Oe’s “A Personal Matter”

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Ôe Kenzaburo’s guilt-ridden autobiographical novel A Personal Matter (published in Japanese in 1964 as Kojinteki na taiken, in English in 1968). No new liaison is arranged for the wife of the narrator, Bird. He spends most of his time with another woman (an ex-girlfriend) while his wife is in the hospital having given birth to a monstrosity — as in “Aghwee The Sky Monster,” also published in Japanese in 1964, in which the protagonist kills his son who was born with a brain tumor; here it is a deformed head). At least in English, the prose is quite accurate and overloaded with adjectives and some quite convoluted constructions. I’m pretty sure that the reader-hostile constructions mimic if not reproduce those of the original Japanese.

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Homosexuality keeps popping up. At the beginning Bird realizes that he is cruising a male transvestite. Later, when he is immobilized by what came out of his wife’s womb, Himiko expresses surprise that Bird has not fucked any male student admirers (p. 111, and on p. 77 she tells him that a jealous boyfriend of hers “had a thing for adults like you; if you ever got together he’d do everything he could to please you. Bird, I bet you’ve had that kind of service lots of times before. Weren’t there boys below you in college who worshipped you? And there must be students in your classes who are particularly devoted. I’ve always thought of you as a hero figure for kinds in that kind of sub-culture.” And “It was certain, he was destined to be helped out of impossible situations by a band of younger brothers” on p. 140).

Sodomizing her cures his fear of the hole in front. He is very aroused by “coition this inhuman”! (p. 113). Himiko is one of several women who “go to bed with her [a producer friend and favorite schoolmate] to make her feel a little better,” which “didn’t shock him particularly” (p. 150). And at the end Himiko takes Bird to a gay bar named for and run by a former friend of his, Kikuhiko, which is the name he chooses for his infant who survives. In the first instance, Bird thinks, “A youth who tries so hard to be faithful to the warp in himself that he ends up searching the street in drag for perverts, a young man like that must have eyes and ears and a heart exquisitely sensitive to the fear that roots in the backlands of the subconscious” (p. 6). In the final one, he reflects, “This was a shrewd and observant Kikuhiko, no longer the simple fairy Bird had known: his friend’s life of apostasy and descent could not have been easy or uninvolved” (p. 208). I suppose this is “tolerance,” but plenty ambivalent.

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As did Oe himself (as he discussed in the nonfiction A Healing Family), Bird eventually accepts the deformed son. Diluting his milk early on seems a pretty ineffectual way to kill him (not that I wanted Bird to succeed at that!)

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

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“Prize Stock” and other early Oe fictions

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The strangely elegiac horror-story/parable novella “Prize Stock” (“Shiiku“, 1957) launched Ôe Kenzaburo’s career. It won the Akutagawa Prize for the young (born in 1935) writer.

I don’t quite understand why the Shikoku villagers kill their African American WWII flyer, who was the sole survivor of a plane crash nearby. They don’t want to bother to transport him? (or let the region’s townspeople take him away). It is chilling that the Japanese, not just the child recalling wartime, did not consider the black flyer human. Would they have considered an exotic white American flyer dropped from the air human?

The town during wartime lacks adult males (whereas Nip the Bud,Shootthe Kids has no adults at all) It is too small to be a bombing target and the war seems far off to the villagers, who have never seen a black person before. (The captive is only seen through the eyes of a boy, nicknamed “Frog,” who considers him “a rare and wonderful domestic animal.” He treats him as a pet, though eventually turning on him and calling him “kuronbo,” which is not quite as pejorative as the translation in two different translations of the story as “nigger.”)

(BTW, there were no African American airmen in the Pacific theater of WWII, only the European, not that that affects the tale of dehumanization of the alien in Ôe’s story… or the mistreatment of prisoners of war by Japan, which was not a signatory of the Geneva Conventions on POW treatment.  Ôe was himself born in a rural village on Shikoku in 1935 and grew up there during the war. He was an outsider with a funny accent when he went to Tokyo University.)

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“Prize Stock: is engrossing, but gives me the creeps. To a lesser extent, so does Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness. The New Age (après la lettre) Aghwee, the Sky Monster doesn’t. It has some of the urban anguish of more recent work (I’m thinking of A Quiet Life, with its more external menaces and the ubiquitous retarded child to protect, though he is older there). I find Oe a very frustrating writer, yet his work haunts me, especially Echo of Heaven).

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Oe’s first novel: Nip the Bud, Shoot the Kids

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Ôe Kenzaburo was born in 1935 in a village on the island of Shikoku and was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1994 for creating “an imagined world, where life and myth condense to form a disconcerting picture of the human predicament today.”)

