Porco Rosso [Kurenai no ButaPorco] (1992)

Bringing Home The Bacon

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Combining elements from CasablancaOnly Angels Have Wings and A Matter Of Life And DeathPorco Rosso is Studio Ghibli’s romantic, swashbuckling cocktail. Porco Rosso (Italian for Red Pig), real name, Marco Pagot is an ex-Italian World War I fighter pilot turned bounty hunter in the Adriatic Sea. Porco is a Bogartian figure with his cool detachment, political apathy and romantic distance, but his most significant character trait is that derived from his physical appearance. Porco has had a curse put upon him turning him into, well, an anthropomorphic pig. Why is the film’s protagonist a pig? The two most apparent interpretations being firstly a reference to the saying “when pigs fly” and the cultural perception in the west (as well as in faiths such as Judaism and Islam) of pigs being dirty animals (keeping in mind the film is set in a western country). A common reading is that Porco put the spell upon himself out of survivor’s guilt when the rest of his comrades died in battle. He views himself as swine – self-loathing and unworthy of living. It’s only through the validation and the friendship he shares with the character of Fio that comes to cure him of this affliction. How someone possesses the supernatural ability to turn into an anthropomorphic animal is never explained nor does anyone in this world question why there is a walking-talking hog existing among humans. Still, the film has enough going for it to overcome this suspension of disbelief (Porco is even a hit with the ladies despite his appearance so I guess looks aren’t everything). The film’s ending indicates the curse may have been lifted but ultimately leaves the question unanswered. 

Porco Rosso is one of the few films directed by Hayao Miyazaki in which the historical and geographical setting is clearly defined and gives the director a chance to indulge in his Europhilia with the film’s picture postcard scenes of Italy and the Adriatic Sea. Academic Chris Wood states in his article “The European Fantasy Space and Identity Construction In Porco Rosso” that the film can be understood as a representation of wakon yōsai (Japanese spirit, western learning) – a tendency, since the Meiji period, for Japanese artists to paint Europe in a spectacular manner, while simultaneously maintaining the distance necessary to preserve a distinct sense of Japanese identity. Chris Wood states, “[In Porco Rosso] Europe is tamed, rendered as a charming site of pleasurable consumption, made distant and viewed through a tourist gaze“. So yes, Hayao Miyazaki is a European otaku. If there is a scene in the movie which captures this beautifully then it has to be the flashback to a young Porco (or Marco as he would have been known before his curse) and his longtime friend Gina lifting an early seaplane into the air in this display of pure unabashed nostalgia which captures the human desire to fly (thanks in large part of the enchanting music score by Joe Hisaishi). Likewise, one of the film’s most striking scenes has to be the flashback to Porco’s near-death experience and the origin of his curse. In this otherworldly sequence following a battle near the end of the war, Porco found himself in what the film describes as cloud prairie (I can’t find any reference to this term outside the movie), in which fighter planes from other nations rise above him into the sky as if there are entering heaven. The scene has similar vibes to the stairway to heaven from Powell & Pressburger’s A Matter of Life And Death while the use of synthesizers in the music score really makes it all the more captivating and eerie.

Porco Rosso is set during the final days of the roaring twenties and upon the onset of the Great Depression (“Farewell to the days of fun and freedom in the Adriatic”). The film’s setting also partakes in alternative history in which the wider Mediterranean Sea is beset with air pirates (albeit highly incompetent air pirates as reflected in their comical, circus-like theme music). From a romantic point of view it’s sad to say that air pirates are not real bar one incident in 1917 in which a civilian Norwegian schooner named Royal was boarded and captured by a party flying a German Zeppelin L23 – is the closest we’ve ever come to having steampunk fantasy become reality? As far as coinciding with actual history, Porco Rosso takes place during the days of Mussolini’s Italy as marchers in the street wave blue & green flags with bankers wearing the same design as armbands (this flag itself is fictional and was never an actual historical Italian flag). Porco is put under pressure from a former WWI comrade to join the state’s military to which he responds with the line “Better a pig than a fascist”. More sinister is the scene in which Porco pays off a loan at the bank and the teller asks him if he will invest in a patriot bond which of course, is only voluntary (wink wink). Despite its backdrop, Porco Rosso remains a largely apolitical film but if anything it shows that even under authoritarianism, life goes on.

The semi-love interest of Porco Rosso comes in the form of the pure feminine grace that is Madame Gina, of whom every flyer in the Adriatic is in love with as Fio claims. A longtime friend of Porco and his now deceased comrades, the film presents her as being “one of the guys” while not sacrificing any of her womanly demeanour. She will quickly run to a boat in a feminine stride but will make an epic and lengthy jump off the boat back onto the pier if required. Gina will dress to exemplance, even when in private and I do have to question if any particular Golden Age Hollywood actress is modeled after her? I am getting Mary Astor vibes myself. Gina occupies the island hotel known as the Hotel Adriano although it’s not made clear in the original Japanese version if she actually owns the establishment however, in the English dub, she refers to the place as “My restaurant” and the private garden as “my garden”. Regardless, the establishment is where all the hotshot flyboys of the Adriatic hang out where they kick back, relax and listen to Gina sing songs of lovers long lost. Like Rick’s Café Américain in Casablanca, there is an unwritten truce between all men. In the clouds, you may be enemies but at Gina’s place, everyone is your buddy. In her introductory scene, Gina shows little emotion in relation to having been told the news earlier in the day that her third husband had died in a flying accident, which as seen in films like Only Angels With Wings, was the norm in the early days of aviation. Porco and Gina share a “beauty and the beast” romance in which they never verbalise their feelings towards each other but you can tell there is a deep affection between the two. The other major female presence in Porco Rosso is the young Fio Piccolo, the counterbalance to Porco’s bleakness (and whose grandfather appears to be related to Hans Moleman). Porco doesn’t trust her to design him a new plane due to her being young and a girl says she understands this and doesn’t take offence. Rather Fio is aware that she needs to prove herself to him instead of just dismissing him as a sexist, well, pig (“Forgive my sins of using women’s hands to build a warplane”). However, it is somewhat odd the film concludes with narration from Fio’s point of view when this never happened at any other point in the film.

Porco Rosso does have one of the better Studio Ghibli English dubs, especially with the casting of Michael Keaton as the titular swine whose voice talents perfectly capture the world-weary cynicism of the character. I also enjoy Brad Garrett as the dopey pirate Capo while the announcer aboard the cruise liner as its being attacked by pirates adds some great deadpan humour to the proceedings. The sound mix of the dub is inferior when compared to the original while the lack of any reverb on the voices during the flying sequences is slightly jarring. Gina’s cover of the French song Le Temps Des Cerises is also re-recorded although there was no need to do so and I do consider the vocal performance on the original to be superior. Be that as it may, it’s Cary Ellwes’ southern drawl for the Errol Flynn-esque Donald Curtis which really add extra character to the dubbed version (in the Japanese version he is from Alabama whereas in the dub it mentions he is from Texas). The quasi villain of the picture, Curtis is a Hollywood actor who on his down time like Frank Sinatra, appears to converse with outlaws, while his delusions of grandeur thinking he will become President Of The United States with Madame Gina as his First Lady does make him somewhat endearing. Curtis does attempt to kill Porco by taking out his plane only to later discover his attempt was unsuccessful, eventually leading to the picture’s finale in which the two men sort out their differences through some mono e mono (in which Porco doesn’t even remove his glasses). I understand the psychological aspect of men making amends and even becoming friends after engaging in hand-to-hand combat, but Curtis did literally try to murder Porco earlier in the film, but I digress. Porco Rosso is another breed of artistic excellence from Studio Ghibli, you uncultured swine.

