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.
What struck me most on my first viewing of House (or Hausu)was that alongside the film’s sheer over-the-top, phantasmagoric madness, I found the whole thing to be weirdly endearing. Initially, I was concerned I was getting into something awfully pretentious but I was able to surrender myself to the fact that I was watching a film which employees a different filmmaking technique in just about every scene. House has one of themost cliché of horror movie premises, yet it gives way to one of the most unique and weirdest viewing experiences with descriptions ranging from “Evil Dead on steroids” to “a Scooby-Doo episode directed by Mario Bava” – perhaps no other film holds a better claim to the title of being “one wild and crazy ride”.
Japan’s reputation for “WTFness” could make House a film easy to dismiss, however, there is a method to the madness. Director Nobuhiko Obayashi was a director of commercials before taking on the mantle of House, and the artifice of commercials is all over the film alongside (pre-MTV) music video style editing, of which I’m sure it’s no coincidence that House was shot using the 4:3 aspect ratio – the aesthetics of House are all about the embrace of artifice. A film of contradictions, House is an art-house film (or art-hausu film one could say, ba-tum-tiss!) and one which was reportedly a huge success with the youth demographic in Japan upon its release (with the film’s extraction of sex appeal from its young female stars as well as nudity in several scenes may have got many young men into the theatres). In this regard it’s also worth mentioning House stands out as it is uncommon for Japanese films to have an English language title. Yet at the same time House symbolizes a return to tradition, a rejection of realism in 1970’s cinema. Right from the opening prologue, the movie proclaims in the vintage Broadway font what you are about to see is “A Movie Presentation”. This is part of the reason why beyond its scenes with killer futons, man-eating pianos and decapitated heads biting girls on the derrière, House is as I previously mentioned, weirdly endearing – the director’s love for cinema comes through and feels like a celebration of the medium. If I were to compare House to another film it would have to be Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. Both films celebrate the art form with their use of special effects which blur the line between reality and fantasy with both also featuring a movie within a movie. House has a Technicolor-look reminiscent of the work of Jack Cardiff with its use of deep, saturated colour with the film’s colour scheme remains largely consistent throughout with its use of oranges, reds and blues and being a horror picture, it does have that autumnal/Halloween vibe (even though it is set during the summer). Speaking of, as a horror film is House actually scary? Well, this measure is subjective of course but I did personally jump at the reveal of severed head of the character Mac as well as Gorgeous’ giant profile suddenly entering to the screen from the right.
House is like a feature-length dream with its mad array of images. The images from the film were conjured from the mind of a child, Obayashi’s pre-teen daughter Chigumi Obayashi (who does receive a conceptual credit and even has a cameo in the film as a shoemaker). I am dubious of having a child being a film’s creative consultant since the last movie I saw to do so was those dreadful Robert Rodriguez Spy Kids films but in House, this influence works and another aspect which makes the film endearing. To anyone who has never seen House, it’s difficult to put into words just how insane a film this is without sounding melodramatic. This encyclopedia of movie storytelling and its array of practical special effects wizardry is a joy to behold from primitive blue screen to the use of stop motion – there are a few films in which an obscene amount of effort is put into every shot. On the other hand, there are sections of House which do have a chilled-out nature to them and the cheesy vibes of Beach Party film. Just a warning that several sequences in the film do contain strobe lighting effects (as if the Japanese weren’t content enough with giving people seizures through Pokémon episodes). Upon my third viewing of House, I did find myself becoming more desensitized to its bizarre nature and more understanding the filmmakers’ mindset on how they could have created something like this. That said, where Mr. Togo’s transformation into a pile of bananas and the bear wearing the chef outfit fit into the grander scheme of things I can’t explain. I guess you got to have some randomness for randomness’ sake.
House follows seven girls each named after a single personality trait- Gorgeous, Kung Fu, Prof, Fantasy, Mac, Sweet and Melody. At the beginning of their summer break, they decide to spend some time at the country house of Gorgeous’ aunt, where all is not what it seems. The story does play as an inverse of Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs, seven girls each defined by a single personality trait, show up at a house in the middle of nowhere which is in need of cleaning, owned by an old woman who lives alone. Of the ensemble, Gorgeous is the closet to the film having a protagonist as she has a clearly defined arc, beginning with a subplot involving her father attempting to bring a stepmother into the family and freeing his daughter from domestic chores such as ironing his shirts in a story right out of a Yasujirō Ozu film. Even in the film’s opening scene, a teacher mentions how she is having an arranged marriage during the summer, a topic often explored in Ozu’s work. The only girl in the group named after a purely negative trait (and of course, she dies first) is the gluttonous Mac (derived from the English word “stomach”), although fantasy itself holds its negative aspects, My favourite of the group however has to be alpha in the form of Kung Fu, whose speciality skill leads to several very humorous (whether intentional or not) fight scenes against an array of moving objects.
