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Review: A Kazuo Miyagawa Triple Feature

Returned to Japan Society (which has entered the second week of its retrospective celebrating the work of cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa) for that triple feature I mentioned in my review of A Certain Killer. In order to save time—I have to wake up extremely early tomorrow—I’ll try to keep my thoughts relatively brief:

  • Tokyo Olympiad: From the very first shot (a white-hot sun blazes against a red sky, creating a facsimile of the Japanese flag), I knew this movie was going to be a visual feast. This captivating sports documentary—which captures all the drama of the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics—generally avoids constructing a traditional narrative, instead weaving an impressionistic tapestry around the theme of human endurance. We learn a bit about the athletes and which countries take home the gold, but director Kon Ichikawa is more interested in conveying what it must feel like to be a competitor. The slow motion photography is especially effective in this regard, magnifying those suspenseful moments in which muscles tense and faces contort into masks of concentration.

  • The Devil’s Temple: You simply cannot go wrong with a samurai flick directed by Zatoichi veteran Kenji Misumi. In this Buddhist parable, a ronin-turned-bandit (played by a positively feral Shintaro Katsu) is torn between the devoted wife he abandoned and his wicked-yet-bewitching new lover. Miyagawa’s camera beautifully externalizes this conflict, juxtaposing the verdant scenery of the mountainous setting with the dreary, claustrophobic interior of the eponymous derelict temple.

  • The Spider Tattoo: Another dark and atmospheric jidaigeki, this time helmed by Yasuzo Masumura (who also penned A Certain Killer). Aside from a handful of wild third act twists, this adultery/forbidden romance melodrama rarely departs from the formula glimpsed in such titles as Masahiro Shinoda’s Gonza the Spearman and Tadashi Imai’s The Night Drum—but, as always, Miyagawa elevates the material. His use of vivid colors to distinguish the protagonist from her comparatively drab surroundings—from her vibrant clothing to the crimson blood that frequently paints her pale flesh—is particularly brilliant, reflecting her desire to liberate herself from the society that has so cruelly oppressed her.

This little marathon has gotten me so high on Miyagawa’s filmography that I’m seriously considering going back to Japan Society next Saturday for another helping. I’m currently leaning towards Odd Obsession, though Ballad of Orin is also tempting. Stay tuned…

[Originally written April 21, 2018.]

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