Tag Archives: rural-urban

Divergent accounts of a tragedy

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“Yureru,” (2006, written and directed by Nishikawa Miwa) which has been rendered in English as “Sway” (though “swaying” or “shaking” would have been more conventional translations) has some strong resemblances to “Rashômon” (1950) in that there are four (or, arguably, five) accounts of what happened on an outing in the country (Hasumi Gorge in this case). Unlike in Rashomon, the four (or five) accounts come from only two people, the brothers. 29-year-old Takeru (Odagiru Jo [Bright Future]) the scruffy prodigal son who went off to become a fashion photographer in Tokyo, returns for the one-year anniversary memorial for his mother, disruptively late and not wearing a dark suit. The older brother who stayed home and works in the family business (a gas station) Minoru (Kagawa Teruyuki [Tokyo Sontata]), is 35.

Also working there is Cheiko (Maki Yoko) who had spurned the chance to go with Takeru when he left. It is not clear that she is even aware that Minoru is in love with her and that Takeru is not, though he swiftly beds her his first night back in town.

The three go on an outing to Hasumi Gorge, where they went multiple times as children. Minoru had a fear of heights and avoided the swinging suspension bridge. As he had when he was a child, Takeru climbs up from the bed of the swiftly moving but not deep stream, crosses it, and is taking photographs on the other side, when Cheiko follows him and Minoru follows her.

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Neither of the latter two make it across the bridge. Cheiko drowns after falling or being pushed off the bridge. How much of what happened Takeru saw is unclear. First he claims to have seen nothing. He rushed up to join Minoru, who was clutching a support on the bridge and instructed him to tell the police Cheiko fell.

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Minoru tells the investigators that (offscreen), but later confesses that he pushed her. Then in court he provides a more complicated account of trying to steady her, being rebuffed, and watching her slip off the side. There were marks on his arm consistent with her slipping from his grasp that no one comments on (there are also scars on the inside of his wrists that suggest he had tried to commit suicide at some earlier time). I also wonder why Takeru did not go to try to pull Cheiko out before she drowned (the fall did not kill her).

Takeru tells a new (not least to his uncle, Minoru’s defense attorney) story at the trial, and the movie’s ending is very ambiguous. I find not knowing what really happened in “Sway” far more frustrating than it was in “Rashômon.” Minoru is the only one living who knew what happened, but it is impossible to tell which version he presents is accurate, or to sort out his guilt feelings. One thing that is certain and that he says is that she would not be dead if he had not followed her onto the bridge that he had avoided his whole life until then.

It is far easier to sympathize with the shy and dutiful Minoru than with his arrogant and totally undutiful younger brother, though the one who did not deserve what happened is Cheiko (who might have been planning to go with Takeru this time).

The movie won best movie and best sound from the Mainichi Film Concours, best screenplay (Nishikawa) and best supporting actor (Kagawa) from the Kinema Jump Awards.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

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Long and unsatisfying search for a traveling salesman who disappeared

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Three of the documentaries Imamura Shôhei made during his 1968-79 hiatus from making feature films were about WWII-era Japanese soldiers who stayed on a quarter of a century or more in Southeast Asia. They had been deployed there, but did not repatriate with the rest of the defeated Japanese army. Two of Imamura’s later movies were about relocated murderers—one on the run (Vengeance Is Mine), the other after serving a prison term (The Eel).

A year before the spectacular implosion of Imamura’s career with the 1968 “Profound Desire of the Gods,” he made the very lengthy (130-minute) “Ningen jôhatsu” (literally, “A Man Evaporates”; the English-language title “A Man Vanishes” is pretty close; the French one, “L’evaporation de l’homme,” was exact).

Imamura and his film crew (most notably actor Tsuyuguchi as the lead questioner) join Hayakawa Yoshie, the thick-eyebrowed fiancée of the plastics salesman, Oshima Tadshi, who disappeared in April 1965 They talk to his employer, a bank employee, other residents of the company barracks, bartenders, a taxi driver, a brother who lent him 100, 000 yen, a former lover whom he may have impregnated (she denies it) and may have been “the love of his life”, et al. They clarify the date he vanished, but neither his motivations nor his current location. The documentary about their investigation lasts about an hour, and in my opinion the movie should have, too.

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With more than an hour yet to go, the film shifts into a confrontation between Yoshie and her older sister, Sayo. Yoshie first theorizes that Oshima was shocked to discover that the sister of his fiancée was a “fallen woman,” the mistress kept by a married man. Later Yoshie accuses Sayo of having had an affair with Oshima, and a spirit medium (consulted several times by the vanished man’s mother) claims Sayo poisoned Oshima after he rejected her.

