision – he was more a highly skilled interpreter of other peoples stories and ideas. Mizoguchi, I think, was too ready to compromise his films for either commercial or egotistical reasons. There is a certain cynicism to his films I find increasingly off-putting – his readiness to create (female) martyrs to his politics, his use of exotic cliches to raise his status in the west, the narrowness of his politics and philosophy. Ichikawa, I think, needed his muse and partner, Natto Wada, to make genuinely great films. He lacked, I think, real intellectual depth without her support.

    There are of course at least another half a dozen terrific film makers of the time – many of these are, in their own right, deserving of a lot of attention. But the sun has come out now, so I don’t have time to write more 🙂

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    Ryan

    I find myself in complete agreement with you and laugh at the fact that filmmakers such as Nagisa Oshima denigrate Kurosawa when everyone knows that the former does not have a patch on the latter.

    To be honest, I think a lot of it stems from jealousy (“Why can’t I ever make a great film like Kurosawa?”). Such directors therefore feel the need to nitpick on things that would go unnoticed were it one of their contemporaries or indeed their own work.

    I, too, consider Kurosawa and Ozu the “pioneers” if you like, of Japanese cinema. I really like Mizoguchi, Ugetsu being my personal favourite (ironically I saw Street of Shame this time last week). I also like Kon Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain and The Burmese Harp. As for Naruse, I’ve only seen When a Woman Ascends the Stairs which is generally considered his masterpiece. While I liked it, I can’t say I was blown away by it. However, I do intend to seek and discover more of his work, although it’s just so difficult to find in the UK.

    I also think Heroshi Teshigahara, perhaps coming under the second generation of Japanese film directors, deserves a mention as a gifted and talented director. I’ve only seen Woman in the Dunes, but that was one hell of a unique film that defies imagination. Can’t wait to see The Face of Another.

    I wouldn’t call Hiroshi Inagaki one of the greats, in fact far from it. I like his Samurai Trilogy but really, to me, he seems like Spielberg in that he seems to focus on Blockbuster-esque films rather than genuine, quality films. Perhaps I’m alone on this one, I don’t really know.

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    Ryan

    Oh and my favourite Ozu is Tokyo Twilight. I also believe it to be his best film. I think it’s his most underrated film, certainly his darkest, and one of the most surprising. It’s great and I think everyone should see it.

    I also love Equinox Flower, Floating Weeds, Early Spring and The End of Summer.

    Surprisingly, I didn’t like Tokyo Story; undisputedly his most acclaimed film. Then again, it was the very first Ozu film I saw and perhaps I wasn’t used to his style of slow pace, low angle shots and ethereal atmosphere back then. I also didn’t find Late Spring to be as great as many critics claimed it to be. I preferred the remake, or reworking if you prefer to call it that, Late Autumn.

    This message took me so long to write because, unlike with any other director, Ozu is the only filmmaker that confuses me. By that, I mean his film titles, his themes, locations, screenplays, cast and genres are so similar that I get confused between distinguishing what happens in one film with the next. As aforementioned, his film titles particularly confuse me. Early Spring, Late Spring, The End of Summer, An Autumn Afternoon, Late Autumn…gah!

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    Vili Maunula

    I’m not sure if I’m allowed to jump into this thread, considering that it’s really quite hot in here and there are very few clouds in the sky. But it’s also terribly humid, so maybe that qualifies me.

    To be honest, there is also another reason why I should perhaps stay out — you guys clearly have a much wider and deeper understanding of the Golden Age Japanese film makers than I do. I’d like to think that I know a little Kurosawa, but my knowledge of the others is very thin. Although I have seen a number of their films, it has in most cases been years ago, and I have simply forgotten. I sometimes find myself purchasing a film to watch it, only to realise that I have actually seen it before at some point.

    Yet, the way I conceptualise the Japanese film makers of the time is pretty much the same as Ugetsu’s. For me, there are two names above everyone else: Kurosawa and Ozu. And the way Ugetsu compares them is spot on, I could never have put it better.

