Wednesday, November 5, 2014

A Dissenting Note on Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook

Perhaps now is the moment for the Australian horror film.  Just as the late 90’s and early ‘00’s saw an international fad for Japanese horror (and a series of disappointing American remakes) and the mid-00’s brought us impressive entries from the Spanish horror scene (and, again, a series of disappointing American remakes), the late ‘00s and early ‘10’s (or whatever we’re calling this decade) have presented us with a number of excellent Australian horror films.  In fact, some of the best horror movies I’ve seen in recent years have been Australian; I am thinking specifically of Lake Mungo (2008) and The Tunnel (2011).  And it will be much harder to justify making shitty American remakes of these movies, given that they’re already in English.

So, it was with some degree of excitement that I sat down to watch Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014), which generated huge buzz at Sundance way back in January and then, thanks to the vagaries of the film distribution business, didn’t become available to us out in the provinces until much more recently.  The Babadook follows the tribulations of an Australian widow and her six-year-old child as they become subject to the persecutions of the titular Babadook.  The Babadook is a figure in a children’s book that the child, Samuel, discovers on his shelf (his mother never bought it for him, its origins are a mystery) and which he insists on having his mother read to him as a bedtime story.  It goes something like this: “If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, / You can’t get rid of the Babadook.” And the Babadook is this black glowering monster with claws who can be seen hovering over the bed of a poor child not unlike Samuel.  Samuel is traumatized by the book (understandably) and becomes convinced that the Babadook is haunting him and his mother, and things go downhill from there.

He looks friendly.
And the Babadoook couldn’t have arrived on the scene at a worse time, become the mother, Amelia, is stressed at her nursing home job, her son has a bunch of behavioral problems, and she still hasn’t gotten over the death of her husband.  And this is where my problem with the movie begins, because this is a type of horror movie that I’ve become all too familiar with over the years; it is horror predicated upon irritation and frustration.  I would say that a good bulk of the film is devoted to distinctly prosaic problems in the lives of Amelia and Samuel, which build upon each other with nightmarish relentlessness: Samuel doesn’t know how to socialize with other children, he assaults and terrorizes his cousin, he embarrasses Amelia in front of the neighbors, her boss thinks poorly of her, she gets in a minor car accident and the guy in the other car is a dick to her, etc, etc.  What I’m looking for in horror is something Lovecraftian, and I cannot think of any episode in Lovecraft where the protagonist gets his car towed because he was parked in a pick-up/drop-off only section outside the Miskatonic University library, where he was perusing the Necronomicon.

The horror presented in The Babadook is the kind of horror that appeals to people who don’t actually like horror movies. “Oh look, a horror movie without gore or jump-scares,” they say, “how nice.” And yes, that’s all well and good, but even without those things you can still have cosmic horror, not profoundly mundane frustrations and vexations.  I suspect the critics also feel that this film is “deeper” than genuinely frightening horror films because it’s invested so much in the emotional lives of its characters, at the expense of everything else.  As if this was a family drama.  Different genres do different things.  Horror films are supposed to horrify; if they can also explore a troubled mother-child relationship, fine, but they mustn’t do that exclusively.

The Babadook
is especially disappointing because it had the potential to be so much better.  The titular monster, when we get to engage with him, is scary as fuck (the design of the children’s book where he makes his first appearance is probably the highlight of the movie).  But it seems like every time the film is about to get intense, it switches gears and brings us a scene of Samuel persecuting his poor mother by mocking an elderly neighbor’s Parkinson’s disease to her face or pushing his little cousin out of a tree house and breaking her nose.  And that’s not horrifying, it’s just annoying.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Lost Honor of Hannah Arendt: On Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt

In 1975, Margarethe von Trotta and Volker Schlöndorff released their adaption of Heinrich Böll’s short novel The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, which tells the story of a young woman who is libeled and destroyed by a media lynch mob.  Several decades later, von Trotta has made an informal sequel in the form of Hannah Arendt (2012).  The film follows the titular German-American philosopher in her coverage of the Adolf Eichmann trial for The New Yorker and its rancorous aftermath.  So, first order of business, some background on the subject.