Gigi (1958)

Not With A Bang But With A Whimper

By all indications, Gigi should be a musical masterpiece, the last hurrah of Metro Goldwyn Mayer’s Freed Unit and yet, it took me several viewing attempts to actually sit through Gigi in its entirety, extracting as much appreciation as I can from what the film has to offer. While there are aspects of this musical vacation I enjoy, there is a synergy derived from one of the film’s songs which sums up this disappointing production, the ironically titled It’s A Bore.

So how did a major Hollywood movie about a girl being trained to become a prostitute get made in 1958? The film is full of gags about the French stereotype of impropriety however the film doesn’t outright state that Gilberte “Gigi” (Leslie Caron) is being trained to become a courtesan and a less in-tune viewer looking at the film from an anglo-centric perspective as opposed to a continental one may just think she is receiving lessons in etiquette. One of the film’s more successful elements is its (often dark) Ernst Lubitsch-style comedy from casual conversation on Laine d’Exelman’s (Eva Gabor) failed suicide attempts to Gigi’s mentally ill, off-screen mother’s out-of-tune singing. The other aspect of the film tying it to Lubitsch is the casting of the ever charming epitome of Frenchness, Lubitsch pre-code regular Maurice Chevalier. However, when it comes to the film’s two leads, Leslie Caron and Louis Jordan as Gigi’s eventual love interest Gaston Lachaille, I’m not seeing many sparks. They make for a decent pairing but I’m never left thinking these two were made for each other nor am I dying to see them end up together. This romance fails to create any real conflict in the story nor does Gaston’s boredom with everyday life or Gigi’s disdain for her training and the Parisian obsession with love. Gigi’s age is never stated however Caron was 26 at the time of filming yet she looks like a girl in her teens and like Ginger Rogers in The Major and The Minor, it is an impressive transition (in earlier films she looked older).

Ah Paris, the preferred setting of every romantic comedy made in the ’50s and ’60s. Gigi does deliver the goods with a slice of turn-of-the-century nostalgia (if only the characters knew they would have two world wars ahead of them, you cheese-eating surrender monkeys). However, this world is captured using Metrocolor which was never as visually eye-popping as Technicolor (nor was any colour process post-Technicolor). Compare Gigi with earlier Vincente Minnelli-directed musicals such as Meet Me In St Louis or An American In Paris and there is a clear downgrade in aesthetic beauty. Despite this (as well as some less than stellar rear projection during It’s a Bore number) Minnelli was one of the best directors when it came to the ability to compose shots (or mise-en-scène to use a pretentious French term) that look like paintings. Gigi does contain some stunning frames from Gaston’s silhouette at the fountain to any of the shots within the Grandmother’s apartment in which the bright red background beautifully contrasts Gigi’s blue dress. The real-world locations also give the picture a big boast from the Ice Palace skating rink (the former Palais des Glaces) to the interior of Gaston’s home which was filmed inside an actual museum (Musée Jacquemart-Andre).

The lush orchestrations of the MGM Studio Orchestra do deliver the goods however none of the songs has me rushing out to listen to the film’s soundtrack (while Thank Heaven For Little Girls doesn’t help matters with its unintentionally creepy lyrics). Gigi is an all singing but no dancing affair; there is no hoofer action and the cast sings while walking, riding or just sitting down (The Night They Invented Champagne being the only number with a brief stint of dancing). On top of that, Gigi also lacks any grand finale like the ballet in An American In Paris. Come the conclusion I was left with the reaction of “that’s it?”. What a legacy the MGM musicals left behind, it’s just a shame they went out not with a bang but with a whimper.

From Up On Poppy Hill [Kokuriko-zaka Kara] (2011)

Close Knit Family

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Opening a film in which the protagonist is seen getting out of bed and going about their morning routine is one of the most cliché ways of beginning a story (i.e, every student film ever), but From Up On Poppy Hill is so utterly likeable that I don’t care. Set in Japan’s port city of Yokohama circa 1963, the romantic, seaside setting really amps the film’s likeability with the accompanying nostalgic soundtrack being a pure delight from the opening ragtime theme to the Nina Rota style compositions as well as the use of Kyu Sakamoto’s Ue o Muite Arukō (known in the US as Sukiyaki in which it charted at number 1 in 1963). With a script from Miyazaki Sr and directed by Miyazaki Jr, From Up On Poppy Hill is structured like a melodrama with its use of dramatic flashbacks and the common melodramatic trope of a maritime setting. At one point the picture even makes reference to its melodramatic state (“It’s like some cheap melodrama”).

Umi Matsuzaki is the eldest child in her family and has responsibility thrust upon her following her father’s death and her mother’s departure to study abroad resulting in her making everyone’s meals, keeping fiancés in check and raising maritime signal flags every morning. The selfless and humble nature of a character like this could easily come off as aggrandizing but rather the character of Umi does come off as somewhat inspirational with her ability to bring out the best in those around her, earning her the title of “Goddess of good luck”. Umi develops feelings for fellow student Shun Kazama, however, Shun ends up discovering as a result of post-war circumstances, that Umi is actually his sister (although this turns out not to be the case come the film’s end). The two are forced to continue as only friends although it’s evident they are trying to retrain their feelings for each other. This culminates in a scene by a bus stop in which Umi states “I’m in love with you Shun. Even if we’re related, even if you’re my brother, my feelings will never change” to which Shun responds “I feel the same about you”. There is historic precedence for this as From Up On Poppy Hill is set at the time following the war in which young couples in Japan couldn’t be too sure that they were not related in some way but it doesn’t change the fact that the scene is an absolutely jaw-dropping moment. The scene is played out to be romantic and perhaps the movie could have dealt with the subject matter in a different manner as opposed to upping the swoon factor over an incestuous relationship but I digress.

The other major plot point present in From Up On Poppy Hill regards the theme of traditionalism vs modernism as the students of the local high-school try to save their clubhouse known as The Latin Quarter which is set to be demolished and replaced with a new building ahead of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The Latin Quarter in its old state is a massive, creaky building with so much character contained within its walls in which every inch is in use – as a viewer I did become invested in its conservation. At a demolition meeting, Shun runs onto the stage like Elmer Gantry and declares “There’s no future for people who worship the future and forget the past”. Unintentionally prescient with this theme is that come the turn of the decade when From Up On Poppy Hill was released, the west had entirely done away with traditional animation on the big screen (bar a few pockets), whereas Japan has so far never let it go. Correspondingly, it is wholesome just how passionate these students are about learning (in particular the overly enthusiastic philosophy-loving giant) with The Latin Quarter having a club for just about every intellectual pursuit. Compare this to any American film set in a frat house where anarchy, mischief and mayhem are the name of the game. Alongside Umi and the responsibility thrust upon her, all these kids are more than ready for adulthood. I for one welcome our new oriental overlords.

Speaking of references to other pictures, in one of the film’s establishing shots, a single factory chimney is shown emitting Pink smoke whereas the others emit regular smoke. Anyone who has seen Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low will understand this possible reference, keeping in mind the Kurosawa picture is also set in Yokohama and was released in 1963 (so I can assume both these movies unofficially take place in the same universe). Likewise, when Umi sees her mother’s red slippers as an indication that she has returned home after months away, is this a nod to The Wizard Of Oz and its famous line “There’s no place like home”?

If there is one great standout supporting character in From Up On Poppy Hill has to be the high school’s chairman Chief Director Tokumaru, a total chad with his rough, gravely voice, larger-than-life figure, flawless posture and upbeat personality. He is not at all a typical, slimy bureaucrat and understands the kids on their level and is sympathetic to their cause. When the kids go to visit his office in Tokyo, he asks Umi in the past tense “what did your father do?”. There is no indication that he knew the kids beforehand and seems to instinctively know her father was dead. Having a figure like this in a position of power probably explains how the students were able to infiltrate the Ikiru level bureaucracy to save The Latin Quarter.  