I have no idea whether Ôe was familiar with William Goldings’s (1954) Lord of the Flies. The never-named youth in Oe’s first novel, Nip The Buds, Shoot The Kids (Memushiri ko-uchi, 1958) were stigmatized: fifteen reform school boys rather than “innocent” school boys. Sent to a rural location, they were forced to take on tasks that not only further stigmatized them, but which were outright dangerous, in particular, dealing with animal carcasses in an area where the plague has broken out. When the boys are abandoned to their own devices (in the rural village where they have been slave labor, locked up in a shed and fed only raw potatoes) they turn into monsters less than they die in loneliness. (The plague is probably a metaphor for the war Ôe’s elders brought on and the suffering of civilians.)

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“In the farming villages, we were like splinters stuck in skin” the narrator recalls. Before the outbreak of the plague from which the villagers fled during a night, a villager warns them: “Anyone caught stealing, starting fires, or making a row will be beaten to death by the villagers. Don’t forget that you’re vermin here. Even so, we’ll shelter and feed you. Always remember that in this village you’re only useless vermin.”

There are also Li, a Korean boy (Koreans were and are stigmatized by their former colonial masters), Nand a young girl who dies of the plague, and a deserter from the imperial army, and more peasant cruelty in this novella.

The boys have some joy in killing birds (taught by Li) and eating them. Their idyll without adult authority ends. The returned villagers fear that outsiders will learn of their negligence and alternately ply to boys with food (rice balls and soup) and threaten them into pledging silence. The unnamed narrator (a recurrent Ôe device) does not make the pledge. A villager tells him: “We squash vermin while it’s small. We’re peasants: we nip the buds early,” and at the end the narrator is chased into the forest where his brother had earlier fled. (The wispy figure of this brother is the innocence lacking in the narrator and his peers, I think.) He fears that it is a trap and that he will be slain away from the eyes of the other boys who sold out (and sold him out).

Not an upbeat tale, but I have not read any Ôe fiction that is!

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Slow and bloody movie about Tokugawa decadence: “Rônin-gai” (1990)

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The 1990 “Rônin-gai,” directed by Kuroki Kazuo (Ash-ita), reinforced my opinion that the golden age of rônin films was the 1960s, when Mifune Toshirô and Nakadai Tatsuya were in their prime, starring in unglamorizing films directed by Akira Kurosawa (Yojimbo, Sanjuro), Okamoto Kihachi (Kill!, Sword of Doom, Samurai Assassin), Shinoda Masahiro (Samurai Spy), and Kobayashi Masaki (Hara-kiri, Samurai Rebellion) set in the 19th century, in the declining days of the Tokugawa shogunate (1600-1868) after centuries of peace had rusted Japan’s hereditary warriors caste (the samurai) and its honor code (the tao of the sword).

What “Rônin-gai” added was what looks like a strand from Mizoguchi’s many movies about the hard lot of prostitutes, such as “The Life of Oharu”)… or from slasher movies. Through most of the movie the swordsmanship on display is slicing up prostitutes (“social cleansing” by a group of samurais working for the Tokugawa shogun).

The local rônin (unemployed samurai) mostly drink at a tavern/bordello along a stream, some distance from Edo (now Tokyo) in 1836. At the outset of the movie, a particularly dissolute one named Gennai (Harada Yoshio) has returned to resume a relationship with the most high-priced of the prostitutes, Oshin (Higuchi Kanaka). Another rônin, Gonbei (Ishabashi Renji), longs for her, and a third, “Bull” (Katsu Shintaro), has appointed himself bouncer and protector of the prostitutes, including Oshin. Nearby, dealing in caged birds (and smelling of guano) is another rônin, Doi. I thought the woman who lives with him and nags him must be his wife, but I guess is his sister. She and Oshin set a trap for the murderer, but did not consider that instead of one psychotic there was a whole army. (The viewer knows this early on, so mentioning it is not plot-spoiling.)

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Plot spoiler alert

“Bull” sells himself as an amusement to the shogunate samurai, but is unwilling to aid in their “social cleansing” of those he had been protecting (the prostitutes).

Eventually (as in the Kobayashi rônin movies), there is a long battle scene. Gennai is, as usual, weaving from excess drink, but is the first champion on the scene, slaughtering attackers as he staggers about. Gombei takes time to change clothes (immaculate white that is soon bloodstained) before joining the battle. Doi suits up in the armor he was considering selling and charges into the fray on horseback.

End of plot spoiler alert

A lot of blood is spilled, including sadistic murders of unarmed women. The proto-fascist samurais are the villains. Oshin is the closest thing to a hero, though the rônin eventually remember their code of honor as samurai in somewhat comical ways.

