Category Archives: Foreign

Tampopo (1985, Itami Jûzô)

Tampopo is a cinematic appreciation of Japanese food culture. Writer and director Itami also has some love of cinema things, but it’s all about the food. Even when it’s played for humor. Or for nurturing. Or for sex. Sexy foodstuffs abound in Tampopo.

But Tampopo is also this traditional narrative. It’s a Western’s narrative, but it’s a narrative. Truck drivers Yamazaki Tsutomu and Watanabe Ken intercede on the behalf of a woman’s honor (regarding her position as the owner-operator of a ramen shop). It’s Shane, okay? I didn’t realize it until the end but it’s Shane. You don’t think a lot about the narrative because it’s very reserved, sort of muted. The humor’s easier and less ambitions.

Miyamoto Nobuko is the woman. She’s also Tampopo. She’s a widow, with a kid, a suitor, the failing business, questionable ramen cooking talent. Yamazaki agrees to help her learn. He sets up assorted, eclectic instructors and occasionally bewildering, always entertaining lessons. And he falls for Miyamoto, but he’s just a traveling man. Or is he?

There’s no question about Miyamoto’s shop eventually being successful. It’s just how long it will take. The film starts not with the main cast but with Yakusho Kôji. He’s sitting down to watch a movie with his lady friend (Shinoi Setsuko). He likes movies and food. No talking during movies, as someone finds out. But eating during movies is fine. Just quietly.

Then Itami kicks off the main plot with some didactic structuring. But it turns out to just be a mold. He doesn’t keep it. He keeps the same kind of asides, just without the overlay. The asides (because sketches would require cameos and everything else seems to need quotation marks)–so, the asides. These asides have no narrative requirements. Itami can do whatever he wants. Or can get an actor to do involving an egg yolk. Tampopo is a lot. It’s also brilliantly edited by Suzuki Akira. Suzuki’s got to have showy cuts to match the content because Itami’s always matching intensity with content. There’s a tension between the two and it gives Tampopo its anticipatory energy.

That energy stays consistent throughout. Suzuki and Itami keep the same pace during the main plot scenes as they do the asides. It’s really cool.

Great photography from Tamura Masaki and music from Murai Kunihiko. The film never gets long, the asides stay fresh. The acting is great.

Yamazaki takes Miyamoto through the urban landscape–because even if it’s a Western, it’s still set in a big city–to find the instructors. There’s Katô Yoshi, a former ramen-master burnt out, and noodle-man Sakura Kinzô. Wanatabe is around a bit. And Yasuoaka Rikiya is the guy who’ll be there for Miyamoto when the open road calls to Yamazaki and he abandons her, the shop, and the kid.

The kid who’s uncredited?

Anyway. It all works. It’s delightful. Itami falls back on broader humor whenever he wants to hurry a scene, but it’s fine. They’re good laughs, they’re just at the expense of character development. Itami, Suzuki, Tamura, and Murai do phenomenal work. And the actors are good too, but none of them get to do phenomenal work because no character development. Not even for an Audie Murphy Western much less Shane. Spoof and homage have definite limits.

They also kill a little turtle onscreen. So. I’m not down with that. I don’t want to talk about it, but, no. Uh uh.

Still, it’s a rather good movie.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Itami Jûzô; director of photography, Tamura Masaki; edited by Suzuki Akira; music by Murai Kunihiko; produced by Hosogoe Seigo, Tamaoki Yasushi, and Itami; released by Toho Company Ltd.

Starring Yamazaki Tsutomu (Gorô), Miyamoto Nobuko (Tampopo), Yakusho Kôji (Man in White Suit), Watanabe Ken (Gan), Yasuoka Rikiya (Pisuken), Sakura Kinzô (Shôhei), Katô Yoshi (Noodle-Making Master), Ôtaki Hideji (Rich Old Man), and Kuroda Fukumi (Man in White Suit’s Mistress).


