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.
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.
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.
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.
I Don’t Think There’s Any Artist Of Any Value Who Doesn’t Doubt What They Are Doing
***This Review Contains Spoilers***
Whisper Of The Heart is Studio Ghibli’s love letter to creatives and a picture which contains great insight into the uncertainty derived from growing up and the role of education in this nostalgic coming-of-age tale. Fourteen-year-old Shizuku Tsukishima is the cheerful and infectiously optimistic protagonist of the story. She manages to find the joy in the mundanity of everyday life from something as simple as the sun coming out to seeing a positive message on the side of a blimp. Just observe the pure joy she gets from finding a quirky antiques store in a suburb (perhaps a bit too much as she nearly gets hit by a car while running across the road and never realizes it). The eccentricity of Japan is even on subtle display from the fact that a pork pie hat can be worn in common parlance and a girl can pursue a chonky cat for quite some distance just for the fun of it. It’s this aspect of Whisper Of The Heart which really makes you want to cherish life’s little moments.
Whisper Of The Heart is set over the course of 1994 (as indicated by Shizuku’s calendar), with a number of subtle indications for the passing of time throughout the film. The most noticeable of these being the seasonal variation of Shizuku’s school uniform with a white top for spring/summer and a navy-blue alternative for fall/winter. The initial catalyst of the story is set into motion when Shizuku’s father informs her that the local library is going through a transition from the old-fashioned book card system to a barcode system, much to her disappointment (I can recall my local library still using book cards in the early 2010’s). Goddammit modernity, sometimes the old ways are just better! It’s this tradition which ignites the film’s romance as Shizuku notices someone by the name of Seiji Amasawa has been taking out all the same books as her in this variation on The Shop Around The Corner formula re-imagined for the 1990’s. Shizuku and Seiji themselves aren’t too dissimilar to Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan in Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 romantic comedy with Seiji’s initially jerky behaviour and Shizuku’s bookworm personality (unfortunately, when I was off this age any expression of a desire to read was social suicide – sad but true).
As is a common recurrence in Studio Ghibli’s films, Whisper Of The Heart is the story of a young, teenage girl forced into a position of maturity (it does make sense that the female sex tends to be the focus of these stories as research has shown that girls on average mature faster than boys). One major interlocked aspect of Whisper Of The Heart is the classic conflict of education vs. hands-on/real-world experience. Shizuku is attending middle school (aka junior high school) and is studying for her high-school entrance exams. Her love interest Seiji on-the-other-hand opts to attend a trade school in Cremona, Italy to further learn the craft of making violins rather than attend high school, much against his parent’s wishes (high school is not compulsory in Japan). This disapproval highlights the lack of respect one can entail for a practical hands-on profession over a more middle-class, so-called “real job”. Part of Shizuku’s impetus to embark on her writing of a novel comes from the insecurity that Seiji is far more developed in his own art form. Her focus on writing begins to affect her school grades, feeling that her need to write a first draft of her novel within two months before Seiji returns from Italy is more important than her school grades. Unlike Seiji, Shizuku doesn’t know what she wants to do with her future. She asks her older sister Shiho when she decided on her future, to which she responds with the dubious answer, “I’m at university finding that out”. This quote is particularly prevalent from a UK-centric point-of-view, when official figures state in the year 2017/18, 50.2 per cent of English 17-30-year-olds had participated in higher education, 20 years after the New Labour government set the target of having 50% of young people attend university (with these degrees often being of a useless nature and provide no stepping stone to a future career). From a personal point of view, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with the rest of my life when I was 14 and it’s self-evident very few people of that age either have any idea. Seiji’s oddball choice of profession as a violin maker is an appropriate one at the end of the day as his character is an outlier of a person in their teens who has a definitive idea of what they want to do with their life. The film doesn’t take a position on the question on the role of higher education but does raise many a thought-provoking point as to its effectiveness. Come the film’s end, Shizuku returns to studying for her entrance exams. I can however relate to Shizuku’s unwillingness and nervous disposition to tell the rest of her family about her writing project even though they are aware something is occupying her time, to which her understanding parents sympathize and don’t question her on it any further.
