Tag Archives: Toshiro Mifune

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Special Report: The Decline of Physical Media and the Rise of Illegal Torrents

Almost one year ago Stephen Bowie and Stuart Galbraith IV, on their respective blogs, began debating the aesthetic issues of watching movies via streaming video versus physical media like DVD and Blu-ray. That conversation, which you can read HERE and HERE, happily prompted a lot of good dialogue all over the Net where how one watches film is nearly as important as what one watches.

And, now, the conversation continues with a chat focusing on the subjects of bootleg videos and illegal torrents, as well as the related but fiendishly complex issue of once copyright protected movies gradually lapsing into the public domain, and whether this is good or bad for consumers.  

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Let’s start with the issue of buying bootleg videos. I think we’re pretty much on opposite sides of the fence on this issue, as well as the related notion of downloading/streaming movies officially unavailable.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Well, first of all, buying a bootleg is something I’m a lot less inclined to do than possessing a bootleg.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪How do you mean?

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Because that does mean there’s a middleman who isn’t a rights holder but is making a profit anyway. I’ll only fill that person’s pockets if I’m pretty desperate to see something. I couldn’t do what I do, as a TV historian, without being heavily reliant on non-commercially released copies of shows. ‪Isn’t that also true of Japanese films for you? Let’s say there’s a private torrent site that contains a whole bunch of fan-subtitled Japanese films that you can’t purchase legally. Would you or would you not avail yourself of those? Would it make a difference if it was for “work” vs. pleasure viewing?

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪I think needing access to movies/TV shows as a researcher is an entirely different issue. When, for instance, I was writing my Kurosawa/Mifune book, many of their films, particularly Mifune’s, weren’t available through normal channels. I ended up buying Hong Kong DVDs, for instance, Japanese DVDs sans English subtitles, and in some cases rented bootleg VHS tapes from Japanese rental stores in LA’s Little Tokyo and elsewhere. I’d rather fend for myself accessing what I’d need through rental shops here in Japan and, when necessary, going through official channels and viewing those titles I’d need to see through archives. ‪What I’d like to address is from the perspective of the ordinary consumer fed up that, for instance, Disney won’t release Song of the South, which has opened an underground market for that title.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Okay. And your response to that, from the consumer’s viewpoint, is what? “I guess I’m SOL then” and that’s the end of it?

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     Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Well, first off I believe Disney will get around to Song of the South eventually. The mighty dollar supersedes political correctness any day. Over time labels have gotten around these issues with (for my money, overly PC disclaimers and warnings), driven by legal concerns more than anything else.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪But that’s sidestepping the issue a bit. Are you arguing that someone curious about Song of the South would be wrong to avail him/herself of a pirated copy?

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪From a historical and artistic perspective, it absolutely should be released. Besides, my argument with regards to that film is that Uncle Remus is smarter and wiser than all the white people in that movie. It’s no better or worse than a hundred other Hollywood movies from the 1940s, and certainly the racial stereotypes are far more offensive in Gone with the Wind.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Still doesn’t answer my question, though.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪No. I myself have a copy that was given to me as a gift. I haven’t watched it, partly because the picture quality isn’t where I want it to be. However, of the handful of bootlegs I have, all I’d gladly replace with legitimately purchased copies when and if those become available. But I don’t think that’s the case with those who rely on torrent sites for 50-100% of what they watch.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Right. That’s closer to the way I feel. My own primary concern about bootlegs is aesthetic — I’d rather wait and see if a remastered copy comes out somewhere. I even dumped TCM, finally, after deciding that even a recording straight off the air didn’t pass my quality check. Most of those were piling up unwatched in the hope of a legit release.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪With regards to your SOL comment, I think part of the problem is that many folks today want instant gratification. Old fogey me, I remember if you wanted to watch, say, Touch of Evil, what you did was buy TV Guide every week and hope, pray, that sometime over the next 6-9 months one of the 6-7 VHF and UHF channels would air it, and hopefully not at 3:00 am! For me the current state of home video is an embarrassment of riches. It’s positively amazing that so many obscure titles are easily accessible. Sure, there are a bunch I’d love to watch RIGHT NOW that are presently unavailable, but I have no doubt a good percentage of those will turn up sometime over the next year or two. I don’t mind waiting. A good measurement of that is DVD Savant’s Wish List. It was huge 10 years ago, but something like 80% of those titles are now available in some form.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪And I know collectors who yell at me for not having taped, say, The Wackiest Ship in the Army when it ran on CBN in 1984. The fact that my age was in the single digits at the time doesn’t buy me much sympathy.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Even those folks who have been complaining for years about George Lucas’s suppression of the first theatrical versions of the original Star Wars trilogy probably won’t have much longer to wait, now that he’s been bought out by Disney.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Or: I spend 20 years and a lot of money hunting down some rare TV show, and now it’s on YouTube. Any tool who wants can see it in three seconds. It’s infuriating, but that doesn’t have much bearing on the state of things now.

   Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Another thing: I’d bet many of those loudest bellyachers probably have a huge stack of unwatched DVDs and Blu-rays stacked up, gathering dust. Why not look at those while you’re waiting?