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Sister Street Fighter (1974, Yamaguchi Kazuhiko)

Sister Street Fighter should be campy. With the constant horns in Kikuchi Shunsuke’s score, lead Shiomi Etsuko’s colorful outfit, villain Amatsu Bin doing an Elvis impersonation, the countless and intentionally weird martial arts villains… it ought to be campy. But it’s not, because somehow Sister Street Fighter manages to keep its melodrama sincere.

Lead Shiomi is a Hong Kong martial arts champion who goes to Japan to search for her missing brother. He too is a martial arts champion, but like many good martial arts champions, he’s also a secret drug agent. Shiomi isn’t just a concerned sister or martial arts champion, she’s got the assignment of finding him. It’s unclear if she regularly works as a secret agent or just this one time.

Shiomi’s a likable lead. Sister Street Fighter never goes out of its way to require anything like acting from its cast; likable’s about as high as you can get. Especially since Shiomi gets the more tedious half of the movie. The other half is all of Amatsu’s villainy, which gets pretty awful, or something with his goons. Even though the goons are sort of played for laughs and aren’t especially good at being eccentric martial arts villains, the film always takes them seriously. Somehow staying straightfaced through the absurdities does more for pacing than Shiomi’s dramatically inert search for her brother.

In Japan, Shiomi gets herself a bunch of friends and allies, including Sonny Chiba in an extended cameo. Chiba himself had a Street Fighter franchise, but playing a different character (with Shiomi appearing in the final entry, not as the same character as here). There’s no baton-passing to Shiomi, just the relatively effective too slight mentorship. Chiba’s a karate man, Shiomi’s a karate woman, they believe in the good karate schools. They’re pals and they’ve got the most star power in the picture.

Sadly, they barely get any time together.

Amatsu’s an okay villain. He’s an evil jackass, walking around with his sunglasses on all the time and his Elvis capes. Ishibashi Masashi is Amatsu’s overconfident henchman who can’t deal with Shiomi beating him up. Ishibashi’s all right too.

As for the eccentric villains, none of them stand out good or bad. Director Yamaguchi shoots all the fight scenes in long shot with very few cuts. It’s about seeing the fight progress. The fight choreography isn’t great, but what it does well, Yamaguchi knows how to showcase.

He also knows how to do the ultraviolence quite well. Sister Street Fighter is often bloodless, but only because they’re saving all the gore for the finale. It should’ve been peppered throughout, especially given Shiomi’s plot is so bland and it could use all the help.

Most of the film involves Shiomi at Amatsu’s estate, which is a mix of Bond villain, bikini bimbos, and dungeons. Lots and lots of dungeons, but with tech. Shiomi has to break in after the second or third time everyone thinks she’s dead. Sister Street Fighter is short but repetitive. Unfortunately it’s not to reinforce information gathering, but because the writers don’t have any other ideas. So why not just do this one thing again. And then again.

But the scenes with Shiomi on the estate take up a lot of runtime. It’s got a great pace. It doesn’t have the best direction in the film, but it definitely moves the best.

In the end, Sister Street Fighter doesn’t succeed, it just doesn’t fail. It’s like it isn’t even ambitious enough to fail.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Yamaguchi Kazuhiko; written by Kakefuda Masahiro and Suzuki Noribumi; director of photography, Nakajima Yoshio; edited by Tanaka Osamu; music by Kikuchi Shunsuke; production designer, Nakamura Shuichiro; produced by Takamura Kenji and Yoshimine Kineo; released by Toei Company.

Starring Etsuko Shiomi (Li Koryu), Emi Hayakawa (Emi), Sanae Ôhori (Shinobu Kojo), Xiu-Rong Xie (Fanshin), Hiroshi Kondô (Li Gyokudo), Tatsuya Nanjô (Jiro), Nami Tachibana (Reiko), Hiroshi Miyauchi (Li Mansei), Bin Amatsu (Shigetomi Kakuzaki), Masashi Ishibashi (Kazunao Inubashiri), and Sonny Chiba (Hibiki).


