Suzaki Paradaisu: Akashingô / Suzaki Paradise Red Light (1956)

25 12 2014

If one is to know anything about filmmaker Yuzo Kawashima, it’s that he served as a mentor to the much more celebrated Shohei Imamura. After providing backup for Yasujiro Ozu and Kinuyo Tanaka, Kawashima was the last director Imamura took orders from. Unlike Ozu and Tanaka, there isn’t as much written about Kawashima so the impulse is to engage through his work and its connection with Imamura. This isn’t a completely useless exercise, but it does limit us. Perhaps it is most helpful to begin with what Kawashima and screenwriter Toshiro Ide (a frequent Naruse collaborator) manage to do here. Maybe it won’t strike us especially original and new on the surface, but their conversation that comes from it is unique.

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Tsutae and Yoshiji are an unemployed couple pondering their fate on the center of the bridge. They’re reached a literal and figurative crossroads, all options for a “normal” life seem to have been exhausted. Tsutae schmoozes her way into a job as a barmaid at an establishment run by an old acquaintance, Otuku. Yoshiji isn’t entirely accepting of his girlfriend’s role, in particular its proximity to sex work. He doesn’t entirely know Tsutae’s past, but he knows he doesn’t want her “falling back” into those old ways. Otuku manages to get Yoshiji a job as a noodle deliveryman, where he is befriended by a Tamako, a gentle woman that seems eager to get close to him. All this happens while Otuku’s runaway husband returns with the intention of resuming his role as a father.

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I can imagine a certain type of cynical viewer watching the opening fifteen minutes of this film and rolling their eyes at the prospect of yet another Japanese film from the 1950s dealing with some variation of sex work. 1956 alone also gave us Naruse’s Flowing and Mizoguchi’s Street of Shame. The irony, of course, is that in 1956, Japan’s anti-prostitution laws were looming. As always, it feels necessary to distinguish between forms of sex work in Japan, the women here are closer to Mizoguchi’s “prostitutes” – a word that I hesitate using just because of the violence it inflicts on its targets, but they occupy a different place in society as the geishas in Naruse’s Flowing. The geishas, at least in a superficial way, are more “respectable” even as they are subjected to just as much ill will from men.

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Tsutae in Suzaki Paradise Red Light doesn’t occupy either position, though the space she occupies is marked with the more scrutinized prostitutes of Mizoguchi’s film. Although the viewer never sees her doing anything beyond pouring drinks, her place of business, because it is in Suzaki, is marked as being lower. It’s this marking that bothers Yoshiji, because neither he nor us learns about Tsutae’s past, we are teased about it, invited to imagine a existence in which she did have to sell her body to make money. He sees himself (and men in general) as being necessary for women in order to protect them from such a life, yet Tsutae becomes a barmaid because Yoshiji’s ideas for making money has left them with absolutely nothing. He sees this as failing his patriarchal duty. He bundles up this frustration, which leads to his obsessive outbursts that threaten to ruin their relationship entirely.

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The films ends with the two’s reconciliation. Just like the beginning, they stand on a bridge and wonder how they’ll make a life together. Tsutae, sensing the frustration she’s caused her boyfriend, tells him that he gets to pick where they go next. It’s easy to read this ending as a confirmation of the same patriarchal values that Yoshiji fails to live up to, but I hesitate to accept this. I think the reality is instead that Tsutae, perhaps out of convenience, has stayed in this relationship. She does so because it is slightly more pleasant than the life she saw working as a barmaid, even as it did provide her with some financial comfort. Maybe she’s terrified of change, and thus, she accepts a familiar reality, the one which was introduced to us in the beginning of the film. The opacity of her decision benefits the film, maybe it lacks “logic” yet it seems more grounded to reality. It’s sad and unfortunate for Tsutae, but who are we to question her choice?

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Kokuhakuteki joyûron / Confessions Among Actresses (1971)

18 12 2014

Throughout his career, Yoshishige Yoshida frequently worked with his wife Mariko Okada. The two built a relationship, at least cinematically speaking, that seemed deeply intimate, with a transparency that sometimes felt like a pen’s tip breaking their paper. Perhaps they both operate too openly, but whatever the case, it yielded some of the most exciting and aesthetically advanced films from Japan during the 1960s. Here, though, he decided to go even deeper, executing a film that directly confronts both reality’s contribution to fiction as well as performativity in its relation to gender. Yoshida has crafted a melodrama filled with hysterical women, but he’s pulled the (figurative) camera back further and in the process revealed the context in which we engage with these ideas of melodrama. Considering it gender connotation, the term might be completely irrelevant.

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Kyoko Ichimori, Aki Kaido, and Makiko Isaku are all famous actresses playing in the same movie. Though we never see them together until the very end, we are taught to understand that the three are connected not just by a film, but by a shared trauama. For Kyoko, it’s a reoccurring dream in which she sees her husband cheating on her with …perhaps her assistant? Or maybe somebody else entirely, and maybe the dream is actually a sequence in the aforementioned film? Makiko is haunted by a failed double suicide with a lover, who may or may not have been her father. Aki, like Kyoko also has suspicions about her husband, but her anxiety is brought on by a memory of her friend’s assault.

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I was listening to a recent interview with Jacqueline Rose about her new book Women in Dark Times. The book focuses on three extremely different women, all of whom are united (at least in Rose’s narrative) but their ability to make their suffering known in resourceful ways. One of these women is Marilyn Monroe, whose status as a “feminist icon” is often contested, but Rose makes a crucial observation about Monroe’s performance. She suggests their heightened “ditzyness” was her own way of undermining the content. A “fuck you” to the writers for creating such a vapid character and to those in casting who saw such a vapid character as a natural fit for her image. I mention all of this because it reverberated in my brain through Confessions Among Actress, here are three women whose “success” as performers might have be charged by their real life experiences. This isn’t anything new, but Yoshida’s suggestion is that women who are dramatic performers are discredited as they navigate in the real world. Their suffering is seen as trivial because they are so flighty on screen.

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Yamada’s dialogue seems to echo these sentiments, with constant reminder from the few male characters that they see the problems of the women as something laughable. Weirdly enough, all the men in the film must defer to the women, if only because of their elevated status as celebrities. It is this celebrity status that provides men with their skepticism, although that is ultimately wrongheaded. Early on, Kyoko’s agent tells her that “Only what can be seen on the exterior is real with actresses” but then the film goes on to rally against this. In a way, such a simplified idea might have a grain of truth. Many believe that a great actor (and Mariko Okada and Ineko Arima are indeed great) can convey something underneath their gestures and dialogue. But in the public sphere, it is the surface that becomes the only reality and thus, the trauma of all three women here is ignored because of their public image.

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While the meta quality provides us with many of material to ponder, but Yamada’s real talent has always been his compositions. His earlier films showcase the grace and sophistication of Antonioni, while punctuating scenes with a camera that is ever on the move, looking for evocative tactile imagery. He visuals remain sensualist here, but he is less willing to let his camera roam around his character endlessly, though he does that exactly from time to time. More frequently, he retreats to precise compositions that recall Ozu, yet suggests a completely different way of seeing bodies. Ozu provided portraits, while Yoshida (at least here) seems to be on a mission to discover new ways of creating an architecture with his characters. It visualizes the malleability of an actress, and her dehumanization that results from it.

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