Iwashigumo / Summer Clouds (1958)

1 07 2015

It makes sense that Naruse’s first feature filmed in color and in Tohoscope would take place away from the city center. It wasn’t the first time he went “rural” so to speak (nor would it be his last) but the new technology offered his technique something that didn’t immediately click with the aesthetic of his “city films.” This seems like a preposterous statement to make when one considers the Tohoscope beauty of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, which finds the filmmaker back in the urban realm. Here, though, the technology seems especially compatible with the way he opens up space. Of course, Summer Clouds is still about the city, but its conversation on “the city” uses the vocabulary of rural peasants.

1

Yae is a single mother who, when not attending to her family’s rice field, works as a freelance journalist for nearby Yokohama. Her connection to the world of journalism is Ogawa, a younger man with whom she enjoys a sly, sexual relationship. Yae is realistic, she wants something more with Ogawa, who is married, but realizes that they aren’t going to run away together anytime soon. In the midst of this, a family drama is brewing between Yae’s brother, Wasuke and his three sons. He criticizes them for their interest in escaping the rural life for one in the city, be it in Yokohama or in Tokyo. He tries to solve these complications by marrying off his sons, but things don’t go so smoothly.

2

The relationship between the rural and urban is a discursive thread running throughout Naruse’s work, but it is seldom as pointed and obvious as it is made here. Ogawa’s two youngest sons, Jun and Shinji, want to separate themselves from the traditions of farm life and relocate to the city. The concept of “tradition” is a dangerous one, especially in the loose, reductive, and Orientalist way western critics carelessly yield it around Japanese films. Both Naruse and Ozu have had the term applied to their work. It’s not an incorrect application, but the inability to expound on the idea of tradition is one that flattens and simplifies their work. The descriptions of tradition are so often viewed with an understood distant, both temporally and geographically. The patriarchy present in 1950s Japan is, at least according to western critics (everyone from Donald Richie to Noel Burch) is nowhere close to the western world in the present day. I’m not suggesting the situations depicted in a film like Summer Clouds could easily be transplanted to North America or the United Kingdom without any editing, that is just as simplistic. Instead, I am suggesting that evoking “traditions” in describing a film such as this is an Othering practice.

3

The traditions that Wasuke holds close to him are so difficult to break because they can be held up by logic. It doesn’t make sense, economically speaking, for his sons to transition into city folk or for relatives who are women to attend school. He repeatedly refers to a hope that his family remains a peasant family, and that his sons do not become employees. Peasant can evoke, to many, an image of the rural poor one that doesn’t match with the family depicted here. There are classes of peasantry, and the milieu here is that of the “middle peasant” (a term I encountered through Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, but has origins in the writings of Lenin and Mao) or the peasant with a comfortable amount of space and agrarian equipment. Wasuke could let go to this status, but it would lead to the end of the family’s middle peasant lifestyle.

4

The work of the peasant seems to slip through the ideas of labor and value expressed through capitalism. Marx’s lumpen-proletariat (or those too disadvantaged to gain class consciousness) can be imagined as peasants, because they are, by definition, not directly exposed to capitalism’s exploitation and abusiveness. Yet, Naruse’s camera manages to render both capitalist labor and peasant labor as similarly harmful. Wasuke holds to traditions, which pressures some in his family to stay in this system. Naruse films the few scenes of labor as mechanical, not literally (though, Yae does use a mechanical plowing tool at some point, a sign of her modernity) but in how the bodies  themselves respond in machine-like unison. By extension, Wasuke’s rationale for holding on to traditions are formed by the logic and reasoning of capitalism, even as the labor itself works outside of it.

5

While Naruse was able to provide a fruitable and intriguing conversation on labor, the appeal of Summer Clouds is in the character of Yae, who is portrayed by Chikage Awashima. She takes charge in every situation, be it in her sexual relationship with Ogawa or her dealings with Wasuke’s stubborn old-fashionedness. In one of Naruse’s most subtly sensual scenes, Yae closes two sets of doors. Ogawa opens one, but Yae quickly shuts it. The image fades, and it’s the morning after. Though she dreams of a life with Ogawa and even vocalizes such desires, she’s still pragmatic. The films ends with her plowing the rice fields. Her frustration is palpable, but she does not call on us to pity her, instead her laboring suggests she’ll survive. She deserves a man who is devoted to her entirely.