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The Streetfighter’s Last Revenge (1974, Ozawa Shigehiro)

The title, The Street Fighter’s Last Revenge, doesn’t really refer to anything in the film itself. The Street Fighter is Sonny Chiba. He’s gone for psychotic killer karate man (from the first film, Last Revenge is the third) to suave, romantic ladies man. Complete with a secret room to put on his disguises. He also does disguises now. Last Revenge is often like a cheap James Bond knockoff, but then there’s some fighting and everything’s okay for a while.

Anyway. Chiba doesn’t wantonly kill everyone anymore but he still does get cheated by the criminals who hire him for the odd jobs. Only Last Revenge is more interested in the Chiba the ladies man than Chiba the killer karate man. So instead of fighting his way through the bad guy’s organization, Chiba instead romances the guy’s evil sister (Ike Reiko). It’s a family thing–there’s Ike, smart brother Kitamura Eizô, and stupid brother Shioji Akira.

Except it’s not a Romeo and Juliet thing, Ike’s really always just trying to kill Chiba. Sometimes involving mafia karate man Frankie Black, who has a magic power (really) to cut heavy objects with his mind. Black’s also dressed like a Mariachi. He’s really tall too. So sometimes Street Fighter’s Last Revenge will have this giant white guy Mariachi fighting Chiba.

It’s absurd and bad and awesome at the same time.

Kitamura–the smart brother–has this whole subplot about government corruption where he ends up teaming up with Wada Kôji’s corrupt prosecuting attorney. Wada’s also a karate man, ten years more advanced than Chiba.

Oh. Yeah. In addition to just having straight-forward, usually well-choreographed fight scenes, Last Revenge reduces Chiba’s badassery. He gets his ass handed to him a few times by Wada, with the film unable to figure out how to be sympathetic to Chiba. Luckily he’s a karate man and just needs to visit Suzuki Masafumi for some tips. Suzuki runs a karate school and is a real good guy, not a de facto one like Chiba.

It’s basically an excuse for director Ozawa to showcase some karate. The fight scenes have more jumping than intricate technique.

Though Shiomi Etsuko, as a young karate woman, gets some nice technique showcasing. She’s ten years too young to take on Chiba, or so he says; he’s ten years too young to take on Wada, or so Wada tells Chiba. Not being developed enough in your karate and hitting people with time-delayed fatal wounds are the big script gimmicks. Neither ever feel like anything but gimmicks.

However, it’s cool seeing Shimoi has a fun arc of rejecting Kitamura and family to be an antihero like Chiba. It gives him a protege, whether he wants one or not. There are lots of ladies interested in Chiba–the film’s first subplot involves his message service receptionist deciding she has to track him down because of his sexy voice. It makes his “romance” subplot with Ike all the more plausible.

Not good, but plausible. Even though Ike’s performance as a deceptive femme fatale is probably the film’s best bit of acting. And Ike gets no favors from the script or Ozawa’s direction. Ozawa doesn’t really do the directing performances thing. He’s patient with his composition, giving the actors space and time, but he doesn’t do anything to help them. It doesn’t really matter for any of the guys. But it matters for Shimoi and Ike.

Wada’s a good villain. Not so much to Chiba, rather as a foil in Kitamura’s plans.

So it’s a shame when none of it comes through at the end. Last Revenge has a chance to be this violent but benign martial arts thriller and screws it up so much it’s difficult to remember how or why it got the goodwill to burn.

Mostly it’s because Chiba’s got such a weak part.

Good photography from Yamagishi Nagaki. Decent score. Street Fighter’s Last Revenge is perfectly well-produced, it just can’t overcome a bad script and that script’s temperate Chiba.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Shigehiro Ozawa; written by Takada Kôji and Shimura Masahiro; director of photography, Yamagishi Nagaki; released by Toei Company.

