Latitude Zero (緯度0大作戦, Ishiro Honda, 1969)

latitude zero1969. Man lands on the moon, the cold war is in full swing, and Star Trek is cancelled prompting a mass write-in campaign from devoted sci-fi enthusiasts across America. The tide was also turning politically as the aforementioned TV series’ utopianism came to gain ground among liberal thinking people who rose up to oppose war, racial discrimination and sexism. It was in this year that Godzilla creators Ishiro Honda and Eiji Tsuburaya brought their talents to America with a very contemporary take on science fiction in Latitude Zero (緯度0大作戦, Ido Zero Daisakusen). Starring Hollywood legend Joseph Cotten, Latitude Zero gives Jules Verne a new look for the ‘60s filled with solid gold hotpants and bulletproof spray tan.

International scientists Dr. Ken Tashiro (Akira Takarada) and Dr. Jules Masson (Masumi Okada) are in the middle of a bathysphere alongside American reporter Perry Lawton (Richard Jaeckel) when a volcano suddenly erupts. Rescued by a passing sub, the team soon notice there’s something very strange about this serendipitous crew. To begin with, the doctor treating their injuries is a svelte young blonde woman in a skimpy outfit, and then there’s that plaque on the bridge which says the boat was launched in 1805, and why won’t Captain McKenzie (Joseph Cotten) tell them which country this very expensive looking rig belongs to?

All these questions will be answered in due course but the major revelation concerns the futuristic city of Latitude Zero – a secret underwater world where top scientists and other skilled people who have been “disappeared” from the surface conduct important research free of political constraints. Despite the peace and love atmosphere, Latitude Zero is not without its villains as proved by exile Malec (Cesar Romero), McKenzie’s arch nemesis who has set out to kidnap a prominent Japanese scientist before he can make his way to the city. Malec is hellbent on taking McKenzie down and has drifted over to the scientific dark side by conducting brain transplant experiments to create his own army of bizarre creatures to do his bidding.

There may be a cold war going on but Latitude Zero is more or less neutral when it comes to its position on science and scientists though when push comes to shove it leans towards negative. Malec, played by Batman’s Ceasar Romero, is a moustache twirling villain of the highest order who will even stoop to transplanting the brain of his own lieutenant into a lion as well as making other strange creatures like giant rats and weird bats to try and destroy McKenzie’s enterprises yet those enterprises are the entire reason for the existence of Latitude Zero. Towards the end of the adventure, Lawton points out to McKenzie that his world is essentially selfish, stealing all the best minds for his underwater paradise and secreting their discoveries away rather than sharing them with the the surface. McKenzie sympathises but deflects his criticism with the justification that mankind is currently too volatile and divided to take part in his project, though they do try to drip feed the essentials all in the name of making the world a better place.

Lawton further shows himself up by trying to loot Latitude Zero which has an abundant supply of diamonds it barely knows what to do with. What is does with them is experiment – jewels are worthless baubles here, the value of the diamonds is purely practical. Similarly, they have a taste for solid gold clothing which might explain the skimpiness of their outfits were it not for the fact the precious metal holds no other value than being stylish.

Unlike other subsequent US co-productions such as Fukasaku’s Virus, Latitude Zero was filmed in English with the Japanese cast providing their own English language dialogue (with various degrees of success). A second cut running fifteen minutes shorter was later prepared for the Japanese market with the entire cast dubbed back into Japanese and dropping McKenzie’s often unnecessary voice over. Given a relatively high budget, Honda and Tsuburaya once again bring their unique production design to life with intricate model shots and analogue effects complete with a selection of furry monsters even if they’re operating on a level that owes much more to Star Trek than Godzilla. It’s all very silly and extremely camp but good clean fun with a slight layer of political subversiveness which displays a noted ambivalence to the neutrality of utopia even whilst hoping for the day when the world will finally be mature enough to pursue its scientific destiny without polarised politics getting in the way.


Original trailer (English version)

A Sparkle Of Life (燦燦 さんさん, Bunji Satoyama, 2013)

sparkle-of-lifeAs Japan’s society ages, the lives of older people have begun to take on an added dimension. Rather than being relegated to the roles of kindly grandmas or grumpy grandpas, cinema has finally woken up to the fact that older people are still people with their own stories to tell even if they haven’t traditionally fitted established cinematic genres. Of course, some of this is down to the power of the grey pound rather than an altruistic desire for inclusive storytelling but if the runaway box office success of A Sparkle of Life (燦燦 さんさん, Sansan) is anything to go by, there may be more of these kinds of stories in the pipeline.

77 year old Tae (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) lost her husband some years ago after nursing him through a long illness. Spotting a pretty wedding dress in a shop window and examining the adverts on the outside, Tae ventures in and attempts to sign up with the matchmaking service which so prominently promises a happy ending at its doorway. The clerk is surprised, to say the least, after realising that Tae is not a pushy relative trying to find a spouse for an unmarried son or daughter but is seeking someone to brighten her remaining days. Now that she is totally free, Tae just wants to feel her heart flutter again and perhaps enjoy the warm glow of companionship one last time.

Looking it up on the computer, Ayako (Kanami Tagawa) – the assistant dealing with Tae’s application, is surprised to find there are a number of older men already on the books. Accordingly, she sets Tae up with some of the more promising candidates though it seems that men don’t really change all that much and not all of them are exactly after “a relationship” after all. Eventually Tae hits it off with a charming older gentleman, Yuichiro (Gaku Yamamoto), who seems to be everything she wants in a partner but there’s something else that seems to be keeping them apart.

Just as Ayako originally reacted with mild horror on learning that Tae herself was seeking a romantic partner, not everyone approves of her decision. Tae’s longtime friend (the best friend of her late husband), Shinji (Akira Takarada), is strangely angry and somewhat resentful though, predictably, he has reasons which are more personal than social or moral when it comes right down to it. Tae’s family, finding out by accident after letting themselves into her home while she’s out, are also outraged. Getting over the shock, Tae’s son announces that he supposes it’s OK for her to think about getting remarried but finds the idea of using a dating service embarrassing and orders her to stop right away.

Like Tae’s son, many people try to infantilise Tae and her friends, relegating them to a kind of second childhood now that their working or family lives have ended. Running into her friends from the Sunny Day Club, Tae is exasperated by their game of throwing hoops which, as Shinji says, they used to enjoy as children. Tae may be older but she still wants more out of life than being handed a juice box and told to sit in the corner while the grownups talk.

Dating is, however, harder with so much already in the past. Yuichiro may describe his relationship with Tae as being like a second stab at first love but with everything so different than it was before the situation presents its own set of difficulties. The essential problems are, of course, the same though Tae’s longed for second chance for love may have been right by her side all these years only too bound up with duty and tradition to have made his feelings plain.

Bunji Sotoyama’s approach is tailor made for his target audience but the warm and gentle atmosphere coupled with the often laugh out loud humour is sure to appeal to all age groups. Tae’s quest for love and determination to enjoy the time she has left to the fullest despite what anyone else might have to say about it is a quiet but firm bid for freedom and individual happiness in old age rather than the unwelcome relegation to the world of second childhood otherwise offered to women in Tae’s position. A comedic tale of late life love, A Sparkle of Life is a lesson in realising you only see the fireworks once it begins to get dark but that only makes them all the more precious.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Whistling in Kotan (コタンの口笛, Mikio Naruse, 1959)

vlcsnap-2016-08-03-02h37m50s119The Ainu have not been a frequent feature of Japanese filmmaking though they have made sporadic appearances. Adapted from a novel by Nobuo Ishimori, Whistling in Kotan (コタンの口笛, Kotan no Kuchibue, AKA Whistle in My Heart) provides ample material for the generally bleak Naruse who manages to mine its melodramatic set up for all of its heartrending tragedy. Rather than his usual female focus, Naruse tells the story of two resilient Ainu siblings facing not only social discrimination and mistreatment but also a series of personal misfortunes.

Masa and Yutaka are a teenage brother and sister living with their alcoholic father who has been unable to get things together since their mother passed away. They also have their grandmother and cousin, but otherwise they’re pretty much fending for themselves. At school, both children are shunned and picked on by some of their classmates solely for being Ainu. When one girl reports that her purse has gone missing, she immediately points to Masa and though another girl defends her, the obvious racial overtones continue to get to her. Similarly, Yutaka finds himself getting into trouble with one of the other boys after he beats him on a test. Yutaka pays a heavier price (at least physically) but both children are left wondering about their place in the world and what the future might hold for them.

