Koibumi / Love Letters (1953)

25 02 2014

While Kinuyo Tanaka is one of the most celebrated figures of Japanese cinema in the west, her role has only been represented to us as a performer. Her tragedies with Kenji Mizoguchi, such as Sansho the Bailiff and Ugetsu, are well-regarded as classics, but they only represent a small part of her career. The “Bette Davis of Japan” had been working since as an actress in the 1930s, and she wasn’t always tasked with playing the sacrificing maternal figures that Mizoguchi saw of her. In the 1950s, she began her career as a director herself. A Keisuke Kinoshita screenplay certainly isn’t the most promising element for a film, but Tanaka brilliantly underscores his usually schmaltzy currents. The result is one of the most brilliant debuts in all of cinema and unfortunately, its mostly forgotten.

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Still feelings the affects of the war and the American occupation, Reikichi Mayumi struggles to make ends meet. He picks up a job writing love letters, a large majority of his customers are Japanese sex workers, trying to contact the American men who loved them during the occupation. Reikichi’s experience with translation makes him a perfect fit for the job, but one day, he comes in to contact with Michiko, the woman he loved before he was sent off to war. The war years were not particularly kind to her either, and the feelings the two once shared for each other seem to cause nothing but problems.

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The screenplay here comes from the pen of one Keisuke Kinoshita. A filmmaker who, if you’ve paid any attention to this blog, I am not particularly fond of. Kinoshita’s films are beautiful, yet stupid, and hopelessly maudlin. The same kind of impulse works its way in here, but it is probably worth noting that Kinoshita’s screenplay is based on a Fumio Niwa novel. I’ve not read any of Niwa’s work, but the films that came from his work, Battle of Roses and The Angry Street seem to be in made in the same spirit as Kinoshita’s work, and both of those films were directed by otherwise masterful Mikio Naruse. Taking all of this into account, Tanaka carried a heavy load on this, her very first film. There’s an undeniable mopey, “sadboy” quality to the film’s protagonist, Reikichi, but even as Tanaka observes and registers his sadness, she does not make it the central point in her film.

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Reikichi’s profession, a love letter writer, may remind one of the lead protagonist’s occupation in Spike Jonze’s Her. At the risk of being harsh, I’ll also be brief but Jonze’s film uses that setup for his one simplistic, male-driven, self-inflicted “heartbreak” fantasy. Tanaka’s film, which I think is important to note as “forgotten” does indulge in the male character’s sadness but the film does not meander it through it like thick, gooey emotional honey. Instead, she cuts through it and focuses on something far more interesting and heartbreaking: the status of Japanese women and their bodies during the American occupation. Sure, Reikichi being single but writing love letters for other people is ironic and heartbreaking, but not nearly as much as writing English love letters as a Japanese woman to an American soldier.

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The relationship between the Americans and Japanese during the occupation is one that has yet to be explored in film, at least to my knowledge, but Tanaka’s film begins to chip away at the power structure that it erected. She wasn’t the only Japanese filmmaker in the 1950s to depict sex work, but importantly, she was the only woman. I’ll celebrate someone like Naruse for having the most fair and respectful portrait of such a profession, but his male status does mean that he himself never suffered from the power dynamic that is involved in such work. Tanaka’s tenderness to her women rivals Naruse’s, and is of course levels beyond what Mizoguchi was depicting at the same time. A film like The Life of Oharu examines the oppression involved in a patriarchial society, but it does so exclusively through sex work. This isolating insists that such an oppression might be tied to women’s voluntary involvement in the profession. Tanaka’s film illuminates us to oppression, but she does not see this gendered power dynamic as being informed by sex work. Instead, the existence of sex work being influenced by the power structure. To say this in a less complicated way, Mizoguchi tortures his characters and makes them martyrs, Tanaka allows them space to roam, to discover this restriction of spaces on their own.

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Late in the film, Reikichi scolds Michiko for both her upper-class status and her lack of class consciousness. In this sequence, another tool of oppression in a capitalist society is given attention. The film later reveals that this image of Michiko as an upper-class woman is false and following the war, she too did sex work. The conversation is interesting because it is the only one that positions Reikichi as the oppressed. The fact that this is not the reality should say something about the other tools of oppression, the fact that they’re all linked even when one’s identity doesn’t reflect all of them. Reikichi is an honorable character but again, Tanaka does not afford him any easy pass. His profession as a love letter is founded on the need for (presumably impoverished) sex workers to make contact with the Americans who left him. His wistfulness and fantasies about Michiko could not even exist without this setup. Their romance, indeed a failed and tragic one, is only lived on the backs of laborers. He can take his own sermon on class to heart, he makes money from those “beneath him.”

