Thursday, June 22, 2017

Miscellaneous Musings

 June 23, 2017

On the Week That Wasn’t and a Few Other Odds and Ends
I had every intention of writing a review this week, but as with the best of some of our intentions, it just didn’t happen. In fact, the only movie I watched this week was a mockumentary called Finishing the Game, a Justin Lin film that purports to show the Hollywood stereotypes that existed when the stunning decision was made to finish Bruce Lee’s Game of Death with just twelve minutes of footage of its recently deceased star. I watched it while I was ironing, and at several points I was more interested in the patterns in the wrinkles of my shirts than what was going on onscreen. Toward the end of the film, a studio executive arrives to scream at the unprofessionalism of the director and casting director, wonder aloud at why the finalists for the role look nothing like Bruce Lee, and to fire everyone. It was one of the only parts of the film that piqued my interest.

Also this week, I had this odd thought: Can John McClane smoke? For that matter, can James Bond or actors such as Michael Douglas, Nicolas Cage, or John Travolta, all actors that are getting up there in age? I imagine that as actors age, it becomes increasingly harder for audiences to separate the actor from the role he is playing. In Michael Douglas’s case, if we saw him light up in a film, our brains would likely be overwhelmed by concern for the actor. In other words, we would not have the ability to suspend disbelief. Years ago, Richard Roeper argued that those pushing to make all films containing smoking R-rated were wrong, reasoning that what mattered most was context  not content, but does context have to mean putting actors’ lives at risk?

And here’s a local curiosity. Currently in theaters, there’s a movie called The Story of Taipei playing to packed theaters. Here is how the film was described to me: It is about a group of people with secrets directed by a first-time director who is also a professor of film. (So far so good.) The film currently has an online rating of around 5.5, yet audiences seem to like it more than critics. (Certainly not the first time this has happened.) However, here’s where the description turns peculiar. The film has been described as poorly written, poorly acted, and very poorly edited, yet because the director is assumed to know about film-making and films in general, some moviegoers contend that the film is awful for a reason, that the director made a subpar film on purpose and that audiences will only understand why if they see it multiple times. I admit that the notion is intriguing. Would a director making his directorial debut deliberately make a bad film, and would h bank his career on modern audiences realizing that and returning for repeat viewings? I doubt it. Sadly I may never know. Apparently, The Story of Taipei is another Taiwanese film not released with English subtitles.

And finally this week brings the fifth Transformers movie, and it is truly a time to rejoice. This time, apparently, Optimus Prime, like Dom before him, goes rouge, and, if the trailers are to be believed, Bumblebee must engage him in battle to determine the fate of his world and ours. At first, this sounds like a ludicrous plot, but if you think about it, it makes complete sense. When you have run out of good ideas – and Michael Bay did this many years ago – the only option is to have a heel turn. Just wait. At some point one of the Avengers will betray his fellow heroes, only to be revealed to have noble intentions in the end. Oh wait. They already did this with Captain America: Civil War. But I digress. It is a time to rejoice, a time to cheer, for at what other time of the year do we get the kind of terse, sarcastic, frustration-infested reviews that Transformers films bring out of critics? One masterful one this time around is an uproariously funny take down from Bilge Ebiri at Village Voice. It’s almost enough to make me yearn for more tales about the robots in disguise. Almost.  

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Review - The Poor Little Rich Girl

June 15, 2017

Poor Little Rich Girl, The – US, 1917

Maurice Tourneur’s The Poor Little Rich Girl is about a sweet young girl named Gwendolyn (Mary Pickford) whose parents neglect her. Her father is too busy making money – or trying to at least - to give his daughter much more than a passing thought, and her mother seems to believe that her social life comes before her child. In fact, this character is so thoughtless that at one point in the film, she celebrates Gwendolyn’s eleventh birthday, but “forgets” to invite Gwendolyn. In another memorable moment, we see Gwendolyn sitting anxiously waiting for her mother to arrive. Her mother, it seems, promised her “a minute” of her day, and she keeps her word - literally.

