Am I So Out Of Touch? No, It’s The Students Who Are Wrong
***This Review Contains Spoilers***
The Garden of Women could have come straight out of Berkeley, California in the 1960s, but no, this is Japan circa 1954 in the fictional Shorin Women’s College, Kyoto. The exact nature of the higher educational establishment in the film is unclear. It has the hallmarks of a boarding school and requires students to wear a uniform but it is not an institution for minors. On the other hand, it would appear the college may be a finishing school however the term is never used in the film. Regardless, following the film’s opening scene of students rallying together following the death of an unspecified character, the film presents a prologue stating; “The students demand academic freedom and human rights. The school wants to maintain its tradition of refinement and personal betterment. But must there be friction between the two?”. So you’re probably wondering how we got into this situation, well for that, we have to go way back…
While it would be fun to declare that Shorin Women’s College is a based and red-pilled intuition that did nuffin wrong, I will offer up the less sexy partial defense of the college against its rebelling students;
-Firstly, the students are attending the college at their own will. The institution itself is not forcing anyone to attend (as evident by a student declaring at one point “Why did I choose such a college?”).
-Secondly, it is established the college is 47 years old. It is a very arrogant attitude to join an institution and then proclaim you will change it from the inside out.
-Thirdly, the college is very front facing about its conservative morals and anti-communist stance, therefore the students should have had expectations of what they were getting into and that an establishment like this is not going to look too favourably upon books on dialectical materialism. To quote Robert Conquest; “any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing”.
-Lastly, there is a genuine lack of stoicism among many of the students, as much of the instigation for the student’s rebellion comes from the petty rule-breaking of student Tomiko Takioka (Keiko Kishi), failing to wear proper uniform and breaking curfew.
So where does fault lie with Shorin Women’s College and in what ways do the students hold legitimate grievances? Well, the college is overly parental with its students who are legally adults, lecturing them on sex, pastimes and their social lives. Especially the college’s matron (Mieko Takamine) whom it can be argued is too involved in the lives of her students. Secondly, the college goes through the mail of the students which is highly unethical and should not be tolerated in a free society. However, the biggest issue with the college in my book is the vicious circle the institution finds itself in from receiving financial support from the family of one of its students by the name of Akiko Hayahiro (Yoshiko Kuga).
Akiko Hayahiro is the most interesting character in the picture and Kuga steals the show with her performance which becomes increasingly sinister as the movie progresses. Akiko openly claims she is a communist however other characters in the story remain doubtful of her claims and see her as a larper. Regardless this champagne socialist comes from a wealthy and connected family who spend summers at a swanky beach. A communist who comes from a privileged background? Why, I am shocked, shocked I tell you! Even the character of Toshika is dismayed at this and can’t wrap her head around it. Due to her family’s connections to the college, Akiko receives establishment protection, as, despite the college’s purported values, she is allowed to do as pleases and receives no pushback from the faculty. As a result, the uprising she helps launch in the film’s third act, the college largely has itself to blame.
Moreover, in contrast to Akkio is Yoshie Izushi. Hideko Takamine should be too old at age 30 to portray an early twenty-something student but actually plays the part convincingly. As Yoshie, Takamine portrays a character who exudes such levels of sadness and despair as she holds Silvia Sydney’s beer. She struggles with her studies, in part from her overbearing father who doesn’t want her to marry the man she loves, but also because she had to work for 3 years after high school in her father’s Kimono shop, has forgotten almost everything and is denied the request to live and study off-campus. Such a request is denied to her by the college’s matron Mayumi Gojō (Mieko Takamine, no relation to the other Takamine), aka The Shrew. The Matron does strike the balance between being strict but friendly with the sense that she does have the student’s best interest at heart. Near the film’s conclusion, it is revealed the matron has a tortured past of her own as she once had a marriage banned by her parents and a child taken away from her. However, I would argue this reveal wasn’t necessary as Mieko Takamine’s performance already gives the character many layers, this added reveal doesn’t contribute to any additional characterization.
I do love a film set in a higher education setting from the crass to the more sophisticated (with any film of this nature, I can’t help but have The Kingsmen’s cover of Louie Louie play in my head.) The filming location for the fictional Shorin College however remains a mystery (unless anyone had info I’m not privy to). That said, the film’s sets have that lived-in quality, reminiscent of a classic English boarding school with various Japanese touches (ground furniture, paper doors etc). These sets are beautifully showcased with the film’s high-contrast cinematography as well as many lengthy, intricate, Mizoguchi-style camera pans (the film even features several striking deep focus shots of Himeji Castle in the city of the same name). One of the most memorable scenes in The Garden Of Women, for both its content and aesthetic beauty, is that of Yoshie and her boyfriend walking and talking about the present as well as their uncertain futures, with the sunlight reflected in the lake behind them as the camera pans really add to the romantic nature of the scene. Yoshie also gives one of the insightful comments in the film in which she describes the two types of women who attend the college. Those who really want to study to begin a career alongside men, and those who want a diploma as part of their dowry, of whom are the majority.
Eventually, the pressure on Yoshie becomes too much and she takes her own life, causing the already brewing student rebellion to go into overdrive as we return the events from the film’s prologue. The students blame the college for Yoshie’s suicide, even though her problems existed before she attended the college. Their use of her as a martyr in their cause is highly dubious as the students themselves alienated Yoshie and drove her to tears at one point when all she wanted to do was study. The Garden Of Women does not end in a pretty manner with everyone blaming each other for Yoshie’s death and the central conflict between students and the college remaining unresolved.
A film which could be tighter in areas, The Garden Of Women is a lengthy but rewarding affair. The middle portion of the film which takes place outside the college during the winter break and deals with a number of ancillary characters could have been left on the cutting room floor, which would have improved the film’s flow. Regardless, The Garden Of Women is a thought-provoking piece of work and not a film of two-dimensional bad guys as brief descriptions of the film might indicate. It is much more nuanced than that and doesn’t frame a narrative portraying one side as villains or clearly in the wrong. 1954 is arguably the apex year of Japanese cinema, seeing the release of Seven Samurai, Godzilla, Sansho The Bailiff, as well as director Keisuke Kinoshita’s other academia-based movie of 1954, Twenty-Four Eyes. The Garden of Women is an underrated gem within a single year’s amazing output.
Wait A Minute, There Were No Scattered Clouds In Scattered Clouds!
***This Review Contains Spoilers***
The plot synopsis of Scattered Clouds (aka Two In The Shadow or its original Japanese title Midaregumo) sounded fascinating and had me asking myself, how does such a scenario play out in a believable and non-contrived manner? A man falls in love with the widow of a man whom he killed in a car accident and eventually, she falls in love with him in return. Sounds like the type of intriguing fodder for a daytime talk show, I can just imagine the Jerry Springer-style title – “I’m In Love With The Man Who Killed My Husband”. However, the closest counterpart to Scattered Clouds is Lloyd C Douglas’ 1929 novel Magnificent Obsession (itself later adapted into a 1954 film by Douglas Sirk).
There is a little-known acronym for a person who is responsible for the accidental death or injury of another known as a CADI (Caused Accidental Death Or Injury). The term has no official recognition but to date is the closest term in existence for such an individual. Mishima Shiro (Yūzō Kayama) accidentally kills another man by the name of Hiroshi Eda (Yoshio Tsuchiya) in a car accident, leaving his wife Yumiko (Yōko Aizawa) widowed. The accident itself is not portrayed on screen nor does it have any build-up, it is just announced out of nowhere 8 minutes into the film, making its impact all the more shocking and reflective of reality. Mishima is later found in court to be not guilty of negligence (lost control of his vehicle due to a burst tire) and the film shows the negative toll it takes on the CADI with his company forcing him to relocate which in turn ends his current relationship and leads to depression. At the same time, his guilt and compassion result in him paying money in monthly installments to the newly widowed Yumiko even though he has no legal obligation. That said, Mishima doesn’t have the wisest of intentions when he chooses to actually attend the funeral of the man he accidentally killed (even if it is to pay his respects), and easily gives away that he is the man responsible (keeping in mind he hasn’t been acquitted at this point). Evidently, his unwise decision-making extends to later in the film with his cringe-worthy attempt to woo Yumiko with a Tommy Wiseau-level line (“You were so cute, like a child, when I surprised you. Actually, you were amazingly sexy too”).
The tragedy of Yumiko Eda on-the-other-hand actually reminded me of George Bailey from It’s A Wonderful Life, a character whom the world is their oyster with the prospect of travelling and seeing the world, only to have it taken away and instead find themselves stuck living in a dead-end town. Before his untimely death, Yumiko and Hiroshi were set to move to Washington D.C. after he got the job as an ambassador for the company he works for. This plight of a woman who was dependent on her late husband also results in the disappearance of her unborn baby, only in the womb for three months at the time of her husband’s accident. Shortly afterwards she goes to a hospital in which all that is shown is a doctor telling her to count to seven, after which there is no mention of the baby: miscarriage, abortion, stillborn? Abortion was and still is legal in Japan if the mother meets an economic threshold of poor living conditions. Prior to this scene in the hospital, Yumiko is forced to endure dehumanizing bureaucracy following her husband’s death (not to mention there are even discussions of Hiroshi’s replacement at his own funeral) in which she is told “No additional postnatal allowance will be paid for a pregnancy under five months” – make of that that what you will.
The plot in Scattered Clouds does have some reliance on coincidence bringing the characters of Yumiko and Mishima together. In particular, Mishima is relocated by his company to the town in which Yumiko grew up and decides to move back following her husband’s death (that being Aomori in the prefecture of the same name) but does so without the contrivance getting in the way. Scattered Clouds does a remarkable job of conveying the naturalistic evolution of their relationship, going from Yumiko’s inability to even look at Mishima to the pair eventually falling in love. Much has to be commended for the chemistry of the two actors in making this transition believable but the real turning point in the relationship is when Mishima finally challenges Yumiko on the way she treats him despite all the amends he has tried to make, only then does she herself begin to feel a sense of guilt. I believe the other aspect which aids the believability of this unorthodox romance is the Florence Nightingale syndrome from when Yumiko spends the night caring for Mishima after he catches a fever. Scattered Clouds can serve as a companion piece to Mikio Naruse’s earlier film Yearning (Midareru), with both films featuring Yūzō Kayama in a highly unlikely will they/won’t they relationship.
Scattered Clouds also has an odd distinction of featuring quite a few “put-downs” of various eastern hemisphere cities. Aomori, where much of the picture takes place (not to mention filmed) is described as having people who are blunt and unfriendly as evidenced by the waitress at the café, serving coffee with no care. Then the city of Lahore in western Pakistan (from which Mishima is to be transferred) is described as an “awful place” as well as the movie claiming it is the birthplace of cholera. I can’t find any evidence this is the case so was this a misconception in Japan at the time (I suppose it doesn’t help when your city sounds like the name of a French prostitute)? To wrap things off, whether justly or unjustly, the film describes Dhaka, Laos, Saigon and Karachi as places no one wants to go.
Scattered Clouds was Mikio Naruse’s final film of a 37-year career and can go down as one of the finest directorial finales. Scattered Clouds is only Naruse’s 3rd film in colour and only work in the post-black & white era and while the picture does have a more cotemporaneous feel than had it been made a few years earlier, there is still a dreamlike quality present. I just have to enquire as to what is the meaning of the film’s title as nowhere in Scattered Clouds are scattered clouds present. Well, the original Japanese title Midaregumo actually translates to Turbulent Clouds (which are present within the film during a key scene in which Mishima comes down with a fever). I guess Scattered Clouds has a more romantic ring evoking classic melodrama.
Hit And Run (a direct translation from the film’s Japanese title Hikinige) aka Moment Of Terror, has never been released via official means in any country (home media, streaming etc), yet I was able to get hold of an unofficial physical DVD copy which was in shockingly good quality (and in English subtitles) for such an obscure film, and what a film it is! Ah the joy (and in some parts frustration) of discovering a motion picture which knocks your socks off, yet you are the only person who knows about it.
Hit And Run is Mikio Naruse’s foray into a Hitchcockian-style thriller and a film which shares a number of similarities with Akira Kurosawa’s High And Low (1963), albeit a bit more schlocky (in line with the type of films Bette Davis or Joan Crawford spent the 1960’s appearing in). After the unfaithful wife (Yoko Tsukasa) of a business mogul named Kakinuma (Etaro Ozawa) accidentally kills the child of single mother Kuniko (Hideko Takamine) in a hit-and-run accident, they conspire in order to save the bottom line of the company (as well as the wife covering her own back) by having their lowly chauffeur (Yutaka Sada) be the fall guy. However once Kuniko hears word of this conspiracy, she plots her revenge by posing as a maid in the house of the killer. Hit And Run is the final of the 14 film collaboration from Naruse and Hideko Takamine, as the vigilante mother whose love is taken too far. Takamine delivers one intense, angry and histrionic performance of maternal anguish, completely losing her mind come the film’s conclusion in which she becomes a nervous scenery-chewing wreck. However, the film’s more subtle moments do showcase Takamine’s impeccable ability to convey so much without the aid of dialogue.
Comparisons to Kurosawa’s High And Low quickly become evident in Hit And Run, as the business mogul of Yamano Motors Kakinuma attempts to justify his reasoning to cover up the incident in order to save the company’s bottom line as well as their new product (which is ironically a high-speed motorcycle), and the calm manner in which he does so is fascinating in how it portrays the banality of evil. This is reminiscent of how Toshiro Mifune’s character in High And Low attempts to do the same by justifying not paying a ransom in order to save the life of someone else’s child in order to save his company. Likewise, both films showcase the stark differences between the upper and the lower classes, with both films featuring families living in a property up in the hills overlooking the plebs. Additionally, the chauffeur who takes the fall is indeed played by the same actor who portrayed the unfortunate chauffeur in High And Low, Yutaka Sada. There are no moral actors present in the Hit And Run. Kuniko’s revenge goes beyond “an eye for an eye” for “a child for a child” as she attempts to murder the wife’s son but at least struggles to fully go through with her intentions. The unnamed wife however (whom has a child of her own at the same age of the one she killed) is a highly reprehensible character. I never derive any sympathy for her, even when she continues to be plagued by bad dreams of the incident. Although it is never stated, it wouldn’t be unlikely that the husband and wife are in an arranged marriage due to their age difference and lack of commitment.
One scene from Hit And Run involves a flashback to how Kuniko meet her late husband, a Japanese soldier who is pushed into a ditch by prostitutes as they mock him for losing the war, to which he is retrieved by Kuniko as a more sympathetic prostitute followed by a subsequent fast forward to the birth of their son. This flashback however appears to be from another movie starring Hideko Takamine as evidenced by the fact that she appears significantly younger alongside the drastic change in film grain and tone. The inclusion of this flashback is the one criticism I would have with the Hit And Run as its inclusion feels very out of place as this other film is more saccharine in tone nor does it add anything to the larger narrative. Likewise, it also throws into disarray as to when the film is actually set as the flashback is clearly set in the immediate aftermath of the war yet the film’s setting is clearly contemporary for the mid-1960s. That said, would any cinema sleuths be able to identify this film within the film?
Regardless, any other criticism aimed at the very tightly plotted and brisk Hit and Run is largely inconsequential as it doesn’t negatively affect the film based on the strength of its material. Some suspension of disbelief is required that the family at no point would have seen an image of Kuniko (even with her brother doing all the negotiating on her behalf, she is still seen in court). Likewise, what happened to the original maid from whom Kuniko stole the identity from? There is also a piece of set-up in which the housekeeper tells Kunkio “the boiler is dangerous, let me handle that”, however, this never leads to any payoff. Throughout the film, there is also the recurring use of heightened lighting when portraying Kuniko’s murder fantasies. These are cheesy and cliché but do add to the film’s enjoyable schlock value, while the use of a rollercoaster to create a sense of unease is something that would be repeated time and again for years to come (Fatal Attraction, False Face, the aptly titled Rollercoaster).
At its core Hit And Run is about the dangers of automobiles and those who drive them (not exactly news to me having lived in Northern Ireland my whole life with our incredibly graphic road safety adverts). There is however a historical context for this as Takashi Oguchi of The University of Tokyo states:
“Japan has experienced an enormous increase of traffic accidents as a result of the country’s rapid economic growth from the late 1950s to the year 1970. Observers in the early 1960s called the proliferation of traffic accidents the “Traffic War” as the annual traffic-accident fatalities exceeded the average annual fatalities during the First Sino-Japanese war…”
There are several moments in Hit And Run featuring some very impressive two-dimensional shots of automobiles driving by so fast in the street as the drivers give no heed to any children attempting to cross (even as a child stands alone in the middle of the road) while the film concludes on a shot featuring a scoreboard detailing the injuries and deaths from road accidents in a local area to hammer the point home. Then there is the additional metaphorical irony that the company featured in the film itself is an automobile manufacturer that is currently testing high-speed motorcycles while using the intentionally provocative slogan “gamble your life on the moment” (and even laughing that the police object to it). The film ultimately goes as far as it can with this theme without crossing the line into being preachy or overbearing. There is something all the more unsettling at the sight of a body outline when it’s that of a child. Women drivers, amirite?
Mikio Naruse’s Yearning is a unique melodrama with its story combing unorthodox romance/family drama alongside commerce with the Morita family struggling to keep their Mom & Pop store in business against the closet the picture has to a villain in the form of the Walmart-esqe Shimizuya Supermarket. This scourge of modernity with its low prices and ease of convenience is represented throughout the film by a promotional truck as it drives through this small, unnamed town accompanied by music with sinister undertones to it and even more so when it is seen driving along the town’s outskirts with its barren wastelands making it all the more haunting. The supermarket simply doesn’t have the human touch that the shop around the corner such as the Morita’s store provides. However, they simply can’t compete when the supermarket sells a single egg for 5 yen when Mom & Pop need to sell them at 11 yen in order to turn a profit. It is surprising to see this subject matter being explored in 1964, but is the film’s fatalism justified with the supermarket owners acting like bullies and one of the town’s shop owners even committing suicide over the prospect of another supermarket opening? At least in the UK the corner store still soldiers on, many trading under franchise names but independent ones do exist. Yearning does have that British kitchen sink vibe with the store itself having an English feel to it with all its canned goods, glass bottles and weighing scales. Even the music score courtesy of Ichirō Saitō is oddly kitschy at times, throwing in what appears to sound like a theremin or synthesizer on occasions.
At the beginning of Yearning, we are treated to a scene in which a group of young people hold an egg-eating contest in a bar (move over Cool Hand Luke!). Before the contest begins, one woman speaks of how she “ate 12 of those, had diarrhoea and couldn’t stop burping for 3 days” (you know, like you do), as the gross, undignified spectacle proceeds with the young folk frantically stuffing eggs into their mouths while the referee sings the Can-Can (man, the Japanese are weird). The scene does introduce the character of Koji Morita (Yūzō Kayama) and establishes the rivalry his family’s store has with the supermarket, but why do it in such a bizarre manner? A potential metaphor that Koji is a bad egg is the best I can derive from the spectacle. I think of this scene like the Thunderlips fight in Rocky III, one which has no greater purpose or relevance to the plot but it sure is entertaining to watch.
Koji Morita is a total beta-male. This 25-year-old is unemployed with no desire to work, no concern for his future, takes no responsibility for his actions and frequently gets into trouble with the law (Kayama would play another spoiled-brat type character the following year in Kurosawa’s Red Beard). However, his sister-in-law Reiko (Hideko Takamine) is the polar opposite. Reiko has been with the family for 18 years, marrying in when she was 19 and Koji was 11 years her junior at 9 (the film forces the viewer to do some mental arithmetic to figure out the character’s ages). Following the death of Reiko’s husband during the war, she stayed with the family and rebuilt their business after it was destroyed in bombing raids. There is an odd and fascinating relationship between Reiko and Koji, the manner in which they interact you would believe they are biological siblings who grew up together, partially aided by Koji referring to Reiko throughout the picture as “sister”. Koji has an unhealthy dependence on Reiko, relying on her to run the family business which allows him to pursue a gallivanting lifestyle – in ways she is like a mother figure to him, often addressing him like a child. This already unconventional relationship is made all the more so with the film’s big reveal, Koji admits to Reiko that he is in love with her, leading to the most awkward will they/won’t they in cinema history (talk about the extreme opposite of being out with the in-laws, amirite?). Koji appears to be oblivious to the issues which could arise from the taboo and emasculating nature of an older woman/younger man relationship and while the film makes no mention of this, the question should be asked as to how much does he resemble his deceased brother? Moral and ethical conundrums are often raised in Naurse’s films. In the case of Yearning, one of these is to what extent can an in-law remain part of a family after the spouse has passed away – blood is thicker than water. This alongside the business implications of the family’s plan to merge their business with another in order to open their own supermarket puts pressure on Reiko to ultimately leave the family.
During the act of Yearning, Reiko embarks on the train journey home to her original family in Tokyo, only for Koji to unexpectedly accompany her. During their time on the train, there is a natural build-up of her affection towards him. Reiko eventually decides the two of them should get off at the next station and they travel to a little village in the woods called Silver Mountain, the most romantic setting imaginable. At this point it appears they may actually get together as Reiko delivers one of the film’s most poignant lines; “I’m a woman too. You told me that you loved me. To tell you the truth, I was so happy when you said that”. This period of romantic bliss doesn’t last long however as Reiko suddenly comes back to her senses when Koji attempts to kiss her. Yearning concludes with a final image which does stay burned into your memory after watching. When Reiko discovers the following morning that Koji has been found dead after falling off a cliff (boy, that escalated quickly), the picture finishes with a Leone-style close-up of Takamine’s face followed by a hard cut to “The End”. It is a very abrupt ending but I do believe it is appropriate as is does enhance the tragedy and also metaphorically relates to the film’s original Japanese title “Midareru”, meaning to be disordered, disarranged, disarrayed, dishevelled or to lapse into chaos.
As of writing this review, Yearning has never had any western home media release but you can watch it on the Criterion Channel but only in the US & Canada, that is of course unless you head over to our friends over at Express VPN and get three extra months for free, ok only joking (I’m not going to do a Ben Shapiro style ad read).
It’s 9 O’Clock On A Saturday, The Regular Crowd Shuffles In
***This Review Contains Spoilers***
Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi, the three big boys of Japanese cinema, but who is the fourth Beatle in this group of filmmakers? It would have to be one Mikio Naruse, a director in the genre of Shomin-geki – realist films which focus on the everyday lives of the lower to middle class. With this review, I will do what little I can to get this unsung master of cinema the attention he deserves.
Hideko Takamine is Keiko “Mama” Yashiro, the titular heroine of When A Woman Ascends The Stairs, the hostess with the mostest working in a bar within Tokyo’s Ginza district, one of the most expensive and luxurious districts in the world. The profession of bar hostess is very much a Japanese phenomenon, primarily female staff who cater to men seeking drinking and attentive conversations. Regardless of what exactly defines a bar vs. pub vs. nightclub, the establishments featured in When A Woman Ascends The Stairs are of the highest class with the bar deco seen throughout the film being to absolutely die for. When A Woman Ascends The Stairs is one of the best examples of a film to really capture the essence of the nocturnal urban jungle with this dark and brooding melodrama being shot in velvety black & white with stunning widescreen cinematography. This mood is also exemplified right from the opening credits with its Saul Bass-style minimalist illustrations of bar interiors accompanied by the music score courtesy of Toshiro Mayuzumi, comprised of very soothing, xylophone-infused, 60’s-style lounge music (sadly no soundtrack release or isolated score appears to exist). With this setting, When A Woman Ascends The Stairs has a Casablanca-like flavour with a cast (featuring many character actors) conducting conversations with sublime etiquette amongst a smoke-drenched atmosphere.
