by Jan Philippe V. Carpio
“It is the inside that commands. I know that it may seem paradoxical in an art that is all about the outside. […] Only the conflicts that take place inside the characters give its movement to the film, its real movement.”
– Robert Bresson
“When I make a picture I never want to analyze it … I am interested only in the inside of people.”
“I am always interested in individual people, in capturing a very truthful image of what is inside them. This is a little different from focusing on society.”
– Susumu Hani
Superstar: The (Fill in Your Name Here) Story
During a casual exchange between Michael and Jackie, the main protagonists of Tom Noonan’s “What Happened Was …” Michael comments that he always thought that we were the stars of our own movies and that everyone else was an extra. This self-centered and troublesome understanding of life crosses many cultural and geographic boundaries and manifests itself in different forms ranging from annoying to fatal. Filmmakers from diverse backgrounds and cinematic styles such as Jean Renoir, Vittorio De Sica, Maurice Pialat and Abbas Kiarostami have all questioned or attacked this delusion of a tyrannical sense of the “superstar of your own life movie” sense of entitlement, in equally diverse cinematic explorations.
More than forty years after its release, Japanese filmmaker Susumu Hani’s “Nanami: The Inferno of First Love” also continues to question our insistence in sticking fanatically to the bible of our life scripts, line for line and word for word.
On one level, as Donald Richie notes in his “A Hundred Years of Japanese Film”, one might simplify the understanding of the film as a commentary on society versus the individual, collective tradition versus freedom, and how a traditional, conservative and repressive society inevitably suppresses attempts of its “citizens” to discover their more individual and personal humanity (194).
“It is the inside that commands.”
This is not to say that Hani denies the influence of society. Contrary to his statement, Hani acknowledges the influence and oppression of society but tries his best to hold it off for as long as he can by avoiding sociological generalities and knee jerk judgments that most other well-meaning but artistically inept films might fall into. Hani’s most notable statement, “… I am interested only in the inside of people.” finds its expressions not as most other films would obviously do through characters “speaking their feelings” through dialogue or the conventions of filmic language like tendentious reaction close-ups indicating a single layer of emotion such as happiness or anger, accompanied by appropriate mood music. Instead, Hani attempts to express the actual “inside of people”: that multi-layered, changing, shifting, slippery, self-contradictory, paradoxical, perpetual maelstrom of feelings, thoughts and emotions. Hani attempts to express the actual “inside of people” through the visual, aural, structural and performance “insides of the film”, creating a series of complex contrasts that more importantly work on the “insides” of the viewers.
Conventional narrative film by the nature of its goal driven and repetitive patterns, its master dual narrative templates of a triumph or failure, of the protagonist over the antagonist, encourages viewers’ self-centered understanding of life. Possibilities of deeper experiences are discounted over the false certainty of complete control over one’s destiny. Most viewers go to see films for a reassurance of biases rather than a questioning of them. Upon viewing “Nanami …” the viewer finds the latter almost unavoidable.