    From the “New Wave” directors, I have always liked Nagisa Oshima, although I consider most of his films a little bit too impatient, too rushed, and too anxious to have an impact. I think that his and other New Wave directors’ objections against Kurosawa had to do with the way cinema tackled its subjects. They felt that Kurosawa wasn’t direct enough. I guess their aim was to generate controvesy and debate, whereas Kurosawa’s was more about making people internalise issues and think about them. They wanted to talk about politics, Kurosawa about the human condition. In my view, their works tend to have aged, while Kurosawa’s remain topical.

    I think the attacks against Kurosawa, Ozu and the others also had to do with marketing. Wasn’t the whole “New Wave” an idea coined by the Japanese studio system?

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    Ryan

    I always thought the French invented the notion of “New Wave” in cinema but maybe I’m completely wrong.

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    Vili Maunula

    Yes they did, but the Japanese “New Wave” is as far as I understand a largely unrelated development, although it did borrow its name from the French counterpart.

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    Ugetsu

    Well, the sun went back in again, so being the wimp that I am I cut my cycle short, went for a short job in the rain instead, showered, then watched Rashomon – I bought the dvd yesterday. Its been a while since I watched it and the first time I watched it on a proper high quality screen. And I was absolutely mesmerized, its far, far better than I remembered. What a film! I must go back now and see those long threads it generated.

    Ryan:

    I also think Heroshi Teshigahara, perhaps coming under the second generation of Japanese film directors, deserves a mention as a gifted and talented director.

    Absolutely agree, Woman of the Dunes is brilliant. I think that was one of the first older Japanese movies I saw – its a tragedy that he didn’t go on to make more films. Some critics have a go at it for being too openly allegorical, but I loved it. In fact, I tried to make it to where it was shot when I visited Japan 3 years ago, but I didn’t quite make it.

    Vili:

    To be honest, there is also another reason why I should perhaps stay out — you guys clearly have a much wider and deeper understanding of the Golden Age Japanese film makers than I do. I’d like to think that I know a little Kurosawa, but my knowledge of the others is very thin.

    I’m really surprised! There are some great pleasures awaiting you if you want to explore more. Neither AK nor Ozu were in working in a vacuum, there were many great films made in Japan in that period. I know we sometimes get a deceptive perspective simply because only the best are still available, the dross that was no doubt made is just gathering dust in a warehouse, but the overall quality seems to have been very high. My own personal favorites from the period are Ozu’s ‘Flavour of Green Tea over Rice’, ‘Early Spring’, and Floating Weeds’, Naruses ‘Sounds of the Mountain’ and ‘Repast’, Mizoguchi’s ‘Sansho the Bailiff’, Ugetsu Monogatari’ and ‘Street of Shame’. I love early Masumura (Kisses and Red Angel) and Shindo’s ‘Onibaba’.

    Ryan:

    Surprisingly, I didn’t like Tokyo Story; undisputedly his most acclaimed film.

    I think to appreciate Tokyo Story, and to understand exactly what the characters are going through, you have to have experienced something of what the family went through. I suspect that if I’d seen the film in my teens or 20’s it would have left me cold. But having experienced watching my parents grow old I find it inexpressibly sad and beautiful.

    I know exactly your problem with distinguishing Ozu movies in your head, I’m the same! I like to think of Ozu as being like Bob Dylan – constantly riffing around the same song, each version subtly different, but each version adding to the core lyrics and melody.

    Vili:

    Yes they did, but the Japanese “New Wave” is as far as I understand a largely unrelated development, although it did borrow its name from the French counterpart.

    I don’t know much about the historical roots of the New Wave, but when I first saw Masumuras ‘Kisses’ made in 1957 it was screamingly obvious that the French directors got much of their ideas from that film (unless they were all on the same track). Its a terrific film and still feels very fresh.

    And Oshima – I must admit this is one director who has always left me very, very cold. I find his films far too preachy, when I’ve seen his films I feel like I’m stuck in an amateur student theater night run by some particularly humourless Socialist Worker activists.

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    Jeremy

    Whatever hot is to y’all, it’s consider cold in Texas, and the existence of rain here has been compared to that of a unicorn.

    A great bit of discussion in which I have nothing to add, but do nod in agreement.

