The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013): Takahata’s Swan Song

The_Tale_of_the_Princess_Kaguya_(poster).jpgDuring the period of time I lived in Japan, I became acquainted with the works of Isao Takahata, and by that I mean I watched both Grave of The Fireflies (1988) and Only Yesterday (1991). This was all that was required because these two films on their own left a profound impact on me.

While Hayao Miyazaki is, rightfully so, the benevolent poster boy of Ghibli Studios, you might say Takahata was, in his own way, a visionary and the hidden engine behind the company. He was rarely as prolific as his counterpart, but the films he left behind are thoughtful masterpieces — even more pensive in nature — while arguably boasting headier themes. In fact, you might say the partnership between the two directors exerted an influence on Miyakazi’s films specifically.

While living in Tokyo, the news Miyazaki would come out retirement had the world in a tizzy of excitement. About a year later his colleague would pass away, and I’m not sure as many folks were aware, but those who’ve admired his films took note and quietly pondered the glorious oeuvre he left behind.

Today I can finally say Tale of Princess Kagura is more than worthy of joining the company of his best films, sharing his usual affinities while bursting forth with an altogether new leaf — a lifetime in the making. Whether it’s serendipity or not, it seems like an impeccable summation of the director’s work, still so vibrant and serenely mesmerizing at this, the tail end of his career.

In full transparency, as someone who knew next to nothing about The Tale of The Bamboo Cutter (this film’s ancient inspiration), it’s easy to come at the material a bit wary. But soon enough, this guardedness begins to fade away. Because like any of the great tales — Aesop’s Fables, The Brothers Grimm, The Odyssey, even Biblical parables — this story is equally built out of the archetypes of humanity. In some way, it speaks to universal themes we can imbibe on some deeper human level.

The initial jumping-off point is unfamiliar and yet it bears some resemblance to what we might know somewhere deep down in our being. Because on one auspicious day, the Woodcutter happens to cut down a bamboo shoot and when it breaks open, with radiant light, a tiny creature is birthed into the world; he christens her a princess sent from the heavens.

So he and his wife act accordingly, taking this small yet significant creature as their own to raise up so that she might one day earn a status far beyond their humble origins. It begins as a story about how Providence can smile down upon the most unremarkable of souls.

The Woodcutter is a doddering man even hilariously so, devoted as he is to his new daughter. Whereas his wife is more tranquil and a comforting maternal figure. As their new daughter is taken in, she rapidly grows by the moment, earning the name “Bamboo Shoot” from the local pack of children, although her father is adamant she’s a princess, and he resolves to do everything in his power to make this vision a reality.

It’s in these earliest interludes, set in the meadows and forests of God’s green earth, where we realize what a hallowed place nature will hold in this story as the words of a ubiquitous tune about “birds, bugs, beasts, trees, etc.” keeps on being repeated — a song that feels as old as time.

While The Tale of Princess Kagura is about so much and it’s lengthy, especially for a hand-drawn piece of animation, there’s something very primordial about it — again, going back to the base tenets of our very existence and our collective consciousness.

The child joins the company of a strapping woodsman named Sutemaru who is admired by all the youth, despite his own common origins. Our heroine shares their mutual affection for him.

Meanwhile, her father continually invests in the life he’s vowed to give her — sending her to the city, setting her up under the tutelage of an eminent woman of etiquette, and promoting her to all the surrounding nobles. Kagura is bestowed with the blessed new name, and her renown grows.

However, this is the juncture where her old life — one of humble means, communing with nature, and Sutemaru — ceases to exist as it formerly did. She must try and acclimate to a new life at first glorious, then constricting, and ultimately devastating.

She’s pursued by five prominent suitors, all vowing to bring her glorious treasures to consummate their love. Instead of taking their proposals subserviently, she boldly asks for them to prove not only their resolve but their true affections. There’s something utterly modern about this young woman navigating her way in a world dominated by men. Where she willfully challenges convention as dictated by traditional patriarchy with the ultimate symbol being the emperor, a man accustomed to getting whatever he so desires.

The story readily evokes numerous elements of Japanese culture, and they inform the folklore, whether unfurling scroll paintings, virtuoso koto-playing, and the antiquated customs of nobility. But Takahata’s film works on an even more basic level.

Beyond all else, at it’s very best, The Tale of Princess Kagura is blessed with breathtaking visuals, making full use of the format. Mystifying developments are brought to the screen with a matter-of-fact immediacy we come to accept. It’s the kind of film where you must let it happen to you. If you relinquish your doubts and come to accept everything generously, you stand to be rewarded. Only then are you allowed to revel in its intricacies, simplicities, and the marvels it puts forth in any number of ways.

The palette breaks with so much of what we’ve come to expect from animation, both the western status quo with the proliferation of computer-driven images and also Japan’s own distinct stylings. It’s the epitome of sartorial splendor and in an era where animation — both western and eastern — is easily earmarked and pigeon-holed,  it’s very rare to view something so singular. In fact, it’s an unassuming revelation in terms of harnessing the art form in an altogether definitive manner.

It’s bold in its willingness to be spare, recalling the impressionistic recollections featured in Only Yesterday. And yet the style readily evolves, waxing and waning amid the seasons, the changing plot points, and subsequent emotions that overtake our heroine.

The watercolor-like sensibilities and bursts of colors demand a fearlessness when it comes to using white space and minimalism. Because what it really does is continuously impress upon us a particular mood, a feeling, or sensation.

I am reminded of one scene that totally overtook me as the Princess zoomed off into the night as a blur of charcoal and color, the score hitting staccato notes to capture the pace in which she darts off into the night — grieved and agonized by the current world she’s being subjected too.

Then there’s the other moment amid the cherry blossoms that feels like swirling, whirling euphoria under the falling pink petals. For an instant, we get lost up in the moment with our heroine. And because this is a Takahata movie, there has to be an element of this mystical realism where the film’s world and the medium of animation afford this fusing of the every day with the supernatural. Sure enough, it comes with the same magical flourishes we would come to expect from Ghibli. We watch our protagonists soar through the air with a visceral abandon personifying their overflowing joy.

Later, we are caught up in the awe of an ethereal decension bringing the gods down to us on a cloud from the luminous moon above. This is what we come to expect from Ghibli — this swelling exhilaration — although each moment feels fresh as if seen with new eyes.

However, and this is no slight on Miyazaki whatsoever, it feels like Takahata has a greater stake in depicting both the somberness and the elation. He reminds us sometimes it takes one to bring out the other. But in the end, as he suggests time and time again in his story, it’s all part of this cycle. It’s the tale of nature and life — the birds, the bugs, and all the creatures. That includes us.

The film subtly evokes Buddhist, perhaps even some Shinto traditions — this inbred environmentalism — and the relationship between humanity and nature. Though we might see the same themes echoed in many slightly different forms. There is the Christian mandate to “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

There were later generations of Romanticists kicking against the goads of the Industrial Revolution, looking to salvage nature from the soot-filled pyres of modernity. Then the Transcendentalists who called for finding meaning in the solitude of nature while also finding a spiritual presence in all things. Even now there is the ever-current fight in the war against climate change, in spite of a sea of skeptics.