Seven Chances (1925)

For Love Nor Money

Much of the beauty of Buster Keaton’s films comes from their simplicity. Jimmie Shannon (Keaton) learns he will inherit 7 million dollars (105 million in 2019) providing he is married by the evening of his 27th birthday. Jimmie is not yet married and it just so turns out, his 27th birthday is today (the only question I would pose about the premise is how they define “by the evening” as being 7 o’clock but I digress). Seven Chances is split into two distinct sections, the preamble and then the action-orientated second half. The picture is only 56 minutes long and the pacing is just about perfect in this Metro-Goldwyn Production (just before the Mayer was thrown in). Seven Chances is one of three Keaton features which sees him play a rich nitwit, similar to the characters he would play in The Navigator and Battling Butler. With the film’s theme of Money vs. Love, the picture goes to the effort of getting the audience’s sympathy and making the protagonist less of a heal. The endearing opening prologue establishes that Jimmie loves his girlfriend Mary (Ruth Dwyer) but is too tongue-tied and shy to confess his feelings towards her. After Jimmie bungles a proposal to Mary with a tactless remark, he refuses to marry anyone else and has to be persuaded by his business partner to marry another woman. At one point, he even refuses to marry his gal because he wants to spare her from what he believes is the failure and disgrace that awaits him. Likewise, the film also establishes that Jimmie’s brokerage firm is in trouble after being tricked into a shady deal and thus himself and his partner face ruin and possibly prison, justifying his need for the money. If the main character’s motivation was that of pure greed then the film simply wouldn’t work.

The first half of Seven Chances involves Keaton making many socially awkward marriage proposals, first with a failed attempt to Mary and then to a series of women at a country club (his seven chances). Possibly due to its origins as a stage play, Seven Chances has a higher ratio of jokes which have a greater degree of input from other cast members or don’t involve Keaton at all, with T. Roy Barnes and Snitz Edwards receiving many comic highlights. However, the film’s best, unsung cast member would have to be the Anna May Wong lookalike of the hat check girl who displays great underplayed comic timing with Keaton (according to the article Married In Haste by Imogen Sara Smith, the uncredited actress is named Rosalind Byrne). Seven Chances also includes an early screen appearance from future screwball dame Jean Arthur as the secretary Miss Smith (or so her name tag suggests as she later shows Jimmie her wedding ring). It may be a silent film but she still conveys that wisecracking attitude and laidback persona with her body language and that expressive face (often seen reading a book while she is on the job).

As Jimmie becomes increasingly desperate to find a bride he runs up towards a woman only to see that she is black. Now keep in mind that miscegenation was illegal in California until 1948. Is Jimmie showing repulsion over her race or disappointment that he legally cannot marry her? The gag could be interpreted as a jab at such laws however at least one black woman does come to the church later on to marry him. Subsequently, Jimmie approaches another woman only to stop pursuing her upon discovering she is Jewish after she holds up a newspaper in Yiddish. Many reviewers mistake the newspaper to be printed in Hebrew which was not a widely spoken language among Jews at the time whereas Yiddish was (several newspapers in this language did exist in the US at the time and I’m curious as to what the text on the paper translates to). It’s not clear if the girl even speaks English as when Jimmie speaks to her she looks confused and just shrugs her shoulders. Does Jimmie avoid marrying her due to language barriers, the issues derived from marrying a Jewish woman or just anti-Semitism on his part (to derive some humour from shock value)? Likewise, another woman Jimmie encounters gives him a quick rejection to which he informs his partners immediately afterwards, “Wrong party” – make of that what you will. The only joke in the film in which context is required for a modern viewer is that in which Jimmie walks into a theatre featuring what appears to be a female performer, only for him to walk out seconds later in a ruffled-up state upon discovering the performer in question is Julian Eltinge, a cross-dressing performer of the time. I will say it is the weakest gag in the film as it’s not particularly clever.

The two-strip Technicolor footage from the film’s opening prologue hasn’t survived well and has a very washed-out look however the remainder of the film from the 4K restoration comes in a lovely sepia-tone print. As far as Keaton’s technical wizardry, the automobile transitions are a unique experiment as Jimmie hops into a car and the shot fades to a different location with the car and Keaton remaining in the same screen position. What’s particularly impressive about these transitions are the spokes on the wheels which remain in the exact same position in both shots – blink and you miss it attention to detail. Seven Chances also includes many shots of Keaton’s early pioneering of deep focus cinematography such as the interior shots of the church with a sleeping Jimmie on the front bench as scores of perspective brides make their way in via the background and all in clear focus. Speaking off…

The second half of Seven Chances is comprised of the set-up and execution of a colossal chase sequence. After failing to find a bride, Jimmie and co print an advertisement in the evening newspaper informing whatever lucky woman shows up at the Broad Street Church at 5 pm will become the bride-to-be for the forthcoming millionaire. Come 5 pm and the church has been beset with hundreds of prospective brides to which the church’s clergyman appears and announces he believes the whole thing to be a practical joke. Infuriated, the brides chase after Jimmie who subsequently discovers Mary wants to marry him after all.  This chase involves the most extras employed in a Keaton film, outdoing his 1922 shorts Cops which acts as a precursor to Seven Chances. The women in their makeshift bridal outfits destroy everything in their path like a stampeding herd of elephants in their pursuit of Jimmie. Keaton shot many of his films using locales in Los Angeles and Seven Chances is another great example of how he was able to use the city as his playground. From the trolleys, automobiles, open fields and orchards; it’s a wonderful showcase of vintage west-coast Americana. The sequence keeps upping the ante with every new obstacle from football players, beehives and duck hunters with much of the carnage reminiscent of what Peter Bogdanovich would execute in his screwball comedy homage What’s Up Doc?. The manner in which Keaton moves his legs as he’s running as fast as he can is like a character in a Hanna-Barbara animation and his stunt work really makes you say “is he really doing that?”. At one point he even runs into a barbed wire fence which he subsequently tries to untangle himself from – it looks painful. The film does feature some same shot edits on several of the stunts but it doesn’t ruin one’s state of disbelief. The chase culminates in one of the most surreal of Keaton moments as he gets Indiana Jones’d by hoards of falling boulders. In reality, the rocks were made out of papier-mâché however I do find the physics of the boulders believable, you can feel the weight of them as they roll and bounce around. It appears that Keaton does engage in The Prometheus School Of Running Away From Things as at several moments he could have just run to the left or right to avoid the boulders, but the scene is so entertaining I can suspend my disbelief. Buster Keaton was truly beyond us mere mortals.

Whisper Of The Heart [Mimi o Sumaseba] (1995)

I Don’t Think There’s Any Artist Of Any Value Who Doesn’t Doubt What They Are Doing

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Whisper Of The Heart is Studio Ghibli’s love letter to creatives and a picture which contains great insight into the uncertainty derived from growing up and the role of education in this nostalgic coming-of-age tale. Fourteen-year-old Shizuku Tsukishima is the cheerful and infectiously optimistic protagonist of the story. She manages to find the joy in the mundanity of everyday life from something as simple as the sun coming out to seeing a positive message on the side of a blimp. Just observe the pure joy she gets from finding a quirky antiques store in a suburb (perhaps a bit too much as she nearly gets hit by a car while running across the road and never realizes it). The eccentricity of Japan is even on subtle display from the fact that a pork pie hat can be worn in common parlance and a girl can pursue a chonky cat for quite some distance just for the fun of it. It’s this aspect of Whisper Of The Heart which really makes you want to cherish life’s little moments.

Whisper Of The Heart is set over the course of 1994 (as indicated by Shizuku’s calendar), with a number of subtle indications for the passing of time throughout the film. The most noticeable of these being the seasonal variation of Shizuku’s school uniform with a white top for spring/summer and a navy-blue alternative for fall/winter. The initial catalyst of the story is set into motion when Shizuku’s father informs her that the local library is going through a transition from the old-fashioned book card system to a barcode system, much to her disappointment (I can recall my local library still using book cards in the early 2010’s). Goddammit modernity, sometimes the old ways are just better! It’s this tradition which ignites the film’s romance as Shizuku notices someone by the name of Seiji Amasawa has been taking out all the same books as her in this variation on The Shop Around The Corner formula re-imagined for the 1990’s. Shizuku and Seiji themselves aren’t too dissimilar to Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan in Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 romantic comedy with Seiji’s initially jerky behaviour and Shizuku’s bookworm personality (unfortunately, when I was off this age any expression of a desire to read was social suicide – sad but true). 

As is a common recurrence in Studio Ghibli’s films, Whisper Of The Heart is the story of a young, teenage girl forced into a position of maturity (it does make sense that the female sex tends to be the focus of these stories as research has shown that girls on average mature faster than boys). One major interlocked aspect of Whisper Of The Heart is the classic conflict of education vs. hands-on/real-world experience. Shizuku is attending middle school (aka junior high school) and is studying for her high-school entrance exams. Her love interest Seiji on-the-other-hand opts to attend a trade school in Cremona, Italy to further learn the craft of making violins rather than attend high school, much against his parent’s wishes (high school is not compulsory in Japan). This disapproval highlights the lack of respect one can entail for a practical hands-on profession over a more middle-class, so-called “real job”. Part of Shizuku’s impetus to embark on her writing of a novel comes from the insecurity that Seiji is far more developed in his own art form. Her focus on writing begins to affect her school grades, feeling that her need to write a first draft of her novel within two months before Seiji returns from Italy is more important than her school grades. Unlike Seiji, Shizuku doesn’t know what she wants to do with her future. She asks her older sister Shiho when she decided on her future, to which she responds with the dubious answer, “I’m at university finding that out”. This quote is particularly prevalent from a UK-centric point-of-view, when official figures state in the year 2017/18, 50.2 per cent of English 17-30-year-olds had participated in higher education, 20 years after the New Labour government set the target of having 50% of young people attend university (with these degrees often being of a useless nature and provide no stepping stone to a future career). From a personal point of view, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with the rest of my life when I was 14 and it’s self-evident very few people of that age either have any idea. Seiji’s oddball choice of profession as a violin maker is an appropriate one at the end of the day as his character is an outlier of a person in their teens who has a definitive idea of what they want to do with their life. The film doesn’t take a position on the question on the role of higher education but does raise many a thought-provoking point as to its effectiveness. Come the film’s end, Shizuku returns to studying for her entrance exams. I can however relate to Shizuku’s unwillingness and nervous disposition to tell the rest of her family about her writing project even though they are aware something is occupying her time, to which her understanding parents sympathize and don’t question her on it any further.

Seiji’s grandfather and owner of the antiques store Shiro explains how artists or writers develop and grow in their talents with a simple metaphor – “The rough stone is inside you. You have to find it and then polish it”. Shizuku holds intense self-doubt about her work, disagreeing with anyone when they praise her work. This intensely self-critical manner and strive for perfection overtakes her and leads to overpowering anxiety when she shows Shiro the first draft of her novel. To quote filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, “I don’t think there’s any artist of any value who doesn’t doubt what they are doing.” – It’s this which really drives at the heart of Whisper Of The Heart. The picture showcases the highs and the lows that can be endured by creatives and parallels between the feeling of falling in love and the thrill that comes with creative pursuits. That scene in which a band has an impromptu performance of Country Roads as Shizuku sings her little heart out and gradually falls for Seiji (still unaware he is the boy on her book cards) combines these elements in a wonderfully corny scene. Whisper Of The Heart does hold parallels to fellow Ghibli film Kiki’s Delivery Service with protagonists succumbing to stress, burnout and depression (also is Shizuku’s older sister a recycled character model of Ursula?). Whisper Of The Heart is after all set in a country in which death by overwork is so tragically common that it even has a name – Karoshi (“You doctor yet? No Dad I’m 12. Talk to me when you doctor!”). The ultimate irony of this is that the Whisper Of The Heart’s director Yoshifumi Kondo would pass away 3 years following the film’s release from an aneurysm brought on by overwork. Whisper Of The Heart would be his only directorial feature, with Kondo joining the likes of Charles Laughton or Walter Murch as directors who have helmed only a single film, but what a film it would be.

My first viewing of Whisper Of The Heart was somewhat marred by the film’s misleading (albeit still beautiful) poster, giving me the false assumption that Whisper Of The Heart was going to be a fantasy film in the vein of a picture like Labyrinth. This lead me to wonder when this non-existent fantasy element was going to kick in during the film’s first third, only to then realize it wasn’t that kind of film. The fantasy sequence inside Shizuku’s head which inspired the poster in which Shizuku and an anthropomorphic cat known as The Baron fly Superman ’78 style is a beautiful combination of fantasy and reality as those giant pillars (which do remind me of the backgrounds in Super Mario World) raise high into the sky above the suburbs of Shizuku’s world of West Tokyo. It’s easy to sound like a broken record when talking about the aesthetics of Studio Ghibli’s films, but god, this film is just so beautiful to look at it puts a smile on my face from the eye-popping colour of suburban Tokyo to those urban night-time landscapes. Even the film’s more mundane subjects such as the apartment block in which the Tsukishima family resides would be ugly in real life but has a certain beauty to it in the animated form. Correspondingly, the music score by Yuji Nomi is one of great variety from the whimsical nature of A Hilly Town to the Aussie outback vibe from The Cat Chases and even medieval-themed compositions with the track Engelszimmer. These pieces of orchestrated beauty make for a welcome contrast with the film’s urban setting however the film does also provide some more in-tune accompaniments to the Tokyo landscape with its use of electronic sounds and synthesizers as heard in Taking The Train and Starry Night Sky. Furthermore, I can’t help but notice similarities between the track A Hilly Town and the piece In The Evening Midst from the oddball, Japanese horror movie House, while these two aforementioned pieces of music surely must have influenced Michael Giacchino’s piece Married Life from Pixar’s Up (is it just me or do these three pieces of music work extremely well when listened to in tandem?). Whisper Of The Heart is also a rare instance of Ghibli film to feature licensed music with its recurring use of variations with John Denver’s Country Roads, including a real humdinger of a cover during the film’s end credits in which it is given the city-pop treatment. Correspondingly, like many a Japanese film, the always reliable sound of cicadas increases the atmosphere of anything tenfold.

Whisper Of The Heart concludes with a very sudden marriage proposal from Seiji to Shizuku. In the original manga from which the film is adapted, Seiji only says “I love you” but the film’s screenwriter Hayao Miyazaki changed the line to “I can’t say how soon it’ll be, but would you marry me?“. To quote the big man himself in defending this position – “I wanted to make a conclusion, a definite sense of ending. Too many young people now are afraid of commitment, and stay on moratorium forever. I wanted these two to just commit to something, not just ‘well, we’ll see what will happen”. Putting aside the oddity of receiving and accepting a marriage proposal when neither are of legal marrying age, I do agree this sense of commitment coming from these characters gives the film’s conclusion greater emotional weight (although I will say the film ends very abruptly and could have done with a few seconds to let the viewer take it all in). The Japanese and English dubs have different lines of dialogue in this final scene. In the Japanese version, Seiji makes the aforementioned proposal to which Shizuku nods and Seiji asks if she’s sure to which she replies “That’s exactly what I wanted.” However, in the English dub, their discussion of marriage is more tenuous. Seiji asks, “Could you see us getting married someday?” to which Shizuku nods and they agree that his question was corny. It feels like those responsible for the picture’s English dub had a lack of faith in the source material and outright disrespected it with said changes. Regardless, I am a sucker for a good story of hopeless romantics and this impulsive love present in the original Japanese version of Whisper Of The Heart defiantly delivers on the desired level of swooning.

Jezebel (1938)

I Do Believe I’ll Give Room Service A Jangle And Have Them Send Up Some Étouffée

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The antebellum south of the United States often makes the perfect setting for stories of decadence and doom as history has shown it wasn’t going to last. The Spanish moss hanging in the moonlight, the sounds of mockingbirds in the magnolia to the grand sweeping plantations and even the occasional utterance of Cajun French conjures a world which one can become lost in, but one of which it’s iconic architecture would later become associated with the dark genre of southern gothic in its future state of disrepair. This is the world present within the costume drama Jezebel, of which there are plenty of costumes and plenty of drama.

Bette Davis stars as the headstrong and manipulative southern belle Miss Julie Marsden. Contrary to the film’s title, the character is not actually called Jezebel. Rather this is the name given to her by her Aunt Massey (Fay Bainter) following Miss Julie’s less-than-stellar behaviour. The name is derived from the biblical figure present in Kings I and II, in which Jezebel is portrayed as an evil queen who engages in idolatry and leads men astray. In modern vernacular, a Jezebel is a woman who is regarded as sexually immoral or manipulative. Miss Julie Marsden resides within the upper class of New Orleans circa 1852, a world in which etiquette, dignity, good manners and dress codes are absolutely paramount and taken extremely seriously (“Punctuality is the politeness of kings”). Take the latter dinner scene at the Halcyon plantation (sounds like a ship from a science-fiction movie), tension is gradually created from the gentlemen’s political disagreements as the mood becomes increasingly passive-aggressive yet never is a voice raised. Miss Julie on-the-other-hand is a woman who likes to do as she pleases and gets a kick out of shocking people. From her character’s introduction, Miss Julie chooses to break the rules of the game by arriving at her own party late and wearing inappropriate clothes while shortly afterwards, the symbolism employed by her walking through the city bank to get her fiancé Preston Dillard (Henry Fonda) is on stark display.

The main driver of conflict in the first act of Jezebel is over an infamous red dress which Miss Julie chooses to wear to the Olympus Ball. The expectation of southern society being that only unmarried girls wear white but Miss Julie rebuffs this with her current year argument, “This is 1852, dumpling. 1852, not the dark ages”. No one in the film outright says it, but this is a whore’s dress, one which women wear in the gambling halls, steeped in the colour of both sexual sin and menstrual blood, not appropriate for a young, virginal woman of the upper class. Jezebel was made under the Production Code and the closest anyone gets to making the aforementioned connection is Julie’s rebuttal to Preston’s horrified reaction to the dress, “Are you afraid somebody will take me for one of those girls from Gallatin Street?”. I do find some unintentional humour is derived from the fact that so much hubbub is made from this dress being red, yet the movie is black & white (reminds me of that colourblind gag in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood), however in reality the dress in question was actually bronze. Miss Julie comes to regret her decision to wear the red dress to the ball, but Preston makes her go through with it, forcing her to live out the nightmare she has created. Speaking off moments which straddle the line of the production code, when Preston takes the cane up to Julie’s room to supposedly thrash her, the scene appears to linger on that thought. As Julie tries to play mind games with Preston she glances at the cane four times (with the camera even lingering on it for a mid-shot) as though she’s half expecting him to use the phallic device. As a result, the scene has an almost erotic vibe to it. 

The young and dashing Henry Fonda stars as Preston ‘Pres’ Dillard. As common with many of Fonda’s roles, Pres is a man of great dignity and integrity without ever coming off as being obnoxiously righteous (“I think it was Voltaire who said I disagree with everything you say, and I will defend to the death your right to say it”). A southern-born man with a great love of his homeland, Pres Dillard has adopted the attitude of the northern states and is not content with the quo of the south, desiring civic improvements with railroads and sanitation and although he never outright says it, likely to curry public favour, it’s clear he is an abolitionist. In one key scene, he asks the slave Uncle Cato (Lew Payton) to share a drink with him, to which Cato obliges but only if he takes the drink to another room. Pres even later comes to marry a northern woman in the form of Amy (Margaret Lindsay), a woman who doesn’t have the domineering and rambunctious personality of Miss Julie. As a result of these transgressions, Pres is come to be seen as a traitor and the Uncle Tom by his fellow southern men, in particular Buck Cantrell (George Brent). 

Buck Cantrell is very much the opposite of Pres. The film’s metaphor for southern interests, the man’s foolish gallantry ends up costing him his life in a duel over a petty disagreement. I hadn’t previously thought much of Brent as an actor but his Clark Gable-like swagger in Jezebel makes him a real show stealer while his interplay with Davis really helps bring out the best in him (the virgin Buck Cantrell vs. the chad Preston Dillard, only joking, both are chads in their own way). The north vs. south dynamic as portrayed through the characters of Pres and Buck (9 years prior to the American Civil War) excludes Jezebel as being part of the Lost Cause narrative even if the film does portray slaves as being content with the status quo. The film does offer one of its funniest comedic moments to one of the black actors with his repeated utterance of “yessum” at Mrs. Kendrick’s (Spring Byington) orders upon their arrival at a party. 

Following the film’s first act, Jezebel portrays an America going through a pandemic of yellow fever (or yellow jack as it’s often referred to) as well as being split along ideological and political lines, now doesn’t that sound familiar? In a powerful scene, Pres faints from yellow jack in a bar and all the other men back away from him as fast as they can and cover their mouths, except for Dr. Livingstone (Donald Crisp) who goes over to Pres and asks for one of the men to help him, none of whom are brave enough to go anywhere near the fallen Pres (Livingstone is no social distancing soy boy). Likewise, Livingstone reports Pres as a fever patient to the authorities, resulting in him being taken away to a colony for the unlucky infected known as Lazarette Island, justifying his actions by stating “Have you any idea what would happen to New Orleans now if folks got to thinking there was one law for the rich and another for the poor”. Crucially, in an earlier scene during a blink-and-you-miss-it moment, Pres slaps a mosquito in his hand accompanied by a spike in the music just as this occurs. Is this how Pres caught yellow jack? I’ll let you decide.

Jezebel is often compared to fellow antebellum tale Gone With The Wind and parallels between the two are evident, albeit superficial:

– Julie Marsden /Scarlett O’Hara fall for Preston Dillard/Ashley Wilkes, neither of whom can deal with her behaviour.
– Preston/Ashley decides to marry Amy/Melanie, whom is less hassle.
– Julie/Scarlett corners Preston/Ashley in the garden/smoking room and tries to
convince him of her love.
– Julie/Scarlett lives with her disapproving Aunt Belle/Pitty Pat.
– Julie/Scarlett uses Buck Cantrell/Charles Hamilton to try and make Preston/Ashley jealous.
– Julie/Scarlett wears a red dress to a ball/party and scandalizes herself.
– Julie/Scarlett realizes too late that she is responsible for her own lot (Preston dying/Rhett Butler leaving).
– Julie/Scarlett is determined to make good (escorting Preston/getting Rhett back).

It is worth noting that Jezebel as a property actually predates Gone With The Wind, with Jezebel first debuting on stage in 1933 while Gone With The Wind was first published as a novel in 1936. Could the stage version of Jezebel bared any influence from Gone With The Wind and could the film version of Jezebel have taken any influence from the novel of Gone With The Wind?

Director William Wyler holds one of the most impressive resumes in Hollywood history and Jezebel is another showcase of his craftsmanship, in particular, the extravagance on display in the Olympus Ballroom scene. The magnificent set is shown in 360 degrees from multiple camera angles and it’s clear that big bucks have been spent on this production. Reportedly Wyler would do upwards of 40 takes on individual scenes in Jezebel and when you get results such as the manner in which Davis effortlessly lifts up the end of her dress with a riding crop, it appears the agony was worth it. It is also worth noting as a humorous error in geography emanating from the film’s set design; notice how the bar seen throughout the film has stairs going downwards from its street-level entrance. This is not advisable in New Orleans with the city being below sea level.

Bette Davis is an actress I could never bring myself to consider a personal favourite of mine but her ranking as the American Film Institute’s 2nd greatest American female star of all time is hard to argue against. I do prefer her in other films such as Kid Galahad or comedies including Its Love I’m After or The Bride Came C.O.D. in which she presents a more endearing side to her persona. Whereas in films such as Jezebel she is much more cold-hearted and presents the dark side of the feminine form, but there’s no doubt she played these roles to the utmost degree of acting prowess. Miss Julie Marsden was a spoiled brat who had no sense of when and when not to pick her battles, and ultimately got what she deserved. Jezebel concludes with Miss Julie convincing Amy not to go to Lazarette Island with Pres, but rather allowing herself to go instead. The film bills this as the redemption of Miss Julie by displaying a sense of grandeur along with Max Steiner’s sweeping music (which in itself is quite moving), but just how selfless is this act? Is Miss Julie truly trying to repent for her actions by making such a sacrifice and risk catching the disease or is she just trying to make a bold, last-ditch effort to win back Pres in the off chance of his survival? It is up to you my friend, the viewer to decide. Now time to bring this review to a conclusion as this flower is wilting!

Castle In The Sky [Tenkū no Shiro Rapyuta/Laputa: Castle In The Sky] (1986)

Just The Two Of Us, Building Castles In The Sky

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Castle In The Sky is one of those films upon a first-time viewing, it’s easily apparent how much of its fingerprints are over so much media that proceeded it in this Jules Vernesque, steampunk adventure. The heroes’ journey, chase movie follows youthful protagonists Pazu & Sheeta as they embark on the search for Laputa, a floating Tower of Babel of which the surface has the appearance of a deserted Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Little information is given about the history of Laputa, with the viewer given the task of filling in the blanks.

Castle In The Sky is littered with moments of pure wonderment and melancholy from scenes such as a cave being turned into a makeshift planetarium with the use of the element volucite (a fictional element sadly) to the sense of awe upon the arrival to Laputa itself. There is something about the blue skies in Studio Ghibli’s films which is endlessly beautiful to look at while the lighting present in the animation provides much visual stimulus (although I would just say the contrast with Sheeta’s pirate outfit between light and dark is too drastic). The physicality and sense of space the animators are able to convey as well as the suspense created in the film’s action sequences through the medium really is a remarkable feat. Correspondingly, a Ghibli film ain’t a Ghibli film without a rich and melodious score, especially courtesy of Joe Hisaishi. The main theme of the picture itself balances a line between its dark, mischievous yet optimistic tone. Some of my favourite highlights include Morning In Slag Ravine which is the ideal accompaniment to any morning sunrise to that piece which plays as Sheeta slowly Ancient Aliens herself from the sky is one catchy ditty. Likewise, the Celtic-sounding Memories of Gondoa conjures visions of the rural landscape of the British Isles and appropriately is used as Sheeta tends to cattle resembling that of the Scottish highlands. 

Pazu resides and works in a fantasy version of a Welsh mining town and I do have to ask was John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley used as a visual pretext for the film? Hayao Miyazki visited a Welsh mining town a year prior to the film’s release and in he appears to pay tribute to them in the film when Pazu utters the line, “Miners aren’t exactly wimps”. Ah Pazu & Sheeta, one true pairing if there ever was one. It is remarkable how attached one becomes towards this duo and their shared chemistry which is able to be portrayed through the medium of animation (take a sip every time Pazu screams “Sheeeeeta!”). No full-on romance ever develops between the two nor do they ever kiss but small displays of affection are present in this young love. In the sweetest scene in the film, Pazu & Sheeta are atop the pirate’s airship at night as Pazu gives reassurances to Sheeta that all will be fine, all while the pirate captain Dola unintentionally hears their endearingly innocent conversation.

As is recurring in Miyazaki’s films, Castle In The Sky showcases the innocence of youth and having minors overcome obstacles which force them into maturity. Like In Kiki’s Delivery Service, the young protagonists are thrust into positions of adult reasonability. Pazu lives by himself and works a full-time job (literally a minor-miner) while Sheeta is left to run her parent’s estate after their passing and it’s later revealed she has the responsibility of being part of the Laputa royal family. Furthermore, during the sequence as the military base is going up in flames, the absolute trauma in the face and voice of Sheeta is intense (although the duo later show no fear walking and even celebrating on platforms with drops in which they could fall to their deaths). I do believe the medium of anime is the best at portraying this sense of innocence and vulnerability due to the hallmarks of anime character design with those big wide eyes, the almond face shapes and the head-to-body ratio. This is where the English dub by Disney really falls short, James Van Der Beek and Anna Paquin sound far too mature for Pazu & Sheeta. Not only do their voices not match their clearly pre-pubescent appearance, but it also takes always from their characters and doesn’t replace it with an alternative that has any merit on its own (as was the case with Jiji in the Disney dub of Kiki’s Delivery Service). This is a shame as Mark Hamill and Cloris Leachman are fantastic in their respective roles but the casting of the children makes this dub hard listening.

Castle In The Sky is a rare instance of Studio Ghibli film with an outright villain in the form of “that pencil pushing upstart” Colonel Muska. The man is one dapper gentleman but I never can brush off the creepy, groomer vibes when he tries to bribe Sheeta with fancy clothes. The other major foe in Castle In The Sky is none other than the government of this fictional land, and what better way to portray an overbearing, authoritarian government than by turning them into ze Germans of course, you vill eat ze boogs and vill like it! Furthermore, the appearance of firearms and ammunition in children’s animation is a shock to the western viewer rather than a fantasy Star Wars-style blaster. Once adjusted to this reality it is far more preferable rather than having them digitally altered into walkie-talkies. Then there are the bay guys turned good mid-film with the Marty Feldman look-a-like Dola and her band of pirates. The film doesn’t make it clear if Dola is the biological mother of her crew or mother in spirit but either way, their dynamic is like a more endearing version of Mom and her three sons from Futurama. Dola herself is really made an interesting character by her belief in traditional gender roles despite being a model of non-conformity herself. Despite wearing the pants, she insists Sheeta be ladylike and holds concern for Pazu’s lack of masculinity following his initial surrender when trying to rescue Sheeta.

I’ve read accounts that Castle In The Sky aired on UK television channel ITV 1 on Christmas Day 1989, with other accounts stating various surrounding dates including Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve of 1988. Either way, it’s remarkable that Castle In The Sky was able to make it to the west so quickly back then and odd by the way of a one-off TV airing. I’ve tried to find recordings or promotion material for this broadcast but have come up empty-handed – hopefully, someone can close a chapter on this lost media mystery.

The Silent Duel [The Quiet Duel/Shizukanaru kettô] (1949)

Anyway, How Is Your Sex Life?

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

For unknown reasons, The Silent Duel (with other sources calling it The Quiet Duel) is the one Akira Kurosawa movie which has been neglected. This unsung medical melodrama has no high-quality re-master, no Criterion Collection release whilst my own hard-to-find UK DVD itself comes with some very unattractive packaging and although perfectly watchable, the frame rate is overly smooth in places (unless you’re reading this at a future date in which in a 4K release packed with bonus features exists).

The opening wartime sequence of The Silent Duel is a superb showcase of atmospheric filmmaking from a real master of cinema. Kurosawa employs his trademark use of the elements within a makeshift medical centre as the sight and sound of rain beats down alongside an irritating drip of water and the flickering of lights distracts a surgeon and his aides while their faces are dripping with sweat (not-to-mention doctors who are smoking on the job). Right off the bat, The Silent Duel is a film with many a shot of superb composition with the moment which impressed me the most in this opening prologue is the dramatic tension created by a truck driving past in the background just at the moment when Dr. Kyoji Fujisaki (Toshiro Mifune) discovers he has contracted syphilis. Dr. Fujisaki’s transaction of syphilis is through no fault of his own, rather he received it through the blood of a patient he was operating on, although due to the stigma he chooses to tell no one he has sexually transmitted disease and secretly begins injecting himself with salvarsan as a treatment.

Following the opening wartime prologue, the majority of The Silent Duel takes place in a run-down hospital in an unnamed, bombed-out city circa 1946. Like Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel from the previous year, the story and the setting may be interpreted in a metaphoric sense that reflects the state of Japan following the war. The main driver of conflict in The Silent Duel is that of Dr. Fujisaki refusing to tell his fiancée Misao Matsumoto (Miki Sanjo) about his condition and calling of their marriage with his justification being that he knows she will spend the best years of her young life waiting for him to recover. However, is this act as noble as it first appears or is it one of pure selfishness to make him feel better about himself in this thought-provoking conundrum? His absence of trust in Misao causes her extraordinary pain and robs her of the ability to make her own decision about the matter. The scene in which Misao comes to visit Fujisaki one more time before going to marry another man is utterly heartbreaking. The two can barely look at each other in the face and it’s clearly evident she still so desperately loves him and wants to play the role of his housewife as they take one last cup of tea in the hospital kitchen in which she used to assist in. I feel like I want to shout at the screen, “just tell her the truth, you absolute cretin!”.

Notwithstanding, the big show-stealer of The Silent Duel is Noriko Sengoku as the probationary nurse Rui Minegishi. The downtrodden, scruffy, snarky, cynical character was rescued by Dr. Fujisaki and given a job after she tried to take her own life upon becoming pregnant. The character goes through a remarkable arc of maturity as she gives birth to her baby, studies to become a nurse, metamorphoses a more presentable appearance and acts as a wonderful counterpoint to the long-suffering doctor. There is even a hint at a relationship blossoming between the two after she outright tells him that she loves him although this is never drawn upon again. The Silent Duel is based on the play The Abortion Doctor by Kazuo Kikuta. I’ve been informed an abortion does actually occur in the play whereas none takes place in the film. Dr. Fujisaki criticizes Miss Minegishi for wanting an abortion and even goes as far as calling her a monster. Whether or not The Silent Duel could be classified as a pro-life film, it does take a celebratory tone when it comes to childbirth.

If I were to complain about one aspect of The Silent Duel, it would be the film’s score. The majority of the film features no music and thus alongside its subject matter, it has that same feeling present in American pre-code films (which feature little-to-no music scores) of which I particularly enjoy. When music is used it is over-the-top and interferes with the drama rather than contributing to it. In one extremely odd use of music during the scene in which Fujisaki’s father (the only instance Takashi Shimura played Mifune’s father in their many film pairings) reacts to finding out his son has syphilis, I am not joking, I thought there was an ice cream van driving through my street. The Silent Duel is the only Kurosawa film scored by Akira Ifukube (who would go on to compose for the Godzilla franchise), and I can only speculate if Kurosawa wasn’t pleased with the music.

The Silent Duel could be viewed as a public information film on how syphilis ruins lives. Towards the film’s end, Dr. Fujisaki has a powerful, emotional breakdown in front of Miss Minegishi, as he lets it all bare regarding his restrained sexual desires brought about by his syphilis (“But one day because of the blood of a shameless guy, my body became dirty without knowing any pleasure”). The Silent Duel is the only Kurosawa film to deal to really deals with themes of a sexual nature, from a filmography which is otherwise very much asexual. Man gets an STD without getting laid, perhaps that’s the greatest tragedy of all present in The Silent Duel.

A Geisha [Gion bayashi] (1953)

Memoirs Of A Geisha

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The world of the geisha is one of lies, a world in which they are selling a fantasy. As Miyoharu (Michiyo Kogure) states in the film’s opening, “A geisha’s lie is not a real lie. It’s a cornerstone of our profession” – this foreshadows what is to come in Kenji Mizoguchi’s Gion Bayashi (aka A Geisha or literally translated to Gion Music Festival) – the definitive treatment on geisha life in early post-war Japan and one of the most insightful cinematic representations of Japan’s iconic female performers (although I would call the 1962 American film My Geisha my favourite film on the profession, albeit a more comical and light-hearted take). A Geisha is an economic film at only 85 minutes long and entirely set within the confines of the Gion (only leaving for one scene set in a Tokyo apartment). The film is full of Mizoguchi’s favoured use of long, uncut takes and even channels of his inner Ozu with a number of shots reminiscent of that other great Japanese filmmaker. However, no geisha in the film are seen wearing the iconic white face makeup but we do see the makeup applied to the shoulders and neck. Is this absence of face makeup due to the black & white cinematography? Although considering the colourful nature of the geisha’s kimonos, that alone could be reason alone for A Geisha to be one film which could have benefited from colour cinematography.

Considered a loose remake of Mizoguchi’s earlier film Sisters Of The Gion, both chronicle a pair of geishas living under the same roof and encountering difficult personal circumstances. In both films, the pair share a sister relationship (with the pair in the earlier film being actual blood sisters) in which the older geisha is more traditional and the younger less so, of whom ends up rebelling against the system. Otherwise, the stories of both films go their own way, with the two women in A Geisha struggling to refuse the sexual advances of men in order to survive. This raises the question – are geisha prostitutes or have they ever been? The official answer is no. However when researching how often in the past have geisha engaged in sexual acts and have there ever been periods in which they were expected to, albeit, via unwritten rules as seen in A Geisha, I can’t find a clear answer. In one of the pivotal scenes in A Geisha, Eiko, the young trainee geisha (or maiko) is being informed about the rights granted to her under MacArthur’s constitution by the mother of the geisha house, Okimi (Chieko Naniwa). Eiko asks whether it is an infringement on her rights for a client to force himself upon her of which Okimi tries to sidestep the question and eventfully gives the reluctant answer of “in principle, yes”. The answer however is clearly the opposite and this culture of corruption is enabled by the mother of the house in which these women have to engage on the geisha casting couch in order to get ahead. Is A Geisha an accurate depiction of the profession in the early 1950s and thus did it have any impact? A Geisha can also be considered part of a late-career trilogy of the films by Mizoguchi focusing on prostitution including Woman In The Rumor and Street Of Shame.

Eiko is a post-war child, she is a Frank Serpico-like figure, determined to follow a righteous path. Eiko lives under the same roof as the older and less rebellious geisha Miyoharu (Michiyo Kogure), of whom the generational gap between the two is apparent while Eiko’s hardness serves as a counterpoint to the more delicate nature of Miyoharu. The terribly underrated Michiyo Kogure radiates elegance and has such a gentle nature to her as well as the ability to express vulnerability in her body language as the older of the two geisha (Kogure is sadly all but forgotten now with only a handful of her films being available in the west). Miyoharu and Eiko are the only two figures of dignity and virtue in a film full of morally defunct individuals including men who aren’t afraid to assault women, an uncle who demands Eiko sleep with him, Eiko’s deadbeat father and the aforementioned mother of the geisha house. Furthermore, the relationship between the two women is one of the film’s most fascinating aspects. There is much affection between the duo to the point in which Miyoharu becomes a mother figure to Eiko as she comes to symbolise Miyoharu’s own lost youth and innocence, about which she becomes increasingly protective. This is reflected in her clear apprehension and agitation at the prospect of Eiko actually sleeping with a client and although ambiguous, there are suggestions that Miyoharu is attracted to Eiko. Miyoharu is shown to have an aversion toward physical contact with any of the men in the film nor does she have a patron despite being a geisha for a number of years. In the final scene, it’s evident that Miyoharu’s feelings towards Eiko go beyond maternal feelings and she even offers to become Eiko’s patron, of which it is declared earlier in the film that a geisha’s patron is also her lover. In the end, it’s a matter of interpretation whether the relationship was homosexual or a platonic love.

