Tuesday 23 April 2002

Truth through error

In Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa vie, Anna Karina plays Nana, a young woman who has drifted into prostitution. In a bar, Nana sits beside an elderly man (the philosopher, Brice Parain, playing himself) and asks him to buy her a drink. They start to talk. Nana tells Parain that suddenly she doesn’t know what to say. “It happens to me a lot,” she says. “I know what I mean to say. I think about it carefully before I say anything. But when it’s time to speak I can’t say it.”

Jean-Luc Godard's Vivre sa vie: Nana

He tells her a story about Porthos, one of the Three Musketeers, a simple man who has never thought about his life. One day he has to blow up a tunnel. He places the bomb and, as he is running away, he starts to think about how it is possible to keep going forward. He stops running. The bomb goes off. So, says Parain, thinking killed him. “Why tell me a story like that?” she asks him. “No reason, just to talk,” he replies.

Nana: Why must we express ourselves? To understand each other?

Parain: We have to think. To think we need to speak. There’s no other way. And to communicate, humans must speak.

Nana: But at the same time it’s very difficult… whereas I think life should be simple. Your Three Musketeers story is very beautiful but it’s frightening.

Parain: It’s frightening but it gives a clue. We’re only able to speak well after we renounce living for a while. It’s the price we pay.

Nana: Is speaking fatal?

Jean-Luc Godard's Vivre sa vie: Brice Parain

Parain: Speaking is a sort of resurrection and life with speech is different from life without it. So, to live with words you must go through the death of life without them. I don’t know if I’m explaining myself… there’s an asceticism which means that you can only speak well when you look at life with detachment.

Nana: But you can’t live everyday life with, I don’t know, with…

Parain: With detachment? That’s why we swing between silence and speech. We swing between the two because life is such that we go from everyday life into another life which is much higher because it’s a thinking life. But this thinking life involves the killing of life that is too mundane.

Nana: But is thinking and speaking the same thing?

Parain: I think so. Plato said it was. It’s an old idea. In thought I don’t think we can separate thinking from the words we use to express it. If you analyze consciousness you can only grasp a moment of thought with words.

Nana: So to speak is to risk lying?

Parain: Yes, because lying is a way of seeking. There’s little difference between an error and a lie. I’m not talking about ordinary lying… But as for subtle lying, it’s often very close to a mistake. You just can’t find the exact word. You said you often didn’t know what to say. That’s because you fear not finding the right word.

Nana: How do you know what the right word is?

Parain: You have to work at it. It takes effort. Say what must be said in a way that’s appropriate, that isn’t hurtful, that says what must be said, that does what it’s meant to do without hurting or wounding.

Nana: Yes, you have to try to be sincere. Someone said to me, truth is in everything, even in error.

Parain: It’s true. They didn’t realize it in France in the seventeenth century when they thought you could avoid error. Not only lies but error. And live in truth. I don’t think it’s possible. That’s why Kant and Hegel and German philosophy brought us back to living and the fact that we must reach truth through error.

Nana: What do you think of love?

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Monday 29 April 2002

Some Nudity Required

Odette Springer: Some Nudity Required Odette Springer’s documentary about the B movie industry is, for the most part, little more than a series of talking heads intercut with scenes of sex and violence from the schlock movies they’ve made. Producer or director, male or female, bartender wannabee-actors or Penthouse pets, they offer an ingenious array of justifications for participating in the creation of meretricious junk. With a few exceptions, they delude themselves that the B industry is a necessary (though admittedly evil) step on their journey to mainstream Hollywood.

Only the relaxed and urbane Roger Corman (Attack of the Giant Leeches, Swamp Women, Little Shop of Horrors) seems completely comfortable about his “minor part in the history of the film industry” (his words). Jim Wynorski (Chopping Mall, Sorority House Massacre 2, The Bare Wench Project) candidly admits that he got into the industry to make money and get laid, points out that large breasts are the B movie’s most important special effect, then goes ballistic at the “boring questions” Springer is asking him.

But it’s Maria Ford (Strip for Action, Strip to Kill 2, Stripteaser) who makes Some Nudity Required worth watching. In a series of heartbreaking interviews she articulates her desperate desire to be an actress within a production system that only allows her to “act” in exchange for appearing nude. At one point she says: “I asked them if I could do the part without doing the nudity and they looked at me as though I was crazy.” She talks about the pressure to have breast implants and how she would look at herself in the mirror, wondering what was wrong with her breasts — too small, not high enough on her chest?

Finally, there’s a masterful cut from Dan Golden’s throwaway remark about the disposable nature of the character Ford plays in his movie Naked Obsession to Ford herself, telling of her fears of getting a reputation for being “difficult” then bewailing the Faustian pact she has made:

What the fuck am I supposed to do? What am I supposed to do? I don’t want to be difficult. And I don’t want a rumor going around town saying I’m difficult so I go in and I do the nudity and I do exactly what I’m told. And I look at the movie and I want to throw up when it’s done because all that’s left in there is my fucking nudity and my acting’s not even there. And they’re the same people that are going to walk around and say she’s nothing but a sleazy bimbo, you know, who’s good for nothing but her body and she’s not an actress. What am I supposed to do? What is the answer for me?

Unfortunately, Springer couldn’t come up with an answer. According to her unofficial fan site, Maria Ford went ahead with breast implants as well as collagen injections for her lips. “I liked her better natural,” writes the webmaster. “I liked her better imperfect and unique.”

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Monday 09 September 2002

Portraying Hitler

Salon founder and editor-in-chief David Talbot interviews the creative team—director/writer Menno Meyjes, actor John Cusack and producer Andras Hamori—responsible for a controversial new film about Adolf Hitler that has its premiere today at the Toronto Film Festival.

Max traces Hitler’s transformation from a scruffy war veteran and frustrated painter to a rising propagandist for German nationalism and anti-Semitism. We see the future leader of the Third Reich through the eyes of another scarred survivor of World War I, Max Rothman (Cusack), a prosperous, Jewish, avant-garde art dealer who believes that only brutally honest art can restore sanity to the world. Rothman is repelled by Hitler’s political ideas, but enters into an odd friendship with the bitter young corporal, out of a kinship born of the First World War trenches and a desire to save his comrade through the healing power of art.

Unsurprisingly, even the idea of the film has prompted outrage—from New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd (who “branded Max a cynical exploitation”) and the Jewish Defence League, which called for the film to be shelved by its distributor, Lion’s Gate:

Not only is the film in bad taste, it is also a psychic assault on Holocaust survivors and the entire Jewish community. There is no moral justification for making such a movie. To glorify or humanize Hitler makes a mockery of the 12 million — 6 million of them Jewish - victims of Hitler’s tyranny. There is nothing humorous or human about the most vicious, vile murderer in world history.

The JDL Web site subsequently posted an update, noting that they “have agreed to withhold judgment of Max until a copy of the script is obtained and an advanced screening is viewed.”

Reading Cusack, Meyjes, and Hamori’s defence of their film brought to mind Michael Frayn’s reply to those who had criticized him for allowing Werner Heisenberg to “make a case for himself” in Frayn’s play Copenhagen. In an article title ‘Copenhagen’ Revisited in the New York Review of Books (subscription required), Frayn wrote:

This seems to me a chastening reminder of the difficulties of representing a real person in fiction, but a profoundly sensible indication of the purpose in attempting it, which is surely to make explicit the ideas and feelings that never quite get expressed in the confusing onrush of life, and to bring out the underlying structure of events. I take it that the nineteenth-century German playwright Friedrich Hebbel was making a similar point when he uttered his great dictum (one that every playwright ought to have engraved over his desk): “In a good play everyone is right.” I assume he means by this not that the audience is invited to approve of everyone’s actions, but that everyone should be allowed the freedom and eloquence to make the most convincing case that he can for himself. Whether or not this is a universal rule of playwriting it must surely apply to this particular play, where a central argument is about our inability, in our observation of both the physical world and the mental, ever to escape from particular viewpoints…

I can imagine its being asked how far I think this principle should be carried. Do I believe that a fictitious Hitler should be accorded the same privileges? I can see all the problems of exhibiting Hitler on the stage, but I can’t see any point in attempting it at all if he is to be simply an effigy for ritual humiliation. Why should we be asked to endure a representation of his presence if he doesn’t offer us some understanding of what was going on inside his head from his own point of view? The audience can surely be trusted to draw its own moral conclusions.

That seems to be the point on which the argument hinges: can the audience be trusted to draw its own moral conclusions?

David Talbot writes:

While scores of biographies and history books have presented fully dimensional portraits of Hitler, no major movie until now has offered anything more than a cartoon picture of the 20th century’s apogee of evil: we have seen him on the screen only as a ranting and wild-eyed hysteric.

Opponents of the film say that any kind of nuance in Hitler’s character makes a mockery of the victims of his tyranny, a position stated most forcefully by Claude Lanzmann, director of Shoah, who argued that any attempt to explain Hitler’s motivations, to some degree exonerates his actions.

On the other hand, John Cusack—echoing Michael Frayn—says: “It’s easy to portray [Hitler] as a monster, it’s harder and more disturbing to show his humanity and how it became poisoned.”

Nowhere is this more evident than in George Steiner’s The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H., a novella about Israeli Nazihunters who track down Hitler in the Amazonian jungle thirty years after the end of World War II. Critical attention has always focused on the electrifying last chapter where Hitler is allowed to speak, and for which Steiner (himself a Jew) was harshly criticized. Yet that criticism ignores the preceding chapters which painfully describe the impact of Hitler’s reign of terror on his victims. And, as an Amazon reviewer wrote: “Steiner has bravely put forth for all to contemplate, how seductive evil can be to those predisposed to hate.”

The alternative to the risks inherent in such a portrayal is a kind of one-dimensional work that raises no uncomfortable questions for the audience. There’s no need for introspection and self-examination when the blame can be conveniently dumped on a demented monster. The audience walks out of the theater two hours later, just as complacent as when they walked in. Yet Hitler had accomplices and sympathizers, not just in Germany, but all over the world. I wonder if putting all the responsibility onto him and a few henchmen doesn’t let everyone else off the hook…

In Explaining Hitler, Ron Rosenbaum suggests a way out of this impasse:

Not to resist all or any inquiry, not to resist thought, but to resist…the way explanation can become evasion or consolation, a way of making Hitler’s choice to do what he did less unbearable, less hateful to contemplate…. To resist making the kind of explanatory excuses for Hitler that permit him to escape, that grant him the posthumous victory of the last laugh.

It remains to be seen whether the makers of Max were faithful to Rosenbaum’s advice.

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Monday 28 April 2003

The cafe universe

Stavros’s Linguistic Relativism and Korean essay continues to resonate, giving rise to some terrific comments on my previous entry, including a pointer from the Dynamic Driveler to a rather skeptical view of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis by Mick Underwood which, nevertheless, contains a couple of fascinating references to Wittgenstein’s views on language. The first made me laugh out loud:

Wittgenstein said that he was once asked by one of his colleagues whether Germans think in the order they speak in or think normally first and then mix it all up afterwards.

Though I’ve never studied German, I do know that the verb comes at the end of the sentence, as in Japanese. I’m not sure, however, what other characteristics Japanese shares with German.

For example, Japanese uses post-positional particles to indicate grammatical and interpersonal relationships and these particles follow the element (e.g. Tokyo ni, “Tokyo to”, meaning to Tokyo). Similarly, the basic word order in Japanese is reversed in that modifying clauses precede the element being modified; as in the Japanese sentence, Tokyo de katta hon o yonde iru.

Tokyo de katta hon o yonde iru
Tokyo in bought book object marker reading am
(Someone) is reading (a) book (they) bought in Tokyo.

The weird thing is that—as long as I don’t think about it too much—there’s no need to “think normally first then mix it all up afterwards” into Japanese. Somehow the “mixed up” order seems perfectly logical.

The other interesting reference is a quotation from Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico Philosophicus:

The limits of my language indicate the limits of my world.

Mick Underwood comments:

This is often advanced in support of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. (Actually, given the context in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, I’m not at all sure that that’s what he was saying, but it’s a good quote, anyway!)

Although I recognized this quotation immediately as coming from a voiceover commentary in Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her (mentioned in my previous entry), what struck me was an observation that Language Hat had made about Godard’s films:

The funny thing is that as I read your post I had my video of Comment ça va? on the tv. I find it helps with Godard to not always watch intently but also to just have the movie going, picking up bits here and there that I might not notice watching in a more connected way. You’re never going to get everything in a Godard movie, after all. And the more I see the movies, the more I realize that a huge percentage of the dialog is a quotation of or reference to something else, poetry or philosophy or other movies. Tout se tient.

Of course you’ll need to understand French in order to “not always watch intently but… just have the movie going, picking up bits here and there that [one] might not notice watching in a more connected way.” I certainly can’t do that with Japanese movies though, now that I think about it, that sounds like something worth trying.

But Language Hat is absolutely correct about Godard’s movies being packed densely with quotations or references to poetry, philosophy, linguistics, and—of course—other movies.

Coffee cup still frame from Godard's Two or Three Things I Know About Her

The Wittgenstein quotation occurs in one of the most arresting sequences in any Godard movie, the one that James Monaco calls in his book, The New Wave, “the café universe,” in which shots of Juliette watching a young couple alternate with close-ups of a cup of coffee, as a male voice (Godard himself?) speaks:

Perhaps an object like this will make it possible to link up… to move from one subject to another, from living in society, to being together. But then, since social relationships are always ambiguous, since my thought is only a unit, since my thoughts create rifts as much as they unite, since my words establish contacts by being spoken and create isolation by remaining unspoken, since an immense moat separates the subjective certitude that I have for myself from the objective reality that I represent to others, since I never stop finding myself guilty even though I feel I am innocent.

A spoon is stirring up the cup of coffee. It is withdrawn. A small circle of foam is left swirling round on the surface.

Given the fact that every event transforms my daily existence and that I invariably fail to communicate… I mean to understand, to love, to be loved, and as each failure makes me feel my loneliness more keenly, as… as… as I can’t tear myself away from the objectivity that is crushing me nor from the subjectivity which is driving me into exile, as I can neither raise myself into Being nor allow myself to sink back into Nothingness… I must go on listening. I must go on looking about me even more attentively than before… the world… my fellow creatures… my brothers.

…the world today, alone, where revolutions are impossible, where bloody wars haunt me, where capitalism isn’t even sure of its rights… and the working class is in retreat… where progress… the thundering progress of science gives to future centuries an obsessive, haunting presence… where the future is more present than the present, where distant galaxies are at my door. My fellow creatures… my brothers.

A lump of sugar tumbles into the coffee and breaks into crystals. The dark circle of the cup glistens with bubbles, like galaxies.

But where to begin? But where to begin with what? God created the heavens and the earth. Of course, but that’s an easy way out. There must be a better way of explaining it all… We could say that the limits of language are the limits of the world… that the limits of my language are the limits of my world. And in that respect, whatever I say must limit the world, must make it finite. And when logical, mysterious death finally abolishes these limits, and when there are, then, neither questions nor answers, everything will be blurred. But if, by chance, things become clear again, they would only become so through the phantom of conscience. Then, everything will fall into place.

It’s impossible to do justice to the spectacular beauty of this sequence, particularly in a cinema, where the coffee cup fills the gigantic TechniScope screen, acting as a counterpoint to the intimate tone of the narration. “This is not a film talking, it is a man,” writes James Monaco. “It is the most personal—and most painful—moment in all of Godard.”

I was surprised to learn from Language Hat’s comment that he loved Godard’s films, that he’d “wanted the video [of Two or Three Things] for years, and finally got it.” And yet I shouldn’t have been, since I cannot think of another filmmaker who cares as much about language—and, by extension, the ethics of film language—as Godard.

The limits of my language are the limits of my world.

Language is the house in which we dwell.

I bought the video of Two or Three Things I Know About Her ages ago and must have watched it a half dozen times. Might be time to watch it again.

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Monday 04 August 2003

How it really happened

A dead body lying in the middle of a country road with a superimposed title in German (ALLES IST SO GEWESEN. NICHTS WAR GENAU SO.) and an English subtitle (EVERYTHING HAPPENED LIKE THIS. NOTHING WAS EXACTLY LIKE THIS.)
Final scene in Volker Schlöndorff’s Die Stille nach dem Schuß

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Tuesday 19 August 2003

Sen to chihiro no kamikakushi

It was probably silly and unfair to watch Richard Linklater’s Waking Life immediately after seeing Miyazaki Hayao’s Spirited Away. I’d been looking forward to Linklater’s “animated-live-action” movie for a couple of years, ever since reading the Stephanie Zacharek’s Salon review.

The picture, which Linklater both wrote and directed, is a collagelike meditation on the nature of dreams, on the ways in which we proceed through our lives with varying levels of awareness (or a complete lack of it), and on the degree to which we’re influenced by random elements like art or physics or language.

What’s not to like? Art and language absorb most of my attention. And, it’s not just that I have intense, engrossing dreams almost every night—I’ve long been convinced that life is a yume no ukihashi (“a floating bridge of dreams”), in the words of Ivan Morris, “a flimsy, dreamlike structure which we cross in our journey from one state of existence to another”.

There’s no point in trying to explain why I didn’t persist with Waking Life; under different circumstances I might have loved it. The real surprise was the degree to which I was spirited away by Miyazaki’s film. My interest in Japanese language and culture—intense as it is—has never encompassed anime. I’ve seen and enjoyed some of the classics such as Ninja Scroll, Ghost in the Shell, The Castle of Cagliostro, Akira, Wings of Honneamise, Neon Genesis Evangelion plus a few hentai titles. Earlier in the year I even waited in line for a special screening of Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, only to be turned away when they sold the last tickets to a couple just ahead of me. Still, that hardly qualifies me as a anime fan—you’d cover all the movies I’ve mentioned and more in the first week of Anime 101.

To be honest, I’d been put off by the hype surrounding Spirited Away. But on Thursday nights it’s only AU$2.95 per three-day rental so I grabbed Spirited Away, Waking Life, and a Henry Jaglom movie, Festival in Cannes, which turned out to be a disappointment too. (I’ve admired Henry Jaglom ever since his first feature, the magical A Safe Place, with Orson Welles, Jack Nicholson, and Tuesday Weld but I wrongly assumed that Anouk Aimée would more than compensate for the irksome Gretta Scacchi.)

Poster for Spirited Away (Sen to chihiro no kamikakushi)Though I expected to watch a different movie each night, on Thursday night I didn’t even get half-way through Spirited Away. I kept rewinding (do you rewind a DVD?) and watching scenes over and over again—partly to savor the dialog, mainly because the movie is so densely packed with intriguing characters, gorgeous animation, and nostalgic details of everyday Japanese life. On Friday night I managed to get to the end. At which point, even though it was late, I started to watch Spirited Away a second time.

On Saturday morning I spent some time at Nausicaa.net, where I was astonished to learn that the Japanese title is 千と千尋の神隠し (Sen to chihiro no kamikakushi) which is (literally) “Sen and Chihiro’s spiriting away” or “Sen and Chihiro’s (experience of) being spirited away”.

神隠し (kamikakushi) is derived from (kami: god) and 隠す (kakusu: hide/conceal). One of my dictionaries offers the following example sentence:

昔、子供が行方不明になると神隠しにあったといったものだ。
Mukashi, kodomo ga yukuefumei ni naru to kamikakushi ni atta to itta mono da.
Formerly, when children were missing, people used to say they had been spirited away (by a fairy [ghost]).

Sen and chi are alternate pronunciations for the character , meaning “one thousand”, while hiro, , means “fathom” (1.8 meters or six feet). Jim Breen’s Enamdict dictionary of Japanese names, offers the meanings “one thousand fathoms”, “great depth”, and “bottomless” for Chihiro though the second meaning, “great depth”, is probably closest.

I’m sure that 99.99% of a Western audience would think of 10 year-old Chihiro as the protagonist of Spirited Away. Chihiro and her parents wander into an invisible parallel world populated by gods and monsters, a hot spring town where “eight million gods come to rest their weary bones”. Her parents are turned into pigs and Chihiro’s only chance of surviving long enough to set them free is to work for Yubaba, the greedy witch who runs the bath house where most of the action takes place. Yubaba deprives Chihiro of her name, saying that it’s too complicated, and that from now on she’ll be known as Sen.