Moves and Countermoves
The second viewers relax their positions the film suddenly shifts and changes causing the viewers to also readjust their positions. The film gives off a sense that it seems to be literally evolving through its images and sounds into something beyond the promise of the initial “boy meets girl” relationship story. The film suggests no separation between its elements. Components flow into themselves, finding new relationships between images and sounds: disorienting visuals, subtle and layered levels of sound, with the audio usually serving as a transition to the next scene. Conflicting and contrasting images and sounds serve to encourage a mix of conflicting emotions within viewers who start to search for grooves to latch onto in between the counterpoints only to find that the positions of the counterpoints have also changed, as in the opening sequence where the only establishing information we are given is that a boy and a girl are on their way to have sex at a motel somewhere. We know nothing else about them save for their different attitudes towards the projected sexual encounter with the boy being more anxious, hesitant and reserved while the girl evokes a casual and confident air. Hani works with counterpoints between the two characters personalities as well as the images and the audio with a jarring and unnerving opening handheld point-of-view shot of a long, dark tunnel with a light at the end. We first assume this to be the girl’s point-of-view because we can hear her humming a tune. We also hear the couple talking off screen about the sexual encounter they are on their way to. Just as we are getting used to these particular narrative, image and audio threads, Hani shifts to a more objective shot, still handheld, following the couple (who we still know very little about) as they enter the tunnel from earlier – shifting our perception of time and space. Hani shoots them from the back so we cannot see the expressions on their faces. We continue to rely on the tone of their voices to pick up on their emotions. We hear the sound of passing vehicles and the couple’s continuing conversation suddenly shift to sounds of other people talking, people who are not shown onscreen, making us wonder and look for the source of the talking. A woman invites someone to have a good time. A fortune teller reads someone’s palm and tells a fortune about their love life. Is it the girl’s palm? Is it the boy’s palm? We see the fortune teller in the darkness of an unknown location. Is it still the tunnel? Is it another place? All this occurs in barely the first few minutes of the film.
Hani deliberately leaves us uncertain and in constant wondering. He achieves this through a profound utilization of the counterpoint technique where the opposite perspectives of the characters, the unmatched and opposing images and sounds layered on top of the other, the opposition of the flow of the film’s narrative and viewer expectations create a relationship of necessary tension, uncertainty and even conflict between the film and the viewer.
For Hani, this tension, this uncertainty and this conflict is necessary not because it makes the filmmaker superior to the viewer, but it invites the viewer to question the illusion of their own unconscious or conscious feelings of superiority over the film and ultimately to our experiences of life. Hani asks us to accept the truth of our own fallibility as human beings as to when he allows the possibility for us to question our own senses perceiving whether or not Shun sexually molested Momi, the little girl.
Unlike conventional films that rely solely on rhetoric, whether it’s the stereotypical character on the pulpit scene where characters make a speech to an audience about the film’s underlying “moral lesson” or characters creating the illusion of difficult thematic choices as dictated by the outward plot, from the beginning of the film, Hani understands that putting someone through an experience is the best way for that person to learn about life. He definitely understands and applies that misused but profound maxim “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it”. Hani realizes that we tend to fool ourselves with words and even images and sounds, and the deepest parts of our selves remain almost inexpressible and elusive notwithstanding our attempts to grasp them, however fleeting. Hani asks us to journey through the film as we might also journey through discoveries of a personal self that is unfixed, ever-changing and in flux as opposed to a defined and fixed idea of the self and identity defined by us, society and tradition.
Outside the Comfort Zone
Even as we go further in the film and gain more information and “control” over the experience, Hani tries to constantly shift or move us outside of the comfort of our conclusions. A casual sexual encounter in most other films instead turns into a dialogue and a baring of souls as the boy and the girl share their personal histories with each other. Even their backgrounds and personalities are not simplified: Shun (Akio Takahashi) is an orphan turned goldsmith apprentice-journeyman under his foster parents. Nanami (Kuniko Ishii) is a migrant factory worker turned nude model. She is more certain of herself internally despite her insecure place in society. He is less certain of himself internally despite the seemingly outward security of his present background.
One must take note of a profound performance and cinematic moment in the first motel scene that further illustrates Hani’s commitment to an open and unpredictable experience of life. Nanami is already naked and sitting on the bed. She is waiting for Shun to join her. Hani emphasizes the feeling of tension and anticipation for the couple and the audience by having Shun look outside the window before turning to look at Nanami in silence. All this is mostly shown through close-ups of his face rather than the motel room space. The reason for this becomes evident as Shun suddenly stumbles inexplicably, the sound of a metal object rolling off screen as Nanami laughs at him. Hani does not reveal the reason for him stumbling. In a handheld shot that follows the couple’s movement, Shun suddenly jumps on Nanami in bed as if the stumble served as a release for his sexual tension and hesitancy making him more concerned about covering up his embarrassment from his stumble. They roll around in bed in love play, her naked, him with his clothes still on save for his pants. We fully expect a sexual act to be consummated. Instead, Hani suddenly cuts to a static full shot of the couple sitting apart from each other. Nanami says “You may.” Shun hesitatingly takes her in his arms and lays her on the bed before suddenly pulling away. She asks him what is wrong. He leaves the bedroom to go to the bathroom to get a drink of water.