Masa’s bright hope revolves around her art teacher who draws a picture of her at a local watering hole which he intends to enter into a competition. The teacher has his sights firmly set on a career as an artist in Tokyo but like everyone else’s dreams, it proves harder to realise than he might have hoped. Perpetually left behind, Masa’s dreams crumble too as do those of her friend who has her romantic hopes crushed firstly by her well meaning grandmother and then secondly by an unexpectedly racist action by someone who had always been seen as a friend. If all of these difficulties weren’t enough, fate is about to deal Masa and Yutaka a very cruel blow indeed which leaves them at the mercy of an evil uncle worthy of any Dickens novel.

Like much of Naruse’s work, the outlook is extremely bleak. The children face such a hopeless future that the most they can do is affect a kind of false cheerfulness to try and raise their spirits. Masa and Yutaka are both mistreated by the general population, leaving them with a lingering sense of anger and resentment towards those that seem incapable of treating them like regular human beings. Their cousin, Koji, has apparently come to the conclusion that he has to stand up against such mistreatment, however, the ultimate harm that is done to the pair is done by a member of their own family acting with total disregard their feelings and wellbeing. At this point Koji reconsiders and says he understands now that it isn’t about Ainu or Japanese, there are just awful people everywhere. An odd, if depressingly stoic, late in the game plea for empathy and tolerance, this ironically positive statement sits very well with Naruse’s general feelings on human nature.

Whistling in Kotan is not one of Naruse’s more subtle efforts. The tone is relentlessly bleak as the children experience ever more degrading treatment solely because of their ethnic group. Even their supposed ally eventually turns on them exposing the last lingering threads of prejudice among even those who portray themselves as forthright liberals. The message is one of forbearance and patience, that times have changed and will change more but that one has to grin and bear it while they do. Pragmatic as that is, it does let society of the hook when it comes to the refusal to acknowledge and deal with consistent prejudice. Filled with Naruse’s sense of despair, Whistling in Kotan is an uneven yet interesting exploration of this sensitive subject though perhaps undoes much of its good work with its ambiguous and often blunt approach to the material.


 

A Woman’s Story (女の歴史, Mikio Naruse, 1963)

woman's storyMikio Naruse made the lives of everyday women the central focus of his entire body of work but his 1963 film, A Woman’s Story (女の歴史, Onna no Rekishi), proves one of his less subtle attempts to chart the trials and tribulations of post-war generation. Told largely through extended flashbacks and voice over from Naruse’s frequent leading actress, Hideko Takamine, the film paints a bleak vision of the endless suffering inherent in being a woman at this point in history but does at least offer a glimmer of hope and understanding as the curtains falls.

We meet Nobuko Shimizu (Hideko Takamine) in the contemporary era where she is a successful proprietor of a beauty salon in bustling ‘60s Tokyo. She has a grown up son who works as a car salesman though he’s often kept out late entertaining clients and has less and less time for the mother who gave up so much on his behalf. Her life is about to change when Kohei (Tsutomu Yamazaki) suddenly announces that he wants to get married – his lady love is a bar hostess to whom he’s become a knight in shining armour after saving her from a violent and persistent stalker. Needless to say, Nobuko does not approve both for the selfish reason that she isn’t ready to “lose” her son, and because of the social stigma of adding a woman who’s been employed in that line of work to the family.

All of this is about to become (almost) irrelevant as tragedy strikes leaving Nobuko to reflect on all the long years of suffering she’s endured up to this point only to have been struck by such a cruel and unexpected blow. An arranged marriage, her husband’s infidelity, the war which cost her home, possessions and also the entirely of her family, and finally the inescapable pain of lost love as the man who offers her salvation is quickly removed from her life only to resurface years later with the kind of pleasantries one might offer a casual acquaintance made at party some years ago. Life has dealt Nobuko a series of hard knocks and now she’s become hard too, but perhaps if she allows herself to soften there might be something worth living for after all.