The most pivotal scene in A Geisha is that set in a Tokyo apartment, in which Eiko resists the advances of the man Kusuda (Seizaburo Kawazu) who attempts to rape her as she badly injures him in her resistance. The incident not only results in the two geisha becoming ostracized and unable to find work, they unwittingly become pawns regarding a deal worth 80 million yen between a business and the government. The only way for their career’s to be restored and have pre-existing debts paid off is for Miyoharu to sleep with a man (Kanji Koshiba) who has been offering to be her patron. Watching a woman getting prepared for a sexual act she is uncomfortable taking part in is not pleasant viewing, especially when the man himself unnervingly tells Miyoharu, “you just have to close your eyes. In exchange, I promise to guarantee your future”. From the film’s opening shot of Eiko navigating the maze of streets to find Miyoharu’s house, the Gion itself can be viewed as a metaphor for these women have no exit through this labyrinth – the film paints a picture of a life which feels like it isn’t far from indentured servitude. The young geisha trainees are told that they represent the beauty of Japan to foreigners and that they are “living works of art“, but as Miyoharu states in the beginning – “A geisha’s lie is not a real lie. It’s a cornerstone of our profession”.

Midway (1976)

Now, Hop In Your Sushi Boat And Git!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Midway is one of the better battle recreation movies to be released in the wake of The Longest Day (1962), detailing the first on-screen recreation of the battle, which was the turning point of the pacific war in this flawed but worthwhile Dubya-Dubya II venture. Universal Studios was the most old-school studio in the 1970s and concurrently Midway is an unashamedly old-school film within the era of New Hollywood and one which plays into the 70’s disaster movie trope of featuring an all-star cast, many of whom were residing in their twilight years. Ensemble pieces of this nature can easily provide an excuse for a cast to phone-it-in but the famed personalities in Midway all do shine even with some players of the cast only getting brief cameos. Much of the film’s roaster were veterans of the war itself including Henry Fonda, Charlton Heston, Glenn Ford, Hal Holbrook, Cliff Robertson, Robert Webber, screenwriter Donald S. Sanford and director Jack Smight (something exceedingly rare among contemporary Hollywood). 

The king of larger-than-life actors, Charlton Heston leads the picture and portrays one of the characters not based on a historical figure in the role of Matthew Garth (the same name as Montgomery Clift’s character in Red River), and being fictional he is given his big hero moment at the climax of the battle. Of the cameo appearances I feel Cliff Robertson is given the most memorable in which he delivers a great, cynical monologue about the “the wait and see-ers” in relation to the warnings given in the years leading up to Pearl Harbor, while Robert Mitchum provides some welcome comic relief as the agitated hospital patient William F. “Bull” Halsey Jr (“I know, I’m a son of a b**** of a patient”). I also find it humorous that Joseph Rochefort (Hal Holbrook) wears a dressing gown over his army uniform and Captain Gareth does ask a “very personal” question in regards to the hygiene of him and his men (“You know, it really stinks down here. How often do some of your people take a bath?”). However, the most memorable piece of casting in Midway would have to be that of Japan’s Japan’s all time greatest film star, Toshiro Mifune as Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (the third film in which he has portrayed the famed Japanese admiral). Reportedly Mifune’s Japanese accent when speaking English was so thick that his lines had to be dubbed by actor Paul Frees yet regardless, his sheer physical presence alone does bring a great sense of weight to his scenes. I do wish however the film had the Japanese characters actually speak Japanese rather than English. Come on, we’re big boys, we can read a few subtitles. It also doesn’t help that many of the Asian actors in these scenes have obvious American accents.

Much of Midway plays out as men of authority talk battle tactics over giant maps, feeling like a giant game of chess between both sides as we are given much background insight into the decoding methods employed prior to the battle. These scenes are among the best directed in the film with the layers of texture and effective use of interior space. Likewise, very little new combat material was filmed for Midway with footage taken from Tora! Tora! Tora!, The Battle of Britain (1969) and Storm Over the Pacific (Hawai Middouei daikaikusen: Taiheiyo no arashi), the latter of which was made 16 years prior (and also starred Toshiro Mifune). I do love the shot of the Imperial Japanese flag over the upper half of a battleship in the background, only to be disappointed to find out its footage taken from another movie. There is an obvious change in grain structure with this footage although it’s not overly jarring and I have seen worse examples. I am left with spilt feelings on the film’s use of actual combat footage taken from the Battle of Midway itself. On one hand, it completely contrasts with the newly filmed footage but perhaps an argument can be made that it’s taking the documentary-like aspect of the film to its logical endpoint by using actual footage from the battle. The battle itself does feel drawn out and repetitive and is clearly edited around the Sensurround system (which was the big selling point in the film’s promotion), with the same angle shots of pilots flying planes used repeatedly and an overreliance on the use of subtitles to identify locations, ships, squadrons and individuals.

The other major topic Midway explores is the US government’s internment of Japanese-Americans during the war (“execute order 9066”). I enjoyed the subplot involving Gareth’s son Thomas (Edward Albert) having fallen in love with a Japanese-American girl named Haruko Sakura (Christina Kokubo), of whom her family is being interned in Honolulu over their membership of so called Japanese Patriotic Organizations and the owning of subversive magazines (“Damn it, I’m an American! What makes up different from German-Americans or Italian-Americans?”). However I do wish this subplot could have been explored in greater depth as the film only scratches the surfaces of the subject matter nor is the sub-plot given a proper resolution as come the film’s end Haruko sees an injured Tom coming off the boat on a stretcher, but that’s it.

In 1978 a TV version of Midway was broadcast in which newly filmed scenes were added to the film. This TV version inserts an entire section detailing the Coral Sea Battle of which the newly filmed footage is competently made but just feels like filler (and still includes a large amount of stock footage). Also included in this version are scenes in which Charlton Heston reprises his role as Captain Gareth in a relationship with a woman named Ann (Susan Sullivan) who is never mentioned in the original film. These scenes are very cheesy and shot in a manner that is more televisual than cinematic but more significantly, they do not contribute to the narrative or enhance the final demise of Gareth. The final inclusions in this version are two scenes involving the Japanese commanders, the first of which is actually a terrific addition to the film. In the scene, James Shigeta reprises his role as Vice Admiral Chūichi Nagumo in which he speaks to the son of Yamamoto who he expresses doubts that Japan is fighting a war they cannot win as the two walk through some striking historical Japanese architecture (of which the film states is Nagumo’s residence in Tokyo). The direction and acting of this scene is top-notch and help further humanize the Japanese side in the one worthwhile addition in the TV version. I can’t say the same however for the second of these two scenes as the latter by contrast is poorly directed in which two Japanese commanders react to the defeat at the Coral Sea – a simple static and very bland shot. Midway is already a flawed film as it is and these extra additions (bar the one aforementioned scene) really don’t help matters, with Henry Fonda not even showing up until 57 minutes in. The TV version of Midway is included in the 2021 Powerhouse Films Blu-ray release.

Throughout Midway the American soldiers use the pejorative term “Jap”, yet the film portrays a mutual respect for enemies among the high ranks of both the US and Japanese militaries. Yamamoto speaks of how “I have travelled widely in America, my friends. Their industrial might is awesome” while Admiral Nimitz (Henry Fonda) concludes following the battle, “It doesn’t make any sense, admiral. Yamamoto had everything going for him. Power, experience, confidence. We’re we better than the Japanese, or just luckier?”. Despite being a picture detailing a Japanese military loss, Midway was a big hit in Japan. It is not a jingoistic film and treats both sides in a fair and dignified manner, perhaps nowhere more so than Yamamoto’s final appearance in which he accepts responsibility for the loss and states “I am the only one who must apologize to his majesty”.