David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: japan (page 4 of 5)

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.


Sci-Fi Novels for Liberals

Since I don’t know any longer what socialism is, I don’t know if I’m qualified to judge China Mieville’s list of sf/f works for socialists. It’s such a heterogeneous list that the set of books seems unnecessarily short. With such diverse reasons for inclusion as genre subversion, utopia, satire, and working class sympathies, the list could have easily been expanded. Socialism evidently contains multitudes.

So instead, here’s my own list of works for liberals: specifically, liberals of the United States of around this time. And there is one theme in particular that these books reflect, which is how myths (i.e., lies) occupy the collective mind of society. More than anything George Lakoff has to say about “frames”, the idea of collective myth is one that the Republicans have embraced with great success, while the Democrats have utterly lost the fabled images of strong workers and social welfare that once fueled them. This is less about the content of these myths than the compelling aspect of their totality.

Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker

The ultimate novel of how we forget our past and recollect it as fable and allegory.

Olaf Stapledon, The Flames

Amazing, and amazingly depressing, novella of rise and fall of an alien society around a shifting religious myth. As much a tale of the Crusades as a prediction of America’s fundamentalist near-future, it’s frightening.

Mark Geston, Lords of the Starship

Neoconservative/Straussian politics put into play in a post-apocalyptic world. Not too uncommon a theme, but Geston’s book is one of the comparatively few negative portrayals of it.

Cordwainer Smith, The Rediscovery of Man

Smith was a Kennan-esque Cold Warrior, and in between the more cutesy bits, his work has a Kissingerian sense of realpolitik, depicting a point in the future where government must intervene to alter people’s existential senses of themselves.

R.A. Lafferty, Fourth Mansions

A tall tale about secret powers at work. As a conservative Christian, Lafferty is rather good at playfully saying “Damn it all” to the world. More Hawthorne-influenced than it at first appears.

Kobo Abe, The Ark Sakura

Nuclear and survivalist paranoia from a Japanese point of view. The handful of main characters spend so much time locked in an underground cavern that they nearly create their own reality.

Carol Emshwiller, Various Stories

I’ll have to go back and pick some specific ones, but there is such a constant undercurrent of societal expectations being undermined in her work that nearly anything of hers seems to fit the bill. Probably the name I was most disappointed to see missing from Mieville’s list.

Bernard Wolfe, Limbo

Crazy Freudian dystopian novel that’s at war with itself, but so fevered that its societal hysteria is more vivid than most.

Susan Sontag

Daniel Green is thoughtfully compiling notes and obituaries of Susan Sontag, who died today at age 71. I knew much of Sontag’s writing by reputation more than through actually reading it, and I never did get far into The Volcano Lover, so I can’t offer the most informed thoughts on her. But I want to salute a few particular things.

Sontag’s death comes as more of a surprise than most because I thought of her as being at a fundamentally restless stage of her life, before the period of old age where writers settle down and start repeating themselves. When I was younger and discovering writers through remainders at The Strand and small press reissues, Sontag popped up all over the place. Wherever I went–E.M. Cioran, Alexander Kluge, Roberto Bolano, Imre Kertesz, Bela Tarr–Sontag had been there first, writing introductions or analyses. At the Japan Society’s retrospective of post-war Japanese film earlier this year, she had made the selections, and they were hardly common choices: these were movies and directors I’d never heard of, even after having followed Japanese film for several years. And her appreciation of Shohei Imamura was spot on.

I disagreed with many of her enthusiasms (Cioran, for one, and certainly Peter Nadas), but this is an almost inevitable consequence of the breadth of her tastes. At a time when specialization and depth take precedence over exploration, Sontag’s eclecticism is something we need more of.

Update: Also see Professor Nightspore’s just-right memories of Sontag:

It’s strange though how she feels central but unimportant to my own sense of self and intellectual world.

Shohei Imamura, Pigs and Battleships

Shohei Imamura is one of my favorite directors, and it’s a recurring frustration that I haven’t been able to see more of his movies; many just aren’t available in the states, and his recent work is nowhere near as great as the amazing films he made from 1961 to the mid-80’s. The Ballad of Narayama is somewhere in my top five films ever, and wonderful flicks like Eijanaika and The Insect Woman are some of the most unsensationalistic, unblinkered views of brutality and poverty ever. And still I have yet to see the wonderfully named The History of Postwar Japan as Told by a Bar Hostess or The Profound Desire of the Gods.

But I did finally see Pigs and Battleships, and from the very start, the scope of the enveloping setting that he creates–in this case, post-war, occupied Yokohama–is stunning. The plot is discursive, difficult to follow, and eventually absurd: something about gangsters raising pigs for money. In the climactic scene, hundreds of pigs run loose in Yokohama’s red light district. Meanwhile, an inept, flunky gangster attempts to save his girlfriend from being sold off as a prostitute or as an American soldier’s wife. He dies, but the girlfriend defiantly escapes the hellhole to start a new life elsewhere.

(In Imamura’s words, “Self-sacrificing women like the heroines of Naruse’s Floating Clouds and Mizoguchi’s Life of Oharu don’t really exist.)

There are multiple layers of symbolism and allegory, mostly around the cultural impact of the loss of the war and the American occupation, but realism remains absolutely paramount. Even when pigs are running crazy, the characters themselves are driven by base motives that remain absolutely plausible because of their simplicity. After the film, I argued with a friend who said that the conflicts–young man trying to be successful for his girlfriend–were cliched, and the characters were not interesting in themselves.

I have no problem with this; it suits Imamura’s style, which needs a basis in the mundane to ground its panoramic grotesques. He does not dress up his characters in fancy psychological motives or extreme situations because it would detract from the sense of the world he is trying to create. I saw Closer the other night and got a kick out of it, but the characters were so artificially articulate and contrived that they bore no resemblance to the world that I know. Imamura presents a setting that I have never experienced, and makes the people and the cultural systems behind them seem as tangible as the people I see on the subway each morning.

Incensed at Peppermint

The South Korean film Peppermint Candy begins with a man gunning down some random person who’s ripped him off and then committing suicide, then traces his life backwards through his career as a dirty cop, a cowardly soldier, and a youthful innocent.

It’s not much of a film, but it did get me thinking back myself, before Irreversible, Memento, and Betrayal, to an earlier example of reverse chronology, George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s Merrily We Roll Along, a morality tale about a successful playwright who gives up his dreams for fame and cash. As you’d expect, Kaufman’s gags fit very uneasily into the contrived framework, and on paper at least, the thing doesn’t work. (It was also excluded from the new Library of America Kaufman collection.) Stephen Sondheim tried to retrofit it as a musical fifty years later, and it bombed.

(Okay, I admit, I usually ignore films I dislike, but I came up with the title for this entry and had to use it….)

Update: Brendan Wolfe (who, if you follow the link under his name, has himself written a good assessment of Aharon Appelfeld) has asked why I didn’t care for Peppermint Candy.

I thought that the film consisted of plot elements that weren’t in themselves distinctive: a despondent, broken, hollow man committing suicide; a corrupt cop losing his morality; the man trapped in a marriage while he pines after his symbolic first love; the tragic death of an innocent in a war zone poisoning the man forever; the innocent youth naively ignorant of the horrors of the world.

The film takes two approaches to justify these generic mechanisms: first, through (backwards) structure, and second, through context (of recent Korean history). The contextual approach fails because the corrupted everyman protagonist does not become a representative of a particularly Korean experience; the movie actually feels quite American next to, for example, Shohei Imamura’s remarkable Vengeance is Mine, which makes a much greater attempt to place one man’s life (a serial killer’s, specifically) into the context of modern Japanese society. The structural approach fails because it does not provide any revelation about the content of the film. Thematically, it’s not hard to see that the man has progressed from innocent to corrupt to despondent, and the suspense is muted because the protagonist is too representative to be seen as an individual.

I haven’t seen other films by Lee Chang Dong, and it’s possible that were I Korean, I would appreciate subtexts that I missed as a foreigner.

Another update: I had originally posted this in the comments, but since no links are allowed there:

Another perverse backwards-chronology exercise is Anne McGuire’s Strain Andromeda The, where Crichton/Wise’s film The Andromeda Strain is run with its scenes in reverse order, fencepost-style. Fred Camper says:

This somewhat playful “deconstruction” of mainstream Hollywood has its virtues: with narrative causality flipped, one looks for causes of events already seen, questions traditional forms of narrative organization. But while we often hear the dialogue reversed–many lines get only single shots–longer takes contain whole conversations that we hear in the original order, providing a confusing disruption of the film’s “backwardness.” It is unique, but the interest of this rather mechanical exercise exhausts itself after a half hour.

Waggish says check it out.

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