Women of a similar age in 1963 would doubtless find a lot to identify with in Nobuko’s all too common set of personal tragedies. They too were expected to consent to an arranged marriage with its awkward wedding night and sudden plunge into an unfamiliar household. Nobuko has been lucky in that her husband is a nice enough man who actually had quite a crush on her though there is discord within the household and Nobuko also has to put up with the unwelcome attentions of her father-in-law. This familial tension later implodes though fails to resolve itself just as Japan’s military endeavours mount up and Nobuko gives birth to her little boy, Kohei. Husband Kouichi becomes increasingly cold towards her before being drafted into the army leaving her all alone with a young child.

All these troubles only get worse when the war ends. Though Kouichi’s former company had been paying his salary while he was at the front, they care little for his widow now. Left with nothing to do but traffic rice, Nobuko comes back into contact with her husband’s old friend, Akimoto (Tatsuya Nakadai), who wants to help her but is himself involved in a series of illegal enterprises. Nobuko is molested twice by a loud and drunken man who accosts her firstly on a crowded train (no one even tries to help her) and then again at a cafe where she is only saved by the intervention of Akimoto, arriving just in the nick of time. Nobuko sacrifices her chances at happiness to care for Kohei, caring about nothing else except his survival and eventual success.

Of course, Kohei isn’t particularly grateful and feels trapped by his mother’s overwhelming love for him. Nobuko’s sacrifices have also made her a little bit selfish and afraid of being eclipsed in the life of her son. It’s easy to understand the way that she later behaves towards Kohei’s new bride, but if she wants to maintain any kind of connection to the son that’s become her entire world, she will need to learn to allow another woman to share it with her.

Naruse is a master at capturing the deep seated, hidden longings that women of his era were often incapable of realising but A Woman’s Story flirts with melodrama whilst refusing to engage. The awkward flashback structure lends the film a degree of incoherence which frustrates any attempt to build investment in Nobuko’s mounting sorrows, and the voiceover also adds an additional layer of bitterness which makes it doubly hard to swallow. This is in no way helped by the frequently melodramatic music which conspires to ruin any attempts at subtlety in favour of maudlin sentimentality. The endless suffering of mid-twentieth century women is all too well drawn as grief gives way to heartbreak and self sacrifice, though Naruse does at least offer the chance to begin again with the hope of a brighter and warmer future of three women and a baby building the world of tomorrow free of bombs and war and sorrow.


 

Sannin Yoreba (三人よれば, Toshio Sugie, 1964)

vlcsnap-2016-06-02-01h37m01s384Hibari, Chiemi and Izumi reunite in 1964 for another tale of musical comedy and romantic turmoil in Sannin Yoreba (三人よれば). Beginning as teenagers in So Young, So Bright and Romantic Daughters before progressing to the beginning of their adult lives in On Wings of Love, the girls are all grown up now so the plot of Sannin Yoreba centres around the eternal conflict in the youth of every young woman in ‘60s Japanese cinema – marriage!

At the beginning of the film the three girls are intrigued and excited to receive a call from their old high school teacher who has recently retired. Meeting up to go visit her, the girls relive some old memories with the help of a few repurposed scenes from So Young, So Bright spliced in plus a few additional bits so that it looks like Izumi was also a classmate with them (in the movie she played an apprentice geisha Chiemi and Hibari met in Kyoto) as well as replacing the actress who played the teacher with the woman we’re about to meet. The trio even sing the title song to the first film, Janken Musume, as they drive over to their teacher’s house.

However, once they get there the nostalgic mood begins to dissipate as they realise their teacher has ulterior motives for inviting them. It seems, now that she’s retired, she’s opened a dating agency and wants to introduce our still single ladies to a few “eligible bachelors”. Horrified, the girls each quickly claim to have serious boyfriends already even though Hibari is the only one actually in a relationship. The teacher seems satisfied but invites them all back beaus in tow to give her final verdict. Thus begins the complicated road to true love for our musically inclined heroines.

It’s been seven years since the last Sannin Musume movie and truth to tell things have moved on the meantime leaving the Hollywood inspired musical glamour looking a little old fashioned. Much of Sannin Yoreba is a nostalgia fest despite the fact that it hasn’t really been all that long. Harking back to the first film by singing the title song and reusing the high school era footage seems primed to pull the similarly aged ladies of the audience back to screens across the country.

Sannin Yoreba has the fewest musical sequences and steers clear of large scale production numbers in favour of smaller solo showcases for the leading ladies. There’s more of a blur here into what are really fantasy sequences again taking place as the girls daydream or worry about various things – Chiemi at her place of work (in the production booth of a TV studio), Izumi in her salon, and Hibari at a bar after having a serious argument with her fiancee (once again played by Akira Takarada). That said, the girls end up at a theatre again as they did in the first two movies where they watch themselves perform a tripartite musical set piece which splits off into individual numbers for each one of them. A kind of Chaplin meets Marx Brothers meets Easter Parade theme, the girls dress up as tramps wandering through Times Square where they spot adverts for various shows which inspire their routines including Madame Butterfly where Chiemi plays both the captain and the geisha, and a bullfighting bolero number with Hibari giving it her full on Zorro.

Once again its an elegantly put together fluff fest intended to showcase the entertaining personalities of the three leading ladies who are now some of the biggest performing stars in post-war Japan. As usual the girls have great chemistry together and make a convincing group of lifelong friends whose relationship transcends that of any potential romance on offer. The movie ends with a wedding and another musical finale which incorporates three all three singers so, as expected, everything works out OK in the end which is mostly what people what from a cosy musical comedy starring three giants of the entertainment world. It may be a little sluggish in places and lacks the absurd comedic touch of the earlier movies, but Sannin Yoreba is a welcome return for the idol supergroup even if this kind of movie was evidently on its way out by the mid 1960s.


This is the last of the Sannin Musume movies  😦

Nothing from the film but here’s a video of the three girls some years later singing one of the songs which crops up throughout the movies:

On Wings of Love (大当り三色娘, Toshio Sugie, 1957)

vlcsnap-2016-06-01-01h48m32s675The Sannin Musume girls are growing up by the time we reach 1957’s On Wings of Love (大当り三色娘, Ooatari Sanshoku Musume). In fact, they each turned 20 this year (which is the age you legally become an adult in Japan), so it’s out with the school girl stuff and in with more grown up concerns, or more specifically marriage. Wings of Love is the third film to star the three Japanese singing stars Hibari Misora, Chiemi Eri, and Izumi Yukimura who come together to form the early idol combo supergroup Sannin Musume. Once again modelled on the classic Hollywood musical, On Wings of Love is the very first Tohoscope film giving the girls even more screen to fill with their by now familiar cute and colourful antics.

On Wings of Love does not have very much going for it in terms of plot (even compared to previous So Young, So Bright and Romantic Daughters). This time the three girls each work as maids in swanky households and have their eyes on the same guy who they think looks like James Dean (again played by Godzilla heartthrob Akira Takarada). Luckily, another two guys pop-up from somewhere so no one gets left on the shelf at the end when the completely non serious romantic difficulties work themselves out in time for the color coded waterskiing finale.

Like the other films in the series, On Wings of Love is not an integrated musical but one which is punctuated by musical numbers either given a real world context or portrayed as a fantasy sequence. In the previous two films the girls all went to the theatre and ended up watching themselves perform in one way or another, but this time the production number excuse is either a nap or a daydream whilst out on the river on a sunny day. Awkwardly, they each fantasise about Akira Takarada. Hibari goes all Madame Butterfly in an elegant sailor themed number, whereas Chiemi’s is all forlorn love with a melancholic, gothic ballad inspired by On London Bridge, but Izumi breaks all protocol here with a riotous cover of Bee-Bop-a-Lula which is sung entirely in English and becomes a high octane dance number (including the less successful involvement of Takarada).

There are fewer musical numbers included in On Wings of Love than in either of the other two movies though there are two trio sequences including the longer opening which sees the girls again color coded and drying dishes together as well as the finale which features the girls waterskiing while their boyfriends drive the boats. Each of the girls gets two numbers each, one solo and one production plus the trio stuff though interestingly there is a more “integrated” love song towards the end and Chiemi’s early song as she walks into town isn’t quite a fantasy sequence either.

