NYFF 2011: The Nikkatsu Centennial Celebration

U.S. Editor; Los Angeles, California (@benumstead)
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NYFF 2011: The Nikkatsu Centennial Celebration
A studio's logo can sometimes be just as iconic as the beloved films produced and distributed under such an emblem. Think of the glitz and glamor of the MGM logo as the lion roars; The mighty peak of Paramount; the spinning globe of Universal -- all Hollywood staples. And as we move to the east, to Japan, the kaleidoscopic heavens of Toho, the great crashing wave of Toei, and... a wood panel with the carving of an encircled K (or is that a subtle blending of an N and a K?).

Though Nikkatsu Corp. has had their fair share of more epic looking logos, this minimalist carving seems to be synonymous with some of their most famous offerings: Kô Nakahira's Crazed Fruit (Japan's own Rebel Without A Cause), the twisted post-war tales of Shôhei Imamura, and the manly coolness of Takashi Namura's A Colt Is My Passport. When many of us think of Nikkatsu, dark and primal figures rush up to greet us: power hungry yakuza, troubled youth, loose women; wayward agents of truth, from the underbelly of humanity. And yet that is only a small piece of the puzzle that is Nikkatsu, a studio that has been less about adapting to the times, fads and styles of the passing decades, than to have challenged the times, created the fads, and spurred on the styles with its influential and often controversial directors and films. Now some might say this is hyperbolic dribble that I am spouting. My response, like one of Seijun Suzuki's anti-heroes, is to chuckle softly, place the cold, metal mouth of my pistol right between your eyebrows, and say, "this is Nikkatsu: a company, that in some form or another has existed for a 100 years. It's time to celebrate such magnificence, in all it's genre-defining and defying edginess."

And though the New York Film Festival hasn't been an institution we've readily associated with edginess, they're the ones holding a 37 film retrospective on Nikkatsu. It's all happening under their Masterworks banner, which will run concurrent with the main festival from September 30th - October 16th. While several recent works from genre staples such as Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Charisma) and Sion Sono (Cold Fish) will be familiar to ScreenAnarchy readers, here are some older, and in some cases, more obscure titles that staff writers Peter Gutierrez and Peter Martin recommend...

intimidation_poster_dimnsions.jpgINTIMIDATION (Koreyoshi Korahara, 1960)

Wonderfully crisp noir cinematography and an effectively twisty plot are just two of the reasons to catch this 65-minute mini-gem. Yes, the film perhaps tries to outdo itself with one more unnecessary-feeling twist right at the end, and a scene involving a deadly plunge from sea cliffs will be familiar to fans of other Japanese movies from this era. But from the engaging use of the subjective camera to a wonderfully deceptive dream sequence and a terrific score, there are more than enough moviegoing pleasures to be had in this combo of blackmail and heist flick. -Peter Gutiérrez

Screens October 9 at 6:40 and October 10 at 3:50.

A_Colt_Is_My_Passport_poster.jpgA COLT IS MY PASSPORT (Takashi Nomura, 1967)

Hitman Jo Shishido is hired to kill a rival mob boss, which he handles with icy, efficient professionalism. He and his accomplice (Jerry Fujio) must hide out in a seaside inn, where they encounter Chitose Kobayashi, a woman who still mourns the murder of her lover. Danger lurks in every shadow, and Shishido knows more assassins are coming. The climactic showdown takes place in a Spaghetti Western landscape, and the action is staged in giddy, dynamic bursts. Director Takashi Nomura stretches the limits of the film's genre framework. -Peter A. Martin

Screens October 12 at 6:10 pm (Note: Shishido will appear at the October 1 screening of Yasuharu Hasebe's RETALIATION.)

Woman_red_hair_poster.jpgTHE WOMAN WITH RED HAIR (Tatsumi Kumashiro, 1979)

The endearing '70s-era scuff marks on this 35 mm print perfectly complement the overall air of griminess in the film itself--not that director Tatsumi Kumashiro is self-consciously aiming for a kind of eros of squalor. Rather, in ways both nuanced and yet bold, the film's strange tenderness derives largely from showing sex as it is actually practiced in much (most?) of the world: with dishes piled high in the sink, and between people who probably can't articulate why they're together and shouldn't have to. I haven't read the source novel but Kumashiro thoughtfully manages to preserve a literary feel; like a good novel, the film demands that the audience look beyond the "not much happens" plot to discover the riches beneath the surface. -Peter Gutiérrez

Screens October 14 at 9:00 pm and October 16 at 6:20 pm.

200px-Love_hotel_d_(6).jpgLOVE HOTEL (Shinji Somai, 1985)

While the title might imply that we're in for a drama where multiple storylines intersect at a common place of assignation, what we actually get is a memorable chamber piece with a handful of characters and an emotional potency that I'm guessing can really sneak up on audiences. Director Shinji Somai's astonishing long takes recall classic art films of world cinema without any overt artiness, and the sudden entrance of sappy-sounding pop music lends an evocative, and disarming, grandeur to several key scenes. Low on sex relative to its genre, Love Hotel nonetheless proves why the "roman porno" phase of Nikkatsu's output deserves wider recognition and, indeed, how powerful movie romances can be despite, or because of, an added dash of sexploitation.  -Peter Gutiérrez

Screens October 15 at 6:30 pm

Stray Cat Rock Sex Hunter000.jpgSTRAY CAT ROCK: SEX HUNTER (Yasujaru Hasebe, 1970)

Meiko Kaji stars as the leader of a girl gang forced into the sex trade by the Yakuza. The plot is a bit difficult to follow, but the film is such a gorgeous riot of lurid color, rippling with dangerous vibes, and fairly dancing with jazzy riffs, that it doesn't matter. It gives off a contact high, and your brain is left pleasantly buzzing; pure joy in a comic-book, b-movie vein. Director Yasuharu Hasebe debuted with 1966′s Black Tight Killers. -Peter A. Martin

Screens October 13 at 6:10 pm and October 14 at 2:45 pm

THE WARPED ONES (Koreyoshi Kurahara , 1960)

Infused with the spirit and love of hard, bebop jazz, The Warped Ones feels like it was edited to match the fast, improvisational tempos of songs playing on a nearby record player. Director Koreyoshi Kurahara follows a low-life criminal and his prison buddy as they terrorize the man whose testimony put him in jail and his girlfriend. The adventures take on an even more absurdist slant as the characters ricochet wildly against one another and the mores of the day.
-Peter A. Martin

Screens October 7 at 3:00 pm and October 8 at 8:30 pm.

Mud_soldiers_poster_dimensions.jpgMUD AND SOLDIERS (Tomotaka Tasaka, 1939)

"Our orders are to fight to the death"--with such a grim opening one might not expect the extended, and gloriously gratuitous, flights of visual poetry that follow:  exhilarating tracking shots as troops sprint across fields of high grass and shadowy-heavy, almost mournful shots of lonely country ponds and streams... and--oh, yeah--lots of mud. Politically, this is fascinating stuff--the incursion into China is never questioned, and we know very well how history as judged the actions of Japanese forces during this late '30s time period; yet at the same time the script goes out of its way to deplore cruelty to Chinese civilians even as it suggests that it's almost inevitable. With a running time of two hours, the pacing is certainly not brisk--that said, the final battle is quite satisfying, and for those who are Japanophiles of the cinematic persuasion this rarely-shown film is probably a must-see. -Peter Gutiérrez

Screens October 4 at 7:10 pm and October 5 at 4:00.

600full-burmese-harp-poster.jpgTHE BURMESE HARP (Kon Ichikawa, 1956)

While the same director's Fires On The Plain (1959), with its stunning look and nasty visceral aspects, may be more appealing to a "Twitch mentality" in some ways, I'd feel remiss in not recommending this classic anti-war statement to those who've never seen it. Ichikawa's storytelling is so strong, and the spiritual themes are so deeply felt, however, that The Burmese Harp never comes across as half as pedantic as the phrase "anti-war" might imply. Hits like a ton of bricks. -Peter Gutiérrez

Screens October 6 at 6:20 pm and October 7 at 8:15 pm.


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