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Look, I agree with that in general: Like you, I’ve had so much stuff to watch during the DVD era that for the most part (aside from my area of specialty, which is a big exception), I haven’t needed to go outside the proper channels to find stuff to watch.But: One reason I felt like this was a natural extension of our conversation last year is that the shift from physical media to streaming changes this equation.‪ If the market is tilting away from the possibility of a consumer legally purchasing (as opposed to streaming / “renting”) a copy of a movie, does that alter the ethics of bootlegging?

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪I think that shift hasn’t so far stopped the flow of new and interesting releases, for one thing. Sure, if DVD and Blu-ray and all other physical media came to a full stop, that might change the rules. But that hasn’t happened. DVD and Blu-ray have been “dead” for several years, supposedly. I don’t see that now or in the immediate future. What I do think bootlegging and torrents are doing is having some, probably unmeasurable, impact on marginal titles. If everyone who wants a copy has one on their hard-drive already, what’s the point in releasing it to Blu-ray, DVD, or as a MOD?

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪I’ll bet they are cannibalizing the same niche audience that small indie home video labels need. Which is a problem. Well, then, take it as a hypothetical, or look at some of the isolated instances where it’s true now. For instance, Criterion’s Hulu channel. Even if that’s not a dumping ground for films they don’t plan on releasing on disc (which it seems to be), it’ll take them 20 years to get to all of them. And while I can stream those if I want to (which I don’t), in Japan, you can’t. Don’t you feel the impulse to have someone make copies of those rare Japanese films? Would you ever feel justified in doing so?

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Well, I found ways around accessing the U.S. version of Hulu while still paying for the service. But if I couldn’t, probably, no, I wouldn’t ask somebody to burn a BD-R for me just because I want to see something. For research purposes, probably yes. I suppose the bigger question is: By dumping titles they’ve licensed on Hulu, is Criterion damaging the financial incentive to eventually release those titles to DVD and/or Blu-ray?

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪That’s a good question. Yes, I suspect that Criterion starting that Hulu channel was a tacit admission that most of those films wouldn’t get a disc release, and so they wouldn’t be cutting into that revenue. But I do see a lot of people on movie forums talking about streaming a film to see if they like it and then if they do, buying a copy. For me that’s backwards — I’ll always seek out the best copy possible for a first viewing, even if it means blind-buying a Blu-ray of a movie I might hate. But it may be that for others streaming and disc purchases aren’t mutually exclusive.

     Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪As the author of a recent piece here on WCP bemoaning the lack of Jacques Rivette titles on home video, would you pay money to obtain those unreleased titles as bootlegs or torrents, and if so would you then re-purchase them should they come to DVD or Blu-ray?

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    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪It’s true that Milestone and a few other small labels have publicly said they’ve dropped plans to release films for which they have the rights because they’ve already been heavily pirated. So that’s not completely immeasurable. It’s really frustrating but, at the same time, still sort of an isolated example. I mean, I’m not going to download a Lionel Rogosin film now because Milestone is working on his stuff, and it’s probably reasonable to wait on almost anything that could come out via Warner Archive. But a ’30s Paramount title? I wouldn’t counsel anyone to hold their breath on that. ‪Would I purchase the unavailable Rivette titles from a bootlegger now? No. But, that’s what I was getting at earlier — I wouldn’t have to. These days it happens anonymously on the Internet rather than via one-on-one contact, but I could essentially “trade” for custom-subtitled rips of French DVDs. I’m not in a huge hurry to do that, but I would also have no compunction about it. For instance: I recently borrowed a gigantic set of Portuguese DVDs of Manoel de Oliveira’s films from a friend. There were three or four Oliveiras I hadn’t that weren’t in the set or weren’t subtitled so, yes, I did indeed acquire non-commercial copies of those so that I could drop them in chronologically.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Technology-unsavvy me asks, “What exactly are you trading?” in terms of technology? And how do you make each other’s needs known?

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪I don’t want to give away too many trade secrets (and I don’t know many, because I’ve only dipped a toe into this world), but essentially there are private, invitation-only websites where cinephiles upload rare stuff that others can then download as a digital file. In some cases the standards of commercial unavailability, and image quality, are quite high.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Hmm. This sounds like the 21st century version of secretive hoarders of 35mm prints in the old days! In any case I’m guessing we’re talking about numbers too tiny to have any major impact on even the niche catalog marketplace.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Exactly. Also, I believe you mentioned a kind of pool where you and some others commissioned subtitles for rare Japanese films, 20 years ago? Perhaps you can say more about that, but custom-subtitling is one of the factors that drives this underground community, and I think it’s one of the things that makes it ethically defensible.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Yes, well. Around the time I was researching and writing about Japanese fantasy films – this being something like 22 years ago – none of the original Japanese-language versions of these films were available in the U.S. officially. Local TV markets had stopped running them, and the only licensed versions were panned-and-scanned, dubbed into English, and often heavily recut from their original versions. Gradually some of the films became available on VHS by people who’d obviously obtained Japanese laserdisc versions (for the most part) and then had them subtitled privately. Eventually I learned the main dealer doing this was making so much money that he was able to fly First Class to Tokyo several times a year (a $5,000 ride) on all the dough he was making. Fans didn’t care. They just wanted to see the movies. I, however, got to know many of the original filmmakers – directors, screenwriters, composers, actors, etc. – people who’d normally be entitled to royalties from their studios had these movies been legitimately licensed. Clearly this guy was getting rich while the people who actually made those movies got nothing. There was a time before that when I was invited in to a small, private group (mostly fellow researchers) that would all chip in to have these movies privately subtitled. In that case most or all of us already purchased the Japanese laserdisc of the titles in question, so this was, to my mind, merely a self-financed supplement to that experience.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Well, I started to say that I don’t care if some douchebag gets rich if the end result is wider availability for the art; it’s incidental. Then the second part of your comment makes that seem heartless! But at the time, you have to admit, English-language licensing of those films had to seem extremely unlikely. I can only counter with my own experience, is that often people who made TV in the 50s and 60s ask me, “How did you see that?” And only one or two have then gotten annoyed that I had a copy of some never-released show that they helped to create; dozens, however, have asked me to send them one, because they didn’t have it themselves.