Acting as a mascot for House with its prominence in promotional material is the white ragdoll cat that joins the girls on their adventure (good kitty!). Cats hold a supernatural significance in Japan and it’s evident the cat in House is doing the bidding of a witch, even preventing Mr. Togo from joining the girls at the house to potentially rescue them. This witch in question is the aunt (Yōko Minamida) herself who proves to be an interesting figure. She has an ominous ghostly look to her and is portrayed in the mould of the classic Yurei, a ghost from Japanese folklore that cannot pass onto the afterlife. She is also vampiric in nature, wearing tinted glasses when going outside, and feeling unwell after being in the sun not to mention the interior of her house is very dark. Oddest of all, she feels revitalized by the presence of the girls which allows herself to not require the use of her wheelchair. The aunt is a Willy Wonka-like figure and the house is her factory as the girls are taken out one by one by the house itself, much of this done through the watchful eye of Gorgeous assuming the mantle of her aunt, becoming possessed by her in act of metamorphosis. Like the kids in Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory, it’s not made clear if the girls are actually killed literally or just in a metaphorical sense. Usually, in slasher films, the young people are killed as a comeuppance for their promiscuous actions, but do the girls in House deserve what they receive? One of the film’s themes and one which is confirmed by the director is how the trauma of World War II still affects the aunt whose finance never returned from the war and correspondingly how the seven girls take their peacetime living for granted. To quote Obayashi; “These girls born after the war and therefore unaware of how precious peace is, come to the house on summer vacation. The old woman’s bitterness about the war turns into an evil spirit and devours the girls”. This taking of peace for granted is showcased during the movie within a movie, in which a flash from a camera cuts to an atomic cloud, to which one of the girls makes the trite comment, “That looks like cotton candy”. This is at least the case with the subtitles on the US Criterion Collection release. On the UK Masters Of Cinema release, there are no subtitles on this shot even though giddy chatter from the girls can be heard. Speaking of subtitle differences between these two aforementioned releases, in the scene introducing Gorgeous’ father, a film composer who has just returned from Italy after working with Sergio Leone, his line of dialogue in the Criterion release states the rather unbelievable comment “Leone said my music was better than Morricone’s”. However, in the Masters Of Cinema release, the line is the less dramatic “Both Leone and Morricone liked it very much”. Is someone taking liberties in the translation process?
Of the various interpretations of House, that which strikes me the most is the film being a coming-of-age tale of Gorgeous’ urge to stay a young woman and refusal to enter womanhood. As the house eats the young girls, blood erupts from it, the blood of menstruation – a symbol of womanhood triumphing over youth. It’s also worth noting the blood in question comes from the cat, an alternative name for a cat is a…, ok you know what I mean. Likewise, when people are young they will have certain friends and as they become older they may move on from these friends as a result of maturity. Gorgeous’ dying friends can be seen to represent this while her stepmother going up in flames in the film’s final scene could be viewed as her lack of need for a mother figure in adulthood. I have read theories bringing this theory to greater extremes of analyses, in particular, an extensive write-up on the now defunct (but thankfully archived) IMDB boards in which a user by the name of nemuro8 proposes the seven girls all represent aspects of puberty (I’m not sure if I buy into it but it’s food for thought); “Fantasy represents naivety and the fear of the change. Mac represents hormonal changes with her increased appetite. Sweet represents the desire to fill expectations and the role of domestic life. Melody represents creativity and the desire to have fun. Kung-Fu represents courage and brashness. Prof represents logic and leadership. Gorgeous represents vanity and beauty.”
The soundtrack to House (which was released before the film had even entered production) deserves a review in its own regard as it works as a cohesive album rather than just a collection of songs (with most but not all of the tracks you wouldn’t guess are from a horror film). The jovial main theme of the film has a section with a superb synthesized rendition of the melody, which is only heard briefly in the film itself. Hungry House Blues on the other hand is a delta blues style track that only appears very briefly in the picture, however, this version on the soundtrack is a whooping 6 minutes long complete with plenty of slide guitar action and even has vocals in the style of a 1930’s Mississippian black man (who provided these vocals?). Buggy Boogie is a piece of early ’60s, rockabilly cheese while The Beach Boys style Cherries Were Made For Eating is a real uplifting, banger of a choon, provided by the band Godiego (whom makes a cameo in the film as the song is being played). Eat is in a way the defacto theme of Kung Fu, as the piece is played every time she gets involved in her trademark skill – a good piece if you need a quick dose of adrenaline and the one track which has an undeniably funky, 70’s sound. In The Evening Midst is the most profound track and the real centrepiece of both the film and album, an instrumental played by Melody several times throughout the film which acts as a relief to the horror surrounding it. The track feels similar to the piano melodies from David Bowie’s Hunky Dory and ends on a beautiful crescendo (it’s also worth noting, this piano melody does bear a striking resemblance to the piano riff on the song Welcome to the Black Parade by My Chemical Romance). The final track of both the album and film is titled House Love Theme, this Beatles-like calm after the storm which feels reminiscent of Abbey Road side B. This is the only song in House which actually features Japanese lyrics of which I am unable to find a translation of thus I can’t comment if the lyrics actually hold any thematic relevance to the film.
House is the kind of film to be watched on the big screen at a midnight showing alongside the likes of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It does feel like was designed and destined to become one of the ultimate cult films. I do find myself fascinated by films such as this which remained unknown in the west for decades before obtaining a mass following. Of the film’s 149 reviews on IMDB, only 14 were written prior to the film’s first North American release in 2009. It makes you wonder what’s still out there…
Combining elements from Casablanca, Only Angels Have Wings and A Matter Of Life And Death, Porco Rosso is Studio Ghibli’s romantic, swashbuckling cocktail. Porco Rosso (Italian for Red Pig), real name, Marco Pagot is an ex-Italian World War I fighter pilot turned bounty hunter in the Adriatic Sea. Porco is a Bogartian figure with his cool detachment, political apathy and romantic distance, but his most significant character trait is that derived from his physical appearance. Porco has had a curse put upon him turning him into, well, an anthropomorphic pig. Why is the film’s protagonist a pig? The two most apparent interpretations being firstly a reference to the saying “when pigs fly” and the cultural perception in the west (as well as in faiths such as Judaism and Islam) of pigs being dirty animals (keeping in mind the film is set in a western country). A common reading is that Porco put the spell upon himself out of survivor’s guilt when the rest of his comrades died in battle. He views himself as swine – self-loathing and unworthy of living. It’s only through the validation and the friendship he shares with the character of Fio that comes to cure him of this affliction. How someone possesses the supernatural ability to turn into an anthropomorphic animal is never explained nor does anyone in this world question why there is a walking-talking hog existing among humans. Still, the film has enough going for it to overcome this suspension of disbelief (Porco is even a hit with the ladies despite his appearance so I guess looks aren’t everything). The film’s ending indicates the curse may have been lifted but ultimately leaves the question unanswered.
Porco Rosso is one of the few films directed by Hayao Miyazaki in which the historical and geographical setting is clearly defined and gives the director a chance to indulge in his Europhilia with the film’s picture postcard scenes of Italy and the Adriatic Sea. Academic Chris Wood states in his article “The European Fantasy Space and Identity Construction In Porco Rosso” that the film can be understood as a representation of wakon yōsai (Japanese spirit, western learning) – a tendency, since the Meiji period, for Japanese artists to paint Europe in a spectacular manner, while simultaneously maintaining the distance necessary to preserve a distinct sense of Japanese identity. Chris Wood states, “[In Porco Rosso] Europe is tamed, rendered as a charming site of pleasurable consumption, made distant and viewed through a tourist gaze“. So yes, Hayao Miyazaki is a European otaku. If there is a scene in the movie which captures this beautifully then it has to be the flashback to a young Porco (or Marco as he would have been known before his curse) and his longtime friend Gina lifting an early seaplane into the air in this display of pure unabashed nostalgia which captures the human desire to fly (thanks in large part of the enchanting music score by Joe Hisaishi). Likewise, one of the film’s most striking scenes has to be the flashback to Porco’s near-death experience and the origin of his curse. In this otherworldly sequence following a battle near the end of the war, Porco found himself in what the film describes as cloud prairie (I can’t find any reference to this term outside the movie), in which fighter planes from other nations rise above him into the sky as if there are entering heaven. The scene has similar vibes to the stairway to heaven from Powell & Pressburger’s A Matter of Life And Death while the use of synthesizers in the music score really makes it all the more captivating and eerie.
