Isao Takahata is a classicist animator if there ever was one. Sero hiki no Goshu is another chapter in his minimalist saga, a tribute to his two loves: classical music and pre-war Japan. His uncluttered yet expressive style is determined; neorealismo, la nouvelle vague, and surrealist poetry are only a taste of his influences. He shifts from realism to fantasy at will, the one requiring the other in the natural order; expressionism bound to the corporeal world.
The film is an adaptation of a popular story by Kenji Miyazawa (released in 1934). It is the 1920s in rural Japan and a local orchestra is rehearsing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 (Pastoral Symphony). At the fourth movement a thunderstorm rages outside, the musicians unaffected within the small rehearsal space. The sequence swells into fantasy with musicians hurtling towards the sky in a whirlwind of vests and instruments. The dream is shattered by the conductor. He accuses young cellist, Goshu-kun, of lacking musicality and being damningly inharmonious with the rest of the ensemble. Goshu is enthusiastic but struggles with passion.
The musicians are dismissed and Goshu returns to his modest cottage to practice. He hears a knock at the door. It is a cat who has brought him unripe tomatoes (picked from his own garden) as a gift. The two bicker. The cat suggests he play Schumann’s Traumerei instead of stubborn old Mozart but instead, Goshu renditions the antithesis of Schumann, Tiger Hunt in India, with a ferocity that startles the feline into submission. The following few evenings are booked with other forest animals; a tanuki, a cuckoo bird, a pair of mice, all of them imparting some parable of insight for the cellist. By the night of the performance, Goshu has learned to channel emotion into his playing and listen to his fellow performers, but most of all, he is able to empathise with his audience. The recital is a success. Following a rousing ovation, the conductor ducks into the restroom and weeps with secret joy – only one of Takahata’s gifts to his audience. The orchestra is asked to play an encore. Recognising Goshu’s significant improvement, he is asked to play something alone. He balks but is hurled on-stage. In defiance, he plays Tiger Hunt in India and the amphitheater glows with awe-inspired silence.
The film is lightly directed with deeply saturated backgrounds and fluid animation. There is a naturalism here (as there is in much of Takahata’s work) that is charming and engaging. Of course, Takahata has long since mastered this form of animated realism (inherited from such influences as Renoir and Ozu) and the ascetic devotion of his work is apparent in every frame. It’s been said that lead animator, Shunji Saida, took cello lessons in order to adequately portray Goshu’s fingerwork and this subtle detail is used to great effect throughout. Musical occurrences animate this quiet village (and its forest life) in a way that Goshu’s story is only a consequence of the transcendentalism of harmony and dissonance.
Early on in the 21st century, with the elderly population rising at an alarming rate, a groundbreaking innovation has been designed. The Z-001, a robotic hospital bed automating all nursing duties, has been developed by the Nishibashi Corporation and is being marketed under the umbrella of the Ministry of Public Welfare. The machine is advanced, operating within its own network. The bed holds food (of which, the patient can download fresh recipes online) for a week and can administer medicine. There is a “prone mobility” mechanism which exercises the patient’s body without them having to leave the bed and, most importantly, the Z-001 can monitor vitals and contact a nearby hospital if further assistance is required. One can even input an image and personality to simulate a digital conversationalist. It is a sixth-generation nuclear-powered bio-computer with the ability to upgrade its own hardware.
Takazawa Kijuro is the first invalid selected (with the permission of his remaining family) to “showcase” the Z-001. Haruki, his volunteer nurse, is alarmed when her patient is whisked away by men in suits. She is skeptical of this “better” quality of life. “How can a machine give him the love he needs?” she implores of the Ministry’s executives. The Z-001 is well-received however: the bureaucrats sniffing money, the medical volunteers eased that their responsibilities can be dedicated to less routine tasks, and the general populace content to remain oblivious of risk as long as the elderly can be left to their own devices in peace. Not much later Haruki receives a message on her computer from Mr. Takazawa calling for help. She, with a handful of other volunteers, break into the Ministry of Public Welfare and attempt to free the old man. The head of the project, Mr. Terada, discovers them and it isn’t long before Takazawa is returned to the Ministry building and the volunteers reprimanded. Mr. Takazawa is once again imprisoned in the Ministry building, probes wired into his trachea and nervous system, the impromptu removal of which would kill him.