Seiji’s grandfather and owner of the antiques store Shiro explains how artists or writers develop and grow in their talents with a simple metaphor – “The rough stone is inside you. You have to find it and then polish it”. Shizuku holds intense self-doubt about her work, disagreeing with anyone when they praise her work. This intensely self-critical manner and strive for perfection overtakes her and leads to overpowering anxiety when she shows Shiro the first draft of her novel. To quote filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, “I don’t think there’s any artist of any value who doesn’t doubt what they are doing.” – It’s this which really drives at the heart of Whisper Of The Heart. The picture showcases the highs and the lows that can be endured by creatives and parallels between the feeling of falling in love and the thrill that comes with creative pursuits. That scene in which a band has an impromptu performance of Country Roads as Shizuku sings her little heart out and gradually falls for Seiji (still unaware he is the boy on her book cards) combines these elements in a wonderfully corny scene. Whisper Of The Heart does hold parallels to fellow Ghibli film Kiki’s Delivery Service with protagonists succumbing to stress, burnout and depression (also is Shizuku’s older sister a recycled character model of Ursula?). Whisper Of The Heart is after all set in a country in which death by overwork is so tragically common that it even has a name – Karoshi (“You doctor yet? No Dad I’m 12. Talk to me when you doctor!”). The ultimate irony of this is that the Whisper Of The Heart’s director Yoshifumi Kondo would pass away 3 years following the film’s release from an aneurysm brought on by overwork. Whisper Of The Heart would be his only directorial feature, with Kondo joining the likes of Charles Laughton or Walter Murch as directors who have helmed only a single film, but what a film it would be.
My first viewing of Whisper Of The Heart was somewhat marred by the film’s misleading (albeit still beautiful) poster, giving me the false assumption that Whisper Of The Heart was going to be a fantasy film in the vein of a picture like Labyrinth. This lead me to wonder when this non-existent fantasy element was going to kick in during the film’s first third, only to then realize it wasn’t that kind of film. The fantasy sequence inside Shizuku’s head which inspired the poster in which Shizuku and an anthropomorphic cat known as The Baron fly Superman ’78 style is a beautiful combination of fantasy and reality as those giant pillars (which do remind me of the backgrounds in Super Mario World) raise high into the sky above the suburbs of Shizuku’s world of West Tokyo. It’s easy to sound like a broken record when talking about the aesthetics of Studio Ghibli’s films, but god, this film is just so beautiful to look at it puts a smile on my face from the eye-popping colour of suburban Tokyo to those urban night-time landscapes. Even the film’s more mundane subjects such as the apartment block in which the Tsukishima family resides would be ugly in real life but has a certain beauty to it in the animated form. Correspondingly, the music score by Yuji Nomi is one of great variety from the whimsical nature of A Hilly Town to the Aussie outback vibe from The Cat Chases and even medieval-themed compositions with the track Engelszimmer. These pieces of orchestrated beauty make for a welcome contrast with the film’s urban setting however the film does also provide some more in-tune accompaniments to the Tokyo landscape with its use of electronic sounds and synthesizers as heard in Taking The Train and Starry Night Sky. Furthermore, I can’t help but notice similarities between the track A Hilly Town and the piece In The Evening Midst from the oddball, Japanese horror movie House, while these two aforementioned pieces of music surely must have influenced Michael Giacchino’s piece Married Life from Pixar’s Up (is it just me or do these three pieces of music work extremely well when listened to in tandem?). Whisper Of The Heart is also a rare instance of Ghibli film to feature licensed music with its recurring use of variations with John Denver’s Country Roads, including a real humdinger of a cover during the film’s end credits in which it is given the city-pop treatment. Correspondingly, like many a Japanese film, the always reliable sound of cicadas increases the atmosphere of anything tenfold.