Porco Rosso is set during the final days of the roaring twenties and upon the onset of the Great Depression (“Farewell to the days of fun and freedom in the Adriatic”). The film’s setting also partakes in alternative history in which the wider Mediterranean Sea is beset with air pirates (albeit highly incompetent air pirates as reflected in their comical, circus-like theme music). From a romantic point of view it’s sad to say that air pirates are not real bar one incident in 1917 in which a civilian Norwegian schooner named Royal was boarded and captured by a party flying a German Zeppelin L23 – is the closest we’ve ever come to having steampunk fantasy become reality? As far as coinciding with actual history, Porco Rosso takes place during the days of Mussolini’s Italy as marchers in the street wave blue & green flags with bankers wearing the same design as armbands (this flag itself is fictional and was never an actual historical Italian flag). Porco is put under pressure from a former WWI comrade to join the state’s military to which he responds with the line “Better a pig than a fascist”. More sinister is the scene in which Porco pays off a loan at the bank and the teller asks him if he will invest in a patriot bond which of course, is only voluntary (wink wink). Despite its backdrop, Porco Rosso remains a largely apolitical film but if anything it shows that even under authoritarianism, life goes on.
The semi-love interest of Porco Rosso comes in the form of the pure feminine grace that is Madame Gina, of whom every flyer in the Adriatic is in love with as Fio claims. A longtime friend of Porco and his now deceased comrades, the film presents her as being “one of the guys” while not sacrificing any of her womanly demeanour. She will quickly run to a boat in a feminine stride but will make an epic and lengthy jump off the boat back onto the pier if required. Gina will dress to exemplance, even when in private and I do have to question if any particular Golden Age Hollywood actress is modeled after her? I am getting Mary Astor vibes myself. Gina occupies the island hotel known as the Hotel Adriano although it’s not made clear in the original Japanese version if she actually owns the establishment however, in the English dub, she refers to the place as “My restaurant” and the private garden as “my garden”. Regardless, the establishment is where all the hotshot flyboys of the Adriatic hang out where they kick back, relax and listen to Gina sing songs of lovers long lost. Like Rick’s Café Américain in Casablanca, there is an unwritten truce between all men. In the clouds, you may be enemies but at Gina’s place, everyone is your buddy. In her introductory scene, Gina shows little emotion in relation to having been told the news earlier in the day that her third husband had died in a flying accident, which as seen in films like Only Angels With Wings, was the norm in the early days of aviation. Porco and Gina share a “beauty and the beast” romance in which they never verbalise their feelings towards each other but you can tell there is a deep affection between the two. The other major female presence in Porco Rosso is the young Fio Piccolo, the counterbalance to Porco’s bleakness (and whose grandfather appears to be related to Hans Moleman). Porco doesn’t trust her to design him a new plane due to her being young and a girl says she understands this and doesn’t take offence. Rather Fio is aware that she needs to prove herself to him instead of just dismissing him as a sexist, well, pig (“Forgive my sins of using women’s hands to build a warplane”). However, it is somewhat odd the film concludes with narration from Fio’s point of view when this never happened at any other point in the film.
