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勝手にしやがれ #4: Resistance is Futile (Post-Berlin)

As Japan enters another season of social-economic woes which fail to find a filmic voice to address the state of affairs, instead releasing a number of vacuous titles, the recent Berlinale rewards seem to further underscore things. Two veteran filmmakers, the figurehead of Japanese independent cinema Koji Wakamatsu, and mainstream helmer of nearly fifty Tora-san films, Shochiku favorite Yoji Yamada, summoned us to take a closer look at the country’s film industry.  Each took home awards; prize for best actress was awarded to Shinobu Terajima, starring in Wakamatsu’s Caterpillar, the tale of a village wife expected to care for a husband who returns from war a mutilated hero, and a lifetime achievement award went to Yamada, on hand with his latest tear-fest, Ototo (About Her Brother), in which a man abuses his older sister’s generosity, until she cuts him off, and discovers him later dying in a hospital.

The transparent yet contagious charm of Werner Herzog’s jury prizes in Berlin perhaps found its full expression in having an event such as Berlin finally recognize Koji Wakamatsu, the one director who, with the late Shohei Imamura, never gave up on his anger at Japanese society. Aberrant, deviant sexuality, along with radical politics, has been a cornerstone of the director’s cinema for nearly fifty years. Caterpillar, with its stellar cast, and unusually rich (by Wakamatsu standards) production values, is in sharp contrast to his previous film, the remarkable United Red Army (2007). His raging exploration of sexuality as a political duty is served this time by an inspired performance by Shinobu Terajima, an actress who has never shied away from eroticism in art cinema, notably in her collaboration with another pinku director turned auteur, Ryuichi Hiroki, with whom she collaborated on two outstanding Japanese films of the last decade, Vibrator (2003), and It’s Only Talk (2005) (1).  Meanwhile, Yoji Yamada, a gifted director of consensual films over a career spanning a similar length as Wakamatsu's, worked with two distinct generations of actresses for his latest, Ototo— the wondrous Yu Aoi and stalwart Sayuri Yoshinaga.  Kon Ichikawa’s own Ototo (1960), which weaves a similar tale about too much proximity between siblings, still fares better than Yamada’s nonetheless darker than usual release.

Yet despite these two awards, as soon as skater Mao Asada hit the ice in Vancouver, the dizzying speed with which the media turned away from the film accolades, felt more like a dismissal than an interruption. Things seemed back to normal in Tokyo on March 1st when a program of classic modernist films held at Nikkei Hall, Femmes@Tokyo, devoted to French actresses, was launched with Bunuel’s Belle de jour with Catherine Deneuve on hand.  In a conversation moderated by an eminent Japanese translator and professor at Tokyo University, he told Ms. Deneuve that even when he was growing up in his remote village, unable to see European films, he still heard that Deneuve was the most beautiful woman in the world andAlain Delon the most handsome man, to the delight of smiling faces in a packed hall where one was hard-pressed to locate youthful spectators. We’ll see later this month if they show up at UniFrance’s French Film Festival, also held in Tokyo, this time with Jane Birkin, as festival president, following on Juliette Binoche’s footsteps (2). This event functions mainly as a promotion tool for a diminishing number of French films already acquired by distributors and scheduled for release in 2010, along with a few others UniFrance hopes will find a buyer. At this time of writing, Jacques Audiard’s extraordinary Un Prophete, still hasn’t been picked up, in spite of the nine Cesars it just won. Perhaps an Oscar will make a difference. It did wonders in 2009for Yojiro Takita's Departures.

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(1) Back in 2007, the French Embassy in Tokyo, and art-house distributor and theater Uplink, organized a selection of short works in film and video entitled Extreme Love, curated by Nicole Brenez, experimental film expert and professor in Paris.  I was moderator one evening with Philippe Grandrieux, Ryuichi Hiroki, and actress Shinobu Terajima on stage.. Even back then, Ms. Terajima commented on how the Japanese mainstream film industry was in the midst of perceiving her, and thus cast her, as the mother, or older sister of a younger performer.  Yet directors operating outside that world, like Hiroki and Wakamatsu, have not abandoned talent for the sake of eternal teendom.