In their extreme carelessness, Gwendolyn’s parents leave the job of parenting to the servants, and they could not be any different from those that graced the pages of Little Orphan Annie or danced to Annie’s arrival in either of the comic’s film adaptations. Rather, all but one of them go through their days with nary a smile or laugh, and frowns greet Gwendolyn practically every time she looks in their direction. Perhaps most disturbing is the amount of shaking they do. Their idea of discipline is to place restrictions on every aspect of Gwendolyn’s life, and when she goes against their tyranny, to shake, scare, and shame her. It is a child’s nightmare.

In a more honest movie, Gwendolyn would suffer from depression and have a number of angry outbursts, perhaps designed to get the attention of her intentionally oblivious parents. However, in The Poor Little Rich Girl, Gwendolyn remains relatively chipper and upbeat in circumstances that would overwhelm many of the most well adjusted children. Gwendolyn often rubs her mistreatment off, smiles infectiously, and finds a way to turn negatives into positives. A few times she even finds a way to play with some of the neighborhood children, even though it is strictly forbidden. It is a fairy tale version of a horrendous scenario, and, filmed today, I have no doubt that The Poor Little Rich Girl would look remarkably different.

And yet, the film is still immensely watchable, and the credit for that should go to Pickford. Known at the height of her fame as America’s Sweetheart, Pickford is widely considered to be the first female international superstar, and all of her talents are on display here. She has a natural sweetness that draws audiences in and reassures them that there is goodness and decency in the world. Pickford’s Gwendolyn is not rebellious or conceited, she doesn’t lash out at the adults who lash out at her, and her motivation is something that everyone can relate to. After all, what human being can’t relate to a film that presents children as just wanting a better relationship with their parents? Gwendolyn does not challenge the family hierarchy – she reinforces it, and even when the film turns slightly dark towards the end, it does so in a way that will invite children’s awe and wonderment, not frighten or startle them.

The Poor Little Rich Girl is a product of its time, a safe, unchallenging look at childhood that takes no chances and presents no obstacles to viewers. And as such, it has likely lost some of what once made it so beloved. After all, ours is a culture that has embraced slightly darker versions of reality. Personally, I found the film immensely watchable, yet was surprised to learn that it was selected to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1991. Not pleasantly surprised, mind you. It’s more like looking at a list of the best films of all time and seeing one on it that makes you do a double take. You know, the kind that makes you immediately think of all of the other films by a director or starring a legendary performer that they could have chosen. You understand the sentiment, yet question the selection. The Poor Little Rich Girl is one of those films, good, but I’m pretty sure that Pickford made much better ones. (on DVD and part of Milestone’s Mary Pickford Rags and Riches Collection)

3 stars

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Review - Love Me Tender

June 8, 2017

Love Me Tender – US, 1956

Love Me Tender is the paper-thin story of Vance Reno (Richard Egan), a Confederate soldier who, in the days immediately following the end of the American Civil War, robs a train delivering the salaries of Union soldiers. Being true Southern gentlemen, Vance and his men consider the money to be the property of the Confederacy, yet after learning that the war is over, they eventually decide to keep it and split it evenly. Vance returns home, clean shaven and decked out in his best attire, intent on finally tying the knot with his long-time sweetheart, Claire (Debra Paget). The only hitch? She’s married his younger brother, Clinton, played by Elvis Presley, here making his screen debut. Talk about awkward.

For most of Love Me Tender, I was unclear just whom to root for. Are we meant to back Vance, a decent man who in the service of the Confederate Army committed various crimes? What about his pursuers, Union officials who are just trying to recover what was stolen from them? Should we throw our support behind Claire, who loves one brother, but married another after hearing incorrectly that her true love had died in the war? Or should we just root for the movie to find another occasion for Elvis to belt out one more tune? I suspect for many viewers it’s a no-brainer – Bring on the superstar. That may sound harsh to everyone else involved in the picture, but when a film has as little going on as this one does, it’s the only option that makes any sense.

And the film obliges. While we first see Clinton plowing the field, the film quickly decides to get its most famous star into his element. So, standing on the front porch after a confusing reunion, Elvis – I mean Clinton – grabs a guitar and belt out not one but two tunes back to back – “We’re Gonna Move” and the film’s title track “Love Me Tender.” One would think that his musical talents would be one of the things Claire liked about him, yet during these numbers she seems much more pensive than pleased, and her eyes drift nonchalantly to Vance, and thus the film misses a chance to establish a connection between these two characters. For the rest of the film, I never got the impression that there was a bond between them.

A few other observations. First, for a film set in the South, hardly anyone speaks with a Southern accent. Elvis has one naturally, but for some reason it fades in and out, and during a pivotal moment, he is practically unintelligible. As for his singing, it would seem somewhat obscene not to include it in the film, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that in the film’s musical moments, Elvis is playing himself, not Clinton Reno. There’s nothing in the film that suggests that Clinton is a local celebrity, yet there he is shaking in front of rows of screaming female fans in the exact manner that Elvis the celebrity did.  It’s a fun performance, but it’s not necessarily acting.

Love Me Tender picks up in its second half, as Vance is in a race against time to set things right. There’s a nice moment on a train when he realizes that something is happening that can only make things worse for everyone involved, and the game of cat-and-mouse that develops between Vance’s band and their pursuers is particularly involving. Yet the film approaches farce when it tries to portray Clinton as emotionally unhinged, and when Clinton begins to manhandle his wife, it enters a realm of extreme discomfort. The switch isn’t earned, and it doesn’t make it easy for the audience to empathize with Clinton. I found myself thinking that he didn’t deserve her, a cardinal sin in a movie of this sort.

Still, Love Me Tender is entirely watchable. It contains good performances, in particular by Egan and, if you’ll pardon the lack of an accent, Paget. Presley proves he can act, although I imagine later films were better showcases of his talent. Director Robert Webb does a decent job capturing the film’s various landscapes and creating an almost claustrophobic feel during several chase scenes. He does as well as he can with the musical numbers. While the script misses as often as it hits, the film has enough to retain viewers’ interest throughout. All in all, a decent effort, yet one that is far more important as trivia than impact. (on DVD and Blu-ray)

2 and a half stars

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Review - Morning for the Osone Family

June 1, 2017

Morning for the Osone Family – Japan, 1946

Call it his mea culpa; call it the unshackling of a director with a conscience. Whatever you call it, recognize this: Keisuke Kinoshita’s 1946 drama Morning for the Osone Family is every bit as blatantly propogandic as the work he produced during the war. The other difference is its target. While his other films aimed to convince or reaffirm audience members of Japan’s righteousness in going to war, Morning for the Osone Family takes the opposite view, and while this message may be easier for contemporary audiences to swallow, it in no way diminishes the heavy-handedness used to make its point.  

The film begins in 1943, and it opens with members of the Osone family and a few close friends singing “Silent Night” while a few people not singing discuss an article that one of them penned subtly questioning Japan’s motivation for going to war. It soon becomes clear that every one of them opposes the war, including a young, recently engaged man who is about the report for military duty. Towering over this group is a picture of the deceased patriarch of the family, a man we learn went out of his way to educate his children differently. In other words, in a time of war-mongering, he raised a family of pacifists. Soon the warmth of the evening is shattered. Authorities arrive to arrest the writer of the article, and a bugle, so often the sound of nationalism and pride, sounds to draw young men away from their families and closer to possible death.

In the hopes of assisting their detained family member, the family turns to their uncle, Issel (Eitaro Ozawa). It is a mistake, for he is as much a hawk as they are doves. Not only does he not help his nephew, but he cancels his niece’s engagement and chastises his sister-in-law Fusako (Haruko Sugimura) for weakening the Osone name with her anti-war sentiments. The uncle, you see, is a general in the army, and as such has much riding on the war’s success. As he himself explains, without victory, he faces the real possibility of being charged with war crimes.

Oddly enough, the uncle is the most interesting character in the film. In him, we see all of the evidence of what the other characters can only give speeches about. We see the euphoric high that war gives some people, and we see the blind pride that Kinoshita’s previous film Army articulated in loud, long-winded speeches expressed on the uncle’s rapturous face. In one scene, he practically dances when told his high-school aged nephew is being asked to enlist. He completely misses the fact that when an army recruits its children, it is a sign of desperation, not glory. His wife is a piece of work as well. Throughout the film, she seems more concerned with preserving her place in society than in the plight of her fellow countrymen, and many of her actions are simply draw-dropping.

I criticized Army for being too heavy-handed, for shouting its propaganda rather than subtly implying it. This was after all a departure from Kinoshita’s first three films, which seem to put story first. Army was practically an admission of the state of the war in 1944. It and other films like it were last ditch efforts to convince people that Japan could still win and that it was still honorable to send their sons off to almost certain death, and as such they tried too hard. The same can be said of Morning for the Osone Family. Coming so soon after Japan’s surrender and its occupation by the Allied Powers, (there’s even a reference to the benevolence of MacArthur Headquarters towards the end of the film) the film seems to be bending over backwards to convey the message that Japanese people were victims too and that it was the Japanese people themselves that wanted a demilitarized country. Perhaps that is why one of the film’s final scenes depicts Fusako finally telling off Issel and why the last thing we see him doing is eating lavishly while millions of ordinary Japanese citizens are starving.

I suspect these messages will be simpler to take for modern viewers. After all, it is harder to fault a movie for boisterously proclaiming something you already agree with than it is to find redeeming value in one that espouses contradictory views. Therefore, it goes without saying that it was easier to watch Morning for the Osone Family than either Army or The Living Magoroku. However, even that sentiment is deceiving, for what I would praise the film for is not its anti-war message, but its insight into those who had no choice but to passively wait for the war’s conclusions and those who had a vested interest in Japan’s victory, one that was matched – if not surpassed – by concerns for their own survival. These are moments that have the potential to expand our understanding of people and history, instead of just reinforcing pre-existing notions of historical good and evil. To me, they are part of what can make a film more than just entertainment. And it is in these moments that Morning for the Osone Family is a revelation. If only there were more of them. (on DVD as part of Eclipse’s Kinoshita and World War II)

3 stars

*Morning for the Osone Family is in Japanese with English subtitles.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Miscellaneous Musings

May 25, 2017

On Outcries and Oddly-Placed Rage

Sometimes it doesn’t pay to be a movie critic.

In saying this, I am not referring to salary, although a case could be made that movie critics, like songwriters and accountants, are likely to have a much harder time earning a living than they did just a decade ago. No, sometimes it just doesn’t pay to offer an opinion on a movie. Deep down, the majority of movie critics want to like the movies they see, they want them to be of the highest quality, and they like nothing more than writing or talking about a movie that excites them. Few movie critics – at least not ones worth reading – go into a movie hoping for a reason to pan it.

For most of us, there are obstacles to appreciating a movie. Sometimes understanding a film practically requires having seen and liked previous films by the same director. (Fellini and Godard immediately come to mind.) Others, such as Hell or High Water, have the advantages of telling an updated version of a familiar story; of course, they also have the disadvantage of following the genre so closely that viewers who are familiar with it can see events coming long before the characters in the movie do. And yes, sometimes a reviewer lacks the proper context to fully appreciate a film in the same way as someone from the culture or area depicted in a film. I remember a few people telling me that I couldn’t possibly “get” Te-sheng Wei’s Cape No. 7 simply because I didn’t speak Taiwanese. Therefore, the theory went, I couldn’t get the humor and double entendres. I have no doubt this is true, yet I thought a bigger obstacle for people not from Taiwan was their dearth of knowledge when it came to Taiwanese history.

For the past two weeks, a number of my students have been recommending I see an Indian film called Dangal. According to them, the film is playing to packed houses and is simply an amazing, heartwarming experience. A few even told me of tears that streamed down their cheeks as the film played. I admit to being more than a little intrigued.

Dangal is based on the true story of a father who trained his two daughters to be wrestlers. One of them eventually competed and won gold in the Commonwealth Games. The film currently has an 8.8 on IMDB and an 83 on Rotten Tomatoes, which would be good enough for it to be certified fresh were it not for the fact that not enough reviews have been written about it. Of the seven reviews linked to on RT, six of them are positive. The lone dissenter is Owen Gleiberman from Variety, a publication that does a great deal to publicize both local and international films.

Mr. Gleiberman faulted the film for several things. First, he was not sure what to make of the father figure, played by Aamir Khan. Was he supposed to be a feminist fighting against the barriers that have blocked progress toward women’s rights or an example of the kind of parent who sees in his children his last chance to accomplish his dreams? Gleiberman also took issue with the film’s formulaic structure and a few of what he considered to be inconsistencies in the plot. The review is thoughtful, his criticism never mean-spirited, and his spoilers not too revelatory. It is, in my opinion, a professional review. And people hated it.

By people, I am referring to the majority of the 107 comments left on Variety’s online page. Here are a few choice bits.

“Sir, I think that you should avoid reviewing Indian movies if you dont [sic] have any idea about the culture of the country.”

“My question is, “With this kind of incompetency how did he become the Chief Film Critic?’

“Clearly a myopic and an uneducated film critic.”

“So your point taken and flushed down the toilet!!!”

“firstly, it was not a “drag”. Indian audiences loved the movie because it had a relevant theme, which you would know if you had known anything about India.”

And my personal favorite:

“I suspect this will be the last review of a Hindu movie we see from Chief Film Critic Mr. Owen Gleiberman for a very long time. Or at least I hope so.”

I could go on, but I think you see the trend. In comment after comment, Mr. Gleiberman is excoriated for simply not liking a film that other people liked.

A few reflections: First, I highly doubt that Dangal will be the last film from India that Mr. Gleiberman reviews, nor should it be. After all, in the same review, he lavishes praise on Mansoor Khan’s 2001 film Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India, so to say he doesn’t “get” at least some Indian cinema is a bit hyperbolic. Still, readers are perfectly within their right to wonder if a critic whose only other reference to an Indian film is one made 16 years ago has seen a lot of Indian cinema. Second, let’s just say for argument’s sake that the commentators’ key argument, that Gleiberman does not have the necessary background to fully appreciate the film, is correct. He wouldn’t be alone. But would that mean he shouldn’t review it? If backgrounds were a pre-requisite for reviewing a film, would anyone outside of historians and Australians have been able to review Rabbit-Proof Fence? Should someone not familiar with New Zealand have given their two cents about Whale Rider? For that matter, should a reviewer outside the United States review American Hustle without a full understanding of 1970s America? Of course they should, and they should be honest if they were unable to appreciate a film because of their lack of knowledge. That is important.

Third, what responsibility do filmmakers have to anticipate an international audience’s difficulties with a film’s topic and to compensate for them? I’m reminded of the opening moments of The Kingdom, in which a scroll was used to give the audience the information about Saudi Arabia that it felt people needed in order to understand the full context of the film. Some reviewers faulted the film for this, as they themselves likely didn’t need it, but a number of audience members no doubt found it useful. While I have not seen Dangal, it does not appear that this tactic was used, and one could be forgiven for assuming that the film was intended primarily for an audience with that background already.

Fourth, and perhaps most exasperating of all, why all the anger? Are we living in an age when differing opinions are not allowed, when people assume that what they like should be liked by everyone? Such a place would not be much fun or educational, for much can be gained by reading opposing views, whether they are about movies, other forms of art, or politics. Democrats should be reading op-eds written by Republicans, Brexit supporters should brush up on the views of those who voted to remain, and people who love a movie should be curious as to why someone else would see the same movie and be underwhelmed by it. We are expanded by reading the opinions of those who disagree with us, but only if we are open to receiving these other perspectives and if we see the opposing view as being just as reasonable as ours.

So, Gleiberman didn’t like the movie. It’s not the end of the world. Yet maybe, just maybe it’s the beginning of a beautiful conversation, one in which we listen to and engage with someone with differing views, one in which we acknowledge that what speaks to one person does not necessarily speak to another. An opposing viewpoint doesn’t make someone a bad writer, an intellectual snob, or an uneducated hack. It just reminds us of our differences. And I, for one, am glad it does.  

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Review - Army (1944)

May 18, 2017

Army – Japan, 1944

In Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima, a recently married young woman is visited by two officials who inform her that her husband has been drafted. They then remark how proud she must be that her husband has a chance to fight and die for the Emperor. The camera cuts to a close-up of her, and her expression is not that of someone beaming with nationalistic pride. The implication here is crystal clear: Fighting in a war is not something to be celebrated. To get the opposite view, look no further than Keisuke Kinoshita’s 1944 film Army, the most blatant and unsettling piece of propaganda that he made during the war. In fact, watching it, I was left with only one interpretation: that the war was going horribly and support for it was waning. Why else would the powers-that-be feel the need to hammer home its messages so forcefully?

There are two persistent themes in Army, and each one is likely to be problematic for contemporary viewers. The film is, one the one hand, a historical justification for Japan’s war against both its neighbors and the United States. Starting in the late 1800s, the film takes viewers through approximately forty-five years of conflict. The film’s early scenes detail a series of military victories that did not lead to worldwide respect and glory. Instead of being recognized as a great military power, Japan is ganged up on, forced to give up territory, and excluded from the world community. Each humiliation builds up resentment, and promises of eventual revenge become increasingly common. In this part of the film, the Japanese army is spoken of in reverential terms, and practically every character worth anything has as his goal enlisting and fighting (and dying) for Japan’s honor. There is certainly some truth to the sentiments expressed in these moments. The problem comes in just how many of these scenes there are in the film.

The film’s second theme is much more disturbing. The film appears to be trying to speak directly to the parents of Japanese soldiers, both drafted and undrafted. And its message is this: The death of your sons is an honor, and you are selfish for putting your concerns about your sons’ well-being before the nation’s future. Perhaps to illustrate this, at one point in the film, a mother matter-of-factly proclaims that parents raise their children for the emperor and then hand them back to him to do with as he pleases.

Neither of these things are necessarily deal-breakers in a film. After all, many films have focused on characters whose values the audience may not share. However, by my count, Army contains a nationalistic message every five to ten minutes, and every other one is shouted by characters that see the slightest jest or skepticism as an act of betrayal. At one point, a character that the audience is seeing for the first time launches into a tirade after a soldier’s father seems “too concerned” with the well-being of his son, who is stationed where the harshest fighting is taking place. This character later apologizes, for what I’m not exactly sure.

The tragedy in all this is that the film’s heavy-handedness diminishes what the film does well, for at its core, Army is about a family’s quest to serve its country. The first part of the film jumps ahead in time too abruptly, and this prevents viewers from being able to invest or empathize with some of the characters, yet the movie’s point is well made. To people who lived in the trying times that immediately preceded and followed the turn of the century, nationalism did come first, and serving in the army likely was seen as an honor. Army could easily have followed this family as it looked for a way – any way really – to serve the nation. Unfortunately, we get too little introspection and far too much bombast and bravado.

No, let me rephrase that. It was not the bombast and bravado that most alienated me as I watched the film. It was the consistent barrage of a one-sided view that I fundamentally disagreed with and which I imagine much of Japan opposes today. The notion that a generation was expendable, that parents were weak for caring too much, and that past slights, however harsh, justify later atrocities is something so foreign to me that I felt somewhat livid – enraged at the characters for being so militaristic, frustrated at the screenwriter for hitting me over the head with supposed noble truths and false validations for aggression, and incensed at the director for not being able to reign it all in and show a view of wartime Japan that would be able to be watched in the years that followed the war. Instead, we get Army, a forgettable, infuriating mess of a film that will stand as a testament not to the human spirit during a brutal war, but to the influence of its war machine and the terrible messages it set out to spread. To buy into Army, you must believe that the purpose of life is to serve and die. Don’t believe me? Just listen to the song that plays towards the end of the movie. (on DVD as part of Eclipse’s Kinoshita and World War II box set)

2 stars

*Army is in Japanese with English subtitles.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Review - Jubilation Street

May 11, 2017

Jubilation Street – Japan, 1944

The opening credits of Keisuke Kinoshita’s Jubilation Street reference the date May 3, 1944, the date of the film’s completion, and this is somewhat significant, for it is less than one year before what came to be known as Japan’s “deadliest night,” a night during which 334 U.S. B-29s bombed Japan’s crowded neighborhoods mercilessly. The date provides an insight into the psyche of the films’ characters. To them, the war and its devastation still seem somewhat abstract. Sure, they know the war is going on and likely know people fighting in it, but their conversations are not the ones usually had by people personally impacted by war. The fact that they are being relocated is telling, though. The war is coming to Tokyo.