Porco Rosso does have one of the better Studio Ghibli English dubs, especially with the casting of Michael Keaton as the titular swine whose voice talents perfectly capture the world-weary cynicism of the character. I also enjoy Brad Garrett as the dopey pirate Capo while the announcer aboard the cruise liner as its being attacked by pirates adds some great deadpan humour to the proceedings. The sound mix of the dub is inferior when compared to the original while the lack of any reverb on the voices during the flying sequences is slightly jarring. Gina’s cover of the French song Le Temps Des Cerises is also re-recorded although there was no need to do so and I do consider the vocal performance on the original to be superior. Be that as it may, it’s Cary Ellwes’ southern drawl for the Errol Flynn-esque Donald Curtis which really add extra character to the dubbed version (in the Japanese version he is from Alabama whereas in the dub it mentions he is from Texas). The quasi villain of the picture, Curtis is a Hollywood actor who on his down time like Frank Sinatra, appears to converse with outlaws, while his delusions of grandeur thinking he will become President Of The United States with Madame Gina as his First Lady does make him somewhat endearing. Curtis does attempt to kill Porco by taking out his plane only to later discover his attempt was unsuccessful, eventually leading to the picture’s finale in which the two men sort out their differences through some mono e mono (in which Porco doesn’t even remove his glasses). I understand the psychological aspect of men making amends and even becoming friends after engaging in hand-to-hand combat, but Curtis did literally try to murder Porco earlier in the film, but I digress. Porco Rosso is another breed of artistic excellence from Studio Ghibli, you uncultured swine.
By all indications, Gigi should be a musical masterpiece, the last hurrah of Metro Goldwyn Mayer’s Freed Unit and yet, it took me several viewing attempts to actually sit through Gigi in its entirety, extracting as much appreciation as I can from what the film has to offer. While there are aspects of this musical vacation I enjoy, there is a synergy derived from one of the film’s songs which sums up this disappointing production, the ironically titled It’s A Bore.
So how did a major Hollywood movie about a girl being trained to become a prostitute get made in 1958? The film is full of gags about the French stereotype of impropriety however the film doesn’t outright state that Gilberte “Gigi” (Leslie Caron) is being trained to become a courtesan and a less in-tune viewer looking at the film from an anglo-centric perspective as opposed to a continental one may just think she is receiving lessons in etiquette. One of the film’s more successful elements is its (often dark) Ernst Lubitsch-style comedy from casual conversation on Laine d’Exelman’s (Eva Gabor) failed suicide attempts to Gigi’s mentally ill, off-screen mother’s out-of-tune singing. The other aspect of the film tying it to Lubitsch is the casting of the ever charming epitome of Frenchness, Lubitsch pre-code regular Maurice Chevalier. However, when it comes to the film’s two leads, Leslie Caron and Louis Jordan as Gigi’s eventual love interest Gaston Lachaille, I’m not seeing many sparks. They make for a decent pairing but I’m never left thinking these two were made for each other nor am I dying to see them end up together. This romance fails to create any real conflict in the story nor does Gaston’s boredom with everyday life or Gigi’s disdain for her training and the Parisian obsession with love. Gigi’s age is never stated however Caron was 26 at the time of filming yet she looks like a girl in her teens and like Ginger Rogers in The Major and The Minor, it is an impressive transition (in earlier films she looked older).
Ah Paris, the preferred setting of every romantic comedy made in the ’50s and ’60s. Gigi does deliver the goods with a slice of turn-of-the-century nostalgia (if only the characters knew they would have two world wars ahead of them, you cheese-eating surrender monkeys). However, this world is captured using Metrocolor which was never as visually eye-popping as Technicolor (nor was any colour process post-Technicolor). Compare Gigi with earlier Vincente Minnelli-directed musicals such as Meet Me In St Louis or An American In Paris and there is a clear downgrade in aesthetic beauty. Despite this (as well as some less than stellar rear projection during It’s a Bore number) Minnelli was one of the best directors when it came to the ability to compose shots (or mise-en-scène to use a pretentious French term) that look like paintings. Gigi does contain some stunning frames from Gaston’s silhouette at the fountain to any of the shots within the Grandmother’s apartment in which the bright red background beautifully contrasts Gigi’s blue dress. The real-world locations also give the picture a big boast from the Ice Palace skating rink (the former Palais des Glaces) to the interior of Gaston’s home which was filmed inside an actual museum (Musée Jacquemart-Andre).
The lush orchestrations of the MGM Studio Orchestra do deliver the goods however none of the songs has me rushing out to listen to the film’s soundtrack (while Thank Heaven For Little Girls doesn’t help matters with its unintentionally creepy lyrics). Gigi is an all singing but no dancing affair; there is no hoofer action and the cast sings while walking, riding or just sitting down (The Night They Invented Champagne being the only number with a brief stint of dancing). On top of that, Gigi also lacks any grand finale like the ballet in An American In Paris. Come the conclusion I was left with the reaction of “that’s it?”. What a legacy the MGM musicals left behind, it’s just a shame they went out not with a bang but with a whimper.
Opening a film in which the protagonist is seen getting out of bed and going about their morning routine is one of the most cliché ways of beginning a story (i.e, every student film ever), but From Up On Poppy Hill is so utterly likeable that I don’t care. Set in Japan’s port city of Yokohama circa 1963, the romantic, seaside setting really amps the film’s likeability with the accompanying nostalgic soundtrack being a pure delight from the opening ragtime theme to the Nina Rota style compositions as well as the use of Kyu Sakamoto’s Ue o Muite Arukō (known in the US as Sukiyaki in which it charted at number 1 in 1963). With a script from Miyazaki Sr and directed by Miyazaki Jr, From Up On Poppy Hill is structured like a melodrama with its use of dramatic flashbacks and the common melodramatic trope of a maritime setting. At one point the picture even makes reference to its melodramatic state (“It’s like some cheap melodrama”).
Umi Matsuzaki is the eldest child in her family and has responsibility thrust upon her following her father’s death and her mother’s departure to study abroad resulting in her making everyone’s meals, keeping fiancés in check and raising maritime signal flags every morning. The selfless and humble nature of a character like this could easily come off as aggrandizing but rather the character of Umi does come off as somewhat inspirational with her ability to bring out the best in those around her, earning her the title of “Goddess of good luck”. Umi develops feelings for fellow student Shun Kazama, however, Shun ends up discovering as a result of post-war circumstances, that Umi is actually his sister (although this turns out not to be the case come the film’s end). The two are forced to continue as only friends although it’s evident they are trying to retrain their feelings for each other. This culminates in a scene by a bus stop in which Umi states “I’m in love with you Shun. Even if we’re related, even if you’re my brother, my feelings will never change” to which Shun responds “I feel the same about you”. There is historic precedence for this as From Up On Poppy Hill is set at the time following the war in which young couples in Japan couldn’t be too sure that they were not related in some way but it doesn’t change the fact that the scene is an absolutely jaw-dropping moment. The scene is played out to be romantic and perhaps the movie could have dealt with the subject matter in a different manner as opposed to upping the swoon factor over an incestuous relationship but I digress.
The other major plot point present in From Up On Poppy Hill regards the theme of traditionalism vs modernism as the students of the local high-school try to save their clubhouse known as The Latin Quarter which is set to be demolished and replaced with a new building ahead of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The Latin Quarter in its old state is a massive, creaky building with so much character contained within its walls in which every inch is in use – as a viewer I did become invested in its conservation. At a demolition meeting, Shun runs onto the stage like Elmer Gantry and declares “There’s no future for people who worship the future and forget the past”. Unintentionally prescient with this theme is that come the turn of the decade when From Up On Poppy Hill was released, the west had entirely done away with traditional animation on the big screen (bar a few pockets), whereas Japan has so far never let it go. Correspondingly, it is wholesome just how passionate these students are about learning (in particular the overly enthusiastic philosophy-loving giant) with The Latin Quarter having a club for just about every intellectual pursuit. Compare this to any American film set in a frat house where anarchy, mischief and mayhem are the name of the game. Alongside Umi and the responsibility thrust upon her, all these kids are more than ready for adulthood. I for one welcome our new oriental overlords.
Speaking of references to other pictures, in one of the film’s establishing shots, a single factory chimney is shown emitting Pink smoke whereas the others emit regular smoke. Anyone who has seen Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low will understand this possible reference, keeping in mind the Kurosawa picture is also set in Yokohama and was released in 1963 (so I can assume both these movies unofficially take place in the same universe). Likewise, when Umi sees her mother’s red slippers as an indication that she has returned home after months away, is this a nod to The Wizard Of Oz and its famous line “There’s no place like home”?
If there is one great standout supporting character in From Up On Poppy Hill has to be the high school’s chairman Chief Director Tokumaru, a total chad with his rough, gravely voice, larger-than-life figure, flawless posture and upbeat personality. He is not at all a typical, slimy bureaucrat and understands the kids on their level and is sympathetic to their cause. When the kids go to visit his office in Tokyo, he asks Umi in the past tense “what did your father do?”. There is no indication that he knew the kids beforehand and seems to instinctively know her father was dead. Having a figure like this in a position of power probably explains how the students were able to infiltrate the Ikiru level bureaucracy to save The Latin Quarter.