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    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪That’s the thing: Back in the early 1990s it seemed very unlikely that any Japanese fantasy films would ever be released in the west in their original form, except maybe the 1954 Gojira. Nor did I think I’d ever get the chance to see any of the original Cinerama travelogues from the 1950s unless I trekked several hundred miles to John Harvey’s custom-built Cinerama theater in Dayton, Ohio. Now, of course, virtually everything is available, on its way, or under consideration.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Dave Kehr would kick you out of Movieland for writing that! There was more available on 16mm in 1975 than there is on DVD now! Don’t you know that?

   Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪I do think Kehr may be right about classical Hollywood films on 16mm in the ’70s, but that gap, if true, is certainly narrowing. Also, to rent (not buy) a 16mm print from a distributor was comparatively expensive, anywhere from, say, $40-$200, just to rent a print for a couple of days. ‪I do want to address a related issue, the fact that we may be entering a new age in which classic films from the 1930s may fall into public domain, most famously Disney’s early cartoon shorts, but also everything from King Kong and All Quiet on the Western Front to Warner Bros. gangster movies and Fred Astaire musicals, etc. Some argue this is a good thing, that it will free-up long unreleased titles. What do you think?

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    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪First off, I think you’ll see new legislation that extends corporate copyrights before huge swaths of sound films start going PD. That’s one reason why I’m provisionally pro-piracy in some circumstances: because big corporations (not the artists who work for them) have been writing US copyright law in recent years. But, generally, no, I think we’ve seen that public domain status does no favors for a medium as technically complex as cinema (or television). ‪I don’t pretend to have all the details figured out, but I’ve always said that the only way to pry the gems loose from the studio vaults is to create some kind of tax incentive for making that stuff commercially available. Obviously a non-starter in the current anti-NEA, anti-arts political climate (although who knows, maybe the corporate handout aspect would have some traction).

   Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Exactly. As someone who’s worked with home video departments in various capacities, I’m aware of exactly how expensive it is to store and maintain film elements, to create a new video master, etc. If, say, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs suddenly became available from any and every PD outfit for five bucks, Disney would have zero incentive to ever remaster it again. I’d hate to live in a 2040 world where everyone was watching movies all mastered before 2014. As for private funding, to some extent that’s been happening for years. Hugh Hefner has facilitated the restoration of many films through his projects at the UCLA Film & Television Archive and elsewhere. And as much as people gripe about DVD-R programs, it’s an avenue in which studios have found a way (well, some have, MGM’s is DOA) to make obscure, extremely niche titles that probably sell a couple hundred units cost-effective.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪There are a lot of Universal TV shows trapped in that kind of limbo now: The existing tape masters burned in the vault fire a few years ago, and no licensee is ever going to be able to afford to retransfer from the negatives. So your only shot at seeing BJ and the Bear at this point is old syndicated broadcasts posted on YouTube, basically. No, I’m very schizoid when it comes to the studios: If they’re taking good care of stuff and releasing it commercially, I’m their best friend. If they’re neglecting it, fuck ‘em: I’ll “steal” it.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Of course, with TV there’s the problem of volume. It’s easier for Warner Bros. or Sony to remaster an hour-long Buck Jones Western and market it to hard-core B-Western fans with a $19.98 SRP than it is to take a chance on a 30-year-old TV show with 150 50-minute episodes.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Yes. Although many distributors have found a way to do that on DVD, and in fact I think Time-Life and Shout! may have realized that “complete series” box sets are in some cases more marketable than a slow trickle of the same series. However, that may also explain how you and I are coming from different places here. As a TV guy, it’s always been up to me to acquire what I want to see, either by recording reruns or from collectors. Only in the last 10 years has it been possible to buy more than a handful of old TV shows.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Clearly, also, emerging computer technologies are making previously prohibitive projects, like the reconstruction of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World possible. Twenty years ago the same work might easily have cost ten times what they were able to bring that title in for.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪There, you see the kind of thing this demon technology can spawn? Shudder.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Yes, and also content-starved media like Hulu I’m sure is driving TV (and film) availability like never before. The damnedest TV shows seem to be turning up on Hulu.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Actually, I’m mildly surprised that streaming hasn’t liberated more old shows. Researching my David E. Kelley piece, for instance, I found that only early seasons of The Practice, Picket Fences, and Chicago Hope were on Hulu; presumably, only what had been remastered for potential DVD releases (most of which didn’t materialize). Warner streams a few shows (e.g., Hawaiian Eye) where they can’t clear music rights for whole season disc releases, and some recent shows that didn’t get a disc release (like Rubicon) will show up on Amazon or Netflix. But I’ve yet to see a motherlode that didn’t also appear on DVD.‪ I don’t think, in other words, that streaming is really driving that side of the home video business … which may be a good thing. I don’t know.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪As a resident of Manhattan, I want to ask you about the bootleg scene in NYC and how that’s changed, and also if you ever checked “specialty” dealers in, say, Spanish or Chinese neighborhoods.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪I’ve done a little bit of that, but because ethnic video stores are targeting native speakers, there’s a limit on how much I can infiltrate them. I used to live in a neighborhood with some Indian video stores, but couldn’t make heads or tails of the DVDs in there. You may remember that I came to you for help when I found a cheap, very well-stocked Japanese video store in midtown. ‪In that case, I ended up printing out box art from Amazon Japan and other websites in order to find some of the few Japanese DVDs that had English subtitles. And I did find most of the Juzo Itami and Hiroshi Shimizu films that aren’t available here. But … once I started renting, I realized that most (though not all) of the rental copies had been replaced with bootlegged copies! So, even though Japan is not one of the countries we generally associate with video piracy, there you have it.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪I find places like that fascinating. In Los Angeles I used to frequent Hong Kong and Chinese places recommended by Hong Kong cinephile Jeff Briggs, partly for those movies but also because they sometimes sold LDs or VCDs (and, later, DVDs) of obscure Japanese movies. There was a time, for instance, where the only way to see some of Kurosawa’s early films with English subtitles was via Hong Kong DVDs and VCDs.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Well, at one point I counted, and I have directly ordered DVDs from over 15 different countries!

