Saturday, April 24, 2010

Double Suicide

Thursday 4/29. Kent Hall 413. 8:30PM.

Double Suicide, 1969
(心中天網島 Shinjû: Ten no amijima)
Dir. Masahiro Shinoda (Pale Flower)
Starring Nakamura Kichiemon and Iwashita Shima (Shinoda's wife, who we've seen in Harakiri)
Music by Takemitsu Toru (Woman in the Dunes, Pale Flower, Ran)
Based off of the 1721 masterpiece of bunraku theatre, Chikamatsu Monzaemon's The Love Suicides at Amijima.

Perhaps my favorite Japanese film (barring Ozu), this film manages to be faithful to the original masterpiece while employing stunning avant-garde techniques. Layers and layers of meaning.

"Many films have drawn from classic Japanese theatrical forms, but none with such shocking cinematic effect as director Masahiro Shinoda’s Double Suicide. In this striking adaptation of a Bunraku puppet play (featuring the music of famed composer Toru Takemitsu), a paper merchant sacrifices family, fortune, and ultimately life for his erotic obsession with a prostitute."

WARNING: SPOILER ALERT (Though it's kind of in the title...)
Despite the richness of the theatrical tradition in Japan, there have been few adaptations from stage to cinema: the novel has always been favored. Apart from aragoto, a sword-playing genre (and the perennial versions of the play The Loyal Forty-Seven Ronin), the influence of the kabuki theater has been fairly marginal, the assumption being that kabuki modes of acting and staging are generally unsuited to the cinema. However, it appears that younger Japanese directors have found in kabuki a way of exploring different levels of reality. Oshima’s Diary of a Shinjuku Thief reproduces a primitive form of kabuki as his central dramatic device. Shinoda’s approach to kabuki is, in a sense, more traditional: It is his very use of these traditional elements which is the mainspring of Double Suicide.

This film is a close adaptation of Chikamatsu’s 1720 doll-drama The Double Suicide at Ten No Amijima, and traces a basic conflict in Japanese drama, giri-minjo, between social obligation and personal emotion in the bourgeois milieu. Jihei, married with two children, falls in love with a courtesan, Koharu. As there is no possibility of being together in this world, Jihei sees the only solution as double suicide. When Koharu appears unwilling to die with him, he temporarily abandons her. Eventually, following a mandated divorce, Jihei and Koharu commit suicide together.

As in all Chikamatsu’s work, the individual is inevitably sacrificed to the social system, embodied in the family. Characteristically, his lovers can only find transcendence in death; their ability to control their own lives is non-existent. Mizoguchi in Chikamatsu Monogatari adapted Chikamatsu’s vision to some extent—death for his lovers becomes a kind of fulfillment when compared with the wretchedness of their lives. But Shinoda retains Chikamatsu’s view of death as the ultimate protest against social structures (an extremely faithful interpretation of the original play).

However, Shinoda has succeeded in revealing an entirely new level of meaning through his mise en scène. The film begins with the kurago (the men dressed entirely in black who traditionally handle the puppets) assembling the bunraku puppets in preparation for the performance of Double Suicide while someone gives final instructions over the phone. The film moves into the ostensibly real world of drama, live actors taking over for the puppets, though still manipulated by the kurago. Shinoda has said that the kurago realize one of Chikamatsu’s basic principles: the need to realize the “thin line between truth and falsehood.” “They . . . represent the eye of the camera, . . . the desire of the audience to force their way deeper into the story, the minds of the characters, and possibly even . . . the mind of Chikamatsu himself.” At times they manipulate the characters, drawing them nearer their inevitable fate, shown briefly at the beginning of the film, when Jihei crosses a bridge, under which the camera reveals his body lying next to that of Koharu. This emphasis on the artificiality of the drama serves the purpose of distancing the audience in a Brechtian fashion. The audience cannot identify with the individual characters, and is therefore forced to observe, much the same way as the kurago. This second use of the kurago brings about the film’s deeply disturbing effect. As the tragedy mounts, Shinoda constantly makes us aware of the kurago’s anguish—his continual close-ups of the masked faces reveal their awareness of their own helplessness. Their enforced silence mirrors that of the audience, and signifies a mounting despair.

Shinoda’s major concern is less the conflict between duty and personal inclination than that between ethics and eroticism. Throughout the film, eroticism is seen as being inextricably linked with death (the final lovemaking scene takes place in a cemetery). In earlier scenes, the physicality of sexuality contrasts sharply with the extreme artificiality of the interiors; in such a society sex can only offer fleeting transcendence. Ultimate transcendence can only lie in death itself, which is symbolized at the end of the film by a huge, phallic bell that the kurago toll before the double suicide.

Also interesting is Shinoda’s purely allegorical conception of women. The actress Shima Iwashita plays the part of the courtesan Koharu and that of Osan, Jihei’s wife. In a sense, the societal tensions that Chikamatsu depicted—between duty and personal inclination—have been internalized by the Koharu-Osan character, reflecting the rapid, traumatic emancipation that women have undergone in Japan since the end of the Second World War. The mutual respect felt by the women is constantly stressed, as if, in fact, they were conflicting aspects of personality. Koharu’s consideration for Osan is so great that even before she is about to die, she allows Jihei to cut her throat, leaving her to die alone in a field of grass while he climbs to the top of the hill to hang himself. Only after they are both dead can their bodies lie together. The only thing which links them in death is the sash that Jihei takes from her body to hang himself with.

Chikamatsu’s play ends on a human note, with Jihei’s brother and child coming to look for him. Shinoda’s ending is far more abstract and despairing, with shots of empty streets and houses intercut with crowds of people. Against this, the sheer horror of the lovers’ mutilated bodies attains real meaning.
-Claire Johnston

Monday, April 19, 2010


Columbia University. Kent Hall 413. Thursday 4/22 @ 8:30 PM.


