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The Tiffany's of DVD, Criterion releases three early sixties Japanese Films -- When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960), Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962)
With the recent re-releases of Kurosawa Akira's Yojimbo and Sanjuro in January and the upcoming released of Naruse Mikio's When a Woman Ascends the Stairs in February, Criterion Collection re-presents the overwhelmingly powerful argument: at the beginning of the sixties, Japanese cinema, too, can lay claim to producing films that paralleled the new and innovative textual forms and force of the French nouvelle vague, the Antonioni- and Fellini-driven forays into alienation and identity, and British social realism. The DVD re/releases for When a Woman, Yojimbo, and Sanjuro, originally released successively from 1960 to 1962, make up a three-punch knockout for the uninitiated, and reaffirmation (not to mention utter glee) for those already familiar with the films. And by "familiar" I mean "enamored with," because after watching all three DVD editions, one realizes it's a small jump from knowledge to love.
I know I'm probably overstepping someone's notion of critical categories by citing Kurosawa and Naruse as representatives of sixties Japanese cinema. I hear already "Don't you mean the films of Oshima Nagisa, Imamura Shohei, Yoshida Yoshishige and Teshigahara Hiroshi?" The moment in which the three films in question were released saw emerging a new generation of filmmakers who were expressing more explicitly their political commitments, led notably by Oshima. For their part, Kurosawa's and Naruse's careers (which hit their heights in the fifties) were still strong heading into the sixties, but by mid-decade, both would be making their last films -- prematurely for Kurosawa since he'd make films again in the seventies [but five years will pass between Akahige (1965) and Dodesukaden (1970)], and permanently for Naruse. Revisiting When a Woman, Yojimbo, and Sanjuro gives us a chance to understand more the films' specific historical moment, especially in response to Naruse's and especially Kurosawa's reputations as auteurs, a critical paradigm which has the consequence of dehistoricising their body of work; each presents quite a challenge in the face of the moniker of Japanese "new wave" and its critique of the conservatism and lack of political commitment in the work of "old-time" filmmakers like Kurosawa.
So to the films. I title this review with that ambiguous but oft bandied about term "modernity" since the three films in question are actually much closer to each other in more ways than one. At first glance, Kurosawa's genre-bending, comic takes on the mythology of the samurai period film is light-years away from Naruse's proto-feminist depiction of the life of a bar hostess. Thus, it was quite striking to see the thematic similarity of grappling and renegotiating modernity's terms and legacies across the three films. Yojimbo and Sanjuro take place towards the end of the Tokugawa era (1600-1867) -- Sanjuro more embedded in the era than saying goodbye to it -- which preceded the Meiji Revolution and the rapid, massive infrastructural changes that it ushered, giving way to the formation of the modern Japanese nation-state. In the process, the samurai gets ultimately short shrift. Stephen Prince's audio commentary on Yojimbo highlights the way Kurosawa's films capture a particular moment in Japanese history when the crisis of modernity was already emerging, destabilizing, and dislocating sedimented ways of relating to one's immediate environment from the transition from an economy of rice to one of currency. Now, this could just as easily (superficiality aside) or elaborately lead to what goes on in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs in terms of some of the consequences, or legacies, of "modernity" and modernization, especially on women. The bar hostess Keiko portrayed by Takamine Hideko is located in the specific historical moment when Japan's rapid emergence from the defeat and devastation of the Asia Pacific War, the Hiroshima bombings, and the Allied (mainly U.S.-led) occupation thrust the nation into the consolidation of economic recovery that would last until the seventies, thus transitioning from all-out war to full-on reconciliation. But all isn't rosy: Keiko's life demonstrates a kind of living legacy of what happens in transitional economies, where conflicting desires abound and show themselves with force. Of course, I'm not making a direct comparison between Sanjuro and Keiko; that would be too easy. And anyway, Stephen Prince or Donald Richie would do better in talking more about the actual films. So to the DVDs.
Both Yojimbo and Sanjuro DVDs are improved high-definition digital transfers of earlier editions whose quality was markedly poor. The initial DVD transfers received quite a drubbing from transfer specialists and Kurosawa fans alike, so aside from the overtly historical/cultural purpose of reintroducing Kurosawa's cinematic vision to old/new audiences, surely Criterion had the pressure of living up to its higher quality output since the time of the first Yojimbo and Sanjuro DVD releases back in 1999. Indeed, the differences are startling, even down to the package and menu designs: crisper, cleaner, more to the point -- definitely marks of the content of the DVDs themselves. Coincidentally enough, it had been since 1999 that I last saw either film in a retrospective, and as I've written elsewhere, Criterion DVDs constitute a retrospective of their own. As a spectator, the reunion with Sanjuro Kuwabatake/Tsubaki was more thrilling than anticipated, due in part to the excellent audio commentaries provided by Stephen Prince, one of the new additions of the re-issues.
The choice of Prince over Donald Richie is significant: Richie is internationally known for his pioneering critical work in English on Japanese cinema from the postwar period onwards and no one would question his knowledge of Japanese cinema and culture. Prince has published not only his own monograph on Kurosawa's films, but also on eighties American cinema, specifically the violent films of Sam Peckinpah. In these interests lies the thread of violence structuring a notion of masculinity, which Prince brings to his commentary. (I'm sure Richie would have his own thoughts on the same subject, but to turn solely to him on every Criterion DVD release of a Japanese film would certainly become monotonous.) Watching both films a second time to listen to the commentary provides great historical insights into Kurosawa's cinema and methods of filmmaking and was sheer pleasure with regards to Yojimbo. I had forgotten how utterly comical of a deconstruction of the samurai period film it was and is, and the absolute genius of subtlety, yet weight of presence that Mifune Toshiro brings to the Sanjuro role.
And as oxymoronic as it sounds, what a stylized deconstruction it is, as it was the first major film in which Kurosawa used extensively a telephoto lens to enlarge the capitalist-inflected gang warfare in the town where Sanjuro finds himself by chance. Sake or silk? Of course, the rationale behind the rivalry is less attractive than who makes up the rivalry and it's the great Kurosawa stock company of actors from Nakadai Tatsuya (his first full-fledged role in a Kurosawa film), Kato Daisuke (who's absolutely hilarious as the dim-witted but psychopathic Inokichi), Yamada Isuzu, Watanabe Atsushi, to Tono Eijiro. Watching Sanjuro/Mifune laugh with glee as he eggs on the two gangs alone makes the re-issue worthwhile. Sato Masaru's musical score that underwrites practically every scene must be mentioned here as well. One of the other more interesting supplements newly added to the re-issue is a "teaser" trailer for Yojimbo (there's also one for Sanjuro) that shows Kurosawa with his cast and crew on the set, giving no hint really of its different take on samurai ethics -- or lack thereof.
As for Sanjuro, the "sequel" to Yojimbo, the comic element is still present. The film centers around Sanjuro's disruptive interaction with a group of nine retainers instilled with the samurai ideology. It's framed by a coup attempt by several officials within a clan that involves the uncle of one of the retainers while the daimyo (lord) is away in Edo. But as in the sake or silk debate, the plot framing is less important than the framing of character. Sanjuro is less stylized and in terms of space and plot, more constricted: gone is the wide street in Yojimbo, and in place are the interiors of castles and the cluster of bushes. Stephen Prince's audio commentary is perhaps much more valuable with regards to Sanjuro to mediate between the film and spectator, since it is a "smaller" film than Yojimbo.
In talking about the DVD release of Naruse Mikio's When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, the use of "master" may seem ironic after following two films that are in a sense a send-up of the master-apprentice relationship in samurai ideology, especially Sanjuro. It's more in reference, though, to the worldwide critical recognition of Naruse's place among the "classic Japanese masters" Ozu, Mizoguchi and Kurosawa, which was a long time in coming. On this note, the DVD booklet is wonderfully more like a critical film anthology since it assembles together some of the main writers on Naruse's work that contributed to such belated recognition: Philip Lopate, Catherine Russell, and Audie Bock, plus a piece by frequent Naruse collaborator Takamine Hideko that had been included in Bock's catalog for a 1984 retrospective. Russell's contribution is especially noteworthy since it's an excerpt from a forthcoming book titled The Cinema of Naruse Mikio: Women and Japanese Modernity, which, correct me if I'm wrong, would signify the first book in English to be devoted entirely to Naruse and his oeuvre.
When a Woman also represents Criterion's first encounter with a Naruse film. Despite some blotches and faint lines in some scenes towards the end, the transfer looks great. The choice (acquisition of rights to titles aside) of When a Woman isn't surprising since it's the most well-known of his films outside of Japan, but also because it's considered to be the most emblematic in its presentation of his thematic concern of independent, high-spirited, yet marginalised characters (mainly women) in modern, urban spaces. It's Naruse's filmmaking at its most subtle -- another thread that links the three films -- yet heartbreaking. Donald Richie's commentary accompanies When a Woman and perhaps no other critic is more appropriate to discuss Naruse's position among Ozu, Mizoguchi, and Kurosawa. Richie offers interesting comparisons between all four filmmakers, as well as cultural observations of the time period. However, in comparison, Prince's audio commentaries engage more with the images and they're continuous throughout, while some huge gaps of silence mark Richie's commentary -- due partly to the fact that the commentary was recorded at two separate times. It would've been provocative to have had Nakadai Tatsuya offer a commentary of his own -- albeit in Japanese -- since his interview in the DVD provides a different, more revealing perspective of the film.
At any rate, hopefully this DVD will be a revelation for Japanese cinema fans about Naruse. When a Woman shares with the Kurosawa films an episodic structure, but unlike them there's no plot device of a rivalry or coup to drive the episodes, laying bare all the more the paroxysms of bar hostess Keiko's life among the myriad of bars that open and close in the wink of an eye in the Ginza district. The multiple layering of loves unrequited and tentative business ventures among the various characters presents a pessimistic take on how thin the line can be between love and business; but how heartrending and pleasurable to watch.
The three films possesses their own form, tone, and theme, but there's definitely room for overlap, since all were Toho productions, which therefore meant all had access to the Toho roster of contract stars such as Nakadai, Kato, and Dan Rieko, all of whom appear either in Yojimbo or Sanjuro as well. Or both. And perhaps not surprisingly, one of the co-writers on the Kurosawa films, Kikushima Ryuzo, produced and wrote When a Woman. Ultimately, we're talking about superb ensemble acting in all three films, however different the tone and atmosphere of each, and therefore exemplary of early sixties Japanese cinema -- with all the possible contradictions implied.
Date Posted: 2/16/2007