Thus, if we do this admittedly cursory run-through of history, it reminds us this is not really a matter of Eastern vs. Western thought at all. Surely, there are differences, but our struggles, questions, and hopes are not totally dissimilar. They are wrapped up right there in our elemental narratives. Isao Takahata gifted us with one final revelation executed with his usual care and thoughtfulness. It’s a delight to proclaim it good. It’s even better to say it’s not just for Anime aficionados. I want to believe it’s for everyone who will give it a chance.

4.5/5 Stars

When a Women Ascends The Stairs (1960): A Prescient Portrait of Japan

When_a_Woman_Ascends_the_Stairs

A version of this review was first published in Film Inquiry

If director Mikio Naruse’s Floating Clouds is a film about making peace with the war years, then When a Woman Who Ascends The Stairs is a far more forward-thinking endeavor. In fact, I would say it’s a near-prescient portrait of where Japan has ventured now over 60 years onward.

One lady comments you can still see the old Tokyo but it’s obvious — even the classy scoring and the generally sleek compositions suggest as much — modern society is upon us in full force.

It’s the 1960s built on the bedrock of a post-war economy. In a highly fashionable area like Ginza — renowned even today for its shopping and glamour — the western influence is undeniable. Most of the film doesn’t take place on the main streets, however, but in the back alcoves in the lines of bars hidden away. Even here the American influence is felt with many of the bar names deriving from English.

What’s presented is a different type of life, even as it presents its own fashionable conception of the world.  Mama-san (Hideko Takamine), as she is known by all, is one of the women living in this world. She is a kind of hostess. If it’s a euphemism or not, I can’t entirely say.

Still, her entire existence can be summed up by one early shot. The daunting stairs winding up in front of her toward her work. In a practical sense, they lead up to the bar she frequents every evening dutifully, but Naruse’s shot comes to represent something far more.

I’m not sure if we could call it the stairs toward the glass ceiling exactly, but it is true she enters a new world when she steps into work every day. She must fortify herself. She has an untenable veneer built up over the years.

It braces her to be the perfect hostess to all, balancing her customers’ entreaties and come-ons with the utmost ease and floating from each conversation with impeccable tact. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, she works with her longtime manager and bill collector (Tatsuya Nakadai) trying to eke by paying off the creditors they must rent from.

It’s never a sustainable life. Trying to keep customers happy while getting by on only the smallest of margins. Even a regular, named Minaboe, has started frequenting another place. His absence hurts her business. Thankfully, there is other clientele to work on and so she does her best to keep them happy while never quite acquiescing to their wishes. For 5 years in this tawdry business, she’s kept strong in this regard.

Because this is a film all about sex really, though we never see it outright. And if it is about sex, then it’s only as a commodity, a tool, a bargaining chip to be used. Despite being a story about women giving companionship to men on their business trips and away from their wives, for the longest time, no notion of actual love is developed. This should not catch us by surprise.

It is business first. Mama-san is expected to supply small talk and the girls that work under her flirt with the patrons over drinks. But as Keiko later admits, when she returns to her humbler roots, it’s all a created fabrication. They wear kimonos, buy perfume, and pay for taxis and apartments they can barely afford, way above their paygrade just so they can maintain the fantasy for their obliging audience. Meanwhile, there’s another side, a lot more disheartening and downright heartbreaking.

It’s the undercurrent of Tokyo if you wander into the red district or happen to step outside the confines of the beautifully cultivated exterior. It’s not a lie — all the things in front — but there is so much more to contend with. Love hotels, geishas, and hordes of hostesses to go with them. What do they beget? Among many things suicide, loneliness, and helplessness.

If there is any other film I found myself cycling back to it was actually Imitation of Life, directed by the master of luscious American melodrama Douglas Sirk. It also was about a strong single woman trying to make her way in a world all but dominated by men. If it was true in America, it was even more so in an albeit modernized Japan.

Hideko Takamine faces much of the same struggles as Lana Turner in the movie from a year prior when it comes to her own dreams — in this case, gathering enough funds to open her own bar. The only way to get ahead seems to be settling and giving in to the constant implicit or explicit demands of men. Because they hold the power. Society has certain set expectations. So they must play the game or live a life like hamsters on a wheel, in a constantly spinning wheel of survival.

Turner’s life is equally complicated by her relationship or lack thereof with her daughter (Sandra Dee). But in a manner indicative of Japanese culture, Reiko must deal with a nagging mother and a timid brother who are constantly dependent on her for money. It’s the tug and war between familial duty and what she aspires to.

It starts being a film about love once Mama-san finally relents and opens herself up to be hurt. She’s finally human and loves, and the scenes that evolve out of this development are the film’s most devastating. What makes them even more impactful is how they just keep building off one another, scene after scene. There is no relief in this barrage of pain, rejection, and heartbreak that our heroine is taxed with.

There was a certain continuity created between Hideko Takamine and Masayuki Mori thanks to their work together in Floating Clouds and yet the relationships go still further. She’s proposed to and berated and lied to and loved. And yet at the end of the day, she must put a cap on her emotions and saunter up those same solitary steps and put on the genteel facade expected of her. The final action, the smile on the face, and then the token salutation, a last touch of irony.

Even with its touches of humor, in an expression or a line of dialogue, it’s nowhere close to the campy, technicolor crescendo Sirk cooked up for Imitation of Life. But as Sirk was capable of dissecting American life, I would wager Naruse is equally perceptive and adept when it comes to Japan.

Satire and sarcasm infused in drama do not function in the same manner in Japan. In its place, Naruse commits irrevocably to his story and consequently provides another moving examination of his culture. It has a lot to say about a Japan that still seems to exist to this very day in ever-evolving forms.  Loneliness, suicide, and patriarchal ways are not just specters out of the past; they are alive and well to this day.

My last thought is only this. Setsuko Hara was the first Japanese actress I truly recognized across a body of the work; she was a luminary personality, and Hideko Takamine might be right below her, proving herself to be incomparable in her own right.

The performance she gives her yet again is so potent with the range and verisimilitude to all but carry the picture. She’s spellbinding, beautiful, and simultaneously breaks our hearts with the depth of her vulnerability. I won’t be forgetting it any time soon. Because in one go she effectively represents an entire subset of human beings and imbues them with unmistakable pathos.

4.5/5 Stars

Departures (2008): Agents for The Dead

Okuribito_(2008)One could choose any number of labels to attempt categorizing Departures. It’s a film indebted to the rapturous compositions of the past. It shares elements akin to any police procedural ever made or for that matter, the veterinary antics from a British gem like All Creatures Great and Small.

They are admittedly disparate reference points, but they seem fitting given Departures subject matter. No, not a travel agency as our main character Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) supposes.

