Friday, January 25, 2013

Fun with Japanese Anarchists of the Taisho Period: The Great Kanto Earthquake, the Assassination of Noe Ito and Osugi Sakae, Yoshishige Yoshida’s Eros Plus Massacre, and an Anecdote from the Life of Akira Kurosawa

Eros Plus Massacre (1969)
Here at Say a Prayer for the Octopus, we speak about the Great Kanto Earthquake that struck Japan on September 1, 1923 with somewhat surprising frequency.  But it’s important, damn it.  The cities of Tokyo and Yokohama were virtually destroyed, and the happy-go-lucky spirit of the Taisho Period (comparable in many respects to the artistic ferment to be found in Weimar Germany) gave way to the militarism of the early Showa Period.  In previous posts, I have commented on the wide-spread lynching of ethnic Koreans in the wake of the Kanto Earthquake; the Koreans were suspected of looting and of poisoning well water.  They most certainly did not do the first thing and not only did they not poison any well water, but seriously, why would anyone think they had a reason to do that? But I suppose that if you’re a racist and you’re about to lynch people, then you’re probably impervious to reason.

Another shocking incident that took place in the immediate aftermath of the 1923 earthquake was the assassination of prominent anarchists (and lovers! more on that later) Noe Ito and Osugi Sakae, along with Ito’s six-year-old nephew.  They were kidnapped by military policeman Masahiko Amakasu, who had his soldiers beat them to death and dump their bodies in a well.  Now, why did Amakasu kill them?  Probably for the same reason that the US government killed Sacco and Vanzetti; anarchists are a cartoonishly scary bunch (at least if you believe the hype and the depictions in media like Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent) and Amakasu feared that the scary anarchists would take advantage of the earthquake to sow the seeds of chaos (which, given the fact that Tokyo had just been destroyed, seems like kind of a moot point, but again, we’re not dealing with reason here).  I have no idea how he justified killing the child.  He would go on to be the director of the Manchukuo Film Association, which made pro-Japanese propaganda films, and he committed suicide when the Soviets invaded Manchuria at the end of WWII.

The assassinations of Ito and Sakae are depicted in Yoshishige Yoshida’s epic 1969 film, Eros Plus Massacre (Japanese movies have the best titles).  The film alternates between scenes from Ito’s and Sakae’s turbulent relationship (and their relationship with Sakae’s first wife and one of his mistresses) and a weird, distinctly “sixties-ish” romance between two vaguely militant students who are researching Ito and Sakae in the Japan of 1969.  We know these students are “rebels” because everything they do is punctuated by the sinister jazz music of the “Japanese crazy young people movies” of the past decade, as well as a new musical element, acid rock guitar (the score was done by Toshi Ichiyanagi, who I’m sure is very talented in his own right but who is most famous for being Yoko Ono’s first husband).  The relationship between the sixties lovers and the anarchists is distinctly Brechtian (or perhaps just at second-hand, and so we should say that it’s very Godardian), with the sixties couple always showing up to distance us from the anarchists.  The story of Ito and Sakae isn’t necessarily accurate; it just exists in whatever manner the students chose to tell it.

Now, before I conclude this piece, I want to share one more anecdote relating to the earthquake.  This is a famous story from the childhood of Akira Kurosawa, so maybe you’ve heard it before, but if not, then it’s worth hearing (and if you have, it can’t hurt to hear it again).  The story goes like this: following the earthquake, young Akira and his older brother are wandering the devastated streets of Tokyo.  They see all sorts of horror, including numerous corpses.  And these aren’t corpses in the funeral home setting, mind you, but people who have died horrible deaths, crushed, burned, or asphyxiated by smoke.  And Akira wants to look away from the horror, but his brother tells him (paraphrasing here): “No, you have to look, Akira.  If you look these things square in the face, they can’t hurt you.  It’s only what you refuse to see that can hurt you.” Now, whether that was some sage advice that the older Kurosawa was imparting, or whether it was a really unnecessary trauma to inflict on a small child, I’ll leave you to judge (well, actually, I’ll judge it too; I certainly wouldn’t make a small child do that—although come to think of it, Kurosawa would have been about 13 at the time of the earthquake, so he’s hardly that small, but still, he’s child enough—but it’s good story.  Maybe it’s the sort of thing that makes an instructive anecdote but which one wouldn’t want to act out in real life).
This story is recounted in Kurosawa’s memoir, Something of an Autobiography.  If you want to watch Eros Plus Massacre, I think there are a few copies available on Amazon.  Mine was an all-regions DVD with a Portuguese title menu, but the English subtitles were superb.

Friday, January 18, 2013

In Memoriam, Nagisa Oshima (1932-2013)

And so the great Nagisa Oshima is dead.  It’s been a bad year for Japanese filmmakers of the New Wave (Noboru Bagu) period (although we can quibble about the definition of “New Wave” and who fits into it, but all the dead Japanese filmmakers I’m about to mention flourished during the ‘60’s).  First we lost Kaneto Shindo (who was 101 years old, and died of being 101 years old), then Koji Wakamatsu (who was 76 and had just entered a newly fertile artistic period when he was struck and killed by a car), and now Nagisa Oshima, who was only 80 and who had suffered a series of strokes over the past two decades.

Following his debut in 1959, Oshima would make nineteen feature films and documentaries in the 1960’s.  His perennial subject was Japan, which he hated with a passion.  He hated Japanese society, he hated Japanese politics, and he even hated Japanese film; he’s notorious for saying that he hated all Japanese cinema that came before him, which presumably has caused any number of Japanese film buffs to sputter impotently, “But-but-but, even Kurosawa? Even Mizoguchi?” Of course, for a foreign Japanophile (although I’d prefer the term Nihongophile, which is my own coinage but which you’re welcome to use) like myself, Japan is a wonderful land of cinema and literature and great aesthetic refinement; there’s no novelty to it if you have to live there, steeped in social stratification, economic stagnation, and deeply entrenched racism. 

Several of Oshima’s films deal with the hostility that ethnic Koreans have face (and continue to face) in Japan.  He approached the theme farcically in his 1968 film Three Resurrected Drunkards (where the titular drunkards were played by a pop trio called the Folk Crusaders) and much more darkly in his 1983 masterpiece Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, in which a Korean draftee into the Japanese Imperial Army is forced to commit seppuku.

Oshima is probably most famous internationally for his 1976 erotic mindfuck In the Realm of the Senses, which tells the story of famous Japanese prostitute/murderer/castrator Sada Abe and features graphic and unsimulated sex acts.  The film was a French-Japanese coproduction and had to be edited in France because of the Japanese law prohibiting the depiction of human genitalia (and to this day, the film has never been publically screened uncensored in Japan).  Now, naked people having sex aside (and we’re adults, aren’t we? Surely this isn’t really all that shocking?), In the Realm of the Senses is a film about individuals who have the balls to assert the primacy of the individual in the face of unjust coercion and societal expectations.  There’s this notion that we have to sacrifice ourselves for something in some capacity (and as the Russian philosopher Aleksandr Herzen pointed out, if we all made ourselves miserable out of a sense of dutiful sacrifice, then what would be the point? Because then everybody would be miserable, including the people for whom we were presumably making our sacrifices).  In the Realm of the Senses takes place in 1930’s Japan, which has invaded Manchuria and is set to invade the rest of East Asia and the Pacific.  Against this backdrop of bloodthirsty patriotism and militarism, the prostitute Sada Abe has fallen in love with one of her clients, and they both turn their backs on Japanese society and fuck to their hearts’ content.  And surely mindless fucking to the exclusion of all else is a better use of one’s time than to go off and kill Chinese people.

It must be said of Oshima (and I was actually planning to devote a blog post to this before he died and I decided to write a broader memorial post instead) that for a man who professed to hate Japan with such a passion, I don’t think a single other Japanese filmmaker has ever crammed his or her films with as many Japanese flags as Oshima did.  They’re positively ubiquitous.  I’d say, “Here’s a fun drinking game; take a shot every time you see a Japanese flag in an Oshima movie,” but doing this could kill you.  Hell, you’d probably die of acute alcohol poisoning only twenty minutes into 1969’s Boy.  The flags of Oshima’s films undergo constant recontexualization and appropriation.  Whether they’re being waved by fascists or used as a blanket on which to fuck, or if they’re just hanging around, insisting upon themselves, Oshima’s flags are subject to ceaseless subversion.  There’s a famous anecdote where someone asked Jean-Luc Godard why there was so much blood in his movies and he responded with, “It’s not blood, it’s red.” Well, the blood-red sun of the Japanese flag serves in both capacities for Oshima, as both color-scheme (think the White Stripes if they were really hung up on Japanese militarism) and as motif: the blood of fascism and the blood of sex and passion.
A representative poster for one of Oshima's first movies, The Sun's Burial (1960).
After In the Realm of the Senses, Oshima’s productivity fell off dramatically, and his health began to decline significantly in the 1990’s.  He did, however, direct two more masterpieces: the previously mentioned Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (which features David Bowie’s greatest screen performance, as well as Takeshi Kitano’s first major film role) and 1999’s Gohatto, a period piece about all the steamy homoeroticism that seems to lurk just beneath the surface of so many samurai movies, and which features Takeshi Kitano and Tadanobu Asano competing for the sexual attentions of the androgynous Ryuhei Matsuda (in his first film role). 

After Gohatto, Oshima suffered chronic ill health until the stroke that felled him a few days ago.  But he left behind him one of the greatest bodies of work in modern cinema.  In the retrospectives and re-examinations of his oeuvre that are sure to come, hopefully more people will look beyond In the Realm of the Senses and Oshima will be appreciated for the many great films he made in a directorial career that stretched over forty years.  There are still a number of his works that have not been released on DVD or made available for streaming in the United States (although Criterion has done a good job of putting a bunch of them up on Hulu) and the time is ripe for a further discovery of the late Japanese master.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Lu Chuan’s The Missing Gun and the General Absence of Guns in the Hands of Private Citizens in China

Way back in August, I wrote a piece called “In Japan, it’s Evidently Easier to Build a Gun from Scratch Thank it is to Buy One.” I wrote this in response to several high-profile shooting incidents that took place over the summer (the movie theater shooting in Colorado, the Sikh temple shooting in Wisconsin, and an incident in New York in which the police shot like ten people while trying to take down one gun-toting lunatic).  All this crazy American shootery had called to mind Shinya Tsukamoto’s film Bullet Ballet, about a mentally unhinged young man’s efforts to get his hands on a gun.  I stated at the time that this movie could never be remade in the US, because what takes half the film to accomplish in the Japanese context (which is to say, the acquisition of a gun) would take maybe five minutes of screen time in an American movie.  The guy would go into a gun store and come back five days later and walk out with his gun (or he’d get hold of it immediately if he bought it at a gun show or through a private sale).

Well, following the Newtown Massacre, America’s gun nuttery has been back in the news lately (and I’m sure it will slip out of the news again sooner or later, and the government will accomplish precisely nothing in relation to gun control).  What didn’t get as much attention as the Newtown massacre was an incident that took place in China on the same day.  In the village of Chenpeng, a lunatic came into the local kindergarten armed with a knife and began stabbing students willy-nilly.  He stabbed a total of twenty-four of them, which is appalling, but not a single one of them died, in contrast to the Newtown massacre, in which twenty children were killed.  The difference in the death toll can be attributed to the fact that it’s far harder to kill people with a knife than it is with a semi-automatic rifle.  Now, had the Chenpeng lunatic had a gun, who knows what kind of damage he could have inflicted.  But he didn’t, thank Christ, because China doesn’t hold private gun ownership to be a right that trumps every other right, including the right to go to a school or a movie theater without having to worry about getting blown away by a nut-job (I am well aware that these incidents are relatively rare in the US, but they’re even rarer in China, or Japan, so clearly the situation can be improved).

Now, I’m somewhat reluctant to hold up the Chinese legal system as an exemplar of anything (one may recall Ségolène Royale’s praise of the efficiency of their judiciary during the French presidential elections of 2007; pretty much everybody agreed that that was a catastrophically stupid thing for her to have said).  But it’s not just China that puts serious impediments in the way of private gun ownership; freer countries with a tradition of the rule of law—Japan and the United Kingdom come to mind as prominent examples—have similar prohibitions (I don’t know if they still do this, but your average British cop on the beat generally didn’t carry a gun).

Oh right, this is supposed to be a movie blog.  Well, I just saw Lu Chuan’s first film, 2002’s The Missing Gun, which stars Jiang Wen (the director of Devils on the Doorstep and the recent—and seriously overrated, to my mind—Let the Bullets Fly) as a small-town cop who loses his gun following a drunken wedding reception.  Now, there are several distinctly un-American things that happen as a result of this.  First off, there’s a huge to-do within the police force, to think that a private citizen has hold of a gun.  Think of what they could do with it!  In a small town in the US, every other person is probably packing heat, but Jiang’s missing gun introduces an unknown element into the town.  And then, when somebody finally gets shot with it, we know immediately that it’s Jiang’s gun, because where else could it come from? Nobody else has a gun.

A few parallels to other films should be noted.  First, Jiang’s character stumbles upon a fake gun while arresting a thief, which seems to do nothing but discharge soot when fired.  This is reminiscent of the gun that Shinya Tsukamoto’s character builds for himself in Bullet Ballet, and which ends up packing less punch than a pellet gun.  Both the Chinese thief and Tsukamoto’s character only find out that their guns are defective after trying to fire them in real-life situations.  It should also be noted that the premise of The Missing Gun is pretty much the same as that of Akira Kurosawa’s 1949 film, Stray Dog, in which a policeman played by Toshiro Mifune has his gun stolen and embarks on a desperate bid to get it back.  Here we have a similar situation where people get shot with his gun, and apparently there are so few guns in circulation that it’s not too far-fetched to assume right off the bat that Mifune’s gun is the gun in question.  Stray Dog is arguably Kurosawa’s first masterpiece, and where it pummels the viewer with straight-up noir tragedy, Lu’s film approaches matters from a more darkly comedic angle (although things are still deadly serious, and he strikes balance of comedy and tragedy that’s similar to that achieved in Jiang Wen’s dark WWII “comedy,” the aforementioned Devils on the Doorstep).

Well anyway, thank God our second amendment rights haven’t been abridged yet.  We don’t languish under the yoke of a gun-prohibiting tyranny like they do in communist China.  Or South Korea.  Or the United Kingdom.  Or Japan.