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The political potential in Tanaka’s debut is staggering, but it isn’t the end of the film’s merits. Its parallel on colonialism and sexism is relevant, even today, and is enough to make the film required viewing. Interwoven with all of this is a heartache of a melodrama. Sure, Reikichi and Michiko’s lost love is contextualized by the structures briefly touched on above, but it does not dilute their sadness. If anything, they work together in providing the dissolving factor in their relationship. Like her countrymen, Ozu and Naruse, Tanaka has made a film that is political because it is personal and vice versa. What it says about life is not restricted to “traditional Japanese society” (an Orientalist construct), it resonates in contemporary, western society as well.

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L’arbre, le maire et la médiathèque / The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque (1993)

5 02 2014

I hesitate to put even the most woeful of directors in tiny compartments, let alone do the same for directors I love. Yet, if I had to do this for Eric Rohmer, I would obviously say he’s a filmmaker interested in relationships. Heterosexual relationships in particular, and whether or not that means something romantic or strictly sexual varies from film to film. The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque is a unique effort then because none of it is about coupling. The protagonists are already comfortable where they are it seems, and despite some quick allusions to divorce, there doesn’t really seem to be much of a problem with who is sleeping with who. Despite this, Rohmer’s interest lies in something similar. The etiquette of relationships shifts to the etiquette of political policy and the performance of progressive.

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Julien Dechaumes is the mayor of a small French town and he’s worried about its prospects for the future. Thanks to some connections in Paris, he’s able to afford the town the opportunity of a media library, or mediatheque. He envisions a place where the inhabitants of this isolated town can congregate, read books, watch movies, and listen to music. He sees this library as a potential cultural landmark, one which will eventually pull people from the city to the country and maintain the population which is slowly descending. The plan seems ideal, but there’s one thing standing in his way: Marc Rossignol, a school teacher who values the landscape over structures.

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The setup here seems sort of basic and unimpressive, but Rohmer throws in several ingredients that make the film not resemble a simplistic underdog activist against the modern, unappreciative politician. For one thing, Julien, by conventional narrative expectations, should have more say in the progress of the small town. He was born there and still lives there, in contrast to Marc, a city person who relocated to the country because he valued its idyllic beauty. In a more conventional script, the backgrounds would be flipped, Marc would be the faithful native and Julien would be the city person with no understanding of the landscape’s importance. In Rohmer’s world, these conflicts of the self serve as a reminder that the binary is hard to uphold when there’s contradictions on both sides. To be more clear, neither Julien nor Marc are given a vote of confidence from Rohmer. Instead, he’s more intrigued by the implications of what the two wrestle over.

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Rohmer has examined the differences between spaces before. Full Moon in Paris sees Louise juggling her life in two apartments: one by herself in the middle of Paris and one with her boyfriend in the suburbs. The two serve as constructed differences in her own mind, even though they might be exaggerated. One represents her independence, the other perhaps a longing for something more stable. There’s no absolute in Rohmer’s investigation of spaces, because if one is to take any conclusion from his studies, its that their meaning comes from who inhabits them. Sure, there’s outside influences but most of their meaning comes from our own mental construction of them. This is an absolutely crucial point in The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque because the crux of the script falls on the meanings Julien and Marc assign to a space. Marc, perhaps because he’s from the city wants the country to remain the same because it represents something opposing that city space. Julien, from the country, would rather see the evolution of this country space.

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Early in the film, Julien and his lover, Berenice (the two are divorced with a child, but not separated) go into the city to discuss the media library with an architect. The design upsets Berenice because a parking lot is placed next to it. She’s irritated by the visuals of this, because it will seem inauthentic. She requests the parking lot be underground so as not to ruin the imagery of the building, which is designed to fit in with the rest of the town’s architecture. In other words, the media library will not be a successful imitation if it doesn’t hide something like cars. Berenice is also a city person and like Marc she doesn’t want a mental construction of what represents “the country” to be compromised by progress that would actually help it. The two are a perfect match, seemingly defending the integrity of the small town and taking on the position that they think all residents should have. They think this because it seems the most conscious of preserving its essence.

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A small town like the one in the film would be “inauthentic” with a shopping mall. Or better yet, it would be tacky because of its falseness. Modern shopping malls came from somewhere, though, the arcades of Paris were once “sacred” land that transformed into a cityspace. Marc actually stumbles on the issue of his authenticity argument: “In ten years, the country will be the city.” Does the age of a setting lend its cred to authenticity? Seemingly yes, or do we forget that small, suburban shopping districts were all modeled after Madison Avenue, which isn’t any more or less authentic itself. It seems like a pessimistic point to make, but it is actually just one that demystifies reality: nothing is really authentic and there’s no deep “essence” to life. Everything is influenced, indirectly or not, by something. This is where the film comes back together with the rest of Rohmer’s work. His relationship films all comment on gender, the expression of which (especially in heterosexual relationships) is not always deep within our souls, but a product of our surroundings.

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Kicking and Screaming (1995)

4 02 2014

I guess some context is in order here. I just graduated from college a little over a month and I haven’t made any progress with what you might categorize as the rest of my life. I include this introduction because it is the very sensation that stands as an obstacle to the individuals in Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming. It’s a movie about being unable to move on from college and even though I am, comparatively speaking, only a recent graduate, the anxiety brought on by an aimless existence resonates so deeply it’s a little unfair. I’ll argue there’s more to the film than just “oh, this seems familiar” but I won’t ignore that part of the film’s sting comes from my own proximity to the situation. It’s a movie about where I am in life right now and if that sounds corny, be reassured that it’s not a life or death situation. Instead, it’s just an annoying and upsetting one.

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Grover, Max, Skippy, and Otis have all graduated from college. However, they have particular plans afterwards. Otis seeks to continue his education through grad school but the one hour time difference between New York and Milwaukee seems too much for him. Grover also has plans, moving to Brooklyn with his girlfriend, Jane. However, this all dissolves when she informs him that she’s also continuing her education and doing so in Prague. The two effectively breakup leaving the four guys with nothing much to do but sit around, get drunk, and feel anxious about their lack of a future.

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The presence of Chris Eigeman as Max alone invites some comparison to Whit Stillman’s work and Baumbach’s script seems to operate using the same type of clever verbal explosions. If there’s an observable difference, it’s that Stillman’s dialogue, while sad and aching underneath the surface, lacks the immediate poignancy of Baumbach’s. There’s an almost tragic self-loathing in every line here, one that announces a character’s unrest in the text itself but is intentionally masked by the character’s own  delivery of such dialogue. The characters that populate Baumbach’s world desperately want to cry out and announce their malaise. That’s far too dramatic and probably a little unattractive so instead, everyone casually floats their sadness to the surface. Throwing it into an ocean of witty dialogue like a life preservation vest, hoping that one of their friends will save them. Of course, everyone here is trying to stay afloat so little can be done to save their friends, who begin to resemble mere acquaintances anyway. Perhaps the metaphor is forced, but my point remains the same: the humor of characters is a self-preservation technique. They use it to mask their fears, which they secretly want to talk about at length.

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Superficially, Kicking and Screaming is about being unable to move on, from college in particular. This doesn’t seem like the most revolutionary idea or concept but it is one that Baumbach frames in way that captures the anguish of the transition. Otis, for example, is unable to attend grad school because of a one hour time difference. His complaint seems trivial and childish (the latter characteristic repeatedly reinforced by his wardrobe consisting only of pajama tops) but the humor of his protest resembles something real and tragic. We inevitably build routines in our lives, ones that in all likelihood, we will have to break. The reality of this break is a harsh one as it suggests something deeply uncomfortable. When I moved out of my apartment following graduation, I couldn’t help but cry. It seems weird in retrospect. Sure, I have plenty of wonderful memories and even as I write this, I think fondly of  living there. On the other hand, I knew such an existence was temporary. This knowledge is the very thing that Otis, as well as Max, Grover, and Skippy want to delay. They successfully construct a reality that isn’t productive or helpful, but does resemble the routine they followed for years. It doesn’t feel particularly good, either but it’s not nearly as uncomfortable as trying to break out from the mold.

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One might see the protagonists as helpless, simply because they won’t help themselves. Grover has an opportunity for an internship with the New Yorker, he’s interested, but not ecstatic. Nothing materializes out of this opportunity. Max doesn’t show any interest in pursuing a profession and gets involved with a seventeen year old girl. Skippy tries to go back to school, but the result is him just badgering Miami, his girlfriend losing patience for him and the entire group. They can’t help themselves because helping yourself is something that no one has constructed an idea about. Nobody knows what moving on looks like so nobody tries to move on. Chet, the character whose been in college longer than anyone, suggests the way to make God laugh is to have a plan. His skepticism towards having a life plan is not unfounded, but it might be the sort of thing that motivates Grover and company. They, like myself, don’t bother with a plan because they are already skeptical of it ever being successful. There’s not some sage wisdom that the film reveals in this moment, because Grover did have a plan and it didn’t work so he gave up on it. The alternative suggested is not exactly positive. The moment is a red herring, a glimpse into Chet’s own aimless but not the filmmaker trying to communicate his ideas through one character. When discussing your own life, you can’t really speak in such absolutes.

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The film ends with a flashback. One of Grover telling Jane how he wished they were an older couple so they could openly embrace without the influence of modern dating etiquette. The scene seems disconnected from the rest of the film’s extensive portrait of post-grad lethargy. It all works together, in my opinion. More importantly, I find this moment in communication with the rest of Baumbach’s oeuvre. Frances Ha includes a similar scene in which Frances drunkenly describes a singular moment she seeks in a relationshipThe Squid and the Whale has Laura Linney wistfully explaining to Jesse Eisenberg the moment they shared involving the titular diorama at the American Museum of Natural History. I’m not sure if I can connect all three of these sequences together in a cohesive way. There are, however, united by some yearning. The suggestion that we actually could construct an ideal moment, be it one in the future or one from the past. We’re not utterly hopeless because we can see a beautiful future, but it’s just really difficult to figure out how to get there in the first place. 

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