The job title of NK Agent, picked out of the local ad section, relates to something entirely different. They take care of the dear departed — that is — they work with dead bodies.  There’s the aloof veteran trained in all facets of the trade and the young newcomer aching to prove himself.

Each case brings with it, its own unique complications. It’s not a common art nor one that is held in much regard. But as the film explores over time, it plays a crucial role in a society that must grapple with death and bid adieu to loved ones like everyone else.

In his former life, Kobayashi had a position of repute. The Greeks might have liked him. He didn’t denigrate himself with toil and sweat as much as the common man. He was an artist; a cellist to be exact, and he brings joy to the masses and swelling pride to his devoted wife Mika (Ryōko Hirosue). The only problem is no one is showing up to their concerts and so the orchestra is unceremoniously dissolved.

In keeping with spousal protocol, Mika stays supportive and suggests they move to his old family home in the country where they might live for free as he figures his affairs out. But as one who is even only minorly familiar with Japanese culture, there is an inkling something else dwells hidden from view — just waiting to reveal itself.

Daigo answers a job description on a whim and finds himself greeted by the quizzical secretary (Kimiko Yo) and a boss (Tsutomu Yamazaki) who has an unorthodox manner of doing business, especially in such a highly methodical, procedure-heavy culture like Japan.

Needless to say, the new hopeful sits down for about two seconds and comes home with the job and his first bonus. It’s a hilarious initial interaction setting their relationship in stark relief. We like his workplace for how very unique it is. Because these people feel like they might easily be punchlines and nothing more, and yet we grow to appreciate them even as Kobayashi remains our protagonist.

This is what Departures is able to manage. It’s drama but never squeamish about utilizing comedy. Take, for instance, the moment he’s called on to play a cadaver in his senpai’s sponsor spot or when he throws up in the presence of a particularly grizzly undertaking. In the aftermath, some schoolgirls comment on the rancid smell on the bus leading him to take an expedient trip to the local bathhouse to clean up.

But in contrast, Departures is full of all kinds of emotion and soft strings of pathos, whether hyper-realized or not. In between the lines are complications and relationships wrought with both warmth and the tension of lives shaped by regret. The best moments are unspoken, reflected by totems or actions. The handling of a weathered stone, the heart-rending notes of a cello, and certainly the ceremonial burying of bodies.

Even the moment where Daigo must fess up and tell his wife what he’s really been up to, it tears her apart; she’s so very ashamed that he would take part in something so defiling. It bores into the heart of this narrative.

Because to its very essence, the movie not only puts words to a very archaic Japanese art no one wants to acknowledge, it also supplies a space in which to grapple with death and how we grieve — how we let our loved ones go into the great beyond.

Since the dawn of man, it has been a prevalent theme throughout the ballads and religious convictions of mankind, whatever the background. Even a basic deist like Ben Franklin noted that the only things we may count on are “death and taxes.”

Egyptians were embalmed for a future afterlife with relics now found in the British Museum for us all to fawn over. Norse heroes dreamed of Vahala, a place to glory over their valorous feats with their countrymen.

Christians believe in not simply an afterlife but a new heaven and new earth where this current world, with all its flaws, will pass away. On a cursory level, varying strains of Buddhism and Hinduism often delve into issues of rebirth in further pursuit of nirvana or enlightenment.

For Japan, in particular, death is so closely tied to family. Rather like Latin culture, there is this extension of the family unit reaching out into the great unknown where saying goodbye and keeping constant communications with dead ancestors is a part of culture, albeit a dying art.

Taking stock of these themes, it makes sense many have decried the film for its sentimentalities. Yes, there are touches of the saccharine, but what resonated with me most was something else. When it counted most, Departures managed to be a delicate drama in a manner suited to Japanese society where quiet strength is prized and benign tranquility highly sought.

And if you guess the plot points — not an altogether difficult task — it means very little to me. Because for many meaningful movies, these narrative elements are only employed to hang your hat on. What really matters are the characters, the emotions they exude, and whether or not they can reach out to the audience and induce a reaction.

Departures was such a film for me. One of the miracles of life is finding some semblance of humor in the darkest, saddest parts. Death is undoubtedly one of these. However, it begins with coming to peace with the future. Knowing that we were made for something more than this world of ours. We are not destined to be creatures of death, but creatures of life. Of course, that’s only one man’s opinion. We all deal with departures differently.

4/5 Stars

Whisper of The Heart (1995): Take Me Home Concrete Road

Whisper_of_the_Heart_(Movie_Poster).jpgWhisper of The Heart is wholeheartedly a Japanese anime and yet learning John Denver’s “Country Roads” holds a relatively substantial place in the plotline might catch some off guard. After all, as the metropolitan imagery establishes our setting, we hear a version of the song playing against the bevy of passersby, cars, and convenience stores.

Director Yoshifumi Kondō boasts animation both simple and clean yet ever so attractive for those very same reasons. It positively glows with nostalgic yellow hues and employs anime’s preoccupations with the most intricate details — moths drawn to a light being just one prime example.

When I lived in Japan, I became fascinated by foreign music and how it gained a foothold in the country. You only have to look to jazz, The Ventures, The Carpenters, or Mariah Carey to see how deep their imprint is on the collective culture. The same goes for John Denver who made tours of Japan on several occasions.

But whereas musicians often become icons, sometimes Japan cultivates an environment where nuggets of culture can take on a life of their own. This theme serves as a perfect breeding ground for Ghibli’s classic coming of age story.

Shizuku is, at her heart, a spunky and feisty heroine with the kinds of hope and aspirations that often seem buried in a very restrained culture like Japan. In her middle school existence, an unknown person named Amasawa becomes an almost mythic figure in her life as they have checked out all the books she’s so voraciously eaten up in her nascent but ambitious literary odyssey.

They look to be a kindred spirit. It takes a fortuitous meeting with a commuting cat on the JR line to sustain her adventure. The disaffected animal leads her to a Secret Garden of sorts. This one is not found in nature but in the home of a delightful old man.

Because Whisper of The Heart is full of the blushing love of adolescence in its many tangles found throughout the student body. It’s no different in Japan, at least on the emotional level, or for that matter, the utter denseness of the male sex.

But it’s also a very particular world where dwarves and fairies can coexist with the mundane elements of everyday life. Shizuku comes to realize this when she reaches the end of her adventure — the peculiar second-hand shop cluttered with clocks, violins, and shiny doodads of all shapes and sizes. It’s run by a genteel proprietor who also happens to relate to her not so fictitious phantom: Amasawa.

This looks to be the working of Hayao Miyazaki behind the scenes because no matter how mundane we might perceive the world to be, he’s always allowing for bits of magic to seep in and liven up our existences. Implicitly, he always seems to be suggesting we need the richness of our imagination girded around us to make the most out of life.

