Kobayashi’s directorial debut: “Musuko no seishun” (1952)

sincerity.jpgKobayashi Masaki (1916-96) was a protégé of Kinoshita Keisuke, who lent some sentimentality that Kobayashi would shed before making his masterpieces, and also lent Kobayashi his brother, Kinoshita Chûji, to supply the music for Kobayashi’s first feature, the 45-minute “Musuko no seishun” (1952) available on Hulu as its US title “Youth of the Son.” (“Spring” in the Japanese title/metaphor is rendered “Youth” in both). The British title, “My Sons’ Youth,” is clearly better, since there are two boys, the 18-year-old Haruhiko (Ishihama Akira, who had been the boy of Kinoshita’s “Boyhood the year before, and would later die so agonizingly in Kobayashi’s “Harakiri”) and the 16-year-old Akahiko. Haruhiko is pleasant, handsome, and shy; Akahiko a bit sullen and a bit of a ruffian.

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After Haruhiko’s birthday party (which looks to me suitable for a ten-year-old, with singing “Happy Birthday” (in English) for about five minutes, he goes on a date to a kabuki performance in Tokyo (with Kosono Yôko, who sheds her girlish look to go as a woman in heels with a permanent). Akahiko and his friend, the thuggish son of a rich man (the ubiquitous Ryû Chisû, playing a father not very much like those he played in Ozu movie after Ozu movie) beat up some visitors from Tokyo and retain the watch of one of them as a souvenir of their triumph. That gets them jailed. After Akahiko’s father gets the boys sprung from jail, Akahiko is penitent, but eager enough to wrestle with his older brother, seemingly not having had enough fighting for one night.

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The episodic family movie is like a 1950s family sitcom—“Father Knows Best” or “The Donna Reed Show,” though they came along later and could not have influenced Kobayashi. Work with Kinoshita, not least collaborating on writing the screenplay for “A Broken Drum” for Kinoshita to direct and working on Kinoshita’s Carmen movies, clearly did lead to this derivative, pleasant work.

Although there is not a rural-urban conflict, there is the offscreen clash of boys from the metropole (Tokyo) and hinterland town boys eager to prove their toughness.

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(the youth of the director)

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

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A very Japanese Thai novel

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I was surprised to find a Thai novel for sale in the gift shop of the Honolulu Academy of Art. A very Japanese one the novella Behind the Painting (Khang Lang Phap) byby Siburapha [pen name of Kulap Sapradit, 1905-74] turned out to be. It is mostly set in Japan, but also has a very Japanese sensibility (akin to Kawabata), chronicling the love a Thai student (Nopphon) going to university in Tokyo developed for the (Thai) wife of a Thai magnate (Chao Kunn Atthikanbodhi) much older than his wife, Mom Tarchawong Kirati — who is beautiful and delicate in very Japanese ways — is often consigned to Nopphon while her husband has business meetings. They actually touch fleetingly on an outing.

Kirati memorializes the mountain stream in a watercolor that Nopphon treasures forever after. Having completed his degree and returned to Bangkok, Nopphon visits the widdowed Kirati before she dies at a relatively young age.

The delicate novella of sad sensibility and love that is shared but not physically consummated (first serialized in 1937-38) is accompanied by some extremely didactic communist agit-prop stories about the humanity of common people and the arrogance of aristocrats who either get their comeuppance (Lend Us a Hand) or lose their daughters to unseemly working-class men (The Awakening).

After being released in 1957, after four years imprisonment, Sapradit was granted asylum in the PRC (where he seems not to have noticed the famines brought about by the lunacies of Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” followed by the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”…). There he contributed to the Afro-Asian Solidarity Front’s cultural activities and to the Thai-language radio propaganda broadcasting. Behind the Painting was interpreted by Sairpradit’s later comrades as showing the inevitable destruction of the upper class (Kirati) and impotent dishonesty of the comprador elites (embodied by Nopphon). I’m relatively sure that the writer identified with Nopphon and Nopphon’s idealization of the beautiful and exquisitely sensitive older woman.