It is established in a subtle manner that there is an expectation for hostesses to sleep with their clients. Keiko outright says she is a conservative woman who doesn’t want to lower her standards as she battles to make a living while retaining her self-respect as well as staying faithful to her late husband. Keiko does not actually enjoy the job of being a bar hostess, hence the metaphor of the film’s title – ascending the stairs is an uphill battle to survive as she faces her job and life in general with a fake smile and glass in hand (at one point she is desperate enough to even visit a fortune teller to fork out a future path). Keiko is given the nickname of Mama-san, which I do find odd as she is only 30 years old but I guess that is still past the spring of her life. Due to this, she faces a crossroads in her life if she wants to maintain her standards – get married or open her own bar.
In one key scene, Keiko speaks to the bar’s owner after closing time whom she tells Keiko, “Isn’t your kimono rather subdued? A colourful one is better” (according to the film’s opening, Takamine herself designed the film’s costuming). A lot of implications come out of this one request and it is by another woman, enforcing a culture and expectation for hostesses to sleep with their clients. That brings to mind the other famous form of Japanese hostess, the geisha (of whom during the film one does appear in the bar Keiko works in much to her displeasure). There do exist a number of parallels between When A Woman Ascends The Stairs and Kenji Mizoguchi’s A Geisha (1953), both detailing women who are being forced to sleep with clients in order to stay afloat with such cultures being enforced by the female owners of the establishments – I do recommend both pictures for a double feature. Following the despair brought on by her failure to either get married or open her own bar, Keiko does eventually sleep with a client, Mr Fujisaki (Nobuhiko), or I should more accurately say is raped by him. Yet the morning after she expresses happiness to Fujisaki and expresses her love to him (make of that what you will). The closest the film has to a purveyor of morality is the bar manager Kenichi Komatsu (Tatsuya Nakadai), as he always refuses the advances of women in the bar and holds great admiration for Keiko for her conservative standards (“You can’t find many women like her in Ginza”).
When A Woman Ascends The Stairs features a lot of talk about money and the pursuit of it (we even see the use of the ancient abacus is still in effect as electronic calculators were not yet the norm) from unpaid bills from Keiko’s last bar to the investment of her own place to the money she has to send to her ungrateful family. Even in this heartless world, the talk of finance doesn’t even halt when Keiko is recovering from a stomach ulcer but more significantly, in the wake of a woman’s suicide over her own financial woes, creditors make an appearance at her funeral to ask the family for the money she owed them (debt cancellation after death doesn’t appear to exist). All this discussion of money does slightly work against the film’s favour to the western viewer unless you are an expert in Japanese currency as due to the nature of the Japanese yen and inflationary changes since 1960, it’s hard to quantify just how much money the character’s in the film are discussing. Nonetheless, I have done the research to quantify several key amounts mentioned throughout the picture. The 170,000 yen of Keiko’s unpaid bills from her last place is approximately 7,500 US dollars in 2023, her 30,000 yen apartment rent is 1,700 dollars and the 20,000 yen she gives to her family every month is 1,100 dollars.
By the conclusion of When A Woman Ascends The Stairs, nothing is resolved, Keiko is back at square one and has resigned to her fate. Hideko Takamine has that balance of lovability but also a strong sense of perseverance and stoicism and with the universality of many films from Japan’s golden age of cinema and regardless of the specifics of Keiko’s story, being stuck in a vicious circle of which there is no easy escape is one many a viewer can relate to with the continued ascension of those stairs.
What is the most iconic image of Buster Keaton’s filmography? It would have to be that from Steamboat Bill, Jr. in which the front facade of a house falls on top of Keaton, only for him to be standing in the right spot so the space for the attic window spares him from serious injury or possibly even death. This stunt had also been performed in the earlier short films Back Stage and One Week but on a smaller and less death-defying scale. It certainly would have taken a mathematical mind to locate the precise spot for Keaton to stand in order to avoid possible death. This is the one image of Keaton’s catalogue that is recognizable to those who have never seen a Keaton picture, and possibly second only to the sight of Harold Lloyd hanging off the clock hands in Safety Last! as the most iconic image of the silent era. Set in the fictional River Junction, Mississippi (although filmed in Sacramento, California), Steamboat Bill, Jr. can be considered the final entry in a trilogy of Keaton films set in the American south alongside Our Hospitality and The General. However, even with the opening shot of cotton fields and the central prominence of a Mississippi paddle steamer named after Confederate general Stonewall Jackson, Steamboat Bill, Jr. is lighter on the use of southern iconography but still showcases Keaton’s fascination with this corner of The United States.
Steamboat Bill, Jr. has some of the strongest characterizations and relationships in a Keaton picture, with the father-son relationship between William “Steamboat Bill” Canfield, Sr. (Ernest Torrence) and his estranged son William Canfield, Jr. (Keaton) being at the heart of the film. Bill, Jr. is a bohemian, city slicker, hipster at odds with his gruff, salt of the earth, working-class father and captain of the Stonewall Jackson. What makes the relationship endearing comes from their awkward interactions with each other and the manner in which Bill, Sr. treats his son like a little boy and not a grown man – holding and dragging him by the hand, taking him to the barber and slapping Bill, Jr’s hand away while browsing for hats in a clothing store. Sr. has the potential to come off as an unlikeable character and an antagonist but the film does an effective job of creating sympathy for the father by presenting him as an honest, hard-working businessman who has landed on tough times and has a genuine delight that comes from the prospect of seeing his son for the first time since he was a baby. Even after Sr’s unjust arrest, Jr. still chooses to rescue his father despite having previously lost his temper with him and then forcing his son back to Boston – family comes first.
While physical and visual comedy is normally the main showcase in a Keaton picture (this is the silent era after all), Steamboat Bill, Jr. does have two great examples of verbal, pantomime exchanges. Firstly is Sr’s endearingly comic outburst over continually stepping on peanuts shells which his son has split over the floor by referring to him as “cocoanut shells”, and more significantly is the scene in the jailhouse in which Jr. attempts to smuggle in a loaf of bread with escape tools hidden inside. This leads to a very playful verbal exchange between father and son regarding the bread only for the tools to eventfully fall out before it could have been given to his father (“That must have happened when the dough fell in the tool chest”). It’s also worth noting that in the film’s contemporary score by Carl Davis, this scene features the use of electric guitars in the score, which it’s unique hearing a contemporary instrument, one which hadn’t even been invented at the time of the film’s release.
The love interest in Steamboat Bill, Jr. comes in the form of the very energetic Marion Bryon as Kitty King, whom is by far the most developed Keaton girl and the one instance in which the girl goes after him rather than the other way around. The film’s romance is in the vein of Romeo & Juliet, with Kitty’s father and rival to Bill, Sr., John James King (Tom McGuire), the owner of the “floating palace” of a steamboat known simply as the King in this classic story of big business vs the little guy. King even has the influence to get the Stonewall Jackson shut down by the authorities however come the end David beats Goliath, as humble Stonewall Jackson is the only steamboat to have survived the ensuing hurricane.
Yes, the hurricane, the highly ambitious 14-minute finale of Steamboat Bill, Jr. The sequence feels like a predecessor to the disaster movie genre with the sheer levels of onscreen destruction as entire buildings fall apart (including the aforementioned falling house facade) and in some cases are even raised into the sky as this southern town is gone with the wind (ba-dum-tiss!). Yet while the sequence is thrilling to watch, there is a real beauty to it and has the elegance of a ballet (I can easily forgive the effect of the uprooted tree blowing in the wind not being entirely successful with its portrayal of gravity). During this storm (and despite it) Keaton is even given the opportunity to pay tribute to his own vaudeville past when he enters what remains of a theatre, as he plays around with the various theatre props. I do have to ask just how many wind and rain machines had to be employed to create such a sequence. There are no elaborate post-production techniques (bar an animated electric effect when Bill Jr. touches a live wire), everything you see on screen is real. Nearly 100 years later and Hollywood is making entire movies within green screen rooms. Oh, how the mighty have fallen from grace.