Adolf Eichmann was a high-ranking member of the SS who played a crucial role in facilitating the logistics of the Holocaust.  It was Eichmann who organized the deportations of Jews and Roma from Nazi-occupied and allied countries to the death camps in the East.  When the war ended, he successfully evaded capture and fled to Argentina, where he lived until 1960, when agents of the Israeli intelligence organization, the Mossad, kidnapped him and brought him to Israel to stand trial for his crimes.  Now, this is where Hannah Arendt enters the picture.  Arendt was a German Jewish philosopher who had fled Nazi Germany, first to France, where she was interned at the Gurs detention camp, then to the United States before the implementation of the “Final Solution.”  In 1960, she travelled to Israel at the behest of The New Yorker, hoping to gain an understanding of the monstrous evil she expected to find in Eichmann.  As the trial progressed, however, it became increasingly clear to Arendt that Eichmann was not a “monster,” at least not in the conventional sense.  He was, in fact, profoundly normal and not particularly intelligent; he was capable of speaking only in clichés, which for him served as a substitute for actual thought.  He was a bureaucrat and saw himself first and foremost as a member of an organization—in which he sought to achieve advancement for the sake of his personal prestige—and he was doing what he was told.  From this, Arendt articulated her famous concept of “the banality of evil,” which has unfortunately become something of a cliché in its own right.  Arendt found Eichmann’s normality to be in its own way quite horrifying, as it suggested that there were plenty of other seemingly normal bureaucrats out there who would be capable of the same kind of catastrophic evil.

Von Trotta’s film begins with an introduction to Arendt’s intellectual life in New York—a busy social calendar taken up by writers like Mary McCarthy, her colleagues at the New School, where she taught, and fellow German-Jewish émigrés.  It then takes us through Eichmann’s trial and hits the key points in the book that resulted from it, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.  This first half or so of the film plays very much like respectful biopic, anchored by an engaging performance from Barbara Sukowa as Arendt (in fact, all the German actors are fine; by contrast, the American actors in this film are almost without exception terrible).  It is in the second half of the film that the action becomes much more compelling.  Arendt’s report on the trial is serialized in The New Yorker and it unleashes a torrent of hatred and misrepresentation.

Allow me to elaborate.  One of the most disturbing elements discussed in Eichmann in Jerusalem is the role played by Jewish leaders in the Holocaust.  According to Arendt, when Eichmann and his associates brought the “Final Solution” to a country, one of their first actions was to establish Jewish Councils of Elders (judenräte), Jewish leaders who could serve as intermediaries between the Nazis and the Jewish people.  They used these councils to facilitate the acquisition (read: theft) of Jewish property, the concentration of Jews into ghettoes and camps, and finally the deportation of Jews to death camps in the East.  In many cases, the last Jews to be deported in a territory would be the members of the councils themselves, although they too were usually sent to their deaths.  Now, as one can imagine, this business of Jewish leaders being made to be complicit in the destruction of their own people was not palatable to most Jews in 1960 (or to many non-Jews, for that matter). 

Well, palatable or not, the existence of these Jewish councils is a well-attested historical fact, they are in the major historiographical works on the Holocaust, and they came up repeatedly in the Eichmann trial, and Arendt duly included them in her report on Eichmann.  And a firestorm erupted.  People, many of whom hadn’t actually read her New Yorker articles or the book released shortly thereafter, accused her of “blaming the victim” and asserting that the Jews shared responsibility for the Holocaust.  On top of this, her insistence that Eichmann was not a monster was viewed by many—again, this included a number of people who hadn’t actually read the articles—as being a defense of Eichmann.  And von Trotta’s film depicts these attacks on Arendt in a profoundly disturbing fashion.  We see her inundated with hate mail, her colleagues insulting her to her face, close friends breaking ties with her, Israeli agents threatening her.  Just as in The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, we see a self-righteous mob fired by the conviction that it has the right to destroy a person based on rumors and slander.  One is reminded of the Rushdie case, in which crowds of people turned on a writer because of their outrage over a book they hadn’t read.