He also employs the most amicable cultural appropriation, turning Denver’s down-home “Country Roads” into a lively, bright-eyed violin jam session in a Tokyo back parlor. It’s the strangest incarnation of the song I could have ever imagined and yet somehow it manages to be apropos. I only need to remember pop instrumentals of “Daydream Believer” during my former days frequenting 7-Eleven’s in Tokyo. It fits the aesthetic.

But back to Shizuku. Her newfound companion dreams of being a Violin maker and going off to apprentice in Italy. Not to be outdone, she wants to write stories. She’s charged with empowerment and then the subsequent doubts ambushing anyone who’s ever endeavored for such a thing. I am reminded of the artistic encouragement churned up by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien that blessed the world over with two of the most formidable fantasy worlds: Middle Earth and Narnia.

Because we need people who will gladly court our ideas, gives us encouragement, and supply even the brief inkling that our passing daydreams are not complete balderdash. If they provide enjoyment or engage with beauty or goodness for just one person, perhaps even this makes them entirely worthwhile.

The sagely old man charges Shizuku that craftsmanship of any kind is never perfect. But we must begin. We need to start somewhere. To pilfer the film’s own metaphor, we are all unburnished stones waiting to be polished to the point of perfection. There’s the necessity of time and effort to make it work. The diamond must be pulverized. The brass burnished. The grain sent through the thresher. 

Again, Miyazaki’s imprint is all over the picture because he is always and forever the spinner of benevolent fairy tales paired with creative inspiration. His avid imagination never ceases to mesmerize. Surely there are lots of magical beings, soaring through the air, lands full of castles and kings, and yet the seat of it all is found in the revelation these very things can exist in our everyday reality. They need not be distant. Far off lands can come to meet us, be it through books or writing, music, or people with memories that extend far beyond what we see and know.

It’s easy for me to laud Whisper of The Heart for being timeless. Yes, we see word processors, a dearth of cell phones, more antiquated train services, and yet so much of the interactions, the yearnings, and the derivations are universal.

I must turn my attention only to the sound of cicadas, the warning bell near the train tracks, or the clink of a mailbox at the front door. They are so basic, so unextraordinary, and yet they sound so familiar. To my ears, they remain almost comforting. Because this movie is comfort food, whether you fancy udon or steak and potatoes.

Full of warmth. Love. Longing. Passion. Miyazaki and Ghibli have captivated the world over with such sensations. Yoshifumi Kondō more than proved himself capable of eliciting this same type of wonder. It’s only a shame he was not able to give us more films. But there only needs to be one solitary act of creation to leave an impression. Whisper of The Heart is an unassuming monument to his career.

4/5 Stars

Story of The Last Chrysanthemum (1939): A Traditional Japanese Epic

The_Story_of_the_Last_Chrysanthemum.jpgAkira Kurosawa is obviously known for samurai pictures — the famed chambara genre  — and Yasjiro Ozu is most sedulous when it comes to the relational bonds between parents and children in Japanese society. However, in some sense, of the so-called “Big-Three,” it is Kenji Mizoguchi who is most obviously attached to the Japanese tradition. I mean this in the way his visual style fluidly mirrors the range of Japanese arts.

The Story of The Last Chrysanthemum is a fascinating portrait because as with any early picture from a forthcoming master, it bears some of the marks that would come to define his career at its most sublime. Due to its availability, the subject matter, and the cinematography, it’s quite seamless to arrive at this extrapolation. Because this is a story set in the past and borrowing liberally from kabuki culture.

It’s also convenient to liken many of the uninterrupted takes to a constantly unfurling scroll. The art form obviously has deep roots in Japanese culture and Mizoguchi uses his camera in a similar manner to capture actions. The setups feel complex, especially for the day and age. Even with a print that proved less than stellar, there’s no ignoring the meticulous nature of the shots marked by invention and a highly novel mise-en-scene.

The beauty of these observations is that the director would only continue to evolve and mature with time. Staying away from close-ups means there’s this continual conveyance of a certain amount of distance. It’s not necessarily about not having an intimate relationship with the material, instead, it feels much more like we are given license to take in everything. We are given a very concrete position as a viewer ruminating in a piece of art.

I think of Ozu as being a master interior filmmaker. Much of the same might be said of his contemporary, though their methods are different. There is, of course, the prominent use of dolly shots you would never find in the other’s work. There is also a fluidity and a movement to Mizoguchi’s work, which nevertheless, should never be confused with the dynamicism of Kurosawa. It stands on its own individuality.

At the center of our story is a young stage performer named Kikunosuke, who is the adopted son of a famed actor and a hopeless performer hardly worthy of the family name. Everyone criticizes him behind his back: geishas, fellow actors, even his own father.

What’s worse, few are willing to give him the truth, instead offering him empty encouragement and stroking his ego. In fact, he’s only popular because of his bloodline; all the naysayers contemptuously note he’s riding on the coattails of his father’s glory. As a result, they’re either jealous of his good fortune or intent on using him to get ahead.

It frustrates him, rightfully so, and he wants to leave them all behind. Except there is one individual who is different: a young woman. Fittingly, Mizoguchi uses a fascinating shot to introduce their relationship. The woman stands, holding her charge, an infant child in her arms. They cross paths and begin to walk with one another. However, it’s the most curious perspective almost as we are in a trench following along as the man and woman have a normal walk-and-talk.

Otoku is the only person who will tell it to him straight and even this is indirect — merely hinted at. In English, we might call her a church mouse, the subservient one who is subsequently the only character bearing any sense. She goes ever further in her bashful yet concerted effort to encourage him. One day he might be something. It’s alright to enjoy the pleasures of life, but he is an artist and he should appreciate and hone his art.

Her behavior is scandalous in others’ eyes. Her indiscretions are deemed impertinent as she has forgotten her place in a rigid society. The young woman is subsequently dismissed from her post leaving the young master stricken with anxiety.

In fact, he does everything in his power to track her down, and he does. The striking part is how he is all but ready to renounce his family name, which in any culture is the ultimate insult, but in Japan, it’s even harsher. Family is everything. The fact he is adopted is a lingering embarrassment. He resolves to make his own way.

Life begins anew on the road, kicking around in another theater, then a traveling troupe. 4 years are cruelly lost with a title card transition. The road has been a hard taskmaster making the man resentful and callous. His wife now is still a genial spirit, but he is struggling to love her as he did before. All he has is bitterness, thanks to a constricting life he cannot break out of.

However, he receives one final chance at redemption, thanks to the behind door pleading of his faithful wife. She’s so devoted to him and his career, in fact, she’s prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice. Analogous themes can be gleaned from the likes of Ozu and Naruse, but there’s no neglecting how central they seem to Mizoguchi’s entire oeuvre. There is no way to ignore their primacy throughout.

Kabuki is rarely shown in full motion — the behind the scenes drama is more pertinent — and when it is shown, in the climactic performance, it lacks gravitas. It is one of the few moments Last Chrysanthemums’ length does seem to catch up with it. However, in admitting my own inadequacies, this could admittedly speak more to my ignorance of kabuki than the actual merit of the sequences.

