When it comes to film, two of Japan’s most common genre outputs are the Samurai Film and the Ghost Story. At first glance (okay, and many sequential glances), Toshiya Fujita’s LADY SNOWBLOOD (1973) fits snugly in the Samurai category, following a stunning female assassin as she travels through late 19th century Japan, attempting to avenge her mother’s death. After looking closer at our heroine Yuki Kashima’s/The Lady Snowblood’s trial, however, it becomes clear that the film also works as a metaphorical ghost story, successfully blending the two prominent genres in an interesting and symbiotic way. Like a ghost whose unrest prevents it from passing on, Lady Snowblood’s entire existence is tied to a single piece of Unfinished Business: her quest for revenge. But whereas a phantom moves from this life to the next, Yuki’s eventual success actually gives her life for the first time, ending her state of limbo.
Brett Ratner’s HERCULES was released exactly six months ago as I post this. Did you see it? The film was one of my most pleasant surprises of 2014 and I spent the following weeks asking everyone I knew if they’d seen it yet. Invariably, the answer would be a “Uh, no.”
“But…The Rock literally throws a horse.”
As I eavesdrop on people leaving the theater after their Gone Girl screening I hear many iterations of “What a crazy psycho bitch!” and all I want to do is scream, “BUT SHE’S SO MUCH MORE!” Since I read Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl a few years ago I’ve ranted at anyone who will listen that Amy Elliot Dunne is one of the great female characters of literature — and now film. With anti-hero’s basically ruling network and cable television it seems strange to me that people are so ready to just write off Amazing Amy as just another crazy bitch. The only acceptable reason for loving Travis Bickle, Tyler Durden, Alex Delarge, The Joker, Chuck Bass, Don Draper, Francis Underwood, and Walter White while totally overlooking Amy is because Amy is a woman and the others are men. There doesn’t seem to be any getting around it.
The Real Face of Children’s Adventure Films
Grimm’s fairytales, those children’s stories that have stood the test of time, have done so not in spite of the danger in which they throw their young protagonists, but because of it. Hansel and Gretel get devastatingly close to being devoured by the witch, Little Red Riding Hood is eaten by the wolf, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty both essentially die when they are put into a never-ending sleep. And yet, we read these stories to our children from a very young age. Stories are where our children first encounter danger, difference, and fear, ultimately overcoming those obstacles while nestled safely in our arms. Movies have stepped in to share the mantle of acquainting our children with experiences that we hope they never have to confront in their own lives. At their best, movies help them vicariously experience and overcome these trials in the safest possible space.
This summer’s children’s adventure film Earth to Echo pulls certain plot points from the genre’s most successful outings (The Goonies and E.T.) and attempts to update the stories for the current generation. If you missed the film’s quick stint in theaters don’t be too dismayed; my reasons for discussing it now speak more to a wider cultural shift in the access children have to risk than just the sins of this particular movie. Unfortunately, when updating this modern story (read: adding the stock references to smart-phones, YouTube, Go-Pros, and Googling) the film ultimately suffers from the current epidemic of helicopter parenting — meaning constantly hovering over children to prevent them from experiencing any and all danger — and essentially sterilizes itself of any merit.
The film’s ultimate message? Confronting danger and difference in fiction is almost as undesirable as confronting it in life.
I’ve found watching Ingmar Bergman films to be a uniquely masochistic experience. They’re not punishing in a conventional sense, never relying on any sort of realistic, special-effects bloodshed, but rather in the emotional carnage that provides the spine and nervous system of his films. This creates an entirely different form of realism, one where emotion is laid bare, interrogated by his claustrophobic settings and intimate, almost uncomfortable close-ups. Characters kick and scream and question their world and we, the audience, are placed in perilous proximity by Bergman and his frequent cinematographer Sven Nykvist. In the end, Roger Ebert was exactly right when referred to Bergman’s dramas as “brooding, lonely, and violent excursions into the human soul.”
It takes a remarkable sort of alchemy to make films that are so emotionally pointed while never sinking into pure exploitation. You quickly get the sense that each is a deep psychological exercise for Bergman. He once said “the people in my films are exactly like myself — creatures of instinct, of rather poor intellectual capacity, who at best only think while talking. Mostly they’re body, with a little hollow for the soul.” It’s all the more impressive that these characters, often deep in their own spiritual crisis, manage to be so universal.
For the United States, World War II officially ended on September 2nd, 1945 with the surrender of Japan. But while signatures and treaties sent The Greatest Generation home to the country they’d fought to protect, it didn’t signify the end of their conflict. It ended physical battles but not internal ones. Even though they look perfectly healthy on the outside, soldiers did (and do) come home emotionally and mentally crippled.
Many of Hollywood’s finest (actors, directors, cameramen, you name it) were shipped overseas and those who made it home still had to wrestle with demons. As it turns out, spending your life creating fantasies doesn’t mean you’re any more prepared for the horror of war. How could it? Some of these Hollywood personnel were charged documenting a wartime spectacle that may have reflected a film they once worked on, but in actuality was completely alien.