6





Kimi to wakarete / Apart From You (1933)

7 06 2015

Despite some critical success, Mikio Naruse was in a tough position by 1933. His peers admired his work but his studio boss, Shiro Kido, was unimpressed. We now know that the friction between these two lead to Naruse’s transfer to PCL, which later become Toho. However, in 1933, the pressure was on for him to deliver a film that doesn’t immediately echo Yasujiro Ozu’s work. Kido would remain skeptical of him, but it is hard to watch a film like Apart From You, and think that it owes any particular debt to Ozu. They do overlap in that they capture the reconfiguration of rural spaces, which would be transformed to suburbs. Ozu (literally) moved up within Tokyo to more middle class families. Naruse moved outward to the margins that so many of his characters had already called home.

1

Kikue is an aging geisha struggling to keep her most devoted client interested. Her son, Yoshio, contributes to this frustration by his truancy at school. He’s fallen into a young gang, and when asked about his disobedience, he lashes out at Kikue and says that he’s embarrassed by her profession. Kikue’s best friend, Terukiku, is also a geisha and around the same age as Yoshio. She tries to convince him that his mother is indeed very devoted to him, and that his agitation with her is misplaced. Terukiku invites Yoshio to join her on a visit to her hometown, which appears idyllic, but is revealed to be a site of abuse and anger. Seeing the familial discord has an impact on Yoshio, but he’s not quite prepared to straighten up immediately on the trip back.

2

My earlier review of this film, published in 2008, is pretty generic. I don’t want to turn this into a complete overview of my writing at the time, but while it is not a particularly offensive piece, it is not a very interesting one either. Apart From You is at its heart, a melodramatic film. One that seems to be missing the necessary dramatic syntax to make such a film work. It’s only an hour long, and so there’s little time to capture the anxiety rising up on Kikue, Terukiku, and Yoshio. While I still love this film, it might be for completely new reasons now. Perhaps it is an unintentional side effect, but Naruse’s camera does capture the liminal part of Tokyo’s transition. Other filmmakers situated their “urban dramas” in sexier, more fully developed spaces. But, in fitting with the economic plight of his characters, Naruse captures a neighborhood that still has rural residue. The trip to Terukiku’s home town sets up a narrative contrast, between the city and country, but Naruse’s camera suggests that describe the spaces in such a binary is incorrect.

3

Terukiku’s hometown remains unnamed, but we do now that she and Yoshio are able to easily access it via railroad. One might deduce that it is a present-day suburb, transitioning from its rural past, not unlike the suburb occupied by the family in I Was Born But… There is plenty of visual evidence to describe the space as “less sophisticated” but Suketaro Inokai’s camera captures a richness in the street life. Less developed and less commercial than the Tokyo the film opens with, but not reduced to the condescendingly rural. The two primary spaces of the film can’t be positioned as a binary, which works with Naruse’s handling of the characters. The plot could be described as trite, but the dramatization of their emotions is complicated. In fact, words seem especially inefficient to describe the film’s finale.

4

Terukiku and Yoshio return to Tokyo, where Kikue contemplates suicide. In one particularly impressive sequence, Kikue’s violent confrontation with her patron is paired next to a more jovial encounter between younger geishas with younger patrons. Kikue is, in the end, saved but violence is unrelenting here. Yoshio’s attempt to quit his gang leads to ridicule, which then ends with Terukiku being injured. The film’s conclusion is unclear, but we know that Terukiku, because of her selfish father’s economic wants, must leave Tokyo for a profession even less desirable than that of a geisha. Sex, of course, is not explicit in a film from 1933 Japan, but Terukiku is presumably shipped off to a brothel. I would suggest that Naruse’s entire career shows compassion to sex workers, as opposed to the anxiety evident in other such films. Terukiku and Yoshio’s farewells to each other are bittersweet but she’s already told us that “she’ll keep fighting.” The film ends with her departing, potentially, for a life of more abuse. Visually, we understand that hope is still there. For others, this would be the conclusion to the tragedy, but Naruse is more pragmatic. Terukiku leaves the frame, but her agency feels firmly intact.

5





L’inhumaine (1924)

18 05 2015

Starting in 1927, Walter Benjamin began documenting the city of Paris with his Arcades Project. Unlike such studies before or after, he was concerned with the interior of Paris’ buildings. It was not the urban outside that provided the most interesting story to him, but rather the new inside corners that acted as a controlled simulacrum of what many considered to be “real Paris.” Like Benjamin, Marcel L’Herbier wanted to tell the story of Paris through interiors, and L’inhumaine, even if it does venture outside on occassion, tells the story of a city through a gothic, art-deco set that may not have had any basis in reality. It is a fantastical film, but it talks about things that exist in reality.

1

Claire Lescot is an aging but still beloved opera singer. She lives far away from the city in a rural but post-modern fortress that is occupied by her and a group of servants who hide under grotesque paper mache masks. Claire hosts a great deal of suitors, one of which is Einar Norsen. Einar is an impulsive and emotional scientist and when his longings for Claire aren’t reciprocated, suicide seems like the only response. Leaving her mansion, his car slips off a cliff. Einar can’t be found but he is presumed to be dead, which sends Claire reeling. A few days later, she is asked to identify his mutilated body. She finds him very much alive in a mansion as imposing as her, where he labors away on an instrument that could possibly broadcast her voice across the world.

2

While L’Herbier’s more celebrated follow-up L’Argent is loaded with energetic camera movements, it is a film that seems to have been composed by a gymnast. L’inhumaine, on the other hand, is controlled by a steadier hand, most likely the work of an architect. The space of Claire Lescot’s mansion is somewhat fictitious, her privacy is housed in an area that comes out of a fairy tale. Her fortress is one of a solitude, visibly marked as separate from the confines of the urban. Yet, within her lies all of the things that occupy the politics of the city: capitalism, colonization, and the body all partake in a dance (literally) in Claire’s fortress. Black servants perform entertainment for her as rich men bid for access towards her sexuality. Despite the negotiations that are happening all over her body, Claire is able to maintain some control. When the camera shifts to the top of the ceiling, her performance space takes on the appearance of a chess board, which complimented by the paper mache servants, imply that can manipulate things to her desires at will.

3

Of course, all of this is done to paint Claire as the “inhumane woman” of the title. The film intends to paint Einar as a tragic figure, one who feels great pain in being rejected. Of course, the irony is everybody feels the pain of this rejection. Threatening to kill yourself is not a very smart way to endear yourself to the person you’re interested in, but L’Herbier seems to insist that all the men here are playing on the same, potentially abusive field. Claire warms to Einar, ironically only after he fakes his death which coincides with a complete personality shift. The film makes a shift as well: it becomes a film about modernity and science, specifically the implications of Einar’s new broadcasting device. In one of the film’s most crucial scenes, Claire is able to see those who are listening to her broadcasted voice. She is greeted, at first, with two images, both of what many would consider “third world” countries. The “Other” appreciating her music provides her validation, but L’Herbier wants us to know that this is a cheap moment. Minutes later, she encounters a peasant woman who appears earlier in the film. Her pain is too much for Claire to bear.

5

L’Herbier loves sequences with audiences, and they seem to provide a nice opportunity for him to comment on and subvert our expectations. In L’Argent, the trial of a banker consumed by greed is treated with applause from an audience that is just as rich. The key scene here is when Claire’s concert following Einar’s (faked) death. The audience, as the intertitles tell us directly, are conflicted by her presence. Some continue to love her, while others are disgusted by her perceived indifference. This is all silly because 1) it was not her fault and 2) she wasn’t indifferent, but rather overwhelmed with grief. The chaos of the audience cuts through all of this, Claire can’t even present herself as either “humane” or “inhumane” (an awfully demanding binary!) because the public has already decided for themselves. It doesn’t matter how rich she is, as a woman, the audience is able to quickly wrestle back control of her persona. For all the modernity of Paris (or any western city), the celebrity woman is still scrutinized. Through this interior-based “story of Paris” L’Herbier has revealed a personal one. Claire is given a happy ending, but to a more perceptive viewer, it is a bitter one. She is granted access to an ideal heterosexual relationship, but considering how she was manipulated to get there, it can’t be healthy.

6





Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol / Black God, White Devil (1964)

13 05 2015

Karl Marx’s most frequently recycled axiom is “Religion is the opium of the masses.” It’s unfortunate, of course, because it might be least insightful and most banal. More importantly, it doesn’t seem to hold much weight today. Sure, a majority of the world identifies as religious in some manner, and power structures are defended and held up in the name of religion. Yet, the drug of the choice might be pop culture. I won’t descend to the level of some trite condemnation of the multiplex showing endless superhero films. The superhero film, Marxism, and Christianity all splinter into a unifying vision for Glauber Rocha. Emancipation is his chief concern, but there is many ways in which it can be envisioned.

1

Receiving the ire of his wealthy boss one time too many, Manuel bursts out in a violent fit of rage. The ecstasy of breaking free from his oppressor is short-lived and he realizes that he and his wife, Rosa, must immediately go on the run. They seek the guidance of Saint Sebastian (the title’s Black God), who has provided the hope of salvation for the country’s poorest individuals. Meanwhile, Antonio das Mortes is sent, by a more respected and “conventional” priest to take care of Sebastian and his followers. Tragically, this pushes Rosa and Manuel into the arms of Corsico, the title’s White Devil.

