Kiki’s Delivery Service [Majo no Takkyūbin] (1989)

Someone Left The Cake Out In The Rain

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

For a country which reportedly has one of the world’s highest stress rates (and perhaps as a result), Japan has produced some of the screen’s most tranquil and relaxing viewing experiences, whether it’s the works of Yasujirō Ozu or Studio Ghibli. Kiki’s Delivery Service tells the story of a trainee witch travelling to a city and using her flying skills to start her own delivery service. Set in the fictional city of Koriko (or Corico as some sources spell it), an urban dwelling inspired by Stockholm and the small Swedish town of Visby which is given no real-world area however the geographical layout of the city within the film feels incredibly well defined (bring on the Kiki’s Delivery Service open-world video game). Director Hayao Miyazaki is quoted as having said “Kokiro has one side on the shores of the Mediterranean, and the other on the Baltic Sea [laughs]”. Correspondingly, Miyazaki states Kiki’s Delivery Service takes place in an alternative 1950s Europe in which both world wars never happened and this rejection of modernity is a constant theme throughout Studio Ghibli’s output. It’s easy to lose yourself in the world within Kiki’s Delivery Service with its classical European architecture, cobblestone streets and houses equipped with traditional ovens. During the film’s opening, Kiki wants to leave her tiny village in the countryside for the city, yet to the viewer, this place is heaven on Earth with its green fields, bright blue skies and cosy cottages. The accompanying music score by Joe Hisaishi features many moments of joyful bliss with a mix of classical European, vaudevillian and ragtime music. On A Clear Day radiates that feeling of a sunny day while the piece which plays as Kiki arrives in her newfound hometown titled A Town With An Ocean View is dark yet optimistic. My favourite piece is that played over the unveiling of painting featuring Kiki titled An Unusual Paining in which the dreamlike, new-age mystic piece leaves one with a sense of wonder.

Kiki’s Delivery Service is one of the best films about entrepreneurialism and the entrepreneurial spirit. The world of Kiki’s Delivery Service appears to be a libertarian paradise, a world which appears to be devoid of any business regulation (“Oi mate, you got a loicense to deliver that cake?”) in which children are driving cars, flying permits are not required for amateur aircraft, a minor can own a business, there is no mention of child labour laws nor any mention of Kiki continuing or ever having attended a school and a place in which you can invent flying machines without any apparent regulations – what Ayn Rand would describe as “full, pure, uncontrolled laissez-faire capitalism”. This lack of regulation or government oversight extends to the fact that Kiki leaves her home to be independent while still a minor at the age of 13. Her mother does mention “nobody leaves home that young anymore”, but aside from this, no concern is raised for a 13-year-old going off to live by herself nor any form of social services is present to get involved. Is this form of libertarianism and capitalism presented here ultimately a fantasy that would not work in real life with the presence of predatory big business (or am I over-analyzing a film for subtext that’s not there)? Miyazaki once stated about capitalism: “During the time I was trying to conclude Nausicaä , I did what some might think is a turnabout. I totally forsook Marxism. I decided it was wrong, that historical materialism is also wrong, and that I shouldn’t see things with it.” Only a few years following the release of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Miyazaki would craft fictional benevolent capitalists like the ever so loving and joyful Osono, the owner of the bakery Gütiokipänjä and a compassionate, benevolent landlady who showcases the human side of business (likewise, there’s something comic about the mere presence of Osono’s unnamed husband, the tall, buff, stoic figure who utters little more than a grunt). Kiki’s Delivery Service is a film which conveys the value of money as Kiki has to carefully budget what money she has after arriving in town, forcing herself to live off pancakes and work for her money while other kids her age spend their time procrastinating and driving cars. It’s moments like her visit to the grocery store and her sticker shock over the price of items which really makes the film so down to Earth.

The overall sweet, wholesome nature of Kiki’s Delivery Service makes my inner valley girl wants to proclaim, “like omg, cutest movie ever!!”. Everything about the titular heroine is unbearably cute from her facial expressions to her over the top reactions to even the slightest bit of good news and her occasional hyperactive nature. Kiki is seen as modern by the standards of her village yet old fashioned by the standards of the city. She struggles to fit in with the city’s children yet is able to engage with two elderly ladies thanks in part to her knowledge of how devices such as how a wood-burning oven works. Kiki is repulsed by how rude the children in the city act from the overly-inquisitive girl hunter Tombo to the ungrateful girl who receives the herring pie from her grandmother. This theme of maturity extends to the relationship Kiki shares with her cat Jiji. After she loses her powers which include the ability to speak to Jiji, it remains the one power she does not regain at the film’s conclusion. I do find it somewhat heartbreaking that Kiki never regains this ability but then again, speaking to a cat as if they’re human is in itself a rather childish thing to do and thus a sign of Kiki’s newfound maturity as she gets older. It does raise the question if Jiji could actually speak to Kiki in the first place or was it just in her mind? Yet in the English dub, Kiki restores her ability to speak to Jiji at the end, regardless Phil Hartman’s sarcastic Jiji makes the English dub worth watching.

So by all accounts, Kiki’s Delivery Service sounds like the most based, conservative, red-pilled, right-wing movie ever made espousing the values of tradition, power of the individual and the pick yourself up from the bootstraps mentality? Well not quite. Kiki is after all practising pagan witchcraft rather than being a good God-fearing Christian. Although in all seriousness, God is actually mentioned in both the dubbed version and the English subtitles of the original Japanese version in which Ursula states – “The spirit of witches. The spirit of artists. The Spirit of bakers! I suppose it must be a power given by God. Sometimes you suffer for it”. Although this is not the line in the original script and is a creation of the English subtitles the film still contains the ever slight reference to religion with Kiki flying past a Christian church in the opening credits. It’s not difficult to buy into the fantasy premise in which witches with supernatural abilities openly co-exist in society, and can even marry non-witches such as Kiki’s father (are her powers genetically passed down from her mother?). However these are not witches in the traditional sense, there are no devils, pentagrams or virgin sacrifices present in the film (Kiki’s mother is introduced creating a potion using modern science equipment). There does appear to be one dark side presented about these witches in which Jiji remarks “Crows used to be witches’ servants” to which Kiki angrily responds “That was a long time go, okay?” – make of that what you will. Also, while it is odd to bring up, I am forced to mention as it does come off as peculiar for the western viewer is the inclusion of many up-skirt shots throughout the film. It’s not sexual but no doubt will cause some monocles to fall into champagne glasses.

