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Throne of Blood
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Woman In The Dunes
It can't be easy programming a five-screen cinematheque. You have to juggle the expectations of your audience without insulting them, find films that people actually want to see and be able to show those films at accessible times and in venues of the appropriate size.
And sometimes you just want to bust out your best stuff, as TIFF Bell Lightbox is doing with its ongoing Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva series; the pairing of those actors in Amour enables the Lightbox to revisit half a century of European cinema.
Japanese cinema gets its own massive retrospective this winter as part of the Lightbox's participation in Toronto's Spotlight Japan festival. It kicked off last weekend with a salute to the Nikkatsu studio, and expands in March with a wide selection of 80s Japanese cinema. And then there's Japanese Divas: The Great Actresses Of Japanese Cinema, which starts today, runs through the end of March and screens pretty much everything those other series don't cover.
Japanese Divas features 30 films, most of them from the golden age of Japanese cinema - when filmmakers like Kenji Mizoguchi, Mikio Naruse, Kon Ichikawa and Akira Kurosawa were at the peak of their powers, producing powerful, unprecedented works that challenged audiences with new stories and new ways of telling them. (Most of these films have recently undergone high-definition restorations for various home video releases, and TIFF's programmers will doubtless have access to those excellent new digital masters.)
The retrospective is ostensibly curated to focus on six performers - Setsuko Hara (Repast), Machiko Kyo (Rashomon), Hideko Takamine (When A Woman Ascends The Stairs), Kinuyo Tanaka (The Life Of Oharu), Ayako Wakao (A Wife Confesses) and Isuzu Yamada (Throne Of Blood) - whose bodies of work constitute an overview of Japanese cinema. (Yamada alone worked consistently from the 1930s to the 80s; she died last year, aged 95.) But there are exceptions: Keiko Kishi is also included so TIFF has an excuse to screen Ichikawa's female-oriented dramas Ten Dark Women and The Makioka Sisters, and Kyoko Kishida plays the title character of Hiroshi Teshigahara's Woman In The Dunes.
The "diva" classification is specious at best, bringing to mind a larger-than-life quality of performance that Japanese cinema doesn't always embrace. This is a series that includes six films by Yasujiro Ozu, perhaps the most subtle and undemonstrative filmmaker in the history of the medium, and Haruko Sugimura, a character actor who worked frequently with Ozu, isn't a diva by any viable interpretation of the term.
Plus... Kurosawa? He was the John Ford of Japan, regularly favouring masculine narratives and hardly ever making time for textured female characters. But he did launch Kyo's career by casting her as the alleged assault victim in Rashomon, and Throne Of Blood is a showcase for Yamada's kabuki-inflected Lady Macbeth.
But here's the thing: as questionable as the organizing principle may be, this is a terrific lineup of films. Mizoguchi's sumptuous ghost story Ugetsu, which stars Kyo as a spirit temptress (and which kicks off the series tonight, Thursday, January 24, at 6:15 pm), cannot be screened in a movie theatre often enough for my liking.
Ditto for Ichikawa's epic family drama The Makioka Sisters (Sunday, January 27, 7:30 pm); I've owned that film on laserdisc, DVD and Blu-ray over the years, and I'll still take any opportunity to catch it on the big screen. If the purpose of this series is to get people to come out and see the classics of Japanese cinema - which starred some extremely talented women - then it's all worthwhile. The Ozu selections alone - Dragnet Girl, Tokyo Story, Late Spring, Early Summer, Equinox Flower, Late Autumn - are essential viewing, even if they are antithetical to the whole diva thing.
There's great stuff here. I guess the end justifies the means.