Saturday, August 13, 2011

Preview: A Forgotten Master, Masahiro Shinoda

"(some preceding gibberish)
Like Kurosawa I make mad films
Okay, I don't make films
But if I did they'd have a Samurai
(more gibberish)"
-Lyrics from "One Week"
A.K.A. that one Barenaked Ladies song from the late 1990s

When it comes to the history of film, we've all heard of the French New Wave, and this week were introduced to the Czech New Wave courtesy of Milos Forman. But did you know there was a Japanese New Wave in the 1960s as well? It's only natural. Japan has a prolific film industry, and is one of the top producing cinematic nations in the world.

Japanese cinema has had it's share of masters over the decades, and so it irks me when people think movies from Japan are either: bizarre horror, samurai movies, or Godzilla creature features. In a cinematic culture that is as deep and diverse as any other, it's to my chagrin that most people when asked to name a Japanese director (at best) come up with... Akira Kurosawa.

While I agree that Kurosawa is a master of film (of all-time for any nation), it's nonsense to reduce the history of a country's film culture down to one name. That's like someone proclaiming Spielberg is the only American director. Uh, hello? What about Scorsese, Allen, Kubrick, Welles, Coppola, Ford, Huston, or Fleming?

A director of prime importance in the Japanese New Wave was Masahiro Shinoda. Often overlooked except by the most discerning film buff, his films often focused on those on the fringe of society. Shinoda came from a theatre background in his youth, and therefore had a flair for the dramatic and a knack for the theatrics of storytelling. This week The Paramount shines a light on this often unrecognized name of Japanese cinema.

Pale Flower tells the story of Muraki, a hard-boiled Yukuza gangster just released from prison. The ex-con revisits some of his old stomping grounds, and notices that time indeed has changed all he knew. In the the shadows of this world, he happens upon the young and nubile Saeko. She's like a flower amongst the weeds of his underworld culture, but the relationship that blossoms between the two escalates in dangerous new ways. For them, too much is not enough. A film of incredible style, stark cinematography and smash edits, Pale Flower follows Muraki down into the depths where gambling comes with rapidly raising stakes. Facing long odds, it seems this yukuza has gone all in for the largest gamble of all... the one for his soul.

Released in 1964, this film cemented Shinoda as an important voice in the new cinematic movement. Sure, crime stories had been done before (and since), but rarely with such technique. Think of this movie as a tighter and classier Carlito's Way.

Although the second example of his work is equally dark in tone, it is a far cry from gritty crime stories. In fact, this one is set in 18th century Japan, where tradition always trumps desire.

Double Suicide, you may be disappointed to know, is not an alternate title to Romeo and Juliet (sorry for the spoiler) but another film of Masahiro's screening this week. It is an adaptation of a classic Banraku, a type of theatrical puppet play. Infused with Shinoda's natural sense for the stage, the film shines as a unique tale of two doomed lovers.

A paper merchant becomes obsessed with a prostitute, and yields both his fortune and family in pursuit of this unattainable woman. Needless to say, society frowns on this. Soon, she grows equally enamored with him, and the duo's lives begin to orbit one another like objects going down a drain. Faced with pressures and desires too overwhelming to endure, the couple arrive at the conclusion that there is only one way out.

It's a classic tale with a modernist slant, not unlike Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes. Rarely has the blending of stage and film come so alive as it does in Double Suicide.

Among the deep riches of Japanese cinema, the title of crown jewel will likely always remain with Kurosawa. Yet buried like a rare pearl, Masahiro Shinoda's films still luster nearly fifty years later. An overlooked ambassador from a prominent nation's culture, Shinoda's films are true works of art whose gallery has been neglected for far too long. This week, do yourself a favor and view both movies. These haunting and moving films from Japan's forgotten master will stay with you longer than any annoying Barenaked Ladies song lyric could ever hope to.

Showtimes for the films:

Pale Flower
Thursday, Aug 18th
Friday, Aug 19th

Double Suicide
Thursday, Aug 18th
Friday, Aug 19th

Final Notes about the screening:

$2 discount for Austin Film Society members at the box office for all "World Cinema Classics" films!

$2 from each ticket benefits the Japan Red Cross Relief Fund

Double Features:
"When two movies are grouped together under the same thematic heading, one ticket is good for both features when viewed back-to-back on the same day." (cha-ching!)

"Hassle-free downtown parking available for $6 at the One American Center for all summer films! Since you’re also supporting the theatre when you buy parking, they're giving you a free small soda each time you park there for a film. Buy online with your film tix and print out your confirmation e-mail or buy directly from the garage attendant (cash only). Attendant will have your soda ticket as well."

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