Jinro (Hiroyuki Okiura, 1999)

At this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF), Japanese cinema had a strong presence. Eight new features – two anime films, four horror movies, one marathon art movie and one classic samurai movie – plus a retrospective package of six films directed by maverick director Suzuki Seijun in the 1960s were screened (1).

Two of the Suzuki films (Tokyo Drifter [1966] and Branded to Kill [1967]) are in the National Library Film Collection in video format and have been screened on television but seeing them up on the big screen in beautifully crisp 35 mm prints certainly demonstrated their stylistic strengths more effectively. Suzuki churned out formula genre pictures for Nikkatsu in the ’60s at a time when the studio turned up the volume of sex and violence in order to tempt audiences back into the cinema after the introduction of television had decimated theatre attendances. As is evident in these two popular yakuza movies, Suzuki enlivened the schlock content, amused himself and entertained his audiences with wild experiments in the use of colour, composition and sound, giving the films a somewhat camp flavour and an absurd edge.

Unfortunately, the third yakuza movie, Youth of the Beast (1963), was a poor quality 16 mm print, which was not worth importing, and another early crime movie, Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell, Bastards! (1963), despite its tempting title, did not show Suzuki off to advantage. This routine cops-versus-gangsters movie may have had a place in a full retrospective of Suzuki’s career but was unworthy of inclusion in such a small sampling of his work, which offers much more interesting fare. A conspicuous absence was any one of Suzuki’s late Taisho trilogy, made independently between 1980-91. They are amazing films set in a ’20s decadent artistic milieu, full of identity confusion, sensuality and eroticism, teasing enigmas, and a total blurring of the border between reality and fantasy. The first of the trilogy, Zigeunerweisen (1980), was retrospectively voted the best Japanese film of the ’80s by Japanese critics. Perhaps curator Philip Brophy’s disdain for the art cinema and fondness for popular commercial culture precluded his inclusion of them, even though they are full of violence and beauty (the sub-title of his package).

However, the package did include two movies which revealed a more serious aspect of Suzuki. These films address socio-historical issues of some weight; and are marked by a straighter style. Story of a Prostitute (Shunpuden, 1965) is a romantic melodrama set in a “comfort station” on the Manchurian battlefront during WW2. I didn’t find it as biting or disturbing as his earlier Gate of Flesh (Nikutai no Mon, 1964) – likewise adapted from a novel by Tamura Taijiro and focusing on military prostitution, but set in the bombed ruins of early post-war Japan – which I viewed at the Edinburgh Festival in 1988, at a comprehensive Suzuki retrospective attended by Suzuki himself. Gate of Flesh is a sensational (in all senses of the word) depiction of liminal existence, totally lacking in subtlety or sentimentality. It is a shocking film, in the way that Buñuel’s Mexican film about juvenile delinquency, Los Olvidados (1950), is shocking.

Fighting Elegy (Kenka Ereji, 1966) has even less of the stylistic playfulness of the yakuza movies than Story of a Prostitute. It bears the imprint of its scriptwriter, Shindo Kaneto, himself a director of some note, and a long-standing leftist social critic. This film portrays the culture of violence and militarism among youth in pre-war (’30s) Japan through the story of a young man with an excess of testosterone who sublimates his overactive sexual desires in the cult of violence and finds a hero in the charismatic ultra-right-wing ideologist, Kita Ikki. Unlike Suzuki’s yakuza movies, Fighting Elegy explores male violence with reference to psychoanalytic and social factors. The violence of the hero is not celebrated mindlessly for our amusement but examined and critiqued. The hero’s romantic infatuation with a chaste Christian girl who plays the piano occasions the use of some heavy Christian symbolism and romantic mood music – but her rejections of his sexual advances leads him headlong into orgies of violence. As in much of the serious Japanese art cinema of the ’60s, sexual repression is linked to right wing politics and militarism.

The violence of male fantasy (projected onto woman) is explored tellingly in the recent horror movie, Audition (Miike Takashi, 1999). This film starts off in low-key realist vein and only slowly and insidiously develops into a horror movie. It is cunningly constructed on the narrative level but not innovative or arresting in film style. What is interesting about it is its Japanese variation on the Fatal Attraction theme. The vengeful woman of this film is not a professional independent woman but a reserved and oppressed girl, the sort of apparently submissive Japanese girl who is traditionally esteemed as the ideal marriage partner. Following his initial infatuation, the mature-age male protagonist becomes troubled. In his overactive imagination, she is transformed into a deadly castrator: she severs limbs, and tortures the tongues and eyes of her victims with needles. The pliable Japanese girl is a trap, and a lie; she masks a grotesque femme fatale. This film is an exploration of paranoid male fears of that creature/creation of Japanese patriarchy – the pure Japanese girl.

The other horror movies also provided Japanese variations on popular Hollywood antecedents: Ring (Nakata Hideo, 1998) recalls the Scream series; Gemini (Shinya Tsukamoto, 1999), both Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988). The haunted videotape and frightening phone call which engender a series of fatalities in Ring suggest not only the ghost in the machine – the dangers inherent in modern technology – but are also linked to ancient Buddhist beliefs in stalking ghosts of suffering souls who departed life prematurely and unhappily, unable to find consolation or peace – a common subject of medieval Noh plays. The twin brothers of Gemini, played by the same actor, suggest a Jungian or Freudian interpretation of the Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde syndrome, i.e. civilized man shadowed by his double, the savage; until they are revealed to be actual twins, when they come closer to Cronenberg’s twin gynaecologists in love with the same woman and caught up in deadly competition. Surprisingly for Tsukamoto, director of Tetsuo (1991) and Bullet Ballet (1998), the woman Ryo is treated as a major character and also endowed with a split personality – partaking of the same human condition as the men, torn between civilization and barbarism.

This film is a more conventional work than Tsukamoto’s previous films, a carefully crafted period film (Meiji setting) with meticulous mise en scène and a coherent narrative; but is still theatrically “experimental” (recalling Tsukamoto’s roots in the underground theatre) in its sound track and in its weird representations of the two opposing worlds. The savage underworld is all hot colours, crazy costumes, wild hairstyles and lurid make-up; the civilized world all cool colours, colourless faces, formal hairdos and elegant dress. The civilized/savage dichotomy is overlaid with a heavily rhetorical upper class/underclass dichotomy which adds to the period feel of the film. In contrast to Tsukamoto’s other works, which address late twentieth century issues (the impact of new technologies, in particular), this film addresses nineteenth century issues – polarized class difference and civilization versus barbarism – but I suppose you can still make a case for his ongoing concern with the dark side of man always threatening to push him over the edge. It is just that his message is becoming more and more conservative and pessimistic. In previous films he expressed anguish about late twentieth century developments – the post-industrial wasteland, urban anomie, violent video culture, disaffected youth. Now it is clear that it is not just the times that are awry, but human nature itself.

The anime films were for me the most exciting Japanese contributions to the Festival. Blood – The Last Vampire (Hiroyuki Kitakubo, 2000) is a violent action film with a crusading heroine, a secret service operant, who is hunting down vampires but is herself one. Scenes of terror in the subway recall the terror engendered by the destructive Japanese religious sect that operated in the Tokyo subway; while the transformation of students at the American college by the American Air Force base into monstrous killers suggests that Japan has been poisoned by the American military alliance. Vampires do not figure in Japanese cultural tradition, so this is another case of imported myths taking on a special resonance in the Japanese context.

