Tag Archives: Shohei Imamura

Best DVD/Blu-ray Releases of 2011

The Colour of Pomegranates

Electric Sheep writers review the best DVD and Blu-ray releases in 2011.

The Colour of Pomegranates (Sergei Paradjanov, 1968, Second Sight)

Inspired by Armenian miniatures and icons, its tableaux slowly evoke - rather than tell - the life of the 18th-century poet and troubadour Sayat Nova. Laden with the poet’s suffering and biblical and folkloric symbolism, there is an epic, earnest solemnity to The Colour of Pomegranates; and while such gravity and careful construction could lead to austerity and artificiality, there is also a consuming warmth and sensuality. The extraordinarily striking actress Sofiko Chiaureli plays the part of both poet and muse, exploring male and female sexuality (Paradjanov was himself bisexual and first imprisoned for a homosexual act with a KGB officer) and the film is joyously abundant with melodic folk music and heightened sounds: the crinkling of books’ pages; the squelch of pomegranate seeds; the urgent chirping of bird song. The Colour of Pomegranates is an emotionally affecting film and is especially poignant given Paradjanov’s own suffering in prison and the loss of his first wife. Lost loves and issues of ethnicity, subjects raw to his heart, are treated with immense compassion. And yet, The Colour of Pomegranates is also a film that joyously arouses all the senses: a truly sensory experience without precedent or successor. Eleanor McKeown

La Piscine (Jacques Deray, 1969, Park Circus)

The pristine swimming pool of a glamorous couple’s private villa in the French Riviera is the focus of Jacques Deray’s 1969 tale of lust, co-dependency and revenge. Of ample size and stylish design, it’s where lovers Jean-Paul (Alain Delon) and Marianne (Romy Schneider) fool around during a long hot summer, far from the madding crowd of St Tropez. It’s also where Jean-Paul challenges Marianne’s ex-lover Harry (Maurice Ronet) to a symbolic swimming race, and where the film reaches its shocking and deadly climax. Deray does a deft job in capturing the hedonism and abandon of the period, where good looks and chic clothes conceal dark feelings that lurk beneath the surface, helped by a toe-tapping soundtrack by Michel Legrand. Legrand is a name often associated with the French New Wave, as is Maurice Ronet, who plays smooth-talking music producer Harry, but La piscine‘s connection with the movement ends there. Instead, with its smoulderingly attractive cast and focus on relationships, it owes more to American film noir and psychological thrillers of the previous two decades. Lisa Williams

Who Can Kill a Child? (Narciso Ibañez Serrador, 1976, Eureka)

Narciso Ibañez Serrador’s Who Can Kill a Child? is arguably the best Spanish horror film ever made. It’s also a classic of 70s horror, but you’re unlikely to find it on many ‘best of’ lists, from either fans or critics. This is mainly due to its half-hearted distribution until Eureka finally released it on DVD in the UK this year. Like Village of the Damned (1960) and Children of the Corn (1984), Who Can Kill a Child? pits adults against children, this time working from the template established by George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). Unlike those films, Who Can Kill a Child? doesn’t dilute the horrific premise by making his children aliens or religious maniacs controlled or directed by a supernatural entity. Following Hitchcock in The Birds (1963) and Romero, Serrador provides no real information that might help to understand or explain the events taking place. Once the misjudged moralising prologue is over, Who Can Kill a Child? is a masterpiece of atmosphere and a deeply unsettling, original experience, and one that deserves to be seen by a much wider audience. Jim Harper

Akira (Katsuhiro Ôtomo, 1988, Manga Entertainment)

Based on Katsuhiro Ôtomo’s serialised comic, in which telekinesis and telepathy are imagined as evolutionary reactions to a dehumanised machine-driven world, Akira proved to be a ground-breaking film on its release in 1988, presenting concepts and imagery rarely seen on the big screen in animation. While some aspects have dated and the rushed ending - a soupí§on of Kubrickian post-human light show plus shafts of divine light in a ruined landscape - strives too hard to be sublime, this is a classic animated Japanese film that is well worth adding to any Blu-ray collection, in a HD transfer that finally does justice to the film’s colour palette and intricate line art. Alex Fitch