    The French new wave, Anti-classical Hollywood, Italian neorealism, Japanese nuberu bagu, etc, are just different names for the new elitist movement in cinema.

    It’s in this movement, that directors were no longer artist, but were peaking towards rock-stardom, were false images of glamor and genius were far more important then their actually work.

    So you have this active discrediting of works before them, and certainly Kurosawa for example was an easy target. By discrediting works considered great, they tried to make themselves superior, and in a position to hold judgment.

    This too protected the new wave director’s work from criticism. Anyone that didn’t see their supposed genius was quickly summed up of just not getting it, due to inferior intelligence and sophistication.

    Critics, award staff too got caught up into finding deep meaning where it didn’t exist, only so to be associated with the rock stars of the time.

    One reason these new wave works rarely surpass the works they tried to discredit was their non-stop breaking of cinematic rules. The new directors thought it necessary to break the old established principals of cinema, and so did things very different, and not for legitimated artistic reasons, but to try to position themselves outside rules all together.

    Some fine works did come about, and many new wave directors are deserving of credit. But by and large your new wave directors can be summed as cinema version of KISS. Music wasn’t all that bad, but certainly how many fireworks could go off during an concert was far more important then the actual music- but damn if try to discredit the music-you just didn’t get it.

    And much like KISS their works feel very dated nowadays, the falseness only last for so long. So, now the new wave directors often get over-shadowed by the older works they try to destroyed, and for no other reason then those older works had true artistic purpose.

    The movement has died, and now replaced with mass cinema commercialism. Where it’s doesn’t matter if the film is any good, just can you marketed in such a way, it can attract the greasy teenager with mommy’s money. whom only really interest, is that the movie has enough dark scenes, that a make out session with Suzy Rottencrotch can be had. 😛

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    Vili Maunula

    Vili: I’d like to think that I know a little Kurosawa, but my knowledge of the others is very thin.

    Ugetsu: I’m really surprised! There are some great pleasures awaiting you if you want to explore more. Neither AK nor Ozu were in working in a vacuum, there were many great films made in Japan in that period. I know we sometimes get a deceptive perspective simply because only the best are still available, the dross that was no doubt made is just gathering dust in a warehouse, but the overall quality seems to have been very high. My own personal favorites from the period are Ozu’s ‘Flavour of Green Tea over Rice’, ‘Early Spring’, and Floating Weeds’, Naruses ‘Sounds of the Mountain’ and ‘Repast’, Mizoguchi’s ‘Sansho the Bailiff’, Ugetsu Monogatari’ and ‘Street of Shame’. I love early Masumura (Kisses and Red Angel) and Shindo’s ‘Onibaba’.

    I will certainly be exploring the era at some point in the coming years. Maybe, once we are through the Kurosawa films with the Film Club, we could even turn our attention to the other Golden Age directors (and other films). To be honest, I have actually seen all but one or two of the films you mention here, but I think I was way too young back then to really understand them, and can’t really remember much.

    Jeremy: by and large your new wave directors can be summed as cinema version of KISS

    Haha! 😆

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    Ugetsu

    Jeremy:

    Some fine works did come about, and many new wave directors are deserving of credit. But by and large your new wave directors can be summed as cinema version of KISS. Music wasn’t all that bad, but certainly how many fireworks could go off during an concert was far more important then the actual music- but damn if try to discredit the music-you just didn’t get it.

    Perfect! My feelings exactly. While I don’t disagree with the idea of the film maker as ‘author’ of the work, etc., I think the lionizing of the New Wave directors was very damaging – it undermined the notion of film being a collaborative work. When you look closely at so many great directors, for many their greatest talent was in selecting the people they worked with, nothing more or less. I think the notion of the director as a sort of pop star has been hugely damaging, its brought us far too many substandard films that are nothing more than ego trips for the director.

    Vili:

    I will certainly be exploring the era at some point in the coming years. Maybe, once we are through the Kurosawa films with the Film Club, we could even turn our attention to the other Golden Age directors (and other films). To be honest, I have actually seen all but one or two of the films you mention here, but I think I was way too young back then to really understand them, and can’t really remember much.

