Japanese Film

A Haunting Japanese Tale: Ugetsu

I always learn new things when I watch films on the 1001 movies list. For example, did you know that the 1950s are considered the golden age of Japanese film? I didn’t, but it makes complete sense, considering how many Japanese films that have been appearing on this one lately. Good examples of enjoyable ones are here and here.

I also knew absolutely nothing about Ugetsu before watching it. The (only) cool thing about not speaking Japanese and not having been immersed in the culture is that each of these movies comes as a surprise to me. Had I known that the word ugestu translates (according to google) as “pale and mysterious moon after a rain”, I might have had an inkling of what I was getting into.

But I didn’t, so the movie began looking like a typical war film–peasant farmers profiting from the war or trying to join the armies.

And that’s the way things go until about halfway through the film, when it pulls a From Dusk Til Dawn switcheroo. It goes from a realist film to a dreamy ghost story without really showing a break in the narrative. Like Roshomon, the film shows an acceptance of the existence of the spirit world which may be reflective of Japanese spirituality as a whole–meaning audiences would accept it–or, at least that of the director (someday I hope to learn enough about Japan to know which).

And the dreamlike central sequence is the one that viewers will remember forever. It’s as good as anything in the western canon and, at some points, it reminded me of the best French weirdness of the era.

This one is good, but it might not be for everybody. The pace is measured and might lose some modern viewers, accustomed to faster-paced action, in the process. So use your discretion.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer from Argentina. His latest story collection is entitled Off the Beaten Path. Like Ugetsu, it takes place just on the far side of reality in places that aren’t the typical North American and Western European settings.

Fatalism in the Face of Melodrama: Tokyo Story

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Madame De… a melodrama that, by its treatment became almost a black comedy and much more watchable than one would expect from the subject matter.

Now it’s the turn of Tokyo Story which proves that melodrama can be made palatable in different ways, too. This one may be even more brilliant.

What the French film does by being humorous and worldly, the Japanese film does with a fatalism that flies in the teeth of the topic and even–to a certain degree–of the characters themselves. And like the French film, which gives a glimpse into the sardonic national character, this one also lifts one of the cultural veils and shows westerners the power of acceptance.

Briefly, the film is about an older couple who visit their children living in Tokyo and find them to be both too busy and too modern and cynical to spare time for their parents. This is a trip they’ve been waiting a lifetime to take, but it is clear that it’s special only to them and the one loyal character in the movie: their widowed daughter-in-law (seen in the pic above).

Then the mother dies.

But it avoids becoming overly emotional and unwatchable (think of a random 1970s melodrama where someone dies of cancer) because of the fatalistic acceptance that things are as they are and that one should be thankful for the little things that are good instead of hurting because of things that aren’t.

The couple’s genuine acceptance of life if a message that not only gets them through disappointment and tragedy but also stands as a strong rebuke to the wonderful film Ikiru in which precisely such acceptance is pointed to as the source of many national ills. The sympathetically-portrayed daughter-in-law in Tokyo Story is proof that the director was aware of this, even if the focus was elsewhere.

As always, when two diametrically opposed points of view collide, the truth is somewhere in the middle. But that doesn’t take away from the fact Tokyo Story shows a side of the Japanese character in a way that makes it possible for a Western audience to understand. And that is a wonderful thing.

And, as always, a shout-out to Kyōko Kagawa, who is still with us. If you’re reading, thank you for being part of this wonderful film!

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose fascination with the human psyche follows him across genres. While his more commercial work has well-drawn characters, it is in his literary fiction where he explores this facet most deeply. Love and Death shows how real people act in those moments that define their lives. You can check it out here.

Kurosawa’s Ikiru – Wondrous Light in the Face of Tragedy

An old man on a swing in the snow, singing a traditional Japanese song while smiling happily doesn’t seem like the kind of image that can bring hardened movie-goers to tears, but that’s because you haven’t yet seen Ikiru.

This is a movie about celebrating life, of living every day as if it as if it were the last, for the simple reason that, one day, it will be. That, and the incredible acting of Takashi Shimura, who plays a beaten down bureacrat who, in the first minutes of the film, discovers he will soon die of stomach cancer.

The rest of the film deals with that man trying to make sense of the death sentence.

The film reminds you once again that life exists for those who live it. So many people are just going through the motions, happy just to have a job that gives them a position in society and forgetting the truly important parts of life.

I once called Ladri de Bicicletti the most communist film ever. In the same vein this is the most un-communist film ever. It represents everything that liberal humanism celebrates, and criticizes conformism, equality (in the sense of everyone desiring the same path through life) and especially bureacracy.

It’s an exploration of how the individual–even one who never thought of rebelling against the pressure applied by society–is more powerful than the forces of conformism. It’s wonderful if you happen to celebrate the individual or enjoy an uplifting story. It’s deeply and subtly subversive if you believe that individuals should be subordinate to the tyranny of the majority.

Highly recommended as a way to brighten your day.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose most recent literary book is the linked short story collection Love and Death, which deals with life in its most piercing aspects. You can check it out here.

Ambrose Bierce by way of the Rashomon Effect

For those, like me, who had never heard of the Rashomon Effect, it briefly means that, in a court of law (or other situation), the testimony of two witnesses to the same event may vary wildly, be it through intentional manipulation of the facts or simple difference of interpretation.

The Rashomon Effect

This term comes from Rashomon, a 1950 film by Akira Kurosawa in which several eyewitnesses to the murder of a Samurai, including the victim himself (by way of a medium), tell the story of how he died.  Set in ancient Japan, the sale serves as a morality fable, highlighting the inherent pride and weakness of each of the characters.

The events themselves are gripping enough to keep attention despite the fact that the same story is essentially retold from four points of view–that of the murderer, the wife of the victim, the victim himself and, finally, the man who reported the crime to the police… a man who supposedly only found the body.

Rashomon Movie poster

This one is undoubtedly a classic, one of those films that stays with you and which, despite the miserable way the characters act for the most part, ends in an upbeat manner.  Interesting to see is how overacted it seems compared to equivalent films in the Western canon–whether that is because the film accurately depicts Japanese emotional responses in the era pictured, whether it was an artistic style popular in Japan, or whether it was an artistic license on the part of the director, I don’t know.  I did find it a bit distracting… but then, unfamiliar things often grab the attention.  There are a few more Japanese films on the 1001 movies list, so I’ll be able to give a more informed opinion moving forward.

One interesting note was that the film was based on a Japanese story which, in its turn was based on a story by Ambrose Bierce.  I’m mainly familiar with Bierce’s work via paperback horror and weird fiction anthos, and his link to the film explains the otherwise inexplicable presence of a dead man giving testimony.

Definitely worth watching and an experience which will let you think about the film itself as well as the cultural and literary links surrounding it.  Good stuff.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s literary fiction, a series of stories that twine together in a similar way as the testimonies in Rashomon, is collected in Love and Death.  You can buy it here.