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Yasujiro Ozu: an artist of the unhurried world (The Guardian)

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    Vili Maunula

    Some of you may be interested in this Ozu article that The Guardian posted today in connection with BFI’s Ozu season in London.

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    Jeremy

    I quite enjoyed the article, it sums up Ozu nicely and accurately.

    The Paul Schrader book mentioned, The Transcendental Style: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer is by the way an excellent read, for those interested in the detail of characters existing without the ploys of story to create them. The book greatness, I would say is largely due to Schrader being similar in Ozu in style, and understanding fully, character creation. Schrader’s writing is simply spectacular, his directing not so much.

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    Ugetsu

    Its a very good article, but like so much of Baruma’s writing I find it an infuriating mix of brilliant scholarship and insight along with a refusal to accept any other interpretation but his own. I don’t think, for example, it is right to describe Ozu has having no politics – as Mellen correctly (I think) identified, he discreetly but unmistakably favored his older male characters – while they are often portrayed as flawed human beings, they are always proven right in the end – those who accept their wisdom always come out best in Ozu films. In a Japanese context, Ozu was unmistakably advocating a traditional family hierarchy, which as radicals always pointed out, was the foundation stone for the feudal system. The contrast with Kurosawa, and his emphasis on the individuals search for self-realization is unmistakable. The contrast between Kurosawa’s use of Setsuko Hara in his two films with her is very illuminating. Kurosawa allowed her (in No Regrets for our Youth) to portray a real woman, a real human being, while in Ozu she was always a Japanese lady – not always the same thing.

    As an aside, when I saw the latest digital transfer of Tokyo Story, the most striking thing for me was that the much improved sound over previous versions makes it clear that trains are always audible – in two of the three main domestic interior scenes, a train chugging in the distance can be clearly heard as the characters are talking. Ozu’s love of trains and his use of them as a metaphor is well known, but I hadn’t realised he took it that far.

    I know that this is stretching things therefore, but is it possible that Kurosawa was deliberately making an Ozu reference in his title of Dodeskaden? The word conjures up for me that constant chug chug sound heard constantly in Ozu films. I can’t remember who it was – maybe Richie – who said that every Japanese film maker eventually makes his ‘Ozu’ film. Given that Dodeskaden is set around the type of people that were often found in early Ozu films, is this maybe a little nod to Ozu by Kurosawa that he is making his interpretation of an Ozu?

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    Vili Maunula

    I think that also Kurosawa had a fascination for trains. We actually discussed this a little over a year ago in connection with Ikiru. The title of Dodesukaden comes from one of Yamamoto’s short stories, although Kurosawa has of course made it more prominent by making it the title of the entire film. I don’t know. Is there anything else in Dodesukaden that would make it Ozu-like?

    As for the article, I found it a good read, although it always annoys me a little when Kurosawa is labelled the samurai film director (and as the opening statement of the entire article, of all places!).

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    Ugetsu

    I think that also Kurosawa had a fascination for trains. We actually discussed this a little over a year ago in connection with Ikiru. The title of Dodesukaden comes from one of Yamamoto’s short stories, although Kurosawa has of course made it more prominent by making it the title of the entire film. I don’t know. Is there anything else in Dodesukaden that would make it Ozu-like?

    I still haven’t seen it so can’t comment! I suppose what I was thinking is that it is a fairly plotless story set among ordinary people, which is pretty much the definition of an Ozu film, although of course Kurosawa was never interested in Ozu’s type of minimalism. Kurosawa of course speaks warmly of Ozu in his autobiography – I wonder was he aware that later on Ozu made what seems to have been some quite snarky comments about his work?

    As for the article, I found it a good read, although it always annoys me a little when Kurosawa is labelled the samurai film director (and as the opening statement of the entire article, of all places!).

    I’m so used to seeing that, I didn’t even register it when reading it! I wonder of Buruma really things that or whether he just used it as a short hand, given the nature of the article. It is annoying though.

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    Ugetsu

    Oh, and in this months Sight & Sound there is an article by Tony Raines on Ozu. Interestingly, he focuses on Ozu’s western influences – he points out that nearly all his early films were virtually copies of popular western genres. I can’t remember which critic – Audie Bock maybe? – who argued that Ozu’s later films were actually only Japanese in a very self conscious way and that his earlier comedies were his real masterpieces.

    I think the relevance of all this to Kurosawa is that the more I read about Ozu and Mizoguchi the more facile the notion that Kurosawa was the more ‘western’ director becomes. While I love both Ozu and Mizoguchi (and Naruse too), I think their ‘Japaneseness’ was quite self conscious and contrived, while Kurosawa was much more confident in his identity and had a deeper and wider knowledge of both Japanese and foreign culture than either.

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    Jeremy

    I agree, Kurosawa exhibits to me as well an awareness of a world outside Japan. The encapsulated world of to whom many directors live, is the greatest limitation of their work, and the relevance of it over time. This I think true of a great deal of great directors, however the Asian directors, like Ozu for example, seem to make this potential flaw far more obvious then that of American, and European directors. I’ll spare host of reason why I think Japanese directors are most susceptible to this, but the fact that Kurosawa appears to probe at a world outside his own, is further respect for his talent.

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    cocoskyavitch

    I’m uncomfortable with Ugetsu‘s statement,

    “While I love both Ozu and Mizoguchi (and Naruse too), I think their ‘Japaneseness’ was quite self conscious and contrived

    .

    (My italics and bold) I would prefer “intentional and niche-market driven”-describing the themes, working methods and marketing rather than putting a negative spin on their work *(I LOVE Ozu and Mizoguchi!).

    While Ozu specialized in comedies in his youth (and, those early films are, indeed, masterpieces!) his late work…his “home dramas” appealed to a particular Japanese audience, and were well-received. Mizoguchi’s “theme” was also rather specific, and appealed to a particular audience…again, a Japanese one. Now that the films are more widely available, we find ready audiences for both Ozu and Mizoguchi in the West.