Despite lacking a villain within the story, Kiki’s Delivery Service does manage to set up a finale with an action set piece and one which utilizes Miyazaki’s love of aviation. Likewise, I do enjoy how Studio Ghibli’s films make the end credits a part of the movie-watching experience, something I wish more films would do general (Kiki’s continued use of a bassline broom after the destruction of her traditional witches’ broom is a nice touch). The aforementioned subplot of Kiki losing her powers immediately reminded me of the similar subplots in Superman II and Spider-Man 2. In all three films, the loss of powers comes from stress, burnout, the descent into depression and the inability to lead a normal life (granted Superman choose to give his powers up voluntarily but the comparison still holds). Kiki’s Delivery Service can be read as an allegory for modern young creatives trying to make it on their own with Kiki’s magic being used as a metaphor for artistic expression whether it’s attempting to become a YouTuber or trying to run a successful movie review blog (wink, wink) and attempting to accompany this into a work-life balance. The other character who reflects the passion for a creative to turn their passion into a job is the painter Ursula. She speaks of how her pursuit of painting is what gets rid of her frustrations and her remedy for the loss of creativity involves “Take[ing] long walks, look at the scenery, doze off at noon. Don’t do a single thing” – and yes, on a personal level this I can relate to. Kiki’s Delivery Service is as fine a tribute to the creative and entrepreneurial spirit and regardless of your passion, “Sometimes you suffer for it”.

Ocean Waves [I Can Hear The Sea/Umi ga Kikoeru] (1993)

Youth Is Wasted On The Young

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Ocean Waves is a real unsung gem of the Studio Ghibli library, with this made-for-TV film running at a very digestible and economical length of 72 minutes. Ocean Waves tells the story of Taku Morisaki (Nobuo Tobita), a high school student in a provincial town in the Kochi prefecture whose world is turned upside by a transfer student from Tokyo named Rikako Muto (Yōko Sakamoto). I’ve read many comments and reviews that express a strong dislike for this character usually reserved for the likes of Scarlet O’Hara and it’s not hard to see why – she is spoiled, manipulative, selfish and rude. The city girl thinks herself superior to the provincial folk in the town she has been incarcerated in and even says at one point she hates the area and guys who speak with a Kochi dialect. Rikako gives no acknowledgement for all the trouble she puts Taku through from lending her money, finding himself escorting her to Tokyo at the last minute and being forced to sleep in a hotel bathtub (some men will have the patience of a saint when it comes to a pretty girl). The will they/won’t they story becomes increasingly unlikely as the relationship between the two deteriorates so bad that they end up slapping each other in public, while in another incident soon afterwards Rikako gives Taku another powerful slap for no good reason in an excellent piece of animation as the beautiful young woman suddenly appears so unattractive. Yet as a viewer I can feel sorry for her as her parents are divorced and she has been forced to move with her mother (of whom she resents) to another town against her will (and being on her period as she declares doesn’t help matters). Although I can understand for other viewers she remains unredeemable.

Ocean Waves is also a love triangle story with Taku’s best friend Matsuno Yutaka (Toshihiko Seki) also being in the pursuit of Rikako. The film hints there may be a homosexual attraction between Taku and Matsuno. In the scene in which the two meet for the first time, Taku narrates “Since then, in my mind, Matsuno was different from the others” – a possible dog whistle that the two are friends of Dorothy not to mention the scene is very romantic in nature but it’s ultimately left ambiguous. Regardless their bromance serves as another great relationship dynamic. This slice of life anime is full of those relatable high-school moments which make you go “oh yeah, I remember going through a moment like that”.

The animation present in Ocean Waves is not to the quality of Ghibli’s theatrical films, but for a TV production, it still looks great despite a few technical issues. Several background characters appear as mannequins with no face but more significantly, the film does have some framing issues. I am unable to discover if Ocean Waves was created in the 4:3 or 16:9 aspect ratio. Being a made-for-TV production from the early 90’s I would imagine it was created in the former but I can only find copies presenting it in 16:9 of which the vast majority of the film looks perfectly fine however a number of shots do appear as if a 4:3 product has been zoomed in to fill a 16:9 screen with character’s heads being unnaturally cut off. Likewise, the film does contain some dodgy edits and several scenes have white borders running around the screen of which I fail to see their purpose. That said, such technical quirks are made up for the fact that Ocean Waves is a visually beautiful piece of work featuring many a lovely Ozu style pillow shot. Animation of real-life (for lack of a better term) is something rarely seen in the west (King Of The Hill being the most well-known example and yes, my favourite anime), a shame as it provides an opportunity to create a beautiful Technicolor-like look. Concurrently, the music score by Shigeru Nagata is an underrated work of melancholic wonder. With a main theme that is somewhat reminiscent of Dave Grusin’s score for On Golden Pond, the serene, nostalgic score is the kind that makes you want to reminiscence on days gone by (where music is absent the ever atmospheric sound of cicadas fills in).

At its heart, Ocean Waves is about the complexity of human relationships and the growing pains they endure. During their high school tenure, Taku and Matsuno violently fall out over Rikako but reunite post-graduation, showing how grievance during one’s school years becomes irrelevant later in life. During the reunion party, the characters speak of how everything seemed like a big deal in high school, but post-graduation they have come to realise they were getting upset over matters which were ultimately insignificant in the years to come.  They even speak of affection for Rikako who didn’t attend the reunion, despite how snobbish and stuck up she was. Taku even looks up at a castle in the night and remembers all the times Rikako complained and ranted to him with a smile on his face accompanied by the film’s beautiful score. Ocean Waves concludes with one of Cinema’s most enduring love story tropes, as the unlikely couple find themselves reunited by chance at a train station – an ending that encapsulates pure cathartic, romantic joy.

Late Spring [Banshun] (1949)

Sometimes It Snows In April

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

For some directors, it can take time before they hit their full stride. Alfred Hitchcock had been directing movies for 25 years prior to directing his most iconic works in the 1950s and ’60s. Correspondingly, Japanese filmmaker, Yasujirō Ozu had been directing for 22 years before he made Late Spring, in my opinion, his magnum opus (although I know others will argue in favour of Tokyo Story) and the beginning of his golden age in which he created a profound series of films about Japanese middle-class domesticity (whereas his work pre-1949 tended to focus more towards poverty-stricken families).

Late Spring is also the first entry of The Noriko Trilogy (alongside Early Summer and Tokyo Story), with all three films starring Setsuko Hara, often named The Eternal Virgin in her country of origin, and it’s not hard to see why. I would defy anyone to watch Late Spring and not fall in love with this capital G Goddess of feminine virtue – with her angelic, shy demeanour emanating a slightly bent over posture alongside a smile that could kill. Late Spring showcases her as an actress of amazing depth and able to convey such deep emotional range in the role of Noriko Somiya. There is somewhat of a contradictory nature to the character of Noriko when it comes to her conservative views. Noriko finds her uncle’s remarrying to be “distasteful” and “impure” and not afraid to say it to his face (albeit in a kindly manner) and can’t bear the idea of her widowed father doing the same thing. Hara is able to portray a character of such saintly purity (it’s even mentioned she does not drink) without it ever becoming sickenly so. Yet contradicting this is the reluctance she holds to get married herself. 

