Composition Class [1938] – The Strengths and Inconveniences of Honesty


It’s fascinating to witness the number of Japanese studio films from 1930s that focuses on the social and economic situation of the underclass. Yasujiro Ozu’s Passing Fancy (1933), An Inn in Tokyo (1935), The Only Son (1936), Mikio Naruse’s Each Night I Dream (1933), Three Sisters with Maiden Hearts, Sadao Yamanaka’s Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937), Hiroshi Shimizu’s Mr. Thank You (1936) are the few that immediately comes to mind. It all offers relatively complex tableau of underclass life which never sugar-coats their bleak reality. It would be interesting to read or know why these stories on under-privileged class had a box-office appeal. Kajiro Yamamoto’s Composition Class (Tsuzurikata kyoshitsu, 1938) is one such frank depiction of a low-income family’s life. Similar to all the aforementioned films, the narrative focuses on the humor, little triumphs and joys of everyday life rather than simply blanketing us with emotions of despair and sorrow. 


Composition Class (1938)

My interest in Composition Class is obviously due to the reverence Akira Kurosawa expressed for writer/director Kajiro Yamamoto in his book, ‘Something Like an Autobiography’. In fact, Mr. Yamamoto is largely known as the mentor of Kurosawa rather than for his filmography. Under Yamamoto, Kurosawa learned everything about film-making, from script-writing, direction to editing and post-production process. In the four years he worked under the filmmaker, Kurosawa emerged from being third assistant director to the chief assistant director. In Composition Class, Kurosawa is credited as the ‘Chief Assistant Director’. Ishiro Hondo (Godzilla) was another important Japanese filmmaker to be mentored by Kajiro Yamamoto.


Of course, this is not the right method to approach a filmmaker’s work. Moreover, a lot of Yamamoto’s work haven’t survived or not readily available. Yet I am glad to have discovered Composition Class (1938) which shines due to Yamamoto’s screenwriting skills and elegant compositions. Though he might not have garnered critical praise for his staging like Mizoguchi, Ozu or Naruse, Yamamoto also ably embodies the Japanese concept of ‘Ma’ and ‘Mono no aware’


Kajiro Yamamoto & Akira
Akira Kurosawa (left) with Kajiro Yamamoto

The other important reason to watch Composition Class is Hideko Takamine, who plays the 12 or 13 year old protagonist Masako Toyoda. I have witnessed lot of her profound performances as strong-willed, independent heroines in the 1950s, particularly in the works of Mikio Naruse and Keisuke Kinoshita. But apart from Ozu’s 1931 silent drama Tokyo Chorus (where the 7-year old Takamine plays the daughter of the central character), this is one of her earliest films I have seen.


Composition Class’s narrative framing simple yet effective. Precocious sixth grader Masako Toyoda is encouraged to write observational essays about her everyday life by her compassionate teacher (Osamu Takizawa). Masako lives with her parents and two younger brothers in the poor neighborhood of Tokyo metropolis. Her father is an itinerant tinsmith who doesn’t find much work due to the economic downturn. And the little he earns he spends it on booze. They live in a weather-beaten shack alongside other low-income families. 


The film opens with Masako returning home from school, asking her mother one sen to buy a confectionery from a street vendor. The parents gloomily talk about the eviction notice they have received. Silence pervades the home as the parents, Masako, and her younger brother brood over their upcoming days. Meanwhile, the family’s youngest boy badgers his mom and dad for one sen, and the noise of children following the vendor pierces this sombre silence. It’s a deeply felt moment of sorrow that conveys their impoverishment through apt framing and adequate use of silence and sound. This classical Japanese approach to film-making is oft found in the works of the great Ozu, Mizoguchi, and Naruse which gracefully transposes us to the narrative’s reality by simply observing the people in a particular scenario or environment. 


Kajiro Yamamoto in that silent, observational moment makes us understand (or mentally occupy) their reality rather than showcase the anticipated emotions and then move on. What rest of the film-making world considers as unnecessary moments or movements paves way to profundity in the Japanese cinema (including the Studio Ghibli anime).  The aforementioned sequence isn’t simply drama but comes close to capturing the sadness of the present; a mournful melody composed through series of glimpses. Interestingly, such moments in classic Japanese films precedes Bazin’s superb analysis of the scene that showcases young maid’s morning chores in Umberto D (1952). I am kind of getting carried away here, but the more classic Japanese cinema I watch, the more I am admire its precise staging techniques in spite of the other limitations.


Kajiro Yamamoto
A wonderful 'silent, observational moment' early in the film

Unexpected humour, truths, and honesty are found in Masako’s essays. Soon, Masako learns that being honest also has consequences. In one of the essays, Masako writes about the rabbits she received from her neighbor lady. While mentioning this, she casually writes about what her neighbor lady said about the ‘stinginess’ of the Umemoto family. The teacher initially finds no problem with Masako’s honest observations. Furthermore, he sends it to a magazine and it gets published. Soon, Masako is reprimanded for being too honest with her descriptions, since Umemotos are his father’s chief employer and a family of considerable wealth.


The narrative is largely divided into three chapters, depicting the three class terms of sixth grader Masako. Though the crisis with Umemotos is resolved smoothly, the family is perpetually impacted by financial problems. And Masako’s viewpoint holds our attention throughout. Takamine’s performance in particular conveys a lot through elegant changes in posture and emotions. For instance, observe her in the scene when Masako’s mom asks her to become a geisha. When Takamine’s Masako returns home from school she finds her family having their meals. It’s a welcome sight after a long period of impoverishment and starvation. She’s rejoiced to see the rice bowl. However, once the mother talks about the perks of becoming a geisha, Masako understands the truth behind how they got the rice. Just look at how Takamine commands this scene with subtle change in expressions!


The exceptional performance of Hideko Takamine

The misfortune, however, is averted in a somewhat predictable manner. But writer/director Yamamoto doesn’t linger much with the drama. He thankfully rushes through the ending which tows the official messaging regarding Japan’s march towards modernization and industrialization (though it doesn’t over-sermonize). At the same time, Composition Class doesn’t throw an unimaginable miracle to rescue its protagonist. She escapes the disaster of a geisha life to become a factory worker. Masako mentions her classmates who are going to study further. There’s sadness in knowing that the girl couldn’t study further. But then the individuality she has established with her writing will probably help her in life’s stormy phases. 


Composition Class is based on the collection of essays written by the real Masako Toyoda. I read that she became the poster girl of Japan’s modernizing education system and that many of her essays were published in the magazine ‘Red Bird’. Nevertheless, I couldn’t find much on what happened to Masako Toyoda later, during the war and post-war years. What's more we don’t get to know much about the teacher. In fact, his philosophy on teaching in itself was unique or even radical for its time. Encouraging self-expression instead of training students to do conventional compositions is a deviation from the tradition.


Left to Right, Musei Tokugawa (father), Masako Toyoda, Hideko Takamine, and Nijiko Kiyokawa (mother)

Eventually, apart from Takamine’s performance, Yamamoto’s unflinching depiction of poverty makes this narrative more memorable. This doesn’t mean visualizing the depressing facts about poverty in everyday life. Yamamoto captures how poverty impacts or drives one’s behavior. Masako’s embarrassment over buying rice with the coupons, the mother’s reprimand over the father’s carelessness in losing his bicycle or the tension that hovers during the father’s drunken behavior, Yamamoto’s vignettes always showcases the mental and emotional impacts of poverty. Yamamoto also sometimes finds humor in the bleakest of the situations. When the destitute neighbor lady suddenly starts praying to the ‘Lord’, the hungry children finds it a funny distraction. Moreover, this scene is intriguing for the mockery of this woman’s religious fervor. I am curious over the reasons behind such mockery out of nowhere. The family, however, in this scene observes someone who is worse off than themselves.


Overall, Composition Class (87 minutes) has lots of merits that make it a well-written and decently directed melodrama. Kajiro Yamamoto’s works probably deserves much more attention than just being a historical footnote while lionizing the film-making journey of the legendary Kurosawa.



Watch the full movie here:

The Paper [1994] – A Facile yet Delightfully Energetic Newspaper Movie


Ron Howard’s The Paper (1994) centers on 24 hours in the life of the Sun, i.e., The New York Sun, a fictitious New York tabloid which like any traditional newspaper is torn between idealism and sensationalism. The script was written by popular Hollywood screenwriter David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Mission Impossible, Spiderman, etc) and his brother Stephen Koepp, a veteran journalist and the senior editor at the Time magazine.The film opens with two African-American youths stumbling across a crime scene – the brutal murder of two white visiting businessmen – in a tough neighborhood.


The Paper (1994)

The next day New York Daily News’ headlines screams: “Welcome to New York – You’re Dead”. But the Sun’s front-page story is only about a corrupt parking commissioner. The narrative then follows the hyper-active, overworked protagonist, Henry Hackett (Michael Keaton), the paper’s assistant editor, battling the hubbub of newsroom to work on a juicy tip that the black youths are innocent.


The Paper is an old-fashioned newsroom drama which despite opening with a bloody crime scene and a wrongful arrest keeps a buoyant, light-hearted tone. Much of the humor arises from the barely controlled chaos that threatens to topple over Henry’s professional and personal life. The round-the-clock newsroom pressure is clearly getting to Henry as his very pregnant wife, Martha (a zippy Marisa Tomei) demands him to take the steadier 9-to-5 job at New York Sentinel. In fact, the interview for the job is also scheduled that day. 


Martha herself was an ace-reporter, and dreads the feeling of putting her career on hold in order to rear the child. At work, Henry Hackett has to put up with a motley bunch of eccentric people, from the world-weary, chain-smoking editor-in-chief, Bernie White (Robert Duvall) to a paranoid, bellyaching, gun-toting columnist, Dan McDougal (Randy Quaid). 


However, Henry’s chief rival at work is the ambitious and condescending managing editor, Alicia Clark (Glenn Close). Alicia doesn’t receive any of the newsroom camaraderie Henry enjoys. But Bernie declares that being in the management side, if Alicia liked by the reporters then she’s not doing a good job. Henry and Alicia are at each other’s throats upon deciding how to headline and pursue the two black youths’ story. Alicia argues that the lead story for next day should be the subway derailment, or else they could get the pictures of the black teenagers and run a screaming headline, “GOTCHA!” Hackett argues for doing a follow-up on the murders, and sends his reporters to dig-up more about the case, based on a tip he receives from an interesting source.


In between, Henry escapes from the hothouse atmosphere of the Sun to attend his interview at the prestigious Sentinel. The top guy at the paper (Spalding Gray) refers to Sentinel as the beacon of journalistic integrity, and patronizingly dismisses Sun as ‘the cute little paper’. Henry seems to be fiercely loyal to the Sun, since that comment only pushes him to steal a ‘tip’ regarding the bloody double murders that incriminated the black youths. More than loyalty, the narrative also makes it clear that Henry doesn’t want to step into the bigger, labyrinthine reporting world of Sentinel. To add more emotions to the story, Koepp also shoe-horns a sentimental subplot involving cancer-ridden Bernie and his estranged daughter, Deanne (Jill Hennessy). 


Though The Paper is less mawkish than your average Hollywood drama, it does withhold clich├ęs, too neat outcomes, and a bit false character trajectory. The script is slyly sexist, especially in its treatment of obdurate Alicia and a bumbling photographer (Amelia Campbell). Moreover, the narrative didn’t delve into any social issues it was discussing: racial profiling or luridness of tabloid journalism. Nevertheless, the Koepp brothers do get lot of things right: the tabloid newsroom lingo, the bedlam environment (even the air-conditioning repairmen add to the clutter), a journalist’s stress of juggling between multiple responsibilities, the pullulating cynicism, and insensitive wisecracks (foreign crises only matter if New Yorkers are personally involved). 


The film also largely works due to Ron Howard & cinematographer John Seale’s dynamic staging of the intense 24-hour period. The director totally cocoons the viewer into the world of ‘chasing-deadlines’ journalism. Howard uses the spirited performances of a wonderful ensemble cast to perfectly toggle between tension and humor. Furthermore, Howard’s touch gives a more heartening sense to the sentimental aspects which is one of his strengths as witnessed later in films such as Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man, and Rush. 


Overall, The Paper (112 minutes) is an eventful, fast-paced, and upbeat Hollywood ensemble drama set in a busy newsroom. 


The Interview [1998] – A Taut, Solidly Crafted Police Procedural


At dawn one morning in Melbourne, police force led by Detective Sergeant John Steele (Tony Martin) bust into an apartment of a middle-aged man, who is slumbering in his recliner surrounded by stack of news papers, gold fish bowl, and other miscellaneous things. Detective Senior Constable Wayne Prior (Aaron Jeffrey) holds a gun to the man’s head and humiliates him. After searching the premises, the police bag up certain items and take the man to the station for interrogation. He is driven across town to the police station and thrown into a dank interrogation room. 


The man named Eddie Fleming (Hugo Weaving) is jittery and pertrified, giving us the vibes that he is possibly a harmless loner harshly subjected to police brutality. To accentuate such line of thinking, the Senior Constable Wayne does his best (or worst) to establish himself as the ‘bad cop’, while Detective Steele scalds Fleming with his sinister looks, mildly channelling the desperation of a cop pressured to zero-in on a suspect. But what’s the case and why Steele is so sure that the bewildered Fleming as his guy?



The notion that an innocent man has found himself behind the iron curtain of a twisted police investigation is what offers the initial hook in Craig Monahan’s debut feature The Interview (1998). The film is dubbed as Australia’s answer to The Usual Suspects (1995), although The Interview doesn’t simply rely on an earth-shattering twist at the climax. Writer/director Craig Monahan’s treatment is more concerned with the wily techniques employed by an investigator to ensnare their suspect. It deals with deeply complicated bureaucratic conflicts and how the world of criminal investigation really works. 


Unlike Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects, this film is not just one long story of how a seemingly innocent man manipulates his surroundings. The manipulation exhibited here is multi-layered and not one-sided. Moreover, like many contemporary crime dramas, The Interview doesn’t keep throwing twists to gratify the unsuspecting viewers. It is very much grounded in logical reasoning and simply uses the unprecedented narrative developments to smartly challenge our perceptions. 


The Interview unfurls over a single day as the Detective Sergeant and Senior Constable interrogate Fleming for hours to stick their single charge upon him: car theft. That seems a too simple a charage to go through the trouble of breaking into a guy’s apartment. Initially, Fleming outright dismisses the charge and the vulnerability expressed by his eyes makes us feel sympathy for him. The car belongs to a Mr. Beecroft who has gone missing. Fleming explains that he is living on the dole. He has lost his house and estranged from his family. He laments that the police is doing this because no one cares about him. But Steele has his reasons to trap Fleming, and of course he believes more crimes are waiting to be unearthed if he proved the car-theft charge. 


Elsewhere, the observer is being observed. Steele and Wayne are under the scrutiny of Internal Affairs due to the duo’s questionable investigative tactics. More hints about a wider ring of corruption within the force are also cited. These sub-plots play a crucial role when Fleming begins to say shockingly extraordinary things. Revealing more details now would only spoil the neat tricks aligned by Monahan. 


The expertly evasive script written by Monahan and Gordon Davie (an ex-cop) is blessed with the intricate knowledge of police institution. The writing understands the art of reveal, where the transformations of characters are imbued bit by bit. Both Weaving and Martin’s characters begin as one-dimensional archetypes but gradually evolve over the narrative. The precious information are doled out in a manner that constantly makes our sympathies switch from one side to another. Amidst all this, the writers haven’t neglected the plausbility of the situation. All the bureaucratic in-fighting and tense cat-and-mouse games are executed with a firm understanding of the technicalities of criminal investigation.


Shot in a darkly-lit, claustrophobic chamber-like room and a huge table, pitting the accused against his accuser, the film could have easily become monotonous or evoke the feeling of watching a filmed stage play. But Monahan’s inventive and precise directorial skills generate a deeply atmospheric tone right from the opening scene, i.e., when Simon Duggan’s camera starts exploring the physical space of Fleming’s apartment with its fishbowl and white curtain. He particularly keeps the imagery dynamic throughout the heated conversations between Weaving and Martin. Eventually, the pivotal dynamics established between these two actors further strengthens the impressive efforts behind the camera. 


Eddie Fleming is undoubtedly Hugo Weaving’s best performance, alongside Proof (1991), The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), and the scene-stealing turn in The Matrix franchise. Weaving’s alternately teasing and appealing behavior works as the perfect portrayal of a man who could be either guilty or innocent. Tony Martin as the no-nonsense detective is equally brilliant. Altogether, The Interview (104 minutes) is a riveting thriller built around a complex, perception-shifting narrative and an enigmatic protagonist.