    I feel quite confident in saying that Kurosawa exhibited a certain “strain” or “tendency” that existed in Japan in his time-an interest in the West-its ideas, cultural masterworks (Kurosawa was a big fan of classical Western composers, remember? And he adored the great Russian writers…we will call them Western). And, his interest shows up in his films. (If Mizoguchi’s interest doesn’t show up much in his films-just remember, he is reported to have “cried” on Seeing van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” in Paris! What is it with the Japanese and van Gogh? Anyway, my point is that there is awareness and interest at that cultural moment, and Kurosawa just seems to have been more open to allowing that interest into his films. As such, he could have been called “progressive” at the time, as opposed to “traditional”.)

    Of course there is a spectrum-and from “head-in-the-sand” reactionary to “complete embrace” there are many shades of interest the West. I actually see a number of indications of awareness of the West in Ozu-but his heart is in traditional order, and his filmic great sigh of loss is for the traditional family structure. Mizoguchi is more critical. He shows us just how terrible and devastating the traditions were for an under-class of women in Japan. These “themes” are Japanese-and so I suggest the word “intentional” rather than self-conscious.

    I agree with Jeremy‘s statement,

    …”Kurosawa exhibits to me as well an awareness of a world outside Japan”.

    I think, that, at the time when Ozu, Mizoguchi and Kurosawa were working…just after the war-when Japan was most threatened by lightening-swift social changes-Kurosawa was the one who exhibited the most interest in Western ideas and influences, and whose work would have looked most “progressive” and, of course, “least Japanese”. Seems an unnecessary distinction in 2010-and explains to me why, in Kurosawa’s later career-the younger generation thumbed their collective nose at Kurosawa’s work-thinking it “old-fashioned”.

    There is another group I belong to on Yahoo that examines Ozu’s work. It has been alternately enlightening and stultifying-just now, though, our Brit-based correspondents are waxing eloquently about the Ozu film festival. Interested readers might look up: http://movies.groups.yahoo.com/group/ozu/

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    Jeremy

    Certainly Kurosawa could come off progressive, but I don’t he was at all trying to rid himself of his Japaneseness, nor open himself without question to Western influence, but merely, unlike Ozu, and Mizoguchi, willing to explore the world outside.

    Then this is really all implied by simply putting progressive in quotes 😳 I was just hoping to sound smart 😕

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    Ugetsu

    Coco

    I would prefer “intentional and niche-market driven”-describing the themes, working methods and marketing rather than putting a negative spin on their work *(I LOVE Ozu and Mizoguchi!).

    Well, I love Ozu and Mizoguchi too – but its a constant irritant to me when I read articles on Japanese cinema and the usual trope about Kurosowa being lesser to Ozu and Mizoguchi comes up. I loath this tendency for people to feel they have to put down other film makers in order to praise their favourites or, I think in the context of Japanese film writing, criticise Kurosawa as a way for the critic to show their intellectual superiority to mere film lovers. David Thompson and Dave Kerr come to mind as critics who have taken the ‘oh, real film lovers know Kurosawa isn’t as good as Ozu and Mizoguchi‘ line – although in both cases they backtracked a little when actually reviewing Kurosawa films, indicating that they were repeating a trope rather than commenting on their knowledge of the actual films.

    So forgive me if it seems like I’m acting as a Kurosawa groupie by dissing Ozu and Mizoguchi. The best of Ozu’s films completely floor me when I watch them – Tokyo Story is indisputably one of my top 5 all time favourite films. And I love Mizoguchi, although I prefer his ensemble pieces (like Street of Shame or Gion Festival Music) over his more acclaimed works like Lady of Oharu or Sansho the Bailiff, which I think are a little contrived and didactic and aimed more at winning awards than actually saying something.

    I don’t really have a criticism of Ozu or Mizoguchi as film makers. What I do have is a criticism of the way many Japanese and western critics fetishise them as somehow ‘more pure’ and ‘more artistic’ than the ‘western’ or ‘commercial’ Kurosawa. Tony Raines has I think done us a lot of favours in his research into the background of both Ozu and Mizoguchi. In the Sight and Sound article he shows quite clearly that while Ozu’s early films were wonderfully entertaining and superbly made, they were in many ways quite crude copies of western genre types he studied (there is nothing wrong with this, but it does put his work in perspective). Likewise, Mizoguchi’s later work were more overtly commercial in intention than his Western fans often assume, and also he was not above quite deliberately introducing a sort of false eastern mysticism into his films (especially Ugetsu Monogatari) with the specific aim of impressing a certain type of western film critic – he craved the same recognition that Kurosawa got. Yet it is Kurosawa who is criticised for pandering to western tastes, while Mizoguchi is portrayed as a sort of tortured artist, seeking some sort of aesthetic perfection. In fact, he was far more a studio man that Kurosawa.

    I see all three of them as being thoroughly Japanese artists, but belonging to two quite different tendencies.

    I’m no expert (to put it mildly) on Japanese art, but from my reading there has been a long tradition, going back to the 16th Century at least, of attempting to create a ‘pure’ Japanese tradition in art and design, and then inserting this tradition into the Japanese political narrative. In one respects it is an admirable tradition as it has created much of the glories of Japanese art and design. But it is also unmistakeably connected with a xenophobic view of the world as something to be rejected, something which has nothing to teach the Japanese. It is also, I feel, connected to that aspect of the Japanese mindset that Kurosawa criticised, the combination of national defensiveness combined with a cringing subservience to western approval.