Starring Sonny Chiba (Tsurugi), Ike Reiko (Aya), Wada Kôji (Takera Kunigami), Shiomi Etsuko (Huo-Feng), Suzuki Masafumi (Masaoka), Kitamura Eizô (Ôwada Seigen), Murakami Fuyuki (Iizuka), Shioji Akira (Ôwada Gô), and Frankie Black (Black).


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Return of the Street Fighter (1974, Ozawa Shigehiro)

Return of the Street Fighter almost stages a third act rally. It comes so close, then it doesn’t. After a string of boring fight scenes, director Ozawa finally gets in a couple good ones. Lead Sonny Chiba against one adversary, instead of a half dozen, two dozen, or four dozen. The failure to do big fight scenes is all on Ozawa. Chiba’s holding up his end–vicious karate killing machine–but Ozawa’s not shooting the fights well. When it’s just Chiba and someone else fighting, Ozawa and editor Horiike Kôzô create this rhythm to the cuts; the “story” pauses entirely for the fight.

When it’s Chiba vs. the evil karate school? Yawn. No fault of Horikke’s though; there’s just no good footage. Ozawa doesn’t do establishing shots. No matter how long Chiba’s fighting or how much ground he’s covered, no establishing shots. Ozawa never takes the camera off Chiba and never lets Chiba stop moving. Not fighting moving, but actually moving from place to place moving. It’s sort of narratively efficient but it doesn’t get the film anywhere. It’s just another unfortunate Return detail.

The story this time has Chiba working for evil karate school owner Tanaka Hiroshi–mostly doing hits. Chiba’s got a plucky, cute girl sidekick, Ichiji Yôko, who seems a little too cozy with Tanaka. Because Chiba doesn’t believe in Tanaka’s brand of karate, Tanaka’s just another client. And when Tanaka tries to hire Chiba to take out rival (good guy) karate school owner Suzuki Masafumi… well, Chiba’s got a line.

Thanks to flashback footage from the first film, we know Suzuki is the only karate school owner Chiba’s ever going to trust. Because we get to see their entire fight scene from the previous film. Return doesn’t even run ninety minutes and there are three lengthy flashbacks using first movie footage, then there’s Ozawa’s karate documentary where he showcases the various weapons and styles in use at Tanaka’s school. Why? Because then when there are actual fight scenes involving weapons and styles, Ozawa gets to rush through and just get to Chiba running away before taking the bad karate men down.

Again, it’s narratively efficient, it just doesn’t do anything good. It makes the actual fight scenes seem abbreviated. It’s a shame. When Ozawa wants, he can direct one hell of a fight scene.

Koiwa Hajjime’s script is pragmatically plotted, even when it misses opportunities. The connecting scenes between fights improve a lot in the second half of the film, contributing to the impression it’s going to get really good for the finale.

None of the cast stands out. Chiba’s pretty good, but underutilized. And it’s not like he can fix the poorly directed group fight scenes. Ichiji is annoying, but because she’s a narrative drag, nothing about the performance. Claude Gagnon is an unimpressive Mr. Big, however. And the showdown with returning baddie Ishibashi Masashi disappoints. Group fight.

The more obvious to becomes Return of the Street Fighter has nowhere to go, the more hurried the film becomes. It’s too bad; Return has the pieces to make something. The good fight scenes are quite good. They’re just dramatically inert. Given the whole film’s about Chiba resolving threads from the last movie, dramatic inertness shouldn’t even be possible.

But dramatically inert Return gets. It’s not all on director Ozawa. Most of it is on him, though.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Shigehiro Ozawa; screenplay by Koiwa Hajjime, based on a character created by Takada Kôji; director of photography, Yoshida Sadtsugu; edited by Horiike Kôzô; music by Tsushima Toshiaki; released by Toei Company.

Starring Sonny Chiba (Tsurugi), Ichiji Yôko (Boke), Claude Gagnon (Don Costello), Ishibashi Masashi (Shikenbaru), Tanaka Hiroshi (Otaguro), Shima Naoki (Yamagami), and Suzuki Masafumi (Masaoka).


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