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Teshigahara and Kobo Abe: The Man Without a Map

That is the opening to Hiroshi Teshigahara’s The Man Without a Map, better known in its English novel translation as The Ruined Map. The amazing cutup music is by Toru Takemitsu.

It’s the final of four collaborations between Teshigahara and novelist/screenwriter Kobo Abe, who also produced the gorgeous The Woman in the Dunes and the surreal and disturbing The Face of Another. If there’s a problem I have with those two, it’s that Teshigahara always seems to be the sanest of the contributors: while Takemitsu and Abe are straining at the margins of convention, Teshigahara seems more content to play things straight, filming things as though they were conventional dramas with haunting scenery. I don’t think it’s coincidence that Teshigahara’s last film was about a master of tea ceremonies.

In The Man Without a Map everything falls apart. The movie isn’t a disaster and has enough to hold interest, but it is a failure. Teshigahara seems uninterested in the material and gives it little visual flair, while the ambiguities of the earlier films now spill into incoherence. The basic story is of a detective hired to investigate a missing man, Nimuro, by Nimuro’s sister. But the noir tropes dissolve as quickly as they’re introduced. Nimuro’s brother shows up to give the detective secret information that the sister did not reveal. Nimuro’s wife appears and disappears. Nimuro was involved with some bootleg food stalls possibly associated with the mafia, who beat up the detective. A man tempts the detective with nude photos he claims were taken by the Nimuro, but were they? Do they have anything to do with Nimuro?

That last mysterious man, who throws out clues that may be red herrings, who may not be related to the case at all, is the closest to the heart of the movie. The detective is hostile to any sort of conventionality, and by the end of the film, the noir tropes appear to be springing up because he wills them to do so, even if they don’t make sense. By the end of the movie (spoiler alert!), the mystery man announces his attention to commit suicide on the phone to the detective, who is annoyed with him and ready to hang up. The detective asks if he’s written a note: “No. They’re not exactly easy to write.”

I laughed, but I take it to mean that in trying to write some sort of lives for themselves outside the margins, Nimuro, the detective, and the mystery man have unwoven the fabric of their lives and so they fall apart, like the movie. Similar disintegrations happened in the earlier films by Teshigahara and Abe, but they didn’t reach the level of the plot, as they do here. Because, it appears, Teshigahara is not on board with Abe’s conceit, the film falls apart as it attempts to fall apart.

It makes me wonder what would have happened if a more avant-garde filmmaker of the time like Terayama, Oshima, or Yoshida had worked with Abe’s material–this or Abe’s far crazier The Box Man, where Abe abandons all pretense to psychological realism. The Face of Another is the most successful of their collaborations because Teshigahara is able to transform a “normal” world into one that becomes increasingly frightening and chaotic for the faceless protagonist. But once the normal is far out of sight, visual innovation has to substitute for the normal reference points of identification, and in The Man Without a Map, it doesn’t happen.

And just to conclude, here is the trailer for The Woman in the Dunes, featuring Takemitsu’s eerie, remarkable electroacoustic score:

Nagisa Oshima: More Films

Violence at Noon (Oshima, 1966): Aesthetics triumph. Oshima aggressively shoots black and white Cinemascope in almost exclusively close-ups or wide shots, most of them quite short, and combined with a dissonant orchestral score (not familiar with the composer, but it is in line with Takemitsu’s excellent film scores of the period), the film builds up momentum through craft alone. Which is good, because the plot is a mess. It’s the story of a love triangle (or square) in which one of the men has killed himself and the other has begun sexually assaulting and killing women. The two female characters provide varying degrees of rationale for his actions and not much else. That they all lived on a collective farm years before the main plotline implies some kind of political message, but next to Night and Fog in Japan, it’s pretty weak stuff. There is more analysis of the plot at Strictly Film School, which does more for it than I can do. Technically brilliant but morally questionable.

Japanese Summer: Double Suicide (Oshima, 1967): Not to be confused with Masahiro Shinoda’s beautiful but completely different Double Suicide from 1969. Here Oshima abandons realism completely and tells the story of two youths, a boy who just wants to die and a girl who just wants sex (this is Oshima, remember), who get mixed up in some sort of allegorical gang war and end up hiding out in a barn with a bunch of cowardly thugs. Not as technically impressive as Violence at Noon, there are still some gorgeous and abstract scenes on some odd sort of beach. The vaguely apocalyptic plot and characters throw off sparks without ever really gelling (think of Godard’s Les Carabiniers), but it keeps your attention, particularly the ending, which involves an American sniper who does not speak one word of Japanese.