Thus, from a Western perspective, a timid, querulous little girl Chihiro is “turned into” Sen and discovers through the course of the story that she is resourceful, loyal, and courageous whereupon, at the end, she “turns back into herself” (Chihiro) again. Not only does the English title, Spirited Away, infer that the story is about Chihiro alone but the French and Spanish titles are completely unambiguous: Le Voyage de Chihiro and El viaje de Chihiro respectively. The Russian version is called Unesenniye prizrakami (I trust a Russian speaker will reveal the meaning in a comment) whereas the Chinese title is Shen Yin Shao Niu (The Missing Girl).

But the original Japanese title, Sen to chihiro no kamikakushi (“Sen and Chihiro’s spiriting away”) implies that Sen was always present within Chihiro and one of the story’s themes is Chihiro’s discovering a lost or unacknowledged part of her identity. I’m not suggesting that a Western audience won’t understand the story at this level; I’m simply pointing out that the Western translations of the title fail to communicate something that—from the Japanese perspective—lies at the heart of the story. Sen always understands that her “real” name is Chihiro and that if she forgets her name she has no chance of freeing herself and her parents. In that sense, another theme of the film is the need to value words, including one’s name. As Miyazaki Hayao explains:

A word has power. In the world into which Chihiro has wandered, to say a word out of one’s mouth has a grave importance. At Yuya, which is ruled by Yubaba, if Chihiro says one word like “No” or “I wanna go home,” the witch would quickly throw Chihiro out. She would have no choice but to keep aimlessly wandering until she vanishes, or is changed into a chicken to keep laying eggs until she is eaten. In turn, if Chihiro says “I will work here,” even the witch cannot ignore her. Today, words are considered very lightly, as something like bubbles. It is just a reflection of reality being empty. It is still true that a word has power. It’s just that the world is filled with empty and powerless words.

The act of depriving (a person) of one’s name is not just changing how one (person) calls the other. It is a way to rule the other (person) completely. Sen becomes horrified when she realizes that she is losing the memory of her name, Chihiro. And every time she visits her parents at the pigsty, she becomes (more) accustomed to her parents as pigs. In the world of Yubaba, you should always live in the danger of being eaten up.

In this difficult world, Chihiro becomes lively. The sullen, listless character would have a surprisingly attractive expression in the end of the film. The essence of the world has not changed a bit. This film will persuade one of the fact that a word is one’s will, oneself, and one’s power.

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Monday 13 October 2003

A double Ozu retrospective

Through some mysterious serendipity, whilst I was in the midst of writing an entry about Ozu Yasujiro’s films a trackback from Kerim alerted me to the Ozu festival, a special event of the 2003 New York Film Festival, being held at the Lincoln Center. Oh to be in New York, because this is the real deal:

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Japanese film director Yasujiro Ozu, the New York Film Festival will present a complete retrospective of Ozu’s extant works. Universally regarded as one the greatest film directors, Ozu’s work was discovered outside of Japan much later than that of Kenji Mizoguchi or Akira Kurosawa. Although the winner of more Kinema Junpo “Best Film” awards (the Japanese Oscar) than any other director, his work was never deemed suitable for export as it was assumed that audiences would consider it “too Japanese.”

Ozu directing Dragnet GirlThe thirty-six films in the festival represent about two-thirds of the fifty-three feature films Ozu directed (he also made a documentary about the Kabuki theater in 1935). His first feature was Zange no yaiba (Sword of Penitence) in 1927; his last was Samma no aji (An Autumn Afternoon), completed in 1962. Ozu died the following year on his birthday, December 12.

[The photograph shows Ozu directing Oka Jōji and Tanaka Kinuyo in the 1935 melodrama Hijōsen no onna (Dragnet Girl).]

I’ve seen all the films Ozu made from 1941 on, plus a couple of earlier ones—about half of those being screened at the Lincoln Center. Had I learned about the festival a week or two ago, rather than in the last couple of days, I would have felt heartsick at being so far away since Ozu is, unequivocally, my favorite filmmaker. On each of my recent trips to Japan, I’ve inquired about whether any of Ozu’s films have been released on DVD and have invariably been disappointed.

But on Friday my prayers were answered: I was taking another look at Kurt Easterwood’s account of the Ozu 100-year Centennial Exhibition at the Kamakura Bungakukan earlier this year and noticed that Kurt points to a page of information about a series of Ozu DVDs scheduled for release by Shochiku, the studio for which Ozu made most of his films. (I have no idea how I missed this the first time I looked!)

Ozu Yasujiro, DVD Box Set OneA quick check at Amazon Japan revealed that the first box set was released on September 25, with another three to follow at the end of October, November, and December. I ordered the first box set immediately.

The 24 DVDs include all the surviving films Ozu directed for Shochiku, the production company for whom he made almost all of his films. According to the most comprehensive book in English on Ozu, David Bordwell’s Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema, “no script, negative, or prints [are] known to exist” for two films made in 1929: Wasei kenka tomodachi (Fighting Friends—Japanese Style) and Tokkan kozō (A Straightforward Boy). Yet these are both on the fourth box set (although only A Straightforward Boy is being shown in New York). Evidently prints must have been discovered after Bordwell’s book was published in 1988.

None of the films on the DVDs appear to be subtitled in English (and they are not listed on Amazon’s US, British, or German sites); yet subtitled versions exist for all of those I’ve seen—whether silent or talkies. Perhaps Shochiku still regard Ozu as “too Japanese” for Western audiences to appreciate, though I think it’s more likely that the cost of subtitling the remaining films together with the added cost of producing multilingual DVDs were probably the main considerations. The alternative, to offer a mix of films with or without subtitles, would probably only give rise to complaints that all the films should have been subtitled.

Ozu YasujiroThe fact that the Criterion Collection offers only two Ozu films on DVD (Tokyo Story and Good Morning) and none by Mizoguchi or Naruse—compared to eight by Kurosawa—is the best evidence that it’s not just the Japanese who regard Kurosawa as far more accessible for Western audiences than Ozu and his contemporaries.

The Film Festival introduction to Ozu’s films correctly points out that “the director considered too Japanese for foreign audiences was in fact steeped in foreign, especially American, pop culture”, adding that Ozu’s work “has been cited as having a major influence on the films of artists as diverse as Jim Jarmusch (USA), Abbas Kiarostami (Iran), Aki Kaurismaki (Finland), and Hou Hsiao-hsien (Taiwan). The latter assertion, although commonly made, needs to be taken with a grain of salt (Jim Jarmusch’s films, for instance, resemble Ozu’s to about the same degree as Woody Allen’s films are like Kurosawa’s).

Contemporary directors who claim to be influenced by Ozu always remind me of the period Ozu spent in Singapore during the war: coopted by the Imperial Army to make propaganda films, instead Ozu spent most of his time watching American films that the Japanese military officials had confiscated. According to Donald Richie’s study of the director, simply titled Ozu:

The film that most impressed Ozu was Welles’s Citizen Kane. “If you give Chaplin 62 points, this film gets about 85.” He looked at it again and again. It was apparently the technique of the film that most interested him, and according to Yoshimura [another director] he kept shaking his head in wonder over this effect or that. Thereafter, whenever asked about his favorite foreign film, he always said Citizen Kane, though it is impossible to imagine a picture more antithetical to his own.

For diehard Ozu fans, I’ve listed the contents of each of the box sets in the table below—some of the Japanese titles have links to reviews at Strictly Film School (to which Kurt Easterwood pointed).

DVD Box Set One
東京物語 Tokyo monogatari Tokyo Story 1953
彼岸花 Higanbana Equinox Flower 1958
お早う Ohayō Good Morning 1959
秋日和 Akibiyori Late Autumn 1960
秋刀魚の味 Samma no aji An Autumn Afternoon 1962
DVD Box Set Two
晩春 Banshun Late Spring 1949
麦秋 Bakushū Early Summer 1951
お茶漬けの味 Ochazuke no aji The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice 1952
早春 Sōshun Early Spring 1956
東京暮色 Tokyo boshoku Tokyo Twilight 1957
DVD Box Set Three
出来ごごろ Dekigokoro Passing Fancy 1933
母を恋はずや Haha o kawazuya A Mother Should Be Loved 1934
浮草物語 Ukigusa monogatari A Story of Floating Weeds 1934
東京の宿 Tokyo no yado An Inn in Tokyo 1935
一人息子 Hitori musuko The Only Son 1936
淑女は何を忘れたか Shukujo wa nani o wasureta ka What Did the Lady Forget? 1937
戸田家の兄弟 Toda-ke no kyōdai The Brothers & Sisters of the Toda Family 1941
父ありき Chichi ariki There Was a Father 1942
長屋紳士録 Nagaya shinshi roku Record of a Tenement Gentleman 1947
風の中の雌鳥 Kaze no naka no mendori A Hen in the Wind 1948
DVD Box Set Four
若き日 Wakaki hi Days of Youth 1929
和製喧嘩友達 Wasei kenka tomodachi Fighting Friends — Japanese Style 1929
大学は出たけれど Daigaku wa deta keredo I Graduated, But… 1929
突貫小僧 Tokkan kozō A Straightforward Boy 1929
朗らかに歩め Hogaraka ni ayume Walk Cheerfully 1930
落第はしたけれど Rakudai wa shita keredo I Flunked, But… 1930
その夜の妻 Sono yoru no tsuma That Night’s Wife 1930
淑女と髯 Shukujo to hige The Lady and the Beard 1931
東京の合唱 Tokyo no gasshō Tokyo Chorus 1931
生まれてはみたけれど Umarete wa mita keredo I Was Born But… 1932
青春の夢いまいづか Seishun no yume ima izuka Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth? 1932
東京の女 Tokyo no onna Woman of Tokyo 1933
非常線の女 Hijōsen no onna Dragnet Girl 1933
鏡獅子 Kagamishishi Kagamishishi (Kabuki Documentary) 1935

Three films for which prints are available are not included in the box set edition because Ozu made them while on loan from Shochiku to other studios.

