No Borders, No Limits: Nikkatsu Action Cinema

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5.0 out of 5 stars Black Tight Killers and Yakuza Graveyards

At some time in the late 1950’s, Japanese film got cool. Really cool. The Western influences of cowboy flicks, bop jazz and big American cars imported during the Post-occupation era left a powerful mark, and movie makers discovered how to distill all of these foreign ingredients into their base elements, then mix them together with Japanese style to produce a unique genre known as the “borderless action” film. The term comes from the merging of East and West, creating a world with the best of both, filled with hardboiled hoodlums and beautiful but deadly dance hall girls.

Looking to re-jump their business, which had been put on hold during the War years, Nikkatsu studios was the cutting edge of this new style, pumping out hits and rising stars the likes of which had never been seen before. Starting with Sun Tribe flick Crazed Fruit, which introduced superstar Ishihara Yujio, Nikkatsu dug into the amoral world of Japan’s youth. Sex, drugs and jazz & roll. It wasn’t the lifestyle everyone was leading, but it was the one everyone wanted to be leading.

Mark Schilling’s “No Borders, No Limits” is a history lesson on the Nikkatsu action films. An often underappreciated genre, these films rarely held the West’s appreciation in the same way as the Samurai genre, probably due to their lack of “Japanese-ness” with nary a ninja nor geisha in sight. However, due largely to Tarantino bringing things full circle by producing Nikkatsu-influenced Kill Bill and the Grindhouse series, there has been a renewed and deserved interest in the Nikkatsu golden age.

Understanding the relative unfamiliarity, Schilling has put together a guided tour through these borderless territories, introducing you to the major players, the actors and directors whose energy and youth made these dynamic flicks popular. Essentially a series of articles rather than a continuous book, Schilling introduces such powerhouses as the Nikkatsu Diamond Line, the four young men who could bring a nation of women to their knees with a well-placed swagger or snarl of the lip, and Suzuki Seijun, whose sometimes bizarre style would cause him to be fired by his own study, but become legendary overseas.

On top of that, there are a few interviews, including the fabulous Shishido Joe (Youth of the Beast, Tokyo Drifter) and director Masuda Toshio (Girl Boss Revenge). It is great to read the personal stories and opinions of these film giants, and to get a glimpse backstage. Full color reproductions of the posters for the various films are and added treat as well, giving you a taste of the style and flair found in the Nikkatsu of this time.

If there is any problem with “No Borders, No Limits”, it is that DVD companies have not kept up. You are going to want to see pretty much every flick that gets showcased, but not all of them are readily available. Some of the famous ones, like Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter, will wet your appetite but leave you hungry for gems like “A Colt is my Passport” and “Slaughter Gun”. However with the current revival and recognition of Nikkatsu action flicks, these will be likely to be released soon.

Contemporary Japanese Film

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3.0 out of 5 stars A collection of essays, interviews and film reviews

“Contemporary Japanese Film” is a mis-named book. Judging from the title and size, I was expecting something along the lines of a continuation of Donald Richie’s seminal “100 years of Japanese film,” something bringing equal insight into contemporary Japanese film as Richie brought into the historical. Instead, “Contemporary Japanese Film” is nothing more than a collection of previously published and unconnected essays, interviews and film reviews by Japan-based film critic Mark Shilling. Obviously, someone saw the potential to make money off of existing material, without further work. There are no original articles.

Shilling is a fine film critic and clearly knowledgeable about the modern Japanese film industry. However, either he or his editors do not know how to assemble this knowledge into a useful book. Several of the essays overlap, with the same information in each. For instance, Shilling is clearly a fan of Iwai Shunji’s film “Swallowtail,” as it is introduced, described and critiqued in several essays, without any acknowledgement that it was introduced only a few pages before in a different essay. Also, several concepts, such as block-booking movies and advanced ticket sales to drive up box office, are talked about but never adequately explained for non-familiar readers.

In addition, although it looks like a thick and potent read, more than half of the book, 250 pages out of a 388 page book, is film reviews, culled from Shilling’s column in the English-language Japan times. The majority of these films are not available to Western audiences.

All of this may sound terrible, but the content that is here is of good quality, and once one gets over the initial disappointment of the mis-labeled title, there are a few kernels of insight to pull out of the pages. Probably the most interesting section is the directors interviews, showcasing such luminaries as Kurosawa Akira, Takahata Isao, Itami Juzo, Suo Masayuki (Shall we dance?) and Kitano Takeshi. There are some glaring oversights, such as no Suzuki Seijun, Miike Takashi or Miyazaki Hayao, but I suppose he can’t have covered everyone in his newspaper work.

As a book about contemporary Japanese film, it is a failure. As a collection of non-related essays, interviews and film reviews from someone with knowledge and history of modern Japanese film, it is successful.