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪I think generally immigrant neighborhoods of all nationalities tend to do this, less so classic films and more often tapes of ordinary network prime time shows shipped to the States for homesick emigrants.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪That’s interesting. That Japanese store did have a lot of JP (and Korean) TV shows, and many US films & TV shows, which would’ve been cheaper for me to rent there than from a regular video store … if they’d been the real thing! And understand, my objection to those bootlegs was aesthetic as well as moral, because they’d been compressed from dual to single layer in most cases. Fortunately the Itami discs were the originals, for some reason.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ There was a time when in, say, Times Square, you could openly buy bootleg copies of the very latest movies, as in within a day of their theatrical premiere and even before, usually taped by a guy sitting in a theater with a camcorder. (Seinfeld did an episode all about this.) Does that sort of thing still exist today?

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪I was thinking about that — yes, I still see the guys on the sidewalk with the blankets full of $5 pirated DVDs, though not as often. And I’m assuming they’re downloading those off the internet, not infiltrating a theater with a camcorder. Backing up one medium: When 35mm gave way to DCP, it took out the key ingredient in the experience of going to movie theaters for me. Yes, you still have the size and the shared audience experience … but I realized that what mattered most to me was that photochemical quality of celluloid. Without that, I lost the motivation to go to the cinema, and shifted most of that viewing to my home theater….

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Same here….‎ ‪So, onto my last point: What’s the scene going to be like five years from now? Will torrents and downloads, legal and illegal, kill DVD and Blu-ray for good?

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪It’s not quite as dire, but in the same way, I feel like I would at least partially reject streaming video if it were to supplant physical media as the dominant delivery mode for home video. And what follows from that, naturally, is what do I do next? That has caused me to adjust my thinking about piracy somewhat.‪ Not because I feel entitled to free stuff (which is why many people download movies illegally) but because I do feel entitled to keep a movie in perpetuity if I purchase it, and to own a physical copy. Or am I not entitled to that, ethically? What do you think?

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    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪So then, almost bringing this full circle, yours is predominately cautious measure while I see no immediate end to this party, content that new DVD and Blu-ray titles will continue to flow in the foreseeable future, maybe not in exactly the way we’d like it all the time, but with enough new interesting stuff to keep me more than busy for the time being.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪I don’t think I really have a prediction as to how fast things will change, but I think it’s clear that (1) there’s less demand for physical media, and that DVD & Blu-ray are evolving into a boutique market (like vinyl); and that (2) the rental market was a “bubble” that’s almost gone, and the future of consuming movies will mainly be a choice between buying or stealing. So, again, I ask it directly: If the choices are between streaming legally and acquiring a superior copy of it extralegally, what would you choose? In that future, would you censure cinephiles for congregating around private torrent sites?

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪I think I’ve always been pretty clear on this point: As long as physical media exists for me that trumps even legal streaming, let alone poor quality bootlegs. I think where we disagree is about the speed and certainty about it going away for the most part or completely. Should it go away completely then, I suppose, all bets are off. It may come to that eventually but not, I don’t believe, anytime in the next five or six years.

     Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Yes, I think that’s true in terms of the time frame. It’s even possible that I should be more worried about being able to buy another plasma TV when the time comes than about finding discs to watch on it.