Whisper Of The Heart concludes with a very sudden marriage proposal from Seiji to Shizuku. In the original manga from which the film is adapted, Seiji only says “I love you” but the film’s screenwriter Hayao Miyazaki changed the line to “I can’t say how soon it’ll be, but would you marry me?“. To quote the big man himself in defending this position – “I wanted to make a conclusion, a definite sense of ending. Too many young people now are afraid of commitment, and stay on moratorium forever. I wanted these two to just commit to something, not just ‘well, we’ll see what will happen”. Putting aside the oddity of receiving and accepting a marriage proposal when neither are of legal marrying age, I do agree this sense of commitment coming from these characters gives the film’s conclusion greater emotional weight (although I will say the film ends very abruptly and could have done with a few seconds to let the viewer take it all in). The Japanese and English dubs have different lines of dialogue in this final scene. In the Japanese version, Seiji makes the aforementioned proposal to which Shizuku nods and Seiji asks if she’s sure to which she replies “That’s exactly what I wanted.” However, in the English dub, their discussion of marriage is more tenuous. Seiji asks, “Could you see us getting married someday?” to which Shizuku nods and they agree that his question was corny. It feels like those responsible for the picture’s English dub had a lack of faith in the source material and outright disrespected it with said changes. Regardless, I am a sucker for a good story of hopeless romantics and this impulsive love present in the original Japanese version of Whisper Of The Heart defiantly delivers on the desired level of swooning.
For unknown reasons, The Silent Duel (with other sources calling it The Quiet Duel) is the one Akira Kurosawa movie which has been neglected. This unsung medical melodrama has no high-quality re-master, no Criterion Collection release whilst my own hard-to-find UK DVD itself comes with some very unattractive packaging and although perfectly watchable, the frame rate is overly smooth in places (unless you’re reading this at a future date in which in a 4K release packed with bonus features exists).
The opening wartime sequence of The Silent Duel is a superb showcase of atmospheric filmmaking from a real master of cinema. Kurosawa employs his trademark use of the elements within a makeshift medical centre as the sight and sound of rain beats down alongside an irritating drip of water and the flickering of lights distracts a surgeon and his aides while their faces are dripping with sweat (not-to-mention doctors who are smoking on the job). Right off the bat, The Silent Duel is a film with many a shot of superb composition with the moment which impressed me the most in this opening prologue is the dramatic tension created by a truck driving past in the background just at the moment when Dr. Kyoji Fujisaki (Toshiro Mifune) discovers he has contracted syphilis. Dr. Fujisaki’s transaction of syphilis is through no fault of his own, rather he received it through the blood of a patient he was operating on, although due to the stigma he chooses to tell no one he has sexually transmitted disease and secretly begins injecting himself with salvarsan as a treatment.
Following the opening wartime prologue, the majority of The Silent Duel takes place in a run-down hospital in an unnamed, bombed-out city circa 1946. Like Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel from the previous year, the story and the setting may be interpreted in a metaphoric sense that reflects the state of Japan following the war. The main driver of conflict in The Silent Duel is that of Dr. Fujisaki refusing to tell his fiancée Misao Matsumoto (Miki Sanjo) about his condition and calling of their marriage with his justification being that he knows she will spend the best years of her young life waiting for him to recover. However, is this act as noble as it first appears or is it one of pure selfishness to make him feel better about himself in this thought-provoking conundrum? His absence of trust in Misao causes her extraordinary pain and robs her of the ability to make her own decision about the matter. The scene in which Misao comes to visit Fujisaki one more time before going to marry another man is utterly heartbreaking. The two can barely look at each other in the face and it’s clearly evident she still so desperately loves him and wants to play the role of his housewife as they take one last cup of tea in the hospital kitchen in which she used to assist in. I feel like I want to shout at the screen, “just tell her the truth, you absolute cretin!”.
Notwithstanding, the big show-stealer of The Silent Duel is Noriko Sengoku as the probationary nurse Rui Minegishi. The downtrodden, scruffy, snarky, cynical character was rescued by Dr. Fujisaki and given a job after she tried to take her own life upon becoming pregnant. The character goes through a remarkable arc of maturity as she gives birth to her baby, studies to become a nurse, metamorphoses a more presentable appearance and acts as a wonderful counterpoint to the long-suffering doctor. There is even a hint at a relationship blossoming between the two after she outright tells him that she loves him although this is never drawn upon again. The Silent Duel is based on the play The Abortion Doctor by Kazuo Kikuta. I’ve been informed an abortion does actually occur in the play whereas none takes place in the film. Dr. Fujisaki criticizes Miss Minegishi for wanting an abortion and even goes as far as calling her a monster. Whether or not The Silent Duel could be classified as a pro-life film, it does take a celebratory tone when it comes to childbirth.
