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8 treasures from Japan's trove

March 06, 2003|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

So rich is the Japanese cinema that it would be easy to come up with numerous lists of eight classic films. The ones that make up LACMA's "Susan Sontag Selects: Eight Japanese Classics" are excellent choices, and the only reason that the great Yasujiro Ozu, in the year of his centennial, is not represented is that Shochiku studios has refused to make his films available. Sontag's selections reveal how the Japanese concern with reflecting realities of everyday life has made it one of the world's richest national cinemas.

The series commences Friday with Kenji Mizoguchi's "Sisters of Gion," one of the director's most celebrated yet rarest films. Famous for his empathy with women, Mizoguchi's 1936 release is possibly the most outspokenly critical of his many exploring the plight of the geisha. Isuzu Yamada, at the threshold of her enduring stardom, plays Omocha, a cynical, modern-minded Kyoto geisha unenthusiastic in pursuing a patron but utterly determined to find a wealthy replacement for the now-bankrupt protector of her loyal, tradition-bound older sister Umekichi (Yoko Umemura).

"Sisters of Gion" is a timeless drama triggered by a tragic interplay of fate and character, as subtle as it is devastating, and set off by touches of pitch-dark humor.

An equal rarity, Heinosuke Gosho's 1953 "Where Chimneys Are Seen," follows -- an eloquent plea for understanding among people struggling to survive the hardships of post-World War II Japan. The setting is a vast ramshackle neighborhood on Tokyo's outskirts dominated by four tall smokestacks. Depending upon one's perspective there appear to be fewer stacks, and they become symbolic of the need to appreciate that people see things differently. The film centers on an impoverished but happily married couple (Kinuyo Tanaka, Ken Uehara) who sublet their upstairs to a younger couple (Hideko Takamine, Hiroshi Akutagawa) uncertain of their love for each other. The older couple's lives are upturned when the wife's first husband, whom she thought dead in an air raid, in desperation deposits his baby (by a barmaid) on their doorstep. The result is a remarkable mix of humor and drama.

Saturday brings first a free admission screening of Kazuo Hara's 1987 "The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On," a profoundly unsettling, compelling documentary about Kenzo Okuzaki, a Kobe battery-shop proprietor and World War II veteran, who became determined to force Emperor Hirohito to accept responsibility for the death of his soldiers and the suffering of his people. It is impossible not to believe that Hara served as a catalyst for pushing the increasingly disturbed Okuzaki over the edge. Easy, too, to come away believing that Okuzaki is correct in his attitude toward the emperor but that decades of frustration in pursuing his cause have turned him into an ever more dangerous fanatic. As a result, "The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On" seems a highly irresponsible film, which paradoxically probes the nature of responsibility.

Akira Kurosawa's first postwar film, "No Regrets for Our Youth" (1946), and Nagisa Oshima's "Death by Hanging" (1968) screen Saturday as a double feature. In the first, Kurosawa shows the stifling of freedom of expression in Japan that began in earnest after its invasion of Manchuria and the bravery of those few who dared to try to stop the all-out war they saw was coming. Setsuko Hara's strong heroine has been called the first truly modern woman in Japanese film. This superb film opens in 1933 in Kyoto, that cradle of culture, where a much esteemed university law professor is fired for his antimilitarist views. Student demonstrations in his behalf are crushed, and his headstrong, spoiled daughter (Hara) is shaken out of her sheltered existence. "Death by Hanging" opens by asking the 71% of the Japanese population in favor of capital punishment if it has ever actually witnessed an execution. In documentary style, Oshima rapidly answers his own question -- only the criminal (Yun Do Yun) fails to stop breathing, capitulating the prison officialdom into pandemonium. To say that this film is anti-capital punishment is like describing "Hamlet" as a detective story. It soon becomes a surreal, often darkly comic parable.

The series' final weekend opens with Kozaburo Yoshimura's elegant "A Ball at the Anjo House" (1947), inspired by the director's attendance at a final lavish party given by a doomed aristocratic family, for during the American occupation, Japan's nobility was stripped of its titles and much of its wealth in a drive for democratization. It will be followed by Mikio Naruse's "Floating Clouds" (1955), a love story set during the war and its aftermath. The series concludes with Keisuke Kinoshita's "Twenty Four Eyes" (1954) one of the great postwar pictures, in which Japan's relentless march toward the catastrophe of World War II is seen through the eyes of a free-thinking, antimilitarist schoolteacher (Hideko Takamine) in a small island community.


Japanese classics

What: "Susan Sontag Selects: Eight Japanese Classics"

Where: Bing Theater, LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles

Info: (323) 857-6010

Friday, 7:30 p.m.

"Sisters of Gion," "Where Chimneys Are Seen"

Saturday, 7:30 p.m.

"The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On," "No Regrets for Our Youth," "Death by Hanging"

March 14, 7:30 p.m.

"A Ball at the Anjo House"

March 15, 7:30 p.m

"Floating Clouds," "Twenty Four Eyes"

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