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NYFF 2011. Nikkatsu Centennial

An overview of the 37-film NYFF sidebar, Velvet Bullets and Steel Kisses: Celebrating the Nikkatsu Centennial.

Velvet Bullets and Steel Kisses: Celebrating the Nikkatsu Centennial was a sidebar at this year's New York Film Festival that Dan Sallitt, writing a couple of weeks ago, found "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." Last year in the Notebook, Dan reviewed one of the 37 films in the series, Tomu Uchida's Earth (1939).

"The sidebar is peppered with nearly impossible to see rediscoveries," notes Steve Dollar at GreenCine Daily: "early silent films like 1927's A Diary of Chuji's Travels and harshly realistic World War II dramas like Mud and Soldiers. Shot on location in China in 1939, the latter film blends the actual wartime landscape with fictional scenarios of personal heroism among a group of soldiers whose performances make the film feel close to documentary. It's practically an Eastern version of The Big Red One." Ed Champion finds that director Tomotaka Tasaka "is certainly committed to showing how mind-numbingly dull war can be." Daniel Kasman and Doug Dibbern will beg to differ — but in differing ways!

Back to Steve Dollar: "Nikkatsu shifted into independent production in 1954, leaving behind such propaganda to reflect the influence of Western pop culture, allowing its directors an extraordinary range of creative freedom to manufacture taboo-busting eye candy. The studio fostered the enigmatic Seijun Suzuki, of Tokyo Drifter and Gate of Flesh infamy, and its consuming indulgence of underground culture has not diminished. The series reaches the 1980s with some latter-day 'roman pornos': softcore flicks like Shinji Somai's Love Hotel [image above], a melancholy tale about the crisscrossing of two lost souls that begins — as, strangely enough, so many of these films do — with a savage sexual assault that miraculously plants the seeds of a twisted romance, framed in lyrical long takes and a lurid neon afterglow. It's a valuable selection, as you can always pop Pigs and Battleships or The Burmese Harp into the DVD player. But not this."

The series opened with Yasuharu Hasebe's Retaliation (1968), "a tough-hearted chronicle of underworld turf wars that zeroes in on the treacherous overlap between gangsters and civilians," writes Nicolas Rapold for the Voice. "Screening in a very fine 'scope print, the bravura action sequences included a bathroom massacre and a flashlight-lit home invasion that spills from room to room, balanced by the nitty gritty details of crooked real estate dealing and bemused farmer reaction shots. Presiding on stage afterwards — and in equally fine form — was Joe Shishido, the 77-year-old Nikkatsu contract player and Seijun Suzuki heavy, who headlined Retaliation with Akira Kobayashi as his nemesis turned admirer. Shishido-san recounted his favored answers about getting his start in movies (as a fetus in his mother's belly, when she went to toilet-less cinemas that stank of shit) and his childhood exploits (wearing so many swords on his belt that his innards hurt)." See, too, Alt Screen's roundup.

Woman with Red Hair (1979) screens once more this evening and Peter Gutiérrez, writing an entry in Twitch's overview of the series, finds that the "endearing '70s-era scuff marks on this 35 mm print perfectly complement the overall air of griminess in the film itself — not that director Tatsumi Kumashiro is self-consciously aiming for a kind of eros of squalor. Rather, in ways both nuanced and yet bold, the film's strange tenderness derives largely from showing sex as it is actually practiced in much (most?) of the world: with dishes piled high in the sink, and between people who probably can't articulate why they're together and shouldn't have to."

More on Woman from Ed Champion, who also writes: "Many film buffs rightly point to Akira Kurosawa's High and Low (based on Ed McBain's King's Ransom — an 87th Precinct police procedure novel) as proof positive that 20th century Japanese cinema had the nuts and bolts to make the mystery genre its own. If High and Low can be likened to Double Indemnity, then Koreyoshi Kurahara's Intimidation [1960] — a brisk and highly enjoyable 65 minute film about botched blackmail… — suggests a scrappy film noir bankrolled by RKO."

"Rich or poor, young Japanese in the 50s lived with the conundrum of nothing to do and nowhere to go, and with foreigners who'd made themselves at home," writes Elina Mishuris for the L. "Crazed Fruit's [1956] love quadrangle of Eri (Mie Kitahara), secretly married to a rich old American, the innocent Haru (Masahiko Tsugawa) and his jaded older bother Natsu (Yujiro Ishihara) struck a chord, even in its prior incarnation as a novel by youth idol Shintaro Ishihara."

Finally for now, do see Film Society's own spotlight on Velvet Bullets and Steel Kisses.

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