Jottings about three Murakami Haruki stories published in The New Yorker

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Murakami Haruki (1949-) has often before frustrated me. Despite my suspicions, I was drawn into his story in the 10/14/2014 New Yorker, “Scheherazade,” though its title did not reassure me. I was not surprised at the lack of a real ending—it is a New Yorker story, it is Murakami. Why the narrator is seemingly imprisoned in a house (supplied with food, books, DVDs, CDs) remains a mystery and after a petering-out ending, there is a teaser that there is more to the story. Perhaps, some day Murakami will continue the story of Scheherazade and the boy with whom she was obsessed when she was 17, breaking into (well using a not very hidden key to get into) his bedroom and “trading” objects, before stealing a sweat-drenched t-shirt from the dirty clothes hamper downstairs. She also recalls an earlier life as a lamprey eel, and provides Habara, the narrator, with regular sex, though it is only impassioned after she tells him about the once-fetishized t-shirt.

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I’m starting to think of story endings as like dismounts in gymnastics, that is, as difficult as the routine and often muffed. I wouldn’t say that Haruki Murakami muffs the ending or stumbles at the inconclusive finish of his story in the current 6/9/2014) New Yorker, “Yesterday,” but, like so many New Yorker stories as to be a hallmark of a “New Yorker story,” there is not a solid ending Murakami provides some entertainment along the way with quirky characters and odd situations. I was particularly amused by the narrator’s response to his friend’s speculations about desires (the friend’s): “Other people’s masturbation habits were beyond me. There were things about my own that I couldn’t fathom.” (The statement amuses  me: though I may not fathom why others desire what they do, I am fascinated by trying to understand how the desires of others go. I am more frustrated at not being able to explain and generalize.)

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Murakami’s “A Shingawa Monkey”(in 3/19/2007 New Yorker) has an epiphany (after a surprise to the problem of Mizuki Ando’s disconcertingly difficulty remembering her name.

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I have read a couple of Harukami novels, but not written about them.

I am holding off beginning a trek through the often frustrating movies made by Ôshima Nagasi for a week during which I’ll be traveling.

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Slight and flat metafiction from Banana Yoshimoto: N.P.

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With its focus on forbidden (in this case incestuous) love, love suicide, evanecence, and the high valuation of literature, Banana Yoshimoto’s N.P. is recognizably Japanese. Perhaps in the flatness of dialog and the lack of character development, too? N.P., the collection of stories written in English by Sarao Takase, the dead-by-his-own-hand Japanese (fictional) author, is in no sense recovered by those preoccupied with them, including his daughter, Saki, his son (Otohiko, an especially wispy figure in the novel who lives with his sister), his son’s companion (Sui, a half-sister who was in a sexual relationship with their father), and the narrator who, as a high-school girl was in a sexual relationship with a man who was translating the book, and has the story not included in the English publication (i.e., #98)… The reader learns nothing of the first 97 stories either.

There are some vivid turns of phrase, particularly about loving summertime (does this constitute variance from venerating spring?). The dangerous woman leaves, and at the end the son seems to be falling in love with the only living character to whom he is not related by blood (pretty conventional, no?). What’s the fuss about? Something lost in translation seems unlikely.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

Edogawa Rampo’s Tales of Mystery & Imagination

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In a recent New York Times interview, Annie Proulx mentioned enjoying the work of Edogawa Rampo (a pen name indexing Edgar Alan Poe adopted by prolific writer Taro Hira, 1894-1965, whose novel Black Lizard was adapted to the stage by Mishima Yukio, then twice to the screen with Mishima posing in one version.).

I tracked down a Tuttle anthology titled Japanese Tales of Mystery & Imagination, first published in 1956. Most are not detective stories. “The Caterpillar” horrified me. It has a very maimed veteran, like the one in the last part of Johnny Got His Gun (unmentioned in the biopic “Trumbo”). “The Twins” and “The Psychological Test” (free association) are first-person narrations of the tripping up of men who thought they had committed the perfect crime. “The Cliff” is the most Hitchcockian, “The Hell of Mirrors” the most dependent on “special effects” (elaborate machinery rather than narrative, though I’d say it has characterization). I thought “Two Crippled Men” psychologically astute (though a bit dragged-on). I thought that the lead-off, seemingly most popular story “The Human Chair” was too cutesy. Oddly, I swallowed the probably no more plausible protagonist if “The Red Chamber.” I saw the explanation/denouement”The Traveler with the Pasted Rag Picture” very predictable, very “Twilight Zone.”