Death By Hanging (Oshima, 1968): Humor, not especially noticeable in the earlier films, shows up here and it’s surprisingly effective. A Korean man is hanged but instead of dying suffers amnesia, and so the warden and others have to cause him to remember his crime so they can hang him again. Ostensibly a parable about the death penalty, Oshima can’t stick with one subject and things spill over into Japanese colonialism, racism, and bureaucracy. It’s effective satire; even when you can’t figure out what point Oshima is exactly trying to make, it’s biting anyway. It’s the colonial message that is clearest for me, making depressing observations on Japanese discrimination against Koreans and the alienation forced on them. Not as visually striking as the two above films, it still has some of the strongest content of any Oshima film.

The Ceremony (Oshima, 1971): Another nasty parable, this one telling the story of the extended family that constitutes part of Japan’s ruling class. Everyone is corrupt; redemption is impossible. The younger generation listlessly follow in the vile footsteps of their megalomaniacal parents, acting out all the self-absorbed and reprehensible pageantry funded by imperial and capitalistic thuggery. The famous setpiece is a wedding that goes ahead even though the bride has failed to show, but the film has a consistent brute-force power, and the actors convincingly portray hollow, soulless aristocrats. Appropriately gloomy and typically good score by Takemitsu.

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).

2005 Music Wrap-up

For me, 2005 was probably the best year in music in recent memory. Unfortunately, almost none of it was pop music (except in reissues, where there was plenty of riches): Spoon‘s Gimme Fiction is the only collection of tunes I grew to love and defend.

But elsewhere things were great. No reviews this time; I liked them, that’s all. What separated the best from the runners-up was even more difficult to quantify this year than before. If anything, I seem to be even more attuned to timbre and less to structure than before (with obvious exceptions), maybe in the pursuit of the least cerebral aesthetic experience possible. Something like the Los Glissandinos recording points out just how fine the lines are between what works and what doesn’t. As an intellectual line of inquiry, I wonder if I’m ill-suited to it.

Most of the links are to sites with sound files, and a few of my own.

BEST OF 2005
ROVA::Orkestrova: Electric Ascension
Keith Rowe / Sachiko M / Toshimaru Nakamura / Otomo Yoshihide: ErstLive 005
Los Glissandinos: stand clear
Burkhard Stangl: Venusmond 3-5
John Wall: Cphon
Baghdassarians / Baltschun / Bosetti / Doneda: Strom
Stangl / Kurzmann: schnee_live
Hayashi / Otomo / Toyozumi: The Crushed Pellet
Cor Fuhler: Corkestra
Fred Frith:The Eleventh Hour
samartzis m&#xfcller voice crack: wireless_within
Tim Berne’s Hard Cell: Feign
Veryan Weston / John Edwards Mark Sanders: Gateway to Vienna

RUNNERS-UP
4 Walls: Which Side Are You On?
Altered States: Bluffs
Axon: Constant Comments
Tim Berne: Hard Cell Live
Tim Berne’s Paraphrase: Pre-emptive Denial
dieb13 / Tomas Korber / Jason Kahn: Zirkadia
eRikm / Tetrault / Otomo: Trace Cuts
Etage 34 with Tenko
Tomas Korber: Effacement
G&#xfcnter M&#xfcller / Steinbruechel: Perspectives
Otomo Yoshihide’s New Jazz Orchestra: Out to Lunch
Quartet Noir: Lugano
Sanhedolin: Manjoicchi Wa Muko
Martin Tetrault / Otomo Yoshihide: Grrr / Tok / Ahhh
Toot: One
Trio Sowari: Three Dances
Kazuhisa Uchihashi / Tatsuya Yoshida: Improvisations

REISSUES AND ARCHIVAL
Laughing Clowns: Cruel but Fair
The Auteurs: Luke Haines is Dead
The Ex: Singles. Period.
The Three Johns: Live in Chicago
Can: Future Days
Prefects: Amateur Wankers
Nightingales: Pigs on Purpose / Hysterics
Scritti Politti: Early
Orange Juice: The Glasgow School

MCCB: Things from the Past
Robert Wyatt: Royal Drury Lane
Mnemonists: Gyromancy
Catherine Jauniaux / Tim Hodgkinson: Fluvial
Slapp Happy: Acnalbasac Noom / Desperate Straights
Fred Frith: Allies / Cheap At Half the Price
Massacre: Killing Time
Skeleton Crew: Learn to Talk / The Country of Blinds
Ne Zhdali: Whatever Happens, Twist!

Julian Priester: Love Love
Derek Bailey / Evan Parker: The London Concert
Anthony Braxton: Saxophone Improvisations Series F / Donna Lee
Ornette Coleman / Pat Metheny: Song X
Tim Berne: Nice View / The Paris Concert
Last Exit: Koln
Spontaneous Music Ensemble: A New Distance
Altered States: Altered States
Masayuki Takayanagi: Action Direct (if only I could get a copy!)

Ennio Morricone: Crime and Dissonance
Munir Bashir: Mesopotamia
Harry Partch: Collection / Delusion of the Fury
Iannis Xenakis: La Legende d’Eer

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