The relationship Noriko shares with her widowed father, Shukichi (Chishū Ryū) is both odd and endearing. She is unemployed and takes joy in looking after her old father, acting as a housewife minus any incestuous implications. Details presented in Late Spring are scant about the character’s histories, allowing the viewer to fill in the blanks. I can assume the young woman would be inclined to share this kind of a relationship with her father due to their time during the war. It is mentioned during the course of the film that Noriko endured forced labour during this period and “had to run around to get food on her day off”, and is required to receive regular blood tests as a result. Chishū Ryū on-the-other-hand feels like he was born an old man, made to look older than he was in all three films of The Noriko Trilogy, and convincingly so.

At the age of 27 and still single, Noriko is approaching the “late spring” of her shelf life, reaching the age she would no longer be considered marriageable, but is unwilling to part from the status-quo arrangement she has with her father. Like a number of Ozu films, the story of Late Spring centers around arranged marriage, although anathema to viewers in the west, it does not detract from the universality of his work. A scene that really hits home for me is that in which Noriko’s aunt Masa (Haruko Sugimura) has a talk with Noriko about marrying. We’ve all been there, when an elder tells us to stop what we are doing and sit down to have a serious chat in which we feel uncomfortable but deep down we know they are correct even if one, like Noriko, signifies their objections but later comes to an eventual acceptance. Noriko’s arranged partner, Mr Kumataro Satake (aka Bear Boy), remains an off screen character, with the only detail passed onto the viewer about his physical appearance is that he looks like Gary Cooper, especially around the mouth but not the top half – allowing the viewer to once again fill in the blanks. 

On a further personal note, I first watched Late Spring at the age of 28, only 1 year older than the character of Noriko, and despite this being a film about a young Japanese women’s pressure to get married in the years following the war, it still spoke to me on the basis that life is passing you by, that change is an inevitable part of life with the pain and heartache which comes with that must be endured. When Noriko speaks to her father at the end of a trip to Kyoto just before the wedding, she speaks of how “I just want to be with you, like this. I don’t want to go anywhere I’m happy being with you like this.” – Just ensure you have a box of Kleenex handy.

When watching any film of Ozu’s later period, the viewer will immediately be put into a great sense of ease with his trademark use of pillow shots (two or three quiet compositions usually showing an architectural detail, a banner in the wind, a tree or the sky) alongside the ever tranquil music scores. Unique however to the opening pillow shots of a railway station in Late Spring is the quaint, English feel to it, aided by the images of a gentle breeze in the leaves and the sound of birds chirping. If I was shown this opening out of context, I could swear it was neo-realist footage of a quiet, remote part of the English countryside. Likewise, the geometric nature of the interior of Japanese homes along with Ozu’s unique style of composition with use of the so called tatami shot is very pleasing to the eyes. This look into another culture extends to the film’s documentary-like aspects as we are treated to slices of everyday post-war Japanese life from kids playing baseball to the inclusion of a Noh play. The westernization present in Japanese films from this period can come off as a shock for first-time viewers of Japanese cinema such as the sight of Tokyo’s classical European architecture as seen in Late Spring.

The scene in which Noriko and Hattori (Jun Usami) go for a recreational cycle by the seaside is the cinematic encapsulation for the joy of living. A scene bustling with freedom and a lust for life with the sight of a smiling Setsuko Hara with her hair blowing in the wind alongside the quirky, upbeat music which accompanies the scene should be in the pantheon of cinema’s most iconic moments. It also contains the unexpected but memorable inclusion of a Coca-Cola sign featured prominently in the foreground – one of the most memorable pieces of product placement I’ve seen in a film. This sign along with another road sign in English warning that the weight capacity of the bridge the duo are riding over is 30 tons (irrelevant information for the two cyclists but necessary for any military vehicles to pass over) could be interpreted as signs to the otherwise unseen US occupation. Concurrently, I believe it’s not unreasonable to assume that Aya’s (Yumeji Tsukioka) ex-husband of whom she speaks of throughout the course of the film is a US serviceman. Aya refers to him by the name “Ken”, which Shukichi assumes is short for “Kenkichi” however Aya never corrects him. The other significant clue is Aya’s difficulty in sitting in a traditional Japanese manner without her legs getting numb, suggesting she has become more used to the western manner of sitting.

The Wikipedia page for Late Spring is bizarrely long and extremely detailed, more famous films have less in-depth articles – the work of an eager fan perhaps? In my research, I have found Late Spring only received its first home video release in the United States in 1994 and the mass availability of the films from this master of cinema has only become reality within the last decade. Perhaps the discovery of Yasujirō Ozu‘s work in the west outside of film circles has only begun?

Le Samouraï (1967)

Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player

Alain Delon is Le Samouraï – hitman Jef Costello – cold yet elegant and graceful. The ever badass Delon could be identified by a silhouette of his figure. While he has those Humphrey Bogart vibes with his grey trench coat and fedora, he possesses a demeanour that’s strictly his – this is a man who knows how to wear clothes. Moreover, there is an ethereal beauty to Delon which straddles that fine line between masculine and feminine beauty with a face that conveys so much without the uttering of a single word. 

Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï is a master class in how to make a film with long stretches featuring no dialogue with little-to-no music. When music is used, however, the haunting score by François de Roubaix with its use of hammond organs mixed in with some sections of mellow jazz is the perfect match for the grey, rainy streets of Paris (this is the kind of music you need to play when walking down an empty city street in the early hours of the morning). There is a real hypnotic quality to watching Alain Delon making his way through this urban jungle. The Paris featured in Le Samouraï is not the Paris as would be portrayed in an American film in which the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe is included in the background of every shot. Rather this is a Paris of grimy, urban locales – a real-time capsule of the city circa 1967. The locales and interiors featured in Le Samouraï make it a film that oozes class. I’ve never seen a classier looking nightclub than that featured in the film with its silver and glass décor while even the interior of the cold and sterile police station has an art deco appearance to it. 

I’ve read many of my fellow film reviews heavily critique Jef’s decision making in his criminal activity as a major dent in the believability of Le Samouraï. When carrying out his hit, Jef enters Martey’s nightclub wearing a distinct outfit, he returns to the scene of the crime the following night (despite his arrest from the previous night) and even disposes a set of blood-soaked bandages on the ground outside his apartment, knowing that the police are surveilling him. Yet, such clumsy actions strike me as being a sign of Jef’s overconfidence rather than a mark of poor writing. 