(2) I’ll be commenting further on this event later this month.

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“Shohei Immamura” ? " In a conversation moderated by an eminent Japanese translator and professor at Tokyo University…" — so “eminent” it’s not worth mentioning his name? “Yoji Yamada, a gifted director of consensual films…” — that’s a wonderful term, “consensual films”. Could you define it please? “Koji Wakamatsu, the one director who, with the late Shohei Immamura [sic], never gave up on his anger at Japanese society” — the “one director”? Is it possible that, while otherwise preoccupied with your affection for French cinema, your familiarity with Japanese filmmakers and their politics remains somewhat less than comprehensive? Perhaps you could retitle your column “Japanese Film and Media in light of one filmgoer’s Francophilia”…
Thanks for noting the spelling error Chuck, it’s been corrected.
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Thank you, Danny. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts about Western influences on Mizoguchi’s 30s films (as alluded to in Kevin Lee’s piece today). I confess to not knowing those 30s Mizoguchi’s nearly well enough (with a couple of notable exceptions), and am preparing to revisit M’s STAGECOACH variation, OYUKI THE VIRGIN, later this week.
Hi Chuck, I believe the conversation came up after seeing Ozu’s THAT NIGHT’S WIFE, which is basically a Hollywood film shot with Japanese actors. In fact, for all I know it was shot in Los Angeles. It’s a shame that too little Japanese cinema of the 30s and 40s makes its way to the US, as I think it would be really interesting to see how, if at all (and I assume it did), the government’s efforts to excise things that appeared overtly Western after the Pacific war started changed the subjects and style of cinema at the time.
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Ozu’s early films are quite famously Western-influenced, of course, but I don’t think I’d ever heard quite the same case made for Mizoguchi, and in particular for his 30s films. The government interference with Mizoguchi’s work in the 40s has been rather exhaustively documented in English and Japanese (in essence, the choice came down to feudal tales or undisguised propaganda), especially as it produced his epic, and epically architectural version of the Chushingura.
Chuck, At the risk that you’ll ignore the following comments because they have my name attached to them, I’ll say that the earliest Mizoguchis I’ve seen — the fragments that remain of his 1920s work — seemed (at the time that I saw them) to show the influence of expressive montage theories (more mid-20s European ones than the early Soviet ones) and of a certain kind of pictorial Expressionism. There seemed to be shades of Murnau, especially in Song of Home. However, I now think that some of those influences can be ascribed to Minoru Murata, though I’ve only seen one of his films, and from what I understand the city vs. country plot of Song of Home was imposed on Mizoguchi. The reason the case seems harder to make for Mizoguchi as Western-influenced than Ozu is because, if the influence exists, it’s in the hard-to-find earlier films, and even there it’s more internalized than Ozu’s out-and-out homages (Dragnet Girl is supposedly a remake of a Josef von Sternberg picture, The Dragnet, which is, interestingly enough, now lost).
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Indeed, Mizoguchi’s out&out German Expressionist pastiches of the 20s are also well known (if sometimes only partially, given the apparently numerous still-missing titles.) Those basics aside, what I was interested in here was specifically the possibility of there being some Western influence in M’s 1930’s works, which I’m reasonably sure is there (I wasn’t being facetious about OYUKI’s relation to STAGECOACH, both drawn from the same de Maupassant story), I just haven’t spent much time considering that aspect of his 30s work until now.
Well, this is more a sense I get from the films that any quotations / parallels I can readily pull out, but I think that, as with some of Ozu’s films, there’s a fair amount of silent Sternberg, namely Docks of New York, to some 1930s Mizoguchi. The camera catches the characters in the space in a similar way.
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Jo cast a long shadow, as it were.
Yeah, I guess you can say “there’s a fair amount of silent Sternberg” about just about anyone who was worth a damn. A lot of cinema’s Sternbergian.

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