Birdboy: The Forgotten Children [2015] – The Quest for Freedom in a Strangely Horrifying World


Pedro Rivera and Alberto Vazquez’s Spanish animated feature Birdboy: The Forgotten Children (‘Pscionautas, los ninos olvidados’, 2015) is a gloomy yet beautiful impressionistic parable of survival in an unrelentingly cruel world. Based on the graphic novel by Vazquez, the film revolves around a group of emotionally damaged anthropomorphic animals living in an isolated island-town, which has lost much of its residents to an explosion at the toxic industrial plant. Hordes of surviving ‘rats’ form their own kingdom amidst the industrial trash-heap, calling themselves ‘The Forgotten Children’




The scruffy rats live by a creed, spelled out by their leader: “The future is past. Garbage is the present. Blood is our law.” The other titular character ‘Birdboy’ has clearly become a recluse after the industrial disaster, pursued by a demonic force and also by the fascist police chief. The rest of the well-to-do talking animals of the town suffer from existential crisis and talks of moving away without actually doing it.


Birdboy’s slight story-line is told in the form of complex vignettes as each characters’ emotional journey is loosely interconnected. But what makes the film remarkable is its smorgasbord of hauntingly surreal imagery. Although the character drawing - often placed before muted backgrounds - and the realization of ecologically damaged town looks hand-drawn, the simplicity somehow works in bringing depth to the striking visuals. The story is largely centered on three teenage friends, hoping to escape the rubbish-scape and seek a better life in the big city. 


Dinky, the smart white mouse, remains nonchalant towards her devoutly religious parents, who intend to crush her ambitions. Sandra is a bunny, who hears evil-voices. Then there’s Zorrito, a compassionate little fox always stereotyped as cunning and thief. Dinky is in love with the elusive and secretive Birdboy. Unbeknownst to the otherworldly terrors and authoritarian police chief (a straight-faced, sadistic canine), Birdboy, a sort of besmirched super-hero devotes himself to finish the task of his dead-father: to restore life in the island. Rounding up this array of colorful characters is a pig fisherman/drug-dealer whose mother's dying body hosts a hideous spider-creature. 


Birdboy_The Forgotten Children


In ‘Birdboy’, the existential ennui boosted by the environmental decline, drug culture, depression, and vapid life-style, is not only directed towards the anthropomorphic characters. The residents also possess sentient objects like a time-obssessed walking-alarm clock, a lonely piggy bank, and an obnoxious yellow inflatable raft shaped like a duck. These designs of ‘objects with feelings’ inject a tone of comic absurdism that matches well with the directors’ uncanny visual ad thematic preoccupations. 


Elsewhere, Rivera and Vazquez imbues a darkly surrealistic tone into the fantastical world that’s remniscent of the works of Jan Svankmejer, Priit Parn, Guillermo del Toro, and Tim Burton. Moroever, the realization of Birdboy’s secret natural paradise (a giant tree nesting countless number of birds) contains the warmth of Hayao Miyazaki’s drawings. Although ‘Birdboy’ is stuffed with outre elements, the characters do confront much of the real-world problems: drugs, violence, ostracism, bullying, and police brutality.


There are few outlandish features, conjured just for the sake of it: for example, a Little Baby Jesus squeeze toy that bleeds from eyes or Jonathan, a dog dressed to look like a boy or the glue-sniffing, copper-searching rat scavenger. Such array of oddness thrown within the vignettes threatens to make ‘Birdboy’ either disconnected or overstuffed. But thankfully, the medley of hallucinatory and expressionistic visuals keeps us consistently captivated. Serene as well as intense, Rivera & Vazquez’s compositions of watercolor-style skies, nightmarish macabre interior structures, and endearing character designs stand as a testament to their superme animation artistry. 


Keeping in line with the dystopian atmosphere, many of the wide-shots has blank spaces or colorless gaps, which duly accentuates the bleakness. The relentless suffering and violence heaped upon the characters may seem exhausting from a storytelling standpoint. Nevertheless, the distinctly diabolical imagery makes ‘Birdboy: The Forgotten Children’ (76 minutes) a truly unforgettable animated feature of recent times.