Dir. Kobayashi Masaki (Kwaidan, The Human Condition)
Starring Nakadai Tatsuya (Ran, Kwaidan) and Iwashita Shima (Double Suicide)

"Following the collapse of his clan, unemployed samurai Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai) arrives at the manor of Lord Iyi, begging to commit ritual suicide on his property. Iyi’s clansmen, believing the desperate ronin is merely angling for charity, try to force him to eviscerate himself—but they have underestimated his honor and his past. Winner of the 1963 Cannes Film Festival’s Special Jury Prize, Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri is a scathing denouncement of feudal authority and hypocrisy."
-Criterion Collection

Japanese director Masaki Kobayashi came of age in the postwar moment, a time when filmmakers were at the vanguard of dissident expression in that country. Drawing upon a rich history of protest in Japanese cinema, which had fallen dormant during the war and occupation years, filmmakers seized the opportunity to challenge those institutions that remained wedded to the nation’s feudal past. Of this generation of directors, none was as passionate as Kobayashi. Every one of his films, from The Thick-Walled Room (1953) to the feature-length documentary Tokyo Trial (1983) to The Empty Table (1985), is marked by a defiance of tradition and authority, whether feudal or contemporary. Kobayashi found the present to be no more immune to the violation of personal freedoms than the pre-Meiji past, under official feudalism. “In any era, I am critical of authoritarian power,” Kobayashi told me when I interviewed him in Tokyo, during the summer of 1972. “In The Human Condition [1958–61] it took the form of militaristic power; in Harakiri it was feudalism. They pose the same moral conflict in terms of the struggle of the individual against society.”

Like other directors of this period—notably, Akira Kurosawa—Kobayashi often expressed his political dissidence via the jidai-geki, or period film, in which the historical past becomes a surrogate for modern Japan. In Kobayashi’s hands, the jidai-geki exposed the historical roots of contemporary injustice. (Japanese audiences were well schooled in history and could be counted on to connect the critique of the past with abuses in the present.) Harakiri, made in 1962, was, in Kobayashi’s career, the apex of this practice. In the film’s condemnation of the Iyi clan, Kobayashi rejects the notion of individual submission to the group. He condemns, simultaneously, the hierarchical structures that pervaded Japanese political and social life in the 1950s and 1960s, especially the zaibatsu, the giant corporations that recapitulated Japanese feudalism.

Born in Hokkaido, on February 14, 1916, and educated at the prestigious Waseda University, in Tokyo, Kobayashi joined the Shochiku Ofuna studio in 1941, as an assistant director. Eight months later, he was drafted into the Japanese Imperial Army. There, he resolutely rejected the opportunity to become an officer, insisting upon remaining at the rank of private. To suffer the misfortunes of the ordinary recruit at the hands of the military clique, to place himself in harm’s way without the prerogatives of the officer class—the class that had led Japan into the Pacific War—was Kobayashi’s means of protesting against the war itself. The Pacific War, Kobayashi has said simply, was “the culmination of human evil.”

After the war, Kobayashi returned to Shochiku Ofuna, where he -assisted the great director Keisuke Kinoshita, before graduating to directing in the early 1950s. His antiauthoritarian tendencies were immediately apparent in his work, inevitably provoking studio censorship. His first major film, The Thick-Walled Room, was shelved by Shochiku Ofuna for four years, as a result of its controversial suggestion that those responsible for Japanese wartime atrocities were not the minor, or “B” and “C,” war criminals but those at the top. Kobayashi had been indignant that, at the end of the war, many soldiers and low-ranking officers were punished cruelly, while many of those directly responsible for the crimes escaped censure.

It is surprising that a director like Kobayashi would ultimately flourish at Shochiku Ofuna, which was then specializing in sentimental domestic dramas of everyday life. Even the great directors working at the studio, Yasujiro Ozu and Kinoshita, fit the studio model. Ozu’s films may dramatize social change—nowhere more so than in his masterpiece Tokyo Story—but his characters ultimately accept that they are powerless to alter their circumstances. In contrast, Kobayashi’s characters risk their very existence by coming into conflict with the forces of injustice. Indeed, the individual in his films best expresses himself when he risks everything, taking a stand against corruption, hypocrisy, and evil.

Harakiri opens in 1630, only three decades into the more than 250-year reign of the Tokugawa shogunate. The Tokugawa consolidation of power, following its victory in a civil war, resulted in the destruction of many clans, depriving feudal daimyo of their fiefdoms and converting their samurai into ronin, condemned to wander the countryside masterless, in search of means of survival. Still armed with two swords—representing their soul, according to the code of Bushido—the former samurai are feared and mistrusted.

Safely under the protection of their Tokugawa ally, the Iyi clan are contemptuous of the suffering ronin who come to their door requesting that they be permitted to perform harakiri (ritual suicide), in the hope that they might instead be hired on. When Motome Chijiiwa (Akira Ishihama) presents himself before the Iyi clan for this purpose, they choose to preside over his death rather than offer assistance. It is his father-in-law, Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai), who, in shaming the Iyi clan before their retainers and avenging Chijiiwa’s death, expresses Kobayashi’s view that there are ideas worth dying for. Tsugumo’s bold defiance of feudal authority has a precedent in the code of Bushido itself: the samurai who sacrifices his conscience to “the capricious will . . . or fancy of a sovereign,” Inazo Nitobe writes in Bushido: The Soul of Japan, is to be chastised, even if the only recourse against injustice open to the samurai in Harakiri, after failing to appeal to the conscience of the Iyi clan elder, is to shed his own blood.