Jinro (Hiroyuki Okiura, 1999) is an even more interesting movie. It grafts the European folktale of Little Red Riding Hood onto the story of the historical confrontation between radicals and police in early post-war Japan. The film opens with the explosion of the atomic bomb and a documentary-style exposition of the socio-political situation in post-war Japan. Then the fictionalised dramatic narrative commences: A young girl acting as courier for the radical opposition is pursued by the top-secret Wolf Brigade of the Police Force (which is explicitly linked to the anti-communist operations of G2, a notorious right-wing faction within the American Occupation forces) in the sewers of Tokyo. She self-destructs when confronted by the Wolf Pack, after they have successfully eliminated her radical comrades, but haunts the Wolf Pack leader, who hesitated to fire at her. Her look-alike older ‘sister’ – another young woman radical – is conscripted by the Police force as a decoy. She reads him the German folktale of Little Red Riding Hood. The Wolf becomes enamoured of the girl with the red cape and tries to protect her, but is ultimately unsuccessful. The tragic love story between the trained secret serviceman and the dissident girl, both victims of secret high-level political programs, is clearly a political allegory. The state’s policing agencies successfully destroyed the forces of dissidence in Japan by the 1970s. This romantic elegy is pervaded by melancholy – and an aching yearning for possibilities (political and romantic) repressed by the triumph of a brutal patriarchal state. One could also read the emphasis on the German version of Little Red Riding Hood – the German title and German-language text of the tale are highlighted in close up – as a reminder of Japanese collaboration with German fascism prior to and during WW1 – and even as suggesting a link between the ruthless anti-leftist crusades of the post-war Japanese state and the methods of the SS…

Another interesting aspect of this film, which was scripted by Mamoru Ishii (director of Patlabor and Ghost in the Shell), is that its animated characters actually look Japanese. They have small brown eyes and brown hair. Unlike many Japanese anime films, Ghost in the Shell included, this film is clearly located in a Japanese setting with specific reference to the political situation in a precise period of Japanese history, although it employs a European folktale as a central narrative device.

Veteran director Ichikawa Kon’s realisation of a long-dormant script, Dora Heita (1999), is an enjoyable re-working of a familiar tale in the jidai-geki repertoire – the one about the master swordsman who practises imposture and duplicity in order to rid the town of corruption and vice. It is a nostalgic film, not only in its revival of a popular genre from the past, and its accompanying publicity, which highlights the contribution of two no-longer-alive great Japanese directors (Kurosawa and Kinoshita) to the script; but also in the casting of a lot of familiar old faces from the glorious days of jidai-geki.

Eureka (Shinji Aoyama, 2000) was one of the films at the Festival that divided audiences. I was one of those who were critical of it. The sustained use of a brown tinting which simulated the look of sepia photography was artfully done but did not resonate with purpose or meaning, apart from generating admiration for the cinematography. We associate sepia with early photography, with the past, with nostalgia. Here it was used to tell a contemporary tale of crime, trauma and redemption, following a hi-jacking of a bus. The story became less and less plausible – and the issues more and more muddled – as the film dragged on. The surviving bus driver seeks out and adopts the other two survivors, a mute pair of children (brother and sister) and takes them on the road. The redemption theme is muddied by a murder mystery theme and the final flowering of the screen into full colour to reveal a glorious panorama of mountains and sea – signalling the girl’s cure and return to life – seemed to me histrionically rhetorical. Still, you can make a case for the festival showcasing a film like this: its cinematography screams “art movie” and its prohibitive length precludes commercial exhibition.

In regard to programming, I would like to take this opportunity to recommend to the incoming Director of the 2001 MIFF (whoever that may be) some Japanese masterpieces from the ’60s that have not been exhibited here. Oshima Nagisa and Imamura Shohei have had wide exposure, but some of their remarkable contemporaries have been neglected. Yoshida’s Eros plus Massacre (1969) examines two different generations of the political and sexual avant-garde, shifting back and forth between the ’20s and the ’60s, employing a dazzlingly deconstructive approach to identity, history and memory. It’s a bit like Night and Fog in Japan (Oshima, 1960) made in the style of Death by Hanging (Oshima, 1968) – but with more sex and gender in the politics and an even more experimental and outrageous film style. Wakamatsu Koji’s Violated Women in White, another film of the same year (1969) that links sex and politics in outrageous fashion, and was hailed as a masterpiece by Noël Burch, is long overdue for exhibition here. Of course, when it comes to Japanese masterpieces unseen in Australia, the list is endless and I could go on and on…

Endnotes

  1. Throughout this essay, Japanese names are written so that they follow Japanese conventional order, that is, family name (surname) first and personal name second.