The Siburapha texts occupy only 144 pages (there’s also an 8-page biographical introduction and a two-page glossary of Thai words not translated in the text), so could easily have encompassed The Jungle of Life (Pa Nai Chiwit), which was also serialized in 1937. The thin volume does not convince me that there was a great Thai writer, like, say the Indonesian leftist Pramoedya Ananta Toer (The Girl from the Coast, This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations), who served time in jail by the Dutch, by Sukarno, and 14 years in a forced-labor camp on the remote island of Buru by the Suharto regime.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Late Kawabata: “The House of the Sleeping Beauties” and “One Arm”

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I can understand the reluctance of the Swedish Academy to give a Nobel Prize for literature to Mishima Yukio, who was only 43 when it gave the first prize to a Japanese writer. Though he had published more than 40 works of fiction, they surely thought they could get back to him later and did not realize he would be dead in another two years.

They had missed giving the prize to Tanizaki Jun’ichiro before his death in 1965, and gave the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1968 to Kawabata Yasunari (1899-1972), longtime president of PEN Japan (and like Mishima, a Japanese writer with many contacts with western writers). All three strike me as authors of quite kinky fiction and personal obsessions, though the specifics of the obsessions differed among them.

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Kawabata and Mishima (pictured together above) seem to have thought a lot about the ravages of aging. Mishima decided not to experience them. Kawabata was already writing about misanthropic old men in his 1933 story “Kinjû” (Of birds and beasts). Though Kawabata does not seem to have been as antisocial as the unnamed protagonist of the story, like him, Kawabata had many house pets, dogs and caged birds. The misanthropic protagonist had decided that “he did not like people. Husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters: the bonds were not easily cut even with the most unsatisfactory of people” He is pretty cavalier about the deaths of his pets, too, losing interest in newly acquired ones fairly quickly.

Nihilist though he is, the protagonist had dropped out of a love suicide pact earlier. As with other Kawabata fiction, the story ceases rather than ends. He wrote it one night before a deadline and did not return to attempt to craft an ending.

In a (plot-spoiling) introduction by Kawabata’s protégé, Mishima Yukio praised the ending (that might be considered open) of the novella Nemureru Bijo (The House of the Sleeping Beauties, first serialized in 1960-61). The age of its protagonist, Eguchi, is repeated noticeably often: 67 (seven more than Kawabata’s at the time). He begins visiting a special kind of bordello where impotent old men are relieved of performance anxieties and disappointments by going to sleep with drugged naked virgins.

Eguchi is “still a man,” though thinks that going to permanent sleep with a beautiful, naked virgin would be a good way to go. This fantasy (within a fantasy) is partly dispelled when another client does die on site and is carted away unceremoniously.

Neither Kawabata nor Eguchi not the proprietress seems to have given any thought to the clients having tongues and fingers… Well, the proprietress believes the referral system screens out those who might not be “gentlemen” who would take advantage of the sleeping beauties beyond the prescribed limits. Eguchi reflects that “for an old man who was no longer a man, to keep company with a girl who had been put to sleep was ‘not a human relationship.’” Not “a living doll” or a “living toy,” but for an old man she “could be life itself,” unconscious of itself and of who was spending the night being warmed by her youthful heat and able to enjoy gazing on beauty without being seen or judged… or known.

Aside from my subversive thoughts about policing what the clients do, I find the setup extremely creepy (I don’t share Tanizaki’s foot fetishism, either…) What I like about the novella is the memories and dreams that flood Eguchi on each of the five nights he spends (with different drugged women). The use of stream of consciousness was already present in “Of birds and beasts.” In “The House of the Sleeping Beauties” the memories are of women with whom Eguchi had been intimate. I find the flashbacks in both stories more interesting than the conduct being narrated.

Though I have not read any of it, Kawabata apparently wrote some surrealist fiction between the world wars. “Kataude” (One Arm, 1964) opens with “’I can let you have one of my arms for the night,’ said the girl. She took off her right arm at the should and, with her left hand, laid it on my knee.” The narrator is able to tell form the arm that the woman is a virgin (to put it mildly, Kawabata was hung up on virgin women). He replaces his own arm for a while with it, but when he wakes up is frightened to see his own arm lying there. He is only in his 30s, and the arm can speak (unlike the drugged beauties). The isolation from anything like normal human relationships and embrace of quite abnormal (not just unusual!) relationships of all three male protagonists makes the three fictions fit together, and I guess the setup of “House of Sleeping Beauties” could be considered almost as surrealistic as the substitution of limbs. (Indeed, Eguchi thinks that the elbow of one of the sleeping beauties seemed alive as well as beautiful.) The objectification of women is pervasive in Kawabata (and Tanizaki) fiction, though “House of Sleeping Beauties” takes it to an extreme, even beyond “One Arm” (in which the arm speaks, so has some agency).

