Archive for the ‘Japan’ Category

Face of Another

January 15, 2011

Face of Another is a 1966 film directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara, with a screenplay by Kōbō Abe, based on his own novel.

Okuyama (Tatsuya Nakadai) is a man whose face was severely burned in an industrial accident. He suspects that his wife, Mrs. Okuyama (I’m sorry, but that’s how her name is listed in the credits; played by Machiko Kyô), no longer desires him. He persuades his psychiatrist, Hira (Mikijiro Hira), to contruct a life-like mask for him. The mask looks so real, that people think it is actually his face. Okuyama plans to seduce his wife without her knowing his real identity. He contrives a “chance” meeting with her on the street. The two have tea together, and eventually they go back to an apartment he has rented. After they make love, Okuyama decides to reveal himself to her. Just as he starts to remove the mask, however, she tells him she has known it is really him all along. She thought they were playing a joint masquerade. She is disgusted to learn that he thought he was fooling her. She leaves.

Okuyama goes beserk. He goes out and tries to rape a woman on the street, but the police stop him. They can find no identification on him, only a card with his psychiatrist’s phone number. When they call Hira, he tells them that Okuyama is an escaped mental patient. Hira comes to the police station and they turn Okuyama over to him. Hira and Okuyama walk down the street and enter a crowd of people wearing masks. They have a philosophical discussion. Hira says, “Some masks can’t be removed.” They leave the crowd. Okuyama embraces Hira in a manner that is almost sexual. The latter slumps to the ground. We then see that Okuyama has actually stabbed him. The film ends with a close-up shot of Okuyama pulling at his face. He can no longer remove his mask.

This story is interspersed with scenes from the life of a woman (Miki Irie), whose face was partially burned during the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. I could not see how these scenes related to the main story. They merely seemed like a distraction. It would have been much better if Teshigahara had made a separate film about an atomic bombing survivor.

This film deals with two themes: how our sense of identity influences our behavior, and how our sense of our physical appearance influences our sense of identity. After he dons the mask, Okuyama goes out and buys flashy clothing that are unlike what he usually wears. Hira tells him that the mask is telling him what to do. It is “taking over”.

This film has some creepy moments in it. The effect is not unlike the feeling one gets from reading an Edogawa Ranpo story. Hira, for example, has a “mad scientist” air about him. In one scene, he speculates that if he were to give every person a mask, it would “destroy morality”. He seems to find this prospect enticing. Hira’s office is a bleak, seemingly formless space that could have come out of a Dali painting. At times it seems to exist in a dream world. It raises the question of whether Okuyama is actually imagining things. (This is very Ranpoesque.)

Face of Another is the third of a trilogy of films, the first two being Pitfall and The Woman in the Dunes. I’m told that when Face of Another was released, critics argued that it was inferior to the previous films. I have not seen Pitfall, but The Woman in the Dunes has a very straightforward feel to it. By comparison, Face of Another seems confusing and full of obscure symbolism, such as the crowd wearing masks. Still, I liked the film’s creepy and surreal touches.

The Woman in the Dunes

January 7, 2011

The Woman in the Dunes is a 1964 film directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara, with a screenplay by Kōbō Abe, based on his own novel. Junpei Niki (Eiji Okada) is an amateur entomologist who is collecting insects in dunes near the sea. He misses his bus back to town, so he asks some people from a nearby village if there is a place where he can spend the night. They take him to a pit with a house at the bottom of it. They tell him the woman who lives there (Kyoko Kishida) will put him up for the night. Junpei doesn’t find anything strange or suspicious about this. He climbs down a rope ladder into the pit. He learns that the woman (we’re never told her name) digs sand, which is then hauled up with a rope. The villagers sell the sand. The next morning, he finds that the villagers have pulled up the ladder. They want him to remain in the pit and dig sand with the woman. He refuses to dig and demands that they let him go. The villagers withhold water from him for several days until he finally gives in.

Junpei and the woman develop a sexual relationship. (I can’t really call it a romance, especially since he never asks her what her name is.) Junpei escapes from the pit, but he gets stuck in quicksand and the villagers capture him. Months go by and Junpei becomes resigned to his situation. One day he asks the villagers if he can be allowed to leave the pit for a half hour at a time, so he can look at the sea. They tell him they will let him do it on one condition: that he and the woman have sex in front of them. The woman is revolted by this idea. Junpei, however, is so debased at this point that he tries to rape her – but he is unable to go through with it.

Later Junpei discovers a way to draw water from the sand. He feels immensely pleased with himself. The discovery gives him a sense of self-respect in his humiliating situation. One day, the woman becomes ill. Junpei displays genuine concern for her. He persuades the villagers to take her to a doctor. They lift her out of the pit with a rope. When they are done with this, they forget to pull up the rope ladder. Junpei climbs out of the pit. He walks along the beach for a while, and then he climbs back into the pit. He gazes admiringly at his water trap. He tells himself that he will one day tell the villagers about this discovery, then he will escape. The film ends with a shot of a police bulletin saying that Junpei has been missing for seven years.

The message of this film is that we don’t try to free ourselves because we take consolation in petty achievements. I think there is some truth in this idea. An office worker prides himself on getting the corner office, instead of trying to get rid of the capitalist system that exploits him.

This film is beautifully done. There are many shots of shifting sand. I never before realized that sand can move in surprisingly complex and interesting ways. The sex scenes are subtly erotic and tastefully done.

Battles without Honor and Humanity

December 13, 2009

I recently saw the film, Battles without Honor and Humanity (1973). It is a Japanese yakuza film directed by Kinji Fukasaku. It tells the story of Shozo Hirono (Bunta Sugawara), an ex-soldier in post-World War II Hiroshima, who joins a yakuza family. The film, which is reportedly based on real events, details the struggles between and within yakuza families. It was both a critical and a popular success when it was released in Japan, and it has been called the “Japanese Godfather.”

Throughout the film, the yakuza talk about their “honor”, though it’s clear that they have none; they are continually betraying one another. An implicit connection is made between the savagery of these gangsters and the destruction of Japan during World War II. At the beginning of the film, the title is shown over the mushroom cloud of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, thereby drawing an explicit connection between that event and the events in the film. In the opening scene, some US GI’s try to rape a Japanese woman in the middle of a crowded marketplace. They are attacked by a couple of men who will go on to become yakuza. The implicit message here is that the violence of the yakuza is rooted in the brutality of the US occupation. (Also, many of the yakuza are former soldiers.) Later, we’re told that the yakuza have gotten rich off the black market during the Korean War. War is shown as a corrupting influence.

The is film is shot in a lurid, semi-documentary style. Every time a gangster is killed, his name and date of death are splashed across the screen. This has two effects. First, it reminds us that the story is based on real events. Second, it tells us that ultimately the most important thing about these people is the fact that they are killed. It is a comment on the emptiness and futility of their lives.

On one level, this is a fast-paced action film, but on a deeper level, it is a thought-provoking and somewhat disturbing social commentary.

High and Low

November 21, 2009

Japanese cinema has always been an interest of mine, going back to when, as a child, I watched Japanese monster movies on Saturday afternoon TV. My tastes have evolved over the years. I recently saw a film by Akira Kurosawa, High and Low (1963). It tells the story of a wealthy businessman, Kingo Gondo (Toshirō Mifune), who is looking to seize control of a shoe company from the other stockholders. Suddenly he receives a phone call from someone who says he has kidnapped Gondo’s son. Gondo tells him he will pay the ransom, even though it means giving up the money he needs to buy out his enemies in the company, and he will be forced out of the company and into poverty. He subsequently learns that the kidnapper took the son of his chauffeur by mistake. Gondo then begins to waffle about paying the money. Only after pleadings from his wife, Reiko (Kyōko Kagawa) and from his chauffeur does he relent and pay the money. The rest of the film is mostly taken up with the police search for the kidnapper.

What makes High and Low interesting is its portrayal of class dynamics in Japanese society. Gondo has worked his way up from the factory floor in his company, and he takes pride in its product. He finds himself at odds with the other shareholders in the company, who don’t have his background working in production. Their desire to increase profits by making shoddily-constructed shoes offends Gondo’s sense of craftsmanship and pride in his work. Later, when these shareholders learn of Gondo’s predicament, they show no sympathy for him whatsoever. Instead, they openly relish the fact that they will now be able to push him out of the company, much to the disgust of the police detective who interviews them. When Gondo’s wife, Reiko, urges him to pay the ransom money, he contemptuously tells her that, being from a rich family, she has no idea what it’s like to be poor. Gondo’s chauffeur behaves in a craven manner towards him, even though Gondo lets his son play with his own.

The kidnapper is motivated by jealousy. He lives in poverty while he can see Gondo’s sumptuous house on a hill. (In one scene, a policeman comments on how the house seems to look down on the poorer city below.) It is this which motivates his crime, but ironically he kidnaps the chauffeur’s son instead. The kidnapper is portrayed as cruel and pitiless, nevertheless his anger is real. In the film’s final scene, he tells Gondo how much the sight of his house tormented him, a rebuke to Gondo’s vanity in buying the place. He then impotently claws at the glass dividing him from Gondo. He might as well be clawing at the economic system that separates them.

I’ve always known that Kurosawa was a pacifist. However, watching this film makes me think that perhaps his politics were more left-wing than I previously realized. I feel motivated to re-watch the other Kurosawa films that I’ve seen.