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.

Monday, September 15, 2014

On the Independent Chinese Documentaries Distributed by dGenerate Films


In the 1950’s, during the so-called Hundred Flowers movement, in which intellectuals were encouraged by the Chinese government to air their grievances against the regime, and were subsequently persecuted when they did so, a young dissident named Lin Zhao was incarcerated for her convictions.  While in prison, she did not have access to paper, so she wrote her essays and poems—and she had much to say—on the cell walls.  As she did not have pen or pencil, she wrote thousands of words in her own blood.  She is the subject of Hu Jie’s moving documentary film, Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul (2004), which is distributed in the U.S. by dGenerate Films.
Some of the best documentaries I’ve seen in recent years have been brought out here by dGenerate Films.  Their subject is Chinese independent cinema and their catalogue encompasses both documentary and feature films.  What is especially striking about their documentaries is the amount of overt dissent that they show taking place in China.  Whether protesting against the illegal confiscation of their homes by the government and shady property developers in Ou Ning’s Meishi Street (2006) or preventable disasters in Xu Xin’s Karamay (2010), there is a remarkably amount of overt dissident activity taking place in China.  And this contradicts the narratives being advanced by both the Chinese government—which is terrified of its own people and seeks to present the façade of a harmonious, economically vibrant society—and the Western media, which tends to focus on a few causes célèbres like Chen Guangcheng and Ai Weiwei, to the exclusion of much broader social movements.

Let’s take the case of Meishi Street.  Filmed in the streets of Beijing in 2005, the movie depicts the efforts of residents of the titular Meishi neighborhood to prevent their homes from being eminent domained to make way for the 2008 Olympics.  In protest at the injustice to which they’ve been subjected, the residents regularly put up slogans and protest signs on their property, decrying the corruption of the government and the real estate companies.  When the police show up and take down the signs, the protestors just put up new ones.  The main subject of the film, a restaurateur named Zhang Jinli, resorts to painting the slogans directly onto the walls of his property.  The courage on display here is remarkable and is something that I fear that most people would not associate with modern China.  And this isn’t to trivialize the real sacrifices made by people like Chen Guangcheng, or the Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo; rather, it is my desire to call attention to the broad spectrum of dissident activities taking place in China.
Xu Xin's Karamay (2010).
And now a word about Karamay, undoubtedly one of the saddest films I’ve ever seen.  In 1994, in the Xinjiang town of Karamay, schoolchildren were gathered at the town hall to perform for high-ranking local and regional party officials.  When a fire broke out, the children were told to remain seated while the party cadres evacuated.  Then they were left to fend for themselves.  325 people died, 288 of them children.  Their families felt that they never received proper restitution from the government, and they’ve been protesting at various levels ever since.  The film is remarkably austere in its conception: it consists largely of interviews in which the children’s parents sit facing the camera and talk at length about their experiences.  There is very little that could be considered overtly cinematic about the presentation.  And yet the depth of their sorrow, as it accumulates from one interview to the next, is transfixing and ultimately heartbreaking.  One gets the impression that these are people who are tired of not being listened to, and so the opportunity to speak freely and at length is something they relish.  And do they ever speak freely!  The parents name names of government officials whom they hold responsible for the disaster and they make it quite clear that they don’t care about the repercussions that could come from speaking so boldly, because they’ve already lost their children, and they therefore have nothing else to fear.

So I would strongly advise you to catch a dGenerate film if you have the opportunity.  A number of them are available on Fandor, as well as on Netflix and Amazon.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Eminently Civilized Barbarians: On Hans-Jurgen Syberberg’s Hitler: A Film From Germany