The lead programmer at Nishibashi Corporation and designer of the Z-001, Yoshihiko Hasegawa, is fully aware of the machine’s more radical capabilities but remains observant until there is no hiding it any longer. Terada, though a corporate administrator, seems to genuinely care about geriatric health but is unaware of Z-001’s more dangerous proficiencies. He is a man willing to sacrifice for the greater good and, in this regard, is one of the deeper characters of the story. It is soon revealed that Hasegawa’s hand was guided in his designing of the Z-001 so there are things he reveals to Terada and things he doesn’t; Terada is, himself, only a stooge with a great deal of power, bound to his superior, Secretary Minagawa (he, a pawn to a greater power).
As punishment, Haruki is restricted to the grounds of the hospital. While there, one of her patients hacks an American system for fun which gives Haruki an idea. The old hackers tap into Z-001 and are able to communicate by projecting the voice of Takagawa’s wife. By doing so, they imprint the personality into the bed’s database which begins to carry out the man’s wishes. Since there is little elaboration on the “appearance” of Mrs. Takagawa, this can be interpreted a number of ways: either the spirit of Takagawa’s wife has somehow taken control of the machine or Mr. Takagawa is simply using this projection as an extension of his own will (whether inherently coded or a sudden achievement of sentience). Whichever, Haruki and her friends soon learn how to remotely control the bed from the hospital. Of course, Takagawa’s recurrently moaned wish to see the beach is taken literally by the machine and so devastation is left in the wake of his journey.
Written by Katsuhiro Otomo (director of Akira), the Roujin Z story was adapted into a manga titled, ZeD, shortly after the film’s release. The concept is simply and realistically speculative for it is a modern inevitability. Bun Itakura’s score is always appropriate with pensive synthwork, piano asides, and intense swells of sound always with a dominance of incidental music. It’s a futuristic morality tale where man attempts to forego the trials of caring for those in a fatalistic role under the guise of “effective health care.” It is really man’s aversion to facing death firsthand, to avoid the humility of death, that allows for the acceptance of such a machine. The Z-001 provides for the patient’s every physical need but there is no substitute for human empathy. “A nurse is useless unless she can love her patient.”
Set in 16th century Japan, The Hidden Fortress is one of Kurosawa’s most influential films notable for its unique narrative perspective and categorical situations reprocessed by such filmmakers as Hayao Miyazaki, Sergio Leone, and George Lucas. Equal parts comedy and adventure film, it is perhaps his most accessible work. This commercial result was intentional for Kurosawa’s previous works were more artistically-inclined and irregularly successful (Ikiru, Rashomon, Throne of Blood, and Drunken Angel for example). Here, he opted for entertainment and decided to tell the story from the perspective of the lowliest characters. Despite this conventional objective, he expanded on past successes and created iconic imagery which has become prominent the cinematic world over following the film’s release. To further solidify his penchant for American Western cinema, he filmed in Toho Scope, Toho Studios’ equivalent to the American anamorphic widescreen Cinema Scope.
Tahei and Matashichi are two bickering peasants wandering a rocky expanse. They have escaped a prison camp to this mountainous range where they stumble upon their greatest desire: a gold coin. It is their fateful meeting with General Rokurota Makabe (Toshiro Mifune) and the promise of greater wealth if they lend him assistance. Rokurota is the loyal bodyguard of Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara), and his primary duty is to escort her safely back to her home territory. Kurosawa’s world is rife with malady and turmoil, but every major character is confronted with an occasion to grow in the narrative … some of them do so, some of them don’t. Rokurota is driven by integrity, the peasants by greed. Only the princess seems to develop her perspective significantly – another rendering of Kurosawa’s humanist tendencies.
The film takes place during the Sengoku period, focusing on the warring Akizuki and Yamana clans. Tahei and Matashichi meet Rokurota, the general of the Akizuki clan, following his defeat in battle. He and the princess are in hiding, hunted by the Yamana clan. Secretly, they transport Yuki’s family treasure and encounter many hardships and obstructions in the process. There are extraordinary action sequences, nearly rivaling that of Welles’ Chimes at Midnight, and Kurosawa’s economic use of space and exquisite composition amplifies these scenes to a grand scope. Indeed, it is the flawless cinematography (credit to Ichio Yamazaki) that elevates the film from professionally dependable to a stylistic vision.
Kurosawa’s direction is characteristically solid displaying a range of techniques that have since become iconic and standard. Its traditional heroism and self-realisation themes are firmly ensconced in an action/adventure backdrop with sprawling scenery and innovative camerawork – all of the cinematic elements required for a well-rounded tale. Critically panned at the time of its release (though it was Kurosawa’s most financially successful film until Yojimbo in 1961), Kurosawa’s shameless deference to Western filmmaking (and his cinematic heroes in general such as Sergei Eisenstein) is confidant, consistent, and effective. An imaginative plot it is not but, for the action/adventure genre, it is a colossal achievement.
There is much to witness in this kabuki-esque film written and directed by Keisuke Kinoshita. It was released in 1958 and met with controversy due to its exploration of the subject of ubasute, the custom of abandoning an elderly relative to die in a desolate place. How common this custom was historically is arguable, but in the film, this particular mountain village has established such a tradition on account of a food shortage: for those who live to be seventy, they are to be carried to the top of Narayama Mountain by a relative and forsaken. Based on the 1956 debut novel, Men of Tohoku, by Shichiro Fukazawa, it is a brutal tale skeptical of community and blind ritualism but it is also a tribute to the Japanese culture for their assent to the abysmal and unshakable sense of pride.
A darkly clad figure narrates the tale: “Amidst towering peaks in the land of Shinano where a brooklet winds through the valley of the forgotten, cicadas sing the mournful tale of this secluded mountain village.” Orin (Kinuyo Tanaka) is a seventy year old widow who is patiently awaiting her fate at the mountain. Her son, Tatsuhei (Teiji Takahashi), has misgivings following through with the tradition (“This miserable, wretched life! A thousand curses!”), but his mother is eager, she simply regards it as what must be done without question. Orin’s grandson, Kesakichi, is eager for her to die. He is insolent and contemptible causing nothing but strife and disappointment for his father and grandmother.
Orin’s neighbor, Mata (Seiji Miyaguchi), past seventy, adamantly protests his fate. The villagers have cut off his food supply so he wanders the village begging (and, at times, stealing). Orin shows him kindness but his own family refuses to feed him even during the festival. The villagers, as shown here, are rather cynically portrayed for they are depicted as cruel and irreverent. They gleefully mock Orin’s seclusion and good teeth with song and dance though she has done nothing to deserve it. Our narrator intones, “As a blushing bride in days gone by, none could match her beauty. In her days of widowhood, no scandal marred her honour. During those painful years never an accusing finger. Why ruin a faultless life for a mere set of teeth which is but an outward sign of a hearty appetite?”
Orin hears of a recently-widowed woman by the name of Tama who is the same age as her son (a widower). She is ecstatic for Tama to be his wife. He is reluctant at first, but seeing the happiness it brings to his mother, agrees. Tama arrives just in time for the village festival. Orin is jubilant, “Her whole heart rejoices as only a mother’s can though death waits atop the mountain. For now, there are no regrets.” There are a few surprisingly graphic scenes such as when Orin is being teased incessantly by the villagers and her grandson for still having all of her teeth. To prove herself prepared for the mountain, she bites a stone and shatters her teeth to bloody bits. “The sooner I go, the more the gods will favour me,” she tells Tama who looks on in terror.
Scene transitions and cinematography are minimal but quite brilliant and expertly executed. The majority of the soundtrack is straight out of kabuki theatre – also well done. The set design is highly elaborate with backgrounds composed of matte paintings, brilliant lighting, and grand details such as babbling brooks and swaying trees, lilting snow and stark interiors. The film preceded Kinoshita’s The River Fuefuki by two years (he was incredibly prolific in the first twenty years of his filmmaking career) and one can easily see the connotations. Where Fuefuki was anti-war, Narayama is anti-establishment – both tend to go hand-in-hand. Kinoshita was a brilliant filmmaker who experimented endlessly with his work but never lost sight of the human element. At the film’s conclusion, Tama says to Tatsuhei, “When we reach three score and ten, we too shall go to the mountain.” And so the cycle continues. The final shot is of a train rumbling down a track and this is quite fitting as it is like those trapped in the village: no means to deviate or refuse what fate already has in store.
Chinmoku begins with a montage of classic Japanese art depicting the introduction of Christianity into Japan. As the opening credits inform us, “The 16th for “Japan’s rulers were worried about the new religion’s rapid spread since it came with the gun.” And here, we enter the 17th suppression of the Shimabara Rebellion (Kakure Kirishitan). Christians were severely persecuted in Japan at this time: “Straw mats were wrapped about them and set afire. As the fire spread, they began to hop around. The pagans laughed at the mat dancers. They enjoyed it … and things have gotten worse.”
One of the missionaries, our protagonist, Sebastiao Rodrigues (a character based on Giuseppe Chiara) seeks to determine the whereabouts (whether alive or dead) of a Padre Ferreira, his mentor. He is accompanied by Padre Garrpe, who is earnest but naïve. They are brought to the shores of Japan by a man named Kichijiro. Sebastiao asks him if he is a Christian while Garrpe asks if he is Japanese. Kichijiro responds, “Of course. I am Japanese.” And this is often the breakdown between the concept of god and the human individual: the sacrifice of religious integrity or personal preservation. Such is the fundamental struggle for the believer; the test of true faith. Kichijiro soon becomes a liability as he is unable, in his boasting, to keep the presence of the padres a secret. We soon learn that eight years before, his family was reported to the magistrate and ordered to step on a medallion bearing Christ’s image. His siblings refused and were burned at the stake. He denied his belief out of terror and lived.
The padres are given refuge by a smattering of Christians in the local village of Tomogi – the few remaining priests and monks having abandoned the village years ago. The islanders flock to the missionaries for leadership but soon officials arrive demanding the names of Christians rumoured in the village. No one discloses and, in turn, the villagers are eventually either crucified or run out of Tomogi. Sebastiao, out of sheer luck, escapes and happens upon Kichijiro hiding in the mountains. The padre is told that there is a bounty for him worth three hundred pieces of silver and he shamefully replies, “And Christ was only sold for thirty pieces.” It isn’t long before he’s captured, betrayed by Kichijiro. He is taken to Magistrate Inoue, dubbed “the king of the demons” by an islander. We later learn that Inoue was once a Christian himself. When the two meet, the soundtrack is utterly silent for a moment – a fine bit of artistry.
With a soundtrack by the always brilliant Toru Takemitsu, the film is saturated with strains of classical and baroque, experimental and avant-garde music. The cinematography is steady and sweeping; a quietly methodical atmosphere. Released in 1971, Masahiro Shinoda’s Silence is based on the 1966 Shusaku Endo novel of the same name which was (mostly) narrated in the form of a letter by Sebastiao. Endo’s novel dealt with the silence of god in the midst of adversity and Shinoda’s film captures that theme perfectly. It is rare in cinema when a filmmaker decides not to pursue a particular direction and allow the audience to interpret the portrayed events and characters subjectively. Inoue is not presented as a villain (“You force your own dreams on us thoughtlessly”) and neither is Sebastiao – they are merely two men from differing homelands, each committed to the truth of his cause. There is nothing as immovable as the conviction of the religious, the lustful indulgence of selflessness. By the film’s conclusion, one can’t help but conclude: religion is exceptionally effective at segregating people from each other. And finally, Chinmoku prompts the question most relevant to the human condition: given our instinct to assimilate according to our environment/condition, is the concept of adopting a religion (ignoring the argument of whether the religion is propagating a truth or falsehood) even a human capability when subjective wellbeing is threatened? “All rivers run to the sea but the sea is not full.”
Two teenagers, Nanami (Kuniko Ishii) and Shun (Akio Takahashi), rent a room at a hotel. “Isn’t it expensive?” he asks. She’s paying. He’s reluctant. She reassures him. He tells her this is his first time. She laughs, not in mockery but surprise. After renting the room, she disrobes, saying, “You can do whatever you want.” He is embarrassed, unsure of himself, finding every excuse to avoid his reason for coming there. Noticing his silent discomfort, Nanami sings him a song, “You’re only young once. Youth only comes once so if you’re a man, do it – do what the others can’t do.” She then pauses, “What the others do – don’t we all do the same thing?” He can’t do it but he promises her the next time he will. At one point she asks, “Why do you close your eyes when you kiss me?” “I’m shy,” he replies. “Don’t you want to see if I have my eyes shut?”