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©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Branded to Kill

Cinema noir is widely admired for visual stylization that was at least in part a response to low budgets. One of the last true noirs was the 1967 black-and-white “Branded to Kill” (Koroshi no rakuin), directed by Suzuki Seijun and starring the chipmunk-cheeked Joe Shishido as the third-best hitman in Japan. Over the course of the very disjointed movie, the ones rated second and fourth are killed, and Goro (Shishido) has a lengthy duel (I hesitate to say of wits, but mostly not of bullets) with Number One.

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Goro misses a sniper shot, because, he says a butterfly landed on his rifle. Having shot up a drainpipe (a scene borrowed by Jim Jarmusch in “Ghost Dog”), I find this a peculiar excuse and don’t claim to understand why the failure is a capital offense. Goro loses his rating and is the target of several waves of assassins (in a pretty amazing action sequence on a long pier) before Hitman Number One (Nanbara Kôji) starts toying with him.

Why the cold-blooded killer falls in love with the femme fatale, Misako (Mari Annu), who disclaims any interest in or feelings for men is also mystifying. The challenge? A death wish? Well, she is not as childish as Goro’s wife is, and, it turns, less dangerous to Goro than his greedy, kinky wife (Ogaw Mariko a) whom he calls “Mami.” And, arguably, Misako has more of a death wish than Goro does. (I did not see any indication that Misako she has feelings for women, either. Or children; I took her for a zombie. When first seen, picking up Goro after his car has broken down, she is driving a convertible with the tope down through pouring rain and is totally drenched.)

Misako has a butterfly fetish, Goro something close to a fetish for the smell of rice cooking. She eventually tells him that his recent hits are all tied into the diversion of smuggle diamonds, which matters not one bit to him or to the unfolding of surrealistic elements.

There are a few extended shots, but the number of (jump) cuts must rival the number in Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” (from the next year). Those in “Branded” are more dizzying, because they are often between shots from odd angles or heights. (Shots from high or low and oblique ones are all hallmarks of the international noir look.)

 

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Though there are no scifi futuristic elements in “Branded to Kill”, Joe Suicide’s Gore with his roughness and odd romanticism reminded me of Eddie Constantine’s Lemmy Caution in Godard’s 1965 “Alphaville” (a film I especially love). The odd humor and elaborate action set pieces foreshadow Johnnie To more than Jim Jarmusch (except for “Ghost Dog”). Other fulsome admirers include Quentin Tarrantino (unsurprisingly) and Wong Kar-Wai (more surprisingly, though I can see Shishido as a forerunner of Tony Leung characters in Wong movies).

The head of the Nikkatsu Studio, Kyûsaku Hori, was outraged by the extremely odd movie that Suzuki delivered (Suzuki’s 42nd for the studio, all low-budget assignments, in this case replacing another director at the start of shooting), snarled that Suzuki’s movie “neither make sense nor make money.” Like the firing of Henri Langlois from the Cinematheque in Paris, Suzuki’s firing became a cause célèbre for student rebels as well as for Japanese film-makers (not employed at Nikkatsu) and film-lovers. Suzuki sued for breach of contract and accepted a settlement before the studio turned from gangster movies to porn.

Suzuki relates his firing in a 1997 interview that is included on the Criterion DVD and that the studio foisted star and script on him. Suzuki made something out of nothing, though a something that doesn’t make much sense. (Hori was half right; it eventually made money when he was forced to allow is to be screened.) Suzuki also reports that the editing was done in a day. This may account for some of the arbitrariness, though just splicing together so many pieces of film seems like quite a day’s work to me. Continuity was of no concern either in the filming or in the editing.

The Criterion image is probably as good as what was shown in 1967. I’m pretty sure the graininess was in the original.

I wish that there was a commentary from Tony Rayns (if not feature-length, at least one for some key scenes, as in the Criterion early Imamura movies, Pigs, Pimps, and Prostitutes). In addition to the 1997 Suzuki interview, all there is is an amusing gallery of poster art of Joe Shishido movies.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

Fighting Elegy

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Fighting Elegy” is a title somewhere between obscure and misleading. “Elegy to Violence” and “Natural-Born Fighter” are other titles under which Suzuki Seijun’s 1966 “Kenka erejii” has played in the English-speaking world. “Natural-Born Fighter” is totally inapt, since Kiroku (Takahashi Hideki) is not at all a natural, but has to be toughened and trained, and still has a sensitive side and is in love with Michiko (Asano Junko), a pianist of his own age who lives across the way from him.

