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Nie yin niang (2015)
A Japanese mirror-polisher (Satoshi Tsumabuki) stranded in China is awakened from his slumber in a cave by the whistle of an ember in a dying fire. It reminds him of the strains of a "sho" (mouth organ with many reeds of various lengths), and immediately we are transported to the scene in his memory of a performance of "gagaku" ritual music, originally introduced from China, with dancing maiden back in what I take for ancient Kyoto. But the beautiful episode ends without going anywhere; there is nothing to tell the audience what it is, and absolutely no connection with the plot.
In the way it lacks any melody the listener could sing, carries no particular message, doesn't exactly rise to a climax, and moves along in a languid rhythm that would be better likened to the ebb and flow of long-wavelength swells spilling onto shore than any tempo, "gagaku" provides a nice metaphor for the cinema of Hou Hsiao-Hsien.
"The Assassin" was inspired by "Nie Yinniang," a "chuanqi" tale of the strange set in the later part of the Tang dynasty. The eponymous heroine (played by Shu Qi) is taken away from her family by a mysterious Daoist nun who molds her into an invincible assassin before sending her back with the mission of killing a lord (Chang Chen) who is her cousin and was formerly promised to her in marriage. It is also a re-pairing of Shu and Chang, who played opposite each other in "Three Times," Hou's 2005 offering.
While one would assume from the title and summary that it is sword-fighting fare, the movie is sure to infuriate lovers of the "wuxia" genre, because any outbursts of martial arts action are indeed short, few, and far between. On top of this, it moves at a snail pace, with a thin narrative that can barely be followed and next to no character development or even interaction. What's going on here?
In his 2014 book on Chinese painting, Japanese author Bunri Usami articulates his theory that the works are depictions not of their ostensible subjects but of their "qi," a slippery word that lacks a good English equivalent because the very concept is absent. It is variously translated "life-force," "spirit," "energy," "essence," etc. A prime example is the 11th-century landscape masterpiece "Early Spring" by Guo Xi. Perhaps Hou's cinema could best be understood by applying the same idea to it; it is driven by neither narrative nor characters, but by the "qi" animating them and their times. This explains the overwhelming emphasis on atmosphere that also stamps his other works, and particularly "Flowers of Shanghai." Asked at a press conference in Cannes (where Hou took Best Director for "Assassin") if she thought he was trying to portray a woman's perspective, Shu replied in the negative, insisting that he attached as much importance to things like lantern light, wind, clouds, and trees as to the acting.
Hou is trying to film the way the great Song landscape artists tried to paint. His approach is nothing less than a new cinematic paradigm that likewise requires a new way of watching from audiences, much as cool jazz and ambient music once required a new way of listening. The sluggish pace and lack of focus resemble those of Lech Majewski's "The Mill and the Cross" (which also has a lot of livestock footage, BTW), but to continue the analogy, if Majewski aimed to make a painting (Bruegel's "The Procession to Calvary") into a movie, Hou aspires to make a movie into a painting, to put it crudely. This is to say that, to be appreciated, perhaps his films are not to be watched so much as to be looked at, listened to, and felt. On these terms, "The Assassin" is a triumph.
Although the duration is less than two hours in reality, I felt as if I had sat in the seat for something between three and four when the credits finally rolled around. But I was savoring it for the most part. Then again, I like "gagaku." - J. Koetting
Paean to the Beautiful and the True
"...when he looks at Beauty in the only way that Beauty can be seen - only then will it become possible for him to give birth not to images of virtue , but to true virtue " - Plato, "Symposium"
"Beauty is worse than wine; it intoxicates both the holder and beholder." - Aldous Huxley
It was some years back that my son presented me with a complimentary ticket for a special screening of this movie in Tokyo, in connection with some commemorative occasion which totally escapes me now, along with the venue. I had never heard of "Pakeezah," but I had recently returned from my first or second trip to India, and my enthusing about my impressions and experiences there had obviously prompted him to give me the ticket that had somehow come into his hands (he had no interest in going himself). As things turned out, I missed it. But I knew I had missed something special (I believe the ticket contained the word "legendary"), and so began what must've been about a decade of searching for it in the erstwhile video stores and today's DVD home delivery rental operations, all to absolutely no avail. You can imagine my joy when I finally found the whole thing available for viewing online, with English subtitles.
"Pakeezah" ("Pure Heart") is indeed special, but certainly not because of the story. It is an oft-told tale of an ill-starred woman, in this case a "tawaif" singer-dancer courtesan, who eventually finds happiness after a lifetime of hardship, through some incredible, i.e., non- credible, twists of fate. The plot is, frankly, ludicrous. The courtesan, or rather her mother (both roles played by Ashok Kumar), rarely appears out of her dancing costume or without makeup, even when wandering around a cemetery in the throes of death. Inconsistencies? It is hard to tell in what age the drama is set; its times seem at once medieval and modern. (I was puzzled when a well-heeled "nawab" patron stepped out of a horse-drawn carriage wearing sunglasses, but later learned that shades could very well have been around in the latter days of steam locomotives.) Ditto for the stage sets. There is something extremely unreal and artificial about every character, every incident, every room, every thing. And the vicissitudes of the narrative are predictable in their unpredictability.
But what "Pakeezah" has is beauty, and in an abundance that can be matched by few other movies. It is concentrated in its song-and-dance scenes, which are thankfully many. Director Kamal Amrohi was reportedly a perfectionist, and the dances in the classical "kathak" style were obviously the chief focuses for his practice of this predilection. They are truly "too much" - too rich, beautiful to an excessive degree. In creating them, he left nothing to chance or naturalness, and obsessively and meticulously put his hand to everything in them, meaning not only furnishings and appurtenances in interiors but also background scenery and activity out the window, and even the skies and heavenly bodies in them, which may actually be in flux during the number. Furthermore, the musical compositions are, without exception (as far as I am concerned), excellent works in themselves. Even in subtitles, the lovely, poetic lyrics of the songs (sung mainly by playback-singer godmother Lata Mangeshkar in her prime) accompanying the dances ring true and resonate in the heart with a genuineness of sentiment. In short, all the elements come together, perfectly, in displays of total cinematographic art that delight the eye, ear, heart, and mind. Charged with virtually palpable passion and desire to boot, the dance scenes are nothing less than intoxicating.
The reality of "Pakeeza" therefore lies in its dance vignettes, whose truth and beauty are only thrown into sharper relief by the unreality and mediocrity of much of the footage framing them. Their consummation in the film after 14 years' worth of trials and tribulations attests to the director's unswerving commitment to his aesthetics and conviction in their value. In this sense, his is the real "pakeezah."
Needless to say, a 10 for the dance scenes. (James Koetting)
Les amours imaginaires (2010)
Dolan's Metrosexual "Manhattan"
Superb. Xavier Dolan, "infant prodige" of Canadian cinema, follows his semi- autobiographical "I Killed My Mother" with a probably similarly autobiographical opus, also in quebecois, about falling in love. It turns on a menage a trois with a twist which sets it apart from "Jules et Jim" etc.: a man and a woman are enamored of the same man. It is an otherwise familiar tale of unrequited love, but told and shot with tons of metrosexual (in Simpson's original sense) style and sophistication.
Old friends Francis and Marie find themselves in pursuit of the same decidedly un-obscure object of desire in the person of Nicolas, an Adonis who proceeds to tease the two and play them off against each other at his leisure, until they ultimately clash. In the meantime, the two take other lovers to work off the sexual frustration that inevitably comes from the fruitless chase after Nicolas. These night moves are deftly filmed in slow-motion and unearthly light that makes it look as if they took place on another planet - a metaphor for where the two might just as well have been as far as their minds and hearts were concerned at the time. The degree of their love-jones over Nicolas can be gauged by the snaps of Michelangelo's David that float on the screen in montage as they raptly gaze at him gyrating at a party.
Interspersed in the narrative are soliloquies by assorted young adults apparently out of any character, simply talking about their own heart-pangs and amorous angst. Lacking any direct bearing on the plot, they turn up and rattle on like the personae in the video works of contemporary artist Ryan Trecartin, whose primary-color interiors have something in common with those of Dolan, come to think of it.
Blonde-headed Nicolas bears a strong resemblance to Tadzio, but unlike in "Death in Venice," there comes a moment of truth for both of the smitten, who cast away their formidable pride and bare their hearts, only to have them brusquely, almost cruelly, broken, one after the other. The end. Or so I thought.
But there is a brief yet delicious denouement, in which we learn that, happily, neither Francis nor Marie has the self-destructive inclinations of von Aschenbach or the never-stop tenacity of Frank Raftis in "Falling in Love." They get over the hurt, repair their friendship after the damage done by the quarrel over Nicolas, and before long are again popping up together on the party scene, surveying the crowd for new prospects. In the wry final frame, they simultaneously sight and step towards a new prey, from whose perspective they must look quite like the vampiric couple Adam and Eve as they pounce in the very last shot in "Only Lovers Left Alive."
Some reviewers reflexively mention names like Truffaut and Godard when gushing about Dolan, but his loquacious, mensch-centric approach calls more to mind another actor-cum-director - right, "Les Amours" could better be likened to a way-cool, 2010-upgrade "Manhattan." - J. Koetting
Zui hao de shi guang (2005)
The cinema of helmer Hou Hsiao-Hsien is sometimes criticized for thin or truncated plots and lack of character development. Perhaps these criticisms are barking up the wrong tree, as I suspect it works on another plane: his movies are neither narrative- nor character- driven, but atmosphere-driven, for want of a better term. "Three Times" is certainly better appreciated if viewed in this light.
Hou tells three love stories set at different times (hence the English title) over a period of about 100 years (hence the Japanese title, which translates "Hundred-Year Linked Verse"). In each tale, the star-crossed lovers are diligently played by Chang Chen and Shu Qi. The setting is Taiwan for all. The first is set mainly in billiard halls in 1966, which, however, looks and feels more like what would be 1959 if the location were the States. This impression is reinforced by the apt choice of music; the dominant track is the Platters immortal rendition of "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," which was released in 1958. We also hear "Rain and Tears," which constitutes a temporal anomaly because it was released in 1968, after the purported time of the story. This is also before the sexual revolution, and the lovers, for all their posturing, are perfectly hesitant, awkward, and unsure. The thirst for love culminates in a tentative reach for the other's hand, merely to hold, at a bus stop.
The second tale is set in an up-scale house of pleasure in 1911, and toward the end comes the news of the outbreak of the Xinhai revolution that eventually overthrew the Qing dynasty. It is told silently, any dialogue being presented in inter-titles. It pairs a refined courtesan with a revolutionary-minded man of letters, whose limits end up breaking her heart as well as dashing her dream of freedom, as the piece is actually titled in Chinese (the "dreams" are rendered "times" in English). Despite the absence of spoken dialogue, music is present in the form of old Chinese songs lip-synched by Shu while accompanying herself on a stringed instrument (possibly a "yueqin") and exquisite improvisation by Taiwanese pianist Constance Lee.
Coming on the heels of the second, the third tale seems like a slap in the face as we find ourselves abruptly speeding down an expressway in the bustling and gray Taipei of the present. Life is fast, too. Shu is Jing, a jagged-edged new-age bisexual chanteuse who projects an icy persona on stage but is fragile, unstable, and subject to epileptic seizures in reality. Chang plays a biker suitor with whom she eventually finds respite, at least for a while, one hopes. In this "time," the two appropriately waste no time getting into the sack, no questions asked, and the music is appropriately techno and hard.
While most reviewers prefer the first Dream of Love, the second dream is clearly the best in my mind. Despite its sluggish pace and what might be taken as temps mort, there is not a single superfluous moment in it. It grinds ever so slowly but inexorably to an emotionally crushing conclusion. The frames are literally pretty as pictures - the comparison by one reviewer here to Vermeer is no exaggeration, especially for one vignette in which the courtesan helps her Mr. Chang dress before a mirror. This is also the extent of physical contact we see between the two, but such restraint only seems to underscore the depth of her love for him.
Running through all three dreams is the leitmotif of text, written with a ballpoint pen in the first, brush and ink in the second, and mobile phone in the third. In the first, Chang's character whiles away his hours at the billiard hall with the hostess right beside him, but when he wants to bare his heart, he writes her a letter. In the last, the web and teletext are where the principals go to get key information and deliver messages of real substance. And in the second, the most poignant scene comes when the courtesan, after reading a letter from the delinquent Mr. Chang, is moved to actually stroke the characters on the paper with her fingers, as if they were the hand that had written them and could give solace for her unrequited love.
A 10 for the middle piece, which could be likened to a single, perfectly executed episode from Hou's "Flowers of Shanghai," and 6 or 7 for the two bookending it.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)
Time tunnel Herzocumentary
Werner Herzog is given special permission by the French authorities to make a video record of the paintings on the walls of Grotto de Chauvet, the earliest of which were determined to be over 30,000 years old. What he makes is a documentary all right, but one about him and his crew making the documentary about the paintings - this is the key to appreciating this film, which would surely anger viewers expecting more hard info about the paintings and the site.
I was enchanted by the labyrinthine passages of the cave and the way the paintings emerged out of the ancient and utter darkness cloaking them, even in 2D. The effect must have been really something in 3D. The sight of the light playing on the paintings with black all around touches some memory so distant and deep that it is irretrievable - yet there nonetheless. This is perhaps the source of the unnerving feeling mentioned by more than one of the experts and crew. I would venture to say that it is, indeed, what the film is really about.
Herzog introduces us to and interviews experts involved in the study and preservation of the site, and treats them as veritable subjects alongside the paintings per se. They are a motley bunch, each one what used to be called "a character". I found myself thinking that, from now on, the paintings will