 

We at World Cinema Paradise value your opinion. What do you think? Join in on this discussion by leaving your comments below….

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DVD Review: “Admiral Yamamoto” (1968)

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Admiral Yamamoto (Rengo kantai shirei chokan – Yamamoto Isoroku, or “Combined Fleet Admiral – Isoroku Yamamoto,” 1968) is one of a long line of war epics produced by Japan’s Toho Studios featuring elaborate miniature special effects by Eiji Tsuburaya, the man behind Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra, et. al. This one, directed by Seiji Maruyama, is a bit different, functioning partially as a biopic of one of the few Japanese “heroes” of the Pacific War, a man whose reputation, at least among the Japanese, remains unimpeachable. Yamamoto, played in the film by the great Toshiro Mifune, vehemently opposed Japan waging war against the United States and the other Allies, recognizing America’s vastly superior industrial might against a Japan notably lacking in natural resources. Nonetheless, he was one of the architects behind the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor and Japan’s early victories in late 1941 and early ’42.

Postwar Japanese movies about World War II generally fall into one of four categories. A tiny number, mostly confined to a handful of movies produced by Shintoho in the late 1950s and into 1960, whitewash Japan’s militarists and their culpability. Others, such as Masaki Kobayashi’s The Human Condition (1959-61) trilogy, uncompromisingly depict the war as it truly was, a great tragedy during which Japan inflicted unimaginable harm on both foreign peoples and its own citizenry. A third type, exemplified by Kihachi Okamoto’s Desperado Outpost (1959) and The Human Bullet (1968), are grimly comical and cynical.

Toho specialized in the fourth type, large-scale epics full of romanticized action and spectacle similar to concurrent American-made war movies like The Longest Day (1962) and Battle of the Bulge (1965). However, these films temper iconography recognizable to western viewers with equal sobering doses of bitter reality, through protagonists recognizing the great folly that ultimately leaves Japan in ruins and a generation of men wiped out for nothing.

That particular sub-genre peaked with Shue Matsubayashi’s marvelous Storm Over the Pacific (also known as I Bombed Pearl Harbor, 1960), the biggest of these big-scale productions, and which co-starred Mifune. In that film he played a real-life admiral named Tamon Yamaguchi, though Mifune’s characterization was virtually indistinguishable from his later portrayal of Isoroku Yamamoto, a role he’d go on to play twice more (in Toho’s The Militarists, 1970, and the American film Midway, 1976). Matsubayashi had himself been an officer in the Japanese Imperial Navy, and brought to Storm Over the Pacific and his other war movies a verisimilitude lacking in almost all other films of this type. He’d been there, even aboard a ship sunk by Allied fighter planes. He saw these films as sad memorials to his fallen comrades.

By 1968, when Admiral Yamamoto was made, domestic box-office figures were plummeting fast industry-wide, mainly due to the growing popularity of television, in virtually every household since tuning in for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Undoubtedly Admiral Yamamoto was prompted partly by Akira Kurosawa’s widely publicized deal to co-direct the 20th Century-Fox financed Tora! Tora! Tora!, a long-in-gestation multi-million-dollar epic from which Kurosawa was notoriously fired shortly after filming began, and which, unfortunately for Kurosawa, brought the controversial production even more press.

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Toho’s decision to make Admiral Yamamoto amidst all this couldn’t have pleased Kurosawa, especially with longtime muse Mifune in the title role, to say nothing of the myriad other actors (Yoshio Tsuchiya, Masayuki Mori), writers (Shinobu Hashimoto) and others (composer Masaru Sato) with which Kurosawa was so closely associated.

Dramatically, Admiral Yamamoto is a mixed bag. It’s so damn reverential Mifune has little opportunity to be anything more than a God-like pillar of stoic and savant-like wisdom, but there are many nice moments throughout. The picture opens well, in 1939 Japan where Yamamoto, back in his hometown of Nagaoka, enjoys a leisurely boat ride along the local river at the height of cherry blossom season. He challenges the skilled boatman (Ryutaro Tatsumi) punting him downriver to bring him to shore while Yamamoto stands on his head. This attracts a lot of attention and the two men eventually end up in the drink, much to Yamamoto’s delight. This is neatly bookended late in the film when Yamamoto encounters the boatman’s son on the battlefield.

The movie integrates facets of the historical Yamamoto’s personality well: his love of gambling, his passion for (Japanese) calligraphy, in addition to his various successful and (mostly) unsuccessful naval strategies. What it does not show or ever even vaguely allude to is any aspect of Yamamoto’s private life. His wife and four children are never mentioned once, nor the Geisha mistress he reportedly kept (according to the wife). Quite possibly this was a deliberate decision for legal or other reasons (the film, after all, was made barely 25 years after Yamamoto’s death) but their absence hinders Mifune’s and the screenwriters’ efforts to humanize the character.

In other respects the movie soft-pedals Yamamoto’s personal contributions to Japan’s militarism. In one fascinating scene, it is Staff Officer Kuroshima (Yoshio Tsuchiya), one of Yamamoto’s adjuncts, who delivers and makes the case for Yamamoto’s proposal to attack Pearl Harbor rather than the admiral himself. This might be historically accurate, but it also seems a deliberate attempt to downplay Yamamoto’s culpability for what was a tremendously successful sneak attack with disastrous long-term consequences for Japan.