Alice (Jan Švankmajer, 1988, BFI Video)

Alice, technically a Swiss-British-German co-production although, in all creative respects, entirely Czech, was filmed in Prague with Švankmajer’s regular team. Significantly, the Czech title translates as ‘Something from Alice’, indicating that it should in no way be considered a straightforward adaptation of Carroll. While Alice is played by a real little girl, the world of her imagination or dream world is represented by puppets and animated figures. The characters have become much more explicitly threatening than in Carroll’s original. Švankmajer’s most nightmarish creations are his ‘animals’, who pursue Alice at the White Rabbit’s behest after she has escaped from his house. These skeletal monsters include a coach pulled by chickens with skull heads, a fish-like skeleton with legs, a skull dragging a bone body, and a skull head that snaps out of a jam pot. This array of visions is far from the antiseptic world of Disney or the reassuring middle-class images of Sir John Tenniel. Peter Hames

The Kingdom (Lars von Trier, 1994 + 1997, Second Sight)

Set in Denmark’s largest hospital, Lars von Trier’s 90s TV series The Kingdom is perhaps best described as the mutated offspring of a hospital-based reality TV show and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, but even that doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. The Kingdom‘s horror might seem tame to viewers of Saw and Hostel, but von Trier manages to establish - and increase - a surprising level of tension and atmosphere, something that suits the work much better than explicit violence and gore. The Kingdom is absolutely essential viewing for lovers of horror or fantasy, as well as anyone with a passion for the weird. Originally broadcast in two seasons of four episodes each, the first season was edited into a single movie for a British VHS release in 1998, but this is the first time that both seasons have been available in this country. Jim Harper

Deep End (Jerzy Skolimowski, 1970, BFI Video)

Deep End is a film driven by and dripping with discomfort, an effect that’s heightened by the 40-year interval between its original release and recent revamp by BFI’s Flipside imprint. The story of Mike, a London teenager working his first job as a public bath attendant, and his sexual obsession with his co-worker Susan, it is morally ambiguous in tone, pitched somewhere between psychosexual thriller and a dark coming-of-age comedy. In that sense it’s quite typical of the era in which it was made, but there is something more self-aware about Deep End. The uncomfortable mood is not just the by-product of its time and our latter-day perspective on it, but also, perhaps, of director Jerzy Skolimovski’s own slightly distanced perspective on his subject. Frances Morgan

Shôhei Imamura releases (Eureka’s Masters of Cinema)

Eureka continue to make the work of the great Japanese director Shôhei Imamura available to UK audiences. Following the release of Vengeance is Mine (1979) and Profound Desires of the Gods (1968) in previous years, 2011 brought a bounty crop: Pigs and Battleships (1961), A Man Vanishes (1967) and The Ballad of Narayama (1983).

Pigs and Battleships
A vivid indictment of a nation struggling with a serious identity crisis, Pigs and Battleships is a biting social satire by a truly brilliant filmmaker. John Berra

A Man Vanishes
Over 40 years ago, Shôhei Imamura created the quintessential mockumentary, A Man Vanishes, a film essay that reveals with cunning wit concerns of veracity and corruption and anticipates the traps reality will lay for filmmakers. John Bleasdale

The Ballad of Narayama
The cruelty of survival is the focus of Shôhei Imamura’s stunning film. His achievement here is in presenting a radically different society with values that clash directly with what we today consider universal and inalienable rights. John Bleasdale

The Ballad of Narayama

The Ballad of Narayama

Format: Dual Format (Blu-ray + DVD)

