Lorca’s ghost meets Shakespeare at Conde Duque

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Lorca’s death left unfinished his manuscript Comedia sin título and now director Juan Carlos Corazza completes it with Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was already part of Lorca’s metatheatrical exercise about the need for a theater that shows the real suffering of the people. With a sober and consequent mise-en-scène but including a cast of 10 actors and actresses, we witness complicity with the audience, informed of the process of both plays through the same actors who are to play one, two, three or four different roles. Galego, Andalusian and Argentinian accents plus repetitions of lines and the prompter’s intervention prevent us to succumb to the conventional catharsis and instead make us take out our critical attitude towards the presented facts. The play is a master class of what Bretchian distancing or Verfremdungseffect means: mixed thematics, alternate use of prose, verse and actors addressing the audience, lights all over the theater, anti-realistic scenography, reflection out loud about the play, use of humor in tragic scenes, inappropriate clothes…everything is suitable to break the theatrical illusion. My favorite actor, versatile Manuel Morón, also in one of the best Spanish movies in the 21st century, Smoking room.

At Residencia de Estudiantes with Ana Miranda

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Tonight at Madrid’s Residencia de Estudiantes, Brazilian writer Ana Miranda shared with us the secrets of the inspiration for her historical novels, at least the ones related to poets:

She once had a dream where she was climbing a tower’s stairs to find on the top an old woman with a long white braid who told Ana Miranda that she had been Baroque poet Gregório de Matos’ lover; when a few days afterwards she found a book written by a historian about Padre Vieira’s “murder” and Matos’ support, she knew she would write Boca do Inferno in the context of late XVIIth century Salvador de Bahia, which would get her the prestigious Jabuti prize.

Still recovering from a heartbreak, she happened to re-read Gonçalves Dias’ desperate love poems and decided that she would write a novel about the Romantic poet, Dias & dias, Brazilian Academy Prize.

One day she found at a second-hand bookstore the second-edition of the only book of poems by the pre-modernist Augusto dos Anjos and, surprisingly, bought it very cheap; on her way home, a baby bird fell from a tree to the floor in front of her, dying quickly; after burying it, she thought of the similarities between dos Anjos’ short life without the possibility of writing more books and the poor baby bird losing its life ahead: that was the germ of her novel A última quimera, National Library Prize.

Fighting a duel with Chekhov

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Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was praised by many of his contemporary for including anti-heroic characters and for leaving his stories with a non-ending flavor. In The duel both characteristics are present and two main ideological positions confronted. Biologist Von Koren represents social Darwinism, the supremacy of the strong, XIXth century German philosophy of the will, and moral rigidness as a way to improve human race. Public officer Layévskii is more about laxity in life, aware of the imperfectness and the irrational in the human beings; he is a nihilist, disenchanted with society and recurring to literature to justify his pusillanimous and dissolute behavior. He trivializes moral ideals and Von Koren hates him for that.

Chekhov’s characters behave like and discuss about Hamlet, Anna Karenina, Fausto…They even fight a duel following the instructions they have read in Turgenev. They mix writers and characters in their fictional discourses themselves, and no one gets to know reading the novel what’s the real world and what’s the fictional one: maybe both are the same, cause literature drinks from “reality”, and “reality” is built through literature (or cinema or TV, think about The Sopranos, being imitated by the real Mafia).

Moscow Art Theater’s company came last week to Madrid to present a play based on the novella, using Chekhov’s text in a masterly literal way. The first act’s comical tone (provoking nonsensical laughs in the audience) and the main actor’s initial histrionics left me with some doubts, but in the second act, everything went back to the Chekhovian line, deep-thought and dramatic stories with a feeling of continuity. An original mise-en-scène composed by mooring lines around the stage, a boat in the middle, a table on the right, a bed on the left; music and lights correctly administered, and all actors’ impeccable performance, including attractive Natalia Rogozhkina. Поздравляю!

ORANUS, the new Russia

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Does advertisement work the same way in all countries? Do publicity messages reach people regardless of nationality and culture? Are we just puppets in the hands of publicists? Victor Pelevin’s hilarious novel Homo Zapiens (Generation п) deals with the matter in a creative way: a post-Communist Russia is entering the Western world of consumism through TV commercials that must be adjusted to the Russian zeitgeist, as a way of approaching Uncle Sam to Lenin. Babylen Tatarsky, the protagonist, coming from the Institute of Literature and with the help of hallucinogenic fly-agaric mushrooms and a Ouija board, becomes an advertising creative and discovers a world where “Identification of the self is only possible through the compilation of a list of goods consumed, and transformation is only possible by means of a change in the list”, ORANUS, and where nothing or nobody is what/who looks like, especially on TV.

There is also a recent film adaptation and here is the trailer.

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.

Junichiro’s uncertainties of a lesbian love

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Adapting Tanizaki Junichiro’s Manji to film is not an easy task, especially for its structure and literary nature. It has been, however, masterly achieved. Basically, the setting is a monologue by a widow, Sonoko, relating the past events to an aged writer, an almost-implied author representing own Tanizaki’s alter ego. Thus, everything starts from the end and we presence a reconstruction of the facts as seen from Sonoko’s eyes.

Of course, many of the words in the book become scenes with real characters in the film, and some others are just skipped through ellipsis, but still, widow and writer’s presence is implicitly omnipresent in the telling of the story.

I suppose that at the time of the book’s publication (first serialized in Kizo newspaper from 1928 and 1930) or even at the premiere of this first-of-four movie version in 1964 by Yasuzo Masumura, the most salient theme was to be the transgressive lesbian love between two main characters. The public’s reception of the work in both moments must have been very different since the Japanese society and morals had changed so much in those more than 30 years, partly because of the American influence after WWII, the same way Japan changed to a great degree from 1964 to 2006, when the last version to date was shot.

Indeed, more than just a homosexual story, both book and film represent the destructive dependence created around the figure of Mitsuko, the young women elevated to goddess by everyone in contact with her, and the infatuation of upper-class people with dull lives, who lose control of their feelings and actions at the hands of Mitsuko’s machinations. But not everything is so obvious: narrator Sonoko, the impulsive young housewife –not that young in the film-, looks sincere and seems to be a reliable teller, although her version of the facts must be taken carefully. The almost-mute narrator, an attentive, impartial and silent writer-counselor in the film, shows Sonoko’s words literally without judging their veracity, and presents physical evidence provided by her in the form of letters, contracts, etc., for the implicit reader-viewer to form his/her possible reconstruction of the facts based on the written-visual objective data. In that sense, Sonoko’s narration keeps the intrigue of the story, at the same time that makes guilt fly from avid-for-tragedy and dramatic Mitsuko to debious Watanuki to her intelligent but fainthearted husband Kotaro to herself.

All characters undergo a transformation of their personalities as if influencing each other and lose their innocence toward a fatal denouement. Jealousy, as related to low self-esteem and the fear of being deceived, constitutes the driving force of novel and film. The four main characters, including Kannon-like Mitsuko (Ayako Wakao is no doubt the best and most attractive actress of her generation), suffer that mixture of blind love, lust and envy to pathological levels, which paradoxically provides them with stamina for their personal fighting.

Although an apparently universal story, Tanizaki adds the Japanese peculiar theatrical nature to the narration with constant allusions to suicide, either individual or collective, as a form of sublime love; the lovers’ frequent weeping and the sexual game with the おねえちゃん oneechan older sister have also this Japanese signature.

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.

Miracle in Kyushu, family disintegration

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「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.

Andarushia, James Bond and The Vascongadas

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Japan has been successful imitating and even improving West technology, architecture, fashion, etc., but when it comes to commercial cinema, she needs to reconsider and start from the beginning again.

In アンダルシア、女神の報復 Andalucia, the Goddess’ Revenge, the last blockbuster for the national market, we have the obligatory car and motorcycle chase, breathtaking sceneries, fights hand to hand, shootings and a conspiracy with embassy secret agents, double secret agents and a beautiful female spy. But, in the end, in spite of an impeccable technical filming and production, it doesn’t convince. I think that the problem is in the script, every good story’s foundation. If there is not an original script with intelligent and sharp dialogues and a logical story line, the movie, as in this case, fails. Here we must attend long, slow and boring speeches explaining everything as if it were a foreign language grammar class. The scriptwriters -if there are any- should not underestimate the audience and leave some ambiguity shortening the dialogues; in the end, giving too many details creates more confusion and what is worse, tediousness. Besides, same as in literature: “Don’t tell it, show it”. They could learn a few lessons from Ocean’s eleven or even Memento.

In Andalucia it seems that someone wanted to film Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia and a few dramatic aerial images of Malaga’s Ronda, and adjusted the plot for the stills to fit in the movie; the G20 summit and the skiing resort are just concessions to become a 007-like film.

As for the acting, applause to the beautiful and expressive Meisa Kuroki, a Japanese young woman from Okinawa who happens to be one fourth Brazilian. Juji Oda, the main actor, is not too bad, although it’s not justified either to have him pose in front of the camera for such long shots as if he were Marlon Brando. His character is the epitome of self-control, paternalism, self-denial and unimpeachable morality, like a cliché of a modern day bushido-practitioner; and the opposite of his Western counterpart, my worshipped James Bond: a sarcastic, playful and dipsomaniac womanizer and gambler but still faithful to his principles. I got acquainted to the immortal British character through my father’s addiction to his adventures. In my teens, the living room at home looked like a James Bond’s museum with all Ian Fleming’s novels and 007 movies in any possible format. If one day my progenitor had brought a real-size wax doll of his hero and set it next to the TV, nobody would have been surprised. Now, I doubt anybody would be willing to set a replica of Kosaku Kuroda on his tatami room.

As for the Spaniards’ depiction, what can I say? Apart from the careless Interpol officer who makes sexual advances on the protected witness in front of a Japanese top diplomat, there is not even one Spanish character whose personality be even minimally shown. They are just wandering beings, full of impulses like the aggressive taxi driver, drinking and eating tapas in bars, dancing flamenco or training as bullfighters. If the director wanted to really show the “miserable irresponsibility” of our police forces, he could at least have created a mean and corrupt character in the line of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant, and not a caricature of a neighborhood policeman with an English even crapper than that of the Japanese.

To top the lack of verisimilitude, a young Japanese man with a teenage-idol hairstyle becomes the Interpol agent in charge of the operation in Spain, without speaking a word of Spanish! At least, they didn’t make the female character do ぶりっ子 burikko (pretending to be stupid and/or childish), like in Princess Toyotomi.

To finish, a hilarious note: as Abel, my colleague and extra in the movie tells me, the map of Spain that they are using on their web page represents the Spanish regions with names from before democracy, i.e., the 70’s. Las Vascongadas, Castilla la Vieja and Castilla la Nueva! How tactless!

Hankyu Densha: an universe of struggling women on a Kansai railway

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Hankyu Densha, based on the homonymous novel by Hiro Arikawa, is a story about solitude, about deceived characters themselves who can’t find a way out of their problems but struggle to get rid of them. Paradoxically, an old and crowded Japanese train marching from Takarazuka to Nishinomiya Kitaguchi station is the setting for the intertwining solitary lives of a thirty-something bride-to-be, just abandoned by her boyfriend; of a school girl who suffers from isolation and incessant bullying by her classmates; of an obaachan (granma) who lives on remembrances from immemorial times; of a college student, victim of her boyfriend’s choleric fits of rage and jealousy; of a pusillanimous housewife trapped in a world of hypocrisy and sense of obligation; of two “otaku” Kwansei Gakuin students completely out of the fashionable and intolerant trend of the Japanese youth’s clothes and sheepish behavior; and of a high-school girl who sees her longed-for dream vanishing and feels guilty.

They all have things in common: they feel lonely, deluded and betrayed. Maybe the most stunning character is the one played by the once-awarded and many times nominated to best actress by the Japanese Academy Miki Nakatani, whose boyfriend justifies his leaving her for another woman –her 後輩! (her more junior colleague)- because she is strong enough to take care of herself but the new (and pregnant) one really needs him; although revenge is best served cold and she forgives them on the condition that she is invited to the wedding.

But this is also a story of solidarity, about people who see themselves in another person’s sufferings. It’s what we call empathy, that concept so well explained by modern neuroscientists through the construct of “mirror neurons”.
Those who are not capable of experiencing empathy are either stupid, or autistic or pathologically selfish and egomaniac.

The characters, one after the other, advice and interfere positively in one another’s lives. And through this process, each of them becomes aware of their own issues.

The message is clear at the end of the movie: as Shoko claims, “世界でいい部分もある”, in the world there are also good things. Let’s go and take them, no worries about impossible dreams and social conventions.

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