Mar 4, 2013

Japanese Movies: The Happiness of the Katakuris / Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion / Manji ['64]

The Happiness Of The Katakuris [15]
Dir: Takashi Miike
The blisteringly prolific Takashi Miike directed SEVEN films in 2001, when he shot this remake of The Quiet Family (the debut of South Korean filmmaker Kim Jee-woon). This being Miike, Kim’s film seems to have been filtered quite substantially through his imagination, which, here, seems as manic as ever, but much lighter in tone than we usually see.

The film revolves around a family who run a remote guest house, and have very few clients, but when more people begin to arrive and stay the night they all seem to die mysteriously. The family bury them in the garden; an idea which, of course, comes back to try to bite them in the form of zombies. Oh, and there are songs, because of course there are songs.

I’m going to keep this review short, because if I’m honest The Happiness of the Katakuris, for all its relentless oddness and quirkiness, left very little impression on me. The opening sequence of the film is one place where the strangeness really works; a woman fishes what looks a bit like the fairy from the beginning of Pan’s Labyrinth out of her soup, it promptly grabs and rips out her uvula, then eats it, before being eaten by something else. All of this is rendered in amusingly stylised stop motion. The problem is that this four minute sequence sets up a completely different film, to the point that I almost took the disc out to make sure there hadn’t been a mistake.

The rest of the film is an odd mix of black family comedy, garish musical and – very late in the day and briefly – zombies. I’ve often found modern Japanese cinema to be exhilarating in its weirdness, but here I felt it took away from the film. The simple family comedy at the heart of the film – even with the darkness of people mysteriously dying – feels like more than enough to support the film, and it would probably be easier to justify the 110 minute running time if a little more time were spent developing the characters beyond their quirks rather than cutting to a song. It would also help if the songs were better. It’s tough to judge in a language as unfamiliar to me as Japanese, but the lyrics often seem awkward with the (rather bland) music, and the cast don’t seem to have especially brilliant singing voices. I was reminded, more than a few times, especially in the way that the songs grow out of very little and seem like set pieces rather than plot advancement, of Francois Ozon’s 8 Women, a comparison that does this film no favours.

I like Miike’s films, but this feels- like an awkward fit for him, and I never got comfortable with the tone and was disengaged long before the overdue ending. If you get into the tone, if you end up running with the quirkiness, you’ll have fun, but it just didn’t work for me.

Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion  [18]
Dir: Shunya Ito
Exploitation cinema comes in many flavours. This first film in the Female Prisoner Scorpion quartet may not be quite the gourmet menu that Cannibal Holocaust or the original I Spit on Your Grave – both more complex and thoughtful films than they are usually credited as being – were, but it certainly holds more complexity and more interest than many exploitation films, and particularly the women in prison genre, tend to.

This is really down to two people: director Shunya Ito, who makes an extremely creditable debut here, and star Meiko Kaji. Ito and Kaji, and the combination of their skills, conspire to create something that consistently surprises with its qualities. Kaji plays the titular Prisoner 701, imprisoned for the attempted murder of her boyfriend; a corrupt cop who uses her to get one over on a drug running gang, causing her to be raped. She’s doing hard time, but it only gets harder when her escape attempt put the whole prison on punishment detail, setting both guards and inmates against her.

This being a women in prison exploitation film, almost all of the convicts are inordinately beautiful, but even in this company, Kaji sticks out. She has to, because she has very little dialogue, and instead the film relies on her face for her performance, and what a face it is. Kaji has a hard, fierce beauty about her in this film; a coldness of purpose that reflects the film’s theme, sung by Kaji herself and titled Grudge Song. It’s perhaps not the biggest acting challenge, but we buy into the hatred powering her vengeance, and beyond that there’s just a presence about her that means that, like a true movie star, Kaji always draws your eye.

The film is more a series of moments than a larger story (though the last ten minutes do pick up the dangling vengeance plot thread), but Shunya Ito strings the film together so unexpectedly stylishly that the lack of a truly satisfying throughline for most of the film really doesn’t matter. Ito’s images are often extremely striking; take for example a shower scene in which one prisoner tries to frame another for trying to escape, only for Kaji to turn the tables. This leads to a chase, and to the guilty prisoner taking a glass door to the face, at which point the lighting and the woman’s wounds become incredibly stylised, making her look demonic and the whole scene something more out of Kabuki than a women in prison flick. These moments recur throughout the film, another striking moment bathes the film in red light as a swirling red and black sky appears when the women – being punished by being made to dig a huge pit – riot. Visually, Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion is an incredibly engaging film that continually throws you for a loop by breaking visual genre conventions, even if only by seeming as though someone has put thought beyond ‘how can we get more boobs in this shot?’ into the film’s look.

Aside from the visuals it is reasonably conventional, and the pacing sometimes feels off (only returning to the vengeance plot in the last ten minutes is a problem), but this is an entertaining film for an exploitation fan, and much better crafted than I expected. It’s well worth a look if you’re into your grindhouse films.

Manji  ['64]  [18]
Dir: Yasuzo Masamura
Manji, meaning Passion in English, has now been filmed at least three times, in increasingly explicit versions, but this 1964 collaboration between writer Kaneto Shindo (whose Onibaba I recently saw and loved) and director Yasuzo Masamura is the original version. I’ve not seen the other versions, but I may well try to track them down, because there is a story at the centre of this film that I think is really compelling but, despite this and despite its several undoubted qualities, I never really got into Manji.

The story sees Sonoko (Kyoko Kishida), a housewife in her mid thirties falling in love with a younger woman in her art class; Mitsuko (Ayako Wakao). The relationship becomes, at least from Sonoko’s side, truly obsessive and needy, and begins to draw in other people from her life, including her own husband, and a friend who she pledges to make her brother, then marry him off to Mitsuko so they can share her. For her part, Mitsuko seems to recognise the obsession, but does she share it or is she using it?

The central story here is interesting, and it’s hard to fault either of the lead actresses. Kyoko Kishida really carries the film, narrating it in flashback, and her ever increasingly desperate performance is well judged and not a little sad. Equally Ayako Wakao schemes in effectively subtle style, and looks just about as perfect as Kishida tells her. The problem, for me, was that the obsession, even as it grows, doesn’t truly convince at a character level. The pitch of Shindo’s screenplay is melodramatic so early (20 minutes in it’s already indulging in talk of who would die for whom) that you never really get a sense of the obsession taking root. The actresses do what they are tasked with well, but it just doesn’t quite add up for me. The other problem is that after the very fast first half hour the pace slows and, bound as it is to Sonoko’s house, the film begins to feel a bit stagy – at least between occasional flashes of Masamura’s customary visual flair.

Masamura is an intensely visual filmmaker, and Blind Beast, years after I first saw it, continues to fascinate me with its surreality. Manji doesn’t always have the same visual flair, but there are moments that really mark it out as the work of the same filmmaker. Best and most striking is a scene in which Mitsuko says she’s given a sleeping drug to herself, her husband and Sonoko, but in fact has only given the real drug to Sonoko, who drifts in and out of consciousness, extremely jealous, as Mitsuko and her husband make love in the same bed. Here the bodies seem almost to be landscapes, and Masamura gives the sequence a dreamlike quality that places you inside Sonoko’s experience of this moment. The film never quite matches this scene, thought it does have consistently interesting framing and design.

It’s hard to explain why I didn’t get much out of Manji, other than to say that it’s a film I looked at and saw qualities in, rather than truly connecting with. For me it’s just missing that disturbing edge that would really make it compelling as a film about sexual obsession, because I don’t quite buy into the depths of that obsession. It’s a tough film to rate, but ultimately there are enough good things in it to warrant a partial recommendation.

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