Thursday, November 25, 2010

Mishima at the Viz: Ken

Often considered a leading contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature, Yukio Mishima also tried his hand at acting with rather mixed results. Far better were the films based on his writings. Still, a Mishima martial arts movie might sound a bit unlikely. However, the unflagging preoccupation with honor uncompromised and the latent sexual tension of Kenji Misumi’s Ken are certainly in keeping with Mishima’s motifs. To mark the 40th anniversary of his strange and dramatically public seppuku, the Viz Cinema kicks off a Mishima mini-retrospective this Friday with Misumi’s Ken (trailer here).

Jiro Kokubu is not at college to party. The captain of the university kendo team, he lives an austere life, driving himself and his teammates to be the best of the best. His pursuit of purity rubs some of the team the wrong way, particularly his chief rival, the rakish Kagawa. However, the rookie “cadet” Mibu falls under the sway of Kokubu’’s anachronistic asceticism. Of course, there are hints of a more scandalous attraction, but Misumi keeps such matters safely repressed, so to speak.

Unable to best Kokubu in fair combat, Kagawa attacks his mojo, enlisting the beautiful Eri Itami to bring him down to their sordid level. While definitely a master manipulator (and also a jazz fan to judge from the Mingus album cover adorning her wall), Itami might actually feel something for the kendo captain. Indeed, the triangular relationship between the three suggests that of Dangerous Liaisons.

Ken is one of the moodiest martial arts pictures ever made. It is hardly the most action-packed though. There is no “big match” climax here. Rather, the film focuses on, arguably fetishizing, their arduous training regiment and Kokubu’s severe discipline. Well befitting its volatile psychological gamesmanship, Chishi Makiura’s black and white cinematography has a distinctive film noir style. Raizô Ichikawa is able to hint at the stress and strain beneath Kokubu’s stern façade rather well, while Keiju Kobayashi brings considerable depth and nuance to Itami, the pseudo-femme fatale.

Based on Mishima’s novella, Ken eerily parallels the author’s life. While a little more action and a little less brooding might have been optimal, it is still an intriguing take on martial arts and 1960s college life. Currently not widely available in America, San Francisco residents should definitely check it out at the Viz Cinema, where it screens as part of their Mishima tribute beginning tomorrow (11/26) through Tuesday (11/30).