If I were to complain about one aspect of The Silent Duel, it would be the film’s score. The majority of the film features no music and thus alongside its subject matter, it has that same feeling present in American pre-code films (which feature little-to-no music scores) of which I particularly enjoy. When music is used it is over-the-top and interferes with the drama rather than contributing to it. In one extremely odd use of music during the scene in which Fujisaki’s father (the only instance Takashi Shimura played Mifune’s father in their many film pairings) reacts to finding out his son has syphilis, I am not joking, I thought there was an ice cream van driving through my street. The Silent Duel is the only Kurosawa film scored by Akira Ifukube (who would go on to compose for the Godzilla franchise), and I can only speculate if Kurosawa wasn’t pleased with the music.
The Silent Duel could be viewed as a public information film on how syphilis ruins lives. Towards the film’s end, Dr. Fujisaki has a powerful, emotional breakdown in front of Miss Minegishi, as he lets it all bare regarding his restrained sexual desires brought about by his syphilis (“But one day because of the blood of a shameless guy, my body became dirty without knowing any pleasure”). The Silent Duel is the only Kurosawa film to deal to really deals with themes of a sexual nature, from a filmography which is otherwise very much asexual. Man gets an STD without getting laid, perhaps that’s the greatest tragedy of all present in The Silent Duel.
The world of the geisha is one of lies, a world in which they are selling a fantasy. As Miyoharu (Michiyo Kogure) states in the film’s opening, “A geisha’s lie is not a real lie. It’s a cornerstone of our profession” – this foreshadows what is to come in Kenji Mizoguchi’s Gion Bayashi (aka A Geisha or literally translated to Gion Music Festival) – the definitive treatment on geisha life in early post-war Japan and one of the most insightful cinematic representations of Japan’s iconic female performers (although I would call the 1962 American film My Geisha my favourite film on the profession, albeit a more comical and light-hearted take). A Geisha is an economic film at only 85 minutes long and entirely set within the confines of the Gion (only leaving for one scene set in a Tokyo apartment). The film is full of Mizoguchi’s favoured use of long, uncut takes and even channels of his inner Ozu with a number of shots reminiscent of that other great Japanese filmmaker. However, no geisha in the film are seen wearing the iconic white face makeup but we do see the makeup applied to the shoulders and neck. Is this absence of face makeup due to the black & white cinematography? Although considering the colourful nature of the geisha’s kimonos, that alone could be reason alone for A Geisha to be one film which could have benefited from colour cinematography.
Considered a loose remake of Mizoguchi’s earlier film Sisters Of The Gion, both chronicle a pair of geishas living under the same roof and encountering difficult personal circumstances. In both films, the pair share a sister relationship (with the pair in the earlier film being actual blood sisters) in which the older geisha is more traditional and the younger less so, of whom ends up rebelling against the system. Otherwise, the stories of both films go their own way, with the two women in A Geisha struggling to refuse the sexual advances of men in order to survive. This raises the question – are geisha prostitutes or have they ever been? The official answer is no. However when researching how often in the past have geisha engaged in sexual acts and have there ever been periods in which they were expected to, albeit, via unwritten rules as seen in A Geisha, I can’t find a clear answer. In one of the pivotal scenes in A Geisha, Eiko, the young trainee geisha (or maiko) is being informed about the rights granted to her under MacArthur’s constitution by the mother of the geisha house, Okimi (Chieko Naniwa). Eiko asks whether it is an infringement on her rights for a client to force himself upon her of which Okimi tries to sidestep the question and eventfully gives the reluctant answer of “in principle, yes”. The answer however is clearly the opposite and this culture of corruption is enabled by the mother of the house in which these women have to engage on the geisha casting couch in order to get ahead. Is A Geisha an accurate depiction of the profession in the early 1950s and thus did it have any impact? A Geisha can also be considered part of a late-career trilogy of the films by Mizoguchi focusing on prostitution including Woman In The Rumor and Street Of Shame.
