Thursday, December 23, 2010

Japanese cinema spotlight

Overdue comments on a Japanese cinema spotlight that kicked off back in the summer and contained 9 features and one short:

The Only Son (1936, Yasujirô Ozu)
There was a Father (1942, Yasujirô Ozu)
Tales of Ugetsu (1953, Kenji Mizoguchi)
Bakumatsu Taiyoden (1957, Yuzo Kawashima)
Good Morning (1959, Yasujirô Ozu)
Tokyo Olympiad (1965, Kon Ichikawa)
Patriotism (1966, Yukio Mishima)
Samurai Rebellion (1967, Masaki Kobayashi)
Cure (1997, Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
Fish Story (2009, Yoshihiro Nakamura)

Ozu x 3: Emotions & Limited Communication

Ozu's The Only Son and There was a Father may be rooted in Japanese culture but the sentiments depicted in both films are equally Indian. Every Indian child learns very early on about Karma and the importance of doing one's work and not worrying about the end result. Such work often involves sacrifices but the sacrifices are meant to be minor bumps in the overall scheme. Sometimes the biggest challenge in performing the work is attempting to subdue one's emotional attachments. Both The Only Son and There was a Father show that the parent and son are trying their best to get through life by working diligently yet hiding their true feelings. It is clear in There was a Father that both the father and son want to live together in the same city but the father continues to bury his true emotions and asks his son to continue working hard. In The Only Son, it is the mother who breaks her back working in a factory so as to provide a better future for her son. The son then lives his life apart from the mother and does not even inform her of his marriage and child because he does not want his mother to feel her sacrifice was wasted. The son feels he did not achieve what his mother wanted him to so he feels better not to invite her to see him.

Parent-Children relationships should not be complicated but they become so over time. Job, work, careers muddle the waters but at the end of the day a simple honest conversations should clear any doubts. Yet, adults hold back honest communication with each other either because of fear or duty. If improper communication is not healthy, then no communication is worse. Good Morning takes a humorous approach to show that if children do not talk at all with their parents, then confusion and misunderstandings can lead to more damage. In the film, the two young boys go on a silent strike in order to protest their father's refusal to buy a tv. Yet, the silence amusingly unearths some insecurities in the neighbours, leading to awkward admissions and confessions.

A different kind of duty

Masaki Kobayashi's complex and powerful Samurai Rebellion carefully chooses its moments of wisdom, political games and sword fights. A samurai is told early on in the film to keep his emotions in check lest they get the better of him. He is reminded of the difficulty in getting along with his superiors and fellow vassals so if the samurai gets angry every time, then he won't last. That patience is especially required of a samurai in moments of peace when there is no enemy to fight. So a samurai is reduced to testing his sword on straw dummies. Slashing straw men is frustrating and humiliating but that is nothing compared to an arranged marriage proposal which tests the principles and honor of a samurai family, leading to the film's main conflict points.

A Serial infection

Multiple gruesome murders are committed in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Cure but it is not a single killer that performs the acts. Instead, loved ones or people close to the victims do the killing. Yet, the killers are not aware of their crimes as they are remotely driven by an unknown man.

The topography of Cure feels like that of a serial killer investigation film cut from the same cloth of Memories of Murder (Joon-ho Bong) and Zodiac (David Fincher) yet Kurosawa's film immediately stands apart because of the hands off approach of the instigator who never really gets his own hands bloody. Yet, if one could open his brain, then one would see the images of blood that are being projected onto innocent would be killers. Also, the other interesting layer added to the film is the weakening health of the lead police officer's wife, resulting in the killer exploiting the officer's mental state. Reality is toyed with especially in a case when the killer never has to kill a victim himself.

A truly remarkably film which creates a dark unsettling atmosphere.

An event from a few hundred camera angles

It is remarkable to think that Kon Ichikawa's Tokyo Olympiad was shot back in 1964, at a time when camera equipment was expensive. Yet, Kon Ichikawa had about 150 cameras at his disposal to record the historic Tokyo Olympics. But Kon Ichikawa does not make a conventional news footage documentary which shows all the winners of the main events. Instead, his almost three hour documentary is a work of art that displays the human element of the sporting event. We get to see both the triumphs and low points, winners and losers, and the camera lovingly holds onto certain poetic moments for a few extra minutes. The end result is mesmerizing and presents a radically different perspective of the Olympics.

The following words by George Plimpton perfectly describe the effect of the film:

I remember Ernest Hemingway telling me once that the unnoticed things in the hands of a good writer had an effect, and a powerful one, of making readers conscious of what they had been aware of only subconsciously. A parallel adage suggests that a great photographer can take a picture of a familiar street and tell you something about it you never knew before. After watching the 1964 Tokyo Olympiad, one can surely say that Ichikawa is of that tradition.

The Power of 5: a very fishy story

2012: A comet is on course to destroy earth. Who or what can save the world?

A Punk song, ofcourse!

Fish Story is a mind spinning tale about an unlikely superhero and an even more unlikely heroic song with the following lyrics:

The story of my solitude
If my solitude were a fish
It’d be so enormous, so militant
A whale would get out of there
The story of my failure
If my failure were a fish
It’d be so tragically comic I’d have no place in the sea to be
Don’t you know you’re a liar! Don’t you know you’re a deceiver!
Music stacked up like wooden blocks Is the champion of justice!
If my justice really were a fish It’d be so greedy and arrogant

The film jumps across three decades with the only connecting element being the punk song. But thankfully by the end of an entertaining film, all the elements come together.

and the others...

Kenji Mizoguchi's haunting Ugetsu is a tale of how two men's selfish journey brings suffering to both men & their families. When the two men finally wake up from their self imposed trance, they find their life in ruins. Phillip Lapote's essay unravels the film's beauty:

One might say that Mizoguchi’s detached, accepting eye also resembles that of a ghost, looking down on mortal confusions, ambitions, vanities, and regrets. While all appearances are transitory and unstable in his world, there is also a powerfully anchoring stillness at its core, a spiritual strength no less than a virtuoso artistic focus. The periodic chants of the monks, the droning and the bells, the Buddhist sutras on Genjuro’s back, the landscapes surrounding human need, allude to this unchanging reality side by side with, or underneath, the restlessly mutable. Rooted in historical particulars, Ugetsu is a timeless masterpiece.

Yukio Mishima's Patriotism (Yûkoku, 1966) shockingly foreshadows the author's own suicide in 1970. Tony Rayns Criterion essay is essential reading about the film.

I was quite excited to see Bakumatsu Taiyoden, a title helmed by a director I had never heard. However, the discovery turned out to be anticlimatic as my DVD had no English subtitles thereby forcing me to follow the Japanese film without any assistance. All I could enjoy were some moments of humor injected in a samurai tale but the visual language was not enough to make a worthy impression.

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