Films Made for Other Studios
宗方姉妹 Munekata shimai The Munekata Sisters Toho/
Shintoho
1950
浮草 Ukigusa Floating Weeds Daiei 1959
小早川家の秋 Kohayakawa-ke no aki The End of Summer Takarazuka/
Toho
1960

It’s frequently been a source of amusement amongst Ozu’s Western fans that so many of his later films have similar English titles: Late Spring, Early Summer, Early Spring, Late Autumn, The End of Summer, An Autumn Afternoon. Yet, of the six films I’ve listed, only two have English titles that match the original Japanese: Late Spring (Banshun) and Early Spring (Sōshun).

Of the other four (which I’ve highlighted in red), Akibiyori (Late Autumn) actually means “fine autumn weather”; Samma no aji (An Autumn Afternoon) means “the taste of Pacific saury” (a fish that is commonly served broiled in Japanese drinking places); Bakushū (Early Summer) means “wheat harvest”; and Kohayakawa-ke no aki (The End of Summer) means “the autumn of the Kohayakawa family”.

I imagine that whoever gave the films their English titles realized that “the taste of Pacific saury”—though immensely evocative to the Japanese—would be meaningless to a Western audience. However, it’s just as doubtful that “the flavor of green tea of rice” would conjure up for a non-Japanese Ozu’s intended sense of taking pleasure in simple, everyday things. Perhaps the goal was that the English titles convey the elegiac mood of Ozu’s later films.

Ozu’s career spanned the period in Japanese history that most interests me, the Thirties through the Fifties: the rise of Japanese militarism, the catastrophe of the Pacific War, and the post-war reconstruction. The first DVD box set should arrive within the next few days. Though seeing the sound films without subtitles will present a formidable challenge to my Japanese listening skills, I’m looking forward to immersing myself in Ozu’s world over the next few months.

(In his post on There Was a Father, which alerted me to the Ozu retrospective, Kerim admits to loving the film yet being “troubled by its moral ambiguity”:

In a very real sense the film’s power comes from its moral ambiguity. After the fact, such ambiguity itself in face of the horrors of Japanese wartime aggression (something which Japanese have yet to come to terms with) seems inappropriate, but it certainly makes for a powerful movie. Nor do I think anyone would compare Ozu to Leni Riefenstahl.

Though it’s been a few years since I saw There Was a Father, I don’t recall being struck by any sense of moral ambiguity. I do remember that not long after I saw the film I read—and could not disagree with—Donald Richie’s assessment that “this is one of Ozu’s most perfect films”. Needless to say, there’s lots I could write on the subject of Ozu and fascism, but I’d prefer to save those thoughts for another essay.)

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Sunday 26 October 2003

Immersion Japanese (DVD style)

Ozu Yasujiro, DVD Box SetThe first Ozu DVD box set, which arrived last week, turned out to be everything I’d hoped for and more. Six DVDs—Tokyo monogatari, Higanbana, Ohayō, Akibiyori, and Samma no aji, plus a bonus disk (Tokuten disuku)—as well as a lavishly illustrated booklet.

The box itself is covered with coarse-woven fabric, reminiscent of the background that forms the background to the opening titles of so many of Ozu’s films.

Main title for Ozu's Tokyo monogatariAs soon as I unwrapped the package I popped Tokyo monogatari into the DVD player: the distinctive opening titles combined with Saito Ichiro’s theme music prompting an intense nostalgia.

As for many other Western viewers, this was the first Ozu film I ever saw. I never tire of watching Tokyo Story—usually regarded as Ozu’s masterpiece—even though Banshun (Late Spring) remains my favorite. Tokyo Story is lovely to look at despite the fact that, as David Bordwell explains, “it does not survive in good condition: the original negative was destroyed by a laboratory fire, and the internegative struck from positive prints does not render the chiaroscuro that Ozu and [cinematographer] Atsuta sought”.

Natsuko, who doesn’t admire Ozu’s films, asked me recently what is it about them that I love so much? And how is it that I can watch the same films over and over again? I said something along the lines of “one can never grow tired of seeing the beauty and sadness of everyday life depicted with unflinching honesty”. What I struggled to convey to Natsuko, Donald Richie expresses with great economy in the preface to his book on the director:

What remains after an Ozu film is the feeling that, if only for an hour or two, you have seen the goodness and beauty of everyday things and everyday people; you have had experiences you cannot describe because only film, not words, can describe them; you have seen a few small, unforgettable actions, beautiful because real. You are left with a feeling of sadness too, because you will see them no more. They are already gone. In the feeling of transience, of the mutability and beauty of all life, Ozu joins the greatest Japanese artists. It is here that we taste, undiluted and authentic, the Japanese flavor.

Ozu Yasujiro, Tokyo monogatari, DVDRichie also points out that “Ozu’s method, like all poetic methods, is oblique”. Ozu offers a severely constrained vision of the world in order to transcend those constraints; his films are suffused with human emotion because they are so rigorously constructed; time is stretched in an Ozu film because his movies are longer than average even though they contain hardly any “story”. The cumulative effect of these formal strategies is that “technique restricted comes to make us see more, [while] tempo slowed comes to make us feel more.” The end result is that we are gradually drawn into the film and “invited to infer and deduce” its meaning which, because of the almost non-existent “plot”, resides in the characters and their behaviour. And so

…we are often given that rare spectacle of a character existing for himself alone. This we observe with the delight that precise verisimilitude always brings, and with a heightened awareness of the beauty and fragility of human beings.

This effect is not at all diminished by the lack of English subtitles. Firstly, I understand more of the Japanese than I expected to. And, perhaps more importantly, I’ve adopted the same strategy I use whenever I spend time with friends in Japan. Instead of worrying about the meaning of every word of a conversation, I content myself with absorbing the essence of what’s being said—which is much easier for them, since they don’t have to continually make allowances for my lack of fluency. As long as I behave as though I know what’s going on—which I usually do—they mostly talk to me as they would to another Japanese.

And since I’m no longer concerned with reading the subtitles I can pay closer attention to other aspects of the film and its characters. It’s strange that although I’ve done this with conversational Japanese (and now with watching films without subtitles), it wasn’t until I encountered Alaric Radosh’s advice that I realized I could apply the same strategy to reading:

When you read easy, don’t look up unfamiliar words. I mean, you can look them up occasionally when you just have to know. But, for the most part, skip those words, like you did when you were a kid reading in your native language. When you do look them up eventually, you will only understand them and remember them all the better for having become familiar with them beforehand in this way.

(I can’t begin to explain what a difference Alaric’s approach has made to my Japanese reading. Whereas I used to be fixated on learning kanji and vocabulary, I now spend much of my study time actually reading and am amazed at how many words I recognize in context, words that I would probably not have recognized in a vocabulary list.)

Bokuto kidan DVD coverWhen I was ordering the first Ozu Box Set, I thought I’d check whether Toyoda Shirō’s 1960 film version of Nagai Kafū’s Bokutō kidan (A Strange Tale from East of the River) had been released on either DVD or VHS.

Toyoda, who never achieved the reputation or critical regard accorded his contemporaries Ozu, Naruse, and Mizoguchi, was a member of the jumbungaku movement, a group of directors with an interest in filming serious works of literature. In addition to Bokutō kidan, Toyda adapted Mori Ogai’s Gan (The Wild Geese) and Kawabata’s Yukiguni (Snow Country) for the screen.

Toyoda’s Bokutō kidan was not available but, much to my surprise, Kaneto Shindo’s 1991 version has been released on DVD. I couldn’t resist and added it to the Ozu order. I haven’t had a chance to see it yet since I have a huge backlog of movies to watch: four Ozu movies, Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, two versions of The Loyal 47 Ronin, and Takahata Isao’s Grave of the Fireflies (recommended by Language Hat). And it’s the end of the month, which means that the second Ozu Box Set has just been released.

I’ve stopped eating out, I’ve given up drinking, I no longer go to the cinema, and I’ve abandoned any hope of buying a new laptop (Macintosh or PC). All my spare cash is going towards Ozu DVDs. And I’m not sure where this is going to stop because I just discovered that there’s a Kurosawa Masterworks DVD Triple Box Set. Though, since I taped a dozen or so Kurosawa movies when they were shown on SBS, I might forget about Kurosawa and hold off for the Mizoguchi and Naruse Box Sets. That way I could look forward to drinking a couple of beers on New Year’s Eve, while I’m watching a film from the fourth (and final) Ozu Box Set.

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Tuesday 28 October 2003

Mahoroba

The sixth (Special Bonus) DVD is in my recently delivered Ozu Box Set is fascinating too, for its title just as much as the contents. As you’d expect, the bonus DVD includes:

  • Ozu Yasujiro Special Bonus DVDa profile of Ozu’s career (Ozu Yasujiro’s World);
  • an interview with German director Wim Wenders;
  • an interview with Ryū Chishū about working with Ozu at Shochiku’s Ōfuna studio (near Kamakura);
  • documentaries about the making of Tokyo Story and An Autumn Afternoon;
  • cinema previews of some of the later films;
  • footage of the press conference at which the Box Sets were announced;
  • a compilation called Ozu no fūkei: sentakumono, entotsu/denchū (Ozu’s Scenery: Items to Be Washed, Chimneys/Telegraph Poles), which contains a selection of the brief exterior shots with which Ozu punctuates his films.

Ozu Yasujiro's Scenery, Items to be washed, chimneys and telegraph poles

Ozu used interior “still life” shots for the same purpose: to separate the various sections of a film and to indicate a change in narrative direction (he stopped using fades and dissolves early in his career). Donald Richie calls these transitional shots “empty scenes”; Paul Schrader refers to them as “codas”; for David Bordwell they are “intermediate spaces”.

But the real surprise is that the bonus DVD is titled まほろば (Mahoroba), a word I’d never heard of. I asked Natsuko what it meant but it was a mystery to her too. Nor could I find mahoroba in any of my Japanese-English dictionaries, print or electronic. Even more surprisingly, it was not listed in Jim Breen’s EDICT Japanese-English Dictionary file, which currently has approximately 106,000 entries.