Here at The Octopus: Pray for Him, we’ve spoken extensively in the past about the moral uselessness of most works of art.  There’s this widespread liberal notion out there that art is somehow morally improving and I just don’t think that’s the case.  And this assertion has been brought home to me all the more clearly by my viewing of Hans-Jurgen Syberberg’s monumental Hitler: A Film From Germany (1977).  The film is a seven-hour collage of Brechtian stage craft, slide shows, and historical audio recordings which circles around the figure of Adolf Hitler and his place in German history and culture.  And it’s always disturbed me, now more than ever, how people with such a rich culture—and the Germans had a very rich culture—could commit some of the worst barbarisms in history.  Why does this shock me? Because apparently I can’t help but subscribe to that naïve liberalism I just derided.
Now, I’ve never been an expert on the Nazis—Bormann and Goering and Donitz all kind of blend together in my historical understanding—but they weren’t quite philistines, or at least not unabashed philistines.  The true philistine holds art in contempt.  The Nazis placed great value on art and had their own concept of aesthetics, with a strong foundation in German Romanticism., twisted though there take on it may have been.  They saw cinema as the artistic medium of the twentieth century.  They recognized the merit of the work of Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou; in Syberberg’s telling, Hitler compulsively re-watched Lang’s Nibelung films, Siegfried and Kriemhild’s Revenge, much as, several decades later, a demented Nixon would repeatedly view Patton while carrying out his war in Southeast Asia.
George Orwell has an essay—and Christ knows I don’t want to look it up now—but he has an essay written during WWII in which he states, “While I write this, there are civilized people flying overhead trying to kill me.” Just how incongruous were the juxtapositions of German civilization and Nazi barbarism? Goethe’s house at Weimar was a stone’s throw away from the Buchenwald concentration camp.  In addition to Wagner, whose reputation has always been contested, and Bruckner, (whose reputation has also been debated to a lesser extent), Hitler was fond of Beethoven, Mahler, and Johann Strauss.  Can you picture that? The man responsible for Auschwitz listening to the sublime music of Beethoven.
Perhaps the best argument for Nazi philistinism can be found in their rejection of the Jewish representatives of German culture, which were some of its greatest contributors.  They destroyed Jewish café culture in Austria, they drove Zweig, Friedell, and Benjamin to suicide, they drove Arnold Schoenberg and Thomas Mann into exile (Mann wasn’t Jewish, but his wife and children were).  Austria especially, as we’ve discussed in a previous post, never recovered its cultural eminence.  The damage caused by the Nazi attacks on Jewish art was irreversible (I’m speaking here on a specifically artistic subject, but I am of course aware that the broader campaign of genocide against the Jews of Europe was far more appalling and catastrophic).

So, to return to Orwell: why were these civilized people, who had probably read Goethe and listened to Beethoven, flying over head, trying to kill him? Because civilization and morality fall into separate spheres, and the one generally doesn’t influence the other.  A person can be an eminently civilized barbarian.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Rehabilitating Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard Kipling.
Poor Rudyard Kipling—winner of one of the first Nobel Prizes for literature and once one of the most popular writers in the world—has long since seen his reputation fall into eclipse (which can’t trouble him terribly much, as he’s been dead for seventy-eight years).  His reputation first foundered on aesthetic grounds, then political, and we shall address each of these issues in turn.
Rudyard Kipling was born in British India in 1865, wrote his best work in the 1890’s and 1900’s, and had the misfortune to live until 1936, by which point his colorful Victorian narratives seemed woefully out of date.  As Robert Gottlieb points out in his introduction to Everyman’s Collected Stories of Kipling, the Nobel Laureate lived to see the publication of Hemingway, Woolf, Joyce, and other pioneers of modernism.  Kipling, a contemporary of Robert Louis Stevenson and H. Rider Haggard (of whom the latter was his close friend), outlived his own era.  And so, when he died, the general feeling amongst the literati was one of “oh, he was still alive?” He’s reminiscent in this respect of E. M. Forster, who published in the first thirty years of the twentieth century, starting in the Edwardian period, and who then lived a largely idle existence until his death in 1970, by which point people like Pynchon and Beckett had taken the novel in directions he could never have conceived of.
So, Kipling did not fit in well with his time.  For those who are hung up on literary movements and “zeitgeistiness” (to coin a phrase), that might be troubling, but it’s fundamentally not an aesthetic criticism.  If one is willing to look at Kipling’s work for what it is—and particularly the short stories, the form at which he excelled—one finds that Kipling is one of the greatest writers that the English language has ever produced.  To Kipling we owe such varied and thrilling stories as: “The Man Who Would Be King,” “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” “On a City Wall,” “Without Benefit of Clergy,” “The Mark of the Beast,” “Dray Wara Yow Dee,” and “Mary Postgate,” among many others.  Borges loved the stories, and Borges was rarely wrong when it came to questions of taste.  And Irving Howe says of Kipling’s novel Kim that it contains the most colorful English prose prior to the publication of Ulysses, which isn’t bad for someone who so many of the modernists dismissed.  Howe also points out that Kipling’s poems—of which, I must admit, I am not as fond—were a profound influence on the poetry of Bertolt Brecht who never failed “to be absolutely modern.” Kipling was a pioneer of writing vernacular dialogue, and his stories of soldiers and colonial administrators and Anglo-Indian boys who couldn’t distinguish between Hindi and English in many ways anticipate the works of Joyce and Faulkner.
Having established his aesthetic bona fides, let’s move onto Kipling’s more pressing problem, namely his appalling political incorrectness.  Because the fact of the matter is that Kipling was a racist and an enthusiastic supporter of British imperialism (he is, after all, the author of “The White Man’s Burden.”) So, ok, he was an asshole.  That’s not an aesthetic consideration.  I’d be willing to bet that the vast majority of his British and American literary contemporaries were also racists and imperialists (and anti-Semites and sexists and homophobes, while we’re at it).  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle got his “Sir” for propagandizing on behalf of the British effort in the Boer War; Virginia Woolf’s correspondence is peppered with casual anti-Semitism, despite the fact that her husband was Jewish (!).  Jack London believed that there were too many Chinese people and that they should be wiped out with biological weapons (the ostensibly left-wing London, who would say that “I’m a white man first and a socialist second.”) Graham Greene would in later years go back and replace some of the more egregiously racist and anti-Semitic epithets in his earlier novels (such that niggers became negroes and Jewesses just became women, although the opening line of dialogue in Our Man in Havana is still, “You see that nigger over there?”)