Eiko is a post-war child, she is a Frank Serpico-like figure, determined to follow a righteous path. Eiko lives under the same roof as the older and less rebellious geisha Miyoharu (Michiyo Kogure), of whom the generational gap between the two is apparent while Eiko’s hardness serves as a counterpoint to the more delicate nature of Miyoharu. The terribly underrated Michiyo Kogure radiates elegance and has such a gentle nature to her as well as the ability to express vulnerability in her body language as the older of the two geisha (Kogure is sadly all but forgotten now with only a handful of her films being available in the west). Miyoharu and Eiko are the only two figures of dignity and virtue in a film full of morally defunct individuals including men who aren’t afraid to assault women, an uncle who demands Eiko sleep with him, Eiko’s deadbeat father and the aforementioned mother of the geisha house. Furthermore, the relationship between the two women is one of the film’s most fascinating aspects. There is much affection between the duo to the point in which Miyoharu becomes a mother figure to Eiko as she comes to symbolise Miyoharu’s own lost youth and innocence, about which she becomes increasingly protective. This is reflected in her clear apprehension and agitation at the prospect of Eiko actually sleeping with a client and although ambiguous, there are suggestions that Miyoharu is attracted to Eiko. Miyoharu is shown to have an aversion toward physical contact with any of the men in the film nor does she have a patron despite being a geisha for a number of years. In the final scene, it’s evident that Miyoharu’s feelings towards Eiko go beyond maternal feelings and she even offers to become Eiko’s patron, of which it is declared earlier in the film that a geisha’s patron is also her lover. In the end, it’s a matter of interpretation whether the relationship was homosexual or a platonic love.
The most pivotal scene in A Geisha is that set in a Tokyo apartment, in which Eiko resists the advances of the man Kusuda (Seizaburo Kawazu) who attempts to rape her as she badly injures him in her resistance. The incident not only results in the two geisha becoming ostracized and unable to find work, they unwittingly become pawns regarding a deal worth 80 million yen between a business and the government. The only way for their career’s to be restored and have pre-existing debts paid off is for Miyoharu to sleep with a man (Kanji Koshiba) who has been offering to be her patron. Watching a woman getting prepared for a sexual act she is uncomfortable taking part in is not pleasant viewing, especially when the man himself unnervingly tells Miyoharu, “you just have to close your eyes. In exchange, I promise to guarantee your future”. From the film’s opening shot of Eiko navigating the maze of streets to find Miyoharu’s house, the Gion itself can be viewed as a metaphor for these women have no exit through this labyrinth – the film paints a picture of a life which feels like it isn’t far from indentured servitude. The young geisha trainees are told that they represent the beauty of Japan to foreigners and that they are “living works of art“, but as Miyoharu states in the beginning – “A geisha’s lie is not a real lie. It’s a cornerstone of our profession”.
Midway is one of the better battle recreation movies to be released in the wake of The Longest Day (1962), detailing the first on-screen recreation of the battle, which was the turning point of the pacific war in this flawed but worthwhile Dubya-Dubya II venture. Universal Studios was the most old-school studio in the 1970s and concurrently Midway is an unashamedly old-school film within the era of New Hollywood and one which plays into the 70’s disaster movie trope of featuring an all-star cast, many of whom were residing in their twilight years. Ensemble pieces of this nature can easily provide an excuse for a cast to phone-it-in but the famed personalities in Midway all do shine even with some players of the cast only getting brief cameos. Much of the film’s roaster were veterans of the war itself including Henry Fonda, Charlton Heston, Glenn Ford, Hal Holbrook, Cliff Robertson, Robert Webber, screenwriter Donald S. Sanford and director Jack Smight (something exceedingly rare among contemporary Hollywood).
The king of larger-than-life actors, Charlton Heston leads the picture and portrays one of the characters not based on a historical figure in the role of Matthew Garth (the same name as Montgomery Clift’s character in Red River), and being fictional he is given his big hero moment at the climax of the battle. Of the cameo appearances I feel Cliff Robertson is given the most memorable in which he delivers a great, cynical monologue about the “the wait and see-ers” in relation to the warnings given in the years leading up to Pearl Harbor, while Robert Mitchum provides some welcome comic relief as the agitated hospital patient William F. “Bull” Halsey Jr (“I know, I’m a son of a b**** of a patient”). I also find it humorous that Joseph Rochefort (Hal Holbrook) wears a dressing gown over his army uniform and Captain Gareth does ask a “very personal” question in regards to the hygiene of him and his men (“You know, it really stinks down here. How often do some of your people take a bath?”). However, the most memorable piece of casting in Midway would have to be that of Japan’s Japan’s all time greatest film star, Toshiro Mifune as Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (the third film in which he has portrayed the famed Japanese admiral). Reportedly Mifune’s Japanese accent when speaking English was so thick that his lines had to be dubbed by actor Paul Frees yet regardless, his sheer physical presence alone does bring a great sense of weight to his scenes. I do wish however the film had the Japanese characters actually speak Japanese rather than English. Come on, we’re big boys, we can read a few subtitles. It also doesn’t help that many of the Asian actors in these scenes have obvious American accents.
Much of Midway plays out as men of authority talk battle tactics over giant maps, feeling like a giant game of chess between both sides as we are given much background insight into the decoding methods employed prior to the battle. These scenes are among the best directed in the film with the layers of texture and effective use of interior space. Likewise, very little new combat material was filmed for Midway with footage taken from Tora! Tora! Tora!, The Battle of Britain (1969) andStorm Over the Pacific (Hawai Middouei daikaikusen: Taiheiyo no arashi), the latter of which was made 16 years prior (and also starred Toshiro Mifune). I do love the shot of the Imperial Japanese flag over the upper half of a battleship in the background, only to be disappointed to find out its footage taken from another movie. There is an obvious change in grain structure with this footage although it’s not overly jarring and I have seen worse examples. I am left with spilt feelings on the film’s use of actual combat footage taken from the Battle of Midway itself. On one hand, it completely contrasts with the newly filmed footage but perhaps an argument can be made that it’s taking the documentary-like aspect of the film to its logical endpoint by using actual footage from the battle. The battle itself does feel drawn out and repetitive and is clearly edited around the Sensurround system (which was the big selling point in the film’s promotion), with the same angle shots of pilots flying planes used repeatedly and an overreliance on the use of subtitles to identify locations, ships, squadrons and individuals.
The other major topic Midway explores is the US government’s internment of Japanese-Americans during the war (“execute order 9066”). I enjoyed the subplot involving Gareth’s son Thomas (Edward Albert) having fallen in love with a Japanese-American girl named Haruko Sakura (Christina Kokubo), of whom her family is being interned in Honolulu over their membership of so called Japanese Patriotic Organizations and the owning of subversive magazines (“Damn it, I’m an American! What makes up different from German-Americans or Italian-Americans?”). However I do wish this subplot could have been explored in greater depth as the film only scratches the surfaces of the subject matter nor is the sub-plot given a proper resolution as come the film’s end Haruko sees an injured Tom coming off the boat on a stretcher, but that’s it.
In 1978 a TV version of Midway was broadcast in which newly filmed scenes were added to the film. This TV version inserts an entire section detailing the Coral Sea Battle of which the newly filmed footage is competently made but just feels like filler (and still includes a large amount of stock footage). Also included in this version are scenes in which Charlton Heston reprises his role as Captain Gareth in a relationship with a woman named Ann (Susan Sullivan) who is never mentioned in the original film. These scenes are very cheesy and shot in a manner that is more televisual than cinematic but more significantly, they do not contribute to the narrative or enhance the final demise of Gareth. The final inclusions in this version are two scenes involving the Japanese commanders, the first of which is actually a terrific addition to the film. In the scene, James Shigeta reprises his role as Vice Admiral Chūichi Nagumo in which he speaks to the son of Yamamoto who he expresses doubts that Japan is fighting a war they cannot win as the two walk through some striking historical Japanese architecture (of which the film states is Nagumo’s residence in Tokyo). The direction and acting of this scene is top-notch and help further humanize the Japanese side in the one worthwhile addition in the TV version. I can’t say the same however for the second of these two scenes as the latter by contrast is poorly directed in which two Japanese commanders react to the defeat at the Coral Sea – a simple static and very bland shot. Midway is already a flawed film as it is and these extra additions (bar the one aforementioned scene) really don’t help matters, with Henry Fonda not even showing up until 57 minutes in. The TV version of Midway is included in the 2021 Powerhouse Films Blu-ray release.