There are lengthy conversations in which Sayo rejects the accusations that she had any relationship of any sort with Oshima, and the supposed documentary increasingly turns into staged melodrama. I had lost patience before the very prolonged final scene of a verbal confrontation in the street (which followed a second ending point).

“A Man Vanishes” is much more cinematic than the post-“Desire” documentaries that had extended visually static scenes. The dialogue is not just out of synch with the speakers we see. It is between those speakers, but often seems to be from other recorded conversations altogether (that is, the length of utterances does not correspond with the duration of the particular person’s lip movements).

Truth is elusive, uh-huh. Didn’t we learn this from the far more engaging Kurosawa “Rashômon” decades earlier? (or the contemporaneous “Blow-Up”). And stuff in supposed “documentaries” (preceding “reality” tv shows) is often staged. Didn’t we learn this about “Nanook of the North” even earlier? And Yoshie getting the attention of a film-crew stimulates her to persist in trying to find what happened to her fiancé. Even she seems to lose interest in his disappearance as she pursues grievances against her sister.

Given the strictness of household registries in Japan, I’m surprised that 91,000 Japanese could have disappeared in 1965, but perhaps this “fact” is also Imamura fiction? The movie does nothing to illuminate how it is possible.

Icarus’ DVD release includes three more discs with five later Imamura documentaries (I discuss the three about Japanese soldiers who did not return to the homeland after WWII here) that observe more, manipulate less, and seem to have forgotten the lesson about the untrustworthiness of filmed documentaries made in “A Man Vanishes.”

©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

Kobayashi’s 1956 “Izumi” (Spring/Fountainhead)

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For me, the most interesting part of Kobayashi’s 1956 “Izumi” (a title that means “a spring” or “a fountain” but that has been rendered in English as “The Fountainhead”, a title already used by Ayn Rand for her 1943 novel and the 1949 movie adaptation of it, starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal) is the rural-urban clash.

The beginning and end of the movie are set in the countryside, where a Tokyo development company owns a reservoir that has cut off the water used to irrigate rice paddies and supply it to getaway second homes of affluent city-dwellers. The outraged farmers regularly sabotage the water pipes (probably using the resulting runoff, though this is not shown).

A botanist and his research assistant (Sada Keiji) are visiting the largest mansion, owned by a nobleman (an earl before such titles were abolished by the US occupation). The aristocrat (Saburi Shin) is estranged from his wife (whom we will later learn had a child fathered by someone else) and is flirting with flirting with his secretary, who is more attracted to the graduate student. Based on the flora, the latter thinks there is probably a water source, an underground spring, that could supply the water the farmers need.

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A ruder real estate magnate, who will more or less inherit the secretary Arima Ineko) and is much more blunt about wanting her to be his mistress, is unwilling to explore the alternative water source unless the deluxe development properties should need more water than the reservoir can supply them.

The young botanist takes a position at a provincial museum in part to get away from the older woman he loves and also a younger one who wants to marry him, though he has never even spoken to her and has refused an intermediary’s attempt to introduce them. By the time the botanist decides he is interested in the young woman who had stalked him for more than two years, she has gotten over her infatuation and its back into the emotional maelstrom with the older woman, back in a confrontation in the countryside. This love triangle, complicated by the rich men for whom the secretary successively works make for a boring soap opera that takes up too much of the 122 minutes of the movie. There’s a plethora of “God’s eye” shots down at the characters.

To the surprise of I would guess no movie-viewer, the botanist was right about the potential water source, though the exploration by dynamite provides more tensions, centering on two young rural men who, like Kobayashi, were held prisoners by the Soviets after the war and loathe each other. The one who was malnourished and now works for the company catches the interest of the secretary. The other one is the most intransigent of the local opposition to the development (beyond contention for water).

