Ikari, Rage against the Japanese Machine

 

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A vicious attack has taken place in Tokyo. Husband and wife have been stabbed to death by a young man. The police show an old photograph of the suspect to the media and start an unsuccessful search for him in the whole country. That’s a conventional opening for a suspense movie; but in the case of 怒り (Ikari, Rage), the camera-narrator challenges us to discover who the assassin is, among three different and distant individuals. She peeks on the lives of the 3 runaways that may be the one. They all look like the picture. Indeed, through the information in the brochure about the production of the film, we find out that it was not one but three different photographs, each of them more similar to each actor, a good Photoshop job.

There is a story about a gay couple that just met in the dark room of a sauna downtown Tokyo. It gives a surprisingly realistic depiction of the hidden world –in Japan- of gay relationships and rooftop pool parties. Yuma (Tsumabuki Satoshi) is the successful, outgoing and good-looking guy who hosts and falls for a taciturn Naoto (Gô Ayano). I didn’t recognized the latter from 日本で一番悪い奴ら (Japan’s worst guys) well after the end of the film. He is a chameleonic actor, no doubt about it; and very productive: he appeared in 8 movies in 2016!

The second story has in the cast Watanabe Ken, Miyazaki Aoi and Death Note’s Matsuyama Kenichi. The location is a port in Northern Japan, and shows a problematic young woman just being rescued by her father from a prostitution network. Afterwards, she falls in love with an enigmatic young man with no past.

The third one takes us to a not-so-idyllic Okinawa, where American bases and their sexually-incontinent marines disrupt local harmony. It’s probably the toughest part to see, with images of a rape that will, for sure, disturb the audience.

If there is something in common about these 3 stories, is mistrust, mistrust of the unknown. People around the 3 men think they are the assassin, but for one reason or another, they don’t report them to the police: Yohei (Watanake Ken) wants him as a husband for her unstable daughter; Yuma is in love with Naoto; and in Okinawa, Shingo’s coworkers might be scared of his aggressive behavior.

Only at the end of the film we understand the motives of the initial killing and the identity of its perpetrator: rage against society, rage that is explained already in the title, 怒り, as a philological clue to find the assassin.

This is a well-adapted screenplay from a novel, with tension till the end, a great bunch of no overacting people from different generations, and good-quality and artistic filming that refers to present issues in Japanese society. What else can you ask from a movie?

Stray dogs and Kurosawa’s double

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Post-war Japan makes a perfect historical background for Kurosawa’s in-depth analysis of the human sense of guilt. The director develops the Japanese nuances of the concept of responsibility for one’s actions or one’s omissions in the depiction of young and inexperienced policeman Murakami, played by Toshiro Mifune (who later will be so well-known abroad for his role in other Kurosawa’s movies such as The seven samurais or Rashomon). He is stolen his Colt pistol in the train by a pickpocket. Later, assaults and murders start to take place using that gun. Murakami’s descend to the low-life sceneries of Tokyo’s slums is masterfully extended for voiceless minutes in which the desperate character’s eyes or shots of his legs are superimposed to scenes of endless alleys crowded with people buying in the black market. After his investigation brings some results, he is assigned a veteran policeman as a partner to help him with the case, Satô San, who explains that ‘an abandoned dog will necessarily become a stray dog’ but that evil is out there and their duty is to catch criminals without questioning their reasons in order to protect society. 野良犬 Nora Inu is not just an action movie or a detective story but also a reflection about how WWII left Japan economically devastated; and a whole generation of young war veterans suffered from psychological problems and inadaptation. Some of them, like Murakami, were able to straighten out their lives; others, like the stray dog Yusa, lost control and fell into the crime world. The more the young detective finds out about the young criminal’s life, the more he acknowledge the similarities between the latter and himself, emerging then the figure of the double in the movie, that will lead to an electrifying and moving climax.

Koreeda, the Truman Capote of Japanese cinema

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Today one of the most renowned Japanese filmmakers abroad, Hirokazu Koreeda, already in the early 90’s, experimented his later narrative language in documentaries like 彼のいない八月が (An August without him) or 日本人になりたかった  (I wanted to be Japanese). The first one, from 1994, is a very personal document about the last months in the life of a Japanese man infected with AIDS and terminal ill. When openly declaring his illness and confessing that he had contracted it through homosexual sex, Yutaka Hirata broke with 2 taboos firmly established in Japan at the time (and probably still going on): first, the fact that there are Japanese homosexual men, something denied by a part of Japanese society in spite of evidence in the tradition of the country (see Gohatto) but supported by the discrimination suffered by gay people in a normative and homogeneous society, which keeps them very deep in the closet; the other one was AIDS, never thought by many to be able to reach Japan’s insular condition. Koreeda, even in his director’s role, erases the distance between himself and his study object, getting closer and more and more involved with Hirata as a person.

The other documentary, filmed in 1992, not so sad but with a more clear political line, deals with the rights of Japanese-Koreans -born in Japan but without Japanese passport or nationality- and the social rejection that they face if they don’t integrate completely, abandoning their Korean identity. The film’s main thread is the story of a Korean man, who in the times of the Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula, is sent to Japan to fight along with the Japanese in the Philippines, but after the war and fearing discrimination, creates a Japanese identity for himself and manages to get married and have children without his family ever knowing about his origins for 50 years until he is arrested in 1985 for forging official documents and in suspicion of being a spy from North Korea. Koreeda, making a filmic narrative out of a journalist and legal case, in the line of Truman Capote’s Cold Blood, analyzes Park’s (that was his Korean name) case, interviewing his lawyer and even visiting his hometown in Korea. He also shows the controversial Korean schools in Japan, blaming the police and the media for the animosity that the Korean-Japanese issue generates in the Japanese public opinion.

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.

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