The long stretch of setting up the battle lacks the tension of “Harakiri” (and the charisma of Nakadai!). None of the characters is very likable (the women are not unlikable, but are not individuated, other than Oshin having more initiative). For a character-driven movie, more interested characters are necessary. For a plot-driven movie, more action is needed. As it is, Harada’s wild hair is often more interesting than what the characters are doing.

The cinematography of Takawai Hitoshi seems muddy to me. The music of Mastsumura Teizo (who also scored “Tomrrow” for Kuroki) annoys more than it serves the story.

It seems to me that the jidai-geki movie in Japan was in the same parlorous state as the American western by 1990 (but has been revitalized in the new millennium with the masterful “Twilight Samurai” and others.)

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Oil Hell Murder

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“Oil Hell Murder” (1992) has to be one of the least inviting of movie titles. The Japanese title of what provided to be the last movie directed by Gosha Hideo, “Onna goroshi abura no jigoku,” which means “Woman murdered at oil hell” is at least more informative, specifying the sex of the person murdered in a lot of spilled oil at an oil store in 18th-century Osaka.

The movie opens with police examining and charting the knife wounds (plus two severed fingers) on the corpse. It then shows the recent past of Kichi (Higuchi Kanako), the wife of an oil merchant who was also the daughter of one. I think she was the cousin of the spoiled young womanizer, Gohei (Tsutsumi Shin’ichi). At one point he calls her “auntie.” Whatever the exact family relationship, Kichi took care of Gohei as an infant and continues to lecture him on how he should settle down and learn the business rather than collecting the hearts of geishas. (Higuchi Kanako is six years older than Higuchi Kanako.)

Gohei is carrying on an affair with Kogiku (Fujitana Miwako), the only child of the Ogura-Ya oil magnate (on whose good will Kichi’s husband’s shop depends) Kichi is determined to end the affair for a number of reasons and chides Kogiku as well as Gohei. Both women call him a womanizer, though the movie does not show him being at all promiscuous.

First he is in love with Kogiku, defying the brutal opposition of both families. Then Kichi seduces him and he is besotted with her, demanding that she run away with him with or without her two young children. After being married to a socially good match, Kogiku is sleeping around. Kichi is less a cocktease than a heart-tease, wanting a sexual relationship with her younger relative (Yohei) but not to leave the husband who has never provided her sexual pleasure, but who has sired two children on her.

The movie is based on a kabuki melodrama (of the same name) by Chikamatsu. Goha was an action-film director, even in the bizarre campy “Death Shadows” (1989), the most recent other Goha movies that Criteiron/Hulu has imported. Gohei’s knife is frequently brandished and even more frequently shown sheated, and there are some beatings and a prolonged, slip-sliding in the oil murder, but no swordfighting. Not just in being based on a Chikamatsu kabuki play but in the artful composition of shots (the cinematographer was Ichida Isamu, who had shot earlier films, including “Tracked,” for Gosha) , the movie seems more like a Shinoda film than a Goha one. The focus on a woman’s sexual obsession could as well have been Shinoda’s or Ôshima’s. The slow pace does not differentiate the late work of any of these three new wave directors.

Either of the other two would probably have provided more female nudity than Goha did. “Oil Hell Murder” displays all of the body of Tsutsumi Shin’ichi except for what little is covered by a fundoshi (and Kogiku slices off a “strap” of it). All three leads were physically attractive (and received multiple closeups), though none of them is very sympathetic a character. In that she should be the mature one, Kichi’s seems more reprehensible to me than the other two’s, though she pays the ultimate price for her manipulations.

Reviews of the other Goha-directed movies available from Criterion/Hulu and stars (1-10scale):

Three Outlaw Samurai (1964) 8

Sword of the Beast (1965) 8

Goyokin (1969) 8.4

Hunter in the Dark (1979) 5.5

Tracked (1985) 5.4

Death Shadows (1986) 3

Oil Hell Murder (1992) 6

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

Gosha’s peculiar “Death Shadows”

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Gosha Hideo’s Jittemai (Death Shadows, 1986) is a very convoluted, garishly colored movie about gangsters working with the family of the shogun (the Hamada clan) late in the Tokugawa Shogunate and attempts to thwart the corrupt conspiracy by a policeman who licenses criminals condemned to be beheaded to kill bad guys. He severs their vocal chords, though this does not keep the main “shadow” from expounding (via voiceover) at length with a minimum of hand gestures.

Yasuke the Viper (Kawatani Takuzo) had settled down with a reformed prostitute and turned into a doting father when he is recalled to take down Denzo the Fang (Chii Takeo), a gang leader for whom he used to work. Denzo escapes the first ambush… and Yasuke is spared being killed in the second one by one of Denzo’s mistresses, Ocho (Ishihara Mariko), his estranged daughter. In that she has dedicated her life to finding and killing the father who abandoned her mother and her, this makes no sense, but many of the actions and relationships in the movie similarly defy sense.

Competing female swordsmen occur in many (mostly bad!) Hong Kongo (Shaw brothers) movies, but in no other Japanese movie I’ve seen. Ocho’s rival, Oren who had been Denzo’s main squeeze and runs an illegal tattoo parlor. Natsuki Mari, who lays Oren, has a resemblance to Faye Dunaway are her most cartoonish (Mommie Dearest?).

After Ocho has been recruited to finish the job her father started (he was killed trying to protect her and dies in her arms begging for forgiveness) her other main opponent in Genshiro. I’m not sure when (never mind why!) she falls in love with him, but she saves him and then he saves her.

There are many sword fights. Ocho generally relies more on a long multi-colored she swirls about than on her short sword. And there are also four or five dance sequences showing more ribbon swirling to a disco beat with dry ice providing fog. I’d say these are padding, except so is the injection of more and more characters as others are killed off during the nearly two hour running time.

After all the betrayals, only one character is left standing at the end, though the Shogunate dodders on with none of the conflicts becoming public.

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If it went more completely for campiness, the movie might be more entertaining (like Shinoda’s pop “Killers on Parade”), though the campiest character, the corrupt policeman Boss Hell (pictured above) is really not all that amusing. It is easy to see why Nakadai Tatsuya, who had been appearing regularly in Gosha movies (hamming it up in “Onimasa”), gave this one a pass, and I’d say so should viewers, though Criterion has seen fit to import it rather than some of the Ichikawa, Kinoshita, and Shinoda films I’d dearly love to be able to see.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

Usugesho/Tracked

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Usugesho,” the title of Gosha Hideo’s 1985 movie means cosmetics, rather than “Tracked,” its English title. Late in the slow-paced movie, there is a juxtaposition of a man and a woman applying mascara to their eyebrows. A young girl sees the male protagonist doing this and he asks her if she wants to look beautiful and applies some mascara to her eyebrows, too… while holding her throat, stimulating dread in the viewer that he will strangle her to keep her quiet about his camouflage.

I don’t see how darker eyebrows will make Sakane Tokichi (Ken Ogata, who has a prominent mole at the top of his nose) less visible, and he is being pursued (if not quite “tracked”) through the course of the movie. (Ogata had already been chases through a whole movie as the serial killer in Imamura’s “Vengeance Is Mine” (1979).)

It begins with him running from an explosion of a wooden shack in a mining camp. The viewer soon learns that he blew up his wife, young son, and two neighbors. Flashbacks provide some sympathy for murdering his harridan of a wife. I’m not sure why audiences (including me) tend to sympathize with fleeing from massive manhunts, however heinous the crime(s). The brutality of the police interrogation of the prisoner tied to a chair as he is battered around encourages some sympathy, as does the challenge (not shown) of burrowing 70 feet from his prison cell.

And, then, Sakane treats several vulnerable people well as he moves from worksite to worksite (I thought that Japan had much tighter household registration than appears in the film!). Even if his wife “deserved” to die, however, there is no way his son did—along with the “collateral damage” of two other deaths.

The detective (Asano Atsuko) on his trail does not do anything to seem more sympathetic, though his retired supervisor (Kawatani Takukô) opines that Sakane simply had the bad luck of not finding a “good woman” and may not be a vicious killer, as the detective still on the job maintains. Leaving aside his murder, Sakane seems selfish sometimes, kindly sometimes, penitent but conniving, patient but quick-tempered… and if he had a trial (rather than escaping before one), no attempt to explain himself is in the film script.

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Not surprisingly (for a Japanese movie), a woman compromises his safety. Sakane loves barmaid (/owner?) Chei (Fuju Mariko) and leaves her for her own good (and, coincidentally, making it harder to track him).

I found the pace slow, despite the jarring juxtaposition of past and present (i.e., the flashbacks) and it slows to glacial in the final quarter, as if Gosha was unwilling to let go of the character, though evidencing no interest in taking any position on whether he had been reborn or was still the killer being hunted by the law(man).

Satô Masura provided a rich soundtrack to the endeavor and Marita Fujio more than serviceable cinematography, but I found the film less compelling than earlier Gosha examinations of identity, such as “Sword of the Beast,” “Goyokin” and “Hitokori.”

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(Though I’ve never seen Gosha referred to as having been part of the Japanese New Wave, his recurrent focus on doom, erotic sadomasochism, and fragile identity fits with the works of Ôshima, Imamura, and Shinoda.)

©2016, Stephen O. Murray