Nippon no akuryo / Evil Spirits of Japan (1970)

27 10 2014

There might be a temptation for one to identify the “evil spirits” mentioned in the title of Kazuo Kuroki’s 1970 film. Such a viewer might too easily be playing into the filmmaker’s hands. As a “experimental” riff on the yakuza genre, Kuroki’s film immediately sets up a conversation between state violence and the violence of organized crime. Suggesting cops themselves are not any different from the yakuza seems like a rather banal “revelation” one that might only seem profound to the most naive of audience members. However, he builds from this setup into something far more enriching: sure the parallel lives of the criminal and cop are engrossing, but the success of Kuroki’s film does not lie in the argument he’s positioning, but in the details of the images. In other words, there’s enough stylistic flair here to save a film that would be nothing more than platitudinous otherwise.

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Longtime yakuza bodyguard, Murase, is visiting an old flame when he stumbles upon something bizarre. She’s spent the night with a man that looks exactly like him. The man is Ochiai, a cop with a past as a revolutionary. Murase suggests a mutually beneficial switch. Ochiai is apprehensive, but eventually accepts the offer. Being able to infiltrate the criminal underworld seems like the opportunity of a lifetime, but the information he can obtain eventually takes a backseat to the experience. He begins to take comfort in the criminal lifestyle, where as Murase focuses all his efforts on researching an old case in which he was involved.

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Despite the literary origins, the fact that Evil Spirits of Japan was an Art Theater Guild production, would have been enough for many to register it as a film that isn’t bound to text. While this is accurate, I’m not sure such a statement is enough to prepare an audience for visual and audio trickery that Kuroki gets away with here. I use “trickery” not to sound dismissive, but instead because it feels like an exaggeration to label Kuroki’s aesthetic as an innovative one. Even in Japan, this kind of kinetic, tactile experience had already been accomplished in the work of a filmmaker of a Hiroshi Teshigahara, whose Woman of the Dunes seems to have a particular influence on Kuroki. Kuroki composes even the simplest shot/reverse shot scenes of conversation with hyper closeups, which seems to capture something that feels both sensual and tense. This is a mystery film, albeit an intentionally obtuse one, yet it visually functions in a way that would make sense for a more conventional narrative. This is not to say that Kuroki’s film looks boring. Quite the opposite, it is a complete joy to look at, but his grammar, is simple enough to follow.

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Again, this sounds like a Kuroki, but it isn’t. The fact that his film still feels and moves like a conventional thriller, works in its favor. He hasn’t made a particularly deep one. As it is, his film stands as an entertaining narrative executed in a dazzling way. I am not particularly fond of the critical practice in which one separates the form from the content. I do intend to stress how impressive the form is here. I am not suggesting the content is both something that can be separated and not worthy of such a visually beautiful film. This is a difficult terrain to navigate, but essentially the narrative here is snappy and fun, but not the most fascinating thing to endure. Often, scenes seem to work better when they’re decontextualized. Kuroki seems to understand this himself. Maybe the film’s sex scenes were just a selling point, but they’re so tender and tactile that they don’t translate as an easy way to give an audience sex, but instead a break from the narrative that aches in a way that the rest of the film unfortunately resists.

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The problem is less that Kuroki has made a genre film, and more that he hasn’t devoted himself to saying anything new about the yakuza film. If every genre is a discourse, then every new genre film is a new conversation, yet Kuroki seems to find no problem with simply reheating old works and refashioning them with new (visual) rhetoric. Again, he’s made a fine film, but one that doesn’t feel vital. Murase and Ochiai’s doppelganger scenario has the potential  for something about the connection between state violence and criminal violence, as I already suggested earlier in this post. However, Kuroki’s attention seems to wander to the “cool” details of his characters once he gets past his “cops are bad” statement. Allegedly, he wanted to make a film that looked and sounded like Funeral Parade of Roses but told a story that was far more familiar to a mainstream audience. If that’s truly case, he absolutely succeeded.

