Saturday, March 29, 2014

New Perspectives on Yasujiro Ozu

There’s a video—and I have no idea where it comes from, nor can I provide any context for it, although, like most youtube videos, I’m sure it’s infringing on somebody’s copyright—of Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismäki talking about (or rather to) Yasujiro Ozu.  And Kaurismäki says something quite interesting: he says that he deeply admires Ozu because the Japanese director managed to capture all of human life in his films without depicting violence.  Which is a nice sentiment, but it happens to be untrue.  First, here’s a link to the video, which for some reason I can't embed in this post:
Now, it’s been years since I’ve seen certain Ozu movies, and so I can’t recall for certain whether or not they depict violence (was there violence in Equinox Flower (1958)? I have no idea), but there are several that I’ve seen more recently that I can say with certitude do in fact depict violence.  First, there’s What did the Lady Forget? (1937), which I profiled in a previous blog post.  This “comedy” features a man slapping his wife in order to put her in her place.  And there’s the film I blogged about in my last post, Floating Weeds (1959), in which the protagonist repeatedly slaps: his girlfriend, his son, and his son’s girlfriend.  And then, perhaps the most violent of Ozu's films—or at least of those that I’ve seen—comes A Hen in the Wind (1948), in which a man strikes a woman in the face and knocks her down a flight of stairs upon finding out that she prostituted herself in order to pay for medical treatment for their sick child while he was away awaiting repatriation to Japan in the aftermath of WWII.

As Ozu is a master of the domestic film, it is perhaps no surprise that these are all examples of domestic violence.  But also, if they do not sound particularly Ozu-esque, then perhaps the time has come for us to reexamine what constitutes a “typical” Ozu film.  Now, if I were to ask someone to describe the “typical Ozu movie,” they would probably say: “Parents run in to difficulties while trying to marry off their adult children, who often have different, more modern values than their parents.” And this would generally be true of Ozu’s works from Late Spring (1949) onward through An Autumn Afternoon (1962), but that period of time only encompasses a fraction of Ozu’s work.  By my count, Ozu made approximately forty films prior to Late Spring.  Now, many of these are silent films that are unfortunately no longer extant, but even if we just consider his surviving films, a good half of them are pre-Late Spring and thusly pre-“Parents-marrying-off-their-children.” Before he settled on the theme that would occupy him for the rest of his life, Ozu made all kinds of films: romantic comedies, “salaryman” comedy-dramas, crime films, films about poverty, college comedies.  He was a profoundly versatile director. And so, to say that the “typical” Ozu film is a domestic drama in the Late Spring mold is to ignore a significant portion of his oeuvre.  And to deny the presence of violence in a number of his films, as Kaurismäki does, is to paint a false picture of his work and the varieties of human experience that he explored.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Preserve the Buds, Model Good Behavior for the Kids: Some Reflections Inspired by Yasujiro Ozu’s Floating Weeds

I have just had the great pleasure of watching Yasujiro Ozu’s Floating Weeds (1959), a remake of his 1934 silent film A Story of Floating Weeds.  Now, normally I’m skeptical about remakes (typically only justified if the original film was a seriously botched literary adaptation that can be improved upon), but Ozu’s films, in a way, are all remakes of the same basic family drama.  Also, Floating Weeds belongs to that small privileged class of Ozu films that are in color; he made only six color films at the end of his career (and life) after decades of working in black-and-white, but they are some of the most beautifully composed color films ever made.  Floating Weeds is especially distinctive in that Ozu uses a bright palette of rich reds and blues; most of his other color films, by contrast, draw on a more muted, pastel palette.

I have a theory—which I don’t hold strongly, but I entertain it nonetheless—which asserts that the late films of Ozu represent the apotheosis of cinema.  They are perfect and they represent the logical conclusion of the progress of cinematic history.  From a technical perspective, and from their engagement with the major issues that make us human—what Matthew Arnold would call “high seriousness”—they are flawless and unsurpassable.  Now, of course that’s bullshit: there are plenty of great films post-Ozu, and cinema continues to evolve in new directions.  But with Ozu, we see, for instance, the conclusion of one of the main trajectories of the evolution of camera-work.  At the beginning of cinema, from the Lumières to Feuillade and Sjöström, the camera remains stationary.  Then Griffith comes along and—one giant leap for cinema—the camera moves.   And soon it moves all over the place, from the sweeping pans of Murnau’s The Last Laugh to the hand-held camera-work of Godard’s Breathless.  But Ozu brings about the second great innovation in terms of camera-work: as his career progresses, the camera becomes increasingly immobile, until almost every shot is a static shot in films like Floating Weeds and An Autumn Afternoon.  It’s really quite striking: the idea of moving the camera was revolutionary and the idea of returning it to stasis was equally so.  And now Tsai Ming-liang does it and it’s positively avant-garde.
Now, as for the theme that obsessed Ozu throughout his later work: families, and more specifically: the conflict between the values and aspirations of the younger generation and those of their parents.  The technology may have changed dramatically between A Story of Floating Weeds and Floating Weeds, but the basic plot remains the same: a travelling Kabuki troop arrives in a town where their leader tries to cultivate his relationship with the illegitimate son he fathered many years ago, and who thinks that his real father is dead, and that the actor who visits from time to time is his uncle.  The love and the rancor between father and son constitute a universal story.  Universal as well is the melancholy that comes with the inevitable passing of time and the changes that time works in society.  And in the end, the parents’ generation find out, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, that their sons and their daughters are beyond their command.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Romantic Idea of the Artist in Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum

*Contains spoilers*

There is a certain conception of the artist which, at least in the Western context, originates during the Romantic period.  It is the idea of the artist as being distinctly apart from the rest of human society, as being isolated and alienated and consumed by his or her (probably just “his,” originally) art.  And this isolation brings with it a tragic beauty and often a tragic fate, as we see in the aesthetically pleasing deaths of the second generation British Romantic poets: Shelly (drowned), Keats (tuberculosis), Byron (some complicated infection, sustained while fighting in someone else’s independence war).  We see it in Thomas Mann’s novella Tonio Krueger, in which the protagonist leads a lonely, one might even say icy, life in service to his art.  The ice metaphor is best asserted by Graham Greene, who said, “A writer [or artist] must have a splinter of ice in his heart.”  Now, this is all in sharp contrast to the way the artist worked during the Renaissance and the Baroque (forgive the Eurocentrism on display here): in these contexts, the artist was a craftsman who worked for money, often to be had from a wealthy patron.  In the 21st  century, they would all be seen as sell-outs.  Can’t you picture it? Can’t you picture the hipster dismissing Michelangelo as a “sell-out?”

But anyway, this Romantic, splinter-of-ice business lies at the heart of Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1939 masterpiece, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum.  It narrates the tale of Kikunosuke, a young Kabuki actor whose love for a lower-class woman, Otoku, leads him to fall out with his father, leave his family’s company, and go on the road, seeking to perfect his craft while performing in increasingly dismal and disreputable settings.  The relationship with Otoku is complex, because although one could argue that his love for Otoku is what brings him down in the world, it is also Otoku who makes him into a true artist.  When he was with his father’s company, his acting was hammy and inelegant, but because he had his father’s name and was surrounded by flatterers, he wasn’t aware of it.  Otoku was the only one who had the honesty to tell him that he wasn’t a good actor and it is Otoku who supports him at every step of the way as seeks to hone his craft while in exile from his father.  Without Otoku, it is true that he wouldn’t have had his crisis, but he probably also would never have amounted to anything artistically.

But after years of suffering, Kikunosuke has the opportunity to reunite with his father’s company.  They give him the opportunity to appear on stage with them and he gives a brilliant performance.  All of his trials and suffering have paid off and he is now a good actor, worthy to reconcile with his family.  All he has to do, the company tells him, is leave Otoku and apologize to his father.  Now, Kikunosuke is not an asshole, and he at first refuses to even consider leaving Otoku, to whom he owes everything.  But Otoku also wants him to return to his father’s company, even if it means leaving her.  All of the privation and misery that she underwent with Kikunosuke was done in the service of advancing his career and his art, with the logical outcome being a return to a reputable Kabuki company like that of his father’s.  If he doesn’t leave her, all her sacrifices will have been in vain.  It is his art that matters above all other considerations.  And so, despite his misgivings, Kikunosuke, with a splinter of ice in his heart, leaves Otoku and returns to his father’s company.

It’s just one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen a number of devastating Mizoguchi films, including Sansho the Bailiff, upon the viewing of which the critic Anthony Lane said, “I left the theater a broken man”).  It’s somewhat surprising to me, because the version of The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum that I saw, the one that Criterion has on Hulu, is in a state of advanced decay: it’s faded and scratched and the soundtrack is full of hissing and distortion, but one quickly forgets it as one becomes absorbed in the happenings on the screen and in Mizoguchi’s lovely mise-en-scène, for which he was renowned.  The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum is one of the great tragic stories in world cinema, just as spiritually moving as Bicycle Thieves or Tokyo Story.  If it is not as internationally well-known as those films, it is only because it was made at a time when Japanese cinema had not yet made its appearance on the international scene (and what a lack that must have been, a world cinema that didn’t take Japanese cinema into account).  Let us hope that a restoration of Mizoguchi’s pre-war masterpiece will be undertaken, so that it might appear with as much pristine clarity as other Criterion releases of great Mizoguchi films, like Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Dodes’ka-den! On the Film that Almost Destroyed Akira Kurosawa’s Career

Akira Kurosawa is held in such nearly universal high esteem that it is almost impossible to believe that there was a time when it looked like his career was over and that his moment had long since passed.  In the early to mid-1960’s, he directed some of his most beloved films: The Bad Sleep Well, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, High and Low, and Red Beard.  But even as these films were released to widespread critical and popular acclaim, the film world was changing dramatically, both on the Japanese scene and internationally.  In Japan, the ‘60’s saw the rise of New Wave directors like Nagisa Oshima and Shohei Imamura, who had little patience for the humanism and classicism of older directors like Kurosawa (and similar trends were afoot in France and Italy and elsewhere).  The films of the New Wave were gritty, violent, alienating, and overtly political.  Although Kurosawa and Oshima were both communists (or, if Oshima was not a communist, he was at least a radical leftist), Kurosawa would never explicitly foreground a political agenda in the way that Oshima does in films like Death by Hanging or The Man Who Left His Will on Film.
Following the completion of Red Beard in 1966, Kurosawa began a new stage in his career.  He had a falling out with long-time collaborator Toshiro Mifune, with whom he would never work again.  He also decided that for his next film, he would work in color for the first time.  (It’s always interesting to see what great directors make of their first color films).  After a period of long gestation, Kurosawa returned in 1970 with Dodes’ka-den.  The film was conceived in collaboration with fellow filmmakers Keisuke Kinoshita, Kon Ichikawa, and Masaki Kobayashi, all giants of the golden age of Japanese cinema of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, and all of whom were marginalized by the New Wave.  Set in a community of social outcasts who have erected a shantytown within a Tokyo junk yard, Dodes’ka-den presents a kaleidoscopic picture of life on the margins, following alcoholics, the chronically unemployed, the physically and mentally handicapped, and other misfits as they experience the small victories and often bigger tragedies of their day-to-day lives.  This is largely new subject matter for Kurosawa, who had built his reputation on samurai epics (Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress) and masterful crime films (Stray Dog, High and Low).  Although he had treated the theme of poverty before (most extensively in Drunken Angel and especially in his adaptation of Gorky’s The Lower Depths), the degree of deprivation and despair on display in Dodes’ka-den is without precedent in his oeuvre.
Two of Kurosawa's slum-dwellers.

Now, having said all this, it is noteworthy that Dodes’ka-den is not a particularly depressing movie.  First off, it is a work of great visual beauty.  Kurosawa’s compositions are as elegant and striking as ever, and his use of dazzling primary colors is reminiscent of Godard’s in films like Pierrot le Fou and Made in USA.  Secondly, Kurosawa, even at his darkest, always infuses his films with compassion and hope.  And this is something that you won’t find in the New Wavers.  In the films of Oshima and Imamura—and both of them have depicted life in the slums—hope is a bourgeois vice.  They approach their subject matter with viciousness and a sense of the grotesque unredeemed by any trace of warmth or any sense of indulgence for human frailty.  This is why Kurosawa is a humanist and Oshima, even when he’s advocating for the persecuted and the marginalized, is not.

So, what was the reaction to Kurosawa’s Dodes’ka-den?  Near universal revulsion and contempt.  Critics were baffled and audiences hated it (or at least, the few people who actually saw it hated it).  In modern parlance, it tanked at the box office.  Kurosawa, the Japanese critics said, was finished.  He was out of his depth.  Film had changed and Kurosawa had failed to change with it.  And most troublingly, the producers who put up the money for these things agreed with them, and Kurosawa found himself, really for the first time in his directorial career, struggling to raise funds to make more films.  He fell into despair.  He attempted to commit suicide by slashing his arms (his brother had committed suicide in the 1930’s when the advent of sound films rendered silent film narrators like him obsolete).  Luckily he survived and in 1975 he made something of a comeback with the Soviet film Dersu Uzala.  And in 1980, with financial assistance from George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, he returned to the samurai epic, the genre that made him famous, with Kagemusha.  In 1985 he made another samurai epic, Ran, an adaptation of King Lear which proved to be one of his greatest masterpieces.  He then made several smaller films as his health declined and he died in 1998. 
So Dodes’ka-den wasn’t the end of him, but it’s lamentable that anyone ever thought it was.  Criterion released it on Region 1 DVD a few years ago and the time is now ripe for a critical re-evaluation of this strange and beautiful work which marks a transitional period in Kurosawa’s career but which hardly signals the decline in quality that reviewers perceived upon its initial release.  It is just as shocking and new and distinctly contemporary as anything that Oshima and Imamura and the other New Wavers came out with.