There are a 1,001 ways to sing the praises of—or place the blame on—the house that Shiro Kido built; indeed, one might even be forgiven for doing both at once, and imaging a 110th-birthday anthem entitled “To Shochiku With Love,” to be warbled (with apologies to Lulu), “How do I thank someone who has taken me from Mizoguchi to Miike?” Sadly, there are no Miike movies at Lincoln Center’s Shochiku centennial-plus-10 celebration this fall, nor any sign of Ship of Bloodsucking Skulls or Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell. But among the must-see Shimizus, the rarely screened Kozaburo Yoshimura melodramas and Minoru Shibuya satires, Oshima’s tear-gas classics and an inevitable taste of Tora-san, there are still plenty of jet-black candles atop this mostly bright white retrospective birthday cake.
Black River (Masaki Kobayashi, 1956)
Masaki Kobayashi’s flight of fury against the corrupting co-operations between Japan and the U.S. occupation forces foreshadows the darker waters of the Shochiku “Nouvelle Vague” soon to come. Though he shared Mizoguchi’s pre-Antonioni obsession with architectural detail, the staunchly Kobayashi—who’d suffered greatly as a soldier during the war—wasn’t afraid of tearing down any master’s house, and he readily admitted that his samurai classics like Hara-kiri shared with his lesser-known contemporary films a single foundation-testing theme: “resisting entrenched power.”
Pale Flower (Masahiro Shinoda, 1964)
Shinoda rose with the tide of the Oshima wave, making movies that viewed the angst of yakuza hitmen, the absurdity of giant rubber monsters (Demon Pond), and the centuries-old puppet-theater standards of Chikamatsu (Double Suicide) with an equally alienated and hugely entertaining pop-artificial regard. Slowed down to the point of being smacked out, the exquisitely photographed Pale Flower is based on a story by taiyozoku creator and current Governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, who could scarcely have envisioned that Shinoda would score the film’s climatic retribution killing to the astringent operatic strains of Henry Purcell.
The Castle of Sand (Yoshitaro Nomura, 1974)
Famous mainly for his adaptations of the mysteries of Seicho Matsumoto, Japan’s Ellery Queen, Nomura made movies that combined the old-school craft of Stanley Donen’s Charade with forward-thinking notions about mortality, the abuse of children, and seaside soul-searching along coastal Japan that haunt Hirokazu Kore-eda to this day. In this study of the fine line between artistic mediocrity and outright insanity, a rising composer hides from his secret past (his father was a leper) by writing a psuedo-symphony, “Destiny for Piano and Orchestra,” so saccharine it would have given Liberace gas. One-time 007 sidekick Tetsuro Tamba, the George Kennedy of Japanese cinema, is the poetry-scribbling top cop on the case.
Face (Junji Sakamoto, 2000) & Black Angel (Takashi Ishii, 1998)</p>
Two modern-day variations on that Fifties Shochiku staple, the “women’s film,” Sakamoto’s Face—a startlingly emotional murder-melodrama about a truck-sized seamstress who strangles her kid sister and discovers her will to live—and Ishii’s Black Angel—about a female assassin and the child she once saved from gangland slaughter, but has since grown up branded to kill—are two of Shochiku’s best late-model pulp fictions. While Hou Hsiao-hsien’s masterful Café Lumière keeps the Ozu gaslight glowing, Ishii and Sakamoto tend to the smoky, killer-hooker-as-Shimizu-heroine lantern that long ago burned with Shochiku’s midnight oil.