Shukuzu / Miniature (1953)

21 08 2015

Kaneto Shindo would go on to have a stronger association with the Japanese New Wave, but like Keisuke Kinoshita (who he wrote a screenplay for years before this film) and Masahiro Shinoda, he seemed to get his break before such a movement became clearly defined. Miniature is not his first film, but it is one of his earliest and it places him in a precarious time and position. The influence of his mentor, Kenji Mizoguchi, cannot be missed and yet, within a film told mostly through interiors, Shindo tries to find a way to tell a story in a new way. I’d be lying if I said I am enamored with Miniature, but I still find it unique and its place in history is often ignored in crafting a more convenient narrative of Japan’s cinematic history. I’ve always found the idea of a “classic cinema” and “a New Wave” to be frustrating and simple, Miniature elaborates on the fallacy of such a construction.

1

Ginko leaves behind her hometown and her family of shoemakers to become a geisha in Chiba. She is overwhelmed at first, but quickly adapts to the pressures of the job. She falls in love with a young med student, Kurisu, but warns him that their relationship will never work because of her profession. Later, the madam of her house dies and grants Ginko to be her replacement. Frightened by the demands of her madam’s husband, she runs away to Takada. There, she falls for another young man, but their interactions are interrupted by his mother. Heartbroken, she returns to Tokyo, bitter and hardened by her experiences. She worries she’ll never escape from her profession and makes a concentrated effort to make sure her younger sisters won’t have to follow in her footsteps.

2

Like his mentor, Kenji Mizoguchi, Shindo’s tale of labor goes the route of tragedy. It is indeed hard to escape the comparison between Miniature and Mizoguchi’s Life of Oharu. Here, Ginko does not descend down a cycle of abuse, but her life is similarly transient. In both films, the constant movement is self-defense, ironically the physical movement clashes with the lack of social mobility for its heroines. Ginko, late in the film, expresses her deep anxiety that she’ll die a geisha. Oharu, on the other hand, knows she’ll die a sexworker, her dread is wondering when she will be killed. Additionally, Ginko has options, which might be Shindo’s crucial modification of the tragedy. She can escape, but the other options are equally uninviting.

3

Early in the film, after she leaves Chiba, Ginko returns to her family. She has chosen that life as a shoemaker will be better than life as a geisha (she states this directly at one point) but once she’s returned, she discovers that shoemaking is similarly unrewarding. Ginko’s options are just all upsetting (it is a tragedy after all) but at least she is given the agency to choose her route. Eventually, she chooses to try life as a geisha again. Her earlier lament is not a lie, labor will always be dispiriting, and we have to weigh other factors. For Ginko, a life of her own, away from her family, is the incentive to resume an occupation she loathes.

4

While there some splendid outdoor scenes, a majority of Miniature takes place inside. As someone who would go on to make The Naked Island, you can see how this may have been a limitation to Shindo. Early on, he tries something interesting, though. The interior sequences in Chiba are filmed like a bad dream: every shot seems to be crowded with bodies in motion, inducing nausea. The few still moments are framed in slanted shots, zooming in on the subjects. Meanwhile, Ginko returns to her family and is photographed in loving tracking shots. In the film’s most moving moment, she returns to her childhood room and falls asleep viewing artifacts of her past. The camera glides to the window, as if to embody the mobility of her daydream. Only in this particular fragile space is she able to dream of a better life. Alas, dreams are the only breaks given from a brutal reality.

5

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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.

4

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.

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