What strikes me is the overt implications. Kikunosuke is finally the success he always hoped to be. And yet, without his guiding light, success means nothing. Even as there is this implied sense of sacrifice for the sake of loved ones, one is bound to ask, at what cost?

Only two years after Stella Dallas, we have much the same weight in a sacrificial relationship. This one feels even more scalding given Japan’s deep traditions of submission and subjugation of women. 

At a substantial 2 hours and 20 minutes, The Story of The Last Chrysanthemum is a lugubrious epic but artfully done on all accounts. I look forward to seeing a better print in the future because the masters deserve only the best treatment. There’s no question Mizoguchi deserves such distinction.

4/5 Stars

Floating Clouds (1955): Capturing Japan’s Post-War Zeitgeist

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The Odyssey to finally get to Mikio Naruse has been a long and arduous one. I must admit, like many before me, his name carries none of the recognition we commonly lavish upon Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi, and a select few. So, for the longest time, there was no pursuit. His name was totally unknown.

However, as you begin to familiarize yourself with Japanese cinema (and I must admit to still being a relative novice), there are certain names that you keep coming back to. Masaki Kobayashi and Kon Ichikawa fall right behind the illustrious trifecta. Certainly, you have the Japanese New Wave directors like Shohei Imamura, Nagisa Oshima, Masahiro Shinoda, and Hiroshi Teshigahara.

However, for some reason, I just could not stop thinking about Mikio Naruse. It seemed like I was always being reminded of him. Whether it was Kurosawa praising his writing or Hirokazu Kore-eda saying his style was more akin to the lineage of Naruse and not Ozu. Again, it reflects an oversight on many film aficionados. We do not pay Naruse much respect because, frankly, there’s not much access to his work in America.

In fact, because I am so fortunate to come of age as a cinema lover in a world that is so globalized, with content so accessible, it is not a form of helplessness that I have felt too often. It’s not simply a matter of his film’s being hard to come by; it felt like only a few were readily available.

This absence of his work made it all the more imperative to reach him. Finally, I can attest to dipping into his filmography and finding myself deeply fortunate to have made his acquaintance. If it’s allowable to use a German word to describe a Japanese condition, Floating Clouds captures the zeitgeist of Japan in the aftermath of WWII.

The film’s structure feels as fluid as its title. It trusts the audience to follow along without voiceover cues of any kind, drifting in and out of the present and flashbacks set before the war had ended. This is the fashion in which we get to know our two “destitute expatriates” now reunited in 1946.

They met for the first time in Indochina. It’s a world we can contrast with another romance like Red Dust. An outpost out in the forests of Asian proves a far more bearable place to pass the war.  If you recall, the earlier film is made by the red hot chemistry between Clark Gable and Jean Harlow (and with Mary Astor).

Except in such a patriarchal society, like Japan, it always seems to be the man who has the say. Tomioka (Masayuki Mori) begins his acquaintance with Yukiko (Hideko Takamine) with slight jabs at her, all but solidifying his gruff character for the entirety of the film. These rocky foundations give way to passionate romance and Naruse does something dynamic by cutting right between a kiss in the past to one in the present. So much has changed and yet nothing at all. Much of Floating Clouds is about this reconciling this past with the present.

The pensive serenity is one of the unifying hallmarks of the picture. This is another point of departure with a Hollywood romance like Red Dust. This, paradoxically, feels like a grand statement — choosing a tranquil path in a medium that is so often filled with noise and a world full of constant turbulence.

Even in considering his countrymen, Kurosawa is often more dynamic in composition and action. Thus, it seems most obvious to contrast Naruse with Ozu. However, whereas Ozu heralds his presence within the frames through the meticulous craftsmanship and attention to detail, you do not necessarily see this to the same degree in Floating Clouds.

It is stripped down to a near Verite approach, which still cannot be mistaken for shoddy work. In fact, it boasts beautiful interludes between two people on par with a picture like Late Spring. It’s not a perfectly ordered fabrication of reality where human drama plays out. The spaces feel rich with the impoverished and worn layers of Japan as it lay. The people are much the same, unadorned yet imbued with truth.

Hideko Takamine is extraordinary for how she is able to manage a spectrum of emotions — exuding an inner strength and individuality — while still giving way to honest feelings of regret. She can be the adulterer, the nagging lover, the broken heart, all of the above , as they cycle through time.

No less important is Masayuki Mori as he acts as her perfect counterpoint. He gives her nothing, or at least very little. Every potentially thoughtful action is dismissed and any form of commitment is avoided doggedly. There is even so much about their preferred temperaments putting them at odds. It seems like circumstance and they’re own interactions together all but destined them to part ways and move on with life. He returns to his wife “nobly,” while she is supported by the brother-in-law who formerly took advantage of her. Every relationship is riddled with these personal dilemmas.

There is another brief snapshot that resonated with me — both in its mild humor and how it proved indicative of the times — when Yukiko is walking down a street alone. In the periphery, we see what looks to be a Japanese woman with an American G.I. He seems to be at least a head taller than everyone else. Then, almost on cue there comes a voice, speaking my native tongue: English.

It’s a second G.I. looking for a date, and he affably asks her in broken, bastardized Japanese (rather like what I’m capable of speaking), if she’s alone and where she’s going. She simply smiles and moves on, either to brush him off or resign herself to a superficial evening of companionship. He exists as more of an archetype than a fully defined character even given that his name is “Joe.”

However, what it provides is a fascinating counterpoint to what we are used to in our little universe, where everything commonly revolves around the western world, if not America. Pictures like House of Bamboo, Sayonara, Teahouse of the August Moon, they all give us a very specific and tailored experience.

It’s somewhat strange and fascinating to feel like the “other.” The soldier here is the sailor in Lola (1961) or the soldier in The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979). In fact, they all serve much the same function. They come to represent a different type of relationship and with it a diverging life, even if it’s only meant to be a momentary fleeting fancy. 

This is not a picture where we see the chaos and the bloodshed. After all, these two were the “lucky ones” stationed in Indochina. And yet we see the shadowy imprint of a former life involving suffering, poverty, and the ignominy of surrender. It doesn’t seem too farfetched to claim Floating Clouds somehow channeled the thoughts and feelings of a generation. The Best Years of Our Lives might be similar to a generation of Americans.

Consequently, as a viewer in this contemporary moment and an American on top of that, there is a realization of how much I take for granted in this story. I am more like the American soldier than I am this couple. It proves a humbling observation, carving a path toward some sense of empathy.

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 Eventually, her lover turns up again — still as brusque and egocentric as ever, looking around at her plain surroundings and commenting on how well she’s doing. These types of evasive, indirect proclamations are all she ever gets. So she’s hanging on his words, getting whisked this way and that with partial promises and empty hopes, never going anywhere. Later on, he has his eyes on the pretty young wife (Mariko Okada) of an acquaintance (even soaking in the public bath together). After all, in superficial terms, she is much more “desirable.”

To consider the American soldier again, he was on leave for two months before shipping home. Even in the short amount of time, he was overflowing with geniality. If we take Floating Clouds as indicative of all of Japanese society, it proves a telling portrait. There is no affection or sense of vulnerability within men. Endemic to the society and more so a holdover of the war. It’s not simply about women being overly emotional, though this is often the cultural expectation. More emphatically so, the men lack any type of emotion. They are ingrained with this stoic (sho ga nai) mentality.

There are numerous walk-and-talks, and the scenery and setup might as well be interchangeable, but the subtext and junctures in their lives are starkly different each time. So we have all these snippets wedged in between their life events as they orbit in and out of each other’s lives.

It’s easy enough to juxtapose it with Citizen Kanes dinner table scene where a relationship is seen crumbling in a matter of minutes. Stretched out as it is, within Floating Clouds, these walks continue this metaphor of progression. It is the progress of life, of a relationship, and of the world existing around us. Because while the steps might remain the same, the circumstances are different around every bend. Time marches on with each footfall.

It’s not about being ships in the night either — that they missed out on one another’s company — simply put, they are abrasive together. Their traits and identities are constantly causing them to attract and repel each other again and again.

The lasting image is a bent head, but this is not one of Ozu’s quiet forlorn scenes where a father has just made the honorable decision to give up his daughter. These are ugly, bitter tears. He is weeping. And this man, for the first time in his life, is providing physical acknowledgment of how much another individual human being meant to him. In a Hollywood picture, the action would be meaningful, but not unprecedented. In this movie, it feels heart-wrenching because we have yet to anything so transparent.

It’s an evocative final note in a work rarely prone to this kind of overt outpouring. It’s the cathartic release in a bittersweet tragedy. All we can do is bemoan the fact this man was never vulnerable enough to admit the depths of his love during life. Unfortunately, in this particular life, there is no resurrection.

4.5/5 Stars

The Only Son (1936)

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Tragedy in life starts with the bondage of parents and children.

The film opens with a single extended scene with the title card reading: Shinshu, Central Japan 1923. Ozu guides us in with his pillow shots framing the story’s sequences with images of his locales which neither serve the narrative nor reveal anything about our characters at hand. But he more than many directors is well aware of his environment and basking in its very contours.

The opening premise has to do with a young middle school-aged boy and his mother. The problem is whether or not he will go onto high school. You see, his father is dead and his mother must eke by a living. They don’t have much money. School costs money.

There are two stories going around. The one he told his mother saying he would not continue his schooling and then the one he told his teacher. His mother only finds out when the man comes by to acknowledge how happy he is for the boy.

Though distraught at first, from that day forward the mother vows to pay for her son to have schooling, first high school and then college. Likewise, he vows dutifully to become a great man so her maternal sacrifice is not in vain.

Flashforward to the present and the now elderly mother decides to pay a visit to her son in the big city of Tokyo. He’s grown now and has a job. But it turns out that things are not as she might have hoped.

First off, he has a couple of surprises for her. He got married and already has a baby son. Also, their home is fairly run-down and humble because his salary as a night school teacher is meager at best. So much for being a great man. It turns out such aspirations are difficult, especially in a metropolis like Tokyo. Look no further than his old teacher who has turned to running a butcher shop just to provide for his family.

However, despite these circumstances, the son throws out all the stops to make a lavish showing of hospitality for his mother’s benefit. After all, he can’t possibly let on how things are actually going. Because that would break her heart. He would have failed her.

So he buys extra chicken, offers small trinkets, and they attend the picture show. Things he probably never would have done if she were not present. Slowly he’s sinking under the surface, borrowing money from everyone who might oblige.

But of course, the truth always finds its way out. She worked so hard to get him to college and the hope of his successes kept her going. The revelation of his current situation pains her heart and she’s forthright in telling him precisely that. She is utterly ashamed as he explains how difficult it is to become a big man in Tokyo. Hard work does not always cut it.

This could be the end of their relationship right there and yet there is another moment. After a horrible accident, he gives all the money they have left to help a single mother pay for her son’s medical bills. It’s a meaningful gesture and right before she leaves, the mother tells her son that she’s proud of his integrity.

All he can think about is how unsatisfied she must be and how much he didn’t want her to come to begin with. His wife concurs he’s lucky to have such a good mother, because by the standards of Japan, she made her child her all so that he might succeed.

Meanwhile, the mother regales her solitary friend back home about her son who has become a great man and his lovely wife and how she can die now without any regrets. All the while we know the full truth but she must save face and so she makes up the most satisfying story she can. Hidden away from view her head is downcast in grief and shame.

What’s striking to the very last frame of The Only Son is the conflicting feelings it provides. It constantly flits back and forth between this false sense of security and contentment to moments of deepest regret.

It never quite allows you to rest on a single one of these emotions but instead requires you to cope with them in equal measures as the scenes are layered one on top of another. First, the mother is happy, then the son is anxious, then the mother is ashamed, then proud. Her son is regretful and finally spurred on to make another go of being a great man. So there’s this lingering sweetness, this not uncertain hope, and yet his mother is in the backroom head bowed, saddened by where she left her boy.

There is no easy answer. There is no definite category. There’s no way to siphon off this person’s emotions from that person’s because they all remain interconnected. That’s what allows this film to make sense and have such an emotional impact as it quietly whiplashes us back and forth between mother and son. We feel for both of them even if their hopes and aspirations seem somewhat misplaced. It’s a film that pains the heart of anyone who hates to see lives in utter distress.

I must confess that I racked my brain for the reason Ozu might spend so much time cutting to shots of the hanging laundry — a recurring motif throughout the film. Surely, there’s some intricacy that I am missing or some subtle symbolism. While that is undoubtedly true, I realized even more clearly that Ozu did not require an overt reason for his shot choices.

Just as our eyes stray to observe the world around us so his camera turns its lens in such a way. It is attracted to faces, rooms, and maybe even the mundane qualities of hanging shirts as the wind softly swirls past. There need not be more than this.

Likewise, I kept on staring at the image of the glamorous movie star up on the wall of their humble home. I was trying to decide if it was Joan Crawford or some German actress I am not aware of. Someone else might be able to distill my ignorance but I realized, again, it did not matter as long as I enjoyed the overall experience.

Ozu can be cast much in the way of the famed woodblock printer Katsushika Hokusai most famous for his “36 views of Mount Fuji.” Likewise, the Japanese director took similar forms and topics and unearthed the intricacies of temperament and interrelations which he subsequently revisited again and again.

If you notice, he has simply reversed his normal dynamic of father with daughter and it has become mother and son. Relatively similar origins and yet the outcomes are no less enlightening. So it’s not necessarily about the novel. There can be just as much relish in taking something that we are so used to, like parent-children relations, and recasting them in such a way that we recognize the situations with greater lucidity. Therein lies a space for growth and understanding.

