Film Society Recap of Kawakita Prize Winners

The Film Society of Lincoln Center's salute to filmmakers who have won the Kawakita Prize spotlighted three films each by eight directors, with all the prints imported from Japan.

Akira Kurosawa's absorbing Stray Dog was presented in a print inferior to those shown in New York recently, so I didn't stay to see it again. The print of Rashomon was better, not pristine, but with good tonalities. This work is not quite the masterpiece it is often reputed to be but it has many fine sequences, such as the woodman's walk through the forest at the film's beginning — it is interesting that the image of sunlight seen through the treetops was an early influence on Stan Brakhage. The print of Ikiru — a much more ambitious film — was even more impressive. This film, featuring an extraordinary performance by Kurosawa stalwart, Takashi Shimura, is remarkable for the conflicting reactions it has aroused from formalist critics — praised by the Catholic humanist, André Bazin, but dismissed as a sentimental, metteur-en-scène film by the advocates of la politique des auteurs, yet championed as one of the greatest, postwar Japanese masterpieces by the Marxist, Noël Burch in a radical analysis.

Nagisa Oshima has also been extravagantly praised by Burch, especially for the disjunctive, intense editing of a film like Violence at Noon, long unseen in New York; it was screened in an excellent 35-millimeter print. Formally, this film contrasts with the longer-take styles of Boy and The Ceremony, both presented in good, color prints, although one reel of Boy appears to have been misprinted in soft focus. While the stylistic strategies of Oshima vary greatly, the films are united by a thoroughgoing approach to critiquing modern Japanese society by way of his attraction to extreme material — these films featuring rape, murder, suicide, child-exploitation, incest, etc. Oshima composes sensitively for the widescreen frame, a trademark of the Japanese cinema of the 1960s.

Kaneto Shindo's The Island is also beautifully photographed, in black-and-white; the attractive cinematography is elegantly complemented by rhythmic editing which structures the entire film, unencumbered by dialogue, and reinforced by a fine score. Possibly, more remarkable is Onibaba, Shindo's surprisingly disturbing, poetic horror film, forcefully shot in black-and-white widescreen; the print screened here was outstanding. Discerning a directorial vision uniting Shindo's disparate filmography has thus far defeated this viewer; A Last Note, an odd, quasi-Chekhovian elegy adds to the perplexity. The film is notable as the last appearance of the great Japanese actress and Ozu regular, Haruko Sugimura.

Shohei Imamura's early masterpiece, Intentions of Murder relates its bizarre story by recourse to eccentric, black-and-white, widescreen compositions. After his stylistically innovative works in the 1960s, Imamura shifted to a more classical style, as can be seen in his serial-killer drama, Vengeance is Mine, distinguished by a career performance by Ken Ogata. This classicism reaches its apotheosis in Black Rain; it's a pity that the print of this film was warped, preventing any possibility of having the full frame in focus.

The inclusion of three works by documentarian, Sumiko Haneda, seemed to me to be a questionable choice. I didn't stay through the full three hours of Ode to Mt. Hayachine but it was refreshing to see a film of this kind which eschewed the format of television documentaries. Overall, this sober, straightforward, observational approach was employed effectively in Akiko: Portrait of a Dancer. Haneda's attempt to retell a classic Japanese tale by means of  documentary images in Into the Picture Scroll: The Tale of Yamanaka Tokiwa seemed to this viewer to be an aesthetic disaster.

Kon Ichikawa's vivid and moving A Full-Up Train, photographed in the standdard ratio, now seems exceptional considering the director's expressive engagement with the widescreen frame in his most celebrated works. Ichikawa's left-wing sympathies provide an interesting contrast with the reactionary outlook of the author, Yukio Mishima, who provided the source material for the director's Conflagration. But I was even more impressed to re-see the heart-breaking Her Brother shot with a muted color palette by the great master cinematographer, Kazuo Miyagawa, and graced by gloriously subtle performances by Masayuki Mori and Kinuyo Tanaka; the print it was presented in was lovely.

Yôji Yamada is surely a less distinguished director than the others in this series, with the exception of Haneda; however, the three films by him presented here — Where Spring Comes Late, Tora-san's Sunrise and Sunset, and The Yellow Handkerchief, all featuring the talented actors, Kiyoshi Atsumi and Chieko Baisho — although conventional in approach were surprisingly touching. Yamada clearly has a feel for portraying the Japanese underclass and combining sentiment with humor. Additional pleasures could be found in the moving presence of Chishu Ryu as the grandfather in Where Spring Comes Late and the measured, lead performance of Ken Takakura in The Yellow Handkerchief.

I hope it is not excessively revisionist to speculate that Suzuki Seijun might be the greatest filmmaker presented in this series. Tokyo Drifter is a stylistic tour de force which one imagines Cahiers du Cinèma would have celebrated had the film been screened in France in the 1960s. Branded to Kill, although somewhat slighter and more in thrall to an exploitation formula, was, nonetheless, thoroughly engrossing. Despite the considerable reputation of the director's later, art film, Zigeunerweisen, after two viewings I still find the film, except for a few poetic moments, thoroughly unengaging. All three films were presented in good prints.