It’s a curious contradiction that it takes a man as athletic as Buster Keaton to convincingly play a man so unathletic and clumsy in the prizefighting romp Battling Butler. Keaton, whose training came from vaudeville and later slapstick comedy shorts, had a knack for playing pampered, effete young millionaires. If anything, Keaton never looked more dapper than he does in Battling Butler, in particular during the first half of the picture in which he exhibits an array of exquisitely groomed, 1920’s gentlemen’s attire for hunting and fishing. This was from a time when boxing was a gentleman’s sport before becoming the realm of the working-class underdog.
Of all Keaton’s silent features, Battling Butler is held in the least regard and is arguably the least viewed in contemporary times. Even back in the day was unable to get my hands on the film until I finally found a copy on a lesser-known video-sharing site. I agree Battling Butler is one of Keaton’s weaker works; however, lesser Keaton is still great Keaton in my book. That said, the film does have a slightly more anodyne feel to it. The premise is quite contrived and upon watching the film again after many years, I did get frustrated at times with its contrivance although I was able to become more accepting of it on further viewings. The basic gist: Albert Butler (Keaton) assumes the identity of a prizefighter who shares his same name (Francis MacDonald), in order to prove to his mountain girl (Sally O’Neil) and her family that is a real man (I will refer to MacDonald’s character as the “Other Butler” for the rest of the review to avoid confusion). One contrivance for example which is never addressed is how the crowd at the train station mistakes the Butler for the Other Butler. One could assume this was a ploy organized by Albert and his valet since the crowd makes their way to a house where Albert and his mountain girl are wed, but the movie never makes this clear. The plot of Battling Butler falls into the category of those which could not happen in a world of the internet, mass media, bureaucracy and surveillance. For example, the mountain girl and her family can only follow his supposed fight over the radio. With television only a few decades later, the whole premise falls flat.
That said, if you suspend your disbelief, Battling Butler still delivers the usual Keaton goods, such as the comic use of mise-en-scene with the placement of props during the camping trip from the film’s first act, including a polar bear rug and a bedroom panel inside Albert’s tent – you know, the usual camping essentials. Furthermore, the skit of Albert trying to shoot a submerging duck only a few feet away while standing up in a tiny kayak is reminiscent of an Elmer Fudd scenario in a Looney Tunes short, with the obviously fake duck prop making the moment even more comical. I also appreciate the use of The Funeral March of The Marionette (aka the theme from Alfred Hitchcock Presents) in the film’s contemporary score by Robert Israel, when Albert is shown an ambulance and stretcher before the picture’s climactic fight. However, once Keaton dawns the boxing gloves, the best of the film’s comedy shines through. Buster Keaton training to become a prizefighter is a natural haven of comic possibilities as the weakling Albert knows jack about hand-to-hand combat and exhibits basic failures of hand-to-eye coordination. The recurring pratfall of Albert getting tangled and trapped in the boxing ring ropes like a ragdoll is one of the film’s physical comedy highlights and like the greatest Keaton stunts it has you asking “how does he manage to do that?” (one thing I do wish is that the movie had shown more of was that ridiculous-looking punch bag, mannequin with the flailing arms). However, when Keaton actually appears in boxing shorts, his surprisingly muscular physique is apparent, rather than the skin and bones we would expect from a character like Alfred Butler – I guess Keaton wasn’t prepared to go all Christian Bale in The Machinist for the role. As for the Other Butler, any sympathy that is created for the character from having both another man profit from impersonating him and having an unfaithful wife (who tries to have an affair with Alfred Butler), becomes undone through some unseen domestic violence in which his wife is shown to have received a black eye in by far the film’s darkest joke.
The boxing arena featured in Battling Butler is the Olympic Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles (which still stands today as a place of worship for the Glory Church of Jesus Christ). The cinematography employed for the scenes inside the auditorium are particularly impressive with the use of deep focus and a single heavenly spotlight from above (alongside the golden glow of the film’s sepia tone tinting). The Olympic Auditorium has its own extensive history with motion pictures, being used as a shooting location for both Rocky and Raging Bull. Speaking of the later film, Battling Butler and its final fight does have one huge admirer, none other than Martin Scorsese himself. Scorsese points to the fight as one of the biggest inspirations to getting the “feel” of the boxing scenes in Raging Bull just right according to the book Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, with Scorsese quoting that Keaton is “the only person who had the right attitude about boxing in the movies“. The fight in question is not the fight the film tricks the audience into thinking it is building momentum towards, in which Albert must face off against the intimidating figure of The Alabama Murderer, of which it initially feels disappointing that we are never actually treated to. Rather the climatic fight is a backroom brawl between the two Butlers. It is uncharacteristic for Keaton to triumph using brute force rather than through ingenuity but this break from Keaton tradition does work in a number of ways. For starters, the fight itself does look authentic and the punches look real while the footage does not appear to have been sped up (you can see why Scorsese would have been attracted to it). Secondly, it is a huge turning point in Alfred’s character, when he has been pushed beyond his limits to his breaking point after the Other Bulter taunts him (think of how George McFly knocks out Biff Tannen in Back To The Future after George has been pushed to his breaking point). In a convincing show of strength, Alfred knocks out the Other Butler, and thus Alfred’s journey is now complete. He is now a man and worthy of his woman.
While I hate to use a cliché, normie-tier phrase, Satoshi Kon’s animated psychological thriller Perfect Blue, the story of a pop singer who transitions to become an actress and loses her grip on reality in the process, is a film exceedingly more relevant now than when it was first released back in 1997, and scarily so. Fast forward to the current age of the content creator in which people who hold a dedicated online following but are not household names nor would get recognized in the street are a dime a dozen. This stands in contrast to the 1990s and prior when the status of being a low to med-level celebrity with a niche fanbase like Perfect Blue’s protagonist, Mima Kirigoe, was not so democratized – as the famous quote often misattributed to Andy Warhol states, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes”. The status of Mima Kirigoe is showcased during the film’s opening which cuts between an energetic live concert performance to Mima doing mundane activities such as buying groceries or riding the train before returning to her small, modest Tokyo apartment (itself a representation of the fascinating ecosphere that is the interior of tiny Japanese apartments in which every inch is in use). Perfect Blue features an early screen depiction of the internet from an age when web page design was at a very primitive and clunky stage (all the film is missing is that nostalgic dial-up connection sound). Likewise, the internet browser Mima uses is Netscape Navigator which at the time of the film’s production was the most popular internet browser on the planet, however, its popularity declined over the years and its development ceased in 2008. Mima is a total boomer when it comes to the internet and the dark side of fandom as seen through the web is something Mima is not prepared for. The majority of Mima’s fans throughout Perfect Blue are shown to be perfectly respectable, even standing up to the small minority of troublemakers at the opening concert and giving her friendly words of encouragement when she arrives at a TV studio. There is one fan however who gives Mima much more than she bargained for.
The fan in question is the creepy inbreed-looking stalker who is later given the name of Mr. Me-Mania – a terrifying figure with his crooked teeth, eyes so wide apart and even the build of Michael Myers. He is a counterbalance to the sweet and pleasant nature of Mima whose puppy dog eyes are larger than most other character’s in the film. Me-Mania is a man who cannot reconcile the image of Mima the wholesome pop-star with Mima the provocative actress – just observe the look of pure joy on his face during the performance of the song Alone But At Ease (even though this image occurs in a scene within Mima’s head and may not have actually occurred in reality, but more on that later). Me-Mania sets on getting revenge for having his perception of reality betrayed, murdering individuals involved in Mima’s transition to becoming an actress and (as he would see it) the perversion of her image, eventfully trying to take out Mima herself. There is one shot which tells the viewer everything about Me-Mania and how he views Mima – the point-of-view shot of him holding the image of Mima in his hand during the opening concert.
Within this early portrayal of the information superhighway, Perfect Blue explores the concept of the duality that exists between an individual and what would be referred to in years to come as an avatar, the image that comes to represent one’s carefully chiselled, romanticized image and personality – the image we present to the world as opposed to the lives we actually lead. Mima is informed of a website known as Mima’s Room in which someone (who is later revealed to be Me-Mania) is not only pretending to be Mima but is posting accurate information about her day-to-day life. The idea of not being in control of your image (whether online or off) as well as having no control over your own narrative is something Perfect Blue explores terrifying well and how it can lead to one losing their grip on reality. The image of the avatar is also metaphorically presented in the film by a ghostly image of Mima’s pop idol persona (with this metaphor doubly enforced by it appearing in the computer screen itself). This doppelganger acts as a sort of court jester with its bright colourful appearance as it bounces around like a near-weightless object and taunts Mima by telling her the (seemingly at the time) harsh truth that she has made the wrong career choice.
