Thursday, June 28, 2012

Pretty Girls with Candles and Coca Cola: Secular Grace in Modern Cinema

I should preface any discussion of “grace” with the admission that I don’t know that much about the topic.  I am not a Christian, or rather, I haven’t been since a half-hearted religious education was visited upon me in childhood, during which we did not discuss grace or much of anything at all, actually.  All I remember from it is the arboreal story of Zacharias the tax collector, which was apparently thought to be a sinful occupation, and so when Zacharias hears that Jesus was coming, he climbs up a tree to hide from him.  Well, the townsfolk gather around Jesus and they bombard him with dinner invites, but Jesus says, “The one I want to dine with is Zacharias.” And everyone’s all like, “Whaaaa? But Zacharias is a sinful tax collector!” And I believe Jesus responded with something to the effect of, “Yeah, so he needs me more than you people do.” And then I don’t remember what happens next, although I assume that Zacharias is reconciled with the Lord.  All I really remember from the story with any clarity is the image of Zacharias hiding in the tree.

So what I know about grace in the Christian sense—grace, which is agape in Greek and (I believe) caritas in Latin—I have gleaned from books and movies (mostly from books) and from my friends with theology degrees (and I think I have a grand total of one of those).  But what is grace? As I understand it, grace is divine love, bestowed upon you not through any merit on your part, but purely through the benevolence of God.  It is unearned love.  And because of this, it is unexpected.  I think we can extend the concept of grace beyond the religious realm, and perhaps see it is as unexpected tranquility and beauty in a fucked up or despair-inducing situation.  Perhaps despair is key; grace is the sudden respite bestowed upon a person in despair.  Let’s look at the underlying theme in that Rihanna song, the one with the with the chorus, “We found love in a hopeless place.” They didn’t make love, they did not cultivate love, but rather, they found it, it was just there, it was presented to them as a veritable gift, they did nothing to earn it or bring it about.  And the environment (a hopeless place) made this discovery of love all the more unlikely.  Grace, perhaps?
The concept of grace in its more secular applications occurred to me recently while watching Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s 2011 film, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.  This Turkish masterpiece (and honestly, if the regular reader of this blog thinks that I throw around the word “masterpiece” too frequently, he or she should bear in mind that I have good taste in films (not to boast excessively), I can sniff out the good ones and avoid the bad ones, so I rarely find myself watching shit and frequently find myself watching really good movies.  So the opportunities to review shitty movies are few and far between and the opportunities to review masterpieces occurs with pleasant frequency), I say, this Turkish masterpiece depicts a day or two in the life of a group of law-enforcement figures (police officers, a prosecutor, a doctor) as they drive through a rural backwater with two confessed murderers and try to determine where the murderers buried the body of their victim.  It’s less a police procedural and more an “existential dread” kind of movie; if Antonioni were to make a police movie, it would probably look something like this.
Now, there’s a wonderful scene where the police and their prisoners have been driving around for half the night, with thunder and the threat of rain constantly in the background, going to different spots where the body might be buried (the murderers buried the body in the dark, and they’d been drinking, so it’s hard for them to reconstruct where exactly they left their victim).  They decide to take a break and pay a visit to the mayor of a nearby town, who is known for his hospitality.  So they go to his house—more of a rambling compound, really—and it’s like a wonderful sanctuary from their frustrating search and the persistent ominous weather.  The atmosphere inside the mayor’s house is warm and safe.  He feeds the cops and even feeds the two murderers, although when one of them asks for a cola, a police officer interrupts and says, “He can have water.”
Well, as the night plods on, the power goes out, and the would-be revelers are plunged into darkness.  The mayor summons his daughter to bring candles and drinks for the guests.  And here’s where the moment of grace occurs: the daughter enters the room carrying a tray with a large candle in its center, flanked by drinks, and it illuminates her face in the darkness and she’s incredibly beautiful, less in a sexual sense and more in an angelic sense, and all eyes are on her, both those of the the murderers and the police.  And she makes the rounds passing out drinks and you can tell everyone is grateful for the mere sight of her.  And then she takes it even further, and the tears rose to my eyes at this point, because she discreetly provides the thirsty murderer with the cola he wanted earlier.  Agape! Unearned, unexpected grace!  And when she comes to offer a drink to the other murderer, he too is moved to tears and lingers on her angelic face in the candlelight.  Grace!
The angelic girl.  Isn't the composition perfect? It looks like a painting!
It’s probably the most beautiful scene in the movie and I immediately thought of another example of cinematic grace, this one from Francis Ford Coppola’s 2009 film Tetro (which I might have been the only person to see).  I won’t go into plot details, but this movie has a central couple played by Maribel Verdú (Y Tu Mama Tambien, Pan’s Labyrinth) and Vincent Gallo (The Brown Bunny, where he convinced Chloe Sevigny to fellate him for his art, Promises Written in Water, a film which Gallo has decided not to release to the unwashed masses, who wouldn’t understand it; no, seriously, he directed this movie, showed it at one film festival, and now he’s going to lock it up just to spite the plebs, who don’t deserve it.  And he wonders why people think he’s an asshole.  Anyway, carrying on,) as I was saying, we have Verdú and Gallo; Gallo is an American who’s had a really shitty life and he’s fled to Argentina, where he takes up with Verdú and they fall in love and live together, and he has clearly found in her a sanctuary from all the shit in the world.  And there is a beautiful scene of the two of them in bed together, I believe post-coital (it’s been a few years since I saw this movie), and he kisses her body and kisses her hand (like a very self-conscious gentleman) and he says several times, with tenderness and gratitude, “Gracias, gracias.” Gracias for what?  Gracias for letting me fuck you, it was hot? I don’t think so.  No, gracias for making my life livable, for giving me so much love and so much beauty, which I fundamentally don’t think I’ve done anything to deserve, nobody deserves your love, it is benevolent and out of all proportion to what I could give to you.