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G2016, Stephen O. Murray

Kinoshita’s girl with a shotgun movie: “Legend of a Duel to the Death” (1963)

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Kinoshita’s “Shitô no densetsu,” known in the US as and in the rest of the English-speaking world as “Legend of a Duel to the Death,” is as grim as his other 1963 movie, “Sing, Young People!” is frivolous. (He wrote the scripts for most of his films, but not the one for “Sing.”) “Legend” overlaps with Kinoshita’s 1951 “Boyhood” (Shônenki) in focusing on a family evacuated to the countryside from. The family of a liberal intellectual in “Boyhood” (1951) had some difficulty subsisting. The boy, Ichirô (Ishihama Akira, whom Kinoshita would cast again in “The Tattered Wings” in 1955 and in “Farewell to Spring” in 1959, but mostly passed on to his protégé Kobayashi Masaki) was younger and a fervent patriot to young to sign up for military service. There are two Sonobe sons, two daughers, a mother, and a grandmother evacuated with their family from Tokyo to rural Hokkaido in “Legend” (two more sons are in the military). Hideuki (Katô Gô) had been in the occupying/marauding army in China. (I’m not sure about his younger brother, Norio; two more are still overseas fighting.)

The locals distrust and resent the urban refugees trying to eke out a living from marginal land part way up the mountains. The Sonobes hav been and continue to be aided by their immediate neighbors, the Shimizus, father Shintarô (Katô Yoshi) and fairly tomboyish daughter Yuri (Kaga Mariko, on the verge of the thrill-seeking gambler in Shinoda’s breakthrough“Pale Flower”), who is nineteen or twenty years old. Yuri is in love with the just returned Sonobe Hideyuki, who does not notice until it is too late.

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Hideyuki is appalled to learn that his elder sister, Kieko (Iwashita Shima, who had just starred in Kobayashi’s “Harakiri”) is on the verge of being married off to the only son of the local (very fascist) mayor. Kieko is willing to marry Takamori Gôichi (Sugawara Bunta), whose right had has been crippled in the war for the good of the family. Hideyuki saw his commander, Takamori, commit atrocities in China (the flashback is of slaying civilians, but it is clear that Hideyuki also told Kieko about rapes). The Takamoris (petulant and arrogant son and father) are insulted by the refusal from their social inferiors of the socially and economically advantageous match, and the rejected suitor(‘s horse) tramples their garden… and, then, others’ while planting rumors that the Sonobes are destroying their neighbors’ crops out of revenge.

As local animosity mounts, Hideyuki decides the family must move again. Yuri accompanies him part of the way, getting local gossips’ tongues wagging. It is the driver of the horsecart who tells Hideyuki that Yuri is in love with him. Meanwhile, Kieko has accompanied her brother Norio on a foraging expedition. He sees storm clouds ahead and sends her home.

On the way home, she encounters Takamori Gôichi, as usual, on his horse. She spurns his offer of a ride. He rides on, then returns and harasses her down the road and then off the road. Yuri sees the beginning of a rape and smashes a rock on the rapist’s head.

This leads the villagers, whipped up by their mayor, to form a vigilante posse rather than wait, as the policeman who had earlier refused to interrogate Takamori Gôichi about the trampling of the Sonobe garden, unsuccessfully implores the angry crowd to wait for police reinforcements to arrive.

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The rampage that occurred, literally in the very last days of the war, is not spoken of in contemporary (1963) rural Hokkaido. (How then can it be a legend?) The 1945 parts of the film were shot in black-and-white, the opening and closing shots of the natural beauty of Hokkaido were shot in color, with a rather portentous narration voiced-over by Takizawa Osamu (Yasuda in “Fire on the Plains”). As usual in Kinoshita films, the excellent cinematography was the responsibility of his brother-in-law, Kusuda Hiroshi, and the music, as usual sometimes dubious, sometimes effective, was the responsibility of Kinoshita’s brother Chujî.

Kinoshita Keisuke has been faulted for sentimentality, not without reason. I guess that the valor of the Shimizus in “Legend” might be labeled “sentimental,” but the movie is a very strong critique of Japanese credulity, authoritarianism, and xenophobia and provided a rare acknowledgment of crimes by Japanese soldiers against civilians on the Asian mainland (and on islands south of the Japanese archipelago). For all the scenic beauty on display, “Legend” is a grim and uncompromising film. The Hollywood ones it most reminded me of were Fritz Lang’s first American one, “Fury,” (1936) and William Wellman’s “The Ox-Bow Incident” (1943), both dramas about lynching’s (without shotgun-bearing women; Kinoshita usually showed female heroism without firearms!).

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

The first Japanese color movie: “Carmen Comes Home” (1951)

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I didn’t know that Takamine Hideko (whom I consider the Japanese Olivia de Haviland)  could do more than suffer delicately, but she was quite entertaining as a pure-hearted Tokyo stripper returned home to her native village in the first Japanese movie shot in color, Kinoshita’s 1951 “Carmen Comes Home” (Karumen kokyo ni kaeru). I wouldn’t call it “sentimental,” but it is life-affirming and her censorious father (Sakamoto Takeshi) and the school principal (Ryû Chishû) eventually take “wild naked dancing” in stride and fine good use for the money Carmen left for her father.

And Maruju, “the transportation magnate,” makes enough money from the performance by the visiting pair of stripper’s (Kin/“Carmen” and her friend Akemi, played by Kobayashi Toshiko) that he feels benevolent and ends an injustice he had committed. With a recurring hymn to Mount Asama (in Shinshu) and shots of it, the scandalous homecoming movie drags at times, especially when Ryû sings, and the roles are types are not developed characters. The rationalizations of showing naked flesh as “art” are gently pilloried. What seems most funny to me is that Lily Carmen believes she is an “artist” and her stripping “art; moreover even the most skeptical of the villagers (her father and the gradeschool principal) don’t entirely reject the conception.

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I’m not sure whether Kinoshita thought the big-city strippers innocent, though the warm farewells of the locals as their train takes them back suggests acceptance of them, which, after all their gnashing of teeth, the principal and Kin’s father also do. The latter was ashamed, but no one shows/feels guilt about naked displays (or anything else).

Though first shooting two other films, Kinoshita filmed a sequel set in Tokyo the next year (1952).

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Kinoshita’s “Port of Flowers” (1943!)

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The first film directed by Kinoshita Keisuke, the 1943 “Port of Flowers” (Hana saku minato, also called “Blossoming Port”) already began to assemble his repertory company with prominent roles as village elders played by Higashiyama Cheiko and Ryû Chishû, Kinoshita’s brother-in-law, Kusuda Hiroshi providing unobtrusive but very good cinematography, and a story (this one not written by Kinoshita, as most of his later films were) vulnerable to charges of sentimentality.

It begins with the headman of an island seemingly south of Kyushû (the Ryukus, though it was filmed at the southern Kyushû small port of Amakusa) receiving two identical telegrams announcing the arrival of a son of a man who earlier attempted to build ships there. He summons the most prominent local citizens (it doesn’t seem a formal council), which introduces the viewer to them, The way the first to arrive (Ozawa Eitaro, who would appear in many more Kinoshita-directed films) elicited information to confirm about the relationship of various prominent villagers and his father made me suspect he was an imposter. When a second one (Uehara Ken, who would also appear in the next three Kinoshita films) shows up, the first manages to sell the claim that they are brothers, though they don’t look related or sound the same (different accents) and both signed their telegrams with the same name (Kenji).

The two small-time con-men are astounded at how much money they reap from the villagers who venerate their father they claim. The second, seemingly younger one (in fact both actors were born in 1909) has qualms about ripping off such nice and hospitable people (Kinoshita does not portray them as grasping or greedy) from the start and quickly becomes attached to a local beauty.

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Though Japan has been at war in China for some time, announcement of the successful attack on Pearl Harbor (8 December 1941 Japan time, on the other side of the international dateline from Hawai’i) stirs the populace to shouts of “Banzai!” and to increased fervor in building the first ship. It is made of wood and I can’t see it as having any military use, but the locals consider building it part of the war effort.

One of them, Hayashida (Tonô Eijirô,who would appear in three more Kinoshita films and then in a number of Kobayashi ones, plus ones directed by Ozu and Kurosawa), worries that their — though he is primarily concerned with his own — investment is at risk, since their ship might be sunk by American submarines. Nobadama (Ryû) is outraged at Hayashida’s lack of patriotism. Even the con men are stirred to deliver on their phony project (an instance of becoming what they at first pretend to be—ship-builders in this case).

Though the Americans are referred to once (after they sink a local fishing boat) as “devils,” the movie is not at all jingoistic. Everyone in it is a little absurd, especially in their conceptions of contributing to the war effort. All are patriotic, however, and even Hayashida eventually decides that money isn’t everything. Though there is nothing (at least in the finished film; some cuts were almost certainly made so that the end seems abrupt) to alarm censors (in contrast to the questioning of sacrificing the lives of young men in the next year’s “Army”), to me it seems almost subversive for such a comedy to have been made in Japan in 1943. The con men dissuaded from their con are somewhat predictable, but believably swayed from their plans by the villagers’ trust and welcome and by the escalation of the war in December of 1941.

“Port of Flowers” was an auspicious debut of Kinoshita, who already resembled a Japanese Frank Capra with gentle, upbeat comedy. A fairly good print of the movie is available in the Criterion Eclipse (#41) box set of Kinoshita’s first five movies, “Kinoshita and World War II.”

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray