Saturday, November 20, 2010

Kon Ichikawa | The Burmese Harp / Nobi (Fires on the Plain) / Yukinojo henge (An Actor's Revenge) / Sasame-yuki (The Makioka Sisters)

Two images above: from The Burmese Harp

Two images above: from Fire on the Plain

Two images above: from An Actor's Revenge

Two images above: from The Makioka Sisters


by Douglas Messerli

Natto Wada (writer), based on a novel by Michio Takeyama, Kon Ichikawa (director) The Burmese Harp / 1956, released in the US in April 1967

As critic Tony Rayns notes in his essay accompanying the Criterion re-issue of The Burmese Harp, this film was Ichikawa’s twenty-seventh feature, “his first real landmark in his career.” And “nobody in the industry or the press singled him out as a major talent on the strength of the first twenty-six features, all of them company assignments….” What made this feature so different from those others?

Based on a novel by Takeyama Michio, The Burmese Harp had already received popular success in its literary form. Indeed, it had been an important book in helping to heal the Japanese wounds of World War II. As Ichikawa would later tell Donald Richie, “Oh, but I wanted to make that film. That was the first film I really felt I had to make.” But as Rayns observes, although remaining basically true to the story of the book, Ichikawa made several important changes that bring the film into greater focus, and affect the structure and significance of the work.

The original novel, like the film, is the story of a Japanese company stranded in Burma at the end of World War II, attempting to escape the British attacks by crossing over into Thailand. Without food, forced to march through often mountainous and always unknown terrain, and given little aid by the unsympathetic Burmese (the extent of Japanese war crimes committed in Burma would later be revealed), Captain Inouye’s soldiers are a frightened and vulnerable lot.

Yet, as the novel makes clear upon the return of the survivors to Japan, these men seem in better condition than other war prisoners. The secret, and one of the major themes of both the book and film, is that Inouye has studied music, training his men to sing in an choral style that uplifts their spirits—and, one might add sometimes also sentimentalizes Ichikawa’s presentation of the horrors of war. One of their men, Mizushima, has become an expert on the local Burmese harp, accompanying the men’s choruses, and using the instrument to signal news of his forays as a scout. Dressed in the traditional Burmese longyi, carrying the harp, Mizushima, his fellow soldiers tease, looks just like the locals.

The power of their music is apparent throughout the film, particularly when it briefly allows them a few friendly moments in a Burmese village where they are well fed before the villagers scurry off to their huts. Recognizing a possible trap, and quickly observing that the village has suddenly been surrounded by soldiers, the captain orders his men to sing as a ruse while they prepare for battle. But the song they sing, “Hanyu no yado” (a Japanese folk song that in English we know as “Home, Sweet Home”) seems to charm the enemy, as it joins in the refrain, coming forward without shooting. The scene might be entirely ludicrous were the Japanese not soon after to discover that they have had no choice but to surrender, since their country has capitulated and the war ended three days earlier. Music, accordingly, is represented not only as a force that crosses national boundaries, but is—for these men at least—a true salvation. They survive because they have not been forced to fight.

Another Japanese company in the nearby mountains, however, is still battling with the British below. Inouye is determined that his men and all others must survive to return to Japan and help rebuild the country. Mizushima is sent to attempt to explain to the remaining rebels that the war has ended and they should surrender.

His warring countrymen greet him with disbelief, perceiving him either as an enemy agent or as a traitor. Daring this company’s captain to behave with honor, Mizushima is unable to dissuade the unit, all of which are ultimately killed by the British; Mizushima himself is shot.

In Takeyama’s original book, Mizushima is “found and nursed back to health by a non-Burmese tribe of cannibals, who plan to eat him (a theme that reappears in Ichikawa’s 1959 film Fires on the Plain), but in the film version, the surviving musician is nursed back to health by a Buddhist monk, which completely alters the perspective of the work, and more thoroughly justifies Mizushima’s later conversion to Buddhism.