    Thats a great idea. I quite like the idea of looking at Kurosawas work in context. I do think a lot of the film makers of the time were more mutually influenced (and competitive) than is often given credit. For one thing, I’ve a theory that Mizoguchi’s ‘Ugetsu Monogatari’ was a deliberate attempt to ‘out Rashomon’ Kurosawa.

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    cocoskyavitch

    It is warm on Crete, under the Greek sun, but a breeze beats through the trees and silences the cicadas now and again. Our students have been traveling with us for about four weeks, now, and though that’s a short time, it feels epic-we’re making something here, not unlike making a film, really-and the participants in this endeavor are crafting a view of the world from these days.

    I miss our film discussions in this forum and deeply appreciate Ugetsu’s reticence toward ranking filmmakers. And, Ugetsu’s “don’t denigrate the others” is also good advice.

    When I first began investigating Kurosawa, I had a friend say “You should see Ozu”-as if I had been happy with a McDonald’s Happy Meal when French Haute Cuisine was to be had. And, now I cannot forget that. I don’t think he has given Kurosawa a fair enough shake, and has dismissed him out of hand. What a shame!

    Ugetsu’S comparison of Ozu and Kurosawa to Vermeer and Rembrandt is spot-on. Ugetsu also said:

    “I think its fair to say that due to the work of writers like Prince and Mellon, that Kurosawa is now back on the pedestal he deserves.”

    I hope that’s true!

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    Ugetsu

    Coco:

    It is warm on Crete, under the Greek sun, but a breeze beats through the trees and silences the cicadas now and again. Our students have been traveling with us for about four weeks, now, and though that’s a short time, it feels epic-we’re making something here, not unlike making a film, really-and the participants in this endeavor are crafting a view of the world from these days.

    It sounds heavenly! I’m quite jealous.

    Coco:

    Ugetsu also said:

    “I think its fair to say that due to the work of writers like Prince and Mellon, that Kurosawa is now back on the pedestal he deserves.”

    I hope that’s true!

    Actually, I wrote that without really knowing if it is true, as I’m not exactly an insider on critical taste. Its just my sense from reading a few different sources. But I must admit that the BFI Kurosawa series leaves a bad taste in my mouth sometimes, there is a sense when I look at it of the BFI saying ‘we have to churn these out because we know there is a demand, but we couldn’t really be bothered to make a good job of it, Kurosawa isn’t worth it’. I could be entirely wrong, but that is the feeling I get when I compare the quality of the supporting material to the outstanding packages MoS produce for Mizoguchi or Tartan have done for Ozu.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Ugetsu, I haven’t seen the BFI series-only the Criterion, and those, certainly, do a fantastic job. I have a little feeling that, perhaps, Criterion is taking extra care on the Kurosawa series because the folks responsible themselves really like his work. I think, also, that Americans who can bear old films really love Kurosawa. That’s just my feeling.

    I had lamb chops again today in the square on my side of Iraklion overlooking the port, but my plans for a greek salad went awry because one of my students ordered beets instead of beef (she has a vision problem). You get them grilled and hot, and squeeze lemon all over, then salt them. The grilled/lemony/salty/fatty lamb chop is…ridiculously good. I had to take a nap after eating a big plate of them, and now, just talking about them, I want them again!

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    Ugetsu

    Coco

    I had lamb chops again today in the square on my side of Iraklion overlooking the port, but my plans for a greek salad went awry because one of my students ordered beets instead of beef (she has a vision problem). You get them grilled and hot, and squeeze lemon all over, then salt them. The grilled/lemony/salty/fatty lamb chop is…ridiculously good. I had to take a nap after eating a big plate of them, and now, just talking about them, I want them again!

    I just had lunch and now you’ve made me hungry again 😥

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    cocoskyavitch

    Reading the above posts more deeply, and thinking about post-War Japanese cinema, in particular Oshima, I am hopeful to see the film based on the Kenzaburo Ōe short story about the African-American serviceman captive in a small Japanese village. It was a deeply disturbing and startling story to read, and it left a permanent wrinkle of worry about human relationships in my brain…I would like to see what Oshima did with it as a film. His “Realm of the Senses” was really disturbing, too. It’s too bad he criticized Kurosawa.