Throughout Midway the American soldiers use the pejorative term “Jap”, yet the film portrays a mutual respect for enemies among the high ranks of both the US and Japanese militaries. Yamamoto speaks of how “I have travelled widely in America, my friends. Their industrial might is awesome” while Admiral Nimitz (Henry Fonda) concludes following the battle, “It doesn’t make any sense, admiral. Yamamoto had everything going for him. Power, experience, confidence. We’re we better than the Japanese, or just luckier?”. Despite being a picture detailing a Japanese military loss, Midway was a big hit in Japan. It is not a jingoistic film and treats both sides in a fair and dignified manner, perhaps nowhere more so than Yamamoto’s final appearance in which he accepts responsibility for the loss and states “I am the only one who must apologize to his majesty”.
For a country which reportedly has one of the world’s highest stress rates (and perhaps as a result), Japan has produced some of the screen’s most tranquil and relaxing viewing experiences, whether it’s the works of Yasujirō Ozu or Studio Ghibli. Kiki’s Delivery Service tells the story of a trainee witch travelling to a city and using her flying skills to start her own delivery service. Set in the fictional city of Koriko (or Corico as some sources spell it), an urban dwelling inspired by Stockholm and the small Swedish town of Visby which is given no real-world area however the geographical layout of the city within the film feels incredibly well defined (bring on the Kiki’s Delivery Service open-world video game). Director Hayao Miyazaki is quoted as having said “Kokiro has one side on the shores of the Mediterranean, and the other on the Baltic Sea [laughs]”. Correspondingly, Miyazaki states Kiki’s Delivery Service takes place in an alternative 1950s Europe in which both world wars never happened and this rejection of modernity is a constant theme throughout Studio Ghibli’s output. It’s easy to lose yourself in the world within Kiki’s Delivery Service with its classical European architecture, cobblestone streets and houses equipped with traditional ovens. During the film’s opening, Kiki wants to leave her tiny village in the countryside for the city, yet to the viewer, this place is heaven on Earth with its green fields, bright blue skies and cosy cottages. The accompanying music score by Joe Hisaishi features many moments of joyful bliss with a mix of classical European, vaudevillian and ragtime music. On A Clear Day radiates that feeling of a sunny day while the piece which plays as Kiki arrives in her newfound hometown titled A Town With An OceanView is dark yet optimistic. My favourite piece is that played over the unveiling of painting featuring Kiki titled An Unusual Paining in which the dreamlike, new-age mystic piece leaves one with a sense of wonder.
Kiki’s Delivery Service is one of the best films about entrepreneurialism and the entrepreneurial spirit. The world of Kiki’s Delivery Service appears to be a libertarian paradise, a world which appears to be devoid of any business regulation (“Oi mate, you got a loicense to deliver that cake?”) in which children are driving cars, flying permits are not required for amateur aircraft, a minor can own a business, there is no mention of child labour laws nor any mention of Kiki continuing or ever having attended a school and a place in which you can invent flying machines without any apparent regulations – what Ayn Rand would describe as “full, pure, uncontrolled laissez-faire capitalism”. This lack of regulation or government oversight extends to the fact that Kiki leaves her home to be independent while still a minor at the age of 13. Her mother does mention “nobody leaves home that young anymore”, but aside from this, no concern is raised for a 13-year-old going off to live by herself nor any form of social services is present to get involved. Is this form of libertarianism and capitalism presented here ultimately a fantasy that would not work in real life with the presence of predatory big business (or am I over-analyzing a film for subtext that’s not there)? Miyazaki once stated about capitalism: “During the time I was trying to conclude Nausicaä , I did what some might think is a turnabout. I totally forsook Marxism. I decided it was wrong, that historical materialism is also wrong, and that I shouldn’t see things with it.” Only a few years following the release of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Miyazaki would craft fictional benevolent capitalists like the ever so loving and joyful Osono, the owner of the bakery Gütiokipänjä and a compassionate, benevolent landlady who showcases the human side of business (likewise, there’s something comic about the mere presence of Osono’s unnamed husband, the tall, buff, stoic figure who utters little more than a grunt). Kiki’s Delivery Service is a film which conveys the value of money as Kiki has to carefully budget what money she has after arriving in town, forcing herself to live off pancakes and work for her money while other kids her age spend their time procrastinating and driving cars. It’s moments like her visit to the grocery store and her sticker shock over the price of items which really makes the film so down to Earth.