Somehow, On Wings of Love isn’t quite as charming as either of the other movies in the series despite the kitch appeal of the opening number. The girls don’t actually spend much time together and the tone is a little rougher than the cutesy approach that had previously dominated with fewer humorous episodes to boot. That isn’t to say the film isn’t successful, but it doesn’t have the same kind of comforting fluffiness that dominated the previous instalments. The switch to Tohoscope gives series director Sugie a different canvas to play with though the most obvious change he makes is a split screen sequence to cover a telephone call. This time the colours appear a little muted too (though this may be down to the quality of the DVD which doesn’t seem as high as the transfers of either So Young, So Bright or Romantic Daughters which are both excellent) limiting the effect of the full on sugar rush the film seems to be aiming for. Nevertheless ,even if it doesn’t live up to the promise of either So Young, So Bright or Romantic Daughters, On Wings of Love is another suitably entertaining outing for the Sannin Musume girls only one a little less filled with laughter and song.


Hibari Misora’s Madame Butterfly inspired routine featuring her song Nagasaki no Cho Cho-san:

Also Izumi Yukimura’s quite wonderful Bee-Bop-A-Lula in its release version:

Romantic Daughters (ロマンス娘, Toshio Sugie, 1956)

vlcsnap-2016-05-30-23h55m41s358Romantic Daughters (ロマンス娘, Romance Musume) is the second big screen outing for the singing star combo known as “sannin musume”. A year on from So Young, So Bright, Hibari Misora, Chiemi Eri, and Izumi Yukimura reunite on screen once again playing three ordinary teenagers with a love of singing and being cheerful through adversity. This time the main thrust of the narrative is the girls’ friendship with a wealthy boy and his grumpy grandpa who takes a liking to them.

Michiru, Rumiko, and Eriko are three ordinary teenage girls in contemporary ‘50s Japan. Very close friends, they even have part time jobs working together at a local department store. One day Michiru decides to return some change a customer forgot to take with him directly to his home and the three girls are rewarded for their extremely high commitment to customer service by getting their pictures in the paper! This brings them to the attention of their friend Kubota’s grandfather who is very impressed with their honesty. He invites them round to his mansion where they enjoy a mini Western style feast and play a few songs on the piano. Shortly after, a man in a bow tie turns up and says he’s managed to find grandpa’s long lost daughter only she has unfortunately passed away leaving a little girl, Yukiko, with no one to look after her. Grandpa isn’t quite convinced by this story, but begins spending time with the sad little girl to try and see if she really could be his granddaughter.

Just like So Young, So Bright, Romantic Daughters is not an integrated musical but an ironic comedy with frequent musical interludes. There are plenty of excuses found for the girls to suddenly start singing, whether it’s that they’re involved in a local festival, entertaining an old man, or trying to cheer up a sullen little girl. Also like the first film, the girls (and Kubota) attend a theatrical performance but this time they do actually see “themselves” – that is Michiru, Rumiko, and Eriko head off to see Izumi, Hibari, and Chiemi. They even sit underneath a large poster of their real life counterparts in the lobby completely confusing one of their admirers who can’t believe his luck! Once again they each get a production number with Izumi getting the “sexy” routine this time which is a little bit On the Town. Chiemi gets an elegant set piece with a ball gown and a fairytale palace behind her, but Hibari’s number is just kind of nuts as she cross dresses to play a male samurai who ends up “saving” Michiru from the attentions of Chiemi who is also playing a guy complete with bald cap and top knot.

Kubota seems most interested in Rumiko and the other two girls have some kind of relationship with two other guys who work at an amusement park but are completely forgotten about for most of the film until they’re needed to fill the other two rear seats for the finale which is a trio number featuring the three girls riding bicycles with the guys on the back. At one point the girls and Kubota decide to take the little girl to the amusement park to try and cheer her up, which they eventually do by venturing into a haunted house (actually quite scary) where Chiemi decides to break protocol by using some of the judo moves she was seen practicing earlier on a couple of the ghosts and ghouls to be found in the psychedelic horror show.

Once again what’s on offer is cute and fluffy fun with some silly comedy and impressively choreographed production numbers thrown in. Like the first film there are also a number of recurring subplots of single mothers, long lost fathers, and this time also the problem of the little girl who may or may not be the granddaughter but by the time they start to reach a conclusion it may be too late to undo all the bonding that’s begin to occur in any case. Cinematic soul food, Romantic Daughters makes full use of its vibrant Eastman colours for a Hollywood inspired elegant musical feast that is undoubtedly a lot of empty calories but nevertheless extremely satisfying.


Can’t find any clips from the film but here is the English language US pop track sung by Izumi Yukimura in the movie in its release version: