SWIMMING IN A SEA OF IMAGE: ABOUT JAPANESE CINEMA IN 2012

This entry was posted on October 10th, 2012

                         

by Daisuke Akasaka

In 2012, the Japanese cinema scene seems to be designed with a similar pattern to the past. While TV movie-series features, Japanimation and live-action movies from comics continue to be made and to be shown in the multiplexes, famous directors like Takeshi Kitano, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Takashi Miike and Koji Wakamatsu continue to make their own films, and younger filmmakers are acclaimed in the international festival circuit, like Naomi Kawase, Nobuhiro Suwa, Hiroaki Koreeda, Shinji Aoyama, Sion Sono and recently the younger Katsuya Tomita (“Saudade”).

But the environment surrounding the image in Japan has changed violently in recent years, so now it’s a season of transit for Japanese cinema. Digital globalization explosively increased the number of images around us. We personally have our own archives of large amounts of DVDs and downloaded files, and we are living surrounded by large numbers of screens, on mobiles, on PC, on the streets… We’re threatened by images. For example in 2011, after we had the experience of the Great East Japan earthquake and the Tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear power plant accident, there were a large amount of catastrophic images that continued to be put on the air, on TVs and on websites for movies, like YouTube (today it’s a sort of archive of such terrible images of accidents, massacre, wars, etc.). When the Warner Brothers decided to shorten the screening of Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter because of the scene of the Tsunami in the film, ironically TVs and the internet were spreading many real images of the Tsunami.

Now at least in Japan we know that the golden age of the Japanese studio system is gone, and that cinema cannot be placed as the major medium of entertainment, although the total number of Japanese films made in 2011 is more than 400. Now TV is also being replaced by the Internet but what I want to say is different. While other media uses images to serve information, only cinema can create “critical” and “liberal” images.

Shinji Somai (who recently had a retrospective in Edinburgh) was the most influential and important Japanese director in the 1980’s, because his films were “liberal” and critical towards other films, although Somai himself did not intend this. In Somai’s kids films and idol films like P.P. Rider, Typhoon Club, Sailor Suit and Machine Gun, and Lost chapter of Snow; Passion, his long takes with a trembling crane and handheld camera make it difficult for the audience to see and follow the moving image on screen.

He was often criticized because of it, but now we are reviewing it, I believe his films unintentionally attacked movies as a medium which became a slave to information like TV news and dramas. Of course I know Nagisa Oshima’s masterpieces of the theater-cinema style with long take shots like Nights and Fogs in Japan and Amakusa Shiro Tokisada, which were made in the studio system by major companies like Shochiku and Toei in 1960s. In a sense Somai’s kids and idol films are successors of Oshima’s films, but in the 1960s Oshima’s intention might have been clearer than Somai’s in the 1980s and in that sense Somai was closer to Seijun Suzuki. Suzuki’s films were and are most influential and “liberal” and critical to other films unintentionally because Suzuki always said “I make entertainment movies”, while he made a masterpiece like Branded to Kill and was fired from the Nikkatsu studio because of the film. But as for making films now in the 2010’s, those films will always be inspirational but they can’t be models for younger directors because the films were still born from the studio system.

In these past 20 years, the sources of new Japanese directors have been Pink Eiga, film schools and other independent sources. Their models are probably Pink, Nikkatsu Roman Porno in 1970s, and ATG in 1960s because they are low budget films. And now directors like Yojiro Takita and Takahisa Zeze from Pink have made films with a major company, but they are very modest because TV is their starting point and terminal place. Among them, the veteran director Isao Okishima (who was an assistant of Koji Wakamatsu and Yoshishige Yoshida) made an indie film Ichiman nen ato…(Ten Thousand Years after…, 2007). This whole film has only one set: theater-cinema style. In the first scene the clue of the film is visible. A man arrives from 10,000 years ago (Kai Ato), and appears in a house where 2 children (a brother and sister) live, and they talk about their worlds to each other. The man is surprised to hear the children’s words that they are alive after a catastrophic event and the threat of monsters (we can see only their shadows) and to see the memory of his mother as a hologram. This scene makes me remember Tarkovsky’s Solaris, but the film itself is closer to Ingmar Bergman (without God), and more like a fairy tale (Okishima had written scenarios for the TV animation program “Japanese Fairy Tales – Manga Nippon Mukashi Banashi”). This film is vivid and interesting because it’s a sort of prototype of a low budget film by a veteran director from Pink and I also feel there is a connection to films by Oshima and Yoshida in the ATG era.

Another example of a low budget Japanese film is Collabo Monsters!! (2012), an omnibus film produced by Tokyo Film School, which consists of Ken Furusawa’s “love machine”, Yoichi Nishiyama’s Kasanegafuchi, and Hiroshi Takahashi’s The Carol of the Old Ones.

Among them, the film by Yoichi Nishiyama is part of his trilogy “costume plays without Mage (topknot)”, a little Brechtian; the other two films are INAZUMA (Lightning, 2005) and Shinaba morotomo (Let us die together, 2006). Kasanegafuchi is an adaptation of Sanyutei Encho’s horror tale (1859), from which Nobuo Nakagawa also directed “Kaidan Kasanega-fuchi (Ghosts of Kasane-swamp)” in 1957. Nishiyama says spiritually his source of inspiration is Sadao Yamanaka and his early talkie masterpieces like Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937), which is called “modern play with Mage”. The story about a man who knew his father had killed his lover’s father is similar to Raul Ruiz’s early French film, but Nishiyama’s cinematic style seems to be closer to Suzuki’s Zigeunerweisen and Kagero-za (Heat-Haze Theatre), and with creepy acting (by the wonderful actress Aki Miyata) and beautiful theatrical lighting (the remarkable female director of photography is Akiko Ashizawa, she also shot Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Loft and Retribution).