The film follows a group of neighborhood residents as they come to terms with the government’s decision to reclaim the land their families have lived on for decades. The implication is that the government needs it for military purposes, perhaps as a way of shoring up the city’s defenses. However, for much of the first thirty minutes, the war is barely talked about directly. Instead, residents focus on the changes such a move would mean for them personally. A few of them look forward to returning to farming. Others have concerns about where they are being sent, the impact of the move on their children’s education, and whether relocating will impact their children’s wedding prospects. Interestingly, no one talks about the impact of the war on the area they are moving to. It’s as if all of Japan is still a relatively pristine paradise. This is far from the truth.

The film gives us a glimpse into the lives of many of the area’s residents, and some of their storylines are indeed moving. I was particularly interested in the story involving a young pilot, the girl that loves him, and the obstacles standing in the way of their happiness, not all of which have to do with the war. In American films, such a storyline would be driven by raw emotion, the intensity of their love making them rush to the altar just hours before one of them ships out. In Jubilation Street, logic rules the day, and their conversation is replete with appeals for patience and sacrifice. I was also moved by a character who pines daily for the  husband who abandoned her and her son ten years earlier. Other plotlines, in particular one in which a young man tries to get his father-in-law to move in with him and his wife, are less successful. Simply put, too little time is devoted to these characters for their story to acquire the necessary amount of significance.

Eventually the reality of the war comes to the residents, and they respond just as you’d expect characters in a propaganda film to, with bombastic declarations and solemn oaths to do one’s best for the war effort. What is intended in these and other earlier moments is for the nationalistic spirit of the film’s character to resonate with audience members and inspire similar avowals of nationalistic sacrifice. This seems reasonable for a film of this sort.

Yet to the film’s detriment, it goes about doing this in the most blatantly obvious manner possible. Characters simply blurt things out instead of slowly building up to them, and people change on a dime instead of doing so after slow and deliberate consideration. In one scene, a young woman speaks to the man she loves in a way that makes her frustration and diminishing hopes absolutely clear. Before the man responds, he gently turns toward the camera and then becomes deathly serious. “Our country is at war,” he says and then proceeds to give her all of the reasons why the war effort must be given priority over their personal happiness. It is an inauthentic moment, one intended purely for the audience. The scene reminded me of a similar one in Yasujiro Ozu’s 1942 film, There Was a Father. In that one, a father chastises his son for suggesting that the two of them live together after years of being apart. Again, the message is made crystal clear: The country comes first.

Knowing the efforts of the Japanese government and people like the characters depicted in the film ultimately failed, something Kinoshita and writer Kaoro Morimoto could not have hinted at even if they had an inkling of what was to come, gives the film a sense of fatalism that it likely did not have when it was released in 1944. The area these characters live in will eventual be reduced to ruble, and hundreds of thousands of lives will be lost. Furthermore, the airplanes that the film seems so enamored with will soon be wasted in kamikaze missions. Jubilation Street therefore captures a moment in time when this horror was thought to be preventable, when victory was deemed attainable if only people rolled up their sleeves and gave even more of themselves.

I wish I could say I liked it more, but the film is ultimately too unfocused, its propaganda so blatant that it strains credibility. Sure, there are individual moments to cherish, moments in which Kinoshita’s skills as a director shine through. I particularly liked the way his unobtrusive use of the camera made it feel as if the audience was a fly on a wall, and I frequently marveled at his use of long shots and close ups, especially ones of faces expressing both troubled and jovial emotions. The performances in the film are also generally strong. Ken Uehara and Mitsuko Mito are impressive as Shingo and Takako, the film’s ill-fated couple. I was also moved by the work of Chiyo Nobu, who plays Shingo’s mother. Her character is the most complicated and requires an actress who can express a range of emotions non-verbally. She nails pretty much every moment.

However, with the exception of a few of the film’s more poignant moments, I never felt genuinely invested in the film, and even the film’s most powerful moments hold viewers at a distance. It is true that some of this may have been intentional, a way of accentuating the awakening that occurs in the film’s closing moments. Yet a powerful ending should make what came before it more significant. Here, it just highlights the film’s overall unevenness. Creatively constrained as he no doubt was, with Jubilation Street, Kinoshita crafted a film that is certainly watchable, yet it is also one of his most forgettable, a good idea undone by the times and only slightly redeemed by 20-20 vision. (on DVD as part of Eclipse’s Kinoshita and World War II)

2 and a half stars

*Jubilation Street is in Japanese with English subtitles.