Kobayashi discovers irony in the finiteness of the Tokugawa period. The feudal daimyo behave as if their power will last forever, but audiences are able to penetrate their hubris through their awareness that the Tokugawas will be defeated and that official feudalism will fall with the restoration of the Emperor Meiji, in 1868. This irony is reinforced when Tsugumo tears apart the armored figure, with its white wig, that stands for the clan’s heritage. When it is later resurrected and reseated in its place of honor, Kobayashi exposes the fragility and transience of all authoritarian power.

This perspective fits Kobayashi’s subtle critique of contemporary society as well. Kobayashi suggests that, just as the Tokugawas, in their arrogance, were shortly to be defeated by upstart, dissident clans loyal to the emperor—and as militarists during World War II had been defeated—those wielding feudal power in the present might well find their authority coming to an end.

Kobayashi’s rebellious sensibility found its parallel in the actor he discovered, Nakadai, star of Harakiri and Kobayashi’s other masterpiece, The Human Condition (and later of Kurosawa’s High and Low and Ran). An actor of the modern Shingeki, or New Theater, Nakadai embodied postwar individualism and youth culture—in his clear enunciation and strong, deep speaking voice and in his expressive body movements, facial mobility, and willingness to convey deeply felt emotions, rather than repressing them on behalf of an outworn notion of samurai dignity.

Nakadai portrays the distinguished samurai Tsugumo as, in part, an ordinary man: a grieving widower, kind father, and doting grandfather. Kobayashi contrasts these images of the family man with the fierce, upstanding traits Tsugumo possesses as a samurai. Yet it is as a loving father that Nakadai is particularly moving. He refuses to allow his daughter to be adopted by a clan where she might become a concubine; he will not sacrifice her to serve his own fortune, even as their economic situation is dire. This fierce individualism serves Kobayashi’s dissidence. In the scene in which Nakadai examines the bamboo sword that his son-in-law was forced to use to end his life, he weeps, “The stupid thing was too dear to me . . . and I clung to it!” revealing a range worthy of Marlon Brando.

Like many Japanese novelists and filmmakers, Kobayashi depicts social themes through allegory; he is an expressionist rather than a realist. In Harakiri, the stark contrasts of black and white—for example, Tsugumo’s black kimono against the white-sheeted platform on which he tells his story—reflect the intransigence of the Iyi clan, upon whose mercy Chijiiwa throws himself unsuccessfully. Kobayashi’s extensive use of the wide screen signifies the seeming endlessness, the horizontality, of feudal power.

The setting may be the feudal past, but Kobayashi undermines its authority by juxtaposing rigid, hidebound politics with a panoply of modern film techniques, from zooms to fast pans to canted frames to rapid elliptical cutting to gruesome realism. With these modern techniques, which so obviously defy the stolid rituals of the past, Kobayashi expresses his belief that society need not be destructive of the needs of individuals and that authoritarian power, however cruel and seemingly permanent, may in fact be vulnerable to change.

Harakiri won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes, in 1963. Kobayashi’s mentor, Kinoshita, pronounced the film a masterpiece, among the five greatest Japanese films of all time. Kobayashi would continue working for another two decades, ultimately breaking out of the studio system, in the late 1960s, and forming the independent Yonki-no-Kai, or the Club of the Four Knights, with Kinoshita, Kurosawa, and Kon Ichikawa. Harakiri, though, would remain the most vibrant expression of his belief that life is not worth living unless injustice is confronted with unrelenting force and single-minded purpose.
-Joan Mellen, Criterion, Harakiri: Kobayashi and History

Monday, April 12, 2010

Woman in the Dunes

(Suna no onna)
Teshigahara Hiroshi, 1964.
Thursday 4/15 @ 8:30, Kent Hall 413

Screenplay by Abe Kôbô (adapted from his 1962 novel)Music by Takemitsu Tôru (Pale Flower, Ran, Double Suicide, etc...)One of the sixties’ great international art-house sensations, Woman in the Dunes was for many the grand unveiling of the surreal, idiosyncratic worldview of Hiroshi Teshigahara. Eija Okada plays an amateur entomologist who has left Tokyo to study an unclassified species of beetle that resides in a remote, vast desert; when he misses his bus back to civilization, he is persuaded to spend the night in the home of a young widow (Kiyoko Kishida) who lives in a hut at the bottom of a sand dune. What results is one of cinema’s most bristling, un
nerving, and palpably erotic battles of the sexes, as well as a nightmarish depiction of everyday Sisyphean struggle, for which Teshigahara received an Academy Award nomination for best director.

The names Hiroshi Teshigahara, Kobo Abe, and Toru Takemitsu loom large among Japanese intellectuals of the late twentieth century. Each in his own right was an artist of peculiar genius, each resisting easy classification in conventional categories: Teshigahara as filmmaker, designer, flower artist, potter, calligrapher; Takemitsu as composer, poet, musical theorist, philosopher; and Abe as novelist, playwright, director, theater innovator. Individually
, they transformed every area of artistic endeavor they turned to, and they are among the small handful of Japanese writers and artists who have had a significant, lasting impact on international culture.

In the mid-1960s, these three artists came together in a series of extraordinary film collaborations that shocked their more c
onventional countrymen and instantly won enthusiastic response abroad. Through work intended principally for Japanese audiences, the three struck a chord that harmonized unexpectedly, but perfectly, with the sensibilities and existentialist instincts of the international avant-garde. Their four films—Pitfall (1962), Woman in the Dunes (1964), The Face of Another (1966), and Man Without a Map (1968)—set Japan center stage in the intellectual disco
urse of a world seeking answers to questions about identity, human existence, and the alienation of modern man in urban society. The first three of those landmark films are collected in this box set.