Yet a Google search in Japanese yields about 55,500 results whilst a search in English for its Romaji equivalent returns about 99,700 entries! The top site for both searches is Internet Mahoroba, an ISP and web hosting provider. Other Japanese results include a ski club, a band, a resort hotel, and a patisserie. Episode 6 of an anime called Iria: Zeiram is titled Mahoroba (Shangrila). And in Pinnacle—a high-level D&D campaign—there’s a character called Yuriko Mahoroba.

According to the Mahoroba Restaurant in Vernon, BC, mahoroba means:

Surrounded by mountains, and nice to live (from oldest Japanese book: Kojiki)

The Kojiki (古事記) or Record of Ancient Matters is a loose account of Japanese history from the mythical age of the gods to the reign of the Empress Suiko (592-628).

I emailed xiaolongnu and Jim Breen, asking them if they’d heard of mahoroba. xiaolongnu wrote back that it sounds like a Buddhist term:

“maho” being the Japanese pronounciation of Chinese “mohe” which translates the common Sanskrit prefix “maha” meaning “great” (as in Mahatma —” Great Soul” — Mohandas Gandhi’s epithet). I can’t make anything out of “roba” in the absence of kanji (it’s that old signal to noise problem again).

The absence of kanji does make interpretation difficult yet mahoroba seems to be spelled almost exclusively in hiragana (a search for まほろ場 yields only 14 results).

In a follow-up email, xiaolongnu picked up the reference to the Kojiki, noting that mahoroba “is associated with the notion of Yamato (i.e. an idealized homeland in the mountains)”. Some further Googling revealed that a Japanese musician named Sojiro has released an album called Mahoroba

with a theme of deep respect and understanding for the Jōmon culture and people that had high technology and strong spirit more than 5000 years ago. Examining his own roots, SOJIRO elevated the album into a worldwide work. MAHOROBA, the old Japanese word, means Utopia.

Jim Breen replied that he’d found one online dictionary (available in three locations) with an entry for まほろば. I followed his suggestion and checked Excite, where the Sanseido Daijirin J-J dictionary provides a definition confirming mahoroba as an old Yamato word meaning “surrounded by mountains”, that it was used in the Kojiki, and that it is the same word as mahorama and mahora.

Jim also found it in the Fifth Edition of the (paper only) Kenkyusha J-E dictionary:

まほろば [すぐれた場所] an excellent [a splendid, an unsurpassed] location

And he mentioned that he is adding mahoroba/mahorama/mahora to EDICT as:

まほろば;まほらま;まほら /(n) excellent location (Yamato word)/splendid place/

Tonight, as I was finishing this entry, I called another friend, Nana, who loves Japanese art and literature. I asked if she’d heard of mahoroba. She hadn’t but, as I was midway through explaining that the word was used as the title for the Ozu bonus DVD, she suddenly said, Atta! (Got it!). As I’d been speaking, Nana had been looking it up in both her Sanseido dictionaries.

As Nana explained it, one of the dictionary definitions associates maho with two kanji: (makoto: truth, reality, genuineness, a Buddhist sect originating in the 13th century) and (shū: excel, excellence, beauty, surpass). Adding the ra to maho—as in mahora—turns it into a place, she added.

“It’s an old Yamato word meaning ‘surrounded by hills or mountains’,” said Nana, “but the sense I get is that it’s beautiful and special, a kind of mythical place that’s perfect and complete.”

I remembered that in one of the Google results someone had mentioned “Arcadia” as well as “Utopia” so I looked up “Arcadia” in my electronic Oxford dictionary/thesaurus/encyclopedia.

“How does this sound?” I asked Nana. “‘A mountainous district in the Peloponnese of southern Greece. In ancient times Arcadia was the home of the god Pan and a noted centre of song and music. In poetic fantasy Arcadia is a rustic paradise, the idyllic pastoral home of song-loving shepherds.’”

Nana agreed that mahoroba had a similar connotation. A Japanese Arcadia.

I’d been wondering whether the Ozu bonus DVD had been titled Mahoroba to convey the sense that the world Ozu created in his films was a kind of beautiful, mythical place, remote from the reality of contemporary Japan. I asked Nana what she thought.

“I think once you’ve watched thirty Ozu films,” she replied, “you’ll have a better idea of what mahoroba means.”

Ozu Yasujiro in center-rear, working as an assistant-director at Shochiku's Kamata studio

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Friday 12 December 2003

Beauty, sadness, and existential choice

From Donald Richie’s Ozu:

It is here that morality enters into the Ozu film. What Ozu is saying is not that the old way is the best way, or that youth must have its fling, or that you come into the world and leave it all alone—though all these thoughts have their places in the Ozu universe. Ozu is saying, rather, that within the given constraints, one forms one’s own character by consciously deciding upon this course or that. One does not delve into oneself, find there a character already formed, then recognize it as one’s own. Rather, out of the inchoate material of human nature one forms a single human being, inconsistencies and all.

Morality exists that one may have a guide through the labyrinth. Ozu’s morality, like that of most Asians, is simple. You act in a way that is consistent with nature, for you observe your kinship with other beings and perceive that you are a part of the nature around you, neither its slave nor its overlord. You observe the laws of your civilization until the point at which they seriously interfere with your own well-being, and then you make a compromise. You behave like the guest in this world you truly are.

You are a transient in a transitory world. With a feeling that goes far beyond the demands of good breeding, you gently celebrate (mono no aware) those very qualities which threaten (and eventually extinguish) your personal entity. You do so because you are part of this world and you know its rules, and you accept them. They are right because they are.

To achieve this relationship with the world, you learn to choose. We watch the people in an Ozu film choosing and deliberating over and over again, usually in the knowledge that in choosing one forms one’s character. You are what you do, and nothing more nor less; the sum total of your choices, your actions, is the sum total of yourself. In choosing, you not only create self, you transcend it. You are, in a way, the self you always were, but the awareness of alternatives brings awareness of the most important fact of human life: there is no immutable inner reality, no inner person, no soul. You choose what you will become.

Here, perhaps, is the reason why Ozu’s characters have, as has been mentioned, no past. They may refer to times past, but we never see them. Ozu is one of the very few directors who never once in his entire career used a flashback. A person’s past has done its work, but it is not interesting. Of his people you may truly say what is important is not what life has done to them, but what they do with what life has done to them.

One understands, then, Ozu’s dislike and distrust of plot. Plot is possible only if it is agreed that a character is a certain kind of person with a certain kind of past who will therefore predictably do certain kinds of things and not others—that he is, in short, limited in a way people never are, before death. One understands also why inconsistency of character is so important to Ozu: it is a sign of life because it is a sign of choice. Choice is important to all of Ozu’s people, as it is to all of us, which is one of the things that makes them so lifelike. What is involved, one must add, is nothing so sweeping as absolute free will. The freedom of Ozu’s characters is, from the first, restricted. They are after all, human, which implies certain constraints; they must live together, another constraint; and they are part of a larger society, yet another constraint. They are offered not the à la carte menu, but the table d’hôte. Limitless choice exists no more for them than it does for anyone, but the range of choice is wide enough to be meaningful, to let Ozu’s people form their own character.

And this, finally, is what the Ozu film shows us—character being formed through choice.

Today, as Michael Kerpan points out, is the 100th anniversary of Ozu’s birth and the 40th anniversary of his death.

Earlier in his book on the director, Richie describes the central pleasure that comes from watching one of Ozu’s films:

What remains after an Ozu film is the feeling that, if only for an hour or two, you have seen the goodness and beauty of everyday things and everyday people; you have had experiences you cannot describe because only film, not words, can describe them; you have seen a few small, unforgettable actions, beautiful because real. You are left with a feeling of sadness, too, because you will see them no more. They are already gone. In the feeling of transience, of the mutability and beauty of all life, Ozu joins the greatest Japanese artists. It is here that we taste, undiluted and authentic, the Japanese flavor.

The other—equally important though less obvious—characteristic of the Ozu film is its emphasis on existential choice. It’s difficult to conceive of anything more at odds with contemporary Western society’s willingness to concoct excuses for all kinds of bad behavior than the notion that you are what you do, and nothing more nor less; the sum total of your choices, your actions, is the sum total of yourself.

Those of us who agree with Richie that “there is no immutable inner reality, no inner person, no soul” could do infinitely worse than follow a morality based on an appreciation of the transient beauty of everyday life and the need to accept responsibility for both our choices and the consequences that flow from them.

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Friday 19 December 2003

The Human Condition

In his Salon review of The Return of the King, the final film in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, Andrew O’Hehir writes:

Although I’ll always have a soft spot for “The Fellowship of the Ring,” which made us all believe that this implausible endeavor might actually work, this one is Jackson’s crowning achievement. It marks “The Lord of the Rings,” without any serious question, as the greatest long-form work in the history of mainstream cinema. (Do I hear any other nominees?)

As a matter of fact, yes.

Poster for Kobayashi's The Human Condition Kobayashi Masaki’s Ningen no Jōken (The Human Condition).

Between 1959 and 1961 Kobayashi compressed Gomikawa Junpei’s six-volume novel into three feature films, each over three hours long. The trilogy left an indelible impression when I saw it years ago, on television, before I had a VCR. I’ve always regretted not being able to tape Kobayashi’s trilogy but, happily, it’s now available on DVD. Based partly on the director’s own war experiences, The Human Condition tells the story of a pacifist, Kaji (played by Nakadai Tatsuya), who is drafted into the Imperial Army.

In the first film, No Greater Love, Kaji is punished by being sent to a mine in Manchuria. After unsuccessfully trying to improve the conditions of the native slave laborers, he is charged with treason, tortured, and forced to join a combat unit.

The second film, Road to Eternity, depicts in unflinching detail the brutality of the Imperial Army—not just to the tyrannized Chinese but also to the Japanese enlisted men. Despite Kaji’s reluctance he is promoted and, in trying to alleviate the hardships of his subordinates, incurs the hostility of his fellow officers. After a series of pointless attacks, he is one of only three members of his unit to survive the final battle.