    I see Ozu and Mizoguchi as very much within this tradition. When you compare Ozu’s later films to his earlier ones (and I admit I haven’t seen many of his early ones, there are none available in Region 2 dvd), he has specifically adopted techniques and subjects that can only be described as stereotypically ‘Japanese’. Both his camera and editing techniques and his subject matters became more Japanese as Japan itself recast itself as a forward looking, more western oriented country in the 1950’s. There is nothing wrong with this, but I can’t help seeing it as a deliberate attempt to foster a specifically Japanese cinema, rejecting any outside influences and as such following quite a defensive and regressive nationalistic viewpoint. Mizoguchi also adopted (from an earlier date) techniques that specifically referenced the unrolling of scrolls (his use of long pans and few edits) and of course his personal projects focus on very specifically Japanese and historic subjects. Its noticeable that of all the three film makers, he shows least approval to those characters who affect western ways. I have to say he also portrayed what I think is one of the most disturbing endings to any of the immediate post war Japanese films. In The Lady of Musashino (1951), the (very beautiful) film focuses on a typical domestic drama in a very lovely rural village on the outskirts of Tokyo. To my surprise, the very final scene moves the camera to show the grim industrial outskirts of Tokyo approaching it, and a voiceover explicitely welcomes the destruction of Musashino as it is enveloped by the tide of urbanisation, all in the name of ‘progress’. I think this represents one of the least attractive elements of the Japanese character – this tendency to worship nature while seeing it as thoroughly expendable in the name of Japanese national development. It might, of course, have been tacked on by the studio, but I can’t imagine either Kurosawa or Ozu indulging in such crude sermonising.

    Kurosawa, I think, represents another thread of Japanese art and thought. I don’t see any evidence that he thought for one moment that Japanese art is any more or less worthy than the west. He seemed to have no defensiveness, nor excessive regard for western literature, cinema, or art. To me, he simply loved it all, and happily incorporated any good ideas, be they Japanese, Russian or American into his work. I think this particular school of thought in Japan has been deliberately overlooked by both nationalistic Japanese critics and orientalist Western admirers of Japan – but it is central I think to all that is really good in Japanese culture. I think, incidentally, that both Ichikawa and Naruse belonged to this tendency (in particular I’m a huge fan of Naruse – I think his best works are the equal of any of the ‘big three’, if perhaps fractionally less imaginative).

    I think the true greatness of Kurosawas work is not that he ‘added’ western ideas to Japanese cinema, or that he added a Japanese sensibility to essentially Western genres, as is implied by so many writers. I think that a combination of his intellectual ability to get to the heart of the great art of many cultures (his deep understanding of everything from the works of Dostoyevski and Shakespeare to Ed McBain) and his open hearted refusal to see any school of art as superior to another, means that he had the ability to create a genuine world cinema in its broadest sense. The purest representation of this I think is Throne of Blood. It is not a Noh version of Shakespeare, or a Japanese Noh influenced film based on a Shakespeare plot. It is a perfect merging of different traditions and ideas that resulted in a film even greater than its respective sources. I don’t believe that any other director in film history was capable of that.

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    Ugetsu

    Something went horrible wrong there when i tried to edit what I wrote – please correct it Vili! 😯

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    Vili Maunula

    Strange stuff what happened with your comment. Let me know if you see any other oddities on the website. You could also try the test area to see whether the same thing happens if you post a message and try to edit it.

    I hope that all of what you wrote survived my rescue attempt. And thanks for writing it, too, very interesting reading! I really need to see more Ozu. (Maybe it’s time to start drafting that second film club schedule?)

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    lawless

    I saw one Ozu film a long time ago; I liked it, but at this point I don’t remember the title or the story (somehow, my recollection of it reminds me somewhat of Ikiru; I think an older man was the central figure), and I’ve seen no films by the other Japanese directors mentioned, so I’m not qualified to speak to the comparisons being made. I feel as Coco does about Kurosawa, though: that it’s not a matter of him worshipping the West (not a tenable position anyway given the content of films like Stray Dog or Drunken Angel) but of him being open to art and culture no matter what or where its source. I say this as someone who was nutty enough to spend a class period ‘teaching’ an 11th grade English class about Throne of Blood as an adaptation of Shakespeare (!!!)

    BTW, in case anyone was wondering, my frequent agreement with Coco is not mere feminist solidarity, I swear! We just seem to agree frequently, though not always – we have differing opinions about The Hidden Fortress, for example.

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    Jeremy

    What’s new Ugetsu? For ages, people have tried to support their supposed or others’ supposed intelligence/superiority, not by displaying superior results, but by merely pointing out the supposed faults of another.

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    Ugetsu

    Thanks Vili – it is more or less there as I wrote it, although my final edits disappeared, which I shall use as my excuse for my sometimes woeful spelling and grammar. 🙄

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    cocoskyavitch

    Ugetsu said:

    When you compare Ozu’s later films to his earlier ones (and I admit I haven’t seen many of his early ones, there are none available in Region 2 dvd), he has specifically adopted techniques and subjects that can only be described as stereotypically ‘Japanese’

    .

    It’s just my feeling that the stereotype is indicative of the viewer not the creator. Like that old chestnut, the ignorant girl who reads her first play of the bard and says, “Shakespeare is just a bunch of cliche’s thrown together”. I think Ozu creates forms that create an idea of Japan that create cliche’s. I don’t believe he is himslef a cliche. I think “Traditionalist”. Sorry to be such a priss about the distinctions.

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    Ugetsu

    Quite right, coco, ‘traditional’ was the word I should have used.

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    Ugetsu

    And another Guardian Ozu article here.

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    cocoskyavitch

    David Thompson’s article gave me mental whiplash, Ugetsu. Pretty hard to flash between Avatar and anything Ozu.

    The film Still Walking by Kore-eda is one I saw at the Michigan recently. here’s what I thought:

    Hirokazu Kore-eda’s film Still Walking is getting the kind of appreciative

    murmers reserved for Ozu-in fact, Ozu is the spirit guide through this

    gendai-geki home drama in the Ozu fashion of generational divide, regret and

    disappointment.

    Early in the film we view a vista that takes in the sea and the train tracks

    running beside it…and sure enough, we see the first of several trains pass as

    the film progresses-pillow shots sraight out of Ozu! Once the sentimental music

    kicks in, we cannot help but recall the master.

    Although the tatami-mat trademark Ozu view is not a prominent feature, and, in fact, the cinematography is not particularly memorable, other Ozu-like elements of the visual include the indoor shot with garden vista framed by shoji screens-the

    shots displaying the detritus of a family’s life-the doctor’s former office, the

    brickabrack of an unused room.

