Aruitemo, Aruitemo: Walking away from the past

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To keep on walking is a good technique to metaphorically put some distance with the past, especially when memories are hurtful, and director Koreeda, now in Madrid, seems to send this message in his 2008’s film 歩いても、歩いてもAruitemo Aruitemo (Still walking), a fresh up-to-date depiction of a traditional Japanese family in the XXI century, like an Ozu’s film from the 50’s, but 60 years later. The fragile balance of apparently harmonious relationships only needs a word or even a silence to create a disruptive atmosphere full of recriminations. Father and son are afraid of words because these would force both of them to express their respective frustrations and fears; in the end, they cannot but blame themselves for the past. It’s women the ones who, behind their burikko behavior (actress and comedian YOU formidable as usual, same as the other two female protagonists) and helped by ritual house chores, soften men’s incapability to relate to each other and communicate. And the act of walking together restores for a moment the dreamed harmony. No wonder some of the most beautiful scenes in Japanese literature and cinema, at least my favorite ones, are represented in strolls, like in 細雪 Sasameyuki (The Makioka sisters) or in Manji (Quicksand).

Japanese Christianity at stake: Nagisa Ôshima’s 天草四郎時貞

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天草四郎時貞 Amakusa Shiro Tokisada (Shiro Amakusa, the Christian rebel) is one of the least Nagisaoshimaesque Nagisa Ôshima’s films. The story’s background is early 17th century’s Kyushu and not the 1960’s streets of a developing Tokyo. The characters represent Christianized peasants and not the sexualized youth of the modern times. But there is one thing in common: the violence, in this case present in the subjugation of farmers by the Tokugawa shogunate and the brutal repression of the recently proselytized Japanese of the South -Francis Xavier had arrived in Kagoshima in 1549 and left the legacy of the monotheistic religion that was gaining adepts little by little. Samurai Shiro Amakusa and his peasants rise up after seeing how their friends are burnt in hay coats (干草の踊り, “the hay dance”), and try desperately to take the castle as a revenge in the name of Jesus Christ. Ôshima’s extreme close-ups and never-ending travelling shots are already in this film, showing strong emotions in the often hieratic Japanese faces. He takes sides for the Christians but also dramatizes their internal discord and their different personal and conflicting motivations, as in a Shakespearian tragedy. An Apocalyptic piece of art, like character Uemonsaku’s paintings of burning buildings and people dying in crosses.

Good for nothing

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Hierarchical and aggressive youngsters playing tough guys; an indulgent and chubby father, powerful CEO, who is afraid of his own spoiled teenage son; the boss’ secretary, in love with a good-hearted but pusillanimous Japanese good-for-nothing resentful young man, thinking she can redeem him;  a mature office worker, picking up company girls to bear everyday’s tedium. There is room for all of them in this black and white theatrical depiction of the Japan of the 60’s, Yoshida’s first film.

Akasen I and II, the Japanese red-light district

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In 1958, the Anti-Prostitution Law is finally enacted in Japan. Since the years of the American occupation (1945-1951), the government had started dictating laws and rules to gradually reduce, if not the business, at least the openly accepted and public offer of sex-for-money on the streets and in the red-light districts (akasen), mostly pressed by the morals of the international community the “reborn” country wanted to join. 赤線地帯 Akasen Chitai (The red-light district), from 1956, and 赤線玉の井ぬけられます Akasen Tamanoi Nukeraremasu (Streets of joy), from 1974 and considered a remake from the previous one, were shot considering this context. However, although both films have a common structure –the particular but interrelated lives of a number of prostitutes working in a brothel- they also hold very different perspectives. Mizoguchi Kenji’s movie shows much more explicitly the misery of post-war times, with Hanae, a young mother married to an unemployed man and prostituting herself to provide for their baby; or Yumeko, a mature widow who has worked hard at the brothel to raise a son, who, now a member of the society and working in a factory, repudiates her; it’s clear the director’s intention of confronting the society’s double standards of morality, as prostitution’s beneficiary and, at the same time, its censor. But there are also the vocational ones, like Mickey, coming from a wealthy family from Kobe and doing it as an act of rebellion and to purchase needless luxury articles; or the attractive and selfish Yasumi –amazing as usual in her role Ayako Wakao– manipulating men to get big amounts of money from them, and who eventually manages to leave the brothel and start a kimono business.

Almost twenty years later, Tatsumi Kumashiro shoots Akasen Tamanoi, a film with a much more personal aesthetics, going with the times (the 70’s) and alternating the sequences of the life of five prostitutes and their more explicit sexual encounters with intercalated images of manga-like interpretations of the different stories plus text written over a red screen. There is not so much social denounce and the solidarity of the women with each other and the generalized atmosphere of harmony in the brothel give a more positive image of that life, although it also introduces the limited role and freedom of women in society, as when Kimiko –Maika Seri, already typecast in the roles of a young prostitute- gets to marry a young man but her dull life as a wife impels her to go back to 幸福屋 Kofukuya (place of happiness) brothel to visit her former colleagues, catch a client and enjoy sexually with him before going back with her husband. The contrast with her traumatic first sexual experience as a prostitute –in the movie in the form of an achieved flashback- at the age of 15 creates an ambiguous interpretation of the meaning of red-light districts for women in those years. Naoko, a hard-working and dedicated prostitute –as diligent as a Japanese office worker- tries that final day before the prohibition (the story, apart from flashbacks, is limited to 24 hours) to break the brothel’s record for the number of clients in one day, 26; and we, as voyeuristic viewers, are instructed in the tricks to get good clients and make them finish quickly. The partying atmosphere –mixed with the claustrophobic of the small rooms and the impossible angles of the camera- is sweeten with strange and hilarious religious elements, as a stone sculpture with the form of a phallus, representing a Shinto god who provides the brothel with enough clients, and which they ritually worship. Other characters are Shimako, in love with a good-for-nothing tattooed gangster who abuses her and spends her money on drugs and gambling, fulfilling her masochistic inclinations; and Shigeko, aging and trying to kill herself, although not too convincingly, just as a dramatic pose.

黒い雨 Lluvia negra

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Suena una explosión y los pasajeros de un tren despiertan aturdidos con las caras quemadas entre el amasijo de hierros de los vagones. Son imágenes en blanco y negro de los últimos días de la Segunda Guerra Mundial: Estados Unidos acaba de lanzar la bomba sobre la ciudad de Hiroshima. El director Shohei Imamura comienza su película sin mucho dramatismo, y rápidamente traslada la acción a un tranquilo pueblo de la provincia con los mismos personajes unos años más tarde. La familia Shizuma, compuesta por un matrimonio de mediana edad y una sobrina a la que han criado desde niña, hacen preparativos para una boda que nunca se celebrará. Los pretendientes se suceden pero la duda sobre la radiación y la futura salud de la novia y sus descendientes, les hace desistir y terminan rechazando a la bonita y diligente Yasuko porque sufrió la lluvia negra de residuos tóxicos que siguió a la bomba.

Serán los diarios de tío y sobrina los que, en forma de flashback nos lleven por fin al epicentro de la tragedia nuclear, donde una sucesión de cuerpos calcinados se amontonan en las calles, se arrastran como muertos vivientes o son arrastrados por la corriente de los ríos. Pequeñas historias como microcuentos dentro del argumento mostrarán a un hombre que no reconoce a su desfigurado hermano pequeño y le pide pruebas de que es realmente él; o a un padre que ha de abandonar a su hijo atrapado por vigas de hormigón porque el fuego se acerca; o a un hombre enloquecido que grita ‘¿dónde está Hiroshima?’ antes de lanzarse por la ventana. Y todo ello en un interminable universo dantesco que desgraciadamente puede no haber estado muy lejos de la realidad.

El ritmo tranquilo del filme y la vida armoniosa del pueblo con sus campos de arroz y la humanidad de sus paisanos contrasta con la sucesión de víctimas de la bomba –hibakusha– cuyos síntomas aparecen ineluctablemente para hacerles perecer uno tras otro. A través de dichos personajes se indaga sobre los motivos del lanzamiento de la bomba: si la guerra ya estaba prácticamente acabada, ¿por qué se tiró?, ¿por qué se lanzó sobre Hiroshima? Pero las respuestas quedan en el aire y el mundo olvida con facilidad, preparado para cometer los mismos errores.

Más que sobre la muerte en sí misma de los habitantes de la ciudad, la película incide en la desesperanza de una generación que ha de vivir con el miedo a los síntomas de la radiación, el rechazo social al que son expuestos y, sobre todo, denuncia el fin de la tradición familiar, ese tesoro japonés: la imposibilidad de honrar a los antepasados con la continuidad de la línea familiar.

Kenzaburo Oe, escritor japonés premio Nobel en 1994 y activista antinuclear reflexiona sobre las guerras y pide que antes de acometerlas, se piense en las posibles consecuencias negativas para las poblaciones afectadas en lugar de en los motivos geoestratégicos y económicos que normalmente las ocasionan. Kuroi Ame debería ser una visión obligada para todos aquellos que tengan el poder de comenzarlas.

Japanese submarines, pigs and crab meat

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In the past one of the most militaristic societies, a nation of warriors led by bushido for centuries and an aggressive Asian colonial power at the beginning of the XX century, Japan can be considered today a peaceful and non-belligerent society, at least in theory. The dealings about the Futenma base in Okinawa with their American allies and their nuclear-umbrella protection, as well as the realistic development of a euphemistically-called “self defense forces” army contrast with a population raised in the idea of peace and the evil of war.

Having suffered the bombing of their main cities and the total annihilation of 2 of them by those same allies, the new generations have chosen to forget or at least to deceive the pain and keep it tucked away in their hearts to be able to continue life. The characters in Shohei Imamura’s film 豚と軍艦 Pigs and Battlefield (1961) live in a post-war Yokosuka (small port south of Yokohama), “occupied” by the marines, whom they despise; but they need them for a living and eventually the loathing becomes admiration. The film sourly shows a defeated country with a wounded national economy and a city-port transformed into a brothel for US GIs, degradation common to other Asian cities in previous years. In the void-of-power but booming new economic society trying to do business with the winner of the War, yakuza Japanese gangsters struggle for those opportunities of making fast and easy money, the same way young Japanese girls feel attracted by a life of affluent parties, nice dresses, alcohol and music on board of the American warships.

Only a few years before, the Japanese submarines were fighting against American destroyers in the Pacific, a decisive battlefield in WWII. The more recent film 真夏のオリオン Last Operations Under The Orion (2009) shows a balance between patriotic self-sacrifice and antimilitarism. Its disapproval of the use of 回天 kaiten submarine kamikazes, manned torpedoes against the American battleships, is represented by the young Japanese captain’s refusal to use them, demanding a fair fight. And the Americans –who also entered the production of the film-, are depicted as a relentless but humanized enemy. The end of the war will be taken by the Japanese crew as a relief and the beginning of the reconciliation.

Back in time but also recent in film is 蟹工船 Kanikosen (2009), a remake of a 1953 film and based on the homonymous proletariat novella written by Takiji Kobayashi in 1929 –by coincidence translated into Spanish by my sempai Jordi Juste-, which to a bolder antimilitarism adds the denounce of social injustice. We are now in 1904 at the time of the Russo-Japanese War, and a Japanese factory-boat sails in Kamchatka’s waters to fish and process crab meat. Young actor Ryuhei Matsuda –much more virile than in his also memorable performance at 御法度 Gohatto (1999)- stands as the spontaneous leader of the uprising on board. The connivance between the military and the private company owning the factory-boat for the sake of profit and an ulterior bribe clearly relates to the exploitation suffered by the young and illiterate overworking crew. In the film, 2 workers get lost in a small boat in the sea but they are saved by the Russian “enemy”, a merchant ship whose seamen teach them a more humanized and democratic relationship between employers and employees. The awareness of their own oppression will trigger the rebellion back on their boat, with fatal but unavoidable consequences.

The 3 movies have their own love stories too: in Orion, the captain’s girlfriend –indeed his best friend’s sister- has pledged to wait for him no matter what. And he goes back, but not the brother, who dies at the bottom of the ocean after a more than implausible conversation in Morse with his friend and brother-in-law. In Kanikosen, stories of childhood girlfriends are mixed with the desire to belong to a happy and wealthy family full of harmony, the dream of the underclass, a Kimura family idyllically represented by cheerfully playing ball in white suits and hats in an Edenic garden. In Pigs and Battlefields, the young, beautiful and strong-willed Haruko is young chinpira Kinta’s motivation to improve. He dreams of becoming a big yakuza boss and looks with contempt the factory work that he is constantly offered by his girl-friend; the smuggling of pigs represents a dirtier but much more profitable activity, but to what price?

These are films that reveal a fictitious but more or less historical panorama of Japan, not so distant in time but far in quality life and freedom compared to these days. They are also an ideological lesson about what could happen again in the event of the rising of the military and/or the break of another big war.

Is a criminal’s family also criminal?

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My childhood friend Aguinaco, already a grown-up paterfamilias, used to stress how much he detested films with subtitles because they prevented him from focusing on the story and the images. He called them derogatorily “libropelículas” (book-movies). No matter how hard I tried to sell him the benefits of a film in original version, as far as I know, he never changed his mind.

The other day I went to see a libropelícula, but this time, it was even more special: the subtitles not only repeated the dialogues –they were in the same language, Japanese, not in translation- but they also explained background noises and scenery; and the characters’ mute actions were related by a neutral narrator’s voice. All this was meant for the deaf and the blind, a 30% of the audience at this peculiar movie theater.

At the beginning, it felt a bit disrupting, but once you got used to the different voices, it was even rewarding, especially for non-native speakers like me, a similar experience to reading a book and watching the movie at the same time. The professional work had been made by a NGO call 京都リップル, Kyoto Ripple, whose staff and volunteers decide on matters such as the timing and the content of the narration by the robotic –for not to be mistaken with one of the characters’- voice in off. This unusual process is the closest you can get to a limited-knowledge but very reliable 3rd person narrator in a book. I wonder how this “reading” of the movie would affect to the literary theories of Reader-Response, especially when a non-deaf non-blind watcher-reader sees the film and is continually confronted with what she is watching, listening and reading.

As for the story and the reflection that it stimulates, there is no waste at all in 手紙 Tegami Letters: a man accidentally kills an old woman when breaking into her house and steal money to pay for his younger brother’s school fees and he is incarcerated. The younger brother quits school and struggles through life in society being always tagged as a convict’s relative.

The trite topic of family responsibility in the Japanese society, 義理 giri, is cast a new light with this movie, which mixes aspects such as discrimination –whether if it’s for reasons of money, class, or even the past-, the penitentiary system –as if explained by Foucault– and the related possibility of rehabilitation for ex-convicts, including forgiveness.

Both brothers only correspond by written letters, hence the film’s title and a useful resource for people averse to communicate verbally, especially after the shame of having committed a despicable act. They keep a mutual but unbalanced dependence relationship through these letters, which symbolize the younger brother Naoki’s one of the many pay-backs for his elder brother’s crime because, as he finds on the screen of his computer when searching about penal information: 犯罪者の家族も犯罪です A criminal’s family is also criminal, which becomes a motif in the film, ultimately trying to denounce the discrimination at personal and professional level for a family-related past event. However, as a different character wisely tells him in another scene: 差別は当たり前ですよ Discrimination is a natural thing, a spontaneous reaction from human beings, as a self-defense immediate response to danger. And he continues: “But the answer is not to run away. You have to stay, face it and live with it”. Eventually, they will change their minds, he seems to be suggesting.

Like the children in the film, manichaeistically raised in the fear of the “evil” by those マザーコン over-protective mothers, who forbid them to play with a “marked” child or flee at the sight of the rejected mother, our societies need many more examples like this one to teach us the human side of family, tragedy and crime.

I wish my good friend Aguinaco had seen this libropelícula, too. He would have felt moved like most of the audience watching this interesting cycle of Japanese society-related films.

Okuribito, burakumin and lessons of forgiveness

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Most human societies and their respective religions have tried to cope with people’s sorrow and fears when dealing with death. The three big monotheistic religions imagined heaven as a place where the departed souls enjoy solace in the company of the Creator. Mahayana Buddhism, on the other hand, invented samsara or transmigration of the souls along the 6 existing worlds, depending on the person’s behavior when in the Earth as a human being. The Japanese accept the latter, adding a touch of animistic Shinto’s beliefs, especially the ones concerning the concept of impurity (death and everything in contact with it). Hollywood-awarded おくりびと Okuribito Departures, as well as the uniquely original あぶらくさすの際 Aburakusasu no Matsuri Festival of good and evil, explore funeral services, ceremonies and their implications for society.

The obsessive dedication of the Japanese to regulate かた kata the process of doing anything in most aspects of life extends to death ceremonies, where in the 49 days when a deceased person is to be judged for reincarnation, the bereaved families follow the Buddhist rituals in the most rigorous fashion, starting with the 死に水 shinimizu moistening the departed relative’s lips with wet chopsticks, following with the 湯灌 yukan washing mouth, nose and anus with hot water, the 経帷子 kyoukatabira white kimono, the 死に化粧 shinigeshou make-up, and so on. Indeed, those are Okuribito’s former cellist Daigo’s functions, whose role is masterly interpreted by Masahiro Motoki, although the actor’s physical appearance –and especially his pectorals in a couple of scenes- are more proper of the ex-teenage-idol that he was in the 80’s than of a tranquil musician retreating into the countryside with his plain and stereotypical Japanese wife.

Traditionally, those Buddhist mortician ceremonies used to be performed by an until-recently-discriminated Japanese minority, the so-called 部落民 burakumin, a kind of an under caste with origins from the Middle Ages and with jobs that had physical contact with the “impure” death of animals and people, i.e., butchers, executors, undertakers, leather tanners, etc. Although legal discrimination has disappeared, there’s still a strong social stigma about this minority (in the past also called 穢多 eta lots of filth) and their traditional jobs: the only mention of the more politically-correct word 被差別部落民 hisabetsu burakumin, is a taboo in the Japanese society. If you don’t believe me, try to get a clear opinion about the matter from a Japanese national. Still facing marriage and employment discrimination –the same way you don’t want your family involved with “impurity”, the possessive and paternal Japanese companies don’t want them around themselves-, at least from the 80’s it has become illegal to investigate a person’s ancestors’ origin so that the information can be used to discriminate him or her. However, until what point this prohibition is really enforced, nobody knows: in some cases, neighborhoods are so clearly associated with burakumin origins that a simple address can lead to the questioning of the candidate’s moral intrinsic value, as if it were a modern version of 16th and 17th century’s Spain, obsessed with “purity of blood”, free from Muslim and Jewish “filthiness”.

In Okuribito, when Daigo, the protagonist, suffers the rejection of one of his childhood friends, and his own wife abandons him when he refuses to stop performing such a “filthy and embarrassing job”, there is an implicit denounce of the still-alive prejudice and unmentionable taboo in 21st century’s Japan.
But in the hands of intelligent director Yojiro Takita, the reproach becomes a lesson when dedicated and caring Daigo shows friend and wife that there is nothing to be ashamed of in preparing the dead for funeral and cremation.

Housewife Mika has her own opportunity to redeem her previous bigotry introducing the other big theme in the movie, that of forgiveness, more related to the Christian tradition of sin in a free-of-will West than to indulgently-Buddhist but at the same time strict Japan, full of implicit and elaborated rules in most spheres of life. In Japan, when an individual leaves a group –whether it’s a school club, a cooking lesson or a company-, s/he is automatically frowned upon by the rest of the group members and the previous status of 内 uchi inside the group is switched to 外 soto, an outsider. In occasions, s/he is resentfully tagged as someone not having been able to endure hard times or having looked for his/her own benefit and not that of the group. But when the system where the individual is trying to escape from is the family, forgiveness is unimaginable, especially if there are children. Two stories of family abandonment are shown in this movie. A middle-aged woman working in the funeral parlor as a secretary laments her leaving behind a 6-year-old to run away with her lover, and explains that no matter how remorseful she is, forgiveness is out of the question: “会いたいに決まっているけど会えない Many times I thought of going and meet my grown-up son, but I just can’t”.

This movie shows us both the suffering and deeply ingrained psychological trauma of the abandoned child –stories like these ones are not uncommon in the recent Japanese cinema, 誰も知らない Daremo shiranai Nobody knows (Hirokazu Koreeda, 2004), 菊次郎の夏 Kikujiro no natsu Kikujiro’s summer (Takeshi Kitano, 1999)- but also the human side of those immature adults running away from a world of responsibilities and eventually regretting their behavior. To forgive someone, even for a serious affront or negligence, we first need to understand the person and the circumstances, and try to relativize the damage among all the good actions, including having given birth. And that is the implicit message in this touching film by Yojiro Takita, which will force you to make use of your Kleenex a few times while watching it, unless you are the insensitive type.

THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING A HOUSEWIFE A.K.A. BETTER A PROSTITUTE THAN A SUBMISSIVE SHUFU

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Or, at least, that’s the message that director Shion Sono seems to be sending to the audience in his previous to last film 恋の罪 Guilty of romance, recently at Japanese movie theaters and which was presented in Cannes last May. This time, too, we get the usual share of sex and violence, which his filmography overflows with, apart from some more notes of the bizarre, including Clockwork-Orange aesthetics, balloons of pink ink exploding against naked bodies performing sex, an insane, ceremonious and coarse おばあちゃん grandma, and school-girl mannequins hiding a dismembered human body.

But the really interesting thing about this movie is the depiction of an extreme master-slave relationship in the form of a marriage: former idol Megumi Kagurazaka turned Shion Sono’s iconic actress performs the housewife’s everyday perfect routine of preparing tea with pathological precision, placing the husband’s slippers at the entrance at the millimeter, waiting mutely and frozen next to him for his next order while he is reading, candidly soliciting from him permission to execute oral sex when he pleases so, and so on; everything with the fear of making one day a mistake and suffering a psychological punishment by the egocentric and authoritarian writer that Izumi has for a husband. All this might seem completely unreal but I couldn’t avoid thinking about a young co-worker of mine, who quit her job at 26 to become the 主婦 shufu homemaker of a man she hardly knew in Tokyo, and whose main duty became to prepare 3 different お弁当 box lunches for her strict husband’s day and to make sure that everything at home suited his short-tempered personal taste. That’s why I felt a strange feeling of déjà vu when seeing those scenes.

Going back to the movie, in a surprising but unavoidable turning point of the story, it comes what wouldn’t have an easy justification by any feminist theory but which seems to be a revealing lesson for housewife Izumi: the rediscovery of her own body as a sexual magnet for men, not as a symbol of masculine depravity and female degradation but, on the contrary, as one of psychological liberation from her oppressive marriage. It’s especially memorable her scene in front of the mirror practicing naked the offer of sausage free samples to imaginary clients for her part-time job at the supermarket: いらっしゃいませ。試食いかがですか?美味しいですよ!

The next step into prostitution for Izumi will come from the hand of a female university professor, Makoto, with a multiple-personality disorder due to a too predictable childhood trauma which seems a too literal reading from out-of-fashion Freud. She introduces Izumi to the flourishing world of デリヘル delivery health in the Shibuya district of the 1990’s and lectures her with a particular motto: “恋がなければセックスをしたらお金を取れ If you have sex without love, ask for money”.

The triple theme of the film -marriage, sex and infidelity- is rounded, as in a Natsuo Kirino’s novel, by a third character, Kazuko, a police-woman who brings suspense to the film in the form of a third-person limited narrator. Schizophrenically tough at work and affectionate at home, she keeps a secret third life herself, too.

The world of Japanese housewives is an endless source of ideas for this director but it also prompts social debates in Japanese society about the convenience of this institution, close to extinction due to the economic situation –fewer and fewer families can economically afford to have a no-money-making spouse-. Housewives portray the most traditional Japan –some would call it backward- and they can give rise to harmony and happiness in a family or to a repression magazine about to explode. Shion Sono shows us that second possibility.

Recently, I had dinner in Osaka with a young couple soon to be husband and wife. They told me about the 結納 yuino or engagement ceremony that had taken place the previous month at the bride’s home. Apart from a diamond engagement ring costing as much as 750.000 yen, the groom had to give her future wife 1 million yen as a symbol of the pass of the woman from one family to the other, as if a purchase would be taking place. Astonished as I was, they claimed the celebration to be a custom still popular in Japan, and carried out in at least one third of nowadays’ weddings. Her sister would later tell me how much she wished the couple happiness forever and ever, although she also contemplated the possibility that the bride would end up bored of a monotonous life indoors. At one point, alone with the groom for a few minutes, half-jokingly and with a considerable lack of tact from my part, I told him that after the diamond, the 結納金 betrothal money and the apartment he had just started paying, getting divorced would be out of the question. Trying not to show his evident discomfort, he answered dryly: “僕は離婚しない I won’t get divorced”. Good for him. I just hope his young and lovely wife doesn’t become one of Shion Sono’s characters.

浮気と嫉妬の修羅場 “Shuraba”, Pandemonium of jealousy and betrayal

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I understand that many times a title must be translated with some freedom to get a proper appreciation of a meaning when it refers to a distant culture. But sometimes they take their liberties to an extreme, as in this case: ふゆの獣 (Winter beasts), when translated into English, surprisingly becomes Love addiction! Actually, the latter title shows the theme more accurately, although it loses the metaphoric flavor of the original one.

In a format close to a documentary and with touches of expressionism through movements of the camera and games with the images, we are shown different interrelated stories among 4 young characters, always in pairs like all possible permutations in a maths problem. They pass through fragile moments in their relationships and experience a bunch of universal feelings like love, fear, passion, dependency (addiction), vulnerability, spite, hatred…

Every sadist needs a masochist and Yukako plays that role: she is attractive and intelligent but her emotional attachment to Shigehisa makes her distort reality, as a child who thinks that negating the facts will prevent them from occurring. Shigehisa, on the other side, attractive for his strong character and contemptuous attitude, negates in front of others and justifies his actions through his own egotism. Younger colleagues Noboru and Saeko can’t avoid admiring their senior and falling for him, although for Noboru –a stereotypical character in this film’s Freudian closed world- that will be more difficult to accept.

The movie’s timeline is wisely made, starting from a critical moment at an accidental and moving encounter in the subway with interrupting flashbacks that clarify events. And the long final sequence, the proper “shuraba” with the 4 characters in a claustrophobic 6-tatami-wide room leads the plot to a final and unexpected climax.

Infidelity and the emotions that it entails happen in all cultures, many times in similar ways, although the means to deal with them are different. There is the violent reaction of the male-dominated world; the legal action and the consequent divorce; and the friendly discussion –Tanizaki Junichiro style– to look for ways to solve a deeper problem. Men and women’s views as for cheating are different, the same way their approach to sex –whether marital or not- is not the same. Although cheating is not just about sex. It’s also about novelty, curiosity and play. Collateral feelings and states of mind like low self-esteem, negation and desire for revenge also come together in the pack and affect both the cheater and the cheated one.

This unpretentious movie by director and scriptwriter Nobuteru Uchida masterly shows a compendium of all those feelings and reactions, and constitutes a simple encyclopedia of the cheating and its psychological implications in the present young Japanese society.

One million yen girl, forever young and Freddy Mercury

hyakuman

 

Roughly, there are two types of people in the world, the ones who seek stability and the ones who run away from her. Usually technological progress and civilization go along with the former attachment to the land, but when it comes to a romantic idea of life, both change and adventure don’t have any match. We have for example cowboys versus farmers, gauchos versus XIX century urbanites, conquistadors and bandeirantes versus accommodated landlords, adventurers of any kind versus salaried workers. In modern literature some venturesome authors and travel writers became their own works’ subjects, too: Lord Byron, Jack Kerouak, Bruce Chatwin, Javier Reverte. But there are also plenty of them who never abandoned the security of their studios, many times extolling the feats of the omnipresent civil servant: Franz Kafka, José Saramago, Jorge Luis Borges, Juan José Millás…

百万円と苦虫女 Hyakumanen to Nigamushi Onna (One million yen and the woman with a sour face), a Bildungsroman in the form of a film, seems to deify the commented adventurous category. The main character’s bohemian attitude displays an on-the-road credible youngster a la japonaise –vade retro, “cool” and pretentious Murakami-, a young woman who grows and learns from experiences. However, at the same time the nomadic lifestyle keeps her forever young (like Alphaville’s classic) and prevents her from entering the adults’ world of responsibilities. As soon as work, economic and/or emotional attachments are developed, it’s time for her to go and search for a new place to make a living. That way she can escape the miseries she thinks she is fatefully carrying; an always convincing Aoi Yuu doesn’t seem to realize that what she considers a curse is actually plain adulthood.

Her everlasting plans for freedom pass through some moments of loneliness and crisis but always a deus ex machina intervention channels back events into her initial scheme. The idea of saving one million yen (百万円 Hyakumanen) and departing is a good one, apart from making a great title. They could have chosen one month, or one year, or something more subjective or twisted, but the money savings account creates the perfect tension in the story and shows occurrences in a more haphazard fashion.

Reader’s Response Criticism is a school of literary theory -applicable to books, films, and other forms of art- that focuses on the reader (watcher) and the way s/he is affected by the content of the book or film. Above all, it analyzes turning points in the story that make the reader (watcher) reflect and realize facts beyond appearance. In this movie there are quite a few examples of these situations, especially when depicting people’s humanity: there is the 気持ち悪いおじさん disgusting middle age man, who changes from a stalker into a protective and good-hearted human being; the apparently inoffensive and friendly 地元社会 countryside community, that becomes an aggressive mob in the line of Dogma’s Dogville; or the dedicated young gardener who becomes a womanizer who becomes a passionate amour fou victim.

And the film is rounded off with a game of encounters in the railways stairs, one of my favourite scenes –along with the one in the bathtub, Suzuko’s eyes wideopen as a cat’s-, a metaphor of real life destiny as a confluence of chaotic, unpredictable and uncontrollable factors. But, as she pleasantly says in the end, “じゃあ、来るわけないか”. And the show must go on.