At first, however, Mizushima is not all interested in what he might learn from the monk, going so far as to steal the holy man’s robe as the soldier attempts to rejoin his company at a war camp in the south. Yet his long and painful journey (he must climb the rocky mountains and hills barefoot and is near starvation) radically changes him, particularly as he encounters multiple corpses of his countrymen and other soldiers along the way, all unburied, lying in the open prey to buzzards and other scavengers—one of the worst horrors for a man of a culture that reverences their dead. At one point, he is compelled to drag a few corpses away, burning them, carrying their ashes off.

By the time Mizushima has reached water’s edge near the prison camp, he has begun to rethink his entire life. Many critics seem determined to understand his acts emanating only from his traditional sense of Japanese values; indeed my former Temple University colleague and friend Joan Mellen argues in her book The Waves at Genji’s Door that “Mizushima has decided to sacrifice loyalty to a single group for devotion to a larger entity” uniting “himself with the family of ancestors comprised by these dead.” Accordingly, she sees Ichikawa’s film as “whitewashing” the Japanese troops, as a work with a “lack of consistent point of view or personal commitment.”

I see Misushima’s transformation, however, not simply as an attempt to reclaim the Japanese dead—although that is certainly one of his stated goals in his letter to his captain, read aloud at the film’s end—but as a recognition—a fact also mentioned in that letter—of the meaninglessness of his previous acts, the horror of war itself. He has no other moral choice, accordingly, but to escape his role as a soldier—Japanese or other—and take on a new role as Buddhist monk. His poignant refusal to recognize his own former comrades as they come upon one another on a bridge—a scene introduced by the director and repeated, in Rashomon fashion, from each point of view—is, in fact, a different kind of traitorous act. As the comrades repeat his name over and over in their questioning looks, he not only denies their existence, but the actions of all his countrymen, of soldiers of every country. In that very denial, however, he has forged a new moral identity, a transcendent existence.

Yet Ichikawa’s film is not precisely an anti-war film either, and that is perhaps what makes this work so implausibly rewarding. Neither direc-tor nor character lash out against the soldiers and their acts; they have only done what all soldiers are taught to do: to kill, to survive, to serve the higher order of their nation. Their continued wonderment about their former colleague and their determination, des-pite his refusal to recognize them, to have him join them in their return home, perhaps helps to redeem them as well. It is as if the siren song of music might lure him back, and with him some part of their lost selves. One of the most brilliant images of many stunning visual moments in this film is the company singing at the top of their lungs in an attempt to bring back Mizushima across a wire fence, faced by a group of local Burmese, their faces reflecting both the enjoyment and confusion of their enemy’s vocal performance.

The captain goes even further; seeing a parrot on the monk’s shoulder, he buys its brother, teaching it to repeat “Mizushima, come back to Japan.” When the men convince a Burmese woman trader (the wonderful Kitabayshi Tanie, speaking an Osaka-accented Japanese) to give the bird to the monk, we recognize it not just as an attempt to regain one of their lost, but, as the trader suggests, the return of one brother to the other, a temporary joining of the two cultures.

Mizushima’s answer, to return the first bird, whom he has taught to say “I cannot join you,” expresses only the inevitable truth: his spiritual journey can never be reunited to their earthly desires. After the two forces—the men’s voices and Mizushima’s Burmese harp—are once more momentarily and joyfully married, Ichikawa’s camera follows the monk’s silent turn and disappearance into the haze and smoke of the Buddhist landscape where he must remain.

Los Angeles, February 29, 2008

by Douglas Messerli

Natto Wada (writer), based on a novel by Shohei Ooka; Kon Ichikawa (director) Nobi (Fires on the Plain) / 1959

Just three years after The Burmese Harp, Ichikawa again tackled a story that focused upon the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II, this time concerning the retreat of soldiers in the Leyte-Philippine front in 1945. In Fires on the Plain, all traces of sentimentality have disappeared; the commander of this straggling platoon, far less sympathetic than Captain Inouye of the earlier film, begins the movie with a harangue against one of his men, Tamura, who, having contracted tuberculosis, has returned after just a few days at the hospital. His sergeant, who hasn’t enough rations to properly feed any of his men, declares that Tamura is of no use to him, demanding he go back to the hospital and insist upon being admitted. If they will not admit him, he proclaims, he must commit suicide.

The seeming insanity of this command is only the first of a series of absurd demands put upon the living-dead soldiers of Ichikawa’s darkly comedic work, a tale which reminds one, at times, of Beckett’s utterly confused and immobile figures.

Tamura, played by actor Eiji Funakoshi, is what one can only describe as a kind of wise fool, a good and obedient man with little of the ego of the men he meets. When he is told he cannot be given a bed—men still able to walk or even crawl are all refused refuge—he patiently waits with a group of others outside the hospital, many of whom are near death and survive only on tubers the local farmers long ago planted about the countryside.

When the hospital is bombed by American planes most of the bed-ridden patients are killed, as the squatters and hospital staff run for cover, Tamura along with them. The deaths of the escaping patients, forced literally to crawl across the yard in an attempt to escape destruction, is one of the most startling images through which the director reveals the horrors of war.

So begins Tamura’s near endless journey through the Philippine countryside, as he encounters other men from surviving units as they attempt to reach Palampon, where they hope to be evacuated. Sick, malnourished, reduced to eating soil and leeches, Tamura instinctively—if mistakenly—moves away from these soldiers toward the few signs of life he observes, small fires burning across the plains.

That the path he has chosen is the most dangerous one is obvious. At one point, seeing a small church in the distance, he comes across an abandoned town, only to discover outside the small cathedral the bodies of dozens of Japanese soldiers, who en masse have been gunned down. Yet the return of a Philippine couple to retrieve a cache of salt they have buried in their hut, arouses his hopes that he can establish human contact. When he encounters the couple, however, the woman begins to scream uncontrollably, and after silently pleading for her silence, he is forced to shoot, killing her as her husband escapes.

Startled by his own violent actions, he rids himself of his rifle shortly before encountering a pair of outlaw soldiers, Yasuda and Nagamatsu (the later played by popular Japanese entertainer Mickey Curtis), who follow the troops only to sell tobacco in return for food. Gathering with other men at a road and river crossing, they wait for nightfall, hoping to protect themselves from American guns, but as the crossing begins American tanks turn their lights upon the escapees, killing many,

Those living, move gradually forward, some of them prepared to surrender. Again, Ichikawa demonstrates the impossibility of any sane action in war as a young Japanese man, waving a white flag as he runs toward a Red Cross truck, is gunned down by a Filipina guerilla soldier in an American jeep before the Americans can prevent her from what is clearly an act of revenge.

The long march forward is brilliantly captured in a series of dark, satiric images in which one soldier, coming across a dead comrade, steals his shoes, leaving behind his own; a short while later another soldier takes these discarded boots, leaving, in turn, his own nearly soleless shoes behind; another takes these up as he rids himself a shoes without any bottoms.

Near death and nearly mad, Tamura once again encounters his bandit friends, joyful just to be in human company. They offer him monkey meat, but he cannot stomach food and his teeth, now rotten, fall out as he puts it to his mouth. Yasuda, now unable to walk, seemingly cannot survive without Nagamatsu’s help, yet the later sleeps far from him, his bed hidden in the forest, because, as he tells Tamura, he fears his “friend.” And we quickly begin to recognize what Tamura is unable to, that both men are more dangerous perhaps than capture or even death.

As Nagamatsu goes in search of monkeys, Tamura follows him, suddenly witnessing Nagamatsu’s attempt to shoot another soldier before the gun is turned upon Tamura himself. “Don’t worry,” Nagamatsu assures him; he has no taste for infected meat.
The meat they have been eating, quite obviously, is human flesh. When Nagamatsu discovers that his guileless friend has given up his grenade to Yasuda, he hides in waiting, shooting his former companion and, while Tamura looks on in horror, eviscerating his body as he swallows down his innards.

Tamura has no choice but to slip away, running toward another fire he perceives in the distance. Of course it is dangerous to move toward what he has previously been told are places where the natives burn their corn husks, but he is now desperate to reencounter what he imagines as “normal people.”

In war, as Ichikawa has made clear, however, there can be no normality. Gun fire, presumably from Philippine partisans, shoots him down.

Los Angeles, March 18, 2008

by Douglas Messerli

Nato Wada (writer), based on a film by Daisuke Itô and Teinosuke Kinugasa), Kon Ichikawa
(director) Yukinojo henge (An Actor’s Revenge) / 1963

Film historians report that after a string of financially unsuccessful films—films that, however, were often critically acclaimed—Ichikawa was assigned to remake Yukinojo henge (An Actor’s Revenge), based on an older novel by Otokichi Mikami and previously made as three-part serial by Teinosuke Kinugasa in 1935 and 1936, starring Kazuo Hasegawa. Critic Donald Richie humorously describes the task to be “like asking Buñuel to remake Stella Dallas.” Yet Ichikawa, working with his wife and life-long collaborator, Natto Wada as the screenwriter, brilliantly rose to the occasion, even employing the original actor, in his 300th movie role, in the lead role of the Kabuki female impersonator Yukinojo and in the role of her secret admirer and the film’s narrative commentator, the thief Yamitaro.

With the use of highly saturated colors and a score that—despite the film’s setting in the Tokugawa period of Japanese history (1603-1867)—employs romantic theme music of the 1950s melodramas as well as contemporary jazz, Ichikawa creates a work that might easily be compared with the films of American directors of the 1950s such as Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray.

During the midst of her performance in Edo, Yukinojo catches a glimpse in the audience of the wealthy merchant Kawaguchiya, accompanied by the corrupt magistrate Sansai Dobe and Dobe’s daughter Namiji, the mistress of the powerful shogun. The two men, along with another merchant, Hiromiya, have been responsible for her father’s and mother’s deaths, the facts of which have been kept alive in Yukinojo’s mind by her manager-mentor. After all these years, it is now time for revenge.

It is clear from the very first scene that the beautiful Namiji has fallen in love with Yukinojo—the fact of which, given Kazuo Hasegawa’s advanced age and his retention of the mannerisms and dress of a woman throughout the film, merely accentuates the theatricality and artificiality of the work. Combined with the introduction into the film of Yamitaro, a charming thief from whose attempted robbery and murder Yukinojo escapes—and who comes to admire and perhaps even love Yuinojo—and Yukinojo’s repeated run-ins with Yamitaro’s competitor, the woman thief Ohatsu—who ultimately declares she too has fallen in love with Yukinojo—An Actor’s Revenge might be dismissed as a strange black sex comedy ahead of its time were it not for the Hasegawa’s brilliant acting and Ichikawa’s refusal to permit what we would now describe as post-modern intrusions to alter the focus of his larger-than-life historical adventure: the destruction of the evil men who destroy anyone in stands in the way of their greed and lust for power.

Through repeated gestures of servility to these proud men, several swordfights, wile, stealth and outright lies Yukinojo gains entry to their houses and is a given a modicum of trust which permits her to carefully weave hearsay and rumor into a net of consequences in which each man is ultimately trapped, as they turn against one another and, particularly in the case of Sansai Dobe, destroy themselves.

Unfortunately, the delicate Namiji, a woman—unlike Yukinojo (a man pretending to be a woman) or Ohatsu (a woman with the physical prowess and unchecked confidence of a man)—finds herself trapped in the net as well, and as her innocence is betrayed, dies. Yukinojo leaves the theater and disappears from sight and, eventually, we are told, even from memory.

In her story, however, Ichikawa has clearly created a legend that explores the complex issues of human sexuality more thoroughly than most films of the day.

Los Angeles, March 26, 2008

by Douglas Messerli

Shinya Hidaka and Kon Ichikawa (writers), based on the novel Sasame-yuki by Tanizaki Junichirō, Kon Ichikawa (director) Sasame-yuki (The Makioka Sisters) / 1983

Ichikawa’s beautifully filmed adaptation of Tanizaki’s masterwork begins in what is described as 1938 Osaka, at a time when families—in particular the noted Makioka family—join in strolls under the cherry blossoms. These first scenes of the film, rendered in the kind of oversaturated, but slightly fading images that we associate with the cinematic travelogues of the 1940s and early 1950s immediately tells us that this formal display of beauty represented by both the flowers and the carefully chosen kimono costumes of the major characters is a thing of the past, something that will not last.

Indeed, there is a kind of fragility to all of Ichikawa’s scenes throughout the movie, a quality of the film, in its extended close-ups of characters and theatrically presented glimpses into family life, that makes us sense we are witnessing something that at any moment might collapse.

Although Japan is at war throughout much of the film, and the shortages of food and products is every now and then mentioned, one would hardly know from the manner in which these sisters live that Japan was suffering any hardships. Daughters of a renowned shipbuilding father, the four Makioka sisters live in two houses, the larger house ruled over by the eldest, Tsuruko, her businessman husband (who has taken the Makioka family name) and their several children; the slightly smaller home is ruled by Sachiko, a more open-minded and practical woman, married to an accountant (who also is now a Makioka). Because of issues relating to a family “scandal”—the youngest sister Taeko has attempted to elope but the newspapers has mistakenly published the name of the third eldest sister, the quite properly behaved Yukiko—the two have moved out of Tsuruko’s rule and into Sachiko’s smaller domain.

The plot of this complex interweaving of family life, in some respects, bares resemblance to a grand soap-opera; but unlike, say, the American play August: Osage County I review later in this volume, the family battles and sexual intrigues, for the most part, in the work are kept at the level of a whisper. And for that reason, the narrative, at times, is purposely thwarted as characters again and again are cut off in conversation and forced to recover their restraint as servants and other family members come and go; these people most certainly do “duke it out,” so to speak, but smile and bow as they thrust in the knife. The tension this creates demands the viewer pay attention to every word and gesture of this wonderfully talented ensemble, as politesse is subtly transformed into bitter hate, as love quietly acquiesces to despair and pain.

On the surface, the major actions of these sisters center around the third eldest daughter as they attempt to marry her off to a suitable suitor before the independently-minded Taeko ruins all chances of family respectability—something that matters intensely to the Makioka brood.

It is fascinating to watch the procedures as the family meets each potential husband for Yukiko. The formal first meeting with the suitor and family members, however, is repeated in more and more informal settings as Yukiko turns down each marriage offer. The final meeting, with a handsome, young man of a noted family, is a somewhat embarrassing get-together at the man’s own home. Higashiya seems to have tried out every career before becoming a worker in a aeronautics factory, but with him, sitting in the least formal of settings, Yukiko finally finds love.

Taeko, meanwhile, who desires to become a doll-maker, and who lives alternatively with a young “rich kid” without any money and a photographer using her, it appears, to gain a studio, ultimately runs away from home again, this time with the owner of a local bar. When she tells her sister that she now is able to earn money by being a seamstress, we can only note the pained look of Sachiko, as she gently turns away, trying to hide her feelings of shame.

It is this subtlety of feeling and expression along with the genuine love between the sisters and their husbands that saves this work from becoming a Dallas or August: Osage County, that rescues Tanizaki’s great study of mid-20th century Japanese life from a more course expression of stereotypes. Although Tsuruko may imperiously resist her husband’s decision to move his family from Osaka to Toyko, she ultimately gives in to his wishes, seemingly recognizing that despite her desires she cannot continue to live in the past. Although Sachiko clearly suffers over her husband’s illicit affair with Yukiko, she wisely refuses to transform it into a crisis, quietly determining to marry off her sister as quickly as possible.

What is so touching about the relationships of these people is that none of them, except perhaps Taeko, will survive another year. As the fine, melting snow drifting to earth at the end of this film (the original title, Sasame-yuki, means just that: a fine, melting snow) these fragile women, dressed in their elegant wrappings, will likely be unable to suffer through the post-war destruction of Japan. In the last narrative sequence of the film, we witness Sachiko’s husband Teinosuke alone in a restaurant, drinking himself into oblivion as tears fall from his eyes. He has lost his illicit sexual partner, yes, but he seems also to be lapping up what he himself describes as “the poison” he and his family must soon swallow. It is their world, the world of people like the Makiokas, after all, that sent Japan into war.

The final images, set to an almost militantly sweet melody, return us to the picture-postcard world of the early part of the movie, images that we recognize no longer can exist.

Los Angeles, June 25, 2008
Reprinted from Nth Position [England] (August 2008).
Copyright (c) 2008 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

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