In the last installment, A Soldier’s Prayer, the Japanese forces surrender but Kaji—who imagines he will soon return to Japan—is captured by Soviet troops and sent to a POW camp where he is accused of murder and sentenced to be executed. He escapes into a Siberian blizzard and dies dreaming of being reunited with his wife.

I would much prefer to have seen The Human Condition at the cinema in a single sitting: starting around nine in the morning with ninety minute breaks for lunch and dinner. But even watching it on a tiny TV screen over three consecutive nights was an amazing experience. That Kobayashi was able to finance a nine hour trilogy based on such an uncompromising script is a tribute to the vitality of the postwar Japanese film industry. I can’t help but feel that my interest in—and sympathy for—the Japanese experience of the Pacific War is a direct consequence of seeing this film.

Nakadai Tatsuya is perfectly cast in the role of Kaji. As Satō Tadao writes in Currents in Japanese Cinema:

In adverse situations this strong, samurai-like man remembers his beautiful wife and, by calling out her name, is able to endure his suffering. Nakadai’s performance was a revolutionary transformation of the traditional Confucian dictum that a noble man does not love a woman.

Kobayashi based much of The Human Condition on his own experiences: eight months after entering Shochiku’s Ōfuna studio as an assistant director, he was drafted in January 1942 and by April had arrived in Harbin, Manchuria. As Audie Bock explains in her book Japanese Film Directors, Kobayashi expressed “his opposition to the cruelty of the Imperial Japanese Army system by refusing to rise above the rank of private, which he remained for the duration of his military service.”

About his pacifist hero, Kobayashi said: “I am Kaji in the film.”

Is Kobayashi’s epic “greater” than Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy? I think so (from what I’ve seen of LoTR so far) though I can’t think of a single person who might agree with me. I quite enjoyed The Fellowship of the Ring, was bored to stupefaction by The Two Towers, and will see The Return of the King only because I’m anal-retentive and hate to leave things unfinished. I guess I prefer bleak realism to vulgar spectacle.

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Tuesday 09 March 2004

About nothing

…so boring despite its intriguing possibilities (Christoper Null)

…might appeal to you as long as you’re willing to accept the ludicrous premise (David Nusair)

…one of the most boring and tedious films I’ve ever seen (Rob McKinnon)

There were 3 main things that were so bad about this film. 1: The way it was filmed, 2: The premise behind it, 3: The execution of this premise. (Amazon reviewer)

They’re talking about Kore’eda Hirokazu’s After Life (Wandafuru raifu), a movie that—like Iwai Shunji’s Love Letter—I never tire of watching.

After Life’s total US gross receipts were $801,985 in 1999, a year when The Sixth Sense grossed $293,501,675. Negative reviews, like the ones I quoted above, were atypical—most critics regarded the film favorably without being wildly enthusiastic.

There are other, better films—classics, for want of a better word—I never tire of watching but After Life and Love Letter exert an emotional pull on me that’s disproportionate to their box office success or critical reception.

Pale diffuse light flooding an open doorwayThe premise of After Life is simple. Every Monday, people who have died walk through an open doorway suffused with pale light into what looks like a derelict boarding school. Each is issued with an ID number and assigned to a counselor who will assist them in preparing for the journey to the other side. Much of the film is taken up with these counseling sessions, which commence with an explanation of the rules:

You’re going to stay here for a week.
Everyone gets a private room. Please feel at home. But while you’re here there’s one thing you must do.
Out of the __ years of your life, we’d like to ask you to choose one memory, the one you remember and cherish most.
There is a time limit. You have three days to decide.
After you choose your memory, our staff will recreate it on film as exactly as possible.
On Saturday we’ll show the films to everyone. The moment the memory comes back to you most vividly, you’ll go on to the other side, taking only that memory.

In an interview with Liza Bear, director Kore’eda recalled that when he was six years old, his grandfather died after a protracted struggle with Alzheimer’s disease:

“I watched him ask my mother when lunch would be served not even one hour after he had just eaten lunch, or calling up the police to ask them to help him get home… And finally he died no longer recognizing me or himself in the mirror. So I have a very powerful memory of fear, thinking that people forget everything just before they die.”

Drawing on his a background as a documentary filmmaker, Kore’eda interviewed 500 ordinary Japanese, asking them which of their worldly memories they would most wish to preserve. About half the 22 deceased souls who arrive at the halfway house at the beginning of the film are played by non-actors whom Kore’eda discovered during the interviews.

“I did not control what they said or give them lines to read; they told their own stories, in their own time and in their own words, and I recorded them on film… The remaining other half of the dead are played by actors, but even among them, only half of them speak dialogue that I gave them.”

Four characters from the film After Life

Shooting on 16mm film stock, frequently with a handheld camera, Kore’eda blends scripted and unscripted dialog, delivered by amateur and professional actors, into an elegiac meditation on death, memory, love, loss, the illusion of filmmaking, Japanese social relationships, and the cost of the Pacific War.

“My goal this time was to record the wonderful things unfolding before me on location and on set,” said Kore-Eda. “I wanted so-called real life to encounter the artifice of film. I was interested in the emotions that would arise from that collision.”

I had no idea, before I started writing this entry, that the cast of After Life included non-actors telling their own stories. The next time I watch the film I might—for a while—play a guessing game, looking for clues as to who is an “amateur” and who is a “professional”. But only for a while. Before long I’ll lose myself again in the joy and sadness of the memories they struggle to recall, taking heart from the emotions that arise from the collision between real life and the artifice of film.

That these emotions are so convincingly evoked is due in no small way to Kore’eda’s knowing reliance on the artifice of documentary film techniques: the soft grainy images, subdued colors, natural (looking) lighting, and occasionally unsteady camera all contribute to the illusory foundation upon which our emotional engagement is constructed.

Or not. The negative responses to After Life are based mainly on two objections: that the film’s premise is ludicrous and the recollections of the characters’ lives are boring. For example, David Nusair:

After Life’s premise is incredibly unappealing – really, who wants to relive the same moment over and over ‘til the end of time? – which makes the movie almost impossible to relate to. And the structure of the movie doesn’t help matters, either. Much of the flick has been shot documentary-style, with the various dead folks talking about their lives and their memories. While some of this is interesting, this much dialogue about nothing by people we couldn’t care less about eventually gets tedious.

Nusair’s response is fascinating: the qualities of the film he dislikes are, for me, fundamental to its success. I love stories that blend fiction and documentary, though that’s got me into trouble before; and I share the Japanese preference for narratives in which plot—central to so much of western storytelling—is highly attenuated.

I’m not suggesting that David Nusair is clueless about movies, just that he’s uninformed about and unsympathetic to this kind of film. In his favor, he appears to have eclectic (rather than predictable) tastes, he has a good understanding of mainstream commercial movies, and—as far as two films I’ve recently seen are concerned—I shared his enthusiasm for 21 Grams and thought he was critical of The Last Samurai for the wrong reasons.

In fact, Nusair’s reviews of those films plus his response to Kore’eda’s first film, Maborosi, suggest why he so much disliked After Life. He writes about 21 Grams:

Part of what makes the film so great is the way it requires the viewer to assemble facts as time progress[es]; 21 Grams has been edited in such a way that we’re constantly jumping through time, but it never becomes confusing.

21 Grams is easily the most emotionally devasting movie to come around in a long while, and though the movie’s mid-section could’ve used tighter editing, there’s no denying that it’s an extremely accomplished piece of work.

And about The Last Samurai:

…we’re nevertheless forced to endure countless sequences featuring Algren chatting with Katsumoto and his family. And while some of that stuff is interesting - helped in great part by Watanabe’s fantastic performance - it finally gets to the point where enough is enough; we get it already.

Having said that, The Last Samurai is still worth seeing primarily for the performances and amazing combat sequences. About an hour into the film, there’s a fight between the Samurai warriors and a group of ninjas that rivals anything in Kill Bill in terms of sheer coolness. And then there’s the final battle between the Japanese army and the Samurai, which is gripping and involving in ways that everything preceeding it is not.

One could deduce from these opinions that David Nusair prefers films that move along at a fast clip and yet, about Kore’eda’s Maborosi, he writes:

There are different types of “good” movies. There are good movies that you enjoy like a rollercoaster ride, and there are good movies that make you think. Maborosi is the latter.

It’s the type of film that, while you’re watching it, you do get drawn in to the complexities of the characters, but the plot takes a backseat. In fact, this film is truly “about nothing”. Once the central character gets settled, we have no further major plot points brought up. The majority of the film follows one character, and how she handles her different emotions of grief, and happiness.

Given that Nusair believes that Maborosi is a Japanese film “about nothing”, it doesn’t take long before the acknowledged master of films about nothing, Ozu Yasujirō, is roped in to support the argument:

The director of the film, a man by the name of Kore-eda Hirokazu has obviously been influenced by another Japanese director, Yasujiro Ozu. Now, I’ve only seen one film by Ozu, the magnificent Early Spring, but in that movie, the shots are set up the same way as in Maborosi. The camera never moves, and is always a fair distance from the characters, so as [not] to interefere in their lives. Kore-Eda is quite obviously paying homage to Ozu, and, with Maborosi, he has created a film that Ozu could have easily made 50 years ago.

Higashiyama Chieko in Ozu's Tokyo StoryIt is clearly foolhardy—having seen only one film—to make blanket statements about a director’s style. Admittedly, Ozu employed tracking and crane shots far less often than most directors but he did use camera movements throughout his career. Moreover, he frequently brought the audience close to his characters (as in this shot of Higashiyama Chieko in Tokyo Story). It’s neither useful nor interesting to speculate whether Ozu could easily have made Maborosi 50 years ago. What’s important is that Nusair then reveals his lack of understanding of how Ozu and Kore’eda encourage viewers to participate in constructing the meaning of their films:

My only complaint with the film is that it contains many scenes without any dialogue, we are just exposed to what essentially amounts to pretty scenery. During those scenes, my focus completely wavered, and I found myself thinking about how much I was looking forward to Alien Resurrection and would it measure up to the previous three films, etcetera. I think Kore-Eda should have edited some of those scenes down to a minute or two, and not the 5 minutes that they are.