Shun returns to work. He watches and feeds the pigeons in the park when he’s not working and soon he befriends Momi, a little girl who wanders there from time to time to play. He tells Nanami that she and Momi are his two closest friends, but it isn’t long before his relationship with Momi falls under suspicion of molestation and he is nearly beaten by a mob in the street. He goes to see a psychiatrist and is put under hypnosis. We learn that Shun was molested by his stepfather and begin to realise how it has affected his life and poisoned his thoughts. Early on, Nanami asks him about himself. He tells her some but not all. His father died when he was very young and his mother ran off with a boxer shortly after. In and out of reform school, Shun was eventually taken in by a family named Otagaki. He was not adopted however, they were his benefactors. His stepfather a goldsmith, Shun his journeyman. Nanami has a longtime fondness for a successful businessman named Mr. Ankokuji. He “often dreams of fires.” He has a wife but she’s cold to him. He muses, “I’ve often thought of setting her afire when she’s asleep.” It is these little bits of dialogue scattered throughout the film that elevates it higher than most. Shun calls Ankokuji perverse and disgusting; Nanami says that he is merely normal.
Susumu Hani’s 1968 film, Hatsukoi Jigokuhen, is an early proponent of the Japanese New Wave. It is highly regarded by some as a feverishly honest portrait of adolescence and viewed as disgustingly exploitative by others. Technically, the film is finely done and highly experimental with stark contrasts, still shot montages, and complicated camera angles.
Though the film is really about Nanami and her effect on virtually every male around her, the audience follows Shun about. He, in every sense of the word, is the most tragic character. Every article he reads, every conversation he overhears, every expression he misinterprets induces him to guilt. Indeed, the scene where he forces himself to laugh is as heartbreaking as it is quirkily humourous. The film dedicates a great deal of time to one frustration after another for Shun, one hopeless opportunity after another, and never does he execute his actions properly. This is, of course, pure adolescence: the insecurity, the awkwardness, these are natural and common. Here, however, the gloom is laid on quite heavily (and, at times, quite literally).
When Nanami invites Shun to go to a student film festival, he acquiesces but is rude the entire time. He doesn’t understand such types. “I can’t pretend things I don’t feel,” he says and that is certainly true. “Sensibility and taste are formed by reading,” one of the teachers declares but the sentiment seems empty somehow with every conversation the audience has eavesdropped at the festival containing only selfish pronouncements and egotistical asides. This is not the world of Shun for he is not a human being but the byproduct of one. The emotions we take for granted, the contentedness that is flitting but possible, desire, aspiration – these are not options but mysteries for him. His fate has been decided for him at an early age merely by the decisions enforced upon him by his parental guardians. At one point, Mr. Ankokuji says to Shun, “You’re still young, you still believe in love.” Such a statement couldn’t be furthest from the truth.
Imamura’s biopic of notorious killer, Akira Nishiguchi (named Enokizu Iwao in the film, played by Ken Ogata), is an unusual one spotted with moments of violence, absurdity, and even humor. It is unsettling, not only by Iwao’s cavalier treatment of violence, but Imamura’s implication that depravity is inherent within us all. Iwao is the archetype for this moral bankruptcy, an extreme depiction of emptiness. The film begins with his capture then details, in erratic flashback, his seventy-eight days on the lam and the relevant events preceding it. It is the portrayal of a childish man who was born a defiant boy, scornful of his father’s seeming cowardice. His father is Shizuo; a fisherman who was coerced into selling his boats to the Emperor’s navy when Iwao was young. Iwao spends his childhood in a reformatory then enters the war. Afterward, his marriage to Kazuko Omura is arranged and their relationship stagnates in a sea of uncomfortable silence. Iwao is later imprisoned for fraud and Shizuo visits Kazuko and the children, imploring her to leave the griminess of the backwoods and live with him and his wife. This is when Imamura’s film begins to open new territory. Kazuko attempts to seduce Shizuo (for she has always had a “great respect” for him) but he refuses to even acknowledge the occurrence. He arranges her to have sex with a friend of his instead and she, reluctant at first, submits, fantasizing that he is her step-father. Iwao is eventually released on parole and returns home suspicious and restless.
The killing of two transport workers, one discovered in a radish field the other at the bottom of a cement yard, begins his venture into senseless murder. After this, he commits apparent suicide by jumping into the sea from a cruise ship. The police don’t buy it and begin investigating acquaintances. His sexual appetite is insatiable and often violent so the trail of abused and frustrated women is easy to follow. He leaves a suicide note: “I have reached the final station on my life’s journey and started down the path to the next world” and this is more an affirmation of his newfound fatalistic lifestyle than the end of it.
We eavesdrop on some of his informants: the married woman who had an affair with him, a stripper in Chikuhashi, and his wife. When his parents are interviewed by the police, we see that they now own an inn in the Goto Islands. “Iwao has been no end of trouble since he was little, but I never imagined he’d murder anyone,” his father says, and this is brutal point of Imamura’s film. There is no external consistency to warn of a scoundrel because they are not pure embodiments of evil but products of misconceptions, frustrations and insecurities (their own and society’s). This is what makes products like Iwao distressing for he could be any of us under a similar mental state and set of circumstances.
Iwao, posing as a bail bondsman, later scams an old woman. As he flees he befriends a district attorney whom he soon murders. He stays at the man’s home for as long as possible then takes lodging at an inn owned by a sweet but morally questionable woman and her mother. Ogata is fantastic as Iwao: cold, obsessive, but also with an adaptable appearance and normal façade which creates an even creepier atmosphere. The editing style is very irregular with sharp jarring cuts intercut with associative asides and deep close-ups. When the ending finally arrives, there is a mysterious ambiguity to it. What are these still frames? It is horrifying and absurd, but also a reminder that, while the human shell who has committed such hideous acts is gone, the energy remains and cannot be exiled. Iwao offers no discernable motive apart from, “I wanted to remain free as long as I could.” Vengeance is Mine is a portrait of an empty shell, a wandering spirit propelled by animalistic impulses and selfish gain. Morality is never an option for such as he; only a pretense to murder.
“These customs are so complicated.”
Taeko and Yukiko, the youngest sisters in the prestigious Makioka family, are looking for suitors, but their guardian, Tsuruko, the eldest of the four sisters, has a habit of rejecting cavaliers at the eleventh-hour. She is practical and only concerned with tradition and appearance. Sachiko is the next eldest; more emotional and sympathetic yet still acquiescent of some of her older sister’s views. The entire film hinges upon Yukiko’s marriage (she being older than Taeko). She seems to know the kind of man she wants but has yet to find him. Taeko is quietly defiant, anxious to marry, and constantly frustrated by her sisters’ fastidiousness. The two sisters live at the home of Sachiko and her husband, Teinosuke.
Directed by Kon Ichikawa, The Makioka Sisters is a quiet but affecting film dealing with quintessential Japanese issues: society, tradition, and integrity. There is also the rigidity of family values and the pride inherent there which are explored. Through this we meet Yukiko’s various suitors and eavesdrop on the lives of the Makioka family. The film begins in 1938 Osaka with Taeko asking Sachiko for her dowry money in advance. Soon, Teinosuke remarks, “A geisha is always careful not to wet her painted lips. She must take in the food without letting it touch her lips.” And this is a running theme throughout the film: these sisters, these women born and bred by the traditional path, conditioned to lead their kin down this path … will they follow in their sisters’ footsteps or rebel?
We meet a few colourful supporting characters outside the family such as suitor, Mr. Nomura, an officer of a fishery agency at the Agricultural Office. He is forty-two and lost his wife and children five years before. He is a reserved man and always proper but also antisocial and quite possibly dangerously obsessed with his work – one of the many ill-suited suitors for Yukiko. We learn of Taeko who aspires to have her own doll shop. She arranges with a photographer (Itakura) to have pictures taken for an exhibition booklet at the Koigawa Gallery (paid for by her sister, Sachiko). A man named Okuhata is a former lover; he manages a jewelry shop. Five years ago, the two had attempted to elope but were stopped by the police. Not soon after, a newspaper prints the news of their elopement and erroneously indicates Okuhata and Yukiko. The family is outraged and, for a time, the scandal (such as it is) brings them much embarrassment. Itakura used to work for Okuhata but left for “selfish reasons,” and so, there is a rivalry between them now, mostly emanating from Okuhata. Itakura is genuinely appreciative of Taeko’s work; Okuhata, mildly amused. Taeko genuinely feels for him despite his low income and modest personality, however, his is a status is frowned upon by the older sisters.
It is a film about appearance and the disturbance of appearance. The elder Makioka sisters are strict about maintaining a respectable aura at all times, though in brief moments of joy they laugh and tease each other. They have been molded by the conditioning of traditional society, only in private moments do they feel the opportunity for defiance; it is a liberating act. They are not brainwashed you see, they are products of societal conditioning and centuries of tradition. The soundtrack (at times heavy, at times light), with sweeping strings and airy synths, is a bit unusual on occasion but when juxtaposed with the visual style and general tone it feels appropriate. It is, overall, a quiet film though with beautiful imagery and fluid cinematography. The screenplay is based on a story by Junichiro Tanizaki, a writer who often interchanged between controversially sexual and violent tales (Quicksand, The Key) and stories of Eastern values as they were assimilated by the West in 20th century Japanese society (Naomi, Some Prefer Nettles). Ichikawa’s film captures the latter with a finesse that is certainly worthy of Tanizaki’s work.
“When I am with you, I wonder why I always think of my past.”
About a thousand years ago, a noblewoman, living under the customary seclusion of her day, wrote what many consider to be the first classic novel. Murasaki Shikibu was of the Heian court in Kyoto at a particular time when some of Japan’s greatest literary works were written. As per tradition, she had little communication with men outside of her immediate family and her learning of Chinese was generally frowned upon, but following her husband’s death shortly after the birth of their daughter, she withdrew to a Shingon Buddhist temple. While gazing past an ancient lake by the light of the moon, legend tells us that Murasaki composed The Tale of Genji. Her skill as an author was acknowledged and soon she became a lady-in-waiting at the court, continuing to pen vast prose for the remainder of her life. Sugii’s animated adaptation of Murasaki’s canonical tale captures the atmosphere of the period very well. There is a pensive, unrushed characteristic of the film which is appealing but also an occasional cause of obliqueness. There is not eroticism but passion, not flamboyance but exploration: Buddhism at its most dastardly and sincere.
The film begins with Lord Genji carrying a woman named Yugao through a deserted mansion. She is one of his many mistresses and much beloved. Genji is the emperor’s second prince. It is said, “Nothing rivals him in the Capital” and this is certainly true but, beyond the physical realm, it is soon revealed that he is powerless. When the opening credits clear, we see him being fitted and pampered (to his boredom). Lady Aoi is his first wife and he is less than ecstatic about it. Neither of them feel any real attachment to each other as their marriage was a parental political move. He has many other lovers (there are about fifteen described in the novel): some beautiful, some cold, some intelligent, others meek. His interest in (most of) these women springs from their unattainability and his interest wanes once they are attained.
He has been having an affair with the late first prince’s wife, Miyasudokoro Rokujo (everyone, including the emperor, seem to know about it but it’s officially a secret), for quite some time. She is five years his senior and cynical as to the possibility of their marriage. She is neither the first nor the last love he has conquered recently, yet her pride and jealousy bears an energy that extends beyond the grave. His stepmother, however, is his greatest desire. When Genji learns that the Empress is pregnant, he is conflicted. “I cannot hold back my feelings,” he says to her eventually. Theirs is a doomed path – there can be no easy resolution in the rigid confines of this society. There is a cherry blossom motif which occurs throughout the film representing the cause (or one could say, the result) of this trouble.
The voice acting is superb; often conversational, always emotional. Much of the dialogue contains men talking about women and women talking about men, but it is theatrical and existentially earnest. Featured is a haunting soundtrack that is both fitting to the time period and dynamic. The animation is smooth and tasteful, preferring slow pans and long takes to allow tension to build over time. While a bit dated at first glance, its odd static movements become captivating and surreal. It is a deliberate film with conversations being heard but not seen for minutes on end and characters saying things like, “I have nothing to say.” It’s all done so well though that it’s suffocating serious tone is not painful but blissful. Sugii’s film, however, only adapts the first twelve chapters of the original novel’s fifty-four (entirely understandable considering this spans over a thousand pages). Despite this, it is a worthy adaptation that maintains the essence of its source material in a respectful way.