The neo-fascist youth gangs eschew entanglements with women, and Kiroku gets in trouble with his gang-leader “Turtle” (Kawazu Yusuke) for pretending the she was his sister.

The gang demands systematic breaking of the rules of the school, including even the part that is training for the Imperial Army. Kiroku’s inspection with a phoenix and his name embroidered on the back of his tunic, barefoot, with trousers only reaching mid-calf is the most hilarious part of the movie.

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The movie is supposed to be a satire about Japanese machismo and neo-fascism. I doubt that I would have figured that out on my own, because many Japanese movies involve degrees of obedience and madness that strike me (and, I daresay, other western viewers) as excessive. Plus the sappy romance seems to me more a sappy romance than a satire or parody signaling its comic intent.

One major battle between rival gangs is obviously an homage to “Yojimbo,” with Kiroku up above, watching what he instigated. (That battle has a sardonic ending.)

Suzuki’s yakuza (gangster) movies are ultraviolent and make little narrative sense (clearly one of the many Asian/Pacific influences on Tarrantino, who is something of a magpie of Asian/Pacific action movies). The violence in Kenka erejii” is supposed to be comic in part because deadly serious schoolboys who engage in it. The problem with this is one that afflicts many movies (eastern and western) that are supposed to be about students is that the actors are considerably older. This is particularly an obstacle here, because the boys are supposed to be middle school students. Takahashi could look shy and ardent, but was 20 (and the time frame of the movie runs from 1932 to 1936, at which point he is still in school).

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The strange goings-on (resisting discipline to become part of a disciplined reactionary army overthrowing the government in 1936) are filmed from some very arty unusual angles. The weather changes frequently. Some of the scenes changes are also very abrupt. Some of the visual compositions are gorgeous. There is some brutal fighting carefully choreographed and shot.

Knowing that the movie was intended as a satire on the growing militarism of the 1930s, much of it seems a satire of the ethic of Mishima Yukio, who celebrated the misogynist fascist bonding of that era (his own youth) and attempted to revive it before his showy public suicide. This, however, may because I am more familiar with Mishima’s writings than with other works from or about the era.

Definitely, Bernardo Bertolucci’s movie of Alberto Moravia’s novel The Conformist makes a lot more sense to me as the portrait of a young man acquiescing to incipient fascism than “Kenka erejii.” I find particularly puzzling what befalls Michiko.

Oh yes, although there is no nudity, I don’t recall a movie in which the protagonist has so much difficulty hiding unwelcome erections. He also tells his diaries about struggling against masturbation. I have no idea if this is supposed to be taken as comic or sympathetic. Probably the latter, insofar as Kiroku is the young Suzuki (who was born in 1923).

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In sum, though there are some impressive compositions and fights (the fights often having peculiar sound effects), I really don’t know what to make of the movie or how to rate it.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Tattooed Life

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There are some pistols in Suzuki Seijun’s “Tattooed Life” 1965), which is set in 1926, but the main fight scene involves swords and a spearman. I think the Japanese title of the historical yakuza movie ” Irezumi Ichidai,” means ‘white fox tattoo, an elaborate tattoo that would instantly signal that Tetsu (Takahashi Hideki [who also starred in Suzuki’s 1966 “Fighting Elegy”]) was a yakuza.

At the start of the movie he kills a gang-leader and is set up by his own boss to be killed. His brother, art student Kenji (Hananomoto Kotobuki), followed the two rickshaws into the countryside and kills the yakuza who was supposed to kill Tetsu.

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The brothers (Tetsu has raised Kenji and provided for a different life than his own) are cheated out of passage to Manchuria and go off and find work in constructing a tunnel. Kenji is smitten by the boss’s wife (Itô Hiroko) whom he thinks resembles the mother he doesn’t remember, while her younger sister Midori (Izumi Masako) is smitten by Tetsu… and the past (the gang seeking revenge) cannot be escaped.

As in many Japanese movies, the beauties of nature alternate with overwrought emotions. (But in contrast to the long takes of coiled players, Suzuki used jump cuts.) The whole movie exists for the bravura fight that Suzuki show from above and below. And there is a rainstorm of Kurosawa proportions raging outside. Though visually flamboyant in comparison to most movies, Suzuki would go much further with “Tokyo Drifter” and “Branded to Kill,” while neglecting to have the action make sense, that is provide a plot that viewers could follow. Other than the shots of the open sea, it seems like a western with frontier corruption and violence, saloon fights, drifters, and loyalties to a boss who gives the drifters a break (or four or five). There’s even a “wanted” poster (with a sketch of Tetsu).

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The only bonus feature is a four-screen Suzuki filmography. What matters most is the visuals, and the transfer has the eye-popping colors as clear as they could ever have been. One might go on about the breakdown of the samurai code of honor and corrupt contracting even in the first year of the Showa era, but the movie was made to be looked at, and to provide occasion for action, not as an analysis of Japanese society ca. 1926 or 1965.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Suzuki’s “Gate of Flesh”

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After seeing “Koroshi no rakuin” (Branded to Kill, 1967), Hori Kyusaku, the head of the Nikkatsu studio, fired long-time (and contracted) Nikkatsu director Suzuki Seijun, saying that his movies did not make sense and did not make money. One that had make money in Japan (I’d guess because of its sadomasochism and partial nudity) though not making a lot of sense, a few years earlier, was “Nikutai no mon” (Gate of Flesh, 1964).

In bombed-out, burned-out, US-occupied Tokyo just after the defeat in the Second World War, five prostitutes live in a cavernous studio space. The prime house rule is: “Never give it away,” that is, never have sex without payment. A violator of the rule is stripped, hung up like slaughterhouse meat, and caned early in the movie. She is replaced by a good girl, Maya (Nogawa Yumika in her screen debut; she would also play the lead in Suzuki’s “Story of a Prostitite” the next year). Maya is seemingly a virgin, devastated by the loss of her brother in Borneo) who is clad in green (the others wear red, yellow, and magenta with one in a black kimono; some have tried to read meaning into the colors, but in the DVD bonus interview, Suzuki and his designer/art director Kimura Takeo independently say that they were just seeking to make the different characters look different).

Along with the tough and tender prostitutes, there is a criminal tough guy. Nikkatsu often assigned the chipmunk-cheeked* Joe Shishido to Suzuki. Shishido plays Ibuki Shintaro (“Shin” for short), who was a corporal in the army and now is a thief. The rest of his gang is killed in robbing penicillin from the invaders. I white-suited, black-shirted yakuza (gangster) who works closely with the Americans seeks to buy the stuff. Shintaro seems more a lone wolf than a cog in the organized crime wheel.

The Americans want Shin for fatally stabbing a GI. The prostitute in red, Sen (Kasai Satoko) brings him “home” with her to recuperate. All the “girls” buy canned pineapple for him and he plays the part of a rooster in a henhouse (or a fox…). He also brings home the bacon, well a whole cow rather than a pig, leads it down the open stairs and slaughters it in a considerable pool of blood.

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As surrealistic as the goings on are in Suzuki/Kimura movies, most veteran filmgoers can predict how things will end for the characters from the setup I’ve described. Not that the continuity one expects from most movies is provided along the way. The stories Suzuki was given to tell are not very interesting and/or he had little interest in telling stories except as a pretext for juxtaposing oddly framed images. Suzuki says that the studio just wanted a film with half-naked girls getting tied up and beaten. I doubt they were disappointed, especially since the movie made money.

One surprise is that after merciless canings or whippings, the “girls” recuperate amazingly rapidly and have no scars. Shin’s rehabilitation is slower… Another is that this gang of prostitutes will not take on American customers, though we see that there are crowds of others seeking them out.

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The movie is luridly shot, not just in the strong colors that the prostitutes wear. (Take the Christian church in the background of one sex scene for another example.) There are jarring jump cuts seemingly for the sake of jarring, including some cuts to a US flag. (At the time when leasing military bases to the US was a very controversial subject in Japan, Suzuki was avowedly anti-American; paradoxically, he spoke enough English then to direct American actors in the movie; now that his anti-Americanism has faded, his English has fallen away.) But like Imamura’s films about prostitutes and American occupation of Japan, Suzuki was very critical of Japanese conduct. The girls blame the men (Shin being the one in residence) for having lost the war.

In the bonus material interview, Suzuki does not say he was trying to remind Japanese of their abasement in the years just after the war. He also disclaims aesthetic intent, contending he was just trying to make an effective movie out of the screenplay he was ordered to make with Shishido.

A theatrical trailer is also included.

 

* Joe Shishido had plastic surgery to increase his pronouncedly swollen cheeks, so I am not making rude fun of someone’s natural defects.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray