Tag Archives: Ryûhei Matsuda

Ozu’s Last Film

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Sanma no Aji” (An Autumn Afternoon, 1962), what turned out to be the last movie made by Ozu Yasujiro (1903-63), mostly takes place in evenings, and there is no shot of leaves to indicate that it is autumn, and none of the characters wear (or take off) overcoats.

The movie was shot in vibrant color (the reds particularly pulsate, but there are yellow seats, yellow and blue ceramics that also seem drawn from the Douglas Sirk palette, prefiguring the saturated colors in Wong Kar-Wai’s “In the Mood for Love,” which was set only a year later than “An Autumn Afternoon”).

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Part of the movie (a drunkard who was once a middle school teacher of a group of alumni who still see each other regularly) prefigures Kurosawa’s last film, “Madadayo.” Now running a noodle stand, the teacher who had been nicknamed “the Gourd” (Eijiro Tono) bows lower to his former students than they do to him, though they still use respectful forms of address to him. And, having kept his daughter to run household, “the Gourd” is held up as an example for the widower Hirayama (Ozu regular Ryû Chisû) to avoid.

Ryu’s kindly business executive (Hirayama) puts back a lot of alcohol (beer, sake, Johnnie Walker black-label) during the movie, but always keeps his dignity. Once he realizes that his daughter is sacrificing her own life to take care of him and his younger son, he presses Michioko (Shima Iwashita) to marry (which involves go-betweens arranging a union). The movie ends on the father’s first night without the daughter who has been taking care of her since the death of his wife (that is, Michioko’s wedding night, but the wedding is not shown, nor is the groom, and the focus remains on the now womanless household of her father).

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As usual in Ozu sound movies, there was no camera movement, and no high angle shots. The cameras were usually stationed at 3.5 feet above the floor, with actors moving through the frame, but cuts were frequent enough to avoid the staticness of the movies of Ozu’s Taiwanese admirers (Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Tsai Ming-Liang). The musical score by Saitô Kojun worked very well without calling attention to itself.

It’s difficult to tell if Michioko was ambivalent about marriage or concealing her wishes to run the household of her deadbeat brother and mostly absent father. The focus is primarily on the aging father (the never-married Ozu’s alter ego) and the relationship seems more one of filial piety (and paternal responsibility) than the kind of close emotional father-daughter bond in “Late Spring” (1949).

An older son, Koichi (Kinoshita-regular turned Ozu-regular Sada Keiji), who lives elsewhere but needs money from the old man, comes across as a spendthrift, though he believes he is unjustly nagged by his frustrated wife, Akiko (Okada Mariko), whose impatience seems fully justified to me. (I’m not entirely sure whether Akiko and Michioko have jobs: I think both do.)

There is baseball on tv distracting one of the old schoolmates from conviviality, there are power-lines in abundance, along with red-and-white smokestacks, name-brand golf clubs, imported whiskey and cigarettes—all signs of the crumbling of the old order. The film ends in a long shot down a hall of a saddened Hirayama sitting in a semi-stupor (though it is possible to infer that he has found a possible second wife who reminds him of his first one, so that his future may not be as bleak as this final shot of Ozu’s career…)

Although the male characters are by no means lacking in selfishness, and the women show some irritation at their helplessness, drunkenness, and profligacy, the characters accept without question traditional roles, even as there are many signs of rapid social change, including social atomization and the obsolescence of traditional responsibilities.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

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Oshima’s last film, “Gohatto”/”Taboo”

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I found what turned out to be the last film directed (form a wheelchair, following his first stroke) by Ôshima Nagasi,Gohatto””Taboo” (1999) too long (100 minutes) and/or too slow. Particularly annoying are the inter-titles, which mostly state the obvious, though some signal how much time passes before the next scene. I guess the most defensible of the inter-titles is the series that lays out the samurai code. The samurai code did not prohibit passionate same-sex love. Only someone unable to read the inter-titles (in Japanese or in English) and completely unfamiliar with the history of wakashû-dô—the Tao of loving boys, could think that “homosexuality” was tabooed….

“Gohatto” begins very near the end of the Tokugawa era, in 1865. In the ancient Nishi-Honganji temple, those seeking admission to the Shinsengumi militia are being screened. Only two are accepted: a swaggering hirsute Tashiro Hyozo (Asano Yadanobu) and Kano Sozanburo (Ryûhei Matsuda), a tall, smooth-skinned beauty from a rich family. Given the looseness of the costumes and probably too much background of gender-bending Japanese and Chinese films (Twilight, The East Is Red, etc.), I wondered if the beautiful youth was being played by a female (an exceptionally tall one!). He was not.

Kano’s face may look effeminate, but he is an expert swordsman and more than ready to kill. He gets his first chance immediately, being ordered to behead a samurai who has broken the code. The captains of the militia want to test him, and he passes the test impassively. Indeed, everything he and every other samurai does in the film, they do impassively. There are passionate words, but rarely even a flicker of facial indication of feeling. Except for Mifune Toshiro occasionally looking sardonic, this impassivity in killing, in being killed, in bowing, and in being bowed to is true of the whole library of samurai films.

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The beautiful young (bishonen) samurai desired by many, even those not heretofore drawn to that way (tao), mostly dodges the lusts he inspires, In the one sex scene is impassive as a not-at-all-attractive samurai takes him from behind. As in erotic Japanese woodblocks neither is naked. Especially for Oshima, there is very little sex. Blood splatters, so the movie might have some attraction for an American audience.

The wakashû is fairly sinister: when asked why the son of a rich family wants to be in the militia, he answers: “to have the right to kill.” And though he expects to be the object of desire, he is not a devotee to nanshuko-do. The extent to which beauties are responsible for the excessive reactions to them is an interesting one that I will not attempt to answer here. Nor will I attempt to adjudicate whether the havoc is wreaked by Kano, by his suitors, or by favoritism across ranks.

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The film and even its ending seem to be opaque to many viewers. The audience in which I saw the film seemed surprised by the casual acceptance (by non-samurais as well as by samurais) of boy-love and unable to “read” the ending. I think that all the cultural knowledge that is necessary to interpret the visually striking final scene is that the cherry blossom is a recurrent metaphor for the inevitably brief charm of beautiful boys. (At age 18, the forelocks should be shaved off, marking the extinction of boyish attractiveness of a junior samurai. Kano resists this rite of passage, as he dodges other attempts by Captain Hijikata to defuse his specialness.)

Oshima specialized in aestheticized representation of highly charged desires. “Gohatto” is often visually striking, especially in the final scene and in the prostitute sashaying to her appointment, but presumes a familiarity with a vanished society that even many Japanese lack. The least medieval character is Captain Hijikata (the top-billed actor/director/painter Takeshi “Beat” Kitano). The basis of his special interest in Cadet Kano remains open to multiple interpretations.

The movie was a coproduction between Shôchiku, where ˆÔshima got his start as an assistant director and then director, and the French Canal+. All four of his last four feature films were French coproductions. The costume design was by Wada Emi, who had worked with Kurosawa on “Ran” and “Dreams” and would later work with Zhang Yimou on “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers.” The music was by Ryûichi Sakamoto, who did not act in the film, as he had in “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.” Ôshima adapted two novellas by Shiba Ryôtarô.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray