Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Bicycle Thief, Goyokin, and Jiro Dreams of Sushi

The Bicycle Thief, by Vittorio de Sica, 1948

Vittorio de Sica's The Bicycle Thief (or Bicycle Thieves, depending on who you ask) is one of the best, most important, and most moving films ever made. That's not up for debate, it's earned that. Having seen the film, I can now acknowledge all those things, but I don't know, it was just so sad.

The Bicycle Thief is the relentlessly soul-crushing story of Antonio, an impoverished man who gets a job opportunity that requires he has a bike. He and his wife trade all their sheets to be able to get one, and even then, just barely. Antonio and his family treat the bike as their most precious possession. His son polishes it and has memorized every detail, down to a small dent. When Antonio goes to work for his first day, he carries his bike into the office, refusing to put it down. Then, on the job, which is riding around the city and gluing posters to walls, a man takes off with his bike.

Antonio goes to the police, who just trivialize the theft, as though it's not important. To Antonio, of course, it's the most important thing in the world. He, his son, and some friends go on a desperate search, combing the city for the bicycle. There are thousands of bicycles, and so on. The movie is just really damn sad. There are uplifting moments, and there's actually a lovely message of empathy and understanding to the whole thing. Though Antonio's desperation is blinding him to it, we can see that everybody is struggling, not just him. This is what drives people to steal bicycles.

I'm not NOT recommending the movie, it really is great, but just warning you, grab your hankies. No wait, don't use hankies, those are so gross, use a tissue. And watch something happy or fun afterwards, like cat videos or a cool-as-hell samurai movie or something.

Goyokin, by Hideo Gosha, 1969

I feel like Hideo Gosha was the last great director of the Japanese New Wave of the 50's and 60's. I don't know if this is a fact, because my knowledge is incomplete, but this is how it seems to me. While most of the other important directors of the time began making films in the 30's and 40's and were already well into their careers when they produced their seminal works, Gosha made his first film in 1964. Japanese cinema becomes a whole different beast in the 1970's, and I feel like Gosha kind of bridges the gap between the two styles.

In Goyokin, the great Tatsuya Nakadai (The Sword of Doom, High and Low, Kagemusha, among many others) stars as Magobei Wakizaka, an honorable samurai who looks on in shame as his clansmen slaughter an entire village to steal a shipment of gold. He can't go on as a samurai anymore and quits, but also promises his master and best friend, Rokugo (Tetsuro Tanba of You Only Live Twice and The Twilight Samurai, also among many others), that he won't report this transgression as long as it doesn't happen again.

Three years later, Magobei, living a peaceful life, is about to give up his sword for good when assassins sent to kill him tip him off that Rokugo is planning on butchering another village. Magobei decides to stop it from happening. Along the way, he stumbles across the girl who was the sole survivor of the massacre three years ago, and wins over a mercenary sent to kill him.

This movie is awesome. It's fun, with lots of action and adventure. Tatsuya Nakadai is totally badass as Magobei Wakizaka. There's a great scene where he is tied up and dropped into a deep pit of snow and left to die. The exact details of his escape are left to the imagination, but we're given enough of a starting point to marvel at how cool this guy is. Rokugo's plan to run a shipment of gold into the sea is pretty diabolical, and Wakizaka's plan to thwart this plan is equally clever. And of course, we get a deadly showdown between the two at the climax.

I've seen five or six of Hideo Gosha's films now, and dug them all. Though the film that follows this, Hitokiri, is a lot darker, the rest of the ones I've seen, such as Secret of the Urn have all had this kind of spirit of adventure. Goyokin is tons of fun.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi
, by David Gelb, 2011

We're going to stay in Japan for our next review, though this is a very different kind of movie than Goyokin. Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a documentary about Jiro Ono, an 85 year old man who owns a tiny sushi shop that purportedly makes the best sushi in the world. Jiro has spent close to his entire life making sushi, obsessing over every detail, honing his techniques, and looking for ways to improve it. He's like Van Gogh painting the same scene over and over again, trying to find the perfect colors to represent it. Or Stanley Kubrick obsessively looking through thousands of pictures of door frames, trying to find the exact perfect one to include in his film.

We also meet Jiro's two sons; the eldest is in his 50's and is still being primed to take over Jiro's restaurant someday. He has to live with the anxiety that even if his sushi is every bit as good as his fathers, people will somehow perceive it as lesser and thus put his business under. The youngest son has been encouraged to open his own sushi restaurant that is an identical mirror image of Jiro's place. Jiro was not the best father to his sons. He was too busy thinking of sushi, but I guess he's there for them now, in his way.

The documentary is fascinating, though it can be as repetitive and single-minded as its subject. Could you imagine living your life with your brain centered on all aspects of sushi and nothing else? Of course, he's not making the sushi alone. Along with his sons, he has several apprentices. They are given years and years of rigorous training. In fact, they said it takes something like ten years before they're even allowed to handle the eggs.

What's weird is, I'm not an adventurous eater in the least bit. I've never even had sushi, but I still could totally appreciate this movie and Jiro's work. I assume this sushi is the most delicious raw fish one could ever eat, if one were into such things as raw fish. It would be like if somebody in America would dedicate their entire life to cultivating the most perfect french fry in the world... Oh man, now I'm drooling. I've gotta go.

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