Wednesday, August 06, 2014

An Appreciation: Hiroshi Teshigahara

Hokusai (1953) ***- Teshigahara’s first film is a short about the life of Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai, whose drawings and tender portraits make up the whole of the film as a narrator gently muses on his work and life. As an introduction to an artist I was not aware of (though he’s highly regarded in Japan of course) “Hokusai” is indispensable. It’s also a debut work that echoes so much about the filmmaker and his preoccupation for the co mingling of art, artists and their unflinching impact on the world around them, later exemplified in films like “Antonio Gaudi” and “Rikyu”.

Ikebana (1955) **- Running a mere 30 minutes, “Ikebana” refers to the age old art of flower arrangement. While the film itself is visceral and vivid- shot in fluorescent Technicolor that makes the flowers and colors quite startling for a mid 50’s film- it doesn’t maintain a lingering effect or educate on the topic.

Tokyo 1958 (1958) *- Beginning with real numbers about Tokyo’s population in 1958 (a mind boggling 8.5 million), Teshigahara and a group of fellow filmmakers then proceed to show us snippets of life in and around the big city. What’s most amazing about “Tokyo 1958” is that after presenting us with endless possibilities, the film denies us any real insight, emotion or stirring ideas, instead focusing on aimless, almost suburban habits such as a karaoke contest and bridal dress shows. If this was meant as a tourist attraction, then job well done.

Jose Torres (1959) ***- Fascinating, fly-on-the-wall short film where the filmmaker follows boxer Jose Torres to New York City where he prepares for a bout. Alternating between intimate close-ups of Torres at rest (including one scene where he lies quietly in bed, looking up at the ceiling and we can only guess his thoughts) to the boxing match where Teshigahara’s camera feel like outtakes from Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” years later, “Jose Torres” is a strong documentary. Like Frederick Wiseman, Teshigahara simply observes every step of the process with child-like curiosity. Not available on DVD.

Pitfall (1962) ****- Teshigahara’s debut feature length film is a masterpiece. When poor miner Otsuka (Hisashi Igawa) and his son wander into a ghost town, he’s immediately stalked and killed. We soon learn he’s the spitting image of a high level union boss who was the intended target. Weaving the politics and violence of two local miner’s unions with a 1940’s Capra-esque fantasy where the dead come raring back to life and are forced to watch the injustices being done around them sounds like a lofty goal for a first feature, but it works. Doppelgangers, bodies in the mud, a jarring and eclectic soundtrack and Teshigahara’s command of a roving camera are touchstones for a film that veers wildly around and eventually settles into a mournful portrait of fathers and sons condemned to their lowly fates. I have to imagine this was a huge influence on P.T. Anderson and “There Will Be Blood”.

Scultpures By Sofu (1962) ***- Short film that again explores Teshigahara’s almost fetishistic appreciation of art examined by the visual medium of film. It’s also an adoring exploration of the artist, Sofu Teshigahara, as Hiroshi is his son. The first half of the film examines Sofu’s process of piecing together his sculptures, often large enough to use an assembly team of people to carefully construct the artifact. The second half of the film places the sculptures themselves as the sole image of each frame, juxtaposed against vibrant, hallucinogenic backdrops and early 60’s sci-fi type special effects. It’s an alienating, and energetic, way to spotlight the unique nature of the designs. If we learn very little about the man himself, Teshigahara more than makes up for it by presenting a stale subject with eye popping verve. Not available on DVD.

Woman in the Dunes (1964) **- Teshigahara’s first big international success, garnering several Oscar noms and winning a prize at Cannes that year, “Woman In the Dunes” is a heavily metaphoric venture into the weird domestic world of an insect researcher becoming involved with a woman living in a sand dune. The setting is claustrophobic… the camera work is filled with intense close ups of skin, dirt and sweat. Thematically and visually, one can sense Teshigahara evolving as a filmmaker, but the story itself failed to grab me. At two and a half hours, it also carries on a bit too long and makes its point several times. If anything, it’s a film I admire more than like.

White Morning aka Ako (1965) ***- Perhaps its Teshigahara’s ode to John Cassavetes. “Aka” is a short film about the youth of Japan, and specifically one girl (Miki Irie) and her night out with friends. When one of the boys along for the ride makes dangerous advances, the film takes on a deliberately darker tone. Yet Teshigahara maintains a gentle grasp on the affair. Its low budget constraints are evident through its use of non-synchronized dialogue and Teshigahara’s avant-garde, handheld style of filmmaking doesn’t always lend itself to the smaller story, but its still an interesting progression in his career. Irie would go on to later star in “The Face of Another”.

Jose Torres Part 2 (1965) ***½-  An hour long sequel to the first documentary on boxer Jose Torres… this time Teshigahara embeds himself with Torres as he prepares for his 1965 title fight against Willie Pastrano. The first half of the film is all the pomp and circumstance leading up to the fight, but the second half focuses solely on the fight itself. As a lover of old-school boxing and the poetry in motion it can incite, “Jose Torres 2” is a mammoth achievement. The final thirty minutes, compressing the fight down to its exciting moments and the clamor of the audience in Madison Square Garden is a perfect time capsule of athleticism and fervor. Not available on DVD.

The Face of Another (1967) ***½- Like an art house counterpoint to John Frankenhemier’s “Seconds”, this film is a strong analysis of identity and the twisted moral paths we take if anonymity is achieved. A businessman (Tatsuya Nakadai) suffers from facial scarring after an accident. Through the help of his psychiatrist, he’s given a prosthetic mask and new face. With a new outlook on life, he sets in motion a plan to become a different person and challenge the coldness of his wife. Simultaneously, a young woman, played by Miki Irie of Teshigahara’s last film “Whie Morning”, deals with her own insecurities as part of her face was scarred during the bombing of Nagasaki. What’s most startling about “The Face of Another” is how seamlessly Teshigahara blends his experimental penchant with mainstream storytelling. The relationship between psychiatrist and patient, often taking place in an office that feels and looks like the central command of some sterile alien spaceship, is the perfect marriage of these two styles. And when the film takes a decidedly perverse turn, Teshigahara maintains control even though we don’t specifically root for the masked businessman to succeed in his plan. The only thing holding “The Face of Another” back is its under-developed relationship and denouement of the Miki Irie subplot. It’s a narrative strand that deserves its own film.

Man Without A Map (1968) ***½ - Of all the films by Teshigahara, this is by far the most difficult. It’s also the one that lingers with me the most. Calling it a detective mystery (like on IMDB) is very misleading. If anything, “The Man Without A Map” is an anti-mystery. Like the great neo noirs of the 70’s (“The Big Fix” and especially “The Long Goodbye”), Teshigahara’s film raises more questions than it answers…. never really solves anything… and devours the lead detective in a world of loose ends, digressive leads, and his own doubt about the missing person case. The unnamed Detective (played by Shintaro Katsu, who would go onto later prominence in the “Hanzo” series) is recruited by a woman to find her missing husband. Along the way, the detective is continually thwarted by the brother of the missing man who has his own agenda to follow (namely a violent workers clash), the unclear motives of a taxi driver service the missing man may have worked for, and the inability of the wife to recall any key details about the last days of her husband. Instead, the detective is haplessly relegated to mute witness as he scowers the depths of Japan’s brothels and low level businessmen. Going into “The Man Without A Map” with a sense of narrative is probably not the best way to approach it. This is a film that deserves multiple viewings as you realize it’s an atmospheric psychological study of a nation rather than a thriller. As said with other films, this is one that will probably grow on me over time. Not available on DVD.

Summer Soldiers (1972) *½-  “Summer Soldiers”, released towards the end of the Vietnam War, has every opportunity to be Teshigahara’s protest film. Yet it’s an ambiguous and confusing effort that fails to capture either side of the conflict with any depth or perception. Perhaps the biggest error is its main character, Jim (played by amateur Keith Sykes) is not a very likeable or cathartic embodiment. Deployed to Japan, we meet Jim after he’s gone AWOL from the army and shacked up with a Japanese barmaid. She puts him in contact with an underground Japanese anti-war group, and he spends the rest of the film bouncing from domicile to domicile in hiding from the authorities. He also finds time to play guitar and flirt with other Japanese barmaids. Taken from the left-wing, war-is-bad-hippie perspective, “Summer Soldiers” is a terrible depiction, with the film trading in Western ideals of the ugly American as Jim constantly gets drunk and chases women. He even tries to force himself on the wife of one of the men giving him shelter. On the flip side, we get no context or insight into the Japanese anti-war personnel who try to help Jim. In a film with strong leanings towards anti-war, it takes a relatively stale and unobtrusive stance on everything. Not available on DVD.

Antonio Gaudi (1985) **½ - Long form exploration of architect Antonio Gaudi’s work harkens back to Teshigahara’s fascination with symmetry and art as presented in his first films. Bracketed against a lush soundtrack, “Antonio Gaudi” is a film to appreciate and allow to wash over you. It’s all images, sounds and architecture driven down to its base form.

Rikyu (1989) ***- Gentle, observational film about the life and arrangements of a celebrated tea master in 1500’s Japan. As the title character, Rentaro Mikuni is exceptional. As Teshigahara did in his second film, “Ikebana”, “Rikyu” fully explores the methods and manners of flower arrangement and tea preparation as a sacred event in feudal Japan. He doesn’t shy away from the political either, juxtaposing Rikyu’s quiet almost monk-like existence against the backdrop of warring clans and violent cabals. The lavish sets, patient editing style and focus on the tiny quivers of the face show Teshigahara as a filmmaker slowing down and appreciating the finer things in life.  

The Princess of Goh (1992) ***½ - A sequel of sorts to “Rikyu”, “The Princess of Goh” may at first seem like a mind bogglingly standard way for Teshigahara to end his filmmaking career, but upon reflection, the Kurosawa-inspired direction and simple message of a princess, a tea master, and his servant (her lover) standing together against feudal lords and factions is the perfect cap to his career. After Rikyu’s death, Princess Basara (Rie Miyazawa) and Usu (Toshiya Nagasawa) who’s in love with the princess, stage a daring robbery of Rikyu’s head,… set out on display in the most disrespectful manner… and stir up the different tribes. Lord Oribe (Tatsuya Nakadai), a successor of sorts to Rikyu’s tea ceremonies, acts like a father to the princess and Usu and helps them escape. Years later, as Usu and the Princess grow apart, they meet again in a vastly different climate of empowered families and head honchos. There’s nothing revolutionary or inventive in Teshigahara’s narrative, just lavish sets and a keen attention to human connection that’s been missing in most of his analytical work. The scene where Oribe gently touches Usu head as he lies underneath his hut, talking to him privately, is a moving example of an allegorical father-son relationship. As a final film, “The Princess of Goh” is a sweet one. Not available on DVD.

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