Le Samouraï can rank as one of the best police-procedural films. It makes for fascinating viewing to watch the techniques deployed by the police for identifying and questioning suspects, as well as their methods for tracking Jef through the Paris subways with a cat & mouse chase in a pre-internet, pre-mobile phone, pre-CCTV world. Le Samouraï also shows how the French citizenry is required to carry identity papers, an anathema to viewers in the anglosphere (the requirement to carry identity papers is a holdover from Roman law, unlike English common law where no such requirement exists). Within the film there are no Miranda rights as seen in American films but more worryingly, the police stalk Jef and put him under 24/7 surveillance, break into his apartment to install a bug as well as breaking into the apartment of his girlfriend and attempting to coerce her (also take note of how the commissioner turns a picture of a baby on his desk away from sight after questioning a suspect). There are however objections raised by suspects throughout the film when the police begin asking questions about their personal lives. If Le Samouraï is conveying a negative portrayal of the police, it may to conveyed most harshly but subtly with a blink and you miss it moment with a cut 50 minutes into the film in which a crime boss walks from right to left and then cuts to the police inspector continuing to walk in the same direction in perfect motion. Both bodies have the same aim of wanting to catch Costello but is the film also trying to say they both are as morally and ethically bankrupt?

Throughout Le Samouraï as Jef returns to his apartment, the sound of a caged chirping bird plays repeatedly without the aid of any music. As would be heard the proceeding year in Once Upon A Time In The West, the use of a recurring sound is shown to be as memorable and effective as a great score (I can also attain that every time I have watched Le Samouraï, the chirping bird has garnered the attention of my cat). The bird even serves the plot as Jef shares an almost telepathic relationship with the avian, as when Jef has returned to the apartment to find the bird traumatized and shedding feathers, he starts exploring his apartment only to find he has been bugged. 

Le Samouraï opens with a quotation from the book Bushido: The Soul of Japan – “There is no solitude greater than a samurai’s, unless perhaps it is that of a tiger in the jungle.” However, this quote is entirely a creation of the film and not taken from said book. How much of actual samurai mythology is present in Le Samouraï or is the film just trying to look a bit cooler with a westernized interpretation of what a samurai is? Regardless, the film earns its merits in so many other regards I can easily look past such a thing.

The Face Of Another [Tanin no Kao] (1966)

Look At Me, Drunken One Night Stand. I Mean She Is My Wife

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The Face Of Another is an imperfect but intriguing viewing experience from the ever-fascinating face-swap genre. I would call The Face Of Another a unique film but the only thing preventing me from doing so is a similarly themed film (and one released the same year nonetheless) in the form of John Frankenheimer’s Seconds. Both films involve a man in a loveless marriage who goes behind his wife’s back to get both a new face and new identity with the two films being full of avant-garde and neo-realist imagery. Both films have major differences between them too but hold enough similarities to make the pair a great double-feature. The visuals present in The Face Of Another stick with the viewer long after watching, even right from the opening scene which features an x-ray of a skull delivering exposition, while the black & white, high contrast cinematography beautifully captures a documentary-like look at mid-1960’s urban Japan (even Japan wasn’t immune to those dodgy looking 60’s tower block apartments).

We only receive a vague description of how engineer Mr. Okuyama (Tatsuya Nakadai) came to have a disfigured face. It appears to have be an industrial accident as in his own words as he was acting carelessly when inspecting a new factory owned by the company he works for (“We should have used liquid air. But we ran out… we used liquid oxygen instead. I thought it was liquid air”). Mrs. Okuyama (Machiko Kyo) is the wife who has fallen out of love with her disfigured husband – it’s never stated but it’s obvious as she can’t bear to look at his face with the bandages removed. He is no longer the husband she once knew, he is now a skin suit of a husband. The Face Of Another explores how a transformed physical appearance might impact one’s inner personality. It’s not indicated much his disfigurement has changed Mr. Okuyama’s personality or was he always rather unpleasant, neurotic and borderline psycho? Just observe the manner he berates a secretary for not asking who he is when walking into the office. Furthermore, Mr. Okuyama lives in a westernized house with no traditional Japanese ground furniture and is littered with trendy 60’s decor yet there still remain a few traditional Japanese ornaments in the home – showing a modern couple who are caught between tradition and what is seen as modern and hip.

The Face Of Another contains a B-movie story presented within a sophisticated, art-house style. The film is in the mould of the Universal Monsters tradition with the plot’s similar themes to Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. Correspondingly, when Mr. Okuyama wears his bandages and fedora he bears more than a striking resemblance to the Phantom of the Opera and Claude Raines’ The Invisible Man (Okuyama later comes to think his newfound face makes him invincible). Throughout the course of the picture, Okuyama visits Dr. Hira (Mikijiro Hira), who is able to offer Okuyama a face transplant in which the facial mask is from that of a donor (a concept which was science-fiction in 1966 but has become a reality today with French woman Isabelle Dinoire receiving the world’s first face transplant in 2005). Just how much of Dr. Hira’s technique creating a face mould which can be taken on and off another’s face still remains science-fiction is a question I am unable to answer. The Cronenbergian figure of Dr. Hira is a more down to Earth mad scientist (if that’s not an oxymoron). He has a slight, subtle twinge of madness to him, with the interactions shared between doctor and patient being my favourite part of the film. He is a medical doctor yet also a plastic surgeon at the same time complete with several nurse assistants within his dreamlike and surreal clinic, which itself is really something to behold. It is a blank space with no observable windows or doors in which the background changes upon every visit and is littered with transparent panels and prosthetic pieces hanging around like works of modern art. 

One of the film’s most interesting dialogue exchanges takes place between husband and wife as they have a discussion about the covering of one’s face. They speak of how during Japan’s Genji era it was considered virtuous to conceal one’s face as well this continuing to be the case for women in Islamic countries. There is an accidental modern relevance to this conversation as following the Covid-19 pandemic, the covering of one’s face in the west has become seen as a virtuous act in the eyes of some. Okuyama chooses to use his new appearance to seduce his own wife (unbeknownst to her that the man is her husband), and there is a preserve intrigue that comes from watching this play out. The seduction proves successful however afterwards she claims to have known it was him all along. Did she really know it was him? Would the presence of body markings have given it away?

The Face Of Another also contains a subplot unconnected to the main plot about a young woman whose face is beautiful on one side but disfigured on the other. She is shunned by others and has never been treated like a lady by men other than her older brother (her introductory scene even features an extra whom I swear to God looks like the Japanese half brother of one of The Beatles). Her brother is the only man who understands her pain and solitude and even kisses the disfigured part of her face, leading to an incestuous relationship between the two. Her story acts as a doppelganger to the main plot although I feel it is the weaker and less interesting aspect of the film. The Face Of Another does move at a slow pace and like any art-house film, said elements can test the viewer’s patience but ultimately the patient viewer is rewarded in the end.