To return to the opening paragraph, only individuals of Mima’s status or higher would have been prone to becoming victims of this loss of control, but today any online content creator, online personality (or influencer to use that dreadfully narcissistic phrase) or even any random individual posting selfies on Instagram opens themselves as a target. Furthermore, most people can point to performers they were once a fan off but disliked a change of direction their image or career took – they didn’t fit the narrative we wanted or expected. Any sane person won’t dwell on this like an obsessive fan and go commit murder as a result; your average Joe has more important things in their life to worry about. Regardless, one lesson to take from Perfect Blue is that as a fan or consumer, one should not lose track of where a person starts and an avatar ends. As Satoshi Kon himself is quoted saying; “There’s a gap between the image people see of me and what I see myself. Perfect Blue is about the tragedy caused by that gap becoming too large”. A real-life example of when this did come to fruitarian was during the production of Perfect Blue itself in 1996, life would imitate art with the case of the Björk stalker Ricardo Lopez, whose extreme disillusionment in learning that Björk’s personal and romantic life didn’t align with his perception of who the artist was, culminated in him sending a bomb in the mail to the Icelandic singer (of which was intercepted by the police and no one was harmed), and proceeding to commit suicide himself believing the two of them would meet in the afterlife.
Satoshi Kon continued to explore the theme of fandom in his next film Millennium Actress, which is the yin to Perfect Blue’s yang, a film which explores the positive impact fandom can have. Perfect Blue also acts as an examination of the sacrifices and hardship one must endure for their art as well as the conflict between art and their personal life, with one of the most notable cinematic explorations of this theme being The Red Shoes (1948). In Perfect Blue, the later vision of Mima’s alter ego is seen wearing alongside a red dress, a pair of red shoes. Is there a connection or is my cinematic brain trying to draw strenuous ties that aren’t there? Furthermore, it’s well documented the influence Perfect Blue has had on Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem For A Dream and Black Swan, although two other films I can feel the influence from Perfect Blue would have to be One Hour Photo and Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance). However, if I was to select one film predating Perfect Blue which explores similar themes, it would have to be The Swimmer (1968), which going back to the theme of the duality between the person and the avatar, tells the story of a man who projects an avatar onto the world as opposed to the reality of his life which is vastly different.
Prior to making the transition to become an actress, Mima was a pop-singer in a girl group known as CHAM!. More specifically, Mima is a certain type of Japanese pop-star known as an Idol. This form of Japanese pop-singer may come off as odd to the western viewer who is not initiated into Japanese popular culture with the sight of grown men at a concert watching three women dancing in titillating, pink maid outfits while singing to 90’s Euro Dance style songs. Yes, what a bunch of weirdoes. I myself am a man of more refined taste who is above such coomerish degeneracy…maybe. CHAM! has three songs featured in the film, two good uplifting jams (Angel Of Love and Alone But At Ease) and a solid ballad (Now Embraced By One’s Memories) when listened to in their full, uninterrupted versions rather than hearing brief snippets within the film intercut to the movie’s more unsettling content. Correspondingly, I was taken back on my first viewing of Perfect Blue by moments in the animation appearing that they wouldn’t look out of place in Clutch Cargo, although charm and character are derived from the film’s modest production values of a picture which is only 77 minutes in length (81 minutes with credits). Even with the film’s references to various 90’s-isms such as mini-disc players and outdated internet browsers, the film’s rich, saturated, film-noir-like colour scheme has a real 80’s, Blade Runner-esque vibe (throw a vaporwave soundtrack over the picture and it wouldn’t be out of place). Correspondingly, the piece titled Virtua Mima is the musical highlight of the film’s score, a piece which itself calls to the vocal-laden music in the Blade Runner score. However, the real musical mystery of Perfect Blue is that synth-pop song featuring a female vocal which plays during the strip club scene. The song is unlisted in the film’s credits and not included in any official or bootleg release of the soundtrack. The song is however used in the Japanese trailer in which a snippet can be heard in greater clarity than that edited into the film, however, the song’s title and the artist remain a mystery. Get on the case lost media sleuths!
For Mima’s acting debut she lands a supporting role in a TV series called Double Bind. A cliché, CSI-like show featuring a Mulder & Scully style duo as unrealistically glamorous people attempting to solve crimes (“Why do psycho thrillers made in Japan turn out that way?”). The name Double Bind could be interpreted as a metaphor for how the show reflects the events occurring in the film from the various murders to Mima’s loss of sanity and her duels with an alternative persona. The show also foreshadows the twist ending regarding Mima’s manager Rumi Hidaka and her Dissociative Identity Disorder. Yes, it is revealed near the film’s conclusion that Mima’s manager Rumi was collaborating with Mr Me-Mania to get revenge on not only Mima but those who facilitated her image change (I also have to ask is there any connection between these two characters having their eyes spaced so far apart?). Like Me-Mania, Rumi herself could not reconcile Mima’s image change but went one step further. Rumi herself is a failed pop idol and instead became a manager of celebrity agency and was living through Mima’s success but took this to a more literal level with Rumi coming to see herself as Mima, leading to the disturbing sight of an overweight Rumi wearing a red idol dress and believing she is Mima the pop idol. Rumi attempts to take Mima out herself in a final clash, which once again going back to Blade Runner, does remind me of the final showdown between Rick Decker and Roy Batty on the rooftops in the sci-fi classic. During this clash, Rumi is shown as Mima’s pop idol doppelganger in a red dress, and like Roy Batty, displays superhuman jumping abilities and a distinct stain of blood on her face. As is the case of life imitating art with the parallels between Me-Mania and Ricardo Lopez, there is the reverse of art imitating life with the case of the murder of Mexican pop singer Selena by the president of her fan club Yolanda Saldíva in 1995. The most striking similarity between this real-life case and the fiction presented within Perfect Blue is Yolanda Saldíva reportedly turned her apartment into a shrine for her idol, which Rumi does by creating a duplicate of Mima’s living space within her own apartment. Ironically for a movie about pop idols, idolatry itself is one of its major themes. Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry.
On first viewing of Perfect Blue, it would appear Rumi’s reaction to the filming of a rape scene featuring Mima for an episode of Double Bind is simply out of her concern for protégé, but when watching the film again aware of the real context, the scene takes on a different meaning. It is this key moment with Mima’s agreement and subsequent filming of a rape scene in which she plays a stripper at a club who is held down by multiple men as one man proceeds to penetrate her which signifies the destruction of Mima’s innocence. Even though the actions are not real and are only performances for a TV show it’s no less uncomfortable to watch (the actor pretending to rape even apologizes to Mima between takes). Mima’s other agent Mr. Tadokoro attempts to reassure Mima by telling her “Jodie whatshername did it too!”. The film they are referring to is The Accused (1988) starring Jodie Foster, which has a similarly staged rape scene atop a pinball machine in a bar. One of the questions raised by the filming of such an act is whether or not the scene is exploitive – for one I don’t like the slimy look on the writer’s face when is talking about the idea over the phone. Whereas The Accused is a serious film on a serious subject matter, Double Bind appears to be a show of the more trashy kind. Following the filming of the scene, Mima has a breakdown and admits to herself that she didn’t want to do it but the destruction of her innocence is complete as afterwards she starts giving interviews in provocative outfits and even poses for a nude photoshoot. This phenomenon is repeated time and again in the real world with numerous instances of child stars (more than often employed by Disney) whom once reaching an older age attempt to shed their squeaky clean images with a daring, more provocative one.
The opening moments of Perfect Blue feature three Power Rangers-looking dudes known as the Powertrons fighting a stereotypical bad guy, throwing off the viewer and giving the impression you’ve started watching a different genre of film, foreshadowing the reality-breaking nature of the picture. I’m not alone when I say I was left confused after my first viewing of Perfect Blue with the film’s 2nd half, in particular, being hard to decipher and even thinking about it several viewings later it still makes my head spin. This sense of disorientation along with scenes rarely transitioning in a conventional manner places the viewer inside the deteriorating mind of Mima. There are several times in which the film deliberately gives a false impression such as when Mima believes the statement “a link to Mima’s Room” means cameras are peeping into her apartment or when Mr. Tadokoro meets Mima alone in the car without Rumi, it gives the impression he’s going to do something sinister but no such thing occurs and the moment is never referenced again. Questions I have found myself asking when watching Perfect Blue several times include but is not limited to:
-Questioning if Mr. Me-Mania is real or not?
-When is the image of Mima’s pop-star doppelganger just her mental projection or Rumi dressed up as Mima?
-When is Mima actually in her apartment as opposed to the duplicate apartment created by Rumi?
-Is Rumi dressed as the pizza boy murdering the photographer or is Mima dressed as the pizza boy in a dream?
-During the four instances when Mima wakes up does that mean the proceeding scenes actually occurred or were they her dreams?
My brain hurts. Nonetheless, Perfect Blue brings to mind films like The Thin Man, The Maltese Falcon or Clue, films in which it is extremely difficult to make heads or tails of the story but trying to make sense of it ends up being beside the point.
Much tension during Perfect Blue is derived from whether or not Mima has made a big mistake quitting CHAM!, since they have found increased success without her (reaching the pop-charts for the first time) whereas Mima is only getting a few lines per episode of Double Bind and is soon being taunted by the image of her pop-idol doppelganger that she has made the wrong decision. However, Mima’s career decision appears to be affirmed come the end but I don’t believe the film entirely dismisses Mima’s tenure as a pop-singer as Mima herself states when visiting Rumi at a mental asylum, “I know I’ll never see HER ever again. But, thanks to her I am who I am today”. I believe with this she is referring to both Rumi and her former alter ego (I also believe this is the same reason why Mima chooses to prevent Rumi from getting hit by the van during their final clash despite the fact Rumi was trying to stab her to death). The lyrics to the CHAM! song Alone But At Ease reflects the un-intellectual nature of their pop music (“from comics than difficult books and I want to stay the way I am forever”), although to quote C.S Lewis, “When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up”. Likewise, there is the key message as notably derived from Preston Struges’ film Sullivan’s Travels (1941), that you might not be creating high art, but the joy it brings to people’s lives is a more than worthy endeavour. The final moments of Perfect Blue show Mima is no longer only famous among a niche crowd but is known to normies as evidenced by the gossiping nurses who spot her leaving the asylum. There is a cheeky nature of the final shot as Mima does a semi-4th wall break, looking into the camera and cheerfully stating “No, I’m real!” (followed by the end credits featuring a song which is tonally at odds with much of the film but in a good, playful sort of way). Mima’s smile and comment are not only a play on the nurses but also solidifies the key point of the story – that she is now in control of her own identity.
Hell’s Highway is the lesser-known chain gang picture from 1932, overshadowed by its more famous counterpart, Warner Bros. I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang, however, according to sources, this RKO production was released two months prior to the Warner Bros. picture. There are some notable differences between the two socially-conscience, pre-code films. Unlike I Am A Fugitive…, the majority of Hell’s Highway takes place within the chain gang itself rather than the events leading to the protagonist being imprisoned. Richard Dix stars as Frank ‘Duke’ Ellis, whom unlike Paul Muni’s character in IAAFFAGC, is not an innocent man who has been falsely imprisoned, therefore as a viewer, one’s sympathies lie differently with him. The film cleverly creates sympathy for the character in two ways. Firstly it is established he has been locked up for the crime of bank robbery, which means he isn’t as morally reprehensible as say a murderer. Secondly, he forgoes an escape opportunity when he learns his idolizing younger brother Johnny (Tom Brown) has also been sentenced to the chain gang, thus Duke remains put in order to protect him. Duke is also a World War I veteran; however, the manner in which this is revealed is a brilliant piece of visual storytelling. In a scene in which Duke has been tied up to receive a whipping on the back, the guard is apprehensive about doing so. The camera then pans to Duke’s shirtless back to reveal a giant Tattoo of the American flag accompanied by the text “42nd Machine Gun Co, 167th INF.”, as the screen then fades to black – powerful stuff. Dix himself is a silent-era holdover and like his contemporary’s such as Richard Barthelmess, he has an intense presence and a face which is able to convey so much.
While Duke Ellis is a man who has been rightfully locked up, Hell’s Highway does raise the question of when does the punishment outdo the crime? When does punishment become even too hardcore for the likes of Dirty Harry – a system which has prisoners are in bondage the majority of the day, even as they sleep and eat in the mess hall. One of the most distinguishing images in Hell’s Highway is the prison uniforms which have a target on the back of them, a target for prison guards or bounty hunters to aim at as seen later in the film (however, I can’t find any real-life example of these uniforms actually existing). Likewise, the trousers worn by the prisoners have flaps on their rear ends, looking like an exposed diaper and another way (whether intentional or not) of removing dignity from these men. However, it’s the sweat box which is the most inhumane piece of torture present in the film. Alec Guinness might have survived one on the River Kwai but here it is a death sentence, as occurs early in the picture as indicated by the haunting sound of a crying dog (although one minor criticism I would deliver is from this moment having its impact weakened as a character immediately explains the dog’s crying means someone has died rather than just allowing the moment speak for itself).
Hell’s Highway opens with a prologue stating “Dedicated to an early end of the conditions portrayed herein – which though a throwback to the Middle Ages, actually exists today”, followed by a montage of newspaper headlines covering abuses taking place in chain gangs across the states. I am unable to find any evidence these headlines are real. For example, one of them reads “Prison Guards Accused Of Murder As Tortured Youth Dies Chained In Sweat Box” from the Seattle Post, a publication of which I can’t find any evidence of actually existing. Regardless, this along with the haunting acapella of chain gang singers over the opening credits sets the tone for the film. These chain gang chants serve as the film’s diegetic soundtrack (with prolific composer Max Steiner acting as the picture’s music director), which is put to its most effective use during a memorable montage which is accompanied by sketches made by prisoners depicting previous events in the film.
Hell’s Highway is one dirty, sweaty film full of fascinating, rugged faces which say a thousand words. Firstly I have to ask is the character of Maxie (Sandy Roth) supposed to look like the film’s producer David O. Selznick? Furthermore, it wouldn’t be a pre-code film without an overtly homosexual man thrown in; a prisoner who does what else, cooks the food and does the laundry. Moreover, the head guard of the chain gang, Mr. Skinner (C. Henry Gordan) has a moustache primed for twirling. However, throughout the course of the film, he is seen trying to learn the violin in his downtime – a corny but effective way to make him more human and show he has a soft side. However, if the film has one show stealer it has to be religious/spiritual prisoner Mathew, a man who claims to be Christian despite having three wives at once and an expansive knowledge of astrology (of which he highfalutin, astrological predictions do come true throughout the film). When I first watched Hell’s Highway I had to know who this actor was a dead ringer for Harry Dean Stanton (or certainty in this picture at least). It turns out the actor is known as Charles Middleton, whose biggest claim to fame was playing Ming With Merciless in three Flash Gordon serials made between 1936-1940.
Hell’s Highway concludes with justice actually being served by the film’s end in which the Of Michigan State Governor arrives at the chain gang prison to issue injunctions against the corrupt prison officials for their violation of state law (although it is not stated where the film is actually set until ¾ into the picture). The Governor himself is presented in one of the most comically, stereotypical images of an American authority figure (usually a southerner but not always the case as seen here) wearing the Col. Sanders white suit, hat, shoes and the black bow tie. The ending is another major deviation from I Am A Fugitive…, which does not conclude in such a manner with everything being neatly tied up. It’s not a bad ending by any means, but I do feel the film’s impact could have been stronger with justice not remaining delivered at the end. Regardless, perspective viewers can find this pre-code gem on the Warner Archive Forbidden Hollywood Collection: Volume 9.
On The Waterfront is one of the most strikingly humble films to ever come out of Hollywood. Inspired by a series of articles on union violence and longshoremen corruption titled “Crimes On The Waterfront” by Malcolm Johnson, On The Waterfront doesn’t get classified within the ranks as a gangster film or a film noir even though elements of both genres are present within it. The film has several noir trademarks including a mood of pessimism, fatalism, and menace however as common with the genre, there is no glamour within its cynicism – there is nothing glamorous in On The Waterfront. Set and filmed on location in Hoboken, New Jersey where men scrap by making a living, this neo-realist world of dock-side urbanity is absent of any Hollywood artifice. You can feel the chilly atmosphere from the cold breath coming from the actor’s mouths to the smoke emanating from trash burnt by homeless men on the street. Even the rooftops themselves showcase a vast urban jungle of chimneys and TV antennas encompassed within the use of deep focus as the docks, the city and even The Empire State Building dominate the background.
The ecosystem of Hoboken’s waterfront is a world in which no one sees anything or hears anything. The longshoremen who work there operate by a system known as D&D, no not Dungeons & Dragons but Deaf & Dum. The waterfront is controlled by a corrupt union led by Michael J. Skelly aka Johnny Friendly (Lee J Cobb) and his right-hand man Charley Malloy (Rod Steiger). On The Waterfront is a film of four powerhouse performances as the cast attempts to out-Stanislavski each other with Cobb and Steiger making for a very entertaining scenery-chewing combo. The intimidating and manipulative figures with their cigars, fedoras and expensive coats attempt to make their racket sound justified and legitimate (“But my old lady raised us ten kids on a stinkin watchman’s pension!”) and even features some early semi-cursing (“Just too much shhhh, Marquis of Queensbury. It softens him up”) delivered in those thick New York accents (Steiger himself would go onto play a similar character in The Harder They Fall).
On The Waterfront paved the way for the Italian-American dominated DeNiro/Pacino/Scorsese/Coppolla school of cinema, thanks in part to the method acting performance of one Marlon Brando as cooperator turned informer Terry Malloy. One of the aspects which make Brando’s performance so striking is the balance between being macho and tender. Beneath his exterior, Terry has a soft side and a conscience with one of the avenues which really showcases this is his interaction throughout the film with pigeons. It is somewhat wholesome that Terry Malloy spends his free time pigeon-raising as a hobby, once a common practice on the rooftops of New York City although one which has waned since the 1950’s. The pigeons also serve an additional means of being metaphorical of the film’s themes. Early in the picture, Terry describes how hawks perched atop big hotels will occasionally swoop in and snatch a pigeon. The pigeons can be seen as symbolic of the longshoremen with Johnny Friendly and his band of union thugs being symbolic of hawks. This metaphor is best showcased in the harrowing sight of the workers outside the dockyard trying to get the work tokens after one of the bosses throws them up in the air, similar to how pigeons will frantically go after birdseed after it has been thrown on the ground.
The film’s method acting prowess reaches its height with the famous scene in the back of the taxi (putting to one side the oddity of the taxi having Venetian blinds in the back window). The back and forth between Brando and Steiger is some of the rawest acting ever committed to celluloid. You can really feel the affection between these two brothers and I’m particularly struck by Steiger’s line “When you weighed 168 pounds, you were beautiful”, it really conveys the platonic love between the two. What makes Brando’s most famous line on his squandered career as a prizefighter (“I coulda had class..”) so effective is not only the sheer tragedy it conveys but as a viewer, anyone can apply their own experience to the quote with any great opportunities one could have missed out on in life.
The picture’s female lead comes as Eva Marie Saint in her film debut as the virginal and innocent Edie Doyle, whom acts as a counterbalance to the rough and unsanctified Terry Malloy. A love does blossom between the mismatched couple of the bad boy and the catholic school girl (who cares for a six-toed, cockeyed cat) acting as a form of relief to the otherwise dower nature of the film. The picture’s other face of saintly conviction in the form of the great Karl Malden as Father Pete Barry, a naïve figure at first who goes on a learning journey and acts as a stand-in for the audience themselves to understand how this world operates. Like Father Flanagan in Boy’s Town or Father Jerry Connolly in Angels With Dirty Faces, it’s intriguing to see there was once a time when men of the collar would have been portrayed as heroes in media instead of pedophiles or simply being the butt of jokes (“These are small, but the one’s out there are far away”).
On The Waterfront is widely interpreted to be director Elia Kazan’s response to those who criticized him for identifying eight (former) communists in the film industry before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in 1952. There are those who deny this, however, I feel the film is too on the nose for this not to be the case with lines such as Father Barry’s monologue in the church (“There’s one thing we’ve got in this country and that’s a way of fightin’ back. Now, getting the facts to the public, testifying for what you know is right, against what you know is wrong. And what’s ratting to them is telling the truth for you”) to Terry’s angry outburst during the film’s climax (“You hear that? I’m glad what I done!”). In popular culture, a so-called snitch is almost universally presented as a bad person, as indicated by the associated slang (rat, tattle-tale, fink, narc, squealer, stoolie, weasel, Judas). However, On The Waterfront is a film in which the informer is the hero. So what are the ethics of informing or snitching? Since On The Waterfront is a film in which the characters are motivated by biblical morality, what does the good book say on the matter? From GotQuestions.org:
[The Bible] records the accounts of several informers. Sometimes the informers acted evilly; other times, nobly. Examples of evil informers include the Ziphites, who betrayed David into Saul’s hand twice (1 Samuel 23:19–20; 26:1; cf. Psalm 54); Doeg the Edomite, who “snitched” on those who helped David, resulting in a massacre (1 Samuel 21:7; 22:9–19); the Persian satraps who “snitched” on Daniel (Daniel 6:10–13); and, of course, Judas Iscariot, who betrayed the Lord (Matthew 26:14–16). Examples of noble informers include Mordecai, who informed the king of a plot to assassinate him (Esther 2:21–23).
To summarize, the difference between good snitching and bad snitching can be interrupted by its effect on innocent people. However, if passing along information can upload justice and thwart evil, then informing or snitching can be seen as a moral good.
I had long assumed On The Waterfront must have been among the last films shot in the 4:3 aspect ratio prior to Hollywood’s mass adoption of widescreen since that was the only ratio I had ever seen the film being presented. However, with the film’s Criterion Collection release I was surprised to discover On The Waterfront exists in three different aspect rations including the widescreen presentations of 1:66:1 and 1:85:1. What is the best viewing option? The presentation on 4:3 is not a pan & scan of a wider alternative but rather the widescreen versions are cropped from the full frame 4:3 version. I didn’t have an issue watching the film in 1:66:1 but the wider 1:85:1 version cuts out too much information from the frame and feels unnecessarily claustrophobic. Personally, I find the near square frame of the 4:3 version to feel more cinematic than its wide-screen alternatives.
On The Waterfront concludes with Terry Malloy striping Johnny Friendly of his authority following a fight with his goons, as Terry pulls off a Christ metaphor as he walks and stumbles three times upon reaching the dockyard entrance, silently demanding to be allowed in for a day’s work despite being blacklisted following his testimony. Multiple factors cause this ending to make the hairs on your neck stand up. Firstly, the music by Leonard Bernstein (in only one of three film scores he composed) with its bombastic use of drums heightens the drama. Furthermore, there is the union man starring Terry in the face and triumphantly shouting, “Alright, let’s go to work!” followed by the men walking behind Terry while ignoring Friendly who is in a fit of rage. Finally, there is the sense of finality which comes from the concluding shot of the dockyard door closing after all the men have entered. According to author James T Fisher, the longshoremen involved in the real-world events which inspired On The Waterfront have stated the film is misleading and not an accurate depiction of real-life events, and watching this ending there is the part of your brain questioning if this would this happen in real life but within the context of the movie, it does not at all feel contrived. An ending which involves men arriving at their workplace in the morning ahead of a shift, yet it leaves one with a sense of euphoria. Workers of the world unite, I guess.