    As for Ozu, his early silent works are masterpieces. I am shocked by their beauty and humor and pathos. On an Ozu site I have blogged at length about his work, and have benefitted from reading other’s impressions. I have come to feel as close to his films as to those of Kurosawa. Ugetsu’s list of Ozu masterworks are mine, as well. But, Ryan has a good point: Tokyo Twilight is, in many ways, Ozu’s darkest film, but, man, what a film! Also, I agree that the names of Ozu films are so confusing! I love “Floating Weeds” though it is unlike most of the other films, and I love the black and white original as well. What a pleasure to see him revisit it, color it, take some of the same players and redo it. The son in the first version becomes the sly thespian/thief in the second. Japanese cinema is one of the world’s finest., and just as there is room enough in Italian cinema for Fellini, Rossellini, de Sica…there is room enough for all the wonderful Japanese directors.

    Ryan said:

    “I wouldn’t call Hiroshi Inagaki one of the greats, in fact far from it. I like his Samurai Trilogy but really, to me, he seems like Spielberg in that he seems to focus on Blockbuster-esque films rather than genuine, quality films. Perhaps I’m alone on this one, I don’t really know. “

    Nah, Ryan, you are right on the money. Good call. I confess a guilty pleasure in watching Toshiro Mifune in color in Samurai Trilogy, but, all you need do is compare Inagaki’s version of the 47 Ronin with Mizoguchi’s to see who is the superior artist.

    Mizoguchi’s ‘Sansho the Bailiff’, Ugetsu Monogatari’ and ‘Street of Shame’ are fantastic, and Ugetsu Monogatori is one of the most haunting of all films of all.

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    Ugetsu

    Ah coco, you are lucky to have seen so many early Ozu films, I can’t seem to locate any here in Region 2 land. I’m really looking forward to being able to watch his earlier work. Funny thing, Tokyo Twilight didn’t make a huge impression on me, but its a while since I’ve seen it, so I’ll dig it out of my local dvd shop and give it another look. I do have a habit sometimes of watching films late at night when I’m too tired to really take them in, so I dismiss them unjustifiably.

    Mizoguchi’s ‘Sansho the Bailiff’, Ugetsu Monogatari’ and ‘Street of Shame’ are fantastic, and Ugetsu Monogatori is one of the most haunting of all films of all.

    I watched both Sansho and Ugetsu last week (very unusually for me, I’ve had a few free evenings to re-watch old favourites). Ugetsu is wonderful in almost every way, but Sansho disappointed me – it is one of his films that strike me as a little manipulative (yes, I know, all art is to some degree manipulative, but I prefer not to see the strings). But no doubt in a few months I’ll change my mind again.

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    Ryan

    I, too, prefer Ugetsu to Sansho the Bailiff. I find it more engaging and more interesting.

    I recently saw Masaki Kobayashi’s Samurai Rebellion which I really enjoyed. However the Criterion DVD is really disappointing with a complete lack of extras; there’s not even a DVD commentary. I also like Kwaidan but didn’t like Hara-kiri, perhaps his most well known and acclaimed work. I do believe that Kobayashi is a very interesting director though. Never have I seen a director so fascinated with capturing movement on film. I also like the composition of many of his shots.

    Speaking of composition, I also saw An Autumn Afternoon yesterday. However, the subtitles were absolutely abysmal, and half of it I couldn’t even comprehend. Nevertheless, the wonderful compositions, the warm Agfacolor, simple plot and great performances, with several of Ozu’s regulars gracing the screen, made it a worthy curtain call as his final film. I actually preferred An Autumn Afternoon to Late Spring, despite it being a remake. I really admire Ozu’s use of both composition and colour.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Ryan, I love both Kwaidan and Hara-kiri and think that the opening credits ofthe former to be one of the most seductive pleasures in cinema!

    In the latter, I find Nakadai a completely different fellow from any Kurosawa filem…that’sto me, hallmark of remarkable directio: pulling secrets out of an actor and making him new.

    Sansho is a fairy tale, so you need to take it with a grain of salt..I really loved it.

    And Autumn and Spring are great Ozu. Those early silents, though-they knock my freaking socks off!!! sockless!!!!

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