Arendt is repeatedly accused of coldness and arrogance for refusing to allow her emotions to cloud her judgment of Eichmann.  As for the matter of the Jewish Councils, nobody tries to contest their existence; they just wish Arendt had had the good taste and respect to gloss over them.  To see the veneer of civility drop away as it does in the attacks on Arendt is deeply unsettling.  In the end, she has little consolation other than the knowledge that she faced the truth and didn’t shy away from it.  Perhaps that is the responsibility of the philosopher.  But it is a lonely consolation.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Psychedelic Sada Abe: On Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Sada

Sada Abe and the police.
On the eighteenth of May, 1936, a prostitute named Sada Abe asphyxiated her lover to death in a Shibuya inn, then cut off his genitals, which she put in her purse and carried around with her for several days until her arrest.  When the details of the murder came to light, she became a folk hero in Japan.  Wherefore the murder and castration? And why did the public respond so favorably to it, if we can phrase it like that?
Sada Abe had been in the midst of an intense affair with married restaurateur Kichizo Ishida.  They became consumed with each other and increasingly sought to shut out the outside world.  And there was a lot happening in the outside world at the time.  Just three months earlier, ultra-nationalist army officers had staged a failed uprising in central Tokyo: this is the so-called February 26th incident.  The subsequent crackdown from the establishment led to an entrenchment of military rule and an expansion of the pervasive militarism that had come to the fore in Japanese cultural and political life.  The Japanese army was deeply enmeshed in Manchuria and was poised to invade the rest of China in the following year.  Rather than give themselves up to the prevailing patriotic fervor of the time, Abe and Ishida withdrew into their own world of increasingly frenzied sexual pleasures.  Theirs was an arguably virtuous selfishness; I would much rather see two people fuck each other to death by mutual consent than kill others through selfless, patriotic violence.
Abe and Ishida eventually got into erotic asphyxiation—which never ends well—and one day Ishida gave her his tacit consent to kill him (in the movies about Sada Abe—which we’ll get to in a moment—it’s presented as something like, “I know you’re going to strangle me in my sleep, so if you do, don’t stop halfway.”) And so, abiding by what she thought were his wishes, she strangled him to death.
Now, there have been several films made about the “Sada Abe incident,” the most famous of which is Nagisa Oshima’s super-explicit 1975 masterpiece In the Realm of the Senses.  As the Japanese censors ban the depiction of human genitalia in movies, Oshima was forced to edit the film—which is as graphic as the most hardcore pornography—in France, and an unexpurgated version of the film has never been released in Japan.  Oshima, a committed member of the far left and a champion of those on the margins of Japanese society—criminals, prostitutes, Koreans, non-conformists—saw Abe’s passionate romance and its violent denouement as a revolutionary rejection of Japanese imperial culture.  He recognized the potential for political subversion in transgressive sex. 
Pretty much the only SFW still-frame to be found from In the Realm of the Senses.
As a result of these serious political considerations, Oshima’s movie—profoundly erotic and beautiful thought if may be—has, it could be argued, a certain humorlessness about it.  Maybe that’s putting it too harshly, but it’s hard to come to a different conclusion when we place In the Realm of the Senses in contrast with Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1998 film Sada.  While Oshima’s films are frequently animated by a consistent political agenda, Obayashi’s—from what I’ve seen of them, and I’ve only seen a few, as most are woefully unavailable in the U.S.—are psychedelic mindfucks.  And while both filmmakers engaged in formal experimentation, Oshima’s was always tempered by the need to convey his aforementioned political commitments; Obayashi, by contrast, in films like Emotion (1966), House (1977), and Sada, gleefully upends filmic conventions for the sheer pleasure of doing so.  And so his Sada Abe story switches at random between black-and-white and color and features bleeding cartoon hearts and slap-sticky fast-motion sequences.  He sees in Sada Abe’s wildly unconventional life an opportunity for play and in the process creates a distinctly warmer, more humane Sada than Oshima’s more erratic, at times hysterical protagonist.  And again, I don’t mean any of this to disparage In the Realm of the Senses; but I think Sadaphiles (Sadists?) would find a fuller treatment of the folk hero if they watched Oshima’s film side-by-side with Obayashi’s. 