Vincent Gallo with Maribel Verdú, whom he
    doesn't deserve and he knows it, but there's grace for you.
So what Gallo finds from Verdú is grace, and, what with the strong sexual element involved here, a grace far removed from the concept’s original religious context.  It is worth noting that the grace in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, also revolves around a woman.  In contrast to Tetro, however, the connection between religion and grace hasn’t been completely severed in Ceylan’s film.  As I mentioned before, the beauty of the candle-bearing girl partakes more of the angelic than the erotic, and the men who are captivated by her respond in kind.  Theirs is an asexual affection, and the way they equate her with an angel (at least one of the police officers says it outright), suggests that their understanding of the grace she provides is still semi-religious in nature.  And here is an area which would benefit from more research: how would these Turks understand the concept of grace? How does grace work in Islam (if Islam even has the concept; maybe they don’t need it; I know they don’t believe in original sin, which is certainly an improvement on the Christian conception of the matter)?  And given Turkey’s strong tradition of secularism, how would a Turkish Muslim approach the subject? I should imagine with a great deal more skepticism than would his Saudi counterpart.  But this is just speculation and anyway, we mustn’t make sweeping generalizations (“The Turkish Muslim does this, the Saudi Muslim does that”), as there are just too many god damn people for generalizations about religious or national groups to have much correspondence to reality; certainly it’s dehumanizing, and every person should be looked at as an individual first and then, if necessary, as a Turk or a Muslim or as a secularist or whatever).  Anyway, maybe we can discuss this issue in another blog post, or someone who’s educated about the matter can post their understanding of it in the comments section (that’s what it’s there for; use it).

Agape is a beautiful concept (or at least, what I think agape to be is a beautiful concept).  On this shitty planet, trapped in these fragile bodies (soft machines, William Burroughs called them), with our fragile psyches, it is hard not to be attracted by the prospect of overflowing, undeserved, and selfless love.  I think these two cinematic examples that I’ve discussed here indicate that grace is not just for the religious; we secular humanists (or whatever it is we want to call ourselves) can enjoy it as well.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Notes on Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata

*This post discusses extensive plot details of Tokyo Sonata (2008)*

Long before the meltdown of the nuclear reactors at Fukushima Daiichi, Japan had already been thoroughly irradiated, the national thyroid saturated with the iodine of despair.  I say this in a subjective, emotional, and completely irrational way.

I was born in 1989, the year that Japan’s “Bubble Economy” burst and they embarked upon the so-called “Lost Decades,” which continue to this day.  I would say that for the majority of my life, I was not aware that Japan was facing economic trouble (at least comparatively speaking).  Japan is the land of robots and anime; surely, I reasoned, a country that could produce something as delightfully frivolous as the “digital pet” could hardly be suffering from economic difficulties.

Japan is still objectively rich.  Until quite recently, they had the second highest GDP in the world, after the United States.  Now, depending on which survey you look at, they were just a few months ago surpassed by the Chinese economy, or at least this is about to take place.  But still, third largest GDP in the world is nothing to scoff at.  Even if your economy has ceased to grow, it’s at least stalled out at a respectable level.

The problem with capitalism—and bear in mind here that I don’t know much about economics—is that it’s predicated on endless growth, the more dramatic the better.  Unfortunately, endless growth just doesn’t happen in the real world.  There’s only so far for your economy to grow before you’ve saturated your markets and your corporations are as large as they’re ever going to get.  People compare the growth rates of China and the United States and lament that the United States “can’t compete” in terms of growth.  But that’s because the U.S. has already grown; it’s been thoroughly industrialized, corporatized, and by and large digitized.  Christ, what more do you want from it?

China, by contrast, has plenty of room to grow.  When the communists seized power in 1949, after decades of civil war and a catastrophic Japanese invasion, China was generally a nation of peasants, and poor peasants at that.  And then it stayed poor for decades, (a) because command economies are bad at generating wealth and (b) because Mao Zedong couldn’t have done a better job of sabotaging Chinese economic growth if he’d deliberately set out to do so.  So you have the Great Leap Forward Famine in the late ‘50’s, and twenty to thirty million people die.  Then you have the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, and the country is—again!—deliberately plunged into chaos, and untold hundreds of thousands of people are killed (I can’t find a precise figure on the death toll in the Cultural Revolution) and hundreds of thousands more persecuted, displaced, driven out of their urban jobs—for which they were qualified—to work in the countryside to develop the “proper revolutionary mentality.”  Meanwhile, the students aren’t attending class because they’re too busy lynching their teachers and killing each other (I’m aware that not all students did this, but I’m speaking in broad terms).  The government itself is in chaos, because Mao keeps purging everyone.  In 1969, detachments of the People’s Liberation Army fight pitched battles with Soviet forces along their shared border, bringing the two states to the brink of a potentially nuclear war.  In 1971, Mao’s would-be successor Lin Biao fucks up the early stages of a coup against Mao, hustles his family aboard an airplane, neglects to provide the plane with enough fuel, and crashes in the Mongolian desert while trying to reach the Soviet Union.  And all of this chaos only really ends in 1976 with the death of Mao and the detention of the so-called “Gang of Four,” a clique of revolutionary extremists led by Mao’s last wife, Jiang Qing, who gets blamed for all the excesses of the Cultural Revolution (and really, the whole thing was just one big excess, but it’s too soon to admit that), and with them out of the way, we can rehabilitate communists purged during the late Maoist period, people like Deng Xiaoping, who comes to power in 1979 and says, “Wouldn’t it be nice if China could make some money?”