It is precisely in these scenes “without any dialogue”, with this “pretty scenery”, that Kore’eda reveals his debt to Ozu.

In To the Distant Observer, Noël Burch calls them “pillow shots”. Donald Richie, in his book Ozu, refers to them with a variety of terms—transitions, pivotal objects, empty scenes, hiatuses, still lives—suggesting that they function as “containers for our emotions”. Tadao Satō calls them “curtain shots”, noting that the term was first used by the prewar film critic Nanbu Keinosuke. In Ozu’s Anti-Cinema, Kiju Yoshida describes Ozu’s technique as “floating montage”; in other words, “a kind of montage in which limitless meanings float around in deep space”. Ozu, writes Kiju,

consciously inserted shots of unusual images that seemed irrelevant to the film’s story line, causing his viewers to feel uneasy. His method was meant to strongly stimulate their imaginations and spur them to create more meaning for the images seen on the screen. His technique allowed more space for new meanings to emerge.

So when David Nusair suggests that “Maborosi is certainly worth a look, but only if you have the patience to see it through”, he’s saying that Maborosi is one of those “good movies that make you think”, but that it would be a better film if it didn’t make you think so much.

Which brings us back to After Life, with its ludicrous premise and tedious dialogue about nothing by people we couldn’t care less about. But what if you simply accepted the premise? Just as you accepted that Will Hunting is a mathematical genius who works as a janitor at MIT and spends part of his night shift solving the abstruse math challenges that Professor Lambeau leaves on the blackboard. Just as you accepted that the Ring which was forged in the fires of Mt. Doom has the power to control all Middle Earth and can only be destroyed if it is returned to the fires from whence it came.

Where would you be then? In a situation where, together with the 22 deceased souls, you felt encouraged (if not compelled) to choose one memory, the one you remember and cherish most, from all the moments in your life. What could you do but move back and forth between the events unfolding on the screen—as minimal and unsubstantial as they appear to be—and the memories floating up from your subconscious, memories that must in part be prompted by the recollections of the characters in the film? Might you then find yourself feeling close to these people who have managed to find something radiant and beautiful in the most prosaic of everyday events? And might not such a film send you back into your own everyday life with a renewed appreciation of the people and things that populate it?

Although I don’t go to church, I understand and accept the value of going to church, something that Halley Suitt articulates perfectly:

First of all, it’s about going some place on a given day of the week—not work, not Starbuck’s, not the health club—where you meet people of all ages who want to think about spirit. They are not doing spreadsheets, they are not ordering Cafe Americano Venti with extra ice, they are not doing bicep curls—all worthy endeavors I spend time on other days of the week. They are trying to figure out how they might love others better and improve the spirits of those around them, and, perhaps selfishly, but probably not, improve their spirit as a result.

I guess you could say that I worship at the Church of Art about Nothing.

I started out wanting to defend Kore’eda’s After Life not because it needs defending but more because I wanted to mount an argument for films (or books or paintings or photographs) in which “nothing happens” apart from a space opening up that allows us to reflect on what is actually important; art ostensibly “about nothing” which, paradoxically, turns out to be about everything.

But I allowed myself to be distracted by another issue—the fact that someone who lacks even a rudimentary understanding of how to approach modest films like Kore’eda’s Maborosi and After Life (let alone Ozu’s films) can dismiss them out of hand; saying, in effect, “I don’t know the slightest thing about this but pay close attention while I forcefully express my opinion”. Is it my imagination or does the Internet (and do weblogs) encourage this confidence based on ignorance? And do they also encourage a constant demand for attention by/from all of us who can’t/won’t pay attention. I don’t know (which is a polite way of saying “I do know—or rather I’d like to think I know—but I’m not going to belabor the point any longer”).

I do know this though: one of the most valuable qualities of art “about nothing” is that it teaches us to pay more—and demand less—attention.

Empty corridor in Kore'eda's After Life

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Friday 24 September 2004

Tokyo Story

After seeing Tokyo Story (東京物語, 1953) at the UW-Madison campus film society’s Ozu retrospective, the Bookish Gardener asked (rhetorically): “Is it the greatest Japanese film ever made? Is it the greatest film ever made?”

Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane is often cited as “the greatest film ever made”, although it’s not a film that I particularly admire. Even though Tokyo Story is generally acknowledged as Ozu’s masterpiece, it’s never been my favorite. I’ve always liked Late Spring (晩春, 1949) best of all and I have a soft spot for The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice (お茶漬の味,1951) even though, as Ozu himself admitted, “this film wasn’t very well made.”

But I saw Tokyo Story again at the Chauvel Cinema on Monday night—on a double bill with Passing Fancy ( 出来ごごろ, 1933)—and was overwhelmed. This was perhaps the seventh or eighth time I’d seen Tokyo Story—I watched it on DVD earlier this year—and yet, for reasons I don’t understand, I felt as though I was seeing the film for the first time.

The tracking shot in Ueno Park in Ozu's Tokyo StoryOne thing, in particular, astonished me: a tracking shot along a wall that reveals the elderly couple, Tomi and Shukichi, sitting on the grass eating their lunch. They’d come to Tokyo to visit their son and daughter, Shige and Koichi, who are not only too busy with their own lives to spend time with their parents but are finally reluctant to provide them with a place to sleep.

In the scene preceding the tracking shot, the mother, Tomi, decides to stay with Noriko, the widow of their son who was killed in the war, while Shukichi elects to visit an old army friend, saying with a wry smile: “I’ll go see the Hattoris. And I’ll stay there if I can. Let’s go out, anyway. We’re really homeless now.”

“Why had I never noticed that tracking shot?” I asked myself. Or why didn’t I remember it from earlier viewings?

The following morning, on my way out, I plucked David Desser’s Ozu’s Tokyo Story off the bookshelf. Two of the reviews reprinted in the book mention this tracking shot: one obliquely, the other directly. The British director, Lindsay Anderson, notes:

In Tokyo Story, the camera moves only three times from the beginning to the end of the picture, and then with the most gentle discretion; an in this film particularly, the whole concept of “pace” (with which, significantly, Western film-makers are so apt to be obsessed) is ont so much different from ours as irrelevant.

Stanley Kauffmann writes about:

the camera moving slowly past a pavilion in a Tokyo park until, around the corner, we see, again from behind, the old couple seated, eating their lunch—a moment of inexplicable, deep poignancy.

One of the book’s five essays, Ozu’s Mother by Darrell William Davis, discusses the tracking shot in detail:

In a new location, a rare, exterior tracking shot shows the old couple resting on a curb at a temple and reflecting on “how vast Tokyo is” and “we would never meet again if we got lost.” Here the two old people go their separate ways. In a subsequent scene Tomi recalls this was Ueno Park, the site of Kan’eiji, the family temple of the Tokugawa. The Tokugawa name is synonymous with the shogunate, its two-and-a-half-century feudal reign, and Edo (the pre-Meiji name for Tokyo), which owes its existence to the Tokugawa. Formerly “the abode of foxes,” then coming to mark the graveyard of the Tokugawa hegemons, Ueno in the twentieth century served as habitat for the postwar homeless, particularly for migrant laborers from the North (and more recently from Iran) who arrived in Ueno station with no place to go…

The metonymic and retrospective use of Ueno Park is an in-joke based on a simple attribution. We accept it as Ueno Park because it has been so designated by Tomi after the fact, not because it has been specially announced. Instead, it is obliquely hinted at by the reference to homelessness and by the almost surreptitious tracking shot.

Wall topped with funerary markers in Ueno ParkMuch of this strikes me critical oneupmanship, a desire to discover formal or stylistic meanings in the film that have gone unrecognized by other critics. I don’t recall seeing Tomi refer to Ueno Park in “a subsequent scene”; nor could I find that piece of dialog in either the English version of the screenplay translated by Donald Richie and Eric Klestadt—I’ve yet to check the Japanese version in the second volume of Ozu’s Complete Works (小津安二郎全集). Perhaps Ozu associated Ueno Park with homelessness but it’s equally probable that he recalled a beautiful stone wall topped with funerary markers, realizing that he could use it to reveal his elderly couple (and perhaps prefigure Tomi’s death).

What is significant (and miraculous) about this tracking shot is its emotional power, its ability to evoke (in Kauffman’s words) “a moment of inexplicable, deep poignancy”, a purely cinematic moment that immediately had my face glistening with tears.

I’ll be curious, when I watch Tokyo Story again on DVD, to see whether the film (and that particular shot) has the same effect. For all the wonders of DVD—and these days I spend a lot of my spare time watching Japanese movies on DVD—seeing Tokyo Story at the cinema, as part of an audience in a huge darkened space (as Ozu intended), has made me wonder about the extent to which watching movies on a television screen negates the intent of the director, crew, and cast (at least for films which were made in the years before television became popular).

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Thursday 23 December 2004

My DVD of the year

There are only a couple of days left if you want to vote in the Masters of Cinema DVD of the Year Award. The guidelines:

  1. The DVD can be from anywhere in the world and must have been released sometime in 2004;
  2. You can vote for box sets;
  3. Choose your personal favourite release;
  4. Please don’t vote for MoC DVDs, the vote will receive a glowing smile but won’t be counted.

DVD Box Set, The Yakuza Papers, Battles without Honor and HumanityI voted for Home Vision Entertainment’s DVD box set of Fukasaku Kinji’s The Yakuza Papers: Battles without Honor and Humanity. Dave Kehr’s New York Times review concisely conveys the importance of the films and the quality of the box set:

The most ambitious project in Mr. Fukasaku’s long career was The Yakuza Papers a five-feature series from 1973-74. Ostensibly, it’s the story of the gang leader Shozo Hirono, played by the charismatic Bunta Sugawara, an actor with the looks and bearing of Robert Ryan, who emerges from the chaos and trauma of postwar Hiroshima. But as the story moves from the late 40s to the early 70s, it becomes clear that Mr. Fukasaku (who died in 2003) is really relating the unofficial economic history of postwar Japan: the underground of ruthless aggression that made the Japanese “economic miracle” possible.