For instance, the latter’s Sada has an especial fondness for mini-doughnuts which she often has on hand throughout the film; there’s a delightful scene where Ishida, bearing a strategically concealed erection—must pacify the censors—suggests that they play “ring-toss” with the doughnuts.  It’s not the sort of thing one would encounter in Oshima’s film, but even though it’s far less graphic than anything you’d find in
In the Realm of the Senses, it presents a more earthy and true-to-life take on sex that is in its way just as vivid.

Friday, October 17, 2014

T. S. Eliot and the Zombie Apocalypse: On Abel Gance’s J’accuse

French director Abel Gance was perhaps the first European filmmaker to create movies on the epic scale achieved by D. W. Griffith in films like The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916).  The Americans had the advantage over their European counterparts in that their country had not been devastated by the First World War, which had consumed Europe just as epic cinema was coming into existence.  It is perhaps not surprising then that the first European film to employ this similarly epic approach, Gance’s J’accuse (1919), took WWI as its theme.  J’accuse tells two stories, really: the first, a melodramatic love triangle involving two men and their love for the same woman; the second, a harrowing and remarkably realistic depiction of the experiences of those two men fighting on the Western front.  J’accuse pioneered the use of location shooting: much of its war scenes were filmed directly on the recently vacated battlefields of WWI and, in some cases, while the war was still in progress, thusly blurring the line between fiction and documentary.
Now, there are several aspects of this film that I’d like to touch on.  First, J’accuse grapples with an issue that would confront David Lean decades later during the production of Dr. Zhivago: how does one depict a poet on the screen? How do we “show” poetry? Is it enough to just have the poet read his or her poetry, or is there some aspect of filmic language that can present a poetic worldview?  The hero of J’accuse, the virtuous Jean Diaz, is a poet, and Gance’s treatment of his poetry is quite beautiful.  Near the beginning of the film, Jean recites a poem called “Ode to the Sun,” and rather than presenting the words in the intertitles, Gance presents us with a series of beautiful images of the sun, reflecting in calm oceanic water, rippling across a rushing stream, and warming a grassy field.  Jean’s words are thusly alchemically transmuted into pure imagery.
Later in the film, when Jean’s soul has been destroyed by war, he returns to his “Ode to the Sun” and rereads it, and this time Gance accompanies the tranquil images of happier times with the actual words of the poem onscreen.   And it serves as a devastating contrast to the realities that Jean has confronted in battle; as far as Jean is concerned now, the words of the poem, and the beautiful images that they create, are lies.  As one of the intertitles tells us, the “soldier in him destroyed the poet.”
Shifting our focus a bit here, I want to discuss the climax of the film, which is as memorable as anything you’ll ever see in cinema.  A deranged Jean, having returned to his hometown in Provence, becomes obsessed with the idea that the survivors must render an account of their conduct to the war dead.  This is part of where the title, J’accuse—“I accuse”—comes into play.  Jean accuses the survivors, be they civilians or fellow soldiers.  In fact, he accuses all of France, and the entire world order, for the irrevocable slaughter that has been perpetrated.  Now, the phrase “j’accuse” would have deep associations in France; it is the title of the polemic with which Emile Zola reopened the Dreyfus Affair which tore apart French society in the late 1890’s and early 1900’s.  J’accuse is the refrain of the just, venting their spleen on all the corruption and malignity hidden beneath the façade of polite society.

So Jean levels his “j’accuse” at the survivors and summons up the dead as his witnesses.  And, casting all pretense of realism aside, the dead awaken.  We see a field of wooden crosses scattered across a battlefield fade from view, supplanted by the bodies they rest upon.  And the bodies rise up, a veritable army of the dead, and flood into town to confront the living.  One is reminded of the climactic scene in Koji Wakamatsu’s United Red Army, where the militants, faced with surrender or fighting to the death, consider the latter option because they have to somehow justify themselves to their comrades whom they’ve murdered or driven to suicide.  Europe found itself facing the same conundrum after WWI.  How could they justify themselves to the millions of young men they’d sacrificed to Moloch?  I don’t have an answer, and I don’t think Gance really did either as, in his film, the dead are quickly contented by the sight of their loved ones and return to their graves, while the living are left to ponder whether what has just passed is a dream or a hallucination.