Within a few minutes, Hani has shifted our perception from Shun’s tension and anxiety, to shock from the unexplained stumble, to surprise and delight at the love play, to shock at the sudden cut of the couple apart as if the love play never happened, and finally bewilderment as one actually questions if the love play did actually happen or if it was only Shun’s imagination or the filmmaker showing us two possibilities of emotional interaction. The further one goes into the film the further one experiences reminders and challenges like this to our stubbornness of clinging to our idea of complete control.
Unlike other films which use a singular event that defines a character’s existence (i.e. the death of a loved one by the antagonist’s hands as in genre action movies) even the revelations of Shun’s birth mother abandoning him and sexual abuse by his foster father do not calcify Shun’s character or ultimately define his identity. Shun’s overall behavior and personality are evident but somehow remain unpredictable. We tend to like “figuring out” people we encounter in films and in life in order to place people within safe, neat and understandable packages for our own comfort rather than the more difficult work of adjusting our positions each time we interact with them. Hani denies us this limiting and selfish position. He makes us aware of the source but asks us not to define it through causality. Through both Shun and Nanami, he suggests possibilities of moments of true inner freedom – however brief – despite how others, society, culture, our personal history and personality may try to imprison us. One example of this is through close-ups which hint at other emotions beneath the surface of expression as in the close up of Shun after his jealous dismissal of Nanami’s hometown friend Daisuke. At the end of the close up of his affected macho scowl, Shun suddenly grins as if he is amused at himself or something outside of his first emotion against Daisuke. Hani also shows this through Nanami’s intense, layered and deeply felt looks in the motel. Her emotions are not clearly defined.
Life is Other People
To focus merely on the main characters would only be half the commitment. Instead of asking us to follow and analyze only the “story” and characters, Hani asks us to pay attention to the cracks where other parts of life and other lives peek or spill through. He does this consistently several times throughout the film as in the first sequence at the tunnel where he suddenly cuts from the tunnel to two lovers, two men, one of them kneeling and shaving the other’s body with a safety razor almost in religious adoration. We never see these two men again in the film. They serve no plot function. Hani never explains the need for showing them. One can only infer that this may serve some sort of cinematic atmosphere function, or perhaps Hani is already preparing us for his stance: that plot is a lie. Plot is just another enabler of our illusion of complete control and self-centered living. It is the deviations from our set plot that make experience richer and more interesting.
As he does with Shun and Nanami, Hani also devotes as much respect and interest to people and perspectives who would otherwise be throwaway characters, extras and local color in most other films. It is through these encounters with other lives that Hani suggests the possibility for the most growth beyond our narrow and insular views. Hani emphasizes this shift from the self to other perspectives through the film’s narrative structure, as when he breaks the narrative flow where instead of proceeding with stereotypical cause-and-effect scenes after Shun’s session with the hypnotist reveals his foster father’s sexual abuse, he immediately cuts to Nanami standing outside the nude model studio trying to convince customer’s to come inside. This sequence continues with Shun waiting outside the studio for Nanami to come out, the effects from the revelation of his sexual abuse seemingly absent, but perhaps his immediate presence outside of Nanami’s studio is a subtle indication of his internal reaction to the revelation.