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As with virtually all other Toho war movies of this type, a significant amount of screen time is allotted to a younger supporting character, always played by a rising Toho star. In Storm Over the Pacific the role of the idealistic young pilot was played by Yosuke Natsuki; in Matsubayashi’s Wings Over the Pacific (also known as Attack Squadron!, 1963), also starring Mifune, it was Yuzo Kayama; and here it’s fresh face Toshio Kurosawa as 1st Lt. Kimura, a poor farm boy Yamamoto helped get into the Naval Academy. Here, with the focus squarely on Yamamoto, more than ever this subordinate character seems to exist solely because there had always been one like it in Toho’s past successes, and that the studio was loathe to tamper with a proven formula.

And, as in past Toho war films, virtually every male actor under contract to the studio, along with a few big independent names, appear in Admiral Yamamoto: Daisuke Kato, Yoshio Inaba, Seiji Miyaguchi (that’s three of Mifune’s Seven Samurai co-stars), Yuzo Kayama, Makoto Sato, Masayuki Mori, and Susumu Fujita, as well as talent familiar to kaiju eiga fans, including Akihiko Hirata, Akira Kubo, Kenji Sahara, and Yoshio Tsuchiya. Yoko Tsukasa and beautiful Wakako Sakai turn up in token female roles, and Tatsuya Nakadai narrates.

Declining attendance figures seems to have impacted the film’s budget. This may be the first Toho special effects feature to utilize extensive stock footage from earlier successes. Toho was already doing this to a lesser extent in its giant monster movies, but never to this extent. For Admiral Yamamoto, nearly all of the attack on Pearl Harbor and much of the Battle of Midway are special effects lifted from Storm Over the Pacific while footage from Wings Over the Pacific turns up elsewhere.

However, Eiji Tsuburaya and his Toho Special Effects Group team still came up with several impressive effects sequences. The first is involves an effort to drop barrels containing food, presumably rice, off the coast of Guadalcanal, hoping it will reach the starving Japanese soldiers marooned there. As the stranded men desperately swim toward the dropped barrels, enemy fighters arrive and begin strafing and bombing the light cruiser transporting the food, eventually sinking it while the doomed men frantically try to swim back to shore and the relative safety of the jungle. The effects shots are a complex mix of miniatures and well-executed mattes and represent some of the department’s best-ever work in a Toho war movie.

(Spoilers) For the film’s climax, Tsuburaya’s team recreated the downing of the bomber carrying Yamamoto over Bougainville. The sequence matches historical records of Yamamoto’s death pretty closely, and yet the miniature effects are almost poetic in the way they are photographed. Indeed, they’re more stylized and cinematic than all but a few of the live-action scenes.

Admiral Yamamoto 2

Admiral Yamamoto arrives on DVD from an unexpected source: Spain’s Tema label, which also released Storm Over the Pacific, Wings Over the Pacific and a few others simultaneously. The DVD is a real deal, just 8,25 Euros (USD $11.23) versus the usual $50-$65 Toho Video typically charges for its own domestic DVDs, and those are without English subtitles. Here, Admiral Yamamoto is presented in 2.0 Dolby Digital mono in both Japanese and Castilian Spanish, supported by Castilian Spanish and English subtitles. The English subtitles aren’t great, with their share of typos (e.g., “Scared War Unit” instead of “Sacred War Unit.” “Ensing Kimura” instead of “Ensign Kimura”) and a few lines of dialogue here and there aren’t subtitled at all, but overall it’s a decent job.

The region 2/PAL video transfer, 16:9 enhanced and thus preserving the original CinemaScope aspect ratio of 2.35:1, is surprisingly good. Extras include a photo gallery and original trailer.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Admiral Yamamoto rates:

Movie: Very Good

Video: Very Good

Sound: Good

Supplements: Photo gallery, trailer.

Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English and Spanish

Tema Distribuuciones

1968 / Color / 2.35:1 CinemaScope / 130 min. / Street Date April 9, 2013 / Euro 8,25

Starring Toshiro Mifune, Yuzo Kayama, Yoko Tsukasa, Toshio Kurosawa, Makoto Sato, Daisuke Kato, Masayuki Mori, Wakako Sakai, Koshiro Matsumoto..

Cinematography Kazuo Yamada

Art Director Takeo Kita

Music Masaru Sato

Written by Shinobu Hashimoto, Seiji Maruyama, and Katsuya Susaki

Produced by Tomoyuki Tanaka

Special Effects Director Eiji Tsuburaya

Directed by Seiji Maruyama

 

State of Siege

“Best Print Available” Days at the AFI National Film Theater

People noticed the car parts first.  Body parts from a ’73 Chevy Impala, painted a flat blue, seemed to float against the left-side wall of the American Film Institute National Film Theater at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.  The answer? – acoustics, the walls being sound-eating, unpainted cinder block.

But then the whole theater was an afterthought. The Kennedy Center had already been open for a year, and it was only after that opening that someone actually noticed no provision had been made for film in what was after all, a Center for the Performing Arts.  The nether regions of the backstage of the Eisenhower, the ‘legitimate’ stage at the KC complex, were cut off laterally and the AFI Theater opened on April 3, 1973 with D.W.Griffith’s1919 silent  Broken Blossoms – and under a cloud of controversy over censorship.

Costa-Gavras’ State of Siege (État de Siège, 1972) had been pulled from the opening week because it was about political assassination a decade after Kennedy’s own assassination – gee, why didn’t anybody think of that in the first place? – and a number of filmmakers pulled their films in protest.

State of Siege

And so nobody seemed to notice the then-cutting edge – and probably unique to this day – design of the venue in the first place. The seats and projection booth rested on a raised island within the rectangular space, with a small stage before the screen on its own island, and a powerful theater organ in between.  The 224 seats, rather sharply raked via steps from the first four rows back, were stadium seating before the term had been invented, rising from about 4-5 feet above the floor at the front to between 20 to 30 feet at the back, and conformed to the rectangle shape of the space.  Entry was via very abrupt stairs under a balcony at the back and very short ones at the corner of the front. Thus, a very short throw (only 68 feet from screen to projector), no fan shape, no bad seats, no bad sight lines (hardened buffs avoided rows 2-4 because, unraked, there could be head problems with subtitles.)

Not that I was noticing these fine points during my first viewing there when I was part of an SRO opening week crowd for Abel Gance’s 1927 Napoleon – one of the greatest viewing experiences of my life.  Just the film itself would be enough, of course, but with three projectors in the booth, the transition to Cinemascope was both breathtaking and perfectly smooth (not always the case subsequently) with the curtains parting from the original academy shape to the triple screen right on cue.  And throughout the finale, the organ thundered variations on ‘La Marseillaise’, with the base notes of the simulated small arms and cannon fire vibrating up through the island to the soles of your feet.

Where do you go from there?  Easy, I lived there, and so did a lot of other people, in a time before cassettes; DVDs; screenings at the National Gallery or the Freer; a Late, Late Show or a Late, Late Show Part II (DC closed down early in those days).  Such now-chestnuts as Singin’ in the Rain would attract turn away crowds, and after a while, you started to recognize people.  The beginning of ‘The Gang’ began when a tall, slender, balding man with whom I contended for Row 5, Seat 7 nearly every night (late comer got Seat 8) introduced himself, adding, to this then-unemployed film bum’s stupefaction, that he was employed … in a serious job (as legislative staffer for Senator William Proxmire he came up with the name for the ‘Golden Fleece Awards’) … happily married … and had kids!  (I’m still not sure how he did it.)  After a while a 10- to 12-member “ Fifth Row Society” emerged, and when you arrived at “the Clubhouse” you routinely asked the ticket-taker “Who’s here tonight?” A disparate group, it ranged from the Congressional staffer, to a still-in-uniform undergrad, to a construction worker, to a phone sales rep, to a nuclear site troubleshooter, to a Peruvian cultural attaché, to several just unemployed. For the first couple of years screenings were always at 6:30 and 9:00, and with a short first film there was plenty of time in between for vehement discussion — and afterwards as well. One night the recapping went on so long we were kicked out of the KC and ended up in the lobby of the Howard Johnson’s opposite the Watergate.

Not that everything was perfect. These were the bad old days of the “best print available,” and with the Kennedy Center being the most prestigious venue in town and so attracting the most senior – and thus oldest and crustiest projectionists – shouts of “Focus!” were not unusual. On one occasion, focus maintenance was so dreadful for Kozintsev and Trauberg’s The New Babylon (Novyy Vavilon, 1929) that I, as Regular Patron, stalked off to the booth and exchanged views with the projectionist, so vehemently apparent that distraught ushers thought I was going to punch out the 70-year-old (I thought I was holding back.) Later a midnight screening of Michael Reeves’ 1968 Witchfinder General with Vincent Price proceeded with the reels in this order: 1, 4, 3, 2, 5 – making for a unique, Memento-like viewing experience. The projectionist manfully apologized sheepishly as we shuffled out.

In such an intimate venue, and with everyone knowing each other, there was the occasional audience participation. As the bathos mounted in John Cromwell’s 1939 Made for Each Other, and James Stewart paused as he ran in with the child-saving serum, the cry rang out, “It’s dead!”  During a house-lights-up equipment breakdown at the two-hour mark of Ivan Perestiani’s interminable Three Lives (Sami sitsotskhle, 1924), somebody suggested “Let’s make a break for it.” And as Fred C. Brannon’s immortal 12-part 1952 serial Zombies of the Stratosphere (Leonard Nimoy billed ninth) unreeled with credits for each episode still intact, I amused myself by trying to memorize the entire cast list, making it by the finale as the sparse crowd egged me on.