Hiroshi Takahashi’s Kyu Shihaisya no Carol (The Carol of the Old Ones) is a movie ‘making-of’ story set in a film school. An actress-teacher Naomi (the excellent Shoko Nakahara) gradually dominates the director Miyuki (Wakana Matsumoto) and the students and the shooting arrives in a dangerous game. The film makes me remember Yasuzo Masumura and Chusei Sone (and his masterpiece Tenshi no Harawata:Akai Kyoshitsu/Angel Guts:Red Classroom(1979)).

Takahashi is one of the most famous scenario writers of the J-horror movie series “Ring”, and his previous work Kyofu/The Sylvian Experiments (2010) is a wonderful film. This film is like Georges Franju’s Les Yeux sans Visage+ Yevgeny Yufit’s horror comedy plus the Masumura-like strong direction (the main actress Nagisa Katahira who acted in Masumura’s TV series Stewardess Monogatari/Stewardess Story” in 1983~4), and its structure of the scenario is labyrinthine, like Atsushi Yamatoya’s pink masterpiece Season of Betrayal (1966). Like Yoshida’s Heroic Purgatory (1970), it’s under the influence of Resnais and Robbe-Grillet. Unfortunately Kyofu was distributed as a J-horror movie so Japanese and foreign audiences neglected it.

The Carol of the Old Ones isn’t labyrinthine, but the mad world of the actress and the clue is a closed system like Buñuel’s El Angel Exterminador, so nobody wants to stop shooting, like a mad play/theater of a couple of Japanese presidents going nuclear vs an FBI female ghost agent in Takahashi’s Kyoki no umi/Sea of Madness (2007), which is inspired by Buñuel’s La Fievre Monte A El Pao (and Takahashi talked with me about Glauber Rocha’s Terra em Transe, too). Its last scene of shooting (when Naomi dominates sick and tired Miyuki, Miyuki directs Naomi to be punched by actor Murai – as a form of resistance) is just beautiful and emotional.

Pink Eiga still supplies young directors. Today the most important younger one is Teiichi Hori. Two of his masterpieces are idol films like those of Shinji Somai and Shinichiro Sawai, who is another key Japanese director of 1980s. Sawai was the last assistant and successor of Masahiro Makino, the master of the studio system from the silent era to the 1960s.

The first one Moso Shojo Otaku kei (2007) is a comedy about a high school girl, Rumi, who is a hardcore fan of Yaoi comics (boys love comics). She has a boyfriend, Takahiro, and she always imagines that Takahiro and his friend Shunsuke are in love with each other so she enters into a deep fantasy. Rumi can love Takahiro only through her fantasy, and there he is gay so she can’t love him, but in the real world Takahiro loves Rumi. Surprisingly Teiichi Hori treats Rumi’s fantasy as theatrical, like Jacques Rivette. The Otaku girl, her friend and the 2 boys are “Gang of Four”! Once Philippe Garrel said that Godard’s Keep Your Right Up (Soigne ta droite) is modern and Rivette’s Gang of Four (La Bande des Quatre) is classic*. In that sense Hori’s direction is classic (he is an authority on classic cinema, especially Ozu and Ford. His essay about Ozu is marvellous), but it’s classic in modern cinema. In the last scene Rumi sees the two boys playing with each other in a pool and she seems to be impressed because her fantasy is realized, but we’re impressed because of another reason, the emergence of the white and blue wave. Hori always shows white things and makes them shine in the climactic scene, like the white curtain in KUSAMURA (2005), Maho shojo wo wasurenai (2011), and like shining white light on the couple having sex in Wakai Hada no Hoteri (2008).

The second one Ren (2008) is a Science Fiction film. Ren (Rei Okamoto), a high school girl, appears one day. She insists to her grandmother (Junko Miyashita, she is the famous actress from Tatsumi Kumashiro’s Woman with Red Hair/Akai Kami No Onna (1979)) that she has been transported from the future as punishment. The grandmother and friends don’t believe her but Akihito, her classmate, does. And when suddenly another one, Shu, appears as a transfer student, Ren has to disappear…

Unlike in other Japanese Sci-Fi films like Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Toki wo kakeru Shojo/The Little Girl Who Conquered Time(1983), in Ren there aren’t special effects at all. This film is closer to Rivette’s “Duelle” and Rudolf Thome’s “Philosopher”- they have no portrayal scene of the future world and it is up to you as to whether you believe the character’s words of description or not. We have to pursue the mystery, whether it’s true or not…

From film schools and other independent places, more young directors have appeared, but there is a split between the major and independent and the split seems to be getting deeper and deeper. While major films get more and more modest, a lot of independent films lose a place to go. We need to pay attention to the directors who continue to make their own films. Unfortunately I can’t cover them all… Hiroyuki Matsumura’s TOCHKA (2009) is a good influence for younger generations, like Tarkovsky’s Nostalgia, and like another vivid and more major film Takuji Suzuki’s GeGeGe no Nyobo/Spooky wife (2010). Takanori Masui’s Yako/Light of Night (2009), developed a quality of speech in the Kansai-dialect under the influence of Straub & Huillet. And Satoshi Kuzuu’s Yoshino Kuzu (2003) is another neglected film about Junichiro Tanizaki’s novel which includes a strong reading voice off screen, where we can hear the echo of Duras…

And if you want to pursue young talented Japanese female directors like Satoko Yokohama and Natsuki Seta, Momomatsuri (Peach Festival, 2006~) gives you newer data. But I don’t know exactly who can survive among them. Once, Yasujiro Ozu said “Japanese society must be more cinematographic”, but it’s still not enough now.

*entretien avec Philippe Garrel par Thierry Jousse (Cahiers du cinéma n°424, octobre 1989)