Saturday, June 12, 2010

VIZ Cinema

Last Friday, Akira Kurosawa's 1948 film Drunken Angel played in two different Frisco Bay film venues, on opposite sides of the Bay Bridge. I'd never seen it, but its importance to the story of Kurosawa's career as a film director made me certain I wanted to finally change that. Well known as the first film Kurosawa made with actor Toshiro Mifune, it was also the first film he made with composer Fumio Hayasaka, who would provide the music for all of his films other than the Quiet Duel (which was scored by Akira Ifukube, later of Godzilla fame) until his death in the middle of his collaboration on 1955's I Live In Fear. Hayasaka's friendship with American journalist Donald Ritchie provided the latter with an opportunity to visit the Drunken Angel set during its filming; Ritchie would soon become the foremost English-language critical authority on Kurosawa, a position he holds to this day. I also had heard it was a strong film; Ritchie has quoted the director himself as saying, "In this picture I was finally myself. It was my picture. I was doing it and no one else."

In Berkeley, Friday's screening of Drunken Angel was, along with a showing of the director's international breakthrough Rashomon, the kick-off to a complete Akira Kurosawa retrospective at the venerable Pacific Film Archive, organized for the occasion of his centennial and lasting until the end of August. I plan to take in many of the films in the PFA series over the next few months. But on this night I decided to stay on this side of the bridge, in Frisco's Japantown, where a relatively new cinema called VIZ picked Drunken Angel to lead off a twelve-film tribute to three great Japanese directors: Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi.

The VIZ Cinema, located at 1746 Post Street, (by the former site of Japantown Bowl) is an ideal screening space. One hundred and forty-three comfortable, raked seats fill a medium-sized theatre equipped to show 35mm and digital formats. Audiences seem to be of the respectful sort; this may be helped by the fact that like the Roxie, the venue is equipped with cell-phone blocking equipment capability. Delicious Japanese snacks are available from the helpful staff at the concession stand. Ticket prices are slightly higher than at the PFA (especially for PFA members) but it's possible to buy passes for multiple films at somewhat discounted prices. The restrooms even have heated toilet seats (!) which seemed odd to me, but might be useful information for someone out there to know.

Since opening last fall, VIZ Cinema has mostly been screening the latest Japanese pop cinema, of the sort associated with the manga-publisher-turned-DVD-label VIZ Pictures. I caught Shinji Aoyama's Sad Vacation there late last year, and kicked myself for missing a chance to see my thus-far favorite VIZ release, Linda Linda Linda when it played there in 35mm for a week or so. But after playing host to the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival this past March, the theatre has begun branching out into other sources of film programs. Last month they screened four Godzilla films from the early 1970s, but this month's Kurosawa/Ozu/Mizoguchi set is to the best of my knowledge the theatre's first go at playing black-and-white films from an even earlier era. One of the main reasons I elected to see Drunken Angel at VIZ instead of the ever-reliable PFA was to evaluate its presentation of older film prints using now-considered-outdated technical specifications.

I must admit I was a bit disappointed. Drunken Angel, like just about every talking picture made before 1953, was made to be shown in the 1.37:1 aspect ratio- that is, framed in approximately the same shape as all televisions were made into the 1990s, when widescreen TVs began to appear. However, VIZ projected the print at something closer to 1.6:1 or 1.7:1- noticeably wider formats closer to what we've grown used to both in theatrical presentations and for most home video viewing (many people prefer their widescreen televisions to be filled with image even when watching films from the 1930s and 40s, so they stretch or zoom to make the image fit when watching 1.37:1 a.k.a. "Academy Aperture" films). The result was that, for the first few moments of the film, subtitles at the bottom of the screen were being cropped out of the screen. The projectionist made an adjustment that moved the top part out of view instead, but this only shifted the distortions of Kurosawa's image compositions, most noticeably when character heads at the top of the frame went missing.

Reports from others confirmed that all three of the VIZ showings of Drunken Angel over the weekend suffered from these aspect ratio distortions. The projectionist indicated that a certain kind of projector lens was needed -- one that was not available on the VIZ premises. I decided to watch Drunken Angel again on DVD, both to soak up the correct image framing and to hear Donald Ritchie's commentary track, which was as enlightening about his own pathway into Kurosawa and Japanese cinema as it was about the film itself. On Wednesday, i found time to return to VIZ myself, to watch a widescreen film I knew would be unaffected by any lens issues: the Bad Sleep Well from 1960. It looked great (though I contend it's one of Kurosawa's weaker films, at least of its period -- too heavy on exposition and too tonally mismatched in its approach to integrating gravely serious social commentary with comic relief). I decided to stick around to watch the 1949 film (dare I say noir?) Stray Dog, which I'd seen years before at the Castro Theatre but had somehow forgotten most of the detail from.

Hallelujah. The required lens was apparently now in hand, as the 35mm print of Stray Dog was perfectly projected in its "Academy Aperture" glory. And after seeing it again, I was ready to call it one of Kurosawa's greatest achievements: a near-perfect synthesis of suspense, complex characterization, visual storytelling, and one of Fumio Hayasaka's best scores. I'd also rewatched Kurosawa's vastly-budgeted, near-universally-acclaimed film from the other end of his career (1985), Ran the night before, and though it was certainly a major, and perhaps even a more personal, achievement for the director, there's no question that I enjoyed the scrappy Stray Dog more thoroughly, and had even been more astonished at its technical prowess and thematic daring.

The upshot of this week's experiences with Kurosawa is that, though I still want to frequent the PFA's centennial tribute, I'm equally excited to be able to recommend the VIZ Cinema's eight screenings of Ozu and Mizoguchi films, including each director's most-widely canonized masterpiece, Tokyo Story and Ugetsu Monogatari, respectively. All eight films were made to be seen in the 1.37:1 aspect ratio, that I now feel confident the venue will honor. I'm so glad they responded to this issue in time for me to fully enjoy the rest of the month's films there.

Because the perhaps sole-remaining deficiency of the VIZ Cinema is its clumsy-to-navigate website, this week's schedule of Ozu films follows:
Saturday, June 12, 4:30 PM : Tokyo Story (1953) / 7:30 PM : Early Spring (1951)
Sunday, June 13, 12:15 PM : Early Spring (1951) / 3:15 PM : Record of a Tenement Gentleman (1947) / 5:00 PM : The Only Son (1936) / 7:00 PM : Tokyo Story (1953)
Monday, June 14, 5:00 PM : The Only Son (1936) / 7:00 PM : Tokyo Story (1953)
Tuesday, June 15, 5:15 PM : Record of a Tenement Gentleman (1947) / 7:00 : Early Spring (1951)
Wednesday, June 16, 5:00 PM : The Only Son (1936) / 7:00 : Early Spring (1951)
Thursday, June 17, 5:15 PM : Record of a Tenement Gentleman (1947) / 7:00 PM : Tokyo Story (1953)

And the Mizoguchi schedule:
Saturday, June 19, 2:00 PM : Sisters of the Gion (1936) / 3:40 PM : Ugetsu Monogatari, 1953) / 5:40 : Street of Shame (1956) / 7:30 : Utamaro and His Five Women (1946)
Sunday, June 20, 12:30 PM : Utamaro and His Five Women (1946) / 3:00 PM : Street of Shame (1956) / 5:00 PM : Ugetsu Monogatari, 1953) / 7:00 PM : Sisters of the Gion (1936)
Monday, June 21, 5:45 PM : Sisters of the Gion (1936) / 7:30 PM : Ugetsu Monogatari, 1953)
Tuesday, June 22, 5:00 PM : Ugetsu Monogatari, 1953) / 7:00 PM : Street of Shame (1956)
Wednesday, June 23, 5:00 PM : Street of Shame (1956) / 7:00 PM : Utamaro and His Five Women (1946)
Thursday, June 24, 5:00 PM : Sisters of the Gion (1936) / 7:00 PM : Utamaro and His Five Women (1946)


  1. You might have already seen it, but Utamaro and his Five Women was the film that hooked me on Mizoguchi. It sounds like the VIZ theater cares enough to respond to the needs of the audience by getting the right lens.

  2. "cell-phone blocking equipment" - please elaborate and describe in more detail what this equipment is.

    Stray Dog is my favorite Kurosawa film.

    On Friday (June 11), Viz presented TokyoScope Talk #4 - Hot Tears of Shame. Host Patrick Macias and Tomohiro Machiyama gave an entertaining lecture with a slide presentation and film clips from Japanese soft-core porn and grindhouse films. Macias hosts these talks on Japanese cinema periodically. This was the first one I have attended and the theater was at ~80% of capacity.

  3. Caught EARLY SPRING last night and it further reinforced how much I appreciate Ozu. I'm glad the VIZ is venturing beyond just the contemporary Japanese cinema.

    And 80% capacity, Dan? I've never experienced that at the Viz before, so glad to hear.

  4. Thanks for the comments, guys!

    So far, the Stray Dog screening drew the largest crowd I've personally seen at VIZ. It was maybe 50% full, maybe even a little less than that.

    Dan, I have only spoken to VIZ and Roxie staff very casually about the existence of their cell-phone blockers. I'll see if I can get more specific info when I attend Tokyo Story tonight.

    Peter, indeed Utamaro and his Five Women is the one film in this Mozugchi set I have not seen, so I'm particularly excited they're bringing it. The other three, I've seen at least twice, first on VHS and then in 35mm. It took that second viewing of Street of Shame for it to become my absolute favorite Mizoguchi film, a position it still holds.

  5. Off what Dan said, the TokyoScope talk last Friday drew the most people of the whole series. In contrast, the first about yakuza film had less than a third of theater filled. On the other hand, the anime and anime-related films usually draw good crowds. The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya, for example, sold out in its opening night.

  6. re: cell-phone blocking equipment; I have seen and heard people using their cell phones at both venues. Putting aside counterfactual evidence, cell phone jammers are illegal in the US under federal statute. I believe there is a concern they would affect pacemakers but the real issue is federal preeminence of the airwaves. I read an article about architectural design and building construction practices which inadvertently and sometimes purposely block cell phone signals. Those methods are entirely legal. Active jammers which send out a signal to disrupt cell phone signals are illegal. Passive jammers such as metallic building materials, thick walls and other natual barriers are legal.

    I personally would like to see cell-phone free zones. For example, there could be posted notices at theaters stating that cell phone coverage will be disrupted for the duration of the performance. That would fix the habitual talkers and texters but not those inconsiderate enough to check the time on their phone every 15 minutes.

    I'd very much like to see Sansho the Bailiff.

  7. Sansho the Bailiff is tremendous. I've heard multiple fans cal it Mizoguchi's most perfect film, and I can't really argue with that.

    I'm embarrassed by my mis-spelling of "Mizoguchi" in my prior comment. I must really have Ozu on the brain if I start accidentally reordering the letters in other directors' names so that they have an "ozu" in them. Who's next? Sozuki? Dozuhenko? Herozug?

    After watching Tokyo Story tonight I asked a VIZ staffer about the lack of cellphone service within the theatre. She said she thought the space was designed to block signals, perhaps like how you read about in that article, Dan. However, I must admit she didn't sound entirely convincing; I think I'd have to ask someone higher up on the management totem pole to get a more confident reply. Nonetheless, I have altered my post to reflect your fascinating information.

    rupan777, glad you chimed in. I must admit I'm one of those folks who's liked or loved every Hayao Miyazaki or Satoshi Kon film I've seen, but been pretty alienated by most other anime I've run across. I've always wondered where I should explore next, noting that I disliked Ghost in the Shell, Akira, and Metropolis.

  8. Last night, I was at Viz and received a phone call on my cell during the film. The phone was set to vibrate only but I heard and felt it vibrate.

    Also, Viz had flyers for "Samurai Saga Vol. 1" - about 10 samurai films to be screened multiple times in July. I can't recall all the films but some of them were Hara Kiri, Samurai Rebellion, Bandits vs. Samurai Squadron and Yoji Yamada's Samurai Trilogy. No Zatoichi films.

    I saw most of the older films at a similar Balboa retrospective in 2005.

  9. Looks like we were at the same screening(s) last night, Dan! In addition to the titles you mentioned, the samurai series at VIZ (which runs July 10-22) includes Kihachi Okamoto's Sword of Doom and Kill!, and Hideo Gosho's Three Outlaw Samurai. in 35mm prints. The three Yamadas will be digital presentations, as will a 2008 film I've never heard of before, Yamazakura by Tetsu Shinohara.

    It's a tough time, in competition with the Silent Film Festival and other strong programming around town. But I hope to be able to see at least a few of the 35mm prints I missed at the Balboa series, namely Sword of Doom (which I've seen only on DVD) and Three Outlaw Samurai (which I've never seen at all).

  10. Hey Brian,

    Thanks for the post--I'm just sorry I came to the party so late! But it's great to hear about the VIZ and I'll be sure to keep it on my radar from now on.