And then there was the nitrate fire. It was 1979 and things were just getting a little bit more complicated in the final reel or two of Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai (1947) when the screen suddenly went dark. I immediately looked over my shoulder and saw flames shooting up behind the windows to the booth. Presumably right after that the chords holding up the metal shutters for the windows incinerated and they closed down but I wasn’t still looking. Since the fumes are toxic, the ushers rolled back the immense, floor-to-ceiling side doors (originally used for moving in scenery) and rushed us out to the patio. As we milled about, waiting to see what would happen next, a young couple approached my pal and me, who had obviously seen the film before (we had come to see the nitrate print), and asked us to tell them how the film ended. Summarize the last act of Lady from Shanghai!? Well, we started to disagree right away and as the argument got noisy, the couple started to nervously edge away from two obvious nut jobs, although we did manage to gasp out – spoiler alert! – “they finally shoot it out in the fun house.”  A month later the AFI brought back a safety print and my buddy and I realized we both had been wrong.

Well, it’s always easier to remember the misadventures. Over the years the question wasn’t whether I had seen a thousand films in the AFI; it was whether I had see two thousand. How many memorable and unique viewing experiences; but then, when after twenty years of patronage I was asked to become the programmer of the theater (the guy who picks and schedules all the films, writes the notes for the printed calendars, hosts all the guests, and can hurtle into the booth and order the sound level for The Guns of Navarone to be maxed – yes, it’s a dream job) I learned two things about the theater for the first time.

For years I had realized it was the best venue in town for viewing widescreen. Now I could try and figure out why. Now I could stand on the stage and tell the projectionist to pull the masking to ‘scope’ and as I looked back at the house I realized I was looking at … the side aisles.  The screen was wider than the seats! All the seats, since the AFI was strictly rectangular. I realized I couldn’t think of another theater like that – since 99% of all theaters are fan-shaped, no matter how big the screen is, it’s never wider than the audience.  And what’s important is not the absolute size of the screen; it’s the size in relation to the audience. Of course, sitting at the back of the house – which because of the steep rake was still not that far from the screen – instead of my fifth row, the screen would appear smaller, but it would still have that subtle psychological effect. Subtle, because I had never realized it in twenty years of viewing. I have no clue as to whose idea it was but I’ve never seen it done anywhere else.

And now, as the on-stage host, the one who has to get on stage as the credits are ending and before the lights go up and keep the audience from leaving so he can say, “And now here’s the director/star/writer/etc. of tonight’s film,” I realized that the theater was perfectly designed for that as well. In other venues the host and guest may have to enter: down the aisles in full view of the audience; from the back of the stage where you can’t see the film ending on the screen; or from wings which should never be in a film theater anyway. But at the AFI, where, since the island was not flush with the walls there was a wood-topped wall on the outside of the side aisles that was about head-high at the lower end, guest and host could lurk two steps from the stage completely out of the audience’s sight lines and be on stage in time to catch viewers before they could reach for their coats. Well that’s getting in to host anecdotes and not about the theater itself.

That the Kennedy Center, with its high arts tone, always regarded the film theater as a stepchild/orphan and clearly implied that they’d love it to be anywhere else is probably not surprising. (In 2001, the then-incoming head of the KC Michael Kaiser stated in print, “I simply do not enjoy movies.”)  But the American Film Institute generally regarded it that way too, certainly after its headquarters moved from Washington to Los Angeles. But then there had always been an anomaly: as a visiting Uruguayan director said to me, “You mean this is the only AFI theater? I thought there were lots of little ones all across the country.” Sounds like that would have been a good idea.

Of course, as we learned, there are things worse than being ignored and neglected. In March 1998, the director of the AFI, Jean Firstenberg, while still in negotiations with Montgomery County, Maryland to restore/reopen the Silver Theater in suburban Silver Spring, announced the closing of the theater, stating, “With video, pay per view, and satellite technologies, there’s just not a need to show repertory on a regular basis.”  In the wake of the resulting furor, the theater stayed open, but on a part-time basis, sharing with the Kennedy Center, and, with the stage extended, with a local theater group, sometimes out for a month, other times sneaking in three weeks of screening out of four.

And yet, despite the irregular programming, the last few years showed good-to-great box office, always with the yearly Latin American and European Union festivals; and in the last year a gigantic smash hit with a Kurosawa/Mifune festival, and an almost completely sold-out extended run of Russian Ark, probably the all-time house record.

Russian Ark

But with the long-delayed opening of the triplex Silver Theater in 2003, the handwriting was on the wall; all the emphasis, all the publicity, etc., shifted to the new kid. And when the Kennedy Center made its move the next year the AFI said, Oh, Ok, it’s their building – they just didn’t care.

The end came without announcement and without publicity on Halloween night in 2004. The last show was just a regular screening in that year’s European Union Film Showcase, Pupi Avati’s 2004 Christmas Rematch (La rivincita di Natale), and the audience only found out it was the finale when I announced it at the start of the show. I brought bottles of champagne myself – well, it was on sale – and our usher, Jackie, and two distinguished local film programming colleagues helped me pass it out.

I still think it was the best viewing venue for film I’ve seen – and I thought that before I was employed there.

And now it’s a children’s theater but this movie seat cover absolutely does the difference when taking about comfort.

 

Michael Jeck is adjunct professor of film history at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and writer of the text for the quarterly programs of Film Forum 2, New York since 1988. And he has been: an independent film distributor; programmer of the American Film Institute Theater; on-air host of international movies at Mhz-TV; and audio commentator on the DVDs and Blu-rays of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Throne of Blood.

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