This image of the war dead as a surging crowd is best conjured up by T. S. Eliot in one of the most memorable passages of
The Waste Land: “Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, / A crowd flowed over London bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many.” In the event of a zombie apocalypse, perhaps the risk is not that they’ll eat out brains; perhaps the real risk is that they’ll judge us.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

In the Illustrious Tradition of Sully Prudhomme: Four Writers Who Should Have Won The Nobel Prize for Literature Instead of Patrick Modiano

Every year I get excited about the Nobel Prize for Literature and every year they disappoint me.  More often than not, they give it to a bland, humorless European like J. M. G. Le Clézio or Herta Muller or, as they did this year, Patrick Modiano.  If you look at the history of the award, you’ll find that all sorts of politics and prejudices inform the Nobel Committee’s selections and they often have nothing to do with literary merit.  As a result, people like Vladimir Nabakov and Jorge Luis Borges never won the prize, but Mikhail Sholokhov and Elfreide Jelenik did.  In fact, they’ve given the award to so many undeserving people that it should have lost all meaning by now, but it hasn’t.  Not for me, anyway.  I would still like to see my favorite writers win it.  With that in mind, I present to you a list of four writers who deserve the Nobel Prize far more than Patrick Modiano, followed by an explanation of why they won’t win it.  Let us commence.
Name: Haruki Murakami.
Known for: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore, 1Q84.
Why he should win:  Murakami is one of the most consistently engaging and enchanting writers at work today.  He has a deep and penetrating understanding of modernity and the loneliness and alienation that it inflicts on people.  That said, he leavens his vision with a sense of the surreal and the playful (think of the sheep man in A Wild Sheep Chase) as well as a pervasive feeling of compassion.
Why he won’t win: The Nobel people, consummate hipsters, pride themselves on picking obscure authors.  Murakami is an international best-seller.  He’s far too famous and successful to win the Nobel Prize.  On top of that, he’s Asian, and the persistently Eurocentric prize, since its inception in 1901, has only been awarded to four East Asian writers, including Mo Yan in 2012.  With such a recent Asian selection, I suspect the Nobel Committee will wait at least ten years before settling on another Asian writer.
Name: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o.
Known for: Weep Not, Child, The Devil on the Cross, The Wizard of the Crow.
Why he should win: The Kenyan novelist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o is a towering figure in African literature, arguably the greatest living African novelist (since the death of Chinua Achebe, who inexplicably never won the Nobel Prize).  In a career spanning over fifty years, Ngũgĩ’s novels and plays have explored themes of anti-colonial resistance, post-coloniality, and African identity.  Originally writing in English, Ngũgĩ switched over to his first language, Gikuyu, believing that Africans should refrain from writing in colonial languages in order to cultivate a more authentically African literature (this is an idea that I don’t agree with, but it’s been very influential).  His 2006 novel The Wizard of the Crow is the longest novel ever to be written in a sub-Saharan African language.
Why he won’t win: He’s African.  In the entire history of the Nobel Prize for Literature, only a single sub-Saharan African has won it (Wole Soyinka in 1986).  The Nobel Committee seems to think that European subjects are universal subjects, while African and Asian subjects are merely of regional interest.
Name: Cees Nooteboom.
Known for: In the Dutch Mountains, The Following Story, Lost Paradise.
Why he should win: Remarkably, despite its rich literary history, the Netherlands has never won a single Nobel Prize for literature.  This could be due in part to the lack of translation into English of Dutch writers; in order to win a Nobel, your work has to have appeared in a language understood by the people on the committee—primarily English, French, and Swedish—and , at least on the English front, the Dutch seem to have been neglected.  Nooteboom, many of whose books have been translated into English but are now hard to find in the U.S., would be a wonderful choice for the prize.  His erudite, playful, and profoundly civilized books constitute one of the richest oeuvres in post-war European literature.  Furthermore, if he won the Prize, it would bring them back into print and into bookstores in the U.S. and, who knows, maybe even spur the translation of other Dutch writers.
Why he won’t win: He has a sense of humor, something the Nobel people tend to frown on.  Their recent choices have been, with a few exceptions, remarkably humorless, and in this respect Nooteboom would hardly fit in with people like J. M. Coetzee and Tomas Tranströmer.
Name: Yoko Tawada.
Known for: The Bridegroom was a Dog, Where Europe Begins, The Naked Eye
Why she should win: Tawada began her career in Japan but subsequently immigrated to Germany and she writes in both Japanese and German.  She is the consummate literary cosmopolitan, and this is reflected in her elegant little books, which explore the borders of national, linguistic, and other identities in the modern world.  In writing her novel The Naked Eye, she wrote some portions in German and some in Japanese, then translated the German sections into Japanese and the Japanese sections into German, so that she ended up with two distinct but equally “authentic” final texts.
Why she won’t win: Oh God, she has so much stacked against her.  First off, like Nooteboom, she has a sense of humor.  But more damning is her race and her sex.  In addition to their Eurocentrism, the Nobel people are sexist and rarely give the prize to women, although they’ve been improving in this are in recent years.  But this combination of factors makes it unlikely that Tawada would ever be seriously considered.

Post-script: Sully Prudhomme is a French poet whose sole claim to fame is that he won the first Nobel Prize for Literature in 1901.  He has since become emblematic o f the Nobel Committee’s tendency to give the award to people whose work doesn’t stand the test of time and who subsequently fall into obscurity once the buzz surrounding their Nobel has faded.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Revolution Will Not Be Rendered in Woodblock Prints: On Masahiro Shinoda’s The Scandalous Adventures of Buraikan

*spoiler warning*
The vast majority of uprisings throughout history have gone down to ignominious defeat.  From the revolt of Oshio Heihachiro against the Tokugawa regime in 1837 to the Japanese student protests of the late 1960’s, this has been true of modern Japanese history (I say “the vast majority,” not “all,” mind you; the Meiji revolt was certainly successful).  But in many cases it’s the gesture of revolt that counts more than its efficacy.  This is the argument advanced in Ivan Morris’s book The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan.  He wrote it in the wake of his friend Yukio Mishima’s quixotic “coup attempt” and subsequent ritual suicide in 1970.  This same year saw the release of Masahiro Shinoda’s carnivalesque study of the futility of revolution, The Scandalous Adventures of Buraikan.
Masahiro Shinoda rose to fame with the Japanese New Wave in the early 1960’s and his prolific and varied output included noir, domestic dramas, rebellious youth movies, and period pieces (jidaegeki), including Assassination (1964) and Samurai Spy (1965), which have to be some of the most convoluted samurai movies ever made.  But by the time 1970 rolled around, the Japanese movie landscape was beginning to change dramatically, with the old studios going bankrupt (Daiei) or shifting to increasingly pornographic fare (Nikkatsu).  A lot of the other Japanese New Wavers were either turning to documentary (like Oshima and Imamura) or drifting out of the industry (like poor Seijun Suzuki, who was fired by Nikkatsu in 1967 and subsequently blacklisted for the next ten years).  Shinoda was one of the few filmmakers of his generation to keep up a more or less uninterrupted output of increasingly strange films through the 1970’s, which saw him eventually turning to an exploration of folk and mythological subjects in bizarre films like Himiko (1974) and Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees (1975).
So The Scandalous Adventures of Buraikan comes at what is in many respects a transitional period for Shinoda; the same can be said of Japanese cinema and Japanese society, where the radical left was more or less defeated and a capitalist consensus settled into place.  Buraikan reflects many of these tensions and transformations.  The film is set in decadent late-Edo Japan, where Mizuno, a high-ranking administrator with a moralistic streak, has set out to reform society through a series of puritanical laws banning: prostitution, fireworks, most forms of theater, flamboyant dress, etc.  The various entertainers and denizens of the pleasure quarters find themselves out of a job and, as one of them puts it, “What’s the point of being alive if we can’t do what we want?” A revolutionary atmosphere begins to obtain in Edo (as Tokyo was called at them time) and it draws together a ragtag group of unlikely insurgents (as tends to be the case under these circumstances): Naojiro (Tatsuya Nakadai), a would-be actor with a meddlesome mother who keeps coming between him and the prostitute he loves; Kaneko, an assassin/psychopathic killing machine who wishes to murder all those in power; Ushimatsu, a poor painter whose wife has killed herself and whose son has been sold to an itinerant acting troop; and Kochiyama, a high-ranking government official who wishes to harness the power of the discontented masses to unseat Mizuno and restore theaters and prostitution to the people of Japan.
Of these diverse figures, Naijiro seems the most emblematic of the hedonistic spirit of the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters.  Largely apolitical, he joins the conspiracies of the revolutionaries for fun and because it gives him a larger stage than he can secure for himself in the theatrical world (where there seems to be no place for him; he’s not a professional actor, he’s a dilettante).  In his domestic life, his sole concern is his own pleasure, and so he abuses his mother when she harasses him about his conduct.  When his frustration with her reaches the breaking point, he literally picks her up and hurls her off a cliff into the Sumida river (she gets rescued and comes back to bicker with him some more).  As the movie reaches its climax, Naijiro has left his revolutionary friends to spend time with his prostitute lover and as the insurgents are slaughtered, he picks up his mother to throw her off a cliff again.  Because these things are cyclical, and the rising up and rising down (as William T. Vollmann would phrase it) of popular violence is just as inevitable as the changing of the seasons or Naijiro attempting to kill his mother.  In the background, the local coffin-maker continues to hammer away at a product always in demand.

