Two very different new releases from Criterion explore what it means to to maintain one’s humanity in the face of inhuman systems. Masaki Kobayashi’s overwhelming 9 1/2-hour epic The Human Condition (1959-61) follows a conscientious socialist into the brutal horrors of Japan’s occupation of Manchuria during the Second World War, while Martin Bell’s Streetwise (1984) and it’s sequel Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell (2016) document the lives of homeless kids on the streets of Seattle during the Reagan era and the aftereffects of that experience in later life.
Like a monumental battle between formidable rival kaiju, Criterion and Arrow have released competitive Blu-ray sets devoted to Japanese monster movies. Criterion’s Godzilla: The Showa-Era Films 1954-1975 and Arrow’s Gamera: The Complete Collection offer eight disks of monster mayhem in packages too big to fit on my shelves. Binging more than two-dozen of these movies dragged my brain blissfully back to childhood.
Although there are obviously differences from culture to culture, many Asian movies share a tendency to to ignore the kind of “realism” Western, and particularly American, movies so often feel is necessary – which is one reason so many U.S. remakes of Asian genre movies take on a pedestrian quality nowhere evident in the originals. Three recent Asian movies – from Korea, Japan and China – use different approaches to explore societies in which economic and social inequality engender violence and to some degree madness. One uses blackly comic satire, one pushes genre tropes to absurd extremes, and one pushes neorealism into the realm of nightmare.
Quiet, contemplative character-based science fiction movies feel like a refreshing oasis in a desert of big, loud, empty franchise blockbusters. James Gray’s Ad Astra (2019), Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja’s Ad Astra (2018), Sion Sono’s The Whispering Star (2015) and Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer (2008) provide satisfaction on many levels.