My Japanese Movie Tsunami

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Some weeks, it is especially easy to remember that I put-in the not insubstantial time to research and write this blog for fun, not as a job.  This week has been one of those weeks.  I’ve spent the last seven or so evenings allowing a small, invigorating tsunami of Japanese movies to wash over me.  As I also have some other notes nearly ready for blogification (on Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine), I thought that, instead of a separate post on each movie, I’d just provide a quick run down of some of the thoughts and emotions elicited from me by the movies watched…

Goemon – directed by Kazuaki Kiriya – This movie, the only 21st century film in this post, is all about the visuals.  The story is about a Japanese folk hero, Goemon, who has been explained to me as a sort of Japanese Robin Hood.

The movie is around fifty percent actors and sets, and fifty percent digital animation.  So if you decide to watch it, you should approach it with the mindset that you are watching a cartoon, not a stage play.  Viewed as anime, the movie is extremely successful.  The visuals are as stunning as anything ever put on screen.  Also concerning expectations:  this is a movie for people, like me, who can enjoy a movie as a series of astounding images, even if other components of the film are lacking.  You will not like Goemon if you expect great drama or need deeply developed characters (although, I will say, given what they had to work with, the acting in the move is excellent).  If, also like me, you can enjoy movies like Sin City or 300 or House Of Flying Daggers or even Scott Pilgrim for their visual appearance and creativity, then you should like Goemon.  I also found interesting the blend of Western and Eastern tropes, as well as musical elements from both super-cultures, in the film.  I desperately want to see more from this director.

Onibaba – directed by Kaneto Shindo —  This is a sensual movie exploring the dark underbelly of human emotions, the deepest seated needs that underlie our superficial interactions… things such as hunger, security, and the sexual drive.  The movie is set in samurai days, but this is not what one would think of as a samurai movie; this film is far more Bergman than Kurosawa.

To briefly set-up the plot:  a woman and her daughter-in-law live near a river in a Japan so war-torn that it is impossible for them even to grow crops.  They live on the verge of starvation, resorting to killing passing solitary samurai for their valuables.   A neighbor returns and claims that the daughter-in-law’s husband has been killed.  As the mother-in-law watches the sexual tension build between the returning soldier and the younger woman, she begins to fear that her (now-ex?) daughter-in-law will leave her to be with the man, almost certainly condemning the older woman to a lonely death.  She begins to twist and turn through a writhing series of more and more extreme mind-games with the couple in an monomaniacal attempt to destroy their budding passion.

And at the center of it all is a pit into which the two women have been dumping the bodies of their victims.  Through the skill of the director, the pit seems magical and mythical in its silent, dominating, and sinister presence.  Also important to the movie is a mask worn by a visiting samurai to hide his secret.  Even the tall reeds in which the women live—reeds taller than a person—play an important and beautifully photographed roll in the film.  The different tensions running through the movie— sex, lies, and that dangerous pit, to name a few— keep the medium-slow pacing of the movie from becoming boring, as can be the case so often in movies that are trying to be artistic and philosophical as well as entertaining.  The unusual, percussion-heavy score is sometimes intriguing, but is also sometimes annoying.

Woman In The Dunes – directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara – It is almost impossible to discuss this movie without mentioning Kafka and/or Camus.  A man visiting a seaside, desert-like area on a scientific mission, finds himself tricked by the locals into descending into a deep, inescapable pit wherein lives a woman in a small shack.  Her only job is to shovel the sand that is incessantly moving-in to swallow up her home, and to load the sand into buckets that the locals then haul up for selling.  The locals have decided that the man is to be her helpmate.

The visuals of the sand are beautiful, and they put me in mind of Antonioni’s shots of the island in L’avventura.  As in Onibaba, besides the coincidental element of a pit, there is manipulation and sexual undercurrent in Woman In The Dunes, but it is the victim who is the manipulator here, attempting to find some way out of the pit.  The woman, herself, seems the only innocent in the story, and her situation is at least as pitiable as that of the man’s.  This is a brilliant narrative stroke.  The star of the story might be the pit (somehow deeply symbolic, though in a way that is open to various interpretations), and the hero may be the man– but it is the woman who makes the story work; in this, I am put in mind of Doctor Watson, who presence is largely what makes the Sherlock Holmes stories work in more dimensions than just sheer ratiocination.  Although the woman is in passive collusion with the man’s captors, whenever the man abuses her, you can’t help but feel compassion for her plight.  I recommend this film.  I’m also curious to read the novel it is based on, written by Kobo Abe.

The Face Of Another – also directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara  (and also based on an Abe book)–  This movie is not as successful in its pacing as Woman In The Dunes, but when you’re in the mood for thought-provoking, art-house style film exploring the themes of identity and anonymity and their interplay with morality, society, loneliness, and beauty—then this is your film.  Whereas The Woman In The Dunes was artful, this film is far more experimental in its presentation of images.  It is furthermore —and not always to my weak-stomached liking— more disturbing (even downright gross) in its imagery.  This film brings in so many threads of art-house or avant-garde cinema:  it’s equal parts Bunuel, Antonioni, Bergman, and Dali.  The plot itself –which is really just an excuse for existential explorations— is a science fiction tale:  a man, after suffering a disfiguring accident, undergoes a face transplant; and for its day, the film is actually quite special-effects laden.

I thought of a few far more recent movies while watching The Face Of Another:  Abre Los Ojos ([remade as Vanilla Sky] which is also about a man who suffers a facial disfigurement) and- -and this is a little bizarre, I know— Jim Carrey’s The Mask (which is about how a mask can free us so much from our accepted identity, that we begin to wonder who is in charge of the personality—the mask or the person beneath the mask).

The pacing of The Face Of Another was too slow for me, but when you’re in the mood to overhear smart people talking about the philosophy of identity while watching some pretty bizarre images flash and float across the screen, then you should watch it.

Oh!—I almost forgot.  There is secondary and completely cordoned-off plot about a young woman who has also had her face disfigured.  Her world is presented with far less depth than the main story.  The characters imply that her injury came during the Nagasaki nuclear bombing.  Among other things, her story demonstrates how thin the veil of beauty is (described in the movie as being less than four millimeters of skin on the face).  The woman—who without that disfigured four millimeters would have had many at her feet worshiping and wanting the otherwise stunningly beautiful young female—is instead shunned into a painful isolation by those same people.

Watching her story, I was led to consider how Beauty can give to us with one hand while taking away with the other.  For every work of art that we admire, how many great experiences and people do we never give a chance merely because of their outer appearances— a few millimeters of dust?

I also watched Sansho The Bailiff (directed by Kenji Mizoguchi) and Tokyo Story (directed by Yasujirō Ozu).   Sansho is an old story about a brother and sister, children of a great lord who has fallen out of favor, and who end up sold to a cruel slave master.  When the brother is grown, he escapes to reclaim his inheritance and take vengeance on the cruel master.  The themes are 1) the virtue of mercy and 2) the need to respect the dignity of each and every individual.

I found no component of the movie especially appealing (plot, characters, dialogue, etc).  There are some lovely shots, but the takes are often overly long.  Sometimes the wide-angled, outdoor shots can look like lovely landscape paintings with a few small human figures placed more for giving a sense of perspective than anything else.  The shifts between the present and the past are masterfully and smoothly done—perhaps as good as ever has been done in movies.  Still, I don’t rate the movie highly.

As for Tokyo Story…  This movie has been placed by critical consensus as one of the greatest movies ever made.  I find it disconcerting that I, personally, consider it one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen.  To tell the truth, I couldn’t even finish it; I could not imagine any ending, no matter how breath-taking, that would have made the rest of the film worth sitting through.

My only guess as to how this drawn-out family drama got its high placement in the list of great world cinema is that some people adore the movie because it captures, so they tell me, perfectly the day-to-day life of an average family in post-war Japan.  Perhaps I should state upfront that the family drama genre is not my favorite type of story anyway— I figure if I want real-life pain and sorrow, all I’ve gotta do is force myself out of bed.  So maybe the deck was already stacked against me liking this movie.  But I’ve liked other family drama films, so I’m sticking by my verdict:  Tokyo Story is oh so NOT recommended.

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