Post-script: As far as I can tell, nobody in this movie is named Buraikan.  So I have no idea where the title comes from or what it’s supposed to mean.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Soldiers in the Land of the Buddha: Kon Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp

As a person who enjoys classifying people and things, I am always happy to place filmmakers within specific categories and movements.  In the Japanese context, there are the Golden Age directors (stretching from the thirties through the late fifties/early sixties): these are filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, and Kenji Mizoguchi.  Then there are the members of the Japanese New Wave (the Nuberu Bagu) of the early sixties: Nagisa Oshima, Shohei Imamura, Yoshishige Yoshida.  But there are certain filmmakers who fall somewhere in between these neat categorizations: filmmakers like Masaki Kobayashi and the subject of today’s post, Kon Ichikawa.  Too late on the scene to belong fully to the Golden Age (in my more or less arbitrary definition, a Golden Ager has to have begun making films before or at least during WWII) but maintaining too much of the technique and the aesthetic of the Golden Age to qualify as New Wave, Ichikawa and the filmmakers of his generation occupy a transitional period in Japanese cinema.
Ichikawa, like many Japanese filmmakers, is unfortunately only spottily represented on DVD in the United States.  Criterion has released two of his WWII films, The Burmese Harp and Fires on the Plain (more on these presently), Tokyo Olympiad, a well-regarded documentary about the 1964 Tokyo Olympics which now appears to be out of print, and The Makioka Sisters, an adaptation of the Tanizaki novel of the same name.  Criterion has also made available on Hulu Odd Obsession—another Tanizaki adaptation, this time of his late novel The Key, which hints at the more explicit sexual concerns of the New Wave—It Isn’t Easy Being Two, a film about early childhood, and Princess from the Moon, which, as far as I can tell, narrates a Close Encounters-style version of the classic Japanese tale of “The Bamboo Cutter’s Daughter.” I haven’t seen these last two because they don’t appeal to me, I haven’t seen The Makioka Sisters because I want to read the novel first, and I haven’t seen Tokyo Olympiad because I can’t find it.  This means that my entire experience of Ichikawa’s cinema is confined to The Burmese Harp, Odd Obsession, and Fires on the Plain.
In his prime—the late fifties and early sixties—Ichikawa’s films were all scripted by his wife, Natto Wada, who became disillusioned with Japanese cinema in 1965 and retired, allegedly triggering a marked decline in the quality of Ichikawa’s films.  However, in 1956, when The Burmese Harp was released, the Ichikawa-Wada partnership was still going strong and the result is one of the most enigmatic war movies you’re ever likely to see.  Set in Burma at the end of WWII, the film depicts a close-knit Japanese army unit as they surrender to British forces.  The unit’s captain is a musician and he’s turned his force into a choir and they frequently raise morale by joining together in song, all to the accompaniment of the titular Burmese harp, played by a soldier named Mizushima.  For reference purposes, a Burmese harp looks like this:

Upon discovering that Japan has surrendered, Mizushima’s unit promptly surrenders as well.  However, there is another Japanese army unit nearby holed up in the mountains and intent on fighting to the death.  The British send Mizushima, armed only with his harp, to try to negotiate the surrender of the hold-outs, while the rest of his unit is sent down south to an internment camp.  Now, one of the striking things about this movie is how little we really know about our Japanese protagonists.  We have no idea what their experience of the war has been like prior to the opening of the film.  How long have they been in Burma?  Have they been in other theaters? What horrible things have they seen?  What horrible things have the y done? This all remains a mystery.  But what happens next to Mizushima, regardless of whatever came before, is a psychic catastrophe.  Because Mizushima fails to convince the Japanese hold-outs to surrender, and they are promptly massacred by the British, their bodies left to rot.  Mizushima, injured but alive, is discovered by a Burmese monk, who nurses him back to health; Mizushima repays him by stealing his robes.  He shaves his head and wanders the land as a mendicant monk.  His initial intention is just to head south to rejoin his unit in captivity, but as he travels, he is repeatedly confronted by the unburied, decomposing bodies of Japanese soldiers, and they exert a strange spell on him, and he finds himself unable to rejoin his comrades.
Now, the exact nature of Mizushima’s problem is left unclear for most of the movie.  But he seems to have been cast in the role of an everyman confronted with the violence of historical forces beyond his control.  And, one drop of water in a sea of human suffering though he may be, he takes it upon himself to try to restore peace to the world, or at least to the little patch of Burma where he finds himself.  One is reminded of the naïve/idiot character played by Jim Caviezel in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line who, in an unlikely poetic outburst, asks, “What is this war within nature? Why must the land contend with the sea? [etc., etc., typical Malick pseudo-philosphy.]” But Mizushima is asking the same questions and Ichikawa’s film is similar to Malick’s in that it places its human drama within a broader landscape of great natural beauty (although they’re both tropical, Burma possesses an austerity lacking in the unimpeded fecundity of Guadalcanal).

The Burmese Harp
climaxes with Mizushima asking why such suffering has to exist in the world and concluding that it is not for humans to know the answers to such questions, but merely to do their best to alleviate that suffering.  And this is where they lose me.  Because the suffering experienced by millions upon millions of people in the Second World War was not inexplicable; it was the product of concrete, readily understandable historical processes; first and foremost—in the Asia-Pacific theater—the rise of Japanese militarism and imperialism.  To ascribe the war to unknowable mystical forces is a cop-out and it undermines the deeply felt humaneness that animates much of Ichikawa’s film.  There is great compassion and even optimism on display here, in marked contrast to Fires on the Plain (1959), an unrelenting nightmare about the few survivors of a Japanese army unit trying hopelessly to evacuate from a Filipino island while being picked off by unseen American forces and ravaged by starvation.  In The Burmese Harp, Mizushima’s comrades want to survive the war in part so that they can return home and rebuild Japan.  In Fires on the Plain, nobody is thinking that far ahead.  There will be no recourse to mysticism in this film, nor will there we be any trace of hope.  Perhaps, if one were to sit down to watch the two movies, it would be good to watch The Burmese Harp last, so that one might retain greater hope for humanity.