Although Teshigahara, as director, was responsible for organizing and unifying these collaborations, it is otherwise difficult to distinguish absolutely the separate contributions of each of the three artists. To say that Abe wrote the screenplays, Takemitsu composed the musical scores, and Teshigahara provided the imagery is too simplistic. Each of the three challenged, pro
voked, and enhanced the work of the others. They’d all known and admired each other since the late 1950s. Teshigahara had asked Takemitsu to produce concerts of contemporary music at Sogetsu, his family’s avant-garde art center, in Tokyo, and in 1959, Takemitsu had produced a superb musical score for Teshigahara’s debut film, José Torres, about a Puerto Rican boxer in New York City. Even before Abe’s Woman in the Dunes first appeared, in 1962, as a best-selling novel, both Teshigahara and Takemitsu had recognized its potential as a film and begun planning the unique aesthetic that might sustain the transfer from printed page to screen. Abe had worked earlier with Takemitsu on radio dramas and seen how the composer’s soundscapes brought unexpected emotional depth to his w
ords. When they all finally came together on Pitfall, Teshigahara’s innate tendencies toward overexpression were quickly reined in by the austerity of Abe’s vision and the sere understatement of Takemitsu’s sounds. Each artist involved himself deeply in the work of the others, and none of them hesitated to criticize or reshape the work of the others in order to strengthen it or give it deeper meaning.

“He gave me much more than just music,” Teshigahara reminisced about Takemitsu, shortly after the death, in 1996, of the composer who provided the music for every one of his feature films. “He gave me ideas
and energy and a kind of trust that never failed. He was always more than a composer. He involved himself so thoroughly in every asp
ect of a film—script, casting, location shooting, editing, and total sound design—that a willing director can rely totally on his instincts.” Much the same was said by and about each member of this triangular collaboration. Both Abe and Takemitsu had strong visual instincts, as revealed in their private sketches and designs, and they were not hesitant to advise Teshigahara on the look of the films. (Abe later went on to devise unique theatrical works that abandoned language and verbal communication, relying entirely on movement, visual stage patterns, and soundscapes.)

Abe, born in 1924, was the oldest of the trio a
nd in a sense initiated the collaborations by first penning the texts on which the films were based. Pitfall, the earliest of the films, emerged from sketches for stories that were still percolating in the writer’s mind. Woman in the Dunes and The Face of Another were both based on best-selling novels of the same names, which were transformed into films almost immediately aft
er the books were published. Teshigahara was three years younger than Abe, and Takemitsu, born in 1930, was the youngest of the three. Teshigahara was perhaps the most “Japanese” in heritage and upbringing. He was the son of Sofu Teshigahara, a painter, sculptor, calligrapher, and the creator of the highly innovative Sogetsu flower school. Born into a family of considerable wealth and influence, which traced its antecedents back to the aristocracy of medieval Japan, Hiroshi Teshigahara was a highly educated intellectual whose artistic instincts might be called hereditary, albeit honed by the devastating turmoil of World War II.

Abe and Takemitsu came from very different backgrounds than Teshigahara, and the two of them shared the experience of being reared outside Japan, in the vast wilderness of Manchuria, during the 1930s peri
od of Japanese colonization. Like other Japanese writers and artists born or raised in China or Manchuria during that era, Takemitsu and Abe exhibited a kind of freedom and self-confidence that was not shared by Japanese who grew up in the much tighter, socially constrained circumstances of the Japanese Islands. In Manchuria, one could gaze out over vast terrain, with almost nothing blocking a view of the distant horizon—something that was virtually impossible in the densely populated and mountainous geography of Japan. The magnitude of that Manchurian landscape seemed to set them free.
As young adults, both Abe and Takemitsu had been sent back to Japan to be educated, but the frontier life had spoiled them for conventional schooling. Both were bored in school and followed paths of self-education far different from what their parents had envisioned. Abe was pressured by his physician father to enter medical school at Tokyo University, but he failed his exam
inations and boldly told his professors that he had no intention of ever practicing medicine. Though he chose to pursue literature as a career instead, his medical studies did seem to have an influence on his writing, which is informed by a kind of scientific precision and an analytical quality in which ideas are operated on with the sharpness of a surgeon’s scalpel. Takemitsu, who was supposed to follow in the footsteps of his businessman father, was ill during the war years and the immediate postwar period and could not attend school. Tubercular and lying for years in sickbeds, he read voraciously and listened constantly to radio broadcasts of all types of music. He was intensely inspired by American jazz, broadcast by the U.S. occupation forces in postwar Japan; self-taught in musical composition, he always claimed that his only real teacher was Duke Ellington.
Japan in the late 1940s and early 1950s was a harsh terrain, still devastated by nuclear holocaust and by the fire bombings that had reduced most Japanese cities to ashes. The world in which Abe, Teshigahara, and Takemitsu came of age as expressive artists was not one for which they had been prepared by their forebears or by any social legacy. The values of prewar Japan had been utterly discredited by their nation’s defeat, the society emasculated by foreign occupiers for the first time in Japanese history. The so-called democracy that was being layered onto the Japanese body politic by temporary American rulers seemed ill fitted to a culture that had never valued individualism or freedom of expression. They wandered forth into a strange new world that had no identity of its ow
n and was distorted by poverty and foreign occupation. Everywhere were symptoms of an existential dilemma on a vast national scale. In retrospect, it seems hardly surprising that the compelling themes of Japanese artists of the day were those of alienation, the search for identity, and the struggle for survival in a wasted landscape—or that their styles and languages of expression should have been so austere, desiccated, and severe.

The three films in this collection pose essential questions but provide few answers. Who am I? Why does one live? What is the nature of this thing called society that surrounds me? Where am I going? What is the value of my work? My relationships? My existence? These are the issues that the p
rotagonists of these films grapple with, and they struggle alone, without a benevolent deity or a comprehending society available to provide solutions. How is the viewer of these films to respond to such characters, in such situations? Are they real, we ask ourselves, or are they mere devices in a larger allegorical universe? Are they flesh and blood or ghosts from another time and place? In the opening sequence of The Face of Another, the protagonist is introduced through an X-ray image of his face, speaking in a recognizable language but utterly detached from reality and asking questions that cannot be answered. His identity is further called into question when we realize that his bandaged visage is not his own face but that of another person, grafted onto his head. Who then is he? Is he the man whose face was burned from his body, or is he the personality of the new face, or is he so
me grotesque amalgam of the two?

