The form of Woman in the Dunes is horror, but its soul is a family tragedy. A middle-aged man finds himself trapped in an ever-collapsing home. His wife adores him, and he may love her too, but they cannot help but fight. His heart, even in the blissful moments of home life, is set on escape. He wanted to do something more — be something more — but he seems doomed to be the husband and father that everyone else seems to believe he wants to be.
Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and August Wilson’s Fences fit in here. While the men on their stages struggle against the invisible forces of responsibility and inadequacy, Kobo Abe renders his story’s antagonist physically. The sand pit.
No matter what Niki Junpei does, he cannot escape the sand. The more he struggles upwards, the quicker he is pushed downwards. His persistence, his hard work, lead him nowhere.
And yet, Junpei seems to achieve a sense of peace with his situation. Perhaps the material nature of his enemy provides an exit in a way that Willy Lowman’s and Troy’s enemies cannot.
Post-War Japan was a period of intense adjustment, as the society reacted both to the sudden influence of American culture and the horrors of Imperial Japan. In Late Spring, Ozu found a way to move Japan into the new world while still honoring traditional values. Kobayashi’s later film, Harakiai, on the other hand, cannot see a way to reconcile the two.
By 1962, the tropes of Samurai films were well set. They largely portrayed the Samurai as spiritual warriors, fighting under an ancient code that ennobled their violence. The themes were analogous to the stories of chivalry among western knights. They would often be set in the 19th Century, to better contrast the Bushido with modern warfare.
Japanese filmmakers and writers could use the idea of Bushido to delegitimize the war criminals of the Imperial system. If people believed that true Japanese values taught one to respect one’s enemies and put the law above personal gain, people would see the new democratic system as a natural fit for Japan, and accept it more readily. Consider Sansho the Bailiff as an example.
But there is something in the standard samurai film script that is still unsettling. The mourning for bygone days of honorable violence seems reminiscent of the “Moonlight & Magnolias” tropes of the antebellum South. (Especially when you remember who the enemy of both Imperial Japan and the Confederacy was, and how that enemy won.) And endorsing honorable violence is still endorsing violence.
Kobayashi’s Harakiri seeks to deconstruct the idea of Bushido. Harakiri is set in 1630, near the beginning of the Edo Period and the romantic heart of the Bushido Code. Here, the samurai are not noble mystics, but spoiled elites who do not fight and care nothing for their unemployed former comrades. When the starving ronin come knocking at the door, the samurai’s primary concern is how to make them go away. Although they use Bushido as an excuse, their hypocrisy is exposed easily.
“The thing we call samurai honor is nothing but a facade,” our hero tells those using Bushido to keep him captive. He defeats their strongest warriors, and traps the clan’s leader into creating a dishonorable cover-up. And in full view, he reveals the family’s revered suit of armor as a hollow shell.
Harakiri makes a simple, direct plea to common humanity that cannot go out of date. Do not let a ‘code’ or an ideology serve as an excuse to help those in need.
I love horror films with a slow, patient build. Audition is the best at this I’ve ever seen. It follows the same basic pattern as Hitchcock’s The Birds. The first 90 minutes of a film with a 115-minute running time plays like an elegiac romance. Aoyama is a lonely widower. His son and best friend both urge him to remarry. Both the setup and the melancholy reminded me more than a bit of Ozu’sLate Spring. We don’t approve of Aoyama’s plan to hold an “audition” for a fake movie in order to find a bride. Or the way he falls for Asami so quickly. But he seems so lonely that we forgive him.
We also overlook the misogynist winks he gives his son when he brings home a pretty girl. These would be a tip off in any other film. But we like Aoyama, and director Takashi Miike has set such a dull mood that we allow these gestures to pass.
But we can’t overlook whatever is in the bag at the audition winner’s home. Miike leaves a few clues about what is to come — just as Hitchcock added in a few small bird attacks to whet our appetite while the main horror is still on slow boil.
These two paths — Aoyama’s quiet misogyny and the hints of Asami’s violence — converge for the final 20 minutes of the film. No spoilers here. But be warned that this is an awful date movie.
Throne of Blood is director Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s MacBeth. He makes the bard’s tale Japan’s own, replacing Scottish warlords with armies of Japanese Samurai. Yuwen Hsiung is one of many who have written about the ways Kurosawa integrated traditions with Japanese Noh theater into his telling of one of the West’s canonical stories.
One interesting note he makes:
“Neither the Japanese nor Chinese perspectives allow multiple witches. Rather than a collective group dedicated to malevolent acts against humans, Kurosawa’s film and the Taiwan theater present figures closer to the shamans in East Asian culture, who function between the human world and nature. These shamans practice witchcraft like witches, but their status is that of intermediary between the human community and the laws of nature; they are not, of themselves, makers of discord and disharmony. The adaptations therefore size the number of witches down to one…”
Two of Kurosawa’s most notable Japanese contemporaries, Yasujirō Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi, also looked for ways to blend Japanese and American storytelling. This helped them escape the censors, appease a world suspicious of Japanese culture, and seek the survival of their conquered past by fusing it to a new hegemony — along with a genuine desire to shape post-War Japan into a better society.
