perfect blue (satoshi kon, 1997)

Perfect Blue was the debut feature for director Satoshi Kon. The influence of this film, as well as the rest of Kon's productions, goes beyond just the world of Japanese anime. Darren Aronofsky's work, in particular Black Swan, owes a lot to Kon ... Christopher Nolan and Guillermo del Toro are also often mentioned as being influenced by Kon.

Perfect Blue is a remarkable work, justly lionized. It appeals to non-fans of anime, but not because it cheapens its approach ... it's just that Perfect Blue is a movie, not only anime, and while the stylization is highly regarded to this day among anime aficionados, the psychological characterizations and thriller approach makes the movie seem like something Hitchcock might have come up with.

It doesn't need to be compared to other movies to earn our praise ... it stands on its own. But it must be said in advance: the movie earns its trigger warnings. On the one hand, Kon uses a rape scene in a complicated way, and it is not meant to be exciting. But I'm not certain it doesn't go too far, anyway. It's appropriate to the character development of the "victim" (she is an actress, it occurs during a filmed scene, it is not "real"), but it's still brutal, as is much of the film.

mishima: a life in four chapters (paul schrader, 1985)

Forget what you know about biopics, because Mishima is different. The title character, a real-life Japanese writer, has similarities to Travis Bickle, another Paul Schrader creation, if Travis was a well-known educated author. Both are "God's lonely man", but Mishima was able to transform his celebrity into a cult, which is reflected in this movie.

Schrader has a problem: Mishima embodied many things. Schrader broke this down into Mishima's childhood, his success as an author, and his ritual suicide, and leads us through these various parts of Mishima's life with a fascinating use of color. Childhood scenes are in black-and-white, and the "present time" (when he kills himself) is in straightforward documentary-like color. Schrader also uses excerpts from three of Mishima's novels, and these recreations are treated like stage productions, with gaudy, eye-catching colors. The color scheme ensures that we are never lost, even as the film's timeline bounces around.

Schrader presents Mishima at something approaching face value, much as he did with Travis Bickle. We get a sense of the inner being that was Mishima, but Schrader avoids easy explanations. We are left to wonder at this remarkable man who had delusions of grandeur that were at times actually fulfilled. His suicide came as he hoped to lead a coup by soldiers to restore the Emperor to power.

After watching Mishima, I feel I know more about Paul Schrader ... the movies fits well into Schrader's career. The remarkable methods Schrader uses, though, makes me think I still don't know much about the actual Mishima. With Ken Ogata as the adult Mishima, music by Philip Glass, cinematography by John Bailey, and production design by Eiko Ishioka.

dersu uzala (akira kurosawa, 1975)

Dersu Uzala shows up on countless best-of lists, and won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. The last time I did a Best Directors list, I had Akira Kurosawa at #3. He has made many all-time classics. Dersu Uzala came late in Kurosawa's career, and to my mind, he still had one great picture to come (Ran). Between that film and Dersu Uzala, he directed one other movie, Kagemusha, which didn't do much for me. I found Dersu Uzala to have many wonderful moments, but they are spread out over almost 2 1/2 hours and the result is too repetitive to maintain its power.

That Dersu Uzala was made at all is impressive. The Japanese film industry had lost confidence in Kurosawa's ability make a profitable film. To the rescue came Mosfilm from the USSR, offering Kurosawa the chance to make a film from a Russian literature source. They were surprised when Kurosawa chose a text little known outside of the USSR, the memoir of a Russian soldier called Dersu Uzala. The film was shot in Russia (it's fascinating to see how Siberia changes with the seasons, defying the popular view that the area is like the Arctic), featuring Russian actors and crew members. (It is said there was only one interpreter on the set.)

There are several themes in the movie. The heart of the film is the relationship between the soldier, leading a surveying expedition, and Dersu, a native of the area whose understanding of nature is priceless to the expedition. There is an underlying theme about the gradual eradication of our roots in nature in the name of "progress", but the friendship of the two men is always foregrounded.

I found Dersu Uzala to be a case of eating my vegetables because they are good for you. I won't soon forget the most memorable moments, but it is not the first movie I will return to when I want a taste of Kurosawa. #468 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

the world (jia zhangke, 2004)

The World is the second Jia Zhangke film I have seen, and my reaction is similar to what I thought about Platform. My ignorance about the cultural and political context of these films prevents me from fully understanding what I'm seeing. Both movies look idiosyncratic, with The World even including brief animated sections.

The very existence of the Beijing World Park fascinates me. As is said at the beginning, "See the world without ever leaving Beijing." It's a theme park that features recreations of famous places around the world, so France has the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower and America has Manhattan (the towers are still standing in the park), and there are the Great Pyramids and the Leaning Tower of Pisa and Big Ben and much more, all scaled down. Most of the characters in the film work at the park, including many who work in stage productions that fit the replicated area. It's like Las Vegas ... of course, there's shopping and places to eat ... Las Vegas plopped into the middle of a socialist republic.

Platform also focused on a young entertainment group. This allows for plenty of interactions among the young characters, while making subtle statements about the presence of art in China. (This was more obvious in Platform, where the troupe is meant to create productions the government will approve of.) While much of The World is taken up with character development, the presentation is often surreal, as people have conversations while standing in front of recreations of famous landmarks.

As with Platform, I'm sure I am missing a lot, too much to lock completely into what Jia is doing. Zhao Tao is excellent ... she appears in many of Jia's films, and they eventually married. From scene to scene, there is always something interesting going on. I don't want to damn The World with faint praise; I'm just noting the distance between what is on the screen and what I can usefully process. Which is on me, not on the film makers.

fall guy (kinji fukasaku, 1982)

This is the twenty-fifth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2022-23", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 8th annual challenge, and my fourth time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", the second year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", and last year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22"). Week 25 is called "Sonny Chiba Week":

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film starring Shinichi "Sonny" Chiba.

This was a bit of a cheat. Yes, Sonny Chiba is in this movie, apparently playing himself. But I never spotted him ... he's just one of many actors in a behind-the-scenes look at film making. I'd only seen him in two movies prior to this. Like many Americans, I'd seen him turn up in Kill Bill, but my first encounter with the Chiba legend came via his 1974 martial arts classic The Street Fighter, which we saw at a drive-in. That was the first film to receive an X rating in the U.S. based solely on it violence. The scene I can never forget came when Chiba castrated a bad guy by pulling out his genitals with his bare hands.

Suffice to say, nothing like that happens in Fall Guy. Not that it wasn't possible ... director Kinji Fukasaku is known for lots of violence in his films (among them, the infamous Battle Royale). Fall Guy is an uneven blend of comedy, action, and drama. It's an interesting look at Japanese film making in the 80s, with larger-than-life caricatures. Mitsuru Hirata is good as the title character, and Keiko Matsuzaka is unbelievably beautiful. There's an aggressive sex scene that could be seen as rape, and whatever you call it, it's bad. The whole movie probably needed more Sonny Chiba.

floating clouds (mikio naruse, 1955)

Mikio Naruse continues to be an interesting case for film scholars in the West. He directed nearly 90 films in his career. He is highly regarded, yet his name doesn't often come up in lists of the top Japanese directors. He exists on the outskirts of famous lists ... the most recent such list, the Sight and Sound poll, had no films by Naruse among its top 250. I have only seen one other film by Naruse, Apart from You, which didn't do much for me. It was also different in many ways from Floating Clouds, including the fact that it was a silent movie.

So I am no expert on the work of Mikio Naruse. But I am glad I saw Floating Clouds, because at least now I get why some people swear by him. I wouldn't call it a classic. It's repetitive, feels longer than its two-hour running time, and the main characters are frustrating to watch. (The acting, especially from Hideko Takamine, is very good.) It's a tale of Yukiko and Kengo, who had an affair near the end of WWII. After the war, Kengo returns to his wife, despite telling Yukiko he would get a divorce. They have an on again/off again continuation of the affair, plus Kengo has other affairs, plus he never does divorce his wife. Struggling to get by, Yukiko becomes a mistress to an American soldier (it's not clear whether she works as a prostitute, or if people just make assumptions). She later becomes a live-in partner of a man who had in the past raped her. Late in the film, she gets an abortion (she was pregnant with Kengo's child).

I don't usually offer such detailed plot summaries, but I found this narrative to be startling. I might expect it from an HBO series, but to be watching a Japanese movie from the 1950s that had the above going on ... well, it's on me that I was at the least surprised to see this told in a fairly straightforward manner.

Naruse is sympathetic towards Yukiko, but the things she goes through could fit nicely into something by Lars von Trier. It never feels like Yukiko's love for Kengo is overwhelming and beautiful. Instead, her repeated attempts to get him back become annoying, and Kengo is never shown to be worthy of her attention.

So Floating Clouds is atmospheric, with good acting. It made me want to see more films with Hideko Takamine. But I wouldn't go any further.

5 centimeters per second (makoto shinkai, 2007)

This is the twenty-first film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2022-23", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 8th annual challenge, and my fourth time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", the second year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", and last year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22"). Week 21 is called "Advanced Anime Week":

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from Owen Shapiro's Advanced Anime list.

This was a challenge, all right. First off, Shapiro's list disappeared, making it hard to complete the actual challenge. The list had been replicated by others, though, so it looked good, until I found that almost every film on the list was unavailable to me. I decided to pick something that 1) I could access and 2) was at least nominally anime, if not "advanced". And thus, 5 Centimeters per Second.

The film is quite subtle. It follows the story of young Takaki Tōno, and contains three episodes from different points in Takaki's life. In the first, he meets a girl, Akari, in elementary school, and they have a deep friendship that fades somewhat when Akari moves away. In the second, Takaki is in high school, and a classmate, Kanae, is in love with him. But she can never express her true feelings to Takaki. Finally, in the third, Takaki is grown and a programmer, still thinking of Akari. They seem to meet on a road, but a passing train comes between them and they don't end up contacting each other.

There is a bittersweet feel to it all. Relationships are intense, but they don't last, and lives move on. The movie is gorgeous, even when the tale is melancholic. But, to be honest, I found it all a bit boring, even with its short 62-minute running time. It's a typical movie for the challenge, something I wouldn't have seen on my own, but ultimately far enough outside of my taste preferences that I appreciated it without loving it.

platform (jia shangke, 2000)

This is my first film from director Jia Shangke, another entry in the It's About Time department. Platform was Jia's second feature, made when he was 30 ... he is considered a leading light in the Chinese "Sixth Generation" school of films.

While there was much to appreciate in Platform, I felt like I was only scratching the surface. Clearly, Jia is commenting both on the 1980s, when the film mostly takes place, and 2000, when the film was released, but I don't have enough context to pick up on subtleties. What is left is a good, if long, look at 20-somethings as they interact with each other and experience the changes in Chinese society. The focus is on a theater troupe whose repertoire seems to focus on things The Party would approve of. As time progresses, the troupe becomes more pop, but again, my lack of context means I noticed this without being able to know the implications of much of the situation.

The main characters are played by Wang Hongwei and Zhao Tao, both of whom have worked frequently with Jia. (Zhao is married to Jia.) Jia often uses stationary camerawork, but the compositions are effective, and there is enough movement to prevent a static look.

I liked Platform; I just wanted to get it enough to love it. #376 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time, #36 on the 21st-century list.

Here is the opening scene:

film fatales #159: take this waltz (sarah polley, 2011)

Thought I'd check out the only Sarah Polley movie I'd missed, ahead of hopefully seeing Women Talking tomorrow. It's my least favorite of the three I've seen, which is not an insult ... I think Stories We Tell is an outright classic, and Away from Her was also very good. Take This Waltz has a lot going for it, starting with Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen, and Sarah Silverman. Polley paints a loving picture of Toronto (Luc Montpellier is the cinematographer) ... Polley idealizes Toronto, and the summer setting gives us a different Canada than we're used to (people have fans on in their homes because it's hot). The film is an effective rom-com (or better, rom-drama).

But there's one big problem, at least for me. Take This Waltz is about a married couple, Margot and Lou, still in love, but together just long enough to reveal a few empty spaces. The wife cute-meets a man who lives across the street, and much of the movie is in the will-they/won't they vein. The problem is that man, played by Luke Kirby, struck me as a creepy stalker more than a possible love partner. Williams does a great job of expressing the yearnings of her character ... I want her to find happiness. But I never wanted her to connect with this creepy guy.

I don't know who to blame. Polley, for creating the character? Kirby, for portraying the character? Me, for disliking the character? All I know is, while I understood why Margot was drifting away from Lou, she could do a lot better than Mr. Stalker Guy. (Not to mention, he works as a pedicab driver in Toronto, an excess of cute that never worked.)

a few 2022 movie lists

I'll probably watch a few more movies this year, but unless one is an all-time classic, these will likely remain the best movies I watched in 2022 for the first time. I gave all of them a rating of 9 on a scale of 10. Sorted by release year:

Best movies I re-watched this year (all 10/10):

  • The Wizard of Oz (1939)
  • Citizen Kane (1941)
  • A Hard Day's Night (1964)
  • Jaws (1975)
  • The Last Waltz (1978)
  • Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

The ongoing Geezer Cinema list. We watched 48 Geezer movies this year, beginning with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse back on January 4:

[Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies]

And this list of everything I watched this year:

[Letterboxd list of movies I watched in 2022]