“Man has created death.”
Some highlights from a few new wave poster-boys—for whom society is always collapsing, as well it should, with the only change and revolution to be found in irrational destruction, suicidal (Oshima) or murderous (Imamura). One at a time:
Violence at Noon (Oshima Nagisa, 1966)—A film of trashy dialogue (nearly starting with “I still remember how you tasted—that’s why I risked coming here”) and a methodical series of collapsed thematic binaries: two transgressive couples; love and hate; love and death; the mistress and the schoolmistress (mother); stable reality and fluctuating memory; society and nature; reason and instinct. All of which just adds up to the stereotypically Japanese (or Catholic) sentiment that society’s repressions make us want to lash out, which in turn makes us feel guilty, which in turn makes us want to lash in; the prototypically pornographic story has to do with a guy only capable of emotion—love and hate—when he rapes and murders or tries to kill himself, and women only capable of emotion—love and hate—when raped. But what is sado-masochism but the greatest binary of them all?
For Oshima, the whole project’s pulp to be molded (and shredded) into a correlating series of delirious visual doubling. A reflection in a mirror prompts the director to match it, and cut furiously back and forth 180 degrees, as he gives us a face from left and right and left. Likewise, the whip-around of a head: as the face turns from one side to another, the editing follows suit. As seems to be typical for him, Oshima sets upon a style that will best correspond to and announce his themes, so that here, the prestissimo ricocheting of cuts—borrowed, like the themes, from Resnais, and Muriel in particular—is a theoretician’s idea of what the unsteadied, broken-down consciousness of an enfeebled woman is like. But in this movie of endless rapes and dialectics, the simplest binary is the best, the ultra-crisp black and white. Oshima relies almost entirely on close-ups to abstract his characters from recognizable reality and announce that we’re in the realm of Memory, and to pin them against entirely black or white backdrops; black and white even switch off with each other in back as the characters in the foreground vacillate (I love him! I hate him!). Finally, the two main women step off a train—another clever symbol for memory—into the real-world of Tokyo. Almost. Even here, Oshima only grants the thuds of one girl’s footsteps as she runs through city bustle. There’s no escaping post-war reality, of course, but much worse, there’s no escaping one’s delusional memories. Past and present both intertwine and both ensnare, though as ever, it’s a movie more concerned with representation than the excuse for all the style: what’s actually being represented.
The Ceremony (Oshima Nagisa, 1971)—No close-ups here, but tableaux, a world of the petrified and the damned, in which a single character, walking among the frozen aristocracy, will seem to be making his or her way through a statue gallery. The influence, then, has moved back to Marienbad and Hiroshima. The immobilized protagonists correspond both to a critique of the post-war aristocracy, stuck in the rigor mortis-like position and tradition of a now-meaningless class, and the snapshot tendencies, again, of memory. Something like a dream—or a Hitchcock movie—the film is set up as a series of installation pieces almost come to life and increasingly forced: a man pretending a pillow is his wife, a man pulling a girl into a casket to hold her, a man pantomiming a wedding with a phantom wife. A deadened, deadpan satire, “The Ceremony” is its perfect title, as character play out preposterously formalized roles for the sole sake of going through the proper motions, whether or not anyone else plays along (there’s usually a hold-out). Like Conflagration, it’s about, among other things, the search for honor and heroism where it can’t be found; the best one can do is to do what’s right and which, of course, rarely is. Tradition has been outmoded, as lost to the past as the reminiscing leads, and the only power one has in this mock-up of a social order is, as seems usual for Oshima, to commit suicide.
Conflagration (Ichikawa Kon, 1958)—
“Should the conflagration climb, Run till all the sages know. We the great gazebo built, They convicted us of guilt;
Bid me strike a match and blow.”
Black Rain (Imamura Shohei, 1989)—Ozu in the post-apocalypse. The equally bitter prospects of looming marriages and deaths for a quiet family living in 1950 quotidian, drinking tea and fishing in rhythm. Except this is Imamura’s comic book quotidian, in which a deranged potential spouse cutely mistakes the sounds of trucks for bombs and mistakes himself for a war hero who can stop them; in which everyone may have severe radiation damage from Hiroshima five years before. Once again, it’s an Imamura film that finds its characters, hollowed out by years of internalizing society’s problems, compromises, and abuses, living in constant threat of arbitrary death. The bomb just plays the role killers play in other Imamura films—even after it’s exploded. But the focus, for once, is on those who do compromise and capitulate, to live, rather than the usual murderers and masochists inviting (and invoking) their own deaths. One character provides the most rousing declaration Imamura could probably muster: “Human beings learn nothing…unjust peace is better than a war for justice.”
Intentions of Murder (Imamura Shohei, 1964)—Like Violence at Noon, Intentions straddles abstraction and neorealism, even some deliberately anomalous verité sequences, uses trains as both synecdochal stand-ins for all of society as well as symbols for the characters’ unruly minds, and concerns a woman taken with (and by) a man who rapes her, then asks her to kill herself with him. But the use of trains (a favorite post-war Ozu lynchpin as well) is instructive. Whereas Violence is structured around flashbacks that women have inside the train—sealed-off and set on a path, so all they can do is sit and watch and rewatch what’s predetermined (as in Letter from an Unknown Woman)—the many roaring trains of Intentions, which provide appropriate musical accompaniments for rapes and attempted murders, are almost always seen from the outside—they’re disruptive, phallic, and, ramshackling out of nowhere, a bit invasive and deranged. A 150 minute character study of a fat woman with no character left to her, Intentions is all about invasions: a burglar who invades her home, her body, and her life, offering adventure and excitement for which she is entirely unqualified. In a bunch of ways, it’s a proto-Jeanne Dielman, a depiction of a woman, society’s slave, whose cooking and cleaning allow no outlet for her desperation, however much they blunt the rage they should incite. Every once in a while, we hear her thoughts, all of which are obvious and insipid; repeatedly, she wonders whether she should let herself get raped. Quite deliberately, Harukawa Masumi’s sponge-like anti-performance, absorbing massive amounts of the movie’s space and time as she bobs and frets about, an amoebic blob, is nearly as insufferable as her character’s life. For unlike Jeanne Dielman, who’s sexually and societally exploited at once, Harukawa’s Sadako has the choice to be victim to the unrelenting niceties of her husband’s household, or to the sex games of a maniac. That she does both and never chooses, never does anything but what she’s told, is proof of how much her insecurities, exacerbated every day, have zapped her of her will. This is probably the first time she’s ever needed it.
But Imamura places her against a backdrop of a people and places that seem likewise out of control, or out of her control, in completely different ways. The husband is drunk, violent, and has asthma; the lover, desperate to rape her, kill her, and (not unlike the audience) to get any reaction out of her at all, has heart troubles. Both seem mostly crippled, emotionally, physically. Meanwhile, sound effects come sparse and muffled, and Sadako’s voice-over whispered. Sometimes trains are seen without even the roar that repeatedly figures in for rape. And outside the neat housework, Imamura shows a rainy, then snowy, Japan, another endless muting force, even visually. Just as Imamura puts Sadako’s domestic surroundings out of focus indoors, in nature, the all-white snow or an all-black cavern leave her abstracted from the world, mercifully unable to find a place within it. It’s as though Sadako has absorbed most worldly sensations, her powers of feeling and recognition dulled. Actually, like Oshima’s characters, she finds escape in memories, but they’re all guilty and traumatic. And provide Imamura’s sick iteration of Ozu’s pillow shots: that soundless train storming by, or a lengthy caterpillar crawling up a young, already helpless Sadako’s leg.
Violence at Noon will play at the Walter Reade on October 7th; The Ceremony on October 12th; both are part of the travelling Nagisa Oshima retrospective.