Jack London, who, for the record, was pro-genocide.
Now, don’t get me wrong: this is all appalling.  But the fact of the matter is that these are non-aesthetic concerns.  Plenty of writers have been bad people.  That has no bearing on the merit of their work.  William S. Burroughs shot his wife in the face, for Christ’s sake; it has no effect on the quality of Naked Lunch.  But unfortunately, in academia today, the approach to literature (and all the other arts) is rarely aesthetic.  The post-structuralist theories are all about racial and ethnic and sexual and colonial resentments.  Works of literature are artifacts to be mined to illustrate sociopolitical points and “reclaim” suppressed histories.  And so I once had an English professor tell us with a straight face that the reason we weren’t reading Kipling was because he wasn’t “politically correct.” And this professor didn’t think there was a problem with that.  But my God, if we were to weed out the classics that weren’t politically correct, what would be left?  We’d have Olaudah Equiano and Charlotte Perkins Gilman and that would be about it.

But for those of us who value literature as art (and art as art in general), that’s not enough.  We seek out works of quality literature because they are beautiful and we find them entertaining and aesthetically gratifying (I don’t like to make the distinction between the artistic and the merely entertaining, but that’s another argument).  So, to my fellow lovers of literature—and fellow lefties, for that matter—there is nothing wrong with embracing Kipling’s
work.  It doesn’t mean you endorse his abhorrent opinions, which should be self-evident to any reasonably intelligent adult.  And again, Borges signed off on it, and he wouldn’t steer you wrong.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

I Found it at the Movies: On Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture

Rithy Panh.
Cambodian-French filmmaker Rithy Panh must have an inordinate faith in the power of cinema.  In bringing it to bear on the subject of the Khmer Rouge and their atrocities, he is trusting to film to engage with one of the most appalling episodes in human history.  Cinema is not only capable of documenting history, it can also, when necessary, supplant it.  This is the case in Panh’s latest documentary, The Missing Picture (2013), in which Panh declares that “there is no truth.  There is only cinema.” This is a sweeping statement, comparable to Godard’s famous assertion that cinema is “truth at twenty-four frames per second.” But for Panh, cinema is something that can surpass truth itself.
A little background on The Missing Picture: it is a documentary about Panh’s experiences as an adolescent in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge regime and about that regime in general.  In instances where documentary evidence (film, photographs) of a particular scene does not exist—and this is often the case—then Panh replaces the “missing pictures” with static tableaux made out of carved clay figures.  The clay figures are simple but, as Alfred Kazin says of William Blake, not simplistic.  They have the paradoxically wide range of depth and expressiveness that one finds in Noh masks.  Through them, Panh provides a heartbreaking narrative of Pol Pot’s “Democratic Kampuchea,” under which his life was destroyed and his father, mother, and brothers and sisters all died.  Where possible, we are presented with photographs of them, but when these are not available, they are each represented by a little clay figurine which carries with it all the pathos of the human capacity for suffering.

This highly idiosyncratic approach to documentary filmmaking works remarkably well, both in terms of its emotional power and its educational impact.  I would compare it favorably to Michel Gondry’s similarly weird documentary, the squiggle-vision-animated Is the Man who is Tall Happy? An Animated Conversation with Noam Chomsky, which is predicated on a gimmick that never really pays off.  Which brings me circuitously to one of the many fine points raised in Panh’s film (which is eminently quotable): Panh wonders if the fashionable left-wing intellectuals in Paris who were so taken with Khmer Rouge slogans were “missing a picture” of the starving and enslaved children of Cambodia.  He could just as well have been speaking of the American Chomsky, who in 1977 notoriously declared that “the so-called slaughter in Kampuchea is nothing but an invention of the New York Times.” With all due respect to Professor Chomsky: idiot.
The Missing Picture presents a challenge not just to the orthodoxies of the far left but to the concept of orthodoxy in general.  Panh says of Khmer Rouge propaganda: “Words change meanings.  We speak in slogans.” And when you speak in slogans, or clichés, it typically means that you’ve stopped thinking.  This is a threat posed not just by extreme cases like the Khmer Rouge but orthodoxies left and right, from academic liberalism, which its mindless recitation of post-structuralist jargon, to the idiocies of the extreme right, with their talk of personhood for zygotes and “job-creators.”  One of the signs that the Isla Vista shooter wasn’t thinking straight—and I admit that there were many of them—but one of them was his tendency to talk in clichés.  He complained about girls taunting him with their “cascading blonde hair.” He claimed the day before the massacre that “tomorrow, I will be a god.” First off, hair doesn’t cascade in real life.  You’re not talking about anybody’s actual hair, you’re talking about the abstract idea of hair, and abstractions rarely correspond to reality.  As for becoming a god, you can tell by the way he says it that he doesn’t believe it.  He just says it because he thinks it’s the sort of thing one says under those circumstances.  Abstraction has replaced real life and cliché has replaced actual thought.

But to return to Rithy Panh’s film.  It is the third film of his that I’ve seen, after
S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003) and Duch, Master of the Forges of Hell (2012).  As the titles suggest, these are grim explorations of grim subjects, but in these films, and especially in The Missing Picture, Panh maintains a moral courage and a deep human compassion that make them essential viewing for anyone seeking to engage with the problem of the human capacity for evil.  The Missing Picture is a welcome addition to his oeuvre.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Bromance—Italian Style: Dino Risi’s Il Sorpasso

Road movies, like the picaresque novels from which we can trace their origins, all have basically the same plot.  A group of people—and a simple duo is best—jump in the car (or hop on their horses) and have episodic mini-adventures, meeting strange people and learning about life.  At the end, the travelers are theoretically wiser to the ways of the world and are hopefully better people.
Dino Risi’s delightful 1962 road film Il Sorpasso, recently made available on Region 1 DVD by the Criterion people, follows in this grand tradition.  It depicts Kerouackian bon-vivant Bruno (Vittorio Gassman, in a volcanic performance) and straight-laced student Roberto (Jean-Louis Trintignant) as they drive around central Italy.  Bruno and Roberto have met by chance and Roberto, yielding to impulse as he rarely does, accepts Bruno’s invitation to go out to eat with him.  This simple goal evolves into a two-day escapade during which they will flirt with women, drive recklessly, and deal with family issues, all animated by Bruno’s great appetite for fast living, which carries along everyone and everything in its wake.
Il Sorpasso is distinguished by dazzling black-and-white cinematography and consistently elegant compositions.  The Italy of the film is hot and sun-blasted; Rome itself is especially white and glare-y and seemingly abandoned, as we see in the opening shots of the movie, when Bruno drives solo through a deserted city.  There’s a great sequence midway through the film where Bruno and Roberto visit the latter’s aunt and uncle at their rural estate.  Roberto has fond childhood memories of the place and is eager to re-explore it.  As he does so, the camera captures the open, almost Japanese-style architecture of the house, and all the places where the sunshine penetrates inside and reflects off the bright white walls.  This is in contrast to sanctuaries of shade within the house, which seem to convey the melancholy that Roberto encounters upon realizing that the place “looked a lot bigger” when he was a child.
This sequence also provides us with a good comparison of Bruno and Roberto’s ways of perceiving the world.  Roberto, for all his intelligence—the beginning of the film finds him studying some very dry legal formulae and we gather swiftly that his is a serious, studious mindset—fails to grasp things that Bruno understands swiftly and intuitively.  When the travel companions are greeted by the house’s caretaker, a man whom Roberto has known for years and Bruno for seconds, Bruno immediately concludes that the man is gay.  When he calls Roberto’s attention to this—“I’ve never seen a country queen before,” because in the era before political correctness, people were just free to say terrible things—Roberto is initially taken aback, but then realizes that Bruno is right.  Bruno carries out a similar deductive performance later on in their visit, concluding that Roberto’s cousin’s father is not his uncle, but rather the overseer.  Again, Roberto has known these people intimately for years, and this has never occurred to him.  It took Bruno’s more intuitive way of seeing things to enlighten him.

While the first half of the film is fairly cheerful and lighthearted, it takes an interesting, more melancholy turn as things progress.  We meet Bruno’s estranged wife and his daughter whom he rarely gets to see, and it becomes evidence that his high living has come at a high personal cost for him.  He’s not the type to let it show how much it’s hurt him, but it certainly puts things in perspective.  If the film thus far has been telling us—as Roberto’s real-world counterparts—to “loosen up, goddam it!”, it has now added the qualifier, “But not without some restraint!” Which is good, because I like my comedy served up with a dash of contemplative sadness.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

And Just What Does Noriko Have to Smile About? Observations on Yasujiro Ozu’s Early Summer

 
In his essay film Tokyo-Ga, Wim Wenders says of Yasujiro Ozu (and I’m paraphrasing) that he “captures all of human life in his films.” And as I am in agreement with this assessment, I have recently come to the firm conclusion—and I’m sure you were all eagerly anticipating this announcement—that Ozu is the greatest filmmaker of all time.  He put everything into his films, all of family life and everything that radiates out from it.  There is not a subject he didn’t touch on, however obliquely, which brings me to my first point of inquiry, which is Ozu’s treatment of WWII.

Now, one of the high points of Ozu’s career is the “Noriko trilogy”—Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951), and Tokyo Story (1953)—so-called because in each film Setsuko Hara plays a woman named Noriko, although they are different Norikos, as there is no continuity between the films.  They all take place amidst the aftermath of WWII, and Ozu’s treatment of the subject is subtle but devastating.  Unlike other Japanese filmmakers, like Kon Ichikawa and Masaki Kobayashi, Ozu never directly depicts soldiers in combat.  Rather, they become notable by their absence.  In Early Summer and Tokyo Story, the families at the center of the film are each missing a son.  And their loss is especially agonizing, because their sons are not dead, or at least not confirmed dead, but have simply disappeared in the chaos of the war, and as the years go on and time passes, it becomes increasingly unlikely that they’re still alive.  But their families can never know definitively; there will always be uncertainty.  In Early Summer, which I just watched this evening, there’s a scene in which the mother and father of the Mamiya family are speaking with a neighbor about their missing son Shoji.  And the father says of the mother, “She thinks he could still be alive somewhere.  But there is no hope.” But there is no hope.  This quiet, Dantesque fatalism is just as tragic as anything in the bloodiest war movie.  There is no hope.  That’s Ozu’s pronouncement on war.

Another theme running through Ozu’s work is the terrible sadness of “normal,” everyday life.  At the beginning of Early Summer, Noriko lives happily with her extended family: mother, father, brother (the one who survived the war, played by Chishu Ryu), sister-in-law, and nephews.  By the end of the film, she’s engaged to be married, which has prompted her parents to decide to move off to Yamato with her elderly uncle, while her brother and sister-in-law will raise their kids in a more American-style, nuclear family.  And the tragedy of this situation, which has developed through the normal, socially-acceptable course of family life, leads Noriko to dissolve into tears and say, “I’m sorry.  I’ve broken up the family.” To which her father responds, “It’s not your fault.  It was inevitable.” Yes, but isn’t it sad that something like that has to be inevitable? Is it any less tragic for being normal?

Noriko smiling.
Which brings us to Noriko’s smile.  Setsuko Hara has one of the most memorable smiles in all of cinema, and she spends much of the Noriko trilogy beaming, regardless of the sadness of her situation or the human condition in general.  In fact, everybody in these movies insists on being happy.  They’re always telling themselves, “We’ve been very happy, haven’t we?” “We’ve had a good life, haven’t we?” Because what else can you say? When you’ve reached old age, can you really admit to yourself that you haven’t been happy, and that it’s too late to change that? No, that would be unbearable.  We must persist in smiling like Noriko, whether or not the situation justifies it.