During one scene with the disfigured girl, she is walking through a mental asylum housing Japanese war veterans, of which she volunteers her time, all while non-diegetic Hitler chants play in the background. Likewise, throughout the film, Mr. Okuyama and Dr. Hira visit a traditional Munich-style German bar complete with traditional German music. Is the film trying to make comment on Japanese war crimes and the country’s coalition with Nazi Germany? Along with the film hinting the disfigured girl may have received her scars from radiation poising from the bombing of Nagasaki, the spectre of World War II looms over The Face Of Another. Although the pink elephant in the room for anyone familiar with Japan’s involvement in World War II is the clear parallels between the film’s theme of medical experiments and the Japanese war crimes including the experimentation of humans at Unit 731.

Red Beard [Akahige] (1965)

Goodness, Truth & Beauty

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Films about medicine do hold a particular interest to me as they often make for great vehicles which to explore the human condition. Akira Kurosawa’s Red Beard, although set towards the end of Japan’s Edo period in the mid-19th century, presents no historical or geographical disconnect as the themes present are so universal. Red Beard is the final film of what I call the Kurosawa medical trilogy after Drunken Angel and The Quiet Duel but more significantly would be the final picture in the 16-film collaboration between Toshiro Mifune and Kurosawa, bringing to end Kurosawa’s greatest period.

The ambitious production shows Kurosawa at the height of his powers, and if the behind the scenes stories are to be believed, it would appear the great filmmaker was bordering on megalomania. For one it would appear Kurosawa employed the Erich Von Stroheim method of having things on set which never actually appear on camera. According to IMDB, drawers on set were filled with medical supplies from the time period even though they are never seen in the film as do whole alleyways and side streets of the picture’s main set. However, the results of this can’t be argued with as the film which came out on the other end has sets and attention to detail which are a marvel to behold, while the 3 hour run time never drags with the episodic nature of the picture working a treat and never comes off as disjointed. More infamously the production of Red Beard caused a rift between Kurosawa and Mifune and while one can only wonder about what future films the duo could have gone on to make, Red Beard is as fine as swan song as one can go out on.

Toshiro Mifune was never better in the role of Dr. Kyojō Niide, aka Red Beard (although with the movie being black & white we never see the red in this glorious beard of his). There is a weight and a larger than life dominance that Mifune brings that is key to the role. He looks so impressive, imposing, dominant, rigid, and wild that it forces the viewer to confront his combination of humanitarianism and toughness. The nature of the material in Red Beard puts the movie at risk of falling into the cheesy, but Mifune in part prevents this from being the case. I find Red Beard’s personality doesn’t match the negative terms he is described by from an intern at the beginning of the film with phrases including stubborn, inconsiderate, drastic, proud as-well-as a dictator. Especially considering the manner in which his new intern Dr. Noboru Yasumoto doesn’t play ball at first, the world-weary mentor remains remarkably calm and patient. Red Beard is a character who shows how being tough, hardheaded and willful (even deceitful) is sometimes necessary to get humanitarian work done. The film even provides Mifune with a slice of action which would normally be reserved for Kurosawa’s samurai films as Red Beard takes on a group of men at a brothel in order to rescue a sick girl. With ease (albeit believably) he takes out each man one by one, breaking many an arm and leg in the process. Being a doctor however, he immediately disowns his actions. Still, badass Toshiro is badass.

Red Beard runs (or rules some might say) a non-profit, government-funded health facility run known as the Koshikawa Clinic. On a technical note, why is the facility classified as a clinic as opposed to a hospital since it is a rather large venue, running round-the-clock complete with wards full of patients staying overnight? – But I digress. One fascinating aspect of the clinic is the lack of consistency when it comes to sanitary standards as viewed from a modern perspective. In by far the most graphic scene in the film (or any Kurosawa film for that matter), a woman is being operated on while conscious, being tied to the operating table and blindfolded, yet the men operating on her wear no gloves or face coverings. However, conversely earlier in the film it is clearly pointed out that the clinic does not allow tatami mats as they gather dirt and moisture. Furthermore, in one scene Red Beard speaks of the issue of poverty stating “But for poverty, half these people wouldn’t be ill”, however his comments on the situation in relation to politics are rather simplistic (“If poverty’s a political problem, what has politics ever done for the poor?”, “Has a law been passed to abolish poverty and ignorance?”). Granted Red Beard is set in the mid-19th century, so one can forgive his naivety in thinking governments can solve such problems as the 20th century would show.

Dr. Noboru Yasumoto (Yūzō Kayama) is a post-graduate medical student who has been assigned to the Koshikawa Clinic against his will. The prima donna has studied to become the Shogun’s personal doctor rather than working in some down-and-out clinic, thus during his initial stay, he lounges and refuses to do any work in hopes Red Beard will just tell him to leave. However, he comes to learn just how much of a doctor he really is by a series of incidents. In one scene he is left shaken after being instructed to stay by a dying man’s side and right afterwards faints after witnessing the sight of intestines being shoved back into a woman during a surgery. Its clear Dr. Yasumoto is book smart but not street smart, however more significantly, he has become a doctor for the prestige rather than out of humanitarianism, displaying selfishness in a job that is supposed to be as selfless as possible. His eventual choice of staying with the clinic rather than becoming the Shogun’s doctor is one of many aspects which would have made Red Beard a corny film in lesser hands.

If there’s one cinematic image from Red Beard to be burned into your memory it’s that of the mentally ill girl known as The Mantis (Kyōko Kagawa) and her haunting encounter with Dr. Yasumoto after she escapes from her quarters. In another display of Dr. Yasumoto’s naivety and inexperience, she delivers a harrowing monologue in which she claims she is not mentally ill and having been sexually abused by various men in the past. Dr. Yasumoto gets suckered in by this projected innocence and vulnerability despite him previously being told that she has killed 3 clerks with a hairpin. Perhaps one could cut Dr. Yasumoto some slack for falling under the spell of The Mantis as she doesn’t meet the stereotype of a mentally ill person – she is young, beautiful, seductive and still manages to dress like a maiko. However, this perception is undone as the look on her face turns to that of pure menace and she tries to stab Dr. Yasumoto with a hairpin while being sexually aroused at the same time (“The female eats the male after mating”).What’s so visually striking about the scene is the lighting and shadows created by a single candle while the sequence contains within it an unbroken shot that lasts 6 minutes and 10 seconds. The other great subplot within Red Beard is a 17-minute detour in which a dying man named Sahachi (Tsutomu Yamazaki) tells the story of how his wife’s remains came to be buried outside his house. The romantic and haunting tragedy is very much a Japanese one, with love being interrupted by an earthquake and concluding with the wife committing harakiri. This detour has no real impact on the rest of the film but to remove it would be such a loss to the film.

Red Beard represents the triumph of the human spirit as we watch the stress and the strain put under the workers of the clinic. Above all, Red Beard is one of the best cinematic representations of the golden rule – “treat others as you want to be treated”, which is best exemplified through the character of Otoyo (Terumi Niki). After the 12-year-old girl is rescued from a brothel after years of abuse, Dr. Yasumoto treats her with kindness and dignity which she has never experience before. After Dr. Yasumoto himself falls ill, she returns the favour and nurtures him back to health. Likewise, in one scene the Madame of the brothel (played by the always fabulous Haruko Sugimura) comes to the clinic to take Otoyo back to the brothel, the other women employed at the clinic prevent the Madame from doing so in a heartwarming moment of defiance in which they show how Otoyo has become one of the group. However, more significantly is the relationship Otoyo shares with the young boy Chôji (Yoshitaka Zushi), a thief who has been stealing gruel from the clinic. Rather than just chastising him for his thievery, through mutual understanding Otoyo manages to convince Chôji to stop stealing food in one of the film’s most wholesome and moving lengthy exchanges of dialogue.

I re-watched Red Beard on a windy day in which it was bucketing rain, and honestly, it just matched the atmosphere of the film perfectly. Red Beard is a very meditative, calm and tranquil film to watch (let me ask has snow ever looked more beautiful on celluloid?). Within all the human suffering, poverty, abuse and death, there still comes a film in which the three transcendental shine through – Goodness, Truth & Beauty.

The Flavor Of Green Tea Over Rice [Ochazuke no aji] (1952)

He Supports You, He Provides For You And Darling You Can’t Support Yourself

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The practice of arranged marriage was bizarre to the west come the 20th century however according to the website FactsAndDetails.com; “[Japan] In the 1950s, about 70 percent of all marriages were arranged. In 1973, the figure was only 37 percent. Today only around 10 percent are”. The Flavour Of Green Tea Over Rice (or “Flavor” as you yanks spell it) is one of several domestic sagas by director Yasujirō Ozu which focuses on arranged marriages, and it’s fascinating to see how such an arcane practice was still commonplace in a world which is otherwise very westernised. However, like Late Spring and Early Summer, the focus on arranged marriage doesn’t detract from the universality of these films nor do I get any impression Ozu is attacking the practice in any of his pictures. In The Flavour Of Green Tea Over Rice, the young girl Setsuko (Keiko Tsushima) outright refuses to partake in an arranged marriage however come the film’s conclusion, the story’s main couple Taeko & Mokichi Satake (Michiyo Kogure and Shin Saburi) do find happiness within their arranged marriage. The Flavour Of Green Tea Over Rice holds similar plot threads to Ozu’s earlier comedy What Did The Lady Forget? – both of which feature a childless, married couple and a rebellious niece named Setsuko.

Taeko Satake very much fits the mould of a wine aunt – a woman of privilege who is unemployed, childless and is able to live a rather luxurious life (symbolized from her preferred attire of kimono) from living off her husband as well as receiving money from her upper-middle-class parents. The film doesn’t indicate if the relationship between Taeko and her husband Mokichi was ever strong. She is only seen acting like a loving wife in the lead up to lying to her husband in order to go to the hot springs with her friends for the night, nor does he make any effort to confront these obvious lies. Upon first watching the film I wasn’t quite sure if Mokichi just accepted these lies and did nothing about it or was just thick. Taeko even calls her husband Mr. Bonehead when he’s not around and compares him to a big, sluggish carp on one occasion. Likewise, there is the hypocrisy of her refusing to speak to her husband for days on end after he lied to her even though she has previously lied to him on many occasions – ah women, amirite? I know I’m going quite hard on this character, but I by no means dislike her. Prior to the film’s conclusion, her character does receive some redemption in being a doting and caring aunt to Setsuko (of whom it’s somewhat odd that the young girl spends the entire movie hanging out with older women), plus I couldn’t bring myself to dislike the ever-gorgeous Michiyo Kogure. Despite collaborating with many actors on multiple occasions, The Falvour Of Green Tea Over Rice would be Michiyo Kogure’s only film with Ozu.

The other point of contention amidst Mr. & Mrs. Satake is the class difference between the two, with Mokchi coming from a more working-class background. This conflict becomes most pronounced when Taeko chastises her husband over his primitive manner of eating, “wolfing his food down like a dog” as she describes it. This class difference ties into the meaning behind the film’s title. Mokchi is a man who derives simple pleasures from life much to his wife’s displeasure. In a monologue, he speaks of how he likes things “cosy and down-to-earth” and “without ceremony or affectation” (which in itself is a perfect description of Ozu as a filmmaker). The pharse “flavour of green tea over rice” is a capitulation to the simple life with green tea over rice itself being a simple delicacy. What would be the western equivalent – the flavour of bread over butter? The other husband featured in The Flavour Of Green Tea Over Rice is that of Toichiro (Hisao Toake), the husband of Aya (Chikage Awashima). The awkward and cucked little man is spotted having an affair with another woman at a baseball game (despite the claim that he doesn’t like baseball very much) and even comes to his wife’s place of work in order to ask her for money (it’s not indicated if he actually works himself). Aya herself has a job of some prestige, appearing to be a clothes designer and it’s clear who wears the pants in this couple. Men, be more like Mokichi and don’t in any way emulate the pathetic Toichiro. Mokchi may not be the most exciting man in the world but he is a reliable husband ala green tea over rice. As Taeko states at the film’s conclusion – “What’s most important is whether he’s reliable or not”.

Taeko and Mokichi’s marriage is ultimately saved by what else, the making a late-night snack. After Taeko had to leave the country for Uruguay and was unable to say goodbye to his wife as she had unexpectedly left for a few days, the two then find themselves reunited at home when Taeko’s plane has to return due to mechanical troubles. In one of the most beautiful scenes in an Ozu film, the pair must find their way around the kitchen as their servant Fumi (Yôko Kosono) has gone to bed and they have never prepared food for themselves. The couple display a look of pure joy on their faces while they prepare a snack of (you guessed it) green tea over rice as the two fall-in-love with each other and Mokichi’s comes to understand Taeko’s philosophy of “cosy and down-to-earth”. The scene is not in any way unbelievable or contrived and demonstrates there still lies hope for damaged marriages and relationships. Their kitchen itself is pure interior decorating goals with its slight Bauhaus vibe and one which is illuminated with a beautiful, dark and hazy light. The final shot of the kitchen lingers as the couple leaves the room and turns off the lights, letting the viewer absorb the pure cinematic magic which just unfolded. Previously, I would have ranked the best ever scene in a movie centered around a kitchen to have been the comical climax in Woman Of The Year (1942), which can now hold the number 2 position of such an honour. 

Another interesting point of note is Aya’s question to Setsuko as to whether she prefers the upper or lower part of actor Jean Marais’ face after Setsuko speaks of going to see one of his pictures. The same reference was made in Late Spring to a Japanese man having the same facial features as Gary Cooper on the lower part of his face, with the significance being the upper part of the face being what most significantly distinguishes asians from caucasians. Conversely, in a slightly odd change of pace for an Ozu film, the camera moves with a total of 7 pans throughout the film – rare for Ozu considering his aversion to camera movement. This however does not include camera shots stationed on moving vehicles unless that in itself can be classified as a moving shot? Correspondingly, like other Ozu films, the film provides some documentary-like moments of post-war Japan such as shots of a baseball game as-well-as a cycling race in a purpose-built stadium. Also featured is a pachinko parlour, a coin-operated game and a predecessor to the modern-day coin-operated arcade game. The owner of the parlour known as the Bittersweet School Of Life, Sadao Hirayama (Chishū Ryū) thinks the addictive game is a bad trend that will die out, only history would go on to prove him very wrong. – Ah the nostalgia one can experience for a world never lived in.

Floating Weeds [Ukikusa] (1959)

Seaside Rendezvous

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

There is no other director who can make films quite as relaxing or serene than those of Yasujirō Ozu, emanating from a combination of factors, notably the absence of camera movement to his trademark use of pillow shots (two or three quiet compositions usually showing an architectural detail, a banner in the wind, a tree or the sky). Ozu is known for violating the traditional rules of visual composition such as disregarding both the 360-degree rule and matching eye-line shots while having props leap from one side of a set to another – certainly making me question that which I was taught at film school. Any scene in Floating Weeds (a remake of his own A Story of Floating Weeds from 1934) could be paused just to observe the background décor – I hate to use a cliché phrase, but every frame is a painting. Just look at the scene in the rainy street and the strategic placement of a red umbrella, incorporating the dimensions of the golden ratio. Completing the relaxing flavour of Floating Weeds is the washed-out colour cinematography, the sound of cicadas, the Nino Rota-like music score (which gives the film a European feel) as well as the fact that much of the film involves people lounging wearing kimono in a picture-postcard seaside town (likewise, take a sip of sake every time someone in a Japanese film asks for sake) – you won’t find any other films which are as cosy viewing than the works of Ozu.

At its heart, the premise of Floating Weeds is a lovely romantic, vaudevillian notion of a travelling acting troupe going from town to town. “Floating Weeds” is a Japanese term for itinerant actors and the film plays into the age-old perspective that actors are in the dregs of society and partake in an un-respectful profession (with much of the film’s comedy comes from the hornier actors of the troupe and their wed-locked female prospects). The opening scene establishes that the troupe have come via Okazaki, Kariya and Cape Chita and once played in the Big Kado Theatre in Osaka. It would appear they have been Spinal Tap-ed and fallen on hard times, now they are playing at a theatre in a small seaside town which the previous month had hosted a strip show (you can feel the loss of moral as they are forced to play to an increasingly empty house). The troupe’s stage productions themselves are intriguing to watch even if they’re devoid of full context.

There is no clear time period as to when Floating Weeds takes place. The town itself still uses telegrams from the local post office, there are no other technological references nor is there any mention of movies or TV being a competing force for the acting troupe. Conversely, I do notice one TV aerial appears in a single pillow shot (although the appearance of such could have been an incidental anachronism) and the character of Kiyoshi talks about going to study electronics at college. Regardless, this lack of a clear time period does give Floating Weeds a real timeless quality to it. Which ties into the question, where was Floating Weeds filmed? Where is this beautiful little Japanese seaside town (unlike the original which is set in an inland town)? Sources state the picture was filmed in Japan’s Kii peninsula, yet upon scouring the internet, I can’t find an exact location nor any information about this seaside town.

Komajuro Arashi (Ganjirô Nakamura) is the leader of the acting troupe, an actor from Osaka and a towering, world-weary, alpha figure of a man. Another notable difference from the original is the age difference between Komajuro and his love interest Sumiko (Machiko Kyō). The full nature of their relationship is not made clear but she is involved enough to be upset over the discovery that he is seeing his old flame Oyoshi (Haruko Sugimura) of whom he had a son named Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi). As an act of revenge, she sends her friend and fellow actress Kayo (Ayako Wakao) to seduce Kiyoshi in an effortlessly sexy manner with that unforgettable flick of a pencil. The ending of Floating Weeds is just about perfect as Komajuro and Sumiko meet again after their spilt, where else, but that classic cinematic convention of a train station – one late at night to the sounds of birds in the classic will they/won’t they? scenario. It’s by no means a conventionally happy ending as these two are clearly a flawed couple in a flawed relationship. It’s too late in their lives for happiness and the best they can do is compromise and endure (is it just me or does the film imply Sumiko does sexual favours to others for the couple’s career advancement during the aforementioned scene on the rainy street?). Yet the scene leaves one with a warm feeling, albeit a bittersweet one as the two share a bottle of sake in a railcar as the train disappears into the night to a romantic musical cue.

Tarzan And His Mate (1934)

Hot Jungle Sex

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Tarzan and His Mate more than compensates for the shortcomings of the first Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan film of which the production values where a mixed bag. Tarzan and His Mate has less reliance on stock footage and rear projection with its use of matte paintings and a large amount of animals on set to recreate deepest darkest Africa in the only film directed by Cedric Gibbons, otherwise famous as an art designer for MGM. I just wish we could do without the men in not so convincing gorilla outfits, especially since the cast appears on screen with real apes (Planet Of The Apes was still 34 years off).

Pre-code cinema doesn’t get any sexier or revealing than Tarzan and His Mate, notably with its use of full-frontal nudity despite having a modern-day PG rating in the UK. During the early portion of the film, topless African natives can be seen in the background but in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Tarzan and Jane going for a swim in which Jane goes full commando. The underwater scene was filmed in three different versions to comply with the individual censorship laws of different US states. Maureen O’Sullivan does not appear as Jane during the swimming sequence, rather she is doubled by Josephine McKim, a member of the 1928 and 1932 U.S. Women’s Olympic Swim Teams. O’Sullivan does nonetheless wear one of the screen’s most revealing costumes of the time, a halter-top and a loincloth that left her thighs and hips exposed. Needless to say, this two-piece costume did not make its way to the post-code Tarzan films. Jane sleeps in the nude and is constantly touched by Tarzan, even just watching the two of them interact while alone, there is such sexual tension portrayed on screen (we are even treated to the Austin Powers style silhouette in the tent of a woman getting undressed).

Tarzan and Jane do refer to themselves as a married couple in Tarzan and His Mate (“Never forget, I love you.” “Love who?” Jane prompts…”Love my wife”), however at this point in their relationship it is unlikely Jane and Tarzan are technically married in the eyes of the law since a justice of the peace isn’t likely to be found in the jungle. Rather you could say Jane considers Tarzan her husband because they have lived together and slept together for a long time by now, married virtually, synonymously and spiritually – a true marriage in the law of love and the jungle. Likewise, the scene at Jane’s father’s burial site, Jane takes the chain of his timepiece and puts it around Tarzan’s wrist and says “always” in which Tarzan repeats “always”. The morning after they repeat this vow, which one could interpret as a short and sweet jungle wedding – therefore monocles can remain firmly in place over the prospect of an unmarried couple living and sleeping together.

The mighty figure of a man that is Johnny Weissmuller – he is Tarzan! His short lines of limited, broken English are highly quotable (“Martin My Friend”), while he also provides moments of humour as the feral man reacts with bemusement at the ways of the civilized world such as curiously inspecting a record player like a cat, as well as inspecting Jane’s dress and stockings from Paris. It’s Jane who has to do the talking on behalf of the couple (and even performs the famous Tarzan yell herself). The pure romantic escapism of Tarzan And His Mate comes from watching these two being deeply in love and having the time of their lives in the wilderness of the jungle. The character of Jane is brilliantly summarized in a single line – “A woman who’s learned the abandon of a savage, yet she’d be at home in Mayfair”.

 It’s easy to feel sympathy for Jane’s old friend (and not so secret lover) Harry (Neil Hamilton) over his love for Jane as he nostalgically reminisces with her about old times back in England (“Those June nights in England, Murray’s Club in Maidenhead, moonlight on the Thames”). Alternatively, Paul Cavanagh as the villainous, womanising Martin Arlington has a touch of Basil Rathbone to him (expecting him at any point to literally twirl his moustache) while Nathan Curry is a striking screen presence as Saidi, the only native whose life is not expendable and even gets to go out in a moment of heroism. That can’t be said for the rest of the safari runners including one who is shot for his cowardice. Yet, its attacks from uncivilized tribes which prove to be their biggest threat, making Tarzan And His Mate one of the more graphic films of the pre-code era (including one particularly gruesome shot of a man having been impaled in the forehead).

Ouch!

I find it difficult to determine if Tarzan And His Mate is an early example of a film with an environmental/conservationist message? The film shows Tarzan has an almost supernatural connection to the non-predatory/ non-carnivorous animals of the jungle, whereas he fights predators such as lions and crocodiles throughout the picture. In particular, Tarzan has the ability to rally up herds of elephants in order to prevent the safari hunters from removing ivory from an elephant graveyard (there is no such thing as an elephant graveyard but the appearance of one in the film with its litany of skeletons is no less eerie). Is the film trying to promote a message or is it just a reflection of Tarzan’s personal feelings over the elephant graveyard being a sacred ground for the creatures and not to be disturbed or violated? Likewise, Tarzan and His Mate was reportedly banned in Germany by the National Socialist Party on the grounds that it showed a nordic man in primitive surroundings, which I do find odd since I could imagine them using Tarzan as a promotion of Aryan supremacy. Then again perhaps part of their motivation to ban the movie was based on the fact that Tarzan is played by a man whose surname is Weissmuller.

The General (1926)

The Sauth Shall Rise Again!

Unpopular opinion time, The General is a good film but is not Buster Keaton’s best – I’ll start with the film’s merits. The General is one of several Keaton films set in a historical period and the film’s budget certainly pays off when it comes to recreating Marietta, Georgia circa 1861 at the outbreak of the American Civil War. There are great amounts of historical detail within every frame from the buildings to the costumes and the grand locomotive, The General itself. On a purely visual level, The General may be Keaton’s most visually stunning film, full of lush shots of Oregon landscape (although the film itself is set in Georgia) which would make even John Ford jealous. The destruction of the locomotive on the burning bridge is one the most ambitious shots of Keaton’s filmography. However, my favourite shot in all of The General occurs during the climax in which Johnnie Gray (Keaton) holds the Confederate flag amidst battle – the type of cinematic shot that is forever imprinted in your mind. The scores by Carl Davies are the most ideal accompaniment for Keaton’s films and The General is no exception from quirky moments to more epic and militaristic arrangements, as well as rousing standards such as I Wish I Was In Dixie.

I’ll always say that the train is the ultimate cinematic device and as skillfully (and dangerously) executed the stunt work is in The General with all its comic touches, the action doesn’t quite have the high stakes or heart-pounding intensity as action sequences in other Keaton pictures, leading to a film that does test my patience at times. Why is this?  Why am I more on the edge of my seat watching Keaton run away from falling boulders in Seven Chances or battling hurricane winds in Steamboat Bill Jr? If Johnnie had been an actual coward and avoided enlistment rather than his love interest being lied to that Johnnie didn’t even get in line to enlist (which in itself is quite contrived), I believe the stakes in the film would be so much higher, thus making the pursuit of The General from the hands of Yankee spies more intense and suspenseful with Johnnie overcoming of his cowardice being the character’s redemption. With The General presented as it is, Johnnie has to prove himself by overcoming lies told by others rather than his own character flaws, which I believe weakens the film’s narrative.

There is the pink elephant in the room that The General is a film in which the hero of the story is a loyal son of the Confederacy. According to the Thames documentary on Keaton A Hard Act To Follow, it is stated that Keaton choose to tell the story from the southern perspective as in 1926, veterans of the civil war as well people whose fathers and grandfathers had fought were still alive, thus Keaton didn’t want to rile up half of his potential audience by appearing to make fun the side that lost. This does raise the question as to how The General was received in the Northern states? The General was released 61 years following the end of the civil war, which to put in context, would be the equivalent of releasing a movie about World War II in 2006. The General only contains one moment which could be seen as a jab at the Confederacy in which Johnnie states in a moment of foreshadowing dialogue “If you lose this war, don’t blame me”. Aside from that, The General remains an apolitical film in which the civil war setting is almost immaterial to the story. The film makes no mention of slavery, secession nor is either side portrayed as right or wrong. Nor are there any of the usual negative stereotypes associated with the American south (although humorously the film does contain the Colonel Sanders lookalike general who always seems to permeate any fiction about the old south). I have heard it argued that such depoliticized treatments of the civil war in themselves aid the lost cause narrative, yet Keaton himself was not from the south, being a mid-western man born in Kansas. The viewer can draw their own conclusions on what Keaton’s authorial intent was.

To compare The General to Keaton’s earlier work Our Hospitality (1923), a film which holds a number of similarities to The General with its use of a locomotive, the southern setting and the grand scenery, I’d argue is a much more engaging and creative film. While there is much I admire in The General, of all Keaton’s silent features, it’s the one I’m least keen to revisit.