“One arm” was the last work that Kawabata finished. Like many a Nobel Prize winner, after the award he gave lectures but did not do any more of the kind of work that won him the prize. One may wonder if Mishima would have continued to churn out fiction and plays had he won the award that he badly wanted. The second (in 1994) Japanese Nobel Prize laureate, Ôe Kenzaburô (1935-), who has psychopathologies of his own to nurse/revisit, has (two novels, along with considerable punditry, however).

– – –

Kawabata’s and Ôe’s Nobel lectures are both online at nobelprize.org. In his, Ôe spoke at length about Kawabata’s, in particular Kawabata’s differentiation between Zen detachment and western nihilism.

I also recently wrote about Kawabata’s Thousand Cranes, the substance of which has already evaporated from my memory, as that of Snow Country has despite having read it twice.

Mishima: “Because a virgin ceases to be a virgin once she is assaulted, impossibility of attainment is a necessary premise for putting virginity beyond agnosticism. And does not impossibility of attainment put eroticism and death at the same point?” As is often the case, I don’t follow Mishima’s logic, and also don’t share his feeling while reading House of being on a submarine using up its oxygen in reading the novella.”

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Kawabata’s Thousand Cranes

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Kawabata Yasunari (1899–1972) was the first (of two, though another one can’t be too many years off) Japanese writer to win a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968. I know that I have read his most famous novel, Snow Country (begun in 1934, completed in 1947) twice, though I retain only the vaguest memories of it.

Along with Snow Country and The Old Capital, Sembazuru (Thousand Cranes, 1951) was specifically mentioned in the Nobel Prize citation of Kawabata’s “narrative mastery, which with great sensibility expresses the essence of the Japanese mind.” I am dubious about that last phrase, though there is much that is very Japanese, including a particular kind of kinkiness that seems Japanese to me. And the venerable Japanese art of the tea ceremony provides many symbols of the evanescence of human life and the longevity of Taoist culture.

Plus, throughout the region, the (red-crowned) crane is a symbol of longevity. The traditional belief is that the crane lives for a thousand years. A Japanese application of the belief is that making a thousand paper cranes (origami paper-folding) will make a wish come true, the wish often being for a cure for a particular malady.

The only cranes in the book are on the pink scarf of one of the two younger women whom the novel’s passive male protagonist, Mitani Kikuji, might marry. Fumiko is the daughter of the favorite mistress of his dead (for five years) fathers. Chikako, an earlier mistress of his father, one whose birthmark on one breast the child Kikuji saw (a sight that haunted if not traumatized him). As a self-appointed matchmaker supposedly motivated by gratitude to Kikuji’s father). Chikako relentlessly presses Imamura Yukiko.

Kikuji repeatedly rejects the match, though he is attracted to the damsel, who performs the tea ceremony with grace, not knowing she is being examined as a prospective bride. Kikuji is not characterized at all: she is a piece in a sort of board game (chess or go) between Chikako and Mrs. Ota.

Mrs. Ota is about 45 and seduces Kikuji. After her suicide, Kikuji is drawn to her daughter Fumiko, who is selling her mother’s house and looking for a job. Chikako is quite ready to lie to prevent a liaison between Kikuji and Fumiko. Chikako also takes great liberties on the Mitani property, particularly the tea cottage.

Kikuji’s father was an aficionado of the tea ceremony and had collected 300-year-old utensils (bowls, pots, whisks), more than a few from the Ota collection. Fumiko gives Kikuji more as mementoes of her mother.

The novel (I think it would be a récit rather than a roman in French classification) is compressed and sometimes maddeningly indirect (IMHO)—in the grand Japanese tradition dating back to Genji monogatori.

Kikuji’s relationships with his father’s mistresses is not technically incest, but does not strike me as healthy. The eroticism seems to me better done by Tanizaki, whom I think should have received the Nobel Prize in 1968 instead of Kawabata. Both writers were concerned with the corrosive effects modernization and traditional subtle Japanese art.

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(receiving the Nobel Prize in 1968)

(top photo Kawabata in 1946)

 

©2016, Stepben O. Murray

The Great Happiness Space

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I thought that the 2006 Japanese documentary directed and shot by Jake Clennell, “The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love,” was very intersting. I didn’t see a “love thief” though I saw men selling their time and attention and women eagerly buying it. The film includes interviews both of the bar boys and their free-spending female customers. The male attendants are more like geishas who do not “put out” than like prostitutes, and at least one warns of the loss of power once he has gone all the way( been had) by a customer.