The overall sweet, wholesome nature of Kiki’s Delivery Service makes my inner valley girl wants to proclaim, “like omg, cutest movie ever!!”. Everything about the titular heroine is unbearably cute from her facial expressions to her over the top reactions to even the slightest bit of good news and her occasional hyperactive nature. Kiki is seen as modern by the standards of her village yet old fashioned by the standards of the city. She struggles to fit in with the city’s children yet is able to engage with two elderly ladies thanks in part to her knowledge of how devices such as how a wood-burning oven works. Kiki is repulsed by how rude the children in the city act from the overly-inquisitive girl hunter Tombo to the ungrateful girl who receives the herring pie from her grandmother. This theme of maturity extends to the relationship Kiki shares with her cat Jiji. After she loses her powers which include the ability to speak to Jiji, it remains the one power she does not regain at the film’s conclusion. I do find it somewhat heartbreaking that Kiki never regains this ability but then again, speaking to a cat as if they’re human is in itself a rather childish thing to do and thus a sign of Kiki’s newfound maturity as she gets older. It does raise the question if Jiji could actually speak to Kiki in the first place or was it just in her mind? Yet in the English dub, Kiki restores her ability to speak to Jiji at the end, regardless Phil Hartman’s sarcastic Jiji makes the English dub worth watching.
So by all accounts, Kiki’s Delivery Service sounds like the most based, conservative, red-pilled, right-wing movie ever made espousing the values of tradition, power of the individual and the pick yourself up from the bootstraps mentality? Well not quite. Kiki is after all practising pagan witchcraft rather than being a good God-fearing Christian. Although in all seriousness, God is actually mentioned in both the dubbed version and the English subtitles of the original Japanese version in which Ursula states – “The spirit of witches. The spirit of artists. The Spirit of bakers! I suppose it must be a power given by God. Sometimes you suffer for it”. Although this is not the line in the original script and is a creation of the English subtitles the film still contains the ever slight reference to religion with Kiki flying past a Christian church in the opening credits. It’s not difficult to buy into the fantasy premise in which witches with supernatural abilities openly co-exist in society, and can even marry non-witches such as Kiki’s father (are her powers genetically passed down from her mother?). However these are not witches in the traditional sense, there are no devils, pentagrams or virgin sacrifices present in the film (Kiki’s mother is introduced creating a potion using modern science equipment). There does appear to be one dark side presented about these witches in which Jiji remarks “Crows used to be witches’ servants” to which Kiki angrily responds “That was a long time go, okay?” – make of that what you will. Also, while it is odd to bring up, I am forced to mention as it does come off as peculiar for the western viewer is the inclusion of many up-skirt shots throughout the film. It’s not sexual but no doubt will cause some monocles to fall into champagne glasses. That said, Miyazaki actually has a reasoning for this. On page 138 in The Art Of Kiki’s Delivery Service,he is quoted saying “It’s a rite of passage for her to fly over the city with her underwear exposed” – make of that what you will.
Despite lacking a villain within the story, Kiki’s Delivery Service does manage to set up a finale with an action set piece and one which utilizes Miyazaki’s love of aviation. Likewise, I do enjoy how Studio Ghibli’s films make the end credits a part of the movie-watching experience, something I wish more films would do general (Kiki’s continued use of a bassline broom after the destruction of her traditional witches’ broom is a nice touch). The aforementioned subplot of Kiki losing her powers immediately reminded me of the similar subplots in Superman II and Spider-Man 2. In all three films, the loss of powers comes from stress, burnout, the descent into depression and the inability to lead a normal life (granted Superman choose to give his powers up voluntarily but the comparison still holds). Kiki’s Delivery Service can be read as an allegory for modern young creatives trying to make it on their own with Kiki’s magic being used as a metaphor for artistic expression whether it’s attempting to become a YouTuber or trying to run a successful movie review blog (wink, wink) and attempting to accompany this into a work-life balance. The other character who reflects the passion for a creative to turn their passion into a job is the painter Ursula. She speaks of how her pursuit of painting is what gets rid of her frustrations and her remedy for the loss of creativity involves “Take[ing] long walks, look at the scenery, doze off at noon. Don’t do a single thing” – and yes, on a personal level this I can relate to. Kiki’s Delivery Service is as fine a tribute to the creative and entrepreneurial spirit and regardless of your passion, “Sometimes you suffer for it”.