Miracle in Kyushu, family disintegration

kiseki3

 

「家族より音楽と世界を選んだ」“Before family I chose music and life”, a young divorced Japanese father tells his eldest son Koichi on the phone when the latter begs him to come back home. Each brother –they are also related in real life, Koki and Oshiro Maeda- lives with a different parent hundreds of miles away from each other, but somehow they struggle to keep their family-status relationship through constant telephone calls. Both have different personalities that seem to fit their respective custodian: Koichi, 12, lives with his mother and grandparents in Kagoshima and is mature, self-contained and laconic; Ryunosuke, in Fukuoka, 2 years his junior, is like the father, expansive, carefree and full of life.

Director and scriptwriter Hirokazu Koreda, a XXI century’s brilliant eyewitness of the traditional Japanese family’s disintegration, already shocked worldwide audiences in 2004 with a painful story of children abandonment, 誰も知らない Nobody knows, and only 2 years ago explained to us the role of Japanese women in society, with the allegorical 空気人形 Air doll. This time, in 奇跡 Kiseki (Miracle), without the gruesome details of his previous films, reflects mildly but consistently about both worlds of adults’ and children’s, their similarities, differences and their interrelations.

One of the many things that startles Westerners who start a life in Japan -I haven’t got used to it myself yet, even after 5 years- is the way mothers talk to their kids, simulating they are children themselves too, and creating an atmosphere of naïveté with quite strange results, which seem to promote more childish behavior in a spiral of mutual stupidity. I remember dating a few years ago a Japanese woman in her late twenties who used to talk to me that way too, maybe condescending my lack of Japanese proficiency or simply deducing that my condition of foreigner made me a child, unable to understand basic situations or implicit social rules; maybe she just wanted to look 優しい affectionate. The fact is that even at the time my Japanese was good enough to understand and notice her tone and always made me feel like an idiot, especially with people around. I wonder if Japanese kids feel the same way.

Related to this, I happen to be reading a book about Tanizaki Junichiro by American feminist scholar Margherita Long and she cites Tomiko Yoda, who confronts “claims that Japanese society promotes cozy mother-child dynamics such as intimacy, indulgence, and protection with claims that the same dynamics make Japanese society infantile, suffocating and pathological”. I also think that a society that promotes childish behavior even in teenagers fails to understand how mature and able to understand complex matters a 10 or 12-year old person can be, as the movie shows. In Kiseki, children’s behavior and conversations –even the superstitious thinking about the occurrence of miracles and coincidences- is not that far from the adults’. Male characters, the father, the teacher and the grandfather, seem to understand that and promote in the children independence and maturity, while the mother keeps on playing the game of having a 12-year-old baby at home.

My friend Luisa, Japanese-Brazilian third generation herself, came to Japan at 18 and now she has 2 kids of around Koichi and Ryunosuke’s age. She used to tell me how different Japanese children are compared to Brazilian ones due to the different upbringing, how her kids are completely naïve while the ones overseas are witty and resourceful; but she is fine with that: “children must be children, they don’t need to know too early about the bad things of life”. I disagree with her: the sooner they know about life, the less traumatic it will be later when they fully become part of society. It’s not necessary, though, to reach extremes like the dreadful lives of explored children from movies I’ve recently seen –Anjos do sol (Brazil), Holly (Cambodia)-, both from 2006, good films but not recommended for too sensitive people.

Sometimes the pattern is the opposite. In some cases, especially in Japan, with age there is a regression in terms of responsibility and maturity, like for example, when at the university. All the pressure is just to enter, to pass the entrance exams; once you are inside, you can go back to your good old days, dust your childhood and forget about life duties. And if you are lucky enough to enter a prestigious private university from elementary or middle school, then you can afford to play the child longer. A college student about to graduate told me the other day when having lunch together on campus: “The last time I studied hard, I was 10!”. I just couldn’t believe it.

Another interesting point in the movie is the clash of lifestyles and values between a traditional Japanese society based on a hierarchical family with tight and well-defined ways, roles and duties, and a more modern free-thinking one based on individuality and personal development; the former secures conventional values and social harmony, the latter aspires to happiness. And the young characters here, in spite of the respect they feel for their elders, seem to be willing to follow the second path.

The success of this movie is based on the fact that, far from an easy happy ending, it chooses to face up to actual life accepting reality the way it is and teaching us to cope with that. After all, having divorced parents is not such a bad thing if we are properly taught to deal with it. And everybody has the right to choose music and life.

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