Surely Ozu takes some getting used to. However, eventually his style will age on you and you will come to find the same fascinations he does until your tastes meld and it becomes second nature to see the empathy and beauty in his subject matter just as he seems to. Pretty soon it feels as if you are looking alongside him. If you let him, it can become a thoroughly symbiotic relationship between filmmaker and audience.

4.5/5 Stars

Arigato-san (1936)

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The translated English title of Mr. Thank You somehow comes off insincere as if it’s making fun but there’s nothing of this kind of sentiment in this picture from director Hiroshi Shumizu. It proves to be a cordial exploration of human nature and human kindness played out in the most organic fashion possible. In turn, it’s blessed by extensive on location shooting as well as a wide-ranging cast of players.

What it promises is a charming road film like few I’ve ever seen; self-contained and yet freely spilling out over the roads with meandering ease guided by our eponymous hero. The driver of the bus traversing the road from the rural area of Iku to the big city in Tokyo is known to everyone as “Arigato-san” because when you hear a polite ‘Honk’ followed by an “Arigato,” he’s more than made his presence known.

People appreciate his continuous gratitude and also the courteous favors he does for them along his route. It might be picking up pop records for girls in the hills so they can have quality entertainment. Or for someone else promising to place water and flowers at a deceased father’s grave. He obliges graciously and constantly makes necessary pit stops to accommodate everyone.

The rhythm becomes second nature to us as an audience as well and we gladly follow any diversion the story takes. By the end, we’re so used to the film’s continual visual motif of point-of-view shots followed by an “Arigato” and a rear view of the pedestrians making way and waving our travelers on.

Peppy scoring right out of a Hollywood silent reel comedy does wonders to develop a certain mood on the road. In one respect it matches the jovial demeanor of our protagonist but at the same time, there are slight nuances of more solemn issues merely touched upon. Because it’s a bus that brings together quite the gathering of folks from all walks of life.

If our bus driver is a lovely character full of cheerfulness then his passengers are certainly just as colorful. He can be seen almost like a benevolent symbol of modernity and in some respects, his cohort is one too. She takes the seat right behind him and we gather at first that it’s simply to flirt. But as the story unfolds and we see more interactions those initial preconceptions give way to a more complex reading. She reflects a different sort of progressiveness. A woman who speaks her mind, drinks with the boys, and calls others out for their improprieties. You get the innate sense that she is worldly wise but generally kind-hearted.

The rest of the core group includes an impoverished mother and her daughter who is going to Tokyo for the sake of her family; it’s further implied that she will be forced to take on the ignominious life of a prostitute. Next, is a phony businessman with a handlebar mustache and a penchant for ogling pretty girls. The passengers are rounded out by earthy but nevertheless amiable folks and momentary travelers attending weddings and wakes. Each has a unique destination. Arigato-san transports them all.

For a director as prolific as he was — Shimizu had over 160 screen credits — it’s astounding that he has very little recognition among audiences now, at home or abroad. Yasujiro Ozu, one of his contemporaries and colleagues in their days at Shochiku Studio is of course revered the world over. Some might actually find Arigato-san more accessible in some respects and it’s definitely deserving of more acknowledgment.

Because what it offers up is not only a genial portrait of Japan and its humanity but also some of the inherent plight of the common man in rural Japan. In fact, the film is so affable that some of its undertones easily slip by. There’s a wide range of depth going from humor to surprisingly delicate commentary.

All the while we come to relish the time spent with each one of these individual passengers and especially Arigato-san. When they exit the bus upon arriving at their appointed destination it means something because in such a short time it does feel like we’ve built some sort of rapport with them. That’s one of the joys of travel felt most readily when you make the concerted effort to get to know those around you.

In this particular instance, the film provides deeper cross-cultural understanding and there is the realization that economic depressions were not centered solely around the U.S. Japan had similar if not worse conditions for its populous. And if anything, it makes you realize how the nationalistic movement in Germany or imperialistic ambitions in Japan took root. It comes from people who are weary from economic and social deprivation. They want something better.

For his part, I deeply admire the character of Arigato-san because his purpose is a noble one planted in humility. It seems like he genuinely cares for his neighbors and he readily goes out of his way to increase their joy. On a large scale, things might well seem hopeless but the micro-level shows that Japan was made up of many considerate people. While that cannot alleviate all the suffering of the impoverished it certainly is a jumping off point to instigate human flourishing.

4/5 Stars

The Burmese Harp (1956)

The_Burmese_Harp_Nikkatsu_1956_poster.jpgPut in juxtaposition with Kon Ichikawa’s later rumination on WWII, The Burmese Harp is a romanticized even simplistic account of the Japanese perspective of the war. However,  this is not to discount the mesmerizing nature of the story that is woven nor the overarching truth that seems to linger over its frames.

If anything, it humanizes the Japanese point of view and, rather remarkably, it does this so soon after the war’s conclusion. They were a nation deeply concerned with honor and the only way to get past such an egregious defeat was to frame it in such a way that empowered them for the future.

Because the men who came out of the war unscathed would be the shoulders on which to build a new democracy. You see that even in Ichikawa’s portrayal of the “enemy,” in this case, the English. There is no obvious ill-will. In fact, you could even consider it surprisingly laudatory. Because The Burmese Harp is not concerned with any types of residual politics or long-harbored injustices.

One could make the case it’s a far more universal and a far more moving portrait of the wartime landscape. The story, adapted from a Japanese children’s tale, plays out rather like a parable.

In the waning days of the Burma campaigns, a Japanese Captain named Inouye (Rentaro Mikuni), with a background in music teaches his group of men chorale arrangements which they sing to maintain their morale while they march and during their idle hours. One of their company, Private Mizushima (Shoji Yasui), quickly picks it up and becomes especially skilled at playing the harp to accompany their songs.

One evening they find their position in a local village surrounded by British soldiers in the night. The tense scene is diffused by music in a mutual connection reminiscent of the Christmas cheer in Joyeux Noel.

They learn that Japan has officially surrendered and so they lay down their arms peaceably. Although fearful and demoralized by months of struggle, they resolve to weather it all together. But one of their members is called upon to try and get some of their comrades to stand down before the British blast them to smithereens.

Mizushima volunteers to be the one to undertake this initial task as a liaison to try and avoid the needless loss of more countrymen. It is not to be. Even as the war is already over, it’s this event that proves to be galvanizing in the private’s new position as a missionary of mercy.  After being rehabilitated by a monk, he takes on their dress and shaves his head compelled to give a decent burial to all his fallen comrades.

Moved by the memorial hymn sung over the dead Japanese soldiers at the British Hospital, he realizes what his final calling must be. It’s easy to wager that the film’s most poignant moments occur in conjunction with song. In many of the best interludes, we hear the voices ringing out amid nature whether it’s the shade of the forest or the cleared terrain of a military encampment you can sense the notes rising up into the heavens with the strains of angelic melodiousness.

The same songs lift the spirits of our characters, comforts their souls,  and gives them the resolve to push onward for the greater good.  It has to do with an unswerving belief that each individual life holds dignity. Despite their many spiritual differences, there’s no doubt that this is a conclusion arrived at by both Buddhism and Christianity. Yes, the ugliness is unavoidable. But just as prevalent are immense reservoirs of beauty.

Mizushima is compelled in the inter most catacombs of his being to rescue the bodies of his brothers-in-arms that their spirits might rest in peace for posterity. It seems like such a small even insignificant act especially in response to such a cataclysmic war. But it’s one man’s calling. It is not for a mere man to know the answers to all the plaguing questions. All we can do is ease the suffering. For him, it is something. For him, it is enough.

What lends urgency to the story is the very fact that Mizushima’s entire company is frantically trying to obtain news of his whereabouts as they are getting ready to be shipped home. One of their most faithful messengers is a kindly old lady who learned some Japanese dialect. She can only give them small morsels but they cling to some hope. First, they think he’s been killed. Then, they think they’ve passed him on a bridge. Finally, they get their closure.

The candor is nearly startling especially put in relief with Ichikawa’s later work Fires on The Plain which paints a starkly different picture (or a very different side of the same picture). Likewise, this movie is aided by a script penned by his wife and close collaborator Natto Wada.

What we are left with are clear resounding strains of pacifism but by no means does it feel belligerent. What is conveyed is the sheer meaninglessness of war. However, it’s done through different avenues than his later work.

The film is bookended by the phrase, “The soil of Burma is red and so are its rocks.” The mind quickly flies to the pints of blood that were spilled across this terrain. It’s a grim reminder and yet The Burmese Harp, despite being a bittersweet tale, does boast hope. In the wake of war, such hopefulness is indispensable. You cannot progress without it.

4/5 Stars

Fires on the Plain (1959)

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The opening images of Fires on the Plain nearly catch you off guard. Not only are we thrown into a dialogue sequence that we have yet to grasp but much like Ozu would have a penchant for doing, director Kon Ichikawa photographs two Japanese soldiers head on so their conversation and reactions face the camera directly. It’s the first of numerous times where the film messes around with visual convention. But that’s not the half of it.

Fires on the Plain proves to be a repeatedly idiosyncratic war film while subsequently becoming one of the most appalling. As an audience, we are privy to one Japanese soldier’s listless pilgrimage across the bleak and generally decimated terrain. There’s no goal in sight. No reason even to stay alive. He is stricken with tuberculosis but the hospital, drowning in casualties already, won’t take him because he’s not fatal enough.

His commanding officer, who berated him in the opening minutes for returning to his starving unit, told him to try the hospital again or else use his grenade to kill himself and uphold his duty.

Ichikawa frames his pointless journey with unconventional camera setups that are considerably jarring if not completely detached. Private Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi) lumbers up each hill mechanically. Hacks his way through the underbrush. There’s little meaning to his movements. Any incoming threat seems inconsequential in spite of hikes in dramatic scoring. Still, he wanders through ghost towns and fresh graveyards. Rather haphazardly skewers a stray mutt with his bayonet. Guns down a local inside a hut as part of his constant search for food. Another villager gets away in a boat.

By this point, Tamura hardly cares anymore and proceeds to drop his useless firearm into a river; there are no bullets left. When he’s not alone he joins the most beleaguered band of squatters as they blindly wander toward their evacuation point together but no less pitiful.

It’s not a film to shie away from the stomach-churning, grotesque, forlorn, utterly hopeless realities of what war really is. Fields strewn with dead bodies. Heaps of skeletal remains. Hospitals with abhorrent conditions. Wild tales of men eating human flesh just to stay alive in New Guinea. Wading through mud. Playing dead with incoming enemy fighters. There’s little respite from this onslaught.

It becomes so absurdly hopeless it’s almost funny. What else is there to resort to? In the rain, trampling through the underbrush, first, one soldier sees a pair of discarded boots and switches his worn pair with these. This swapping continues with another man. The first man’s trash is his treasure. By the time our protagonist gets there, the boots left over are completely worn through but his boots have no soles either so he just tosses them on the ground and resigns himself to walking barefoot.

This is insanity. It’s cruddy. Absolutely dreadful imagery again and again and again. There’s a certain point where it simply becomes an act of survival — nearly monotonous in its never-ending, never ceasing plodding toward an ultimatum. We must begin to ask questions. Why do we do this to ourselves? Why must we go through this suffering and inflict pain and injury on our fellow man? We even resort to infighting just to survive.

If you came in with any idealized visions of warfare still intact, Ichikawa’s intent is to rip those preconceptions away limb from limb. There is no good in war. Only vile, putrid, horrible, unthinkable things that extinguish life and crush the human spirit.

Such moments prove to make Fires on the Plain a perfect counterpoint to Hollywood’s Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) going far beyond their choices in palette. Because Ichikawa’s film takes it’s black and white cinematography and carries it into all aspects of the production. It’s the nitty-gritty, the somber, the absolute disgusting side of war dolled out without much hesitation.

It fits nicely into the world developed in pictures such as The Steel Helmet (1951) and Red Badge of Courage (1951), except one can contend that Ichikawa takes it even further into the abyss. In fact, it would also serve as a fine companion piece for the provocative docu-drama The General’s Naked Army Marches On (1987).

However, not for a moment would I bash David Lean’s landmark epic nor the performances of such titans as Alec Guinness and William Holden. The pictures succeed in their portrayals in part because of their contrasting approaches to the same futility of war. That statement is made in both but the mode of expression is radically different.

If my recollections are correct we never hear explicitly where the action takes place though we can make many educated assumptions. Fittingly, in the last frame, we are told. The Philippine Front, 1945. Not that it matters. It could have been any war in any place.

There are anti-war statements and there are absolute anti-war immersions, arguably none more devastating than Kon Ichikawa’s effort here. Because to be trapped knee deep in this hell hole you know there is no way that such a world should exist. And yet we cannot be so naive to believe that such a shocking scenario is only of the imagination. It’s a troubling film to watch because we can’t help but be assaulted with the truth even as we would like nothing better than to bury it.

How can life get to such an intolerable point where death is perceived to be a greater gift than life? In not so flippant terms, maybe war is hell. Man turned against man. There is no harmony. There is no peace,  only chaos and destruction waiting for us around every corner.

The novel on which the film was based purportedly ends with our narrator taking on a Christian perspective and gaining a more optimistic outlook on Man and life after the war. However, I have few qualms with Ichikawa’s interpretation, though more downbeat, it makes the equally frank assertion that Man is prone to evil and violence. If Man was wholly good there would be no war. But something quakes within us that makes us belligerent. The age-old question remains what or who can save us from this world of death?

4/5 Stars