The star of the movie and of the Rakkyo Café is Issei, who, like many of the hosts, has bleached hair. His admirers pay $12 an hour to sit with him, $50/hour to be the only woman sitting with him. Plus buying the steady flow of marked-up-priced champagne.

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Stringing on many often-returning admirers, Issei was making $50,000 a month, in his own words “selling dreams” of romance, and “healing” women after their hard days at work. Viewers initially see the twenty hosts as predators, but the more we hear from them and from the women, the more the customers come across as being the predators. Well, fairly masochistic predators, with some of Issei’s customers not only professing love for him but even a willingness to die for him. (They ARE Japanese….). I’d say many are in love with (being in) love, but not ready to commit to any realistic love/erotic relationship. (I’d say this applies to many swooning about romantic movies in many countries, as well!)

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The DVD has no bonus features, but though short (76 minutes), the documentary digs quite deep into the inner emptiness of buyers and sellers of romantic interludes (some of the patronesses come to the bar every night). Clennel was a cinematographer before making this documentary; the cinematography and the editing (by Jushida Hisayo) are very assured.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

Kinoshita Keisuke (1912-1998)

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When they both died in 1998, Japanese media treated film directors Kurosawa Akira and Kinoshita Keisuke as equally important cultural figures. In the English-speaking world, Kurosawa was and is far more prominent. The Criterion Collection has made films directed by both available and is streaming 42 Kinoshita films on Hulu. In a two-month binge I went from never having seen a Kinoshita film to having seen 42. (There are another nine that are not available.)

Lacking a university education, Kinoshita was not allowed to start as an assistant director at Shochiku Studio, the company that distributed all his films (I think), even after it ceased to be/have a studio.

Kinoshita was drafted in 1940 and deployed to China, demobilized for illness (like the father in “Army” in an earlier Japanese war). Both Kurosawa and Kinoshita directed their first films in 1943, both from novels famous in Japan, Sanshiro Sugata (aka “Judo Saga”) and Port of Blossoms. There is the setting in the past that recurred in Kurosawa films and the comic elements (the two con men who get swept up for real in what was supposed to be their con) in the maiden voyages of both directors.

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Kurosawa later wrote a script (The Portrait) that Kinoshita directed. The one Kinoshita reciprocated with became “Japanese Tragedy,” after the assistant Kurosawa wanted to promote did not feel up to directing it. The two of them along with Kinoshita’s protégé Kobayashi and with Kichikawa Kon formed a production company, Shiki no kai (The Four Horsemen Club). The failure of “Dodesukaden,” directed by Kurosawa in 1970 (the only Kurosawa movie I actively dislike) ended that venture. After the other three had died, Ichikawa directed the screenplay the four had collaborated on as “Dora heita” (alleycat) in 2000. (It is a period piece resembling “Yojimbo,” so seems like second-rate Kurosawa.)

I have been especially interested in the attitude towards what the Japanese call “the Pacific War” (though for them, much of it took place conquering areas of Asia; Japan did not participate in the First World [sic.] War”). I detect some satire of patriotic fervor in “Port of Blossoms” and even more in “Army” (which was produced by the Japanese army), along with the famous finale of anticipatory grief on the part of the mother whose son is marching off in uniform. The militarists are excoriated in “Jubilation Street” with the villain being a colonel or general who expropriates military stores to begin black market profiteering on the day of surrender in “Morning for the Osone Family.” Much later, in “Children of Nagasaki” (1983) responsibility for prolonging the war with no hope for victory is squarely laid on the Japanese military command. The 1960 “The River Fuefuki” set at the end of the 16th century shows the roots in Japanese character of making war with no prospect of winning that is also, I think, directed at the overlords who drafted and deployed Kinoshita.

There are also portrayals of rural intolerance for families relocated from Tokyo in “A Record of Youth” (1952) and “Legend of a Duel to the Death” (1963) and the portrayal of a silenced dissident in Kinoshita’s most popular move, the 1954 “24 Eyes.” . There is poined social criticism in many others, including especially “Apostasy” (Haksi, 1948), “The Ballad of Narayama” (1958), “My Son! My Son!” (1979), and “The Young Rebels” (1980), along with many portrayals of class differences having painful effects on life chances (particularly matrimonial ones).

Though admiring the look of Kinoshita movies, I have recurrently expressed my dismay at the musical scores his brother (Chûji) provided  — along with expression of admiration for the cinematography their brother-in-law, Kusuda Hiroshi provided, realizing the visual intent of Kinoshita Keisuke, who himself began as a photographer. “I had to have someone who would do exactly as I wanted,” Kinoshita told Audie Bock. Perhaps even more importantly was someone who understood what he wanted

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like the comedies the best, and “Spring Dreams” (1960) the most of these, followed by “A Broken Drum” (1949), “Carmen Comes Home” (1951, the first Japanese film in color), and the black comedy “Danger Stalks Near” (1957).

Though Kurosawa had a large range, it is for movies set before the Meiji Restoration (starring Mifune Toshrio and/or Nakadai Tatsuya along with Shimura Takashi) for which he was and is known (in the west). Kinoshita directed (usually from his own scripts) more films set in the present or recent past than Kurosawa, and in a wide range of genres, including a two-part ghost story, the aforementioned comedies, war films, “women’s pictures” (josei eiga, bittersweet romances and aha mogo, “(venerated self-sacrificing) mother films”), tragedies, quasi-documentaries, a quasi-kabuki film (Narayama), war movies, social problems (melo)dramas.

Between 1943 and 1963, Kinoshita directed two or three films a year (except in 1945, the year of the atomic bombs and the end of the war). Between 1965 and 1978, he made only two, the Japanese film history in general and Shochiku in particular, having collapsed, and after directing another six between 1979 and 1988, he did not direct any during the last decade of his life. Kurosawa and Kobayashi also had great difficulties in getting support to make the movies they wanted to make (Ichikawa did what others wanted, not having his wife-scenarist, Wada Natto, to adapt material and provide input on what he shot.)

His films were largely edited in the camera. “After doing my own writing, directing of actors and camera setups, I’d rather have a little time left to eat, drink, and talk about movies with my friends” than do the mechanical work of cutting, he also told Bock.

Kinoshita was a major auteur (writing and directing what to a significant extent were family projects) and I am grateful to Hula for making much of his output available with well-subtitled streaming videos.

On to Kobayashi, whose first films had considerable involvement from the Kinoshitas, in the fourth of my surveys here of Japanese humanist film directors.

The quotations are from Audie Bock’s 1978 book Japanese Film Directors.

In addition to a set of Kinoshita’s first five movies, Criterion has released “24 Eyes” and “The Ballad of Narayama” on disc. Oddly they have not made the one that was Oscar-nominated (Immortal Love) or one of the two that was Golden Globe nominated (“The Rose on His Arm”; the other was “24 Eyes.”)

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

Kinoshita’s last movie, “Father” (Chichi, 1988)

father.jpgKinoshita’s last movie, the 1988 “Father” (for once, the English title is a translation of the Japanese, “Chichi”) moves about, albeit not by train. The family on which the movie centers is based in Kagoshima (in southern Kyushu). The titular father (the narrator’s), played by Bandô Eiji, is sentimental about the city’s theme songs (the featuring of one is a recurrent feature of Kinoshta’s oeuvre, multiplied in his last outing), but kareems around (Brazil, Hawai’i, Tokyo).

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Bandô Eiji

 

The stubborn grandmother holds on to the property she owns there, and eventually she permits her former (as in divorced) daughter-in-law (Sugai Kin) to run a restaurant there, and the Sakurajima volcano continues to spew out ashes.

IMDB does not reveal either who played the resilient grandmother or the Brazilian black friend Bandô brings back to Japan with him, certain that a Japanese-speaking black man will be a sensation in Japan, even if he is not an especially gifted crooner.

All three of Kinoshita’s outright comedies (the 1949 “A Broken Drum,” the 1957 “Danger Stalks Near,” and the 1960 “Spring Dreams,” and the blacker are the other two) have fathers who are absurd and ineffectually frustrated by others. In the earlier ones, the fathers are successful businessmen. In the final one, the father is a deadbeat, always touting once-in-a-lifetime business opportunities that lead to failure. His son (the strapping Nonomura Makoto), who has been raised by his grandmother and his mother and is about Daijiro (who starts art university, is bemused rather than resenting the successful fathers as in “A Boken Drum” and “Spring Dreams”).

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Nonomura Makoto

 

(I don’t think that Kinoshita, who would live another decade, realized this would be his last film, and consider it less a final testament than his previous film, “Big joys, small sorrows.” Or Kurosawa’s finale, “Madadayo,” which has even more a capella singing in it.) It is slight, but not an embarrassment, like, say, the last movie John Ford directed, “Seven Women”.)

©2016, Stephen O. Murray