Release date: 24 October 2011

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment

Director: Shôhei Imamura

Writer: Shôhei Imamura

Based on two stories by: Shichirô Fukazawa

Original title: Narayama-bushi kô

Cast: Ken Ogata, Sumiko Sakamoto, Tonpei Hidari

Japan 1983

130 mins

In Chekhov’s short story ‘Peasants’, a waiter from the city has fallen sick and takes his family back to his village to be looked after, and wait for death. Almost immediately he realises this is a mistake. He’s just another mouth to feed and before long his own family are making it clear to him he should hurry up and die. The cruelty of survival is similarly the focus of Shôhei Imamura’s stunning film, based on a conflation of two short stories by Shichirô Fukazawa, each of which had already been given separate film treatments. In a remote mountain village, winters are harsh and basic survival is ground out of the earth. As a result, the elderly, on reaching 70, go up the mountain to die. Granny Orin (played by the excellent Sumiko Sakamoto) is a sturdy 69 with a mouthful of her own teeth, but feels her time has come. It is partly out of respect for tradition, partly because of religious beliefs that in that way she will see her ancestors again, but also because of a not-so-subtle societal pressure: she begins to be the butt of jokes and songs about the demon hag who has 33 teeth. The memory of her husband’s disappearance still makes her feel she has lost face.

As in the Chekhov short story, there is a shocking frankness about death and the need for a society on the edge of survival to get rid of its excess baggage, even when these are your relatives. Female babies are sold to the visiting salt merchant, unwanted children are killed on birth. A new born babe that is found in the field sets off a quarrel, not about murder, but about fly-tipping: ‘I don’t need that kind of fertilizer,’ an aggrieved peasant complains. Sexual behaviour is also restricted, with only the eldest son allowed to marry and the other men having to make do with what sex they can grab. Risuke, Granny Orin’s smelly second son, makes do with the neighbour’s dog when the urge takes him.

Imamura unashamedly places the village in the context of a nature that is drippingly red in tooth and claw. As humans hunt, so do eagles, sometimes stealing the same prey; as human rut, so do frogs; as humans are cruel, so we see the murderous affections of the praying mantis. And their survival is genuinely on a knife’s edge. This is not a Malthusian abstraction, or a Logan’s Run dystopia. Each family continually keeps track of the mouths to feed and does the math. They watch as potatoes are counted out and infractions are punished with an appalling severity. ‘I wonder if we’ll survive this winter,’ one villager muses aloud.

And yet for all the harshness and difficulty this is a bizarrely beautiful film, as it follows the village through its four seasons, from winter on. The change of the light, the landscape with the dominating and death-threatening mountain as well as the fire-lit interiors are beautifully rendered, without ever appearing anything other than real.

Before going up the mountain Granny Orin needs to resolve some unfinished business. Her eldest son’s wife has died and he needs a replacement. Stinky Risuke, who uses his breath as a weapon, also needs to have some sex otherwise the neighbours are going to find out about why their dog is so unhappy. The younger son is in a relationship with a girl from a bad family, who are suspected of thieving. The fall of this family is precipitous and is anticipated by the snake that serves as their house god abandoning their hut.

The main relationship is between Granny and Tatsuhei (Ken Ogata), her eldest son. She fears he is soft-hearted, too much like his father, and he is reluctant to let her go up the mountain. It is partly to convince him that she is ageing that Orin bashes her own teeth out, the actress having her own front teeth removed for the purposes of the film with an admirable commitment to realism. However, Tatsuhei is a complex character, troubled literally by ghosts from the past, and although he might demur from carrying out a punishment one day, on another he might well participate. And in the end it will be Tatsuhei who will carry Granny Orin up to her final resting place as the first snows threaten to fall.

Imamura’s achievement here is in presenting a radically different society with values that clash directly with what we today consider universal and inalienable rights. And yet this is not of mere anthropological interest, he is neither romanticising nor patronising the villagers. There is broad comedy and deep tragedy, both the beauty and the cruel indifference of nature, tenderness, humour, love and cruelty. Our understanding of the village is never allowed the privileged position of judgement. The last 30 minutes of the film are as moving and magical as anything I’ve ever seen.

John Bleasdale