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Mo hozue wa tsukanai / No More Easy Life (1979)

21 10 2014

The Art Theater Guild’s courting of a global “new wave” cinematic aesthetic often bred, for better or worse (in my opinion, the latter), films that were male-centric. Perhaps this came from the influences of global cinema, or maybe it came from the movement’s rebels rallying against the more feminine drive found in Japanese cinema of the 1950s. Whatever the case may be, the Japanese New Wave and by extension, the Art Theater Guild, will be remembered as fostering a home for men who wanted to make serious artistic and political statements about their existence as men. This is not an overall truth (and I find it particularly important to note that one of ATG’s most celebrated works, Funeral Parade of Roses, is about women, though history has challenged their status as such) but the ethos of a filmmaker like Nagisa Oshima and even Kaneto Shindo (see yesterday’s post on The Strangling) shifts the focus entirely away from women. No More Easy Life, a late seventies ATG production, goes against this current.

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Mariko is at a transitional phrase in life. She’s nearing the end of her college education, but her focus in not on books. Instead, she’s concerned with money and she worries far more about employment. She drifts from one occupation to another, just as she seems to jump inbetween two potential romantic suitors. She already has a history with Tsuneo, one which we don’t know all the details about. We are able to deduce that although he likes, and may even love Mariko, he is unable to articulate this in a direct way. He’s too busy, too aloof, and always seems to be ignoring Mariko on purpose. Hashimoto, on the other hand, is his foil. He is not at all timid in expressing his love for Mariko, but he does so a bit too earnestly. He’s weirdly possessive, especially since he knows Mariko isn’t quite ready to settle down. Posed as a love triangle with one potential right answer, Mariko shifts the question to a yes or no. It’s not should stay with Tsuneo or Hashimoto but rather, should she bother with any man or just move on as a single woman.

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While celebrating No More Easy Life for being a film centering a woman’s experience, I do realize that one could be on shaky ground in the case of the two potential boyfriends. If it’s about the targets of her heterosexual desire, isn’t it just the same old thing framed from a different angle? A lot of her anxiety involves men and thus, much of the discourse (both Mariko’s own words and the subtext of the film) is around these two men. Isn’t this the reality for a hetero women like Mariko, though? Even if she doesn’t want to date (which seems to be the case), she does want affection, some physical intimacy. She’s more than entitled to it, especially if someone like Tsuneo is only going to come up when it is convenient for him. Should Mariko herself not play by the same rules? At one point, she tells him directly: “I’m not the kind of a woman to wait.” There’s evidence to suggest otherwise, but director Yoichi Higashi (of later Village of Dreams fame) visualizes this as an internal conflict. Mariko doesn’t want to wait for Tsuneo, but sometimes she does.

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Mariko’s hesitation or lack of certainty is not that she’s a weak character, but she does have the tremendous burden of the rest of her life hanging over her. That sounds dramatic, but she’s reaching the end of college, and the “real” part of her adult life is set to begin. Towards the beginning, there are multiple sequences of Mariko interacting with strangers, most of them male. In almost all of these instances, her safety, though never directly threatened, is still questioned. Her simple nice gestures get extrapolated as an invitation to catcall. The camera never suggests these interactions are unusual and that something terrible is happening to Mariko. Instead, Higashi’s eye captures something that seems painful and ordinary, troubling yet typical. After these sequences, we can’t help but notice Mariko being more careful with words. Because of her status as a woman, even the most simple interactions (just saying hello and goodbye) deserve intense deliberation. The effect is not unlike Jonathan Glazer’s recent Under the Skin, but whereas those sequences (understandably) echo the lurking terror found in a horror film, everything is played far more innocently here. That’s because to most (male) observers, these interactions seem innocent.

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Higashi lacks stylistic touches of a Glazer or a Hou Hsiao-Hsien (Millennium Mambo is another reference point here) and maybe that’s what prevents this film from being a bonafide masterpiece. I’m not sure such abstract or poetic flourishes would work here though, as the experience itself is so deeply ingrained in the film’s straightforward aesthetic. It’s a stupid hypothetical to even present, but I do think it’s worthwhile to briefly mention the directors who followed Higashi’s route, even if they do so subconsciously. The novelty of an ATG film that actually cared about women wasn’t enough for the public. The company would fold two years later and Higashi wouldn’t get international attention for another 17 years. It’s a shame too, because he’s crafted the sort of portrait that is so dense and detailed, that it would be difficult to shake from anybody’s mind.

5





Kousatsu / The Strangling (1979)

20 10 2014

At the risk of greatly simplifying his career, Kaneto Shindo was probably a bit lost by 1979. His world renowned horror pictures like Onibaba and Kuroneko were already a decade gone. He hadn’t kept up with the output of the Japanese New Wave, but his career stayed afloat. Shindo was never claimed by the New Wave, yet he was never regarded as one of the “traditional” filmmakers they stylistically opposed. Like Kinoshita and Kobayashi, he stands in the liminal space. Here he was in 1979, the West over its “honeymoon phase” of critical engagement of Japanese film,  with a “dark” film worthy of the New Wave and one produced by its offshoot company, Art Theater Guild. Fittingly enough, The Strangling tells us a story of generational conflict. He has his perceptive moments, but I’m not sure they manage to justify a film that is so straightforward in its mean spirit.

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Yasuzo enters the bedroom of his son, Tsutomu, and strangles him. Ryoko, the boy’s mother, cries in horror but does not seem to protest her husband’s actions. What could possess a parent to do such a thing to their own child? We jump ahead to Yasuzo’s trials. The neighborhood has teamed up in support of him, many visit Ryoko with a positive attitude and a hope that her husband will return soon. Ryoko seems unable to express any emotion, yet we see she was a bubbly individual in the past. She was defensive of Tsutomu, even as his behavior continued to become more troubling. Tsutomu himself, perhaps emotionally stunted by his parent’s own bizarre relationship, sees the world rather selfishly and he responds with a violent impulse. A classmate, Hatsuko, warms up to him. She takes his virginity, but confesses that she’ll have to kill herself afterwards, as she is on the run from the murder of her abusive uncle.

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I find myself struggling to articulate the problems I have with The Strangling without sounding like a concerned parent. Perhaps that is fitting, considering the primary dynamic being explored here. But basically, I do find myself emotionally bruised by Shindo’s onslaught of narrative nastiness. Tsutomu is a “troubled” youth, but my sympathy for him cannot continue following his attempted rape of Hatsuko, an entitlement that eventually resurfaces when his Oedipal desire that has been brewing throughout the film finally boils to the surface. The “morally ambiguous” protagonist may have had novelty in 1979, but it doesn’t know, and Shindo’s own reconstruction of such a character type fails when he actually just produces someone who is despicable. There is no ambiguity, he’s just all bad.

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Of course, Shindo complicates these matters by shadowing his son figure with a father that is just as difficult to like. However, much of what we come to find out about Yasuzo comes from the time we spend in Tsutomu’s own head. Perhaps then, the film is meditation on the forced performativity of adolescent rebellion, but such an idea is just as rotten, especially coming from an elder like Shindo. The film’s strongest moment come when there is less of a wallowing in this behavior, and more of a meditation on the breakdown in communication. Hatsuko is one of the few characters one can feel sympathy for here, yet the talk of her death is one that repeatedly blames her for her own victimhood. Yasuzo himself responds to the news of her suicide with an unhelpful “This is what the world’s coming to!” This way of digesting the news shows up throughout the film and I see it in the discourse of people today. As opposed to seeing Hatsuko as a tragic victim, he takes the story at its surface and identifies her act as the tragedy.

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Hatsuko’s story is one that is shortlived, or at least experienced only fleetingly by the audience. Her death is ultimately a narrative tool to provide more “troubled backstory” for Tsutomu. Indeed, much of the film seems to be about how he responds to what the world has dealt him. Once he dies, however, the focus becomes how Ryoko processes this reality and how she grieves. Again, Shindo’s rare moment of situating a woman at the center yields something far more interesting than the brooding and bruising male egos that dominate the screen. The men grab us by our shirts and tell us how to feel on an instinctual level. Perhaps only in enduring their behavior, are we able to understand the frustration of the women around them. Yet, Shindo seems to revel in the assumed “transgressive” behavior of his protagonist, but it ends up being one of those things that’s both hateful and boring.

5





Ai yori ai e / So Goes My Love (1938)

19 10 2014

A brisk comedy that runs under an hour doesn’t seem like a film ripe for social discourse, but this effort from Yasujiro Shimazu (the “newest” of which I’ve seen from him) is loaded with conversations about the ever overused idea of “modernity.” Shimazu doesn’t restrict the iconography of the modern city into simplistic signs, but instead has them collapse under their own supposedly concrete implications. So Goes My Love is a rich text for anyone interested in Japan in the 1930s, which might be a limited crowd in the film world, but it is vital to any film scholars that even bother with just one Japanese film. This sounds like hyperbole, but so much of western film academics misread into Japanese history is alluded to and playfully mocked here.

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Shigeo is an unemployed writer living with his girlfriend, Minako. Minako makes the money to support the both of them, as Shigeo’s aspirations for a writing careers seem less possible with each day. The couple is no serious financial peril, though. While Minako is not exactly making a comfortable amount of money as a barmaid, Shigeo’s parents are still very much in the picture. In fact, Shigeo only ran away to live with Minako after his father refused to approve of the couple’s marriage. While Shigeo struggles on the surface, his woes and frustrations all happen over the financial safety net of his parents, who are willing to welcome him back once he breaks things off with Minako. Toshiko, his sister, comes to visit and in doing so begins to build something of a bridge between Minako and the family that wants nothing to do with her.

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Shuji Sano, who is perhaps most famous for his roles in Early Summer and Carmen Comes Home, plays the brooding Shigeo here and if one thinks he might come off as a little bratty, that’s the point. This isn’t a tendency film, and if it were, Shigeo would not be the downtrodden subject. He’s struggling and finding himself in the world, to borrow but one cliche to help us construct the idea of the serious male writer. Shimazu is teasing his performance of this role, not the actor’s but the character himself. He’s not the breadwinner in the relationship, hell he doesn’t make anything, but one should look at the scene where Toshiko (played by the great yet forgotten Mieko Takamine) shows up. In this scene, he is intentionally standoffish. While Minako invites Toshiko to sit down and have tea, he quickly and rudely tries to dismiss her. What right does Shigeo have to do this in the first place? This isn’t his apartment, yet his voice, because he is a man, ultimately wins out. At the same time, Shimazu himself frames this sequence with limited camera movement and from a distance. In the surveillance quality of the shot, we are able to understand that he is silly. It’s not that his masculine posturing is unsuccessful, it actually is successful, but that’s why it is so ridiculous.

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While much of the narrative is centered around Shigeo, Toshiko and Minako both occupy an important part of the film’s conversation. For whatever reason, there is an increased emphasis on questions of modernity from western film scholars viewing Asian cinema. I personally believe this comes from a rather simplistic idea about how gender functions in non-western cultures. Women are oppressed there but not here. It’s an idea that has long been used to justify colonial occupation, “White men saving brown women from brown men” as Gayatri Spivak puts it. Out of this line of thought, many western academics shift their attention to how women dress. The question of modernity is a valid one for Japan, a country whose infrastructure was rapidly reshaped only 40 years before this film. The conception and development of the “modern space” is worth researching, but this conversation can’t be limited to women’s way of dress.

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Minako dresses in a “modern” way at her job, but often returns to a more traditional way of dress when at home. One could suggest that this is to appease Shigeo, but he does the exact same thing when looking for a job. Nothing is made about a man’s way of dress, because the potential meanings for clothes is often gendered feminine. Thus, it is ignored when a man jumps between two equally masculine modes of presentation, even though it mirrors the heavily politicized way a woman jumps between two equally feminine modes of presentation. This flexibility does say something, but Shimazu refuses to let it fall into the simple binary of the modern woman vs the traditional woman. The film’s narrative functions in a remarkably similar way. This romantic comedy gets it happy ending when the “traditional” parents finally meet Minako, and find out that she’s wonderful. It seems like a cheap dramatic turn because much of the frustration in the film seems to have been easily written away, but it suggests something powerful: that all of the ideas are tied to something, sure, but not something stable and finite. In this case, it would be wise to question how we imagine the “traditional” vs the “modern.” Neither is concrete, especially when they are in conversation with each other.

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