2

While Glauber Rocha’s hallucinatory aesthetic is unique, there is a impulse to ground the experience of the film itself. We must, in order to feel, comfortable, find some sort of link between his images and that of other filmmakers. A common one seems to be Alejandro Jodorowsky. I’m no big fan of Jodorowsky, but I’ll ease up on him here. The Jodorowsky film is one that realizes that images, despite the power they hold, have no center. There is no connection between an icon’s power and the experience of real life, thus Jodorowsky himself sends forth countless images. One that provoke and even enrage, because they have to be unique. Realizing the lack of a center, Jodorowsky must demolish the old images and erect entirely new ones. Thus, shit and fire become key ingredients in his palette, the former so vile that it presences threatens to unseat the power structure of icons. Meanwhile, the fire becomes the thing that does destroy.

3

I think Rocha does have something in common with Jodorowsky. Both filmmakers come to the understanding that icons don’t have a center, but Rocha is not demolishing their power. Instead, he shows reverence for this. If images have no center then they, like language, are arbitrarily embedded with a meaning. This arbitrary assignment means they are powerless for Jodorowsky, but they are proof of their power to Rocha. He shows reverence for them not because they mean something to people, which is their greatest power. In one of the film’s most impressive sequences, Sebastian stands before the cross of his temple. Surrounded by the chaos of the world he finds solace in his worship, not by hiding from the suffering but confronting it head on in prayer. The scene ends with violence, which is all the more shocking because we’ve been guided by a filmmaker who has given these images the chance to breath and have power over the individuals who confront them. He is not positioning them around, emotionlessly, in order to provide the most striking visual moment.

4

Black God, White Devil is critical of images, symbols, and icons but it does not throw stones in their direction. Instead, it takes the time to critically acknowledge how and why they are important to us. Corisco, the White Devil, is comically inept, a crass parody of a revolutionary figure. He can’t see the need for images. Fittingly, he ignores the warning of a wandering blind man. He sees the people’s need to believe in him as a means to wield his power, a sign of their weakness. This give us the film’s most sensual moment: a protracted kiss that is heavy on beard, but it also ends his reign. There is no need to be cynical if one’s emancipation is at stake.

5





Keiko desu kedo / It’s Keiko (1997)

11 05 2015

Many artists have tried to capture the essence of time. Time, which is measured, but feels immeasurable in the way we experience. Time lingers and blasts through with such swiftness that we sometimes struggle to remember how it ever passed. In her latest book, Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, Sarah Manguso confesses that she kept a daily journal as a means to combat time’s progress. She writes, “The diary was my defense against waking up at the end of my life and realizing I’d miss it.” While Manguso’s strategy was to fight this daily, Keiko tries to do this by the minute.

1

Keiko spends most of her evenings in her apartment, counting off the sixty seconds in order to measure (and be conscious of) each minute. The death of her father is behind her, but she seems uncomfortable addressing her feelings. She instead focuses on her looming twenty-second birthday, which she sees as a crucial marker in her life’s timeline. In addition to counting each minute, she hosts a news program, composed mostly of her reciting the telephone numbers she called. Keiko, it seems, is struggling to make sense of time. A minute, an hour, a day – all seem like forces imposing on her, especially as she continues to reel from the loss of her father.

2

Keiko desu kedo is one of the earliest efforts from Shion Sono, who, in recent years, has transformed into one of Japan’s most beloved directors. The flash found in something like say, Love Exposure or Suicide Club is absent here. “Minimalism” has become overused in film circles, and I personally lament grouping all films composed of static shots and limited “action” together. Sono’s minimalism, if we prefer to call it that, does not function in the same way it would come to function throughout most of East Asia in the late 90s and early 00s. The films of Hou and Tsai are observant, while Sono’s (through Keiko Suzuki) is confessional.

3

While the film is presented as confessional, Keiko herself confesses very little. She gives us the facts that one might find useful, but she does not reveal the pain that she is likely hiding through her dedicated attempts to capture and cage time. The film’s grammar suggests, at every turn even, that she is revealing something personal even if she never offers up what this is through language. Sono fixates on Keiko’s face to the point of abstraction. It does not feel claustrophobic, mostly because the camera seldom grants us access to the space around her. Indeed, her apartment, with it blood red walls sharply contrasted with bright yellow lamps seems to become an abstraction on its own, ready to transform into a cartoon.

4

Many will find themselves frustrated by a film that is built around one character who is frequently shown counting to sixty. The final ten minutes could be maddening, but they are something of a revelation. Keiko finally steps outside of her apartment, the space opens, and the camera becomes more mobile. It tracks her as she skips in unison with her counting down the city streets. Her body’s performance seems to clash with the walking of passerby’s. Pardon the banality, but Keiko has to march to her own beat. That sounds corny, but consider this: Keiko has grieved, which is out of step with how our bodies are meant to perform and act out. Trauma, and our ongoing struggle to deal with it, goes against the state’s preference for our bodies. We need to do it, though. We need to be like Keiko, who continues skipping and counting far beyond the city’s streets, braving her way into a literal snow storm. Sometimes it isn’t even productive for dealing with loss, but we all deserve the opportunity to find that out for ourselves.

5





Subete ga kurutteru / Everything Goes Wrong (1960)

4 05 2015

Frustrated by the cathartic images of war that the local cinema is treating him to, a despondent Jiro mopes around the city. His friends are enthralled by the images that they see, however they all leave the dark room of the cinema and enter the bright, bustling street corners of Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighborhood. It is easy to read Suzuki’s jazzy, fast-paced tale of teenage angst with Godard’s Breathless and Oshima’s Cruel Story of Youth, yet Suzuki has an investment in his city. An interest in the infrastructure that is more literal than Godard’s meditation on style and language or Oshima’s poetic interpretation of public space. This might be less visually stimulating than those two and we might be stuck with a flatter protagonist, but Suzuki surveys a city in transition. He reveals a truth: all cities are always in transition.

1

Jiro drifts around with his wanna-be gangster friends, they drink, they smoke, they fraternize – anything to distract themselves from school and their lives at home. Jiro, on the other hand, is still very much emotionally invested in his mother, Misayo. The family’s father was lost in the war, leaving Misayo as the only one responsible to provide for her son. She’s done so with  help from Keigo, a married businessman. While it would be accurate to describe their relationship as an affair, it is still one build on respect and trust. Jiro sees the relationship as only physical and financial and he scrutinizes his mother for sinking so low. “You’re basically a whore” he charmlessly declares just as he dramatically darts out of their home. Jiro’s unreasonable expectations of his mother translate to his would be lover, Toshimi.

2

Along with Breathless and Cruel Story of Youth, one feels an impulse to bring Rebel Without a Cause into the conversation. The characters in Ray’s film are, like Suzuki’s,  frustrated teenagers who only register events as either being or leading towards an emotional climax. There is one crucial distinction to be made here. The world of Rebel Without a Cause was suburban, the parental anxiety of teenagers’ “freedom” was evident in their access to cars. Space in Ray’s film is readily available, but it is in high demand for Suzuki. There’s a nervous energy the first time the camera whips across a crowded city street, and it is to the film’s credit that this same excitement is present even in private space.

3

 

The private vs the public is the most fascinating relationship in Everything Goes Wrong because they aren’t presented as in conflict. Oshima’s early “sun tribe” films (the aformentioned Cruel Story of Youth but also The Sun’s Burial) were only interested in the public space. It was here that Oshima could find violence, sure, but also visual poetry. Pop culture was on the periphery, it was simply a thing in which the film’s subjects were involved. Pop culture is part of the architecture for Suzuki, though. A poster of Coleman Hawkins is prized, if not fetished, as it seems to preside over the gang’s local bar. Suzuki, who would became a far more “pop” filmmaker than Oshima (at least only in retrospect, Nikkatsu still had no idea what to do with him) and maybe he recognized that pop culture was not just a thing, but part of the history. Denise Scott Brown’s essay Learning from Pop advocates for a serious consideration of popular culture within architecture, Everything Goes Wrong feels like it would be a perfect case study for her.

4

But, of course, pop culture is just frivolous nonsense, isn’t it? Suzuki wasn’t even the first Japanese director to acknowledge the presence of western culture. Tokyo itself translates into “Capital to East” (as opposed to the West) which suggests that those who named the city realized its relationship to the rest of the world. The structures we see in the film are all Western-influenced, even if they aren’t. Fukuzawa Yukichi’s Goodbye Asia (written in 1885) saw a country transforming itself into the modern as a means of protection from Western imperialism. This process involved demolishing old structures and displacing many place, an act that is erased by said demolition. The “pop” images bring this history back to the surface, and suggest that America’s occupation (and influence) of Japan was anticipated long before the war ever started.

5





Kaze no uta o kike / Hear the Wind Sing (1980)

30 04 2015

I’ll have something on this in a couple days.








Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,351 other followers