So it’s 1979, China’s economy is at rock-bottom, and they have hundreds of millions of people.  China becomes the perfect labor market, and the gradual opening up of the country to foreign investment—as well as the loosening of communist restrictions on capitalistic activity domestically—will allow for astronomical growth rates over the next thirty or so years.  And this shouldn’t surprise us; China in 1979 is a poor country with a great deal of ground to cover, but they are very well equipped to cover it.  By contrast, let’s look at the United States and Japan in 1979.  They are, respectively, the first and second richest countries in the world.  They’ve already achieved a remarkable level of economic development.  Certainly there isn’t much more they can do in terms of domestic production.  And it’s cheaper to do it in China anyway.  So America will stagger around as its industrial sector dies; the flourishing of computer and internet technology will lead to a brief recovery in the ‘90’s and early ‘00’s, but this will prove to be a bubble like any other.  So if you can’t build things, and you can’t innovate things, what can you do? Well, if you’re a wealthy American, you take the money you already have (you acquired this money during one of the previous economic stages) and you move it around.  You play the markets and you speculate.

Speculation is called speculation because the outcome is uncertain, so, surprise-surprise, 2008 rolled around and the speculators crashed the world economy.  The bubble burst.  It was comparable to the speculation in Japan in the late ‘80’s that led to their economic crisis, and it was consistently ineffective leadership that made it so that Japan never really emerged from this crisis.  The certainty that things were always improving (endless growth!) which had animated much of Japanese society throughout the sixties, seventies, and eighties, was shown to be illusory.  The certainty that if you got a job at a good company, you would securely be employed there for the rest of your working life was abruptly withdrawn.  Furthermore, inflation meant that your yen were worth less and less.

And then in 1995, your country is dealt a double-blow: an earthquake strikes Kobe and destroys much of the city, and the Aum Shinrikyo cult releases sarin nerve gas on several trains in the Tokyo subway system.  So the ground beneath your feet is not to be trusted and the air you breathe on your commute might be poisoned.  These will not do wonders for your confidence.

And things don’t get better.  Now, remember, your economy is more stagnant than it is declining.  But that’s not good enough; if your economy isn’t growing, then there’s something wrong.  China’s economy is growing; and at a rate of about 12 percent annually.  So what are you doing wrong?

The 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, and consequent Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, seem like Japan’s social and economic malaise made physically manifest.  Amidst the tragedy, however, there was an opportunity to change course; to have effective government confronting and surmounting Japan’s social and economic problems.  But so far, at least politically, that doesn’t seem to have happened.  Naoto Kan, who was prime minister when the disaster struck, lost his job not too long after (I knew he would, by-the-by; his predecessor, Yukio Hatoyama, lasted all of eight months on the job before resigning after failing to relocate the U.S. military base at Futenma to somewhere off of Okinawa.  If he could lose his job over that, then it seemed inevitable that Kan would lose his after bungling the response to Fukushima).  The current prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, seems to be facing the same struggles as his predecessors.  As of this writing, Noda is desperately trying to get several of Japan’s nuclear power plants back up and running; they have all been shut down for regular safety checks, but the political pressure is such that he can’t get them turned on again.
Prime Minister Noda, who probably won't be prime minister by this time next year.

And the anti-nuclear sentiment of so many Japanese is understandable as well, I might add.  Japan has suffered more from the use of nuclear energy than any other country.  They are the only country in history to be subjected to attack by a nuclear weapon, and they experienced it twice.  In 1954, the sailors of the Fukuryu Maru were exposed to radioactive fallout from the American hydrogen bomb test on the Bikini Atoll.  And now Fukushima.

I have said of all of this by way of establishing the context for Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s 2008 masterpiece, Tokyo Sonata.  Although it was released several years before the Tohoku earthquake, it seems eerily prophetic, as if it anticipated an apocalyptic disaster for Japan.  It follows a seemingly comfortable and settled middle-class Japanese family as their lives begin to unravel.  As the film begins, the father is a reputable salary-man who suddenly finds himself downsized, his job “outsourced” to China.  Rather than tell his wife, he just pretends that nothing has changed; he leaves in the morning with his suit and briefcase and kills time until his workday would have ended.  His elder son is “going nowhere fast,” and has decided that he wants to join the American Army (more on the significance of this later).  And the younger son is discontent at school and begins to secretly take piano lessons, which his father has dismissed out of hand.  The mother’s problem is that she has these family members with all these problems

Now, what I would like to do here is examine each of the four family members in turn, and tease out the broader themes and implications of their respective predicaments.  Let us begin with the father, whose catastrophe opens the film.  He is a middle-aged salary-man named Sasaki (the characters in this movie generally don’t get called by their given names; the father is called Sasaki by his friends and co-workers; his younger son is called Sasaki by his friends; his older son actually gets a given name, Takashi; and the mother doesn’t seem to be called much of anything, other than “Mom,” although we see her opening a letter near the end of the film and the envelope is addressed to Megumi Sasaki, but I don’t recall anyone calling her Megumi in the film).  Now, Sasaki, the father, works for a medical equipment company in the capacity of a fairly high ranking administrator.  He’s just helped them prepare to outsource much of their labor force to China, and—much to his surprise—he finds that his job is going to be outsourced too.  He can either find a new—presumably lower-paying, less prestigious—job within the company, or they’ll downsize him.  It’s unclear how things played out in his negotiations with his corporate higher-ups—Kurosawa, much like Shinji Aoyama, as discussed in the last post, is a master of elision—but Sasaki ends up getting downsized.

He decides not to tell his wife.  It would seem to be a question of pride.  So every morning he gets up, puts on his suit, takes up his briefcase, and “goes to work.” He spends a lot of his time in a public park, lining up with homeless people and the long-term unemployed for free meals.  Here he meets a friend of his from high school who is in a similar situation.  He shows Sasaki how he’s tweaked his phone to ring five times an hour, so he can always answer it and look busy and important; he brings Sasaki to the public library, where “you can stay as long as you want.” When they—and this is a vague and abstract “they”—first set about inventing public libraries, I wonder if they realized that these houses of books would one day become places of refuge for the homeless and the unemployed.  Sasaki agrees to have dinner at his friend’s house, and he pretends to be his friend’s coworker; the friend is worried that, despite all the skill he’s brought to bear on his deception, his wife is beginning to suspect that he’s unemployed.  By having Sasaki over to discuss “business,” he hopes to allay her concerns.
Sasaki, the illuminated fellow in the middle.
Sasaki looks for jobs, and finds that nobody wants to hire a forty-two-year-old for the kind of advanced position and good salary that Sasaki feels he deserves.  At a particularly painful interview, a man who must be at least fifteen years his junior demands that he demonstrate his skills on the spot.  Sasaki is nonplussed and says, “What, right here? Right now? What is this, karaoke, do you want me to sing?” The young man disparages Sasaki’s lack of preparedness and then with calculated cruelty says, “You said you were good at karaoke.  So sing.  Here, this pen can be the microphone.  Sing.” And Sasaki hesitates but then he decides to do it.  And he sings a single note before Kurosawa—master of discretion—cuts to Sasaki and his friend in the park, and Sasaki is wielding a long metal pipe and smashing some discarded trash while his friend philosophizes. 

The friend says, “We’re on a sinking ship.  We’re on a sinking ship, and the lifeboats have all gone.” The “we” could mean him and Sasaki, it could mean unemployed, middle-aged salary-men, it could mean “we Japanese,” and it could even mean “we, the humans.” We are on a sinking ship and the lifeboats are all gone.  That could ring true with any European pessimistic philosophy: we are born to die, we are born dying, we are all living under sentence of death.  It’s also Buddhistic, because the first of the Four Noble Truths is, after all, “life is suffering.” Perhaps Sasaki and his friend are like the superfluous men of nineteenth-century Russian literature, who find that there is no longer a place for their “type” within society.
Ivan Turgenev, famed for his depictions of "superfluous men."
Capitalism is a heartless bitch.  It is very good at generating wealth but has no interest in distributing it equitably or in looking after the basic needs of all the people who live in capitalist societies.  That’s why you need good, democratic government, to effectively intervene in the economy—not to choke it off or take full control—but to mitigate the unavoidable harm that capitalism inflicts.  And in order for this to work across the board, some global coordination of the regulation of capitalism will have to be effected.  As any collegiate lefty can tell you, the global economy is in a race to the bottom.  Multinational corporations will move production to wherever they can find the cheapest labor with the fewest labor protections.  So you move your factories from the U.S. to Mexico because Mexico will provide cheap, unorganized labor.  If the Mexicans threaten to organize and demand an improvement in their lot and a greater share of the profits—and there wouldn’t be profits without the people whose labor made the products—the multinational corporation can just up and move shop elsewhere.  Perhaps the Guatemalan government will be more amenable to them.  And so the Guatemalans will have to accept even poorer pay and conditions that the Mexicans did.  And the multinational corporation can always pick up shop and move again.  And each time it moves, countries will have to provide cheaper and cheaper labor with fewer and fewer protections in order to compete on the international stage.  If everyone is selling their labor, but your country (the United States, for instance) has labor rights legislation and a workforce that won’t accept depressed wages, then your country will lose out.  As will all countries with labor laws and workforces who expect to be paid decently.  The multinational corporations can effectively destroy worker rights around the world in their race to the bottom to find the cheapest, most unprotected labor pool.  So, under circumstances like these, the American or the Japanese worker can’t compete.  But they shouldn’t blame the Mexicans or the Chinese for this state of affairs, because the workers in these countries are getting victimized just as much, if not more so, by the multinational corporations.  Yes, they have employment, but it’s employment in lousy conditions with barely remunerative pay.  And if they try to change it, they’ll end up just like their American and Japanese predecessors.

So not only is the “race to the bottom” destructive for pretty much everyone, but it’s also economically unsustainable.  Eventually there’s a bottom past which wages and rights can’t be lowered.  You can’t pay a person less than zero dollars for their labor.  Furthermore, once you reach that point, you’re going to have increasingly few people who can afford to buy your product, because your consumers (in America and Japan, for instance) have long been out of a job.

The human condition is troubling, to say that least.  Economics is only one aspect of it, and the “sinking ship” we find ourselves in also partakes of a more general sense of societal anomie and personal angst.  The philistine Hungarian Marxist critic György Lukács quite famously didn’t like Kafka, because the sufferings of Kafka’s characters were clearly of a nature unrelated to economics; as a dutiful Marxist, Lukács believed in economic determinism, and couldn’t conceive of problems that didn’t relate back to economic issues.  He seriously underestimated the complexity of man.  This is one of the things I find so repellant about Marxism; it’s dehumanizing.  The Marxists would have us believe that everything is economics and, that being the case, that all human beings are mere units of production within an economic system; the arts, human interactions, all of human culture, are but mere “superstructure,” the cause of which can be found within the economic “substructure” that supports it.  Lukács and many Marxians and many of the various “Critical Theorists” who have succeeded him (and who have invaded so many English departments) see art only in terms of its relationship to economics; for Lukács, a “good” novel had nothing to do with aesthetics and everything to do with that novel’s exposure of the economic workings of society.  And so he declared Walter Scott to be superior to Kafka, because Scott was concerned with a realistic, mimetic depiction of a particular society, whereas Kafka was concerned with the weaving of elaborate fantasy worlds divorced from economic reality.

Art is essential to us.  It’s very uselessness is one of its chief virtues; it is elevated above mere necessity and can serve as an ornament to life, rather than as a means of carrying out a practical task.  Without art and other “useless” non-economic activities, man is but an animal, a producing unit, concerned with mere questions of survival, a shitting, working, eating, sleeping, fucking machine/animal without fur, trying to keep warm and survive long enough to pass on its DNA.  These are all animalistic qualities, even when coupled with activities not strictly economic.  It is art that makes us human, and which continues to make us more human.  Bear this in mind, as it will become increasingly important in my exegesis of Tokyo Sonata, as the Sasaki family struggles to find ways to extricate itself from its various predicaments.

Now, the elder son, Takashi, is what you would call a “wayward youth,” and we can reach this determination because he’s sullen and because he has long hair.  I wasn’t quite clear on his age; he attends some school in some capacity, but whether that was a high school, a college, or some sort of vocational school was not indicated.  He also has a job passing out flyers for a nightclub on the streets of Tokyo’s Ginza district.  I know that’s what he was doing because it seems to come up in any number of Japanese films and books.  There is a scene in which he and his co-worker—a fellow distributor of flyers—having failed to get anyone to take their handouts, ride a motor-scooter to a bridge spanning the Sumida River and toss their unwanted fliers into the water.  His friend says to him, “When are we gonna get that giant earthquake?” “What giant earthquake?” Says Takashi. “The giant earthquake that will kill all those bastard politicians and make me prime minister so I can pass a ‘no helmet’ law.” And they have a good chuckle at this, but now, of course, it sounds prophetic.  Tokyo Sonata was released in 2008 and the Tohoku earthquake struck in 2011.  The apocalyptic attitude of Takashi’s friend isn’t all that surprising, given his circumstances.  Both he and Takashi don’t have much going for them and they have little reason to think that things are going to improve.

I am reminded of the protagonist of Jia Zhangke’s 2003 film, Unknown Pleasures, who says, in response to his girlfriend’s prodding him to plan for his future, “There is no fucking future.” And if there is no future, one is hardly likely to be invested in the status quo.  One would like it to implode, if only for the pleasure of watching it happen.  I am also reminded of the British novelist Graham Greene; when World War II broke out and the Germans started bombing London, he was downright exultant. “Good riddance!” He all but said.  Now, Greene was by no means pro-German or even anti-British.  He was an air-raid warden for a portion of the war and helped to put out fires and rescue victims from destroyed buildings; he also spent much of the war working in MI6, which is hardly a fit occupation for a defeatist.  So why the pleasure over a London in flames?  Because Graham Greene was not a happy man.  He found his life circumstances depressing and he found British society repugnant.  And so he wasn’t going to pretend to be displeased during the blitz.  The novelist Tao Lin summed up the sentiment quite well when he tweeted: “feel like my mental health would benefit from an apocalyptic event.” Apocalypses tend to have a cleansing effect.  Furthermore, they vindicate the pessimist. “I told you so,” says the pessimist when disaster strikes.
Graham Greene, whose reaction to the German bombing of London was "inappropriate," to put it mildly.
But back to Takashi.  Takashi may be “wayward,” but he does have a plan to set his life back on track: he will join the U.S. Army.  Now, as far I understand it, non-U.S. citizens can only join the American military if they’ve first become permanent residents of the U.S. (Although I’ve heard of undocumented immigrants enlisting in the U.S. armed forces, so I’m not certain on this issue).  Anyway, it isn’t like the British army, which still recruits Gurkha units in Nepal.  But in the world of Tokyo Sonata, the U.S. Army decides to open up enlistment opportunities to non-citizens abroad, and recruits Japanese citizens directly from Japan, the rationale being that the U.S. Army is having trouble meeting its enlistment quotas because it’s 2007 or so and the Iraq War is at its most quagmire-y.  When Takashi raises the issue of enlistment with his parents—because he’s still technically a minor and needs them to sign off on his enlistment (because he’s a Japanese enlisting in the U.S. army, I’m not sure if that means he’s a minor from the perspective of the United States or Japan or both; in the U.S., seventeen-year-olds can join the military if their parents sign off on it; in Japan, I believe you attain your majority at the age of 20)—I say, when he raises the issue of his enlistment with his parents, they are understandably perplexed and horrified.  His father has a great line where he says (and I’m paraphrasing slightly), “We raised you to have a happy life! This is the exact opposite of that!” And what possible reason could he have for joining the American army?  Well, Takashi explains, Japan’s constitution prohibits it from having its own army, correct? Yes, although they’ve kind of gotten around it by having the “Self-Defense Forces,” which is an organization of people with guns who are trained to fight, which is kind of an army, but we’re not calling it that, and anyway, it can’t be deployed outside Japan, so it’s not an offensive army, so it’s not a real army.  So America protects Japan, right? Yes, that is correct, America guarantees Japan’s security.  Well, says Takashi, I want to protect us, and that means protecting Japan, and so I want to join the American army.  The father is still enraged: “I protect this family!” No you don’t; what do you do? You can’t even look at us and say it (which implies that Takashi maybe realizes that his father doesn’t have a job anymore).

But what strange and circuitous logic Takashi employs here! He wants to protect his family, and to do that he must protect Japan, and the best way to do that, he thinks, is by joining the American military, guarantor of Japan’s security.  But what are Japan’s security threats, now, and let’s say within the next ten years? There’s North Korea, with its unpredictable lunatic regime and an established track record of abducting Japanese citizens and shooting rockets over Japan for “testing” purposes.  Really, the biggest threat to Japan would be some North Korean freak-out that brought it into a cataclysmic war with South Korea and the United States.  North Korea would lose that war, eventually, but not before they had the opportunity to unleash terrible destruction on South Korea, and perhaps, as long as they’re being crazy, on Japan as well.  North Korea’s crazy is one of its few remaining assets, and nothing says crazy like, “I’m willing to lob a primitive nuclear bomb at Tokyo.”  So that’s the biggest threat, but that’s not really likely to come about; if the Koreas have managed to avert all-out war in the nearly sixty years since the Korean War (despite occasional fire-fights, kidnappings, terrorist attacks, assassinations, shelling of islands, and sinking of ships), then I don’t see why they can’t keep it up.  The other potential threats would be China (I guess? China hasn’t launched a military attack on another country since 1979’s abortive war with Vietnam.  If they were to attack anyone, it would either be Taiwan or one of the countries with which they’re disputing the South China Sea; but whenever anyone discusses Asia-Pacific security issues, they always have to raise the prospect of Chinese military might, so that’s why I mention it here) and Russia, which still occupies the Kuril Islands right off of Hokkaido, but again, they’ve done so for over sixty years now and war has not yet proven necessary.

I say all of this because, if Takashi wants to protect Japan, joining the American Army as it commences upon the “surge” in Iraq doesn’t make sense.  Iraq is not, nor was it ever, a threat to Japan (it wasn’t a threat to America, either, but that’s a different matter).  But off Takashi goes to Iraq!
Takashi, bidding farewell to his mother and wearing a keffiyeh for some reason.
I don’t quite know what to say about the figure of Megumi Sasaki, the mother, because, as I stated above, her major problem is that her husband and sons have all these problems (I’m talking about her before I talk about the youngest son because the youngest son’s problem has a solution that ties up the movie and which will tie up this essay).  She seems to “have her shit together” in a way that no one else in her family does.  During a scene in which she bids farewell to the war-bound Takashi, he asks her why she doesn’t just divorce her husband.  It seems like that idea has never even occurred to her, despite the fact that he’s clearly coming apart.  She says that the family would fall apart without her, and that it’s her job to keep it together.  Takashi has the delicacy to refrain from saying that, if that’s her job, then she’s failing at it, because their family is dissolving, with Takashi being the first to jump ship.

The mother gets her one bizarre subplot in the last third or so of the movie.  A home invader (played by Kurosawa’s favorite actor, Koji Yakusho) ransacks the Sasaki residence while only the mother is home; when he fails to find money on hand, he decides to take her to the bank to withdraw cash, and they embark on a strange odyssey, with Yakusho’s character berating himself for his failures in life and the mother considering the idea of just abandoning her crumbling family and running off with her kidnapper (the Stockholm Syndrome evidently took hold of her with remarkable speed).  After a night with her kidnapper in a shack near the beach, she awakes to find Yakusho nowhere in sight, and decides to return home.  So her actions here are rather ambiguous; she eventually decides to re-embrace her family, but only after she lost her opportunity for escape.
The mother with her abductor.
And now let us consider the problems facing the younger son   His difficulties stem from an artistic temperament for which his father refuses him an outlet.  Early on in the film, shortly after his father has lost his job, he asks his parents if he can take piano lessons.  His mother doesn’t have a problem with it, but his father dismisses it immediately, asserting that “it’s just a whim.” Not one to be deterred, the son scavenges a dead electronic keyboard out of a pile of trash and conceals it in his bedroom; it doesn’t work, but he can use it to practice his fingering.  He then takes his lunch money and uses it to pay for lessons from a teacher who has an actual piano.  Well, secret piano lessons can only last for so long before your secret comes out, and sure enough, two things bring the son’s deception out into the open.  First, his mother is informed by the son’s school that he hasn’t eaten lunch in several months, and that furthermore he hasn’t paid into his account during that time period.  At the same time, his piano teacher sends a letter to his parents informing them that their son is a prodigy and encouraging them to have him audition at a music school.  This leads to an explosion on the part of the father, who feels he’s lost what little authority he had left in any realm.  His family doesn’t know it yet, but he’s taken a job as a janitor at a local shopping mall, and feels all the humiliation that society attaches to such an essential but stigmatized role; truly, Japan is just as much a land of fear and resentment as the United States.  So now he’s a janitor, his elder son is off in Iraq, and the younger son has been deceiving him for months.  He slaps and pushes his son around (I have always been deeply disturbed by abusive parents; call me crazy) and even manages to “accidentally” push the kid down a flight of stairs (although I put “accidentally” in scare quotes, it really does seem to have been an accident; he was merely trying to physically restrain his son and accidentally sent him head-first down a flight of stairs).  The father is horrified at what he’s done, and they rush the son to the hospital, where he is found to be mildly concussed but otherwise fine.

There are a few more twists and turns along the way to the resolution of this familial apocalypse, but we’ll pass over them now and focus our attention on the film’s conclusion.  How do the members of this family restore a semblance of tranquility and hope to their lives?  For the parents, it comes down to resignation.  As I’ve mentioned above, the mother returns home after her abduction and decides to keep “holding the family together” as she’s done before.  The father comes to terms with being a janitor, which seems fine, in that there should be nothing inherently lacking in dignity in such a profession; things need to be cleaned; janitors perform an essential task and should be accorded the respect (and remuneration) that’s due to them.  This is society’s problem, not Sasaki’s.

If the parents have resigned themselves, then the sons still have futures to pursue.  In perhaps the strangest “twist” in the film, we find that Takashi, having been discharged from the U.S. Army (within the reality of Tokyo Sonata, the U.S. Army discharges its Japanese volunteers following the peak of the “surge”), decides to join the Iraqi insurgents.  He sends his mother a letter in which he explains that perhaps the Americans aren’t as “right” as he’d thought they were, and that he wants to come to understand the insurgents by joining their cause.  His actions are somewhat reminiscent of those of members of the Japanese Red Army (JRA) in the 1970’s, several of whom travelled to Lebanon to train with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and assisted them in attacks on Israel (it was three JRA members who carried out the Lod Airport massacre in 1972).  Now, whether you’re joining the PFLP or the Iraqi insurgents, I think your ethics are pretty fucked up, but it’s interesting to see in Takashi a revival of the quixotic internationalist spirit that animated the JRA and other militant groups in the 1970’s.  It says something about the disaffection amongst twenty-first century youth that the models once embraced by a previous disaffected generation seem attractive once more.

As for the younger son, well, things really come together for him; he gets to find redemption through art and his parents get to share it with him.  The film concludes with an extended scene of the son’s piano audition at the music school to which he’s applying, and we watch his parents beam with pride as their son flawlessly plays Debussy’s “Claire de Lune,” (which recalls the recurring use of Debussy’s “Arabesque” in Shunji Iwai’s 2001 masterpiece, All About Lily Chou-Chou; apparently fucked-up Japanese kids and Debussy just go together).  The film closes on this note, and there’s no reason to think that the younger son doesn’t have a bright future ahead of him.  As for his parents, they can at least derive satisfaction from his success, even if they have more or less given up on their own lives.
The younger son, at his piano audition.
So that’s Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata, which presents us with a portrait of modern-day Japan that could just as well be a portrait of modern-day America, or any other stagnant developed country.  And perhaps within a few decades, it will also be a portrait of family life in China, once the jobs there are outsourced to Nigeria or Tanzania or wherever it’s going to be.  In the meantime, we can still find consolation in art (be it the art of Kurosawa or Debussy or anyone else) and each other, as the familial reconciliation at the close of Tokyo Sonata would seem to recommend.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Some French People Making Very Bad Decisions: Agnès Varda’s Le Bonheur

*This post discusses major plot details of Agnès Varda's Le Bonheur and Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors*

Frequently we find that so-called revolutionary movements—be they political, artistic, or otherwise—are very good at revolutionizing in one domain while remaining stubbornly reactionary in others.  For example, the Chinese and Cuban communists were (at least nominally) progressive when it came to women’s rights.  But as for gay rights, well, parish the thought.  Apparently anal sex was a bourgeois vice (which is reminiscent of Robert Mugabe’s take on homosexuality; he believes it to be a British colonial import, non-existent in pre-colonial Zimbabwe).  Or let’s look at America’s Beat Movement: pioneers when it came to gay issues, almost hopelessly reactionary in their treatment of women (William S. Burroughs shot his wife in the face, for Christ’s sake).  There was a similar tendency amongst the New Left in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s; a “liberated” couple would get home from a busy day of subversion and the husband would plop down on the couch while the wife was expected to attend to the cooking and the housekeeping.  John Lennon, in his 1970 song “Power to the People,” had ample reason to say, “I’ve got to ask you, comrade and brother, how do you treat your own woman back?”

Did the French New Wave—a cinematic revolutionary movement—have a woman problem? (Christ, look what I sound like: “does The Daily Show have a woman problem?”) The depiction of women in New Wave films varied from filmmaker to filmmaker (Godard famously said that all you needed to make a movie was a girl and a gun; interpret that how you will), but I think the bigger issue is that almost all these filmmakers happened to be men; I say almost, because there is the wonderful exception of Agnès Varda (Agnès, pronounced Awn-Yes!).

I suppose there’s also the question of whether or not Agnès Varda was a New Waver.  What did it take to be “in” the French New Wave?  Did you have to write for Cahiers du Cinéma (like Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, Chabrol, and Rivette, whom I list because they’re the five I think are incontestably New Wavers)? Did you have to release your first film circa-1960? Because Varda’s first film, Le Pointe Courte, came out in 1955?  But Rohmer’s first feature-length film, La Collectioneuse, didn’t come out until 1967, and he’s definitely New Wave, so being early to the game should hardly disqualify Varda.  Is Chris Marker New Wave? What about Louis Malle?  Hell, I don’t have an objective answer to any of this.  But for our purposes here, let’s say Varda is a New Wave filmmaker; I see no reason why she shouldn’t be.

I say all this by way of introducing the Varda film I’ve just seen, 1965’s Le Bonheur, a candy-colored story about a happy man and his happy wife and their two happy children, and the man’s happy pursuit of an affair with another woman, which he doesn’t think will present a problem at all.

Le Bonheur, which could just as easily have been called Un Homme Marié, is one of the most “color-coordinated” movies I’ve ever seen, with swaths of monochromatic space, reminiscent of Raoul Coutard’s camerawork on a number of Godard films, but especially on Made in USA.  Le Bonheur has a sequence in which the camera fragments and isolates different sections of the lovers’ post-coital bodies, almost exactly like the corresponding sequence in Godard’s Une Femme Mariée. 
Abstracted eye and hands in Le Bonheur
An eye and part of a face in Une Femme Mariée.
In many ways, Le Bonheur is the type of film Godard would have made if he wanted to make something really and uncharacteristically cheerful.  Which isn’t to say that he hasn’t made movies with cheerful elements (A Woman is a Woman is probably his lightest film), but even a generally whimsical movie like Band of Outsiders has looming over it the very real threats of violence and exploitation.  Le Bonheur is cheerful right up until about the one hour mark, when the genius husband decides to tell his wife about his affair; the affair makes him very happy, so he assumes she’ll be happy for him.  Shortly thereafter, she commits suicide, and the husband kind of misses her, but he still has the mistress, and he rapidly installs her in his wife’s place.

The movie poses two major question, one of them broad and universal, and the other more specific.  The first question: Is it morally acceptable for a person to be really, really happy?  François, the husband, seems to think it is; but François doesn’t seem particularly bright, and a really vigorous sense of morality must surely involve imagination?  But that’s not true, there are plenty of evil, moralistic prudes who are commonly thought to have little in the way of imagination, and the cliché would restrict their sex lives to the missionary position, at night, with the lights out, within the confines of a monogamous, legally (and almost certainly religiously) sanctioned marriage.  So I’m not quite sure on the question of morality and imagination, so I don’t want to make sweeping generalizations about it; but at least, in François’s case, his lack of imagination—he never asks himself, “Hm, you know, I wonder if telling my wife about how happy I am fucking another woman just might upset her?”—seems to contribute to his moral complacency.

The other question—the more specific question—ties in with what we’ve just been discussing: Can a man carry on living his life after killing a woman? (And I’m pretty sure François can be said to have killed his wife).  I ask the question specifically of men killing women, because the other cinematic example I have in mind is Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, in which Martin Landau’s character, Judah, a respected ophthalmologist and a pillar of the community (shades of Ibsen), arranges to have his mistress (Angelica Huston) murdered when she threatens to expose their relationship.  The film details Judah’s subsequent quest to come to terms with what he’s done and to carry on living.  At the beginning of the movie, we see Judah as a rational, irreligious man (or at least, that’s how I suspect he sees himself), but his moral quandary becomes entangled with the ethical imperatives of the Jewish faith into which he was born.  He eventually reaches the conclusion—and as an atheist myself, I find this rather troublesome—that as long as nobody knows what he did, and there certainly is no God to inflict punishment on him, then there’s no reason why he can’t just carry on with his life and forget the incident, which will naturally fade into the background of his unconscious with the passage of time.
Now, what we have here with Judah is not, I think, primarily a problem of a lack of religious convictions, but rather a lack of moral convictions.  I have no difficulty in making this distinction, although apparently Judah does.  For my own purposes, I don’t need a God to tell me that killing people is wrong.  Were I to kill a person, I would not be able to live with myself, and God would have nothing to do with it.

In Le Bonheur, religion never comes into play (it’s France, we can just assume that everyone is de facto godless, even if they would publically identify as Catholics), and even questions of morality are never explicitly raised.  When François meets his mistress, Emilie, he just slides into an affair with her, stating all the while that he still very much loves his wife and kids.  That doesn’t mean he can’t love Emilie.  Now he just has more love in his life, and what could be wrong with that?  You can tell that he never doubts himself while he carries out his affair.  The fact that his wife drowns herself so swiftly after his ill-advised revelation to her would seem to indicate a profound lack of understanding on his part about his wife’s personality and perhaps about other people in general (just after her body is recovered, we see a few flashes of an image of François’s wife trying to grab hold of a tree branch to extricate herself; perhaps François genuinely doesn’t think she killed herself; perhaps he really believes that his wife’s death was an accident).  But anyway, the answer to our question—can a man go on living after killing a woman—is, in François’s case, yes, yes he can, and with very little difficulty.  In a matter of just a few months, he already has his mistress dropping his kids of at school; and she’s happy, and the kids are happy, and François is happy, and that’s how the movie ends.
Picture postcard perfect family; but apparently the woman on the right is replaceable.

It’s a remarkably unsettling movie, in retrospect.  Because when you’re watching it for the first time, the vast majority of the film is just cheerful and mellow.  The stakes seems very low.  It’s just a happy man and wife and their kids and their friends and their work, and everything is fine, and everything is colorful, and the Mozart score is sprightly and pleasant.  And then suddenly there’s a suicide.  This didn’t seem like the kind of movie where a person would commit suicide, but there it, it’s undeniable.  And yet, post-suicide, the tone of the movie remains the same, the colors are still colorful, the Mozart still pleasant, and François still happy.  And that’s just downright sinister.

But how wonderfully perverse!  Because before the suicide, I remember thinking to myself, “This Agnès Varda, she’s a New Waver, is she not?  But this is all so cheerful, it’s almost saccharine!  How did this movie come to be made?” But the catastrophe and the even more fucked up response tell us not to worry, we are in confident, supremely subversive hands.