Such an act by a Japanese subject towards his emperor would have been unthinkable in the minds of anti-Japanese racists in the West. An adaptation of MacBeth – besides flattering Kurosawa’s anglophone conquerors – would give him the opportunity to remind the West that Japanese history is also full of rebels and revolutionaries. Although MacBeth (Washizu in the film) is still a negative character, the fact of his existence is a positive one, in the disingenuous sense.
“up to the very moment of Japan’s surrender, American and British “Asia specialists” routinely characterized the Japanese people as an “obedient herd” incapable of genuine self-government. At first glance, this might seem an unusually crude example of Western racism. In fact, it was a conservative, elitist observation that was reinforced by the rhetoric and practices of Japan’s own autocratic leaders and ideologues. The most obvious wartime Japanese counterpart of the Anglo-American image of the “obedient herd” was “the hundred million hearts beating as one” (ichioku isshin). The Western “experts” who spoke so condescendingly about the inability of ordinary Japanese to govern themselves were essentially parroting views they had heard in Japanese propaganda and upper-class Japanese ruling circles.”
Kurosawa’s family was a part of the upper-middle class, and it’s unlikely that he did not share some of these stereotypes about his lower-class countrymen. So Throne of Blood may have been intended demonstrate a rebellious streak in Japanese history to the Japanese themselves as well.
The “temporary survivors” attempt to communicate their experience, to preserve their memories. We get photographs that are politicized, a museum that is a destination for weeping tourists, a staged re-production for a commercial film and symbolic story that many, like our Frenchwoman, attempt to find personal meaning in. As our man says, “you saw nothing in Hiroshima.”
Our woman tells her tragedy. For the man it is a piece of psychoanalysis, a way to “understand” his lover and then a triumph when he learns of his exclusive knowledge of her torment. Just as she celebrated in France upon learning of Hiroshima, he celebrated in Hiroshima upon learning of France. He grins and jumps up and dances.
Nevers, France is what began to make our woman what she is today. But now it is “a two-penny romance.”
I sometimes wonder if, like Vlad the Impaler, Adolf Hitler might one day end up as a cartoon character on cereal boxes. But even if his image is kept accurate and the tone of the Holocaust is kept solemn, Nazism is now only a memory to a small few.
Alain Resnais made Night and Fog in 1955, showing archival footage of the concentration camps. His creation was devastating and powerful, but it was not a memory – it was a new thing, an account. He must have had audience reactions to Night and Fog in mind when he struggled with his charge to make a Hiroshima film.
For those of us who were not in New York in September 2001 and did not know anyone involved in the attacks, 9/11 was a national, emotional tragedy. We wept in front of the TV screens and mourned people we never knew. Terrorism felt like an “existential threat,” it felt like “the end of the age of irony.”
For those of us involved in personal tragedy, forgetfulness seems like a betrayal. We feel guilty for not weeping at every memory. Moving on involves forgetting – while refusing to move on transforms mourning from memory to neuroticism.
Whatever Hiroshima means to us today, its not what it meant to those in Hiroshima. And perhaps on August 7, it no longer meant to them what it did on August 6.
Zushiô’s father is an anachronistic Lockean, telling his son “Men are created equal. Everyone is entitled to their happiness.” His commitment to Enlightenment ideals doesn’t play over well in 11th Century Japan, and his family is exiled. They don’t even last a full day before being kidnapped. Zushiô and his sister Anju are put into a slave labor camp; their mother is sold into prostitution.
The heart-wrenching story unfolds, and more than once we are reminded of the slave camps the Japanese set up during World War II. Zushiô and Anju’s camp is run by the eponymous Sansho, who recruits Zushiô as a Kapo of sorts. Later, after committing atrocities of his own, Zushiô begs for forgiveness.
The legend of Sansho the Bailiff is an old one, and the book that directly inspired Mizoguchi was written in 1915. The ideas he places into the film are modern and Western.
I don’t know enough about Japanese Buddhism to know how prominent the strains of feminism and individual rights have been through its history. What is clear is that Mizoguchi is Japanasizing the values of his country’s conquerors. Japan can be a part of the liberal community of nations without assimilating and losing her identity. In fact, for Mizoguchi, liberalism is Japan’s true identity. Mizoguchi seems to have been genuine here – his pre-war films share the same themes.
Each scene is beautiful. The shots are long, but the pace doesn’t feel slow, thanks to wise, quiet camera movements. I don’t often pause re-watch shots during my first time through a movie, but I felt compelled to several times with Sansho.