In Pitfall, the “hero” is continually in flight from some unknown pursuers—or is he fleeing a crime, or the memory of his own misdeeds? We’re never sure. In Woman in the Dunes, an archetypal man and woman labor together at the bottom of a sand dune, continually digging sand, supposedly in order to protect some unseen village nearby. What is the society for which they sacrifice themselves? And why do they obey its dictates? When they attempt to resist their “fate,” they quickly realize that escape is impossible. Are these people Japanese or so
mehow universal? Is the environment of their lives any recognizable place? Or is it the tortured mental landscape of Sartre or Kafka or Camus? And where, ultimately, does the viewer stand in relationship to these spectral figures?

Abe, Teshigahara, and Takemitsu were in total accord in their vision for Woman in the Dunes. While making the film, Teshigahara frequently commented that the film had three main characters, not two: the man, the woman, and the sand. Decades after completing the film, he repeated: “The sand has its own identity . . . And without Toru’s help, we never would have been able to realize this fully.” Takemitsu’s music for Woman in the Dunes relies almost totall
y on a string ensemble, first recorded and subsequently rearranged and distorted electronically for desired sound effects. The sounds, alternately shrill, harsh, and menacing, form a perfect soundscape for the austere allegory of Abe’s narrative. But this “composed” music is only part of Takemitsu’s unique contribution to the film. The weird environment is the dominating quality of the film, and, recognizing this, Takemitsu gives life to the sand through sound. It is there at all times, even when a scene seems completely silent. The soft, barely audible sizzle or hiss or patter of sand—dripping, shifting, and constantly in motion—inhabits every moment of the film, as it does every moment of the protagonists’ terrifying existence. And it is through the subconscious quality of sound that the woman’s persistent reply to the man’s fearful questions—“It is the sand”—develops its to
tal, all-enveloping meaning.

Similarly, in the scene where the man is forced to rape the woman for the sadistic pleasure of the onlooking villagers, Takemitsu uses the hypnotic drumming of the villagers’ Onigoroshi-daiko (demon-killing drums) to create a sound sequence that is as terrifying as it is dehumanizing. The drums, visually appropriate to the festive environment of the scene, take on a character far more important than their narrative identity. Deafening in its aural force and overpowering in its ritualistic, barbaric monotony, it is the sound of the drums that reduces everyone—the characters and onlookers in the film, as well as the spectators in the theater audience—to a common bestiality.
The music for Pitfall, although produced out of the straitened circumstances of an extremely tight budget, is no less innovative or harmonious. For some passages, Takemitsu’s score calls for only a single musician, playing a “prepared piano,” which produces sounds like none ever heard before in film music. The result corresponds perfectly with the film’s picture of severe hardship and deprivation in Japan’s impoverished coal-mining society. Similarly, in The Face of Another, Takemitsu’s incisive electronic music accords well with the icy visuals (the light in many shots is captured through glass or refracted in mirrors and cold reflective surfaces) of Teshigahara’s aesthetic scheme for this film about lost or artificial identity.

Viewing these three Japanese film ma
sterpieces together, it is clear that they spring from an ideal collaboration of three extraordinary creative artists working collectively almost as if they were a single body and mind. Has the existential dilemma so pervasive in world literature of the twentieth century ever found more compelling expression than in these films by Hiroshi Teshigahara, Kobo Abe, and Toru Takemitsu?
-Peter Grilli, Criterion

(Abe Kôbô)

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Sansho the Bailiff

Hello everyone (or no one). I've just noticed that the post underneath this said "Tuesday 4/8." I hope this hasn't caused any confusion. The screening is tonight (Thursday) at 8:30.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Sansho The Bailiff

THURSDAY 4/8 at 8:30PM.
Mizoguchi Kenji.
Cinematography by Miyagawa Kazuo (of Rashomon and Ugetsu fame)
This is one of the most beautiful director-cinematography duos in film history.

"When an idealistic governor disobeys the reigning feudal lord, he is cast into exile, his wife and children left to fend for themselves and eventually wrenched apart by vicious slave traders. Under Kenji Mizoguchi’s dazzling direction, this classic Japanese story became one of cinema’s greatest masterpieces, a monumental, empathetic expression of human resilience in the face of evil."

Read this wonderful essay by Mark Le Fanu on Mizoguchi and Sansho the Bailiff:

If you took a quick poll of the general population of film lovers as to who the most famous classic Japanese directors are, the list would probably be headed by Akira Kurosawa. He is certainly the most visible of the old Japanese masters, though Yasujiro Ozu would likely run him a close second. Trailing some way behind these twin modern favorites, there might, just might, appear a third name, that of Kenji Mizoguchi, the eldest of the trio and the director of eighty-six films made between 1923 and 1956.

Fifty years ago, the same list would have been differently ordered: invisible, or nearly invisible, then would have been Ozu, whose movies only really began to be known in the West during the 1960s. Kurosawa’s fame has indeed been constant: films like Rashomon (1950) andSeven Samurai (1954), then and now, have been absolutely instrumental in introducing the glories of Japanese cinema to Western audiences. But the really resplendent name in the old days was Mizoguchi’s. The French, in particular, were crazy about his work: it was an item of faith among the young critics at Cahiers du cinéma during the fifties (who included future film directors François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, and Jacques Rivette) that Mizoguchi was not only the greatest of Japanese masters but high in the ranks of the greatest filmmakers who had ever practiced the art. General audiences and festival juries of the time tended to share this view: in three successive years at the beginning of the 1950s, Mizoguchi films—The Life of Oharu (1952), Ugetsu (1953), and Sansho the Bailiff (1954)—won the Silver Lion award at the Venice Film Festival, an unprecedented achievement.

The reasons for the subsequent decline in his fame are hard to pin down. Mizoguchi is a demanding director, and he is not easy to pigeonhole. Unlike the work of Kurosawa or Ozu, his films rarely fit into identifiable genre categories—for instance, the samurai film or the shomin-geki (films about the ordinary existence of middle-class people). And, after the initial enthusiasm of the French, he was somewhat neglected by the critical and scholarly worlds. Perhaps it was his eclecticism. Although Mizoguchi’s main, abiding theme was the historical condition of women in Japanese society—a subject he approaches with extreme tenderness and sympathy, and with a correspondingly caustic political scorn toward the conditions that, over the centuries, combined to keep this section of humanity in servitude—he grappled with this topic from many different angles. Still, if Mizoguchi’s star once waned, it is one of the ongoing achievements of the DVD revolution that it can help us redress these lapses. Films, and filmmakers, are granted another chance to be examined and judged—not only by critics and scholars but, just as important, by the wider general public. And, happily, this is what has been happening with Mizoguchi.

After a long apprenticeship in the silent cinema, Mizoguchi hit his stride as a director in the early 1930s, a golden age for Japanese cinema. A series of films set in the Meiji (roughly, the late Victorian) epoch was followed by two films of striking modernity on which his reputation was established: Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion (both of which came out in 1936). A number of defining aspects of Mizoguchi’s cinema come together in these movies: skill with actresses, realism of texture and dialogue, total lack of sentimentality in outlook, along with a marked stylistic preference for the long take over editing as a method for building narrative. All these traits appear in his subsequent films, with different emphases at different stages of his career. Sometimes he is a rigorously austere stylistic perfectionist (as in his wartime version of the famous samurai tale The Loyal 47 Ronin); at other times—for example, in a series of postwar films influenced by neorealism—he comes across as “expressive,” provisional, and committed to the sketch. His social canvas, too, varies, enormously, from the lower depths (above all, the world of geisha and prostitution) to the peaks of aristocratic society, and he roams through the centuries.

Sansho the Bailiff, Mizoguchi’s eighty-first film, belongs with a group of four or five outstanding masterpieces on historical themes, including Ugetsu, that he directed late in his career for the Daiei production company. Like almost all the films of his maturity, it is based on a literary original, in this case a short story by the important early twentieth-century writer Ogai Mori, about a brother and sister in eleventh-century Japan who, journeying to meet their exiled father, become separated from their mother and are sold into slavery. Mori’s tale is included in this book (as is a written version of an oral-folktale variation), so the interested reader has the chance to examine close-up what Mizoguchi and screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda preserved in their adaptation and what they altered. Two changes seem especially interesting and worth exploring.

The first concerns the place of music in the tale. At the end of Mori’s original story, the son, Zushio, is alerted to the truth that the blind, decrepit woman sitting on the ground in front of him is indeed his mother by the song she is singing, whose pathetic words include his own name and that of his sister:

My Anju, I yearn for you. Fly away! My Zushio, I yearn for you. Fly away! Little birds, if you are living still, Fly, fly far away! I will not chase you.

(“Little birds” here has a double meaning, referring both to the grain-stealing sparrows that the mother is employed to ward off with her long wooden pole and, at the same time, to her never-forgotten children.) In Mizoguchi’s movie, this tiny snatch of song is taken up by a kind of intuitive genius and transformed into the very core of the drama. For instead of our coming across the song for the first time at the moment of climax, we feel in the film that we are wonderfully coming back to it. Indeed, it has never really left us. Introduced early into the texture of the movie, by Anju’s chance encounter with a peasant girl from Sado who heard it sung to her in childhood (in Mori’s tale, this character, named Kohagi, plays an altogether insignificant role), the refrain returns in a beautiful passage later in the film in which Anju and Zushio, alone in the forest glade, seem to hear their mother calling to them from across the ocean by means of the plaintive cooing of a turtledove.

“Anj . . . iou . . . Zush . . . iou!” The lingering cadence of this great lament is hard to forget. The instant telepathy conveyed through the song, joining mother and children across the water, serves to rescue Zushio and his sister from despondency and to give them renewed heart for battle. Its deployment takes us back to the great traditions of silent melodrama, to the cinema of Mizoguchi’s youth, where musical accompaniment made explicit the emotion contained in the image—bringing the work of art to quickness and life. Indeed, it is impossible to think ofSansho the Bailiff without its music: the film’s flute- and harp-driven score, by longtime collaborator Fumio Hayasaka, is one of the most delicate in Mizoguchi’s entire oeuvre.

Mizoguchi and Yoda’s second most daring alteration to the original was structural and psychological: it was to decide to make Zushio a slave to Sansho’s system not only in body but in spirit. In the short story, he is younger than his sister, Anju, whose uncomplicated protective goodness succeeds in conserving his innocence. Mizoguchi and Yoda, on the other hand, make him two or three years older than she is and contrive the innovation that, when puberty comes, he will become corrupted (if only temporarily) by his surroundings. In the film, Zushio becomes a “trusty”: the blackest of black souls, a bitter young man who can be relied upon to wield the branding iron and not to flinch when applying it to weeping and panic-stricken slaves who have been caught trying to escape from the compound.

That whole new plot strand has consequences. Mori’s story is plainly, in its austere way, a study of redemption, in the sense that mother and son are eventually reunited in each other’s arms and come to understand the meaning of their destiny. Yet the force of this redemption, it seems to me, is immeasurably heightened in the movie by the consideration that Zushio, miraculously, has brought himself back from the damned. “Forgive me, Mother,” he cries, as he throws himself at her feet. To which the blind Tomiko replies, with her wonderful lucidity (now that she has grasped, through touch, that it is indeed Zushio who is kneeling in front of her): “What is there to forgive? Without knowing what you have done, I know that it is because you have listened to your father’s words that we are able, at last, to be here together.”

In its grandeur and distilled poignancy, this must be one of the most powerful moments in the history of cinema. The whole great scene is electrifying. As the British critic Gilbert Adair says, “Sansho the Bailiff is one of those films for which cinema exists—just as it perhaps exists for the sake of its last scene.” Reflecting upon its force leads one to ponder some of the wider themes and motivations that may lie behind this supreme work of art. Japan has often been told (and continues to be) that is has never sufficiently acknowledged blame for its disastrous military adventurism in the 1930s and 1940s. That may or may not be true, at an official level; it is certainly still a sore point in many contexts, especially, of course, among Japan’s closest neighbors. Yet in Sansho the Bailiff, it is hard not to see the lineaments of at least one private attempt to face up to, and to expiate, Japan’s wartime history. Set in the remote Heian past, the film also, unmistakably, refers to the Second World War—the cruelties of the medieval slave compound interchanging metaphorically and seamlessly with the yet more terrible cruelties of the modern concentration camps. The original story was written in 1915, and though the rest of the world was then in conflict, Japan at that time was only on the fringes of the firmament. There don’t seem to be any good grounds for believing that the specter of nationalist militarism was uppermost in Mori’s thoughts in writing the tale (if anything, he was rather nationalist himself). Yet the tale is prophetically relevant—even if it took Mizoguchi to see this.

The underlying response of the movie to these complicated ideological impulsions may be interpreted both politically and religiously. Seen from a political point of view, the film seems to expound the purest liberalism. Against tyranny it sets law; against captivity, freedom. The story takes place, as the opening caption informs us, in “an era when mankind had not yet awakened as human beings,” and charts imaginatively (perhaps even anachronistically) the first stirrings of protodemocratic consciousness. All viewers remember the words that Zushio’s father teaches him before being sent into exile: “Without mercy, man is like a beast. Men are created equal. No one should be denied happiness.” The lesson, beautifully shot, in one of the film’s finest scenes, is delivered over a miniature effigy of the goddess Kwannon that is then entrusted to the boy as his parting gift.

Kwannon is a Buddhist deity, and Sansho the Bailiff, we ought to remind ourselves, is also a religious film—one of the few truly great films about which such a claim may meaningfully be made. Actually, in the last resort, the religion is arguably even more important than the politics. For though the message of compassion taught by Buddha is compatible with liberalism, in another way it cannot help seeming to trump it. It is impossible not to sense, in other words, that the message of the film is renunciation, and that in that renunciation democratic activist politics are finally renounced too.

Renounced, but not forgotten. And definitely not vilified. It is a matter of appropriateness and timing. First free the slaves, then resign your titles. Still, however one looks at the matter, power and office are mistrusted, poverty and sacrifice vindicated. Throughout his career, sacrifice had been one of Mizoguchi’s great subjects. Here it emerges as the crux of one of the film’s most beautiful sequences, the episode in which Anju lays down her life so that her brother may escape to Kyoto. In our modern age, such a gesture is open, alas, to misunderstanding. Why should Anju offer herself up so nobly? Couldn’t they—shouldn’t they—have tried to escape together? Why, finally (a feminist might ask), her rather than him? These questions are all understandable, yet they probably miss the point. The “truth” of the sequence, and its sublime justification, resides in how it is expounded, from moment to moment.

First of all, there is the practical matter: somebody has to occupy the guard’s attention in order for the other to get a head start. It could be him, it could be her. But it is her plan—thought up in an instant—and this is the way she wants it (added to which, there is no getting away from the fact that Zushio is stronger and fleeter). We have to bear in mind that the whole affair takes place in a minute, and right up to the moment it is happening, no one knows what the outcome will be. Does Anju believe her decision will mean certain death for her? Probably she does. Yet, in another way, such a fate is not so terrible after all, for sooner or later, all of them—her brother and father and mother—will meet up with her again in paradise. So the open gate, and the beckoning lake, are just confirmations from “on high” of the rightness and blessedness of her thinking. The decision once made, there is a wonderful triumph—a wonderful happiness—in her bearing. Indeed, the two or three shots that show Anju’s descent down the wooded hillside and into the water are surely among the most beautiful ever committed to celluloid: editing, framing, timing, shot duration are perfection itself. Seldom in film are we privileged to witness such concentrated, preternatural stillness. A delicate ellipsis spares us the sight of Anju’s actual moment of immersion. In compensation, the ripples that spread out from the center of the pond become the ripples of memory itself, and an emblem of the film’s profound thoughtfulness.

And more at

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Pale Flower

This Thursday (April 1st) in Kent 413 at 8:30 PM.

Pale Flower (Kawaita Hana)
Shinoda Masahiro, 1964.
Don't bring the kids.

From one of the Japanese New Wave's most prominent directors, a powerful study (according to Shinoda) of the ways in which the hierarchical and ritualistic qualities of Japanese society survived post-World War II in the life of the yakuza. Stunning lighting (reminiscent of an American noir), beautiful camerawork, an excellent soundtrack from Toru Takemitsu, and powerful acting from Ryo Ikebe and Marika Kaga.

"Masahiro Shinoda’s brilliant film opens with mobster Murakami just getting released from prison for murdering a member of a rival clan, only to learn that during his internment, the two syndicates arranged a truce. Not unlike the protagonist in Albert Camus’ The Stranger, Murakami’s motives for killing were vague and that life holds little value for him. At an illegal gambling parlor, he finds himself drawn to a mysterious waif-like young woman named Saeko (Mariko Kaga) who lives life from one thrill to the next. Though she seems remarkably adept at losing large sums of money, she asks Murakami to find games with larger and larger stakes. Soon they become involved in an intense mutually destructive relationship." -allmovieguide

More on Shinoda:
Masahiro Shinoda is one of the most prominent filmmakers of the Japanese New Wave, along with Nagisa Oshima and Shohei Imamura. While Oshima’s films were often a venue for political provocation and Imamura’s work seemed to be a bawdy refutation of Yasujiro Ozu’s refined passivity, Shinoda’s movies detail the spiritual emptiness of post-war Japanese life and search for some essence of the Japanese character.

Shinoda was born into one of the most illustrious families in central Gifu Prefecture in 1931. His ancestors were large landowners and village leaders of a small town that is now part of Gifu City. They also had a long literary and cultural heritage. His great uncle was the model for the main character in one of Toson Shimazaki’s novels, and Shinoda’s cousin is one of Japan’s leading abstract calligraphers. As a child, Shinoda was studious, applying himself to mathematics and physics; but by the end of World War II, he experienced the same sort of bitter disillusionment as many of his generation. Shinoda came to view the cold rationality of science as instrumental in Japan’s ability to wage the war. Later, Shinoda entered Waseda University and was one of only three students enrolled in its theatre history program. There he studied under some of the most renowned experts in such traditional Japanese forms of drama as Noh, Kabuki, and Bunraku (puppet theatre). As he continued to study, he felt a passionate need to understand what quirk in the Japanese character lead to the disaster of the Second World War.

In 1953, Shinoda was forced to withdraw from university after his mother died. Though his family had a distinguished lineage, its financial status was depleted after the war, and he had to find work. In desperation, he took and passed the Shochiku studios entrance exam and soon became an assistant director. After the financial success of Oshima’s Town of Love and Hope (1959), Shinoda was given permission to write and direct his first film. The result was One Way Ticket for Love (1960), which proved to be a box office failure, and Shinoda soon found himself in the assistant director’s chair again; this did not last long, though. The critical and commercial success of Oshima’s shockingly bleak Cruel Story of Youth (1960) both strengthened Shochiku’s willingness to take risks on young directors and heralded the beginning of the Japanese New Wave. Shinoda’s first success occurred not long afterwards, when he teamed up with poet (and later, filmmaker) Shuji Terayama to create Youth in Fury (1960). Shinoda’s films are populated with people who passionately, irrationally sacrifice themselves for love and beauty, be it the nihilist gangster who risks jail for a beautiful young thrill-seeker in Pale Flower (1963), the jealous apprentice consumed with love for her painting teacher in With Beauty and Sorrow (1965), or the lovers who choose death over separation in Double Suicide. In a manner akin to the films of Kenji Mizoguchi, Shinoda presents this self-destruction with a sense of unavoidable fate; his protagonists are unwilling or unable to break themselves from the spiral towards the abyss, their respective journeys accentuated by the filmmaker’s bold experimentation with narrative and visuals. This fusion of traditional plot elements with a challenging formal style is best exemplified in his masterpiece Double Suicide, which reworked a classic Bunraku play into a modernist work of art. The black-clothed stagehands that animate the dolls in traditional Puppet Theatre are recast here as agents of fate manipulating the film’s characters towards their inevitable bloody end. Since then, Shinoda has made a number of well-received films including Himiko (1974), MacArthur’s Children (1984), and Sharaku (1995). Shinoda’s wife, actress Shima Iwashita, appears in many of his films. —allmovie guide

Monday, March 15, 2010

Tokyo Twilight (東京暮色)

3/15, 8:30 PM in Kent 413

"One of Ozu's most piercing portraits of family strife, Tokyo Twilight follows the parallel paths of two sisters contending with an absent mother, unwanted pregnancy, and marital discord."
-Criterion Collection

On March 25, we will be kicking off the Japanese Film Club with a film from 1957, Ozu Yasujiro's Tokyo Twilight. For those of you who've seen some of Ozu's better-known films (Tokyo Story, Late Spring), I think you'll find this a really interesting departure from his normal style. It is definitely more "dark" than anything else I've seen by him (as the review below points out) and this does seem to put somewhat of a strain on all of the actors that Ozu generally casts with a restrained emotional palette (i.e. Ryu Chishu, Hara Setsuko). However, I think that in many ways it is one of Ozu's most spiritually redemptive films. The development of his style of framing, with multiple distinct planes of action (usually marked by tatami), and his meticulous placement of people and objects in every shot is at such a high point here that it lends the film a sort of second progression underlying the surface narrative. That narrative, however, is very powerful in and of itself, and although the film is over two hours, it is one of Ozu's most gripping. For those of you who've never seen any Ozu before, you may be frustrated by the lack of confrontation (which is actually much less apparent here than in his other films) and the repetition of sequences (mahjong games, meaningless conversations over saké), but I think if you are interested in film you will come to appreciate the meaning behind this repetition. Tokyo Twilight casts the intense drama of a young woman coming to grips with identity over the backdrop of a society that always repeats its mundane errors and consigns the meaningful to a world of fiction (see the scene in the mahjong bar when one player tells the story of Akiko's pregnancy). The suffering of that woman seems to stun the characters around her out of their selfishness and accidental malice, which is really just a kind of laziness. A supremely mature piece from Ozu, and in my opinion one of his best.


If you want to read more on Tokyo Twilight and Ozu's other films, click here.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Japanese Film Club

Starting after spring break, we will be showing a different Japanese film every week. Screenings will be on Thursdays in 413 Kent Hall at 8:30 PM. Posters will be hung around campus every week. Current plans are to start with Ozu's Tokyo Twilight.