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Samurai and Old Souls: A Look Back at a Legendary Japanese Studio

Shochiku was founded as a theatrical producer specializing in Kabuki troupes. Its cinema company was organized by two men who had started as peanut vendors in theaters. At first, they sought inspiration in Hollywood, importing technicians from the United States. Although the studio would make films in a variety of styles, with tearjerkers, "women's pictures," and melodramas as staple products, by the early 1930s, the house specialty had become shomin-geki, contemporary films about everyday lives of the lower middle classes, the "little people."

It was through the encouragement of studio head Shiro Kido that assistant Yasujiro Ozu got his start as a full director in 1927—he remained at the studio for the rest of his career, developing his distinctive visual style there over three decades. The Film Society's generous retro includes two remarkable Ozu films, A Story of Floating Weeds (1934) and Late Spring (1949). The series encompasses an 84-year span of productions, from Minoru Murata's Souls on the Road (1921) to Yoji Yamada's The Hidden Blade(2005). The Griffithian Souls, one of Japanese cinema's first major works, crosscuts two main stories, one about a prodigal son who leaves his father's house, the other about two convicts released from prison who discover the kindness of common people as they wander on their endless journey.

This is the U.S. premiere of Blade, the latest picture by Yamada, the company's chief contemporary director. A superior period piece set in the 1860s, it stars heartthrob Masatoshi Nagase (best known here for his role in Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train) as a battle-weary lower-class samurai assigned to eliminate one of his oldest friends. This is veteran Yamada's 78th movie, and his experience is written all over the beautifully crafted narrative. The title refers to a tricky swordplay maneuver.

The Hidden Blade
photo: Film Society of Lincoln Center
The Hidden Blade

Also on view are classic films of celebrated helmers Kenji Mizoguchi, Shohei Imamura, and Mikio Naruse, but the revelation of the series comes from a less familiar hand—Hiroshi Shimizu. Japanese Girls at the Harbor (1933) is a knockout. This stunning tale of passion, crime, and decadence concerns two schoolgirls, Sunako and Dora—bosom friends who both love the same foppish young man—and the former's descent into prostitution. An exhilarating triumph of elliptical and experimental style, with Shimizu's fondness for long tracking shots on location, it's also a precious portrait of the great port city of Yokohama in the early 1930s. Although Shochiku prided itself as a director's studio, there were two towering metteurs en scéne who would not concur in the evaluation. Akira Kurosawa didn't spend much time there. Scandal, his minor 1950 melodrama, is in the series. The Idiot (1951), an adaptation from his favorite writer, Dostoyevsky, is not. The film is uneven to the point of incoherence, but it's hardly the director's fault—Shochiku cut The Idiot's running time nearly in half prior to its release, without his participation, ruining it. As for Nagisa Oshima's explosive and politically avant-garde Night and Fog in Japan (1960), now a highlight of the Shochiku retro: When it was released, the company chickened out and yanked the picture from distribution.

 
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