Archives for posts with tag: Nagisa Oshima

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I have finally got around to watching Takeshi Kitano’s latest film, Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen (2015), which was released last year, but, like a number of his recent works, has not been as widely distributed as the films such as Sonatine (1993) and Hana-bi (1997) that established him in the 1990s as an internationally significant film-maker. The film, which was written and directed by Kitano and in which he acts in a minor role as a detective, has received rather ambivalent reviews, dismissing it as ‘slight’ and over-long, but it is a very enjoyable film and an interesting development of themes that run through his work.

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Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen tells the story of a group of elderly, retired and incorrigible yakuza who decide to form a new ‘family’ to confront the young gang, Keihin United, that now operates in the area of Tokyo they used to control. In an invocation of The Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, 1954), and The Magnificent Seven (Sturges, 1960), and with echoes of films about ageing characters revisiting their past glories, such as The Wild Bunch (Peckinpah, 1969), Robin and Marian (Lester, 1976), Space Cowboys (Eastwood, 2000), or Stand Up Guys (Stevens, 2012), the protagonist Ryuzo assembles a group of old friends each of whom possessed signature skills that are now more or less redundant – especially in the wake of anti-yakuza laws introduced from 2011 onwards. The henchmen include Mokichi ‘the toilet assassin’ whose revolting modus operandi of hiding inside a pit latrine and stabbing the user through the opening is of no use in the age of flushing toilets, Mac ‘the quick shooter’, a Steve McQueen obsessive who can no longer hit anything, Hide ‘the 6-inch nail’ whose skill was throwing nails, but is similarly incapable of hitting the target, and Taka ‘the razor slasher’, who is now unable even to shave his own face without slicing it up.

 

Although it eschews the more uncompromising experimentation of Kitano’s recent films such as Glory to the Filmmkaker! (2007) and Takeshis’ (2005) or the systematic formalism of Kitano’s earlier films, such as the static framing and tableau shots of A Scene at the Sea (1991) or Kikujiro (1999), or the repetitive tracking shots of Dolls (2002), the film is nevertheless as crisply photographed and colourful as any of the director’s films. The film’s simple score recalls the pristine music of Jo Hisaishi, who composed the music for Kitano’s most well-known known films, as well as some of the most successful Studio Ghibli films, and the foregrounding of an accordion is a reminder of Kitano’s interest in the films of Jean-Luc Godard and the nouvelle vague.

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The film is a fusion of a generic gangster film with farce and crude physical humour, an element of Kitano’s films (and his TV programmes or the uncompletable video game he designed for Nintendo) that has never translated very well. The ageing yakuza, who call themselves the Dragon One League – named after the dragon tattoo on Ryuzo’s back, but unfortunately also the name of a local restaurant – are described by the young gangsters as old farts, and in a running gag, Ryuzo farts repeatedly at inappropriate moments, such as when he undresses to display his impressive tattoos to an old flame. Casio Abe has suggested that the key film within Kitano’s oeuvre is Getting Any? (1994), a bizarre, incoherent and self-reflexive comedy about a young man who is fixated on acquiring a car in the belief that this will finally enable him to have sex. Getting Any? is far less well known internationally than any of his other films, and is hard to reconcile with the minimalism of a yakuza film such as Brother (2000). Nevertheless, comedy plays a crucial role within all of the films by this former stand-up comedian, highlighting more or less indirectly the absurdity of the protagonists and the situations they find themselves in. In this respect – in the systematic use of comedy to undermine the earnest self-importance and futile heroism of their protagonists – Kitano’s films are consistently engaged with a critical examination of Japanese masculinity, and Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen is a particularly interesting example, since it eschews the nihilistic monumentalism of Brother or the fetishistic stylised violence of the yakuza thrillers, Outrage (2010) and Beyond Outrage (2012).

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Ryuzo, the boss of the family, is played by Tatsuya Fuji in a performance that is almost an impersonation of Kitano’s own impassive acting style. Fuji is best known outside Japan for his role as one of the two protagonists of Nagisa Oshima’s notorious film of an obsessive affair, In the Realm of the Senses (1976). In that film, which has been interpreted as a critique of the martial ethos of Japanese masculinity, Fuji’s character, Ishida, is ultimately strangled and castrated by his lover, and so the casting of Fuji inevitably invites us to read this film as a critical reflection upon (cinematic) masculinity. Kitano’s relationship with Oshima is significant given that it was Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (Oshima, 1983) that established Kitano as a serious screen actor, while Kitano also featured in Oshima’s final film, Gohatto (1999), and both films explore the relationship between male homosexuality and military or martial cultures. Incidentally, given the self-reflexivity with which Kitano’s films are shot through, the fact that Ryuzo is missing two fingers and is ready to slice off another at any moment in order to save face, may well be a comic reference to the conclusion of Oshima’s film. Although they have sometimes been marketed as slick exercises in genre film-making, from Violent Cop (1989)his debut as a director – onwards, the films Kitano has directed (and usually written) have been preoccupied with issues of mortality and purpose, illness and injury, ageing, the male body, and the loss of physical strength. In that sense, rather than a slight comedy, this is a key film within Kitano’s cinema, a summary of and reflection upon his films to date. The comedy is often unsubtle and scatological – the film concludes with a car chase during which Hide ‘the 6-inch nail’ shits himself when the gang use their senior citizen passes to commandeer a bus – but as a film about ageing men by an ageing man, now 69, the film has a poignancy that is absent from some of his earlier films.

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Turning on the radio on Monday morning and hearing about David Bowie’s death was probably the first time I have been truly upset to hear about the death of a public figure. I have been listening to his music since I bought a cassette of Let’s Dance when I was 13, and his importance to me and to others was that this public figure represented a set of possibilities, holding open other, better, more interesting, but also frustratingly contradictory and excitingly uncertain ways of being. What is upsetting about his death is the sense that, with it, they have been closed off.

This sense of closure was underscored by the fact that it was only when I heard David Cameron talking about him on BBC Radio 4 that I realised Bowie had died. Under the guise of fiscal ‘austerity’, Cameron’s neoliberal government is engaged with the radically destructive  anti-democratic project of dismantling the welfare state and public services, raiding and selling off the country’s assets to private investors and foreign governments, and exposing every area of British society to the rapacious and devastatingly wasteful market. One of the immediate consequences of this disaster capitalism is greater poverty and accelerating inequality, and so there was a particularly sour irony in listening to this privileged, callous, intellectually limited man who is responsible for making the lives of many people much harder, and for shutting down the opportunity for millions of people to make better lives, affecting to care about the death of a man whose speculative work imagined and evoked utopian, optimistic, colourful and progressive futures.

I wrote a short piece for the academic blog, The Conversation, on Bowie’s distinctive work on screen as part of a suite of pieces they are publishing to mark his death. That piece can be found here.

This is a slightly longer edit of the piece with a number of additional links:

A rogue performer: Bowie on film

‘I’m not a film star’ – Blackstar, David Bowie (2015)

Although eclipsed by his music, David Bowie pursued a fascinating parallel career as an actor, appearing on stage, television, and in films by a diverse range of directors that includes Nagisa Ôshima, Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Julian Schnabel, Jim Henson, Julien Temple, Tony Scott, and Christopher Nolan in roles that range from the ‘Goblin King’ in children’s fantasy film, Labyrinth, a rapidly ageing vampire in Hunger, a captured British army officer in the war film Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, through to Pontius Pilate in The Last Temptation of Christ and Andy Warhol in Basquiat.

 

The critical response to his performances was generally mixed, but considered together they are of a piece with the restless, experimental, collaborative approach he applied to his music. They represent a consistent attempt to move beyond the medium in which he was comfortably successful, bravely exposing rather than concealing his limitations.

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His first significant role was as the extraterrestrial protagonist in the 1976 science fiction film, The Man Who Fell to Earth by British director Nicolas Roeg and it is the film that makes by far the best use of his performance style and played an important role in shaping his subsequent persona since images from the film were appropriated for his next two album covers, Station to Station (1976) and Low (1977). Adapted from a 1963 novel, this bleak, beautiful, formally playful eco-film tells the story of an alien who has travelled to earth in search of water to save his drought-ridden home planet. Despite struggling with the heat and stronger gravity of earth he is able to pass as human, and exploits superior alien technology to become extremely wealthy, setting up a global corporation in order to build spaceships that can travel between earth and his home world.

 

Roeg recounted that while he had initially wanted to cast the novelist Michael Crichton for the role, (since he, like the alien in the novel, was extremely tall), and also considered Peter O’Toole, he decided to offer Bowie the role, despite the musician’s lack of acting experience, after spotting him in a BBC documentary. It was undoubtedly a financially smart move to employ one of the most famous musicians on the planet in the lead role, and the casting cannily invokes the apocalyptic science fiction scenarios of his albums, Diamond Dogs and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. However, what drew Roeg to Bowie was the fact that he wasn’t a professional actor. In this film and others, when viewed alongside the confident, expressive, naturalistic performances of experienced screen actors, Bowie’s understated delivery of lines, approximation of accents and hesitant bodily presence can seem awkward and self-conscious, or even technically incompetent. It is an example of what Richard Maltby terms ‘autonomous performance’ – a performance that can make us aware that we are watching a performance – by contrast with an ‘integrated performance’ style in which a technically skilled actor is convincingly subsumed into a character. Watching David Bowie on screen, we are always watching Bowie playing a role, even when he is playing himself. Of course, it is also the case that when we watch actors such as Daniel Day-Lewis or Christian Bale, we are always invited to study and admire their masterful displays of technically accomplished acting as well as the characters they portray, but for Roeg, who had previously worked with Mick Jagger in the brilliant, uncategorisable Performance, and went on to direct Art Garfunkel in Bad Timing, the attraction of a rock star is that they can act in a way that is simply impossible for a conventionally trained actor.

 

As Roeg explains in his autobiography,

‘There’s a very fine line between actor and performer. Performers have to have an extraordinary gift of projection or personality. You can learn certain things like voice projection, or to always look at someone and then vary it but there’s something odd about the art of performance. In the Hollywood Bowl there were something like 60,000 people for Mick Jagger. How many straight actors have had 60,000 people turn up for a single performance? Mick gives a performance unlike anyone else. It’s an extraordinary piece of acting art’ (Roeg 2013: 119-120).

 

The same is true of Bowie’s exceptional performance in this film. Placing his naked, pale, skinny body on display, he portrays the alien as a fragile, wry, anxious, lustful, polysexual and tragically lonely character who is steadily brutalised – brought down to earth and humanised – by an indifferent, paranoid, consumerist society. The producers at Warner Brothers were sceptical about the casting, but as Roeg explained to them, this was a film about an alien pretending to be human. In this respect, Bowie’s sometimes stilted performance was the perfect realisation of this character. However, what gives the unforgettable portrayal a greater poignancy is the sense that this figure stranded in a strange, confusing and hostile environment is really a description of Bowie himself. As Roeg recalled, ‘He wasn’t putting it on, it was who he was […] For example, Bowie has a marvellous laugh. It was just left of centre. It was like [Bowie had thought], “Isn’t that how they laugh on earth?”’

 

Reference:

Nicolas Roeg (2013). The World is ever Changing. London: Faber and Faber

 

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