Waiting on the Weather: Making Movies with Akira Kurosawa

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5.0 out of 5 stars Absolutely essential reading for Kurosawa fans

My Kurosawa library is pretty full. Heavy, academic tomes like Stephen Prince’s “The Warrior’s Camera” and informative and personal showcases like Donald Richie’s “The Films of Akira Kurosawa” can do a lot to deepen one’s appreciation for the master filmmaker. Only “Waiting for the Weather” can make you smile, make you feel like you are sitting right there, caught up in the whirlwind of genius holding on for dear life and enjoying every minute of the ride.

Teruyo Nogami is a familiar face to most Kurosawa fans, having appeared in the 2001 documentary “Kurosawa” as well as lending her insights to the various Criterion Collection releases of Kurosawa’s films. I can’t picture her as anything else than a pleasantly smiling elderly woman, little realizing the will-power and strength that must have been necessary to serve as an assistant for the fierce personality of Kurosawa for so many years. Nor did I realize that she helped raise Juzo Itami, one of the greatest of Japan’s modern filmmakers, best known for his comedy “Tampopo”.

In “Waiting for the Weather”, Nogomi, or Non-chan, as Kurosawa called her, waxes nostalgic about all the trials, tribulations, exaltations and boring down-times that went into creating some of the greatest moments ever caught on film. Her entry into the film world came through correspondence with Mansaku Itami, a famous director in his time although now somewhat forgotten, and then continued organically until her being hired on for an experimental new film called “Rashomon”, which would change her life forever. From then on, she was a constant presence on Kurosawa’s set, staying with him even during the dark times of “Dersu Uzala” and all the way until his final film “Madadayo” and his death. She was never a great mover or shaker, just someone who helped get things done, and was an essential piece of the Kurosawa machine.

There are so many scenes and memories in this book that put a human face on Kurosawa, and that are so pleasantly described, that it would be impossible to pick out a favorite. Imagine Kurosawa and his team taking a break from intense work of filming “Rashomon” to climb nearby Mt. Wakakusa and engage in some impromptu late-night dancing and stripping down to their underwear. Imagine sharing a laugh when the cages holding the crows for the climatic scene in “Dreams” were thrown open, and the black birds just sort of wandered around instead of taking off dramatically. This is the kind of nostalgia that Non-chan shares, and every word paints a vivid picture of affection and love for the human being behind the legend.

Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film

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5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding collection of interviews and articles

Around the 1950’s, the studio system of Japanese film started to show cracks. Not large cracks, but big enough that a few ambitious rebels could squeeze their fingers in, and start breaking molds and showing their own individual styles. Crazy psychedelic colors, hot warrior chicks with big floppy hats and big guns, rice-sniffing assassins…Japanese film got a whole lot more interesting.

Author Chris Desjardins describes these “outlaw masters” as “the directors coming out of the Japanese production lines of the late fifties, the sixties and the early seventies: genre filmmakers who made genre movies usually labeled as samurai, yakuza, horror, pink, etc, but who pushed the envelope beyond the usual conventions in some way, either in style or content. ” These are the men and women who didn’t mind working in the “b-films” because of the freedom it gave them to create their own vision and keep pushing boundaries of sex, violence, politics and style.

In much the same way as No Borders, No Limits: Nikkatsu Action Cinema, “Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film” springs from a series of film festivals and director retrospectives, in this case from The American Cinematheque in Los Angeles. Film programmer Dennis Bartok and author Chris Desjardins shared a passion for the edgy, hard-boiled cinema that came from Japan during these times, and the actors and directors who exemplified it. They put together the “Outlaw Masters” series starting in 1997, and have been bringing these fantastic films to a wider audience ever since.

This film festival gave them insight and access to these directors, many of whom were not even aware that their work was appreciated outside of Japan. Each section of this book contains a short biography and filmography, followed by an interview. There are fourteen featured in all, twelve directors and two actors. Some of these, like Fukusaku Kinji (Battle Royale, Battles Without Honor & Humanity), Sonny Chiba (Street Fighter Saga, Kill Bill), Suzuki Seijun (Underworld Beauty, Tokyo Drifter) and Okamoto Kihachi (The Sword of Doom). Some, like Kaji Meiko (Lady Snowblood) and Ichii Teruo (Horrors of Malformed Men) are a little more obscure except to hardcore fans. As well as these classic film-folk, two of Japan’s “modern outlaws” are included as well, Miike Takashi (Ichi the Killer) and Kurosawa Kiyoshi (Cure).

All of them are fascinating, giving intelligent and informed interviews. Many of these interviews, in fact, are featured in video form as bonus features on some of these director’s DVDs. I know I have seen a few of them, but it is a real treasure to have them all collected in book form.

It is also fantastic to live in the age of the DVD. If I had picked up “Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film” a few years ago, I probably would have been frustrated at the lack of access to all of these cool flicks I was reading about. Nowadays, however, almost all of them are only a search away. If you like Japanese film, you are seriously going to enjoy this book.

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