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I hardly know where to start in describing this film. The story is told in
flashback, as a conversation. From memory, there are about five flashback
episodes, the longest covering the wedding of a young man, where the bride
fails to show but the wedding proceeds. The young man continues the farce
attempting to have sex with a large pillow which he calls
The remainder of the film is just as weird, but I found it completely engrossing. Oshima appears to be attacking many aspects of Japanese modern culture with his scalpel-sharp satirical wit.
Not a film for everyone, but highly recommended nevertheless.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Probably less of a political allegory than it's made out to be in several reviews I've read, although Oshima's jaundiced view of Japanese society does come through loud and clear. To me it was more of a human story, seen through the eyes of the childlike innocent Masuo, about the strange and fascinating relationships that develop within a powerful, patriarchal, and (literally) incestuous family. The movie starts out with a brief conversation about what it means to be a relative, "just someone you see at weddings and funerals", which reveals itself to be deeply ironic. The narrative largely unfolds around a series of family ceremonies in which the lives of central character, Masuo, and his cousins Ritsuko and Teramichi intertwine thickly and darkly. Much has been said about the famous scene in which Masuo is made to go through with a wedding to an absent bride (featuring the tallest wedding cake ever seen on film), but for me the most memorable scene was when Grandfather gives Aunt Satsuko to grandson Teramichi to initiate him, as Masuo, who is obsessed with her, looks on. Akiko Koyama as Satsuko becomes an otherworldly being before our eyes as she gently directs the process. One of the most perfect and beautiful sex scenes I've seen. In the end it is masterfully echoed in a scene between Masuo and Ritsuko, but with a disturbingly different connotation -- actually referring back to young Masuo's belief that he can hear the cries of the baby brother he says was buried alive when he and his mother fled Manchuria. Like most or all Oshima films, The Ceremony goes off on tangents, backwards and forwards in time, from realism to hyper-reality, and drama to comedy (particularly with a certain nicely/oddly placed spurting-blood effect), and maybe doesn't hold together as well as some of his other work, but it's definitely ambitious, brilliantly acted, brimming over with ideas, wise, bleak and despairing but also playful and darkly comedic.
I have seen this film in the late eighties, together with other
Oshima's movies and I could collect only a vague impression of
exoticism. This before I visited Japan, where I currently live.
I have seen it again last night and I can confirm that "Gishiki" portrays some of the most specific aspects of the Japanese culture. It is a movie deeply ingrained with the rebellion against traditional culture and family, which is typical of the late sixties-early seventies, not only in Japan, but also in Europe. The same can be said of the use of sexuality as a powerful device to offset the established values.
The powerful Sakurada clan is brought to ruin by the same force that keeps it together, the powerful grandfather. This happens in a sequence of rigidly choreographed family reunions, in occasions of funerals and weddings spanning several years following the end of the world. In this sense the world of the Sakuradas is so traditional that many scenes could be set in medieval Japan, with minor modifications in the dialogs and costumes. Ritual suicides and uncompassioned sex are recurring estranging events which follow and precede these ceremonies.
At the end what has been taken away from the protagonist is his very childhood, and hence his possibility to exist as a human being.
The Ceremony (or, perhaps more accurately, Ceremonies) is often
considered to be one of the finest works by Japanese director Nagisa
Oshima, produced for the 10th anniversary of the Art Theatre Guild
studio. The film is mainly told in flashbacks, recounting the familial
tale of the rigid Sakurada clan and the lengths they go to in order to
preserve their traditions, going as far as over the bodies of the
clan's own members.
Like always, Oshima doesn't stray back from pushing his political messages in the most unsubtle ways possible. The Ceremony satirically criticizes Japanese xenophobia and inbreeding to preserve "the purity of the family line", the decay of large families who use their traditions as a facade, and the ceremonies themselves losing all merit even if they represent the only thing keeping the families together. The interesting thing is how restrained the film starts out, with the same long takes, polite characters, camera stillness and reservedness, similar to the movies of Yasujiro Ozu, who was often criticized for romanticizing the Japanese society. Here, through using the same cinematic techniques as Ozu, Oshima subverts the common ideals and slowly unravels the web of incest and murder running through the clan, through excessive ceremonies. The sight of characters sitting attached to the floors, often turned towards the center of the frame occupied by the strict grandfather, has never looked so sinister.
The Ceremony has some truly fascinating moments, like the pillow sex scene, the bride-less wedding ceremony or the ending itself, all of which are a real punch to the gut. Unfortunately, even though the movie is very emotionally powerful (also thanks to the marvelous Toru Takemitsu score), the plot itself is very hard to follow and the tangled web of family relations can be confusing. It's like you're suddenly thrown into episode #754 of a random soap opera and have to quickly adjust to what's going on. Thankfully, while you're never really guaranteed to catch everything that's going on, the movie does become a whole lot clearer as it progresses.
One more thing - the opening credits last forever! I also find it interesting how they dedicate several screens to list the companies who provided the sake, kimonos, the tallest wedding cake ever, and other items from the film. I've never seen a movie this old that has credits like these displayed so prominently.
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