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Outlaw Roundup

Cinematheque packages some zingers in its series featuring Japanese films of the '60s, early '70s.

May 06, 1999|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The American Cinematheque's "Return of the Japanese Outlaw Masters," which runs today through May 16 at the Egyptian, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., is the second edition of one of the Cinematheque's most popular series. And no wonder, for it draws from Japanese films of the '60s and early '70s, a vital era that produced some superb samurai films, a plethora of exciting yakuza thrillers and lots of erotica, some of it way too kinky for mainstream tastes. Many of these movies played L.A.'s several long-gone Japanese-language theaters, some with much fanfare, others with little or none.

Many of the films were not available for preview, including today's 7 p.m. opening attraction, the awkwardly titled "Female Convict 'Scorpion'--Jailhouse 41," a women's prison breakout adventure starring Meiko Kaji. One of the few Japanese sexploitation pictures to be press-screened back in the '60s was Seijun Suzuki's 1964 "Gate of Flesh" (Friday at 9 p.m.), a memorably sensational item about postwar Tokyo prostitutes. It will be followed by Kinji Fukasaku's ferocious, dynamic yakuza thriller "Wolves, Pigs and People" (1964), in which Rentaro Mikuni, then as now one of the Japanese cinema's most distinguished actors, plays a sleek gangster who has risen from a shantytown to the big time. Unfortunately for him, he has two younger brothers (yakuza icon Ken Takakura and Kinya Kitaoji) who decide to rip him off--only Kitaoji decides to rip both his brothers off.

Saturday (at 8:30 p.m.) brings Masaki Kobayashi's 1962 "Hara Kiri," a contemplative, stunningly stylized classic in which Tatsuya Nakadai stars as a samurai, fallen on hard times, who uses an enemy clan's code of honor against itself in a remorseless quest for revenge. "Hara Kiri" is the rarest kind of Japanese movie, the period picture that attacks the feudal code outright. The usual samurai epic exhorts the individual to put loyalty to his clan above all else, but the condemnation of the entire system is scarcely even seen, although the similar "Goyokin," also starring Nakadai, and Tadashi Imai's bravura "Bushido" are, like "Hara Kiri," celebrated exceptions to the rule.

The hit of last year's festival was Masahiro Shinoda's 1962 "Pale Flower," and it will be reprised Sunday at 4 p.m. It's a fascinating film in its own right, and not just as a portent of what was to come from Shinoda, who would go on to make a series of major films--most famously, the romantic period tragedy "Double Suicide." An adaptation from a novel by popular writer Shintaro Ishihara, it is a doomed contemporary romance set against the shadowy Japanese underworld.

Released from prison after serving a three-year term for murder, the gangster Muraki (well-played by the veteran Ryo Ikebe) calmly resumes the only life he knows. Muraki brings to mind Albert Camus' "The Stranger," a man who killed for no tangible purpose, a fatalist for whom life holds little meaning.

At a card game, however, he meets waif-like Saeko (Mariko Kaga), a young woman living only for kicks. Their attraction to one another is as instantaneous as it is mutually destructive. Their story unfolds within a conventional gangster plot that is hard to follow but serves only as a pretext for exploring this compulsive relationship.

In fairness, you can understand why Shochiku Films, which was to have Shinoda under contract for many years, initially shelved the picture until its maker persuaded the studio to release it by promising to compensate the company for any losses incurred. (There weren't any.) "Pale Flower" is downbeat and low-key, yet it is a compelling picture, a psychological drama rich in atmosphere that shouldn't be missed by admirers of Shinoda's work. Today, the Cinematheque's programmers proclaim it "one of the greatest yakuza films ever made . . . a blend of Jean-Pierre Melville and 'Gun Crazy.' " (323) 466-FILM.

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Jochen Hick's "Sex/Life in L.A.," one of Outfest '98's strongest entries, screens at the Sunset 5 (8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood) on Friday and Saturday at midnight and Saturday and Sunday at 11 a.m. The film documents incisively the lives of several good-looking young men who came to Hollywood to seek their fortune and for the most part became porn stars, prostitutes or both. Some of these young men, at least for now, seem resilient and detached enough to survive and even prosper; others have been waylaid by drugs and despair. Featured are supermodel Tony Ward, who had his 15 minutes of fame partnered with Madonna in her banned-on-MTV music video "Justify My Love," starred in Bruce La Bruce's outrageous "Hustler White" and is struggling to make it as an actor, and renowned performance artist Ron Athey. (323) 848-3500.

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