Hani continues moving the audience outside of self-centeredness throughout the sequence as he cuts to a scene inside the studio with two nameless customers trying to convince two nude models to show more flesh, instead of cutting immediately to Shun meeting Nanami outside. Hani lets us conclude that Shun is waiting for Nanami by cutting to him outside before the nude models scene, then cutting back to him again. We think he is the one she will meet as she comes out of the studio before we are jarred by seeing her accompanied instead by her regular customer Ankokuji (Minoru Yuasa). We might also initially conclude that she is meeting Ankokuji in the first place, but Hani also deliberately confuses this through the aforementioned editing structure of this sequence.
Hani further compounds our confusion when we expect Shun to follow Nanami and Ankokuji somewhere to spy on them while having sex, but they instead end up in an underground sex den where Nanami performs with people acting out their sexual fantasies. Ankokuji, the organizer of gathering, watches and takes photos along with several other guests. Hani intercuts this scene with scenes of Ankokuji’s family, reminding us that this sexual deviant we have labeled in our minds is an actual person with actual relationships.
By this time we are left flabbergasted as to how the film’s narrative will continue to proceed which is the state Hani wants us to be in: in a state of vulnerability and wondering.
It’s Not Always About You
Even when the effects of an event on a main character are clear as to when Nanami is shown feeling sad and disappointed at the closing down of Ankokuji’s underground sex den, Hani does not allow her or us to wallow in the emotion. He immediately cuts to scenes of people in a public square: a woman selling self-help records and her customers, a man popping a paper balloon to relieve his anger against his boss, and later, on the street outside the nude model studio, a noodle vendor seemingly having a nervous breakdown as he strips down and poses naked until the police pick him up.
Shun and Nanami also experience these shifts together such as when Shun’s encounter with Ankokuji and Nanami moves away from a predictable violent showdown and instead reveals Ankokuji (a set piece villain in conventional films) as being just as lost within himself. Ankokuji backs down, and leaves Shun and Nanami to encounter a lonely baked sweet potato vendor whose attempts at interaction they reject.
As with the proprietor of the motel crassly leaving the couple in their room at the beginning of the film, Hani shows a respect and acceptance of other perspectives beyond the surface acceptance of films populated with people of different races who in actuality all fall under politically acceptable and homogenous modes of being. True tolerance must go beyond the surface of racial diversity and into perspectives different than, and to some extent, in opposition to our own.
One perhaps can conclude that Hani’s openness to possibility in this narrative film comes from his acclaimed documentary filmmaking background.
Based on this film, and written descriptions of his documentaries, one can perhaps also conclude that Hani’s documentaries – as writer and filmmaker Donal Foreman describes – are those that do not reinforce views and opinions as facts, but are actual explorations into different lives and different perspectives.
Hani shows his interest in particular things, behavior, quirks, nuances, through his characters. Like when Nanami asks Shun why he closes his eyes when he kisses her and doesn’t he want to see if she has her eyes closed as well. This kind of curious wonder at life also manifests itself as a way to move us outside of general conclusions about the film’s underlying purpose as in the scene at the waiting area of the studio where staff members and nude models watch a television news broadcast about the pressures on students to attend university. Before we can dissolve the scene into our heads as social commentary, Hani breaks our routine by asking us to pay attention to one of the staff members suddenly engaging one of the girls in an amusing conversation about how a tongue twister in the Aomori dialect can help improve one’s articulacy. Perhaps Hani suggests that it is focusing too much on the big issues that leaves us lost and disconnected while it is through these small and specific encounters between people where the possibilities of interaction and mutual understanding are highest.
Susumu Hani and Japanese Cinema
It seems suggested that Hani, along with Teshigahara Hiroshi, are pioneers and precursors to the studio and media created Japanese New Wave designation of filmmakers like Oshima and Shinoda (Richie 192, 195).
Yet his work is almost entirely not mentioned or given proper due by mainstream critics in the pantheon of great Japanese filmmakers.
Despite his shameful exclusion, in my opinion, Hani’s artistic and spiritual legacy as a filmmaker continues to live on through recent filmmakers like Isaka Satoshi (Focus, 1996), Kawase Naomi (Suzaku, 1997), Watanabe Fumiki (The Tutor, 1987), Suwa Atsuhiko (Duo, 1997), Kore’eda Hirozaku (Maboroshi, 1995) (Richie, 238-241).
Each one of them also chooses to blur or erase the lines between documentary and fiction filmmaking to attempt to reach a greater artistic truth outside of questions of “realness”.
In the end, Hani’s exclusion is not so baffling if one were to explain it using two possible reasons. The first reason relates to Japanese culture’s different understanding of realism from the West. The latter sees it as art mimicking the outward appearance of things whereas the former sees reality as something to be transformed or commented upon as in practices like Ikebana or Japanese gardening. The West favors more representational methods. Japan favors presentational. This cultural attitude perhaps resulted in documentary as a form of filmmaking having had less influence and historical foundation in Japan compared to other countries (Richie, 25-26, 243).
This is quite ironic since “Nanami: The Inferno of First Love” combines presentational methods with its manipulation of image and audio, and a true connection to its documentary roots, not because of its outward look, parameters, camerawork, but due to the spontaneous feeling of its incidents rooted in its own particular reality.
The film avoids the failures of films shot deliberately in the “realistic style” or “documentary style” described by filmmaker Mike Leigh in one interview:
“What you’re asking is: Why is it that things that purport to be about real people fail to be actually real. My answer to that would be that the filmmaker is not aspiring to the condition of documentary, that is to say they have caused something to happen in front of the camera which is really not researched and doesn’t have a reality about it. It isn’t three-dimensional, it wouldn’t be able to go on if the camera weren’t there.”
Even so, it is obvious that Hani does not subscribe to documentary as a form with the illusion of minimal authorial intervention, as Direct Action Cinema filmmakers commit themselves to, or the journalistic and didactic conservatism of the mainstream documentary form particularly found on television nowadays. This stance probably also did not endear him to critics and audiences.
Ultimately, it is perhaps the second reason that holds the most weight for the Hani’s work not being given its proper due: Hani himself.
Hani worked completely outside of the studio system creating his documentaries. In his fiction films “… his methods were utterly different from those who had studied filmmaking in mainstream studios.” Hani usually worked with no set screenplay, with the lines sometimes scripted as the shoot went along. He collaborated heavily with his actors to improvise scenes and used documentary set-ups. Even with the critical and popular success of “Nanami” The Inferno of First Love”, Hani refused to compromise his methods with the direction that Japanese commercial cinema was moving towards and returned to his documentary roots for good (Richie, 192-195).
In the opening motel scene of the film, Nanami spontaneously breaks into song while sitting next to Shun on the bed. She sings a song with the line “Do it – do what others can’t do …” Then asks the questions, “What others can’t do? Don’t we all do the same thing?” With Hani it is perhaps not really a question of doing what others cannot do, but more importantly doing what others are unwilling to do.
In “Nanami” The Inferno of First Love”, Hani shows an artistic devotion to exploring and communicating the experiences of “small” moments and “insides”. Hani also shows that like his protagonists Shun and Nanami, he himself is very much willing to pay the high price for constant curiosity and closing the distance between life and those who struggle to live it.
Susumu Hani interviewed by Rea Amit and Alexander Jacoby, Midnight Eye, April 22, 2010, http://www.midnighteye.com/interviews/susumu_hani.shtml
Donald Richie, A Hundred Years of Japanese Film (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2000), 24-27, 192-195, 238-245.
Donal Foreman, BREAKING MIRRORS: disruptions of documentary form in American and Iranian cinema, 2007, http://donalforeman.com/writing/breakingmirrors.html
Mike Leigh interviewed by Salon, Salon, September 17, 1996, “Listening to the world: A conversation with Mike Leigh, director of “Naked,” “Life is Sweet” and the new film, “Secrets and Lies.”, http://www.salon.com/1996/09/16/interview960916/