Home Vision Entertainment has packaged superb, widescreen transfers of all five films, plus a sixth supplementary disc filled with enlightening historical material, into a handsome metal case, creating one of the most impressive box sets in a year already quite rich in them. It’s a touchstone for those who know Mr. Fukasaku’s work and an excellent introduction for those who don’t.

I’d already seen the first film in the series as it is part of a Eureka Video box set titled Yakuza Triple Pack:

  • Battles without Honour and Humanity (仁義なき戦い, Jingi naki tatakai, 1973)
  • Yakuza Graveyard (やくざの墓場 くちなしの花, Yakuza no hakaba: kuchinashi no hana, 1976)
  • Street Mobster (現代やくざ 人斬り与太, Gendai yakuza: hitokiri yota, 1972)

Eureka offer a second Fukasaku box set called The Yakuza Collection:

  • Graveyard of Honor (仁義の墓場, Jingi no hakaba, 1975)
  • Cops vs Thugs (県警対組織暴力, Kenkeitai soshiki bōryoku, 1975)
  • Japan Organized Crime Boss (日本暴力団 組長, Nihon bōryokudan: kumichō, 1969)

Although I paid £19.99 (US$38.28) for each of these box sets (and regarded that as a bargain), Benson’s World in the UK is now offering both the Yakuza Triple Pack and The Yakuza Collection for only £14.99 (US$28.70) each. Note, however, that your television and DVD player must support Region 2 PAL DVDs.

Although I was impressed with the 16x9 anamorphic transfer on the Eureka DVD, even a quick comparison reveals that the Home Vision NTSC version of Battles without Honour and Humanity (also anamorphic) is undeniably superior.

Amazingly, Fukasaku made the five films in less than two years (the series was released over an eighteen month period between January 1973 and June 1974):

  • Battles without Honour and Humanity (仁義なき戦い, Jingi naki takakai, 1973)
  • Battles without Honour and Humanity: Deadly Fight in Hiroshima (仁義なき戦い 広島死闘篇, Jingi naki takakai: hiroshima shitō hen, 1973)
  • Battles without Honour and Humanity: Proxy War (仁義なき戦い 代理戦争, Jingi naki takakai: dairi sensō, 1973)
  • Battles without Honour and Humanity: Police Tactics (仁義なき戦い 頂上作戦, Jingi naki takakai: chōjoō sakusen, 1974)
  • Battles without Honour and Humanity: Final Episode (仁義なき戦い 完結篇, Jingi naki takakai: kanketsu hen, 1974)

I watched the six Eureka DVDs one after another and, on this first viewing, found the plotlines difficult to follow since Fukasaku kills off characters almost as fast as he introduces them, packing the widescreen frame with shootings, betrayals, and historical references—the ongoing voiceover narration fostering the illusion that one is watching a carefully researched documentary about the impact of organized crime on postwar Japan.

The Battles without Honor and Humanity series is proving easier to understand since Home Vision Entertainment have included a character tree—a small section of which is shown below—that shows the myriad characters and their relationships.

Character tree for the Battles without Honor and Humanity series

The sixth (supplementary) DVD contains interviews with Fukasaku and his son Kenta, director William Friedkin, and subtitler Linda Hoaglund, plus background video essays about the yakuza and how Battles without Honor and Humanity radically changed Japanese movies.

I’m not sure how long it will take these DVDs to reach the rental market but they’re certainly worth watching. And, if you like Quentin Tarantino’s movies, you might want to take a look at the real thing.

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Tuesday 29 March 2005

Matango: Attack Of The Mushroom People

Matango posterBrowsing through the Recent Releases in the International / Avant Garde > Asian Languages > Japanese Language category at DVD Empire yesterday I noticed an unfamiliar title. Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People. How could I resist clicking on the link?

Then, as I read the synopsis, my heart skipped a beat and my mind raced back nearly fifty years:

After a yacht is damaged in a storm and stranded on a deserted island, the passengers: a psychologist, his girlfriend, a wealthy businessman, a famous singer, a writer, a sailor and his skipper take refuge in a fungus covered boat. While using the mushrooms for sustenance, they find the ship’s journal describing the mushrooms to be poisonous, however some members of the shipwrecked party continue to ingest the mysterious fungi transforming them into hideous fungal monsters.

One of the strangest and most horrific TOHO productions to date.

I’ve never forgotten seeing this movie on TV at a friend’s place when I was nine or ten years old. Although television was introduced into Australia in September 1956, my family didn’t get a television set until I was well into my teens. But a neighbor, Gordon Charles, worked for the Australian subsidiary of the British Radio Rentals company so his family owned the first TV set in our street. Since I was close friends with his two young sons (Duncan and Humphrey), I would often stay over on weekends to watch TV until late into the night.

One Saturday night we watched a movie about a group of people who are shipwrecked near a mysterious island. Any attempts to investigate the island are repulsed by the dense foliage so they make camp on a tiny beach. While exploring the perimeter of the island in the yacht’s dinghy, they discover an abandoned freighter in which all the mirrors have been smashed. They soon run out of food and resort to eating the fungus that covers much of the island’s vegetation…

No, that’s not correct. The yacht wasn’t shipwrecked, it was moored near the island although the skipper and his girlfriend found that they couldn’t penetrate the dense foliage. One night they hear the sound of a dinghy bumping against their hull but, when the skipper goes on deck with a lamp to investigate, a voice pleads with him not to shine the light in that direction.

Wait, that’s not quite it. Now I’m uncertain as to whether the guy on the yacht had a girlfriend or whether he was sailing alone. But I’m sure that the man in the dinghy agrees to tell the yachtsman how he had come to be marooned on the island. He and his wife were passengers on a freighter that ran aground near the island. When they were out of food, the ship’s crew went scavenging but all they could find was a kind of fungus covering all the vegetation. At first the fungus appeared to be quite nourishing but, after a while, everyone who’d eaten it became covered with a kind of fungal growth. The man in the dinghy was the sole survivor, his beautiful wife gradually being covered with fungus before perishing, along with the rest of the crew.

The yacht’s skipper gives him some food and he starts to row away. But the skipper can’t resist the impulse to shine the lamp towards the dinghy and its glare reveals an elderly man, covered completely in fungus. The End.

While the credits were rolling, Mr Charles crept in behind us and shrieked “Fungus!” Three young boys jumped out of their skins.

Although it took me a couple of attempts to remember the actual story (and even now I’m not confident I’ve remembered the narrative correctly), I do recall many details with great clarity: the yacht glistening white in the darkness, the tiny beach surrounded with dense vegetation, the beautiful young wife, the swinging lantern, the final shot of the fungal man in the dinghy, even the cramped fifties living room where we watched the program, and—most clearly of all—the feeling of terror when Mr Charles cried out “Fungus!” Yet I don’t remember any mushroom people. Nor do I recall that the actors were Japanese. In fact, we couldn’t have watched Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People that night because Matango wasn’t made until 1963—by Honda Ishirō (本多猪四郎), the director of the first Godzilla movie in 1954 (and many other monster movies, including some of the best Godzilla sequels). And by then my father had finally succumbed and bought us a television.

Matango DVD caseAs Jasper Sharp’s highly favorable Midnight Eye review reveals, Honda made Matango (マタンゴ) “in a brief break between two of his more characteristic monster movies, King Kong vs. Godzilla (Kingukongu tai Gojira, 1962) and Godzilla vs. Mothra (Mosura tai Gojira, 1964)”.

Never released theatrically in the US but dubbed and sold to TV by American International Television in 1965, Matango, or Attack of the Mushroom People to give it its alternative title, is one of those films that is better known for its title than the actual film itself.

Sharp’s analysis of the film’s subtext is fascinating, whether one has seen Matango or not. He argues persuasively that its supposedly humble B-movie exterior masks a sophisticated critique of Japan’s rapid post-war economic growth, human estrangement from nature, and the hallucinatory appeal of the drug culture.

But, even if I missed it, plenty of people saw and loved the dubbed version of Matango on TV, if the Amazon.com user reviews are any guide:

‘Matango,’ like ‘Carnival of Souls,’ is one of those movies that people accidently stumbled across when they should have been sleeping, and remembered forever after. It would insidiously etch itself on your tired brain. And, if you were lucky, maybe it gave you some pretty f***ed up dreams whenever you finally got to sleep. I actually first found this in the middle of the afternoon at the babysitter’s house. It was still too much.

Wow! Was I glad when I discovered “The Attack of the Mushroom People”, as I always remembered it, was coming to DVD! I remember seeing this on tv years ago, and never forgot how damn creepy it left me feeling.

It’s here. One of my favorite movies - and most eagerly-awaited DVDs - ever. And EVERY single bad scenario I could think of for its DVD release has been stamped out soundly by Tokyo Shock/Media Blasters. Because THIS is exactly what I wanted from a DVD of “Matango” (Attack of the Mushroom People). My dream came true, and it’s sitting in my hands.

One reviewer, Nick Tropiano, asks: “Was this the Inspiration for Gilligan’s Island?”

…and that’s a serious question. It predated the premier of Gillian’s Island by several years. There’s a millionaire who owns a yacht that looks like the Minnow. On board is a professor, the captain, a goofy (though somewhat sinster in the film) first mate, a pretty but shy country girl named Okiko, and a singer/movie star. There are seven castaways in all. “Lovey” is replaced by another male character, a writer named Roy. The boat crashes into an island where they are castaways… Course on Gilligan’s Island they didn’t all turn into mutated mushrooms monsters. Rent or buy the DVD (one of my favorite films in Japanese cinema, finally getting its due…) and you tell me if Gilligan’s Island isn’t a complete rip-off of this film.

If I was Toho I would have sued Sherwood Schwartz for copyright infringement.

(Just as Kurosawa Akira, who—realizing that Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars was “nearly a scene-to-scene, shot-by-shot remake” of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo—sued Leone and won 15% of the profits from Leone’s film.)

Of course, I couldn’t resist adding both Matango and Honda’s The Mysterians (地球防衛軍, Chikyū Bōeigun, 1957) to my current DVD Empire order. Now I can’t wait until both DVDs are sitting in my hands.

Still, the question remains: What Fungus Island film did I see on that Saturday night all those years ago? And should its producer have sued Tōhō and Honda Ishirō for copyright infringement?

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© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour