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.

Monday, May 19, 2014

She Bears an Uncanny Resemblance to Herself: Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy and Like Someone in Love

Among other things, Iranian cinema is remarkable for the number of meta-films that get made.  There is Jafar Panahi’s The Mirror, which depicts a child actor’s refusal to cooperate and incorporates it into the narrative; Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s A Moment of Innocence and Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-up, which are both about filming the participants of real events as they re-enact them; and Kiarostami’s (again) A Taste of Cherry, with its famous on-screen revelation of the presence of the filmmakers.  So the Iranians are keen to let us know that there films are not depictions of reality, but are quite consciously performances. 

Another way that filmmakers like Makhmalbaf and Kiarostami emphasize this point is through the extensive use of non-professional actors (well, Kiarostami at least is using non-professional actors; I’m not sure what the deal is with Makhmalbaf; sometimes I suspect that he’s just using actors who aren’t particularly good at what they do).  These actors conduct themselves in a Brechtian manner, in that it is more like they’re reciting their lines than acting them out.

But in recent years, Kiarostami has for the first time started making use of professional actors.  He and Makhmalbaf have both found themselves exiled from their native Iran following the abortive 2009 protests.  Although I don’t know that either of them have officially sought asylum in France, where they now reside, Makhmalbaf declared himself to be failed presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s overseas representative, so he certainly can’t go back; and Kiarostami has advocated on behalf of Jafar Panahi, who has been persecuted by the Iranian government along with other filmmakers.  Kiarostami certainly could not make films in Iran with the liberty that he can overseas, although that was pretty much always the case, and it didn’t stop him from making excellent films like Life and Nothing But, Close-Up, The Wind Will Carry Us, and the politically charged Ten.
Certified Copy (2010).
But, as I was saying, Kiarostami, in making films outside of Iran, has started to use professional actors, which is a marked change for him (I should note that he had made some films outside of Iran prior to 2009, but one, ABC Africa, was a documentary, and the other, Five Dedicated to Ozu, was an avant-garde piece with no actors).  His first international feature was the masterful 2010 film Certified Copy, starring Juliette Binoche (who’s about as professional as they come) and William Shimell, a British opera singer who is most certainly not a professional actor, so it can be said of Certified Copy that Kiarostami blends professional and non-professional acting together quite seamlessly.  One does not come away from the movie with the impression that Shimell has not acted before.  In the film, Binoche is an antiques dealer and Shimell a writer who go on a drive together through Tuscany.  They have apparently never met before, but as their journey progresses, they pretend to be married, until they carry the performance so far that it becomes increasingly unclear what the true nature of their relationship is.  It is a deeply subtle and mysterious film.
Which brings us to Kiarostami’s latest outing, Like Someone in Love (2012).  Set in Japan and cast with professional actors, it follows a young college student/call-girl named Akiko (Rin Takanashi) and her evolving relationship with an elderly john/professor of sociology name of Takashi (Tadashi Okuno), which leads to potential trouble with her jealous fiancĂ©, Noriaki (Ryo Kase).  This film raises identity issue similar to those encountered in Certified Copy, but this time with diminishing returns.  Akiko is always being told she looks like other people, and a recurring problem is her resemblance to a woman in an ad for sexual services (the joke being that it’s not just a resemblance, but rather that it’s actually her in the ad).  When Takashi meets Noriaki, he has to conceal the true nature of his relationship with Akiko, and so he claims to be her grandfather, or rather, let’s Noriaki assume that he’s her grandfather.  All of this unfolds in leisurely Kiarostami fashion, and while it’s not unpleasant, one doesn’t gain from it the sense of a layered and mysterious profundity that one finds in Certified Copy.  Either Kiarostami has exhausted his theme, or he needs to be prepared to take a dramatic new approach to it.