Tuesday, October 4, 2011


This year’s sidebar program at the New York Film Festival is so exciting that it threatens to overshadow the main slate: a retrospective of the Japanese studio Nikkatsu, whose opportunistic shifts of focus always seemed to open doors for some of Japan’s most creative filmmakers. Compare film magazine Kinema Junpo’s 1999 and 2009 lists of all-time greatest Japanese films to the Lincoln Center series schedule, and count the overlaps.

You’ll have to move quickly to catch my strongest recommendation in the series, Sadao Yamanaka’s delightful 1935 Sazen Tange and the Pot Worth a Million Ryo, which screens once more on Wednesday, October 5 at 8:45 pm. Yamanaka, who died before his 29th birthday, made only three films that survive today, but the evidence that he was one of the greatest of filmmakers is present in any five minutes of his work. A Pot Worth a Million Ryo is a class-crossing light comedy, not especially interesting on paper, that shows off Yamanaka’s comprehensive command of cinema: contained, somewhat distant compositions with unusual architectural elements that often narrow the frame horizontally or vertically; an irreverent use of psychology to modify familiar character types; confident timing that owes something to American comic rhythms; a gentle sense of the absurd and outrageous that is unobtrusively pitted against social quietude; and a throwaway flair for action direction.

Screening just before the Yamanaka, on Wednesday, October 5 at 6:20 pm, is Tomu Uchida’s impressive Earth, which I wrote about last year at the MUBI Notebook.

Most film buffs won’t need to be pointed to Shohei Imamura’s superb 1964 Intentions of Murder, playing Tuesday, October 11 at 8 pm and Friday, October 14 at 4:30 pm. But this film buff, at least, wasn’t hip to the considerable talents of Tatsumi Kumashiro until a few days ago. Best-known for his work in the “pink film,” the soft-core pornography that Nikkatsu churned out in the 70s, Kumashiro inhabits the genre so naturally that there is no conflict (well, almost none) between its commercial requirements and his semi-immersed, semi-detached artistic personality. His remarkable 1973 The World of Geisha, which screens once more on Friday, October 14 at 1 pm, shows the social and psychological repercussions of a single night of sex, which is extended through two-thirds of the film’s length with the aid of interpolated material and a superimposed layer of Brechtian play. Honestly erotic yet shot through with chilly pessimism, the film shows simultaneously the mundane destructiveness and the lingering gravitational pull of heterosexual coupling, with something of the tone of the Fassbinder of Pioneers in Ingolstadt or The Merchant of Four Seasons. Advance word is good on the other Kumashiro film in the Nikkatsu series, 1979’s The Woman With Red Hair, screening on Friday, October 14th at 9 pm and Sunday, October 16 at 6:20 pm.

Of the many films in the Nikkatsu series that I haven’t seen, I’m most excited by 1985’s Love Hotel, a pink film by the superb Shinji Sômai (Moving, Wait and See), whose fluency with scene-long tracking shots is well matched with his interest in quirky characters who preserve their mystery. Love Hotel screens only once, on Saturday, October 15 at 6:30 pm.

All films mentioned here, and all but one of the remaining films in the Nikkatsu series, will be projected in the 87-seat Howard Gilman Theater in Lincoln Center’s new Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.

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