    The family has lost a son who saved another boy. On the anniversary of the son’s

    death, the family gathers. The sister, with her strange, high-pitched voice

    peels daikon at her mother’s side in the family home as her mother iterates the

    many ways of preparing radish. The dad, looking like a Japanese Colonel Sanders

    with his Kentucky Fried moustache and hair is introduced-he is patently gruff

    with all. Those at home broaden out to include the husband of the daughter and

    her two kids.

    At a scene shift inside a commuter train we are introduced to the family’s

    younger brother-the one who survived. Now about 40, he has just married a widow

    and his household includes her son. The son is between jobs and he dreads the

    visit to his family home.

    Nostalgia, regret, longing for the dead, disappointment, smoldering resentment,

    shame, and a past transgression play their roles. The family dines on the

    fresh-spattering tempura prepared by the mother. The younger daughter tries to

    wheedle an invitation out of the mother for her family to move in. At one point

    she talks about pulling down a wall between the living spaces and the old

    doctor’s office. The mother looks impassive, and the daughter and her brood

    depart, leaving the “leftover” disappointment-the son who survives but did not

    follow in his father’s footsteps, his new wife, and her son-who is mourning

    privately, his own loss.

    At one point the young boy stands in the moonlight and speaks aloud his wish to

    be like his dead father, to follow in his footsteps and be a piano tuner …”and if

    that’s not possible…a doctor”. (… doctor might not be a bad “backup” career.)

    Through the one afternoon, evening and morning, we learn of the family’s

    disappointment…the parents have lost their “best” son, and this is their day

    of rememberance. The boy their son saved from drowning comes to pay his

    respects-as he had been doing some 15 years. The saved boy is a fat mess who

    confesses as he leaves, “I’ll never amount to anything”.

    Later, the “leftover” son talks to his mother, “Be kind, don’t ask him back next

    year”. But the mother is steely…she enjoys making the fat boy suffer. The

    fifteen years of remembering the sacrifice of her son are not yet enough, and

    she enjoys making the boy feel pain.

    As she enjoys playing an old record that she had heard sung from her husband’s

    lips many years ago from some woman’s room. An old family secret brought out to

    cause pain.

    It is not that the mother is a bad woman-though she can be cruel. She talks,

    while arranging a kimono present ot the new wife, “You should have children

    soon.” But then, considers the son of the deceased husband and says, “But think

    about the boy-better not” as she turns her back to find a sash in thedrawer.

    Giving hope and dashing it in two sentences. It’s a very cruel scene.

    The leftover son, his wife and her son, and the mother all climb the long way to

    the cemetary where mother pours ladlefuls of water on the grave stone. “This

    must feel good on a hot day”. As they descend, a yellow butterfly comes into

    view along with a folkism. This becomes a central plot point that circles

    memory, longing, hope and fear, and continuity in its fragile orbit. To tell

    more would be to spoil the film.

    In conclusion, Yoshio Harada is clearly too fine an actor for his brief role as

    the father (just meaning here that I sensed that I could happily watch him much

    more than this role required of him) the leftover son Hiroshi Abe is quite good

    in his role, with a nuanced emotional profile, Kirin Kiki as the mom is

    brilliant, with a great presence and fascinating face!

    Although Ozu is clearly the undisputed master, Still Walking shows Kore-eda as a

    true heir.

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    Vili Maunula

    Thanks for the link, Ugetsu!

    It was actually just a few days ago that I spent a moment thinking about something very similar. Namely, I wonder if we could say that family centred stories have, at least in the US, in a sense migrated to the television. Shows like Brothers & Sisters, Everwood, Weeds, United States of Tara and Californication — just to name five off the top of my head — are all at least on some level successful in dealing with families and issues connecting or separating them, while not succumbing to the “soap” category.

    From a writer’s perspective, TV series of course give you more room to explore topics in. A two-hour format really is challenging, especially these days when your main audience has grown up with the fast-cutting MTV and you want to write a slow-moving, contemplative family drama for them.

    I also think that television has really grown up in the past decade or so, and we are starting to see an increasing number of interesting projects there. I’m personally quite excited about it all.

    As for Avatar, I thought that it was quite ok. Not mind-blowing, challenging or thought-provoking on any level, but I nevertheless felt that the price of the 3D admission and the time invested was worth it (not that I really liked the 3D).

    I still need to see Still Waking.

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    Ugetsu

    I also think that television has really grown up in the past decade or so, and we are starting to see an increasing number of interesting projects there. I’m personally quite excited about it all.

    I agree that television is often more interesting than cinema these days (that said, I don’t actually have a TV, I catch up on good stuff on DVD). I think its just a natural progression. I’ve heard it said that if Shakespeare had been born 400 years later, he would probably have been a film director – that would have suited his style more. In the same way, I don’t think there is anything wrong with accepting that some genres are more suited to TV – especially as there is more time and space in a TV series to develop a story. As an obvious example,The Godfather or Goodfellas will hardly ever be topped as cinema, but the Sopranos covered the same ground in much more detail, not just in terms of story, but in the way the characters aged in real time over the course of the series.

    So for this reason I’m not particularly bothered by the fact that there are few people making Ozu type films these days. TV is the natural place I think for that type of drama. While its great that Kore-eda is making films like he is, I suspect more people will eventually see his work on TV than in the cinema.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Ugetsu said

    ” …I’m not particularly bothered by the fact that there are few people making Ozu type films these days. TV is the natural place I think for that type of drama. While its great that Kore-eda is making films like he is, I suspect more people will eventually see his work on TV than in the cinema. “

    You might be quite right! And, the GoodfellasSopranos idea is quite good-that seeing characters age and change over time is part of the pleasure of serial stories! The idea of the “serial” in film is pretty limited to various-quality sequels. In television, it’s part of the master plan!

    Though Ozu revisited ideas and names and situations, I don’t think he did “installments”. The gravitas, the cinematic beauty, the thoughtfulness and stillness of Ozu’s work takes the big screen…on television he would be blasted out of water by the first commercial!

    “TV is the natural place I think for that type of drama.”

    Hmmm. I think Kore–eda might also be similarly devastated. Anything of quality that is thoughtful and quiet suffers when the commercials are blasted in at rocketship decibels,and when the trend is for louder, bigger, brighter, faster, and buy this now.

    I may be wrong, though.

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    Ugetsu

    I went to see Still Walking last night – I agree with Coco’s review above – it really is a great film and I’d strongly recommend it to anyone. Its a beautifully composed piece of work with some memorable characters and its every bit as good as some of the classic domestic dramas from the 1950’s. I do think though that the Ozu connections are overdone, despite the obvious little references (trains tootling along in the distance) Koreeda is a very different type of film maker. In particular, unlike Ozu he is fond of little surreal touches that complement the realism of the film very nicely, and I think his view of the family is very different from Ozu – whereas Ozu looked with a sort of nostalgic regret for the passing of the traditional family Koreeda seems to see the joy and pain of family life as something that goes on in an endless cycle. The ending in particular (without giving it away) emphasises this in perhaps the only slightly heavy-handed touch in the film.

    Kirin Kiri as the grandmother is outstanding – a wonderful performance. The child actor who plays the step son is also very good, an unusually subtle and layered performance from a child.

    But, to indulge in a bit of a personal rant here 😡 – I had a problem with some of the other actors – quite simply they are too good looking! I used to think it was only Hollywood that was guilty of always casting drop dead gorgeous people as ‘plain’ and ‘ordinary’. The last Ozu tribute I saw – Hou Hsiou-Hsein’s Cafe Lumiere was spoilt for me by the casting of two fabulously good looking actors in the lead roles. It wasn’t until near the end of that film that I realised these two gorgeous boho-chic clad individuals were supposed to be lonely, nerdish outsiders rather than the rather buttoned up hipsters I assumed. I guess if I understood Mandarin I wouldn’t have made that mistake, but it spoilt the film for me as I ended up being hopelessly confused about what was going on. Its not quite so bad with Still Walking , but I thought that in particular Hiroshi Abe and You (yes, thats her name) as the ‘left over’ son and his ‘previously used’ wife were just too elegant and handsome for the parts. I found it hard to swallow that a lonely elderly couple would be anything but delighted to have a son and daughter in law like them. I feel that this is a little showbiz trap that Ozu wouldn’t have fallen for – his actors always looked so perfect for their roles and even when they were film star good-looking (i.e. Setsuko Hara), it was always clear in the scripts that the character was supposed to be beautiful. In fairness to Koreeda I guess its possible he had to cast some ‘names’ for commercial reasons.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Ugetsu-right on! Good call on calling out the too-good-looking! Kurosawa sometimes used the ODDEST guys, ever, didn’t he? I love the faces of Bokuzen Hidari and Wattanabe!

    Of course, women simply MUST be beautiful or else, bad or too old to matter. Even Kurosawa is guilty, there! Maybe it is some kind of liberation that makes both men and women equally victims of enslavement to beauty?

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    Ugetsu

    It must be Ozu season at the Guardian, there is yet another article referencing him.

    Incidentally, in the David Thompson article I linked to above 3 days ago, someone is posting as ‘Ugetsu’. I’d just like to say that its not me! I must have an evil twin somewhere.

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    cocoskyavitch

    It’s Ozu season at the film festival in London and Dublin. Er, check out the BFI Southbank site. ( http://www.bfi.org.uk/ ). My link may not work properly, but honest, dig around, and you will find it! Oh, silly me…of course, that’s why you orginally posted! Well, for the rest of our friends, then, go get yourself some Ozu. It’s good for you and tastes good, too!

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    cocoskyavitch

    Ugetsu said,

    “Koreeda is a very different type of film maker. In particular, unlike Ozu he is fond of little surreal touches that complement the realism of the film very nicely.”

    Yes, just exactly right. And the notation that the conclusion is different as you say-Kore-eda is about the cycles and-Ozu is all “mono-no-aware” at the fleeting beauty of the falling cherry blossoms that are our families and lives (except when he is outrageously insightful and funny as in his early silents).

    Have you seen The Happiness of the Katakuris or The Taste of Tea ? Both films are influenced/colored by an awareness of Ozu-but take the surrealist route. The latter’s title and mood is very much Ozu-influenced. I am addicted to the Mountain Song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=01wOhgg27dM

    This is a LOVELY little film! It’s as if Ozu’s early career, late career and the modern world have come together to produce this little gem. And, Ugetsu…there are some “real-looking” people! Check out grandpa. (Not the women…that’s still taboo for them to be unattractive! 浅野 忠信, Asano Tadanobu is the sound tech who says “it will melt your brain!” and is too good looking….ok, true, but I think he is great (in Mongol as Temudjin!) Please watch the Mountain Song and tell me what you think!

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    Ugetsu

    Coco

    Have you seen The Happiness of the Katakuris or The Taste of Tea ? Both films are influenced/colored by an awareness of Ozu-but take the surrealist route. The latter’s title and mood is very much Ozu-influenced. I am addicted to the Mountain Song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=01wOhgg27dM

    Thats brilliant! That song will be buzzing in my head all day now. I never heard of that film (and Ishii isn’t even mentioned in any of my books on Japanese cinema). Sadly, seems there isn’t a Region 2 release (I really must invest in a multiregion player).

    I haven’t seen the Happiness of the Katakuris either, its been on my screenclick list for some time (our version of netflix).

    Kurosawa sometimes used the ODDEST guys, ever, didn’t he? I love the faces of Bokuzen Hidari and Wattanabe!

    Of course, women simply MUST be beautiful or else, bad or too old to matter. Even Kurosawa is guilty, there! Maybe it is some kind of liberation that makes both men and women equally victims of enslavement to beauty?

    I think that like Ozu, Kurosawa seemed to have an eye for ‘natural’ looking actors. In Red Beard he had a great range of faces I think – while everyone talks about the effort he put into getting the sets right, I thought the faces of the patients, whores and nurses were just right too. In Yojimbo of course he seems to have picked actors specifically hit with an ugly stick! Off the top of my head I can’t think of any case of an actor (male or female) in a Kurosawa film being too ‘film star’ for the part. I can’t think of any for Ozu either, although in Floating Weeds the thought did cross my mind that any man would be nuts to ignore a mistress who looked like Michiko Kyo…..

    Its an interesting topic of course as to what extent actors are chosen because they are ‘right’ for the film, or ‘right’ for the film poster. In Tony Rayns commentaries on the Masters of Cinema releases of Mizoguchi’s films, he implies that at least two of his films were fatally damaged by having actresses imposed on him by the studio. In Gion Bayashi he was told to cast Wakao Ayako as a malicious geisha, but as she was a hot young starlet at the time he had to soften the character so as not to damage her career and this made the film inferior to his earlier one of the same name. In Lady Oyu he had to cast Kinuyo Tanaka in the lead role, even though he knew she was very wrong for the upper class, rather cold character (when I saw that film, I thought that Setsuko Hara would have been perfect as Lady Oyu).

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    Ugetsu

    Actually, its a question I’ve often wondered about – to what extent either studio interference or commercial considerations influenced Kurosawa’s casting. I haven’t read Galbraith, but Richie, Prince and Yoshimoto don’t seen to have been terribly interested in researching the financing and general logistics of his films. I know there is a general assumption that he always got his way through sheer force of will, but I think the assumption was also made of Mizoguchi, and we now know this simply isn’t true.

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    Ugetsu

    Coco

    Hmmm. I think Kore–eda might also be similarly devastated. Anything of quality that is thoughtful and quiet suffers when the commercials are blasted in at rocketship decibels,and when the trend is for louder, bigger, brighter, faster, and buy this now.

    Ah yes, I forgot about that – I do forget how spoiled we are this side of the Atlantic to have the commercial free BBC 😉

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    cocoskyavitch

    Ugetsu-it surprises me how little interest in scholarly circles in general there is in the second-tier individual actors, and their work in ensemble acting.

    I should clarify-there is discussion of films and actors relevant to the films discussed individually, but little writing addressing the continuing presence of certain actors over time (that thing we said we liked about serialized television). There is such a pleasure and the sort of “leaping heart” when I recognize an old friend from one film to another. Seeing Ozu’s “mom” from Tokyo Story in The Idiot or Setsuko Hara in Early Summer, then in No Regrets for our Youth or The Idiot.

    It would interest me to hear more about the career arc of creativity, and the transformations, and the ensemble work. I would welcome knowing to what degree casting were prey to commercial considerations, and what pressures were involved in choosing certain actors. But, I digress. parting shot: I like this rogue’s gallery! http://thestuffyougottawatch.com/kuroplay.html

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    Ugetsu

    It would interest me to hear more about the career arc of creativity, and the transformations, and the ensemble work. I would welcome knowing to what degree casting were prey to commercial considerations, and what pressures were involved in choosing certain actors.

    Yes – I’d love to see more solid historical research work into Kurosawa (although maybe there is more of that in Galbraith? He is the most important of the writers that I haven’t gotten around to reading yet. What I like about Tony Rayns commentaries on Mizoguchi and Ozu is that he is less concerned with theory and more with the practicalities. Maybe its because my background is more science than film theory I find myself thinking far too much is often read into particular scenes or storylines (or indeed casting decisions) when the simplest explanation is often a mundane practical one. I think Richie could have done a bit more on that side, given his close personal connections. For example, I’d love to know why Kurosawa expressed disatisfaction with No Regrets for our Youth. Richie implies that the script was altered by the authorities, but doesn’t say in what way it was altered. The clock is ticking away rapidly for the last people alive who might actually have seen the original script or sat in on production meetings. Maybe its a handicap to historians that the Japanese seem to be better at keeping confidences than westerners?

    But, I digress. parting shot: I like this rogue’s gallery! http://thestuffyougottawatch.com/kuroplay.html

    Fantastic link! I’m embarrassed to say that I hadn’t realised that some of those characters were played by the same actors.

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    cocoskyavitch

    See?!!! THAT’s what I am talking about! The shock…the delicious thrill when you recognize an old friend…for that’s very much how they begin to seem to me!

    I think when I realized Susumu Fujita was the cowardly fencing master in Yojimbo, I felt a little tug at my heartstrings for a Kurosawa star gone second tier.

    I dunno about Galbraith being more cerebral. His book, while very well-researched, and quite a good resource for contemporary criticism and general reception of the films at the time of their release, (there’s some embarrassingly jingoistic stuff) also has a comprehensive filmography of Mifune. (Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune) and of course, Kurosawa. But the book seems to do little with the supporting players (although I am grateful for what he does supply!) The book’s general feeling is that it is a sad end for Mifune, and that everything kinda goes to crap for Kurosawa at Dodesukaden, and its aftermath. It made me cry a lot when I read it.

    I’ve decided not to have that book’s view as the last word on the life and work of Mifune nor of Kurosawa.

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    cocoskyavitch

    The clock is ticking away rapidly for the last people alive who might actually have seen the original script or sat in on production meetings. Maybe its a handicap to historians that the Japanese seem to be better at keeping confidences than westerners?

    Ugetsu, you said it!

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    Ugetsu

    Coco:

    I think when I realized Susumu Fujita was the cowardly fencing master in Yojimbo, I felt a little tug at my heartstrings for a Kurosawa star gone second tier.

    I’d always wondered about the way sometimes leading actors would turn up later in small parts – Takashi Shimura in that little part in Red Beard, or Chishu Ryu in a minuscule part in The End of Summer. I assumed it was just part of what an actor was supposed to do if you were part of a ‘group’? Or perhaps it was a commercial consideration, to get a few box office names on the credits cheap? Anyway, I don’t think it necessarily means it was the sign of an actors decline – according to imdb Fujita seems to have had a good career that extended right up to the 1980’s.

    I dunno about Galbraith being more cerebral.

    I don’t think its necessarily a case of being more cerebral – I just mean that most Kurosawa writing I’ve seen is either theoretical, or (with Richie) based on a lot of anecdote. I’d love a proper historian to go through the primary sources and get a rigorous picture together of how Kurosawas great films were made (ah, if I was 19 again, wondering what course I’d like to do in University….). I know Rayns isn’t everyones cup of tea, but I find his discussions of the work of Ozu and Mizoguchi really interesting, because he gets down to the nuts and bolts of why a particular actor was chosen or why particular aspects of the scrips changed from initiation to final film.

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    Ugetsu

    but I thought that in particular Hiroshi Abe and You (yes, thats her name) as the ‘left over’ son and his ‘previously used’ wife were just too elegant and handsome for the parts.

    😯 😳

    oops, just realised I made a whopper of a mistake back there – it wasn’t Hiroshi Abe I meant, it was Kazuya Takahashi who played the ‘second son’.

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    cocoskyavitch

    But, point taken. HE’S GORGEOUS! 😉

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    Ugetsu

    Hm, now I really have screwed up – was imdb wrong 2 days ago or did I horribly misread it?

    Anyway, the second son (yes, the gorgeous one) was played by Hiroshi Abe, and his almost equally gorgeous dimpled wife was played by Yui Natsukawa. ‘You’ was the daughter.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Ugetsu, you said:

    …I’d love a proper historian to go through the primary sources and get a rigorous picture together of how Kurosawas great films were made…

    That would have been great. I think we are lucky enough to have some anecdotal information about the films from his close associates…but not lucky enough to have a source of information about the

    “…nuts and bolts of why a particular actor was chosen or why particular aspects of the scrips changed from initiation to final film.”

    Without that kind of source, so much of what we write here is speculation… and, when one of the group contributes some missing puzzle piece, that’s really helpful in crafting a picture of how the films were made, what they might mean, what Kurosawa might have been thinking, and what external forces may have influenced his decisions.

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    Ugetsu

    I think we are lucky enough to have some anecdotal information about the films from his close associates

    Ah, but thanks to Kurosawa we know all about the Rashomon effect… 🙄

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    cocoskyavitch

    Mmmm, right. Perhaps that’s somehow appropriate.

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    Ugetsu

    coco

    Of course, women simply MUST be beautiful or else, bad or too old to matter. Even Kurosawa is guilty, there!

    Just curious Coco, to go back a bit – which actresses in Kurosawa films do you think were too beautiful for their parts? I can’t think of any off the top of my head.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Ugetsu, that’s funny you should ask. I didn’t say “too beautiful for their parts”…Kurosawa wouldn’t mar his films with Hollywood-style beauty-over-brains casting. (I say this despite the qualms people in this forum have had about the Princess in Hidden Fortress…!)

    But there aren’t any dogs, either! The only uggos are bad or old or peasants. This is the “Raphael” phenom in Western Art History. It’s the prettification of visual storytelling to the point that only evil is shown as ugly-so, you can extend from there and imagine the repercussions.

    Last night I showed a group of my students who will be participating in the Prague and Munich Program in Feb-March, selections from Leni Reifenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. We looked at the visual communication in abstract terms, looking for shot, vantage point, perspective, sight lines, lighting, value and contrast, focal point, directional forces, symbolism, etc., and analyzed the choices and their visual communications. The use of beauty to elevate. Wow, that’s an old chestnut and still as powerfully convincing as ever.

    When the French Impressionist Mary Cassat used an “ugly” model in one of her pastels, she did it on a dare…Degas was most impressed at her ability to make an interesting and beautiful composition with an “ugly” model.

    I guess my point was that, just really simply, in most films, women are not allowed to be ugly…and loved. The exceptions are mothers and grandmothers. Of course, I may be wrong.

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    lawless

    While I may be accused of simply preaching to the choir, or perhaps being your Greek chorus, I don’t think you’re wrong, Coco. In fact, I’d say you’re 100 percent right about Kurosawa, film, and any visual medium in general, with the possible exception of artistic (as opposed to commercial) photography.

    Everything is idealized and women who are leads or anything other than old, evil, or possibly (and I don’t think even this is true with Kurosawa, though I haven’t seen all his films) mothers or grandmothers must be at least pretty, if not beautiful. Even the old crone in Seven Samurai has strong features and probably was beautiful once; it’s the old woman without teeth who cackles at the idea of men loving their wives that night because afterward they would be separated who’s ugly and looks like a female equivalent to Bozuen Hidari’s Yohei.

    In our society, pretty or beautiful = good, for women, at least. For men: I wouldn’t call Jack Nicholson, or Harvey Keitel, handsome, though they’re not exactly ugly either. But there’s a wider range that’s acceptable for men. Men can have character. You see the same in Kurosawa’s films: there’s a wider variation of looks among the men. For example, I wouldn’t call Fujiwara, who played Manzo – if I have his name right – handsome, and Bozuen Hidari – Yohei and the pilgrim/priest in The Lower Depths – would best be described as homely.

    We can’t suffer having someone plain or not pretty or even ugly be an important character in a visual medium. When movies cast for parts that are supposed to be plain or ugly, they cast well-known pretty or beautiful women and try to uglify them.

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    Ugetsu

    We can’t suffer having someone plain or not pretty or even ugly be an important character in a visual medium. When movies cast for parts that are supposed to be plain or ugly, they cast well-known pretty or beautiful women and try to uglify them.

    I had another of those ‘oh I didn’t recognise him/her in that movie’ recently, and it was with Tokyo Story. It hadn’t registered with me that it was Kyoko Kagawa who played Kyoko, the younger daughter. The thing is, when I saw Tokyo Story for the first and second times, I thought that it was excellent casting of Ozu to use such an ‘ordinary’ looking actress as the younger daughter – a young woman we could well imagine opting to stay as a quiet single teacher in a small town rather than follow the path of her married siblings. And then of course I realise it was the same actress who looked so ravishing in later Kurosawa films (interesting too that Ozu, Kurosawa and Mizoguchi all cast her in good roles, they obviously all agreed on her qualities).

    Before I wrote that I would have said that there was a difference between someone like Takeshi Shimura who was capable of playing handsome and elegant (Seven Samurai) and mousy and inconsequential (Rashomon and Ikiru) was that sometimes the vanity of actresses prevented them from playing ‘ordinary’ – its either beautiful or evil ugly. I think its one thing to adopt make up to make an actor look ugly, quite another to adopt a whole way of moving to make yourself look small and inconsequential in the way that the best male actors could do – Shimura of course being a very good example. But now I see Kyoko Kagawa did it very well in Tokyo Story. I’m trying off the top of my head to think of equivalents in western films, but I can’t think of any.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Right-o, lawless.

    When movies cast for parts that are supposed to be plain or ugly, they cast well-known pretty or beautiful women and try to uglify them.

    Generally, I think the “pretty ones” have to go to gruesome in U.S.-style filmmaking…Charlize Theron in Monster, Nicole Kidman in The Hours.

    Ugetsu, you brought up the subject of the “prettification” of actors and actresses-and the impact that has on films. Perhaps it’s only fair that we become “equal opportunity superficial”. ? Last night a student of mine was going gaga over Tadanobu Asano (described as a cross between Mifune and Johnny Depp? Is that a good thing?),

    Kyoko Kagawa only had to be small and inconsequential-possibly something Japanese women of an earlier era found not too big a stretch from reality…?

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    lawless

    Ugetsu – The assumption in itself that attractive actresses (which is the vast majority of them, let’s face it), particularly those who work and are cast by serious directors in serious roles, as opposed to fluff, sexploitation, or ingenue roles, are vain or have less range than actors is in itself a somewhat narrow and limiting way of looking at things. It’s another reflection of how in society, male is normative and acknowledged to be capable of exhibiting the whole range of human characteristics and interactions and female is not.

    Another example: earlier in her career, Sarah Jessica Parker, who played the main character Carrie in Sex and the City, played a plain, geeky outcast in the short-lived Square Pegs. Coco beat me to the example of Charlize Theron in Monster. I didn’t remember that Nicole Kidman had been uglified for her role in The Hours. (Didn’t they both win Oscars for those roles, although Nicole’s was considered compensation for her not winning – nor, I think, being nominated – for her role in Moulin Rouge?)

    BTW, although I think Takashi Shimura was a pleasant-looking guy, I wouldn’t go so far as to call his Kambei ‘handsome’ or ‘elegant’. I’d be more likely to use terms like ‘commanding’ and ‘imposing’, possibly even ‘charismatic’. His depth and strength of character, and his essential goodness, which was nevertheless coupled with a sense of command (think of when he goes after Mosuke for suggesting that those with houses on the other side of the stream should split off from the village and look after themselves), are what makes him what he is, not his looks. That’s the point: with men, as long as the lead isn’t completely ugly to the point of revulsion, looks don’t matter.

    It’s Mifune and Kimura (Katsushiro) who have the matinee idol movie star looks, and yet Mifune’s character, at least, is much more than that.

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    Ugetsu

    lawless:

    Another example: earlier in her career, Sarah Jessica Parker, who played the main character Carrie in Sex and the City, played a plain, geeky outcast in the short-lived Square Pegs. Coco beat me to the example of Charlize Theron in Monster. I didn’t remember that Nicole Kidman had been uglified for her role in The Hours. (Didn’t they both win Oscars for those roles, although Nicole’s was considered compensation for her not winning – nor, I think, being nominated – for her role in Moulin Rouge?)

    Sorry, I think I didn’t express my thoughts very well – I didn’t mean to say that glamorous actresses in films (as opposed to more workaday actresses in theatre or TV) don’t play ‘ordinary’ or ‘ugly’. What I was suggesting was that (like both Theron and Kidman), there is a tendency to give them some sort of prop or prosthesis (literally of metaphorically), so that you can say ‘oh, thats Charlize Theron under all that make-up!’ Of course actresses love this sort of part, as do actors. Actually, just as I was about to post it I came across this very funny article in Slate that makes my point much more articulately than I do!

    What I was trying to express was that it seems very rare to see actresses using subtle body movement use of expression to indicate that their character isn’t really all that attractive – and I am suggesting that there is an element of vanity in this – although of course the directors and producers are to blame for this as well. What I admire most about Shimura is the way in Ikiru his every movement, every expression seemed to shout out that he is a defeated man, hunched up and inconsequential – even the cancer inside him is apparent in his movements. And he did this without the use of obvious external probs like a badly fitting suit or a bit of ‘ugly’ make-up.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Ugetsu said:

    What I admire most about Shimura is the way in Ikiru his every movement, every expression seemed to shout out that he is a defeated man, hunched up and inconsequential – even the cancer inside him is apparent in his movements. And he did this without the use of obvious external probs like a badly fitting suit or a bit of ‘ugly’ make-up.

    Yes, well, exactly the point! I won’t deny it-there are few actors I admire as much as Shimura Takashi. He can go from “sad carp” to hero in sixty seconds. Amazing. And, no makeup transformation. Why is that? IT IS BECAUSE MEN ARE ALLOWED TO HAVE CHARACTER DEFINE THEM but women must be beautiful.

    And now I am shutting up because we’ve drifted so far from our original discussion of Ozu.

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    Ugetsu

    Why is that? IT IS BECAUSE MEN ARE ALLOWED TO HAVE CHARACTER DEFINE THEM but women must be beautiful.

    And now I am shutting up because we’ve drifted so far from our original discussion of Ozu.

    Which brings me right back to Tokyo Story – and how natural Ozu’s actors are – Chieko Higashiyama as the mother and Haruko Sugimura as the older daughter are perfectly believable characters. I think nearly all his casting was near perfect.

    Ok, I’ll shut up now 🙄

    (but do check out that link to Slate I posted above, its hilarious).

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