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David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

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Osamu Dazai and Masuji Ibuse

Ibuse-san wa akunin desu. [Ibuse is an evil man.]

Osamu Dazai

Osamu Dazai is considered one of the greatest 20th century Japanese writers. I’ve read the two of his novels that New Directions published in English, The Setting Sun and No Longer Human, but got the sense that as with many other East Asian writers, way too much was being lost in translation. Like Mishima and Kawabata, Dazai committed suicide. Dazai’s death seemed to stem from much more evident instability than Kawabata or Mishima’s (though attempting to reinstate the Emperor by coup, as Mishima did, certainly qualifies as some sort of eccentricity), but he left a mysterious note shortly before his death proclaiming that fellow writer and mentor Masuji Ibuse was an evil man.

Ibuse is best known for writing Black Rain, a miserable tale of atomic bomb survivors who were wounded and poisoned and mostly abandoned by their country. (It was later adapted by Shohei Imamura, for whom the material was a perfect fit.) Ibuse was about ten years older than Dazai and far less troubled than him. His writing was far less confessional and performative. They met after Dazai fell in love with a book of stories by Ibuse and struck up correspondence with him. Dazai threatened to commit suicide if not granted an interview with Ibuse, and so they met and Ibuse became his literary and personal mentor. Dazai fell into drugs and womanizing and suicide attempts, while Ibuse helped him out however he could–or else he enabled Dazai, depending on one’s interpretation. And then Dazai died, drowning along with his mistress in a double suicide (or possibly a murder-suicide). And then there was the letter with the above phrase, apparently with no explanation. (I haven’t been able to find a translation of the entire letter.)

Ibuse was devastated. In his book on Ibuse, John Whittier Treat says that Ibuse came to write over thirty tormented works about Dazai after the latter’s death. One begins “I have no idea why Dazai died.” Evident guilt, evident need to make sense of what had happened. To be named in the note and then have the only person capable of explaining the accusation permanently disappear: for Ibuse it seems to have been hell. I’d like to know more about it. From what little I do know, it seems that Ibuse felt a double rejection: first when his pupil abandons the path of life that Ibuse was trying to lay for him; and second when his pupil turns on him and makes him out to be the bad influence. I can’t imagine that Dazai possibly calculated the effect that the rejection would have on Ibuse, but the circumstances made it brutal.

Nagisa Oshima and Other Japanese New Wave Films

There have been two retrospectives of Oshima recently in New York, as well as a brief New Wave overview at the Japan Society. Most of these films aren’t readily available, and for Oshima at least, people’s opinions of him have been skewed by only watching his late work, particularly In the Realm of the Senses (which is really not my thing). So here are quick takes on what I’ve seen. First, three early Oshima films.

The Sun’s Burial (Oshima, 1960): Assorted gang members and other lowlifes in Osaka try to make money and kill each other. Even here, though, Oshima is not concerned with realism. The film is essentially a melodrama and the plot contrivances are designed to generate theatricality and brutality. Oshima is technically fluent, but the film’s construction pales next to Imamura’s contemporaneous Pigs and Battleships, which takes a more anthropological view toward its lower-class subjects.

Night and Fog in Japan (Oshima, 1960): At a wedding, students, professors, and activists argue over what happened during the student movement against the Japan-America security treaty ten years earlier. There’s a lot of political talk without much background, but the depiction of a dead-serious Communist student movement, complete with censure and autocracy, is compelling. The flashbacks and camera movements are vaguely dialectical (the camera has a habit of swinging horizontally backwards and forwards), and it’s clear that the political content is meant seriously, not satirically, even if Oshima is ultimately pessimistic about the movements and their hollow leaders. It’s a more literal version of what Godard did in La Chinoise.

Pleasures of the Flesh (Oshima, 1963): Based on a book apparently entitled Pleasures of the Coffin, this is another over-the-top melodrama. Our hero murders a man who raped the teenage object of his obsession/love/lust, then comes into a fortune through hard-to-figure circumstances. He spends a year spending money by hiring assorted women as prostitutes. Things go very badly. The material seems to be tongue-in-cheek, but the rampant misogyny (the women just want money, they betray him, they don’t have feelings, etc.) is still hard to take. Best example of such: our hero secretly watches a pimp rape his prostitute, but doesn’t intervene until the pimp is about to pour acid on her face. Yeah.

Shohei Imamura 1926-2006

Imamura deserves much more space than I can give him here, and one should start at this overview, with some great quotes:

I am interested in the relationship of the lower part of the human body and the lower part of the social structure on which the reality of daily Japanese life obstinately supports itself.

If you’d asked me two weeks ago, I would have called him my favorite living director. Now he’s probably my favorite dead director. There are very few other directors who deal with the world in such an all-encompassing totality, without the desire to tie it down into a preconceived structure. As I’ve said elsewhere, Imamura convinces you that the world continues infinitely beyond the frame, and that he could show you any part of it if he so desired. He was also one of the very few Japanese directors I know of to transcend the dragon-lady/martyr dichotomy of women that overwhelmingly prevails in Japanese film from Mizoguchi to Suzuki to Miike. (“Self-sacrificing women like the heroines of Naruse’s Floating Clouds and Mizoguchi’s Life of Oharu don’t really exist.”) There are no obvious comparisons, but thinking of him as a more proletarian Renoir or a more consistent Altman may not be so far off the mark. Emir Kusturica also owes him quite a debt.

My own thoughts on some of his films follow; I have my favorites, but I honestly recommend you see them all. There are still films of his that I haven’t seen: The Profound Desire of the Gods, A Man Vanishes, A History of Postwar Japan as Told by a Bar Hostess. Not to be melodramatic, but I feel that they’re necessary for me to watch.

Pigs and Battleships (1961). I already wrote about this one, but it’s portrait of decadent post-war Japan is unlike anything else I’ve seen. While others were making self-flagellating exercises in remorse (see Kobayashi’s The Human Condition), Imamura ignored virtue and duty to show the intersecting forces of opportunism and greed.

The Insect Woman (1963). The most acute example of his treatment of women in traditional Japan, showing one woman’s progression from exploiter to exploited as a factor of environmental and survival instincts, not as the product of some abstract human nature. Crushes Mizoguchi and Ozu. (There’ll be plenty of time to like Ozu when I’m an old sentimental geezer.)

The Pornographers (1966). Unbelievably bizarre disquisition on Japanese family life and sexuality. Incest, porn, fish, sex dolls. This one is famous because of its sheer lurid oddity, but I don’t apprehend it as intuitively, and I suspect that it travels with more difficulty than his other films. Still brilliant.

Vengeance is Mine (1979). A comparatively restrained study of a serial murderer, played brilliantly by the underrated Ken Ogata. Imamura resists psychologizing Ogata’s character, preferring to leave him as a overt manifestation of what Japan would rather keep quiet, much like Moosbrugger in The Man Without Qualities. It plays as a travelogue through various sorts of physical and spiritual despair, all made visceral.

Eijanaika (1981). An awesome achievement and my second favorite. Nineteenth century Japan as seen from the view of the peasants. Neither sentimental nor revisionist, it subtly builds to a futile but profound peasant revolt that is everything you never see in Kurosawa. Words fail me. Again, what is remarkable is the absolute structural conviction and integrity. Imamura never falters.

The Ballad of Narayama (1983). Imamura’s greatest film, and probably my favorite film of all time. It is so close to me that I’ll give up on describing it. Just watch the damn thing, and please, someone issue it on DVD.

Black Rain (1989). Imamura’s treatment of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Japanese’s psychological exile of the victims. Less incisive than his prior work, it evinces more overt compassion than he had previously allowed. As such, I think it shows cracks in the perfection of his earlier work, but it’s still fine, fine stuff.

The Eel (1997). Imamura became famous all over again for this one, but I think of it as a minor work, telling a simple tale of a man’s (successful) attempt at redemption. Imamura sacrifices his panoramic talent for more intimate human interest, and while the result is still compelling, it does not stand up to what went before.

Dr. Akagi (1998). It seems deceptively minor at first, but this is a much more substantial film than The Eel. A series of tales focusing around an apolitical doctor in World War II, it displays for the first time what Imamura believes constitutes virtue in the rotten world he’d portrayed for the previous forty years. It is his most hopeful film, but as you’d expect, it’s a guarded hope.

Warm Water Under a Red Bridge (2001). A disappointing final film. Beginning with a fairly ridiculous premise, Imamura here is far sunnier than he has ever been before, but alas, he is out of his element in these realms, and the film doesn’t cohere. Yet I have to wonder if it was Imamura’s final taunt at the recurrent theme of disgust and fear of open, healthy female sexuality in Japanese culture (though the sentiment is hardly unique to Japan).

Hiroshi Teshigahara: The Face of Another

Easily the best Teshigahara film I’ve seen, and a better adaptation of a Kobo Abe novel than I thought possible. It’s a fable of a man whose face is horribly burnt beyond recognition and goes to a (very dodgy) doctor to receive a “mask” that enables him to be a new man. From there, things go strange. The film, as much as the book, takes an attitude that is somewhat reminiscent of Merleau-Ponty: without your face, you are bereft of a core component of yourself. With another face, you are no longer yourself–ontologically, not just psychologically. That is, at any rate, the position of the doctor, who proves to be just as crazy as our hero, even with his own face.

Like John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (made in the same year!), it’s about a damaged man who gets a new and improved identity. Seconds plays like an overextended Twilight Zone episode distinguished mostly by James Wong Howe’s cinematography and an uncanny-in-retrospect dying-on-the-inside performance by Rock Hudson; the plot is merely b-grade horror. The Face of Another is much deeper and more disturbing, evoking memories of Nagasaki and inhumanity from its premise. In place of Jeff Corey’s wacky mastermind, there’s a so-much-more frightening doctor who dispenses extremely unhelpful Sartre-like advice as he gives the main character his new face. (He is one of many frightening doctors in Abe’s books. Abe, a doctor’s son, finished medical school but never practiced, but there’s certainly more to the story than that.)

The film’s success is in large part due to Abe’s very successful dramatization of his novel, which turns the solipsistic interior monologue into a series of creepy scenes with just enough voiceover narration to destabilize things further. Toru Takemitsu’s music is up to the very high standards of his visceral scores for Kwaidan and The Woman in the Dunes, combining primitive, booming electronics and percussion with a psychotic waltz. And the two leads, Tatsuya Nakadai and Michiko Kyo, are astonishing. Nakadai–he of the wide, sympathetic eyes–plays down his charm to be a low-key monster. We don’t see him unbandaged until halfway through the film, but his flat, dissociated narration is constantly pulling us away from seeing him as wholly normal. When he does appear, Nakadai’s ability to seem alienated from the face in which he is usually completely comfortable is a brilliant piece of acting, possibly his best. I can’t think of another actor who could have pulled it off. Kyo does not have as much screentime as when she played opposite Nakadai in Kon Ichikawa’s The Key (based on the Tanizaki novel), but if anything, she’s even better here. She plays the moral center of the film, what allows the film to transcend its position as a precursor to countless Miike and Kiyoshi Kurosawa flicks.

Which leaves Teshigahara. Teshigahara throws surrealist set design, staging, and visual effects into the mix, but he ultimately can’t keep up with Abe’s weirdness and, as in The Woman in the Dunes, his direction flags to the level of the ordinary. Perhaps it’s for the best; like Michiko Kyo, he keeps the film tethered to reality. He is at his best in the first half, which vividly captures the discomfort and disgust people feel around the deformed and disabled. Superimposed onto postwar Japanese society, the theme anticipates the explicit rendering it would get in Imamura’s Black Rain, which deals with how Japan shunned the deformed survivors of nuclear bombing.

Keiho Oguri: Sting of Death

A friend and I saw Sting of Death recently and were bewildered by it. An ex-soldier in 1955 or so confesses his infidelity to his wife. For two hours, they alternate between robotic interactions drained of inflection (Bresson on Haldol) and histrionic fits of attempted suicide, murder, etc. There is little of psychological depth actually said, and little plot. I did not enjoy the movie and I think the film unsuccessful and unnecessarily opaque. Normally this means I wouldn’t write about it, but since (a) there is almost no English reference to this movie on the web, and (b) I have already written a letter to my friend describing my eventual interpretation of the movie in response to his, I am posting on it. Because I am lazy, at least when it comes to things I don’t like, I am going to post the letter mostly unaltered, without explanation for some of the scenes that I refer to. I think it still gives a decent impression of the movie to someone who hasn’t seen it. And anyhow, isn’t it good to undercut occasionally the hegemony the reviewer holds over a reader who has not read the book or seen the movie under consideration?

Dear A–

What keyed me into the psychology of the film were the regressive aspects of parts of the film: at one point, the wife calls the husband Lieutenant and he throws water on her, while at others she calls him Papa. Both regress to the state of children several times over the course of the movie. Likewise, there are role reversals where one partner compensates for the others, such as the scene where the husband runs to the train tracks and lays his arm on it, and the wife has to hold him back.

From what I know of Japanese view of psychology based on the novels of Soseki, Kawabata, Mishima, and Tanizaki, it’s one that puts the focus squarely on interpersonal trauma and disability: things such as infidelity, violence, sexual inadequacy, and jealousy. It does not play out in the form of repression (ironically, given the repressed aspects of Japanese society) but in various pathological forms of “insanity,” such as those seen in the film. There is, as you say, very rarely any “cure”–the process is one-way. The traumas in this film seem to be twofold: first, the infidelity, and second, the husband’s military past, which presumably ended in ignominious defeat. Connections between these two are speculative, since the movie is cryptic about his military career, but based on the water/Lieutenant scene, it seems that he also has some past demons based on his military experience.

The husband suggests at one point that they leave so that they can “create a new past”–most of their actions over the course of the movie seem to indicate that they are trying to erase the trauma of the past (the husband’s infidelity) and fail to do so, though how they fail is usually left quite vague. The wife will be acting normal and sedate in one scene, then inexplicably insane in the next. I don’t see this as repression per se, but rather a reaction to the removal of the previous context in which they existed. The “island,” and of course the hospital at the end, underscores their isolation from the world (i.e., the past), and the kids seem to function as a chorus for them.

The neighbor said, when interrupting the wife and mistress trying to kill each other, that she didn’t know who was right or wrong and that it wasn’t her business. I took this to imply that the couple’s business is indeed too private and they have succeeded in isolating themselves from the rest of humanity. Whether they are aiming for death or avoiding it–they alternate between the two–I think the movie is supposed to display this sort of quasi-death state as they isolate themselves from everyone else. They can’t achieve actual death because they still retain the desire/hope that they can erase the past, yet by attempting to do so they erase themselves. I see the movie as more a portrait of a culture that, having not recovered from a terminal loss of dignity, can no longer embrace death as a purifying force (a la seppuku or kamikaze). In the larger sense, Oguri seems to say that Japanese culture desires to erase itself by trying to ignore the past. But this only produces increased anomie and ultimately stasis.

As for the success of the movie, I simply found it too repetitive and too stiff. The fact that the movie is open to such wildly differing interpretations is not a factor in its favor. The artificial hyper-exaggerated acting of the two leads did not “work” for me in any noticeable way. It is perhaps the director’s homage to butoh and noh theater traditions, and possibly if I was more familiar with them I would appreciate the film more, but as it is, the film drifts fatally and the lack of realism undercuts the point he is trying to make. Since they aren’t believable as everyday people, they have to function as abstract extremes, but their artificially limited emotional vocabulary left the film feeling didactic, overdetermined, and ultimately tiresome, as though the director were completely unwilling to let the material breathe or offer a single sign that there might be more beyond his thesis.

In contrast, I would say, a film such as Vengeance is Mine (or any Imamura film) teems with the raw material of life and does not have a rigid, claustrophobic agenda to pursue, and for me this above all makes Imamura a far greater artist. “Sting of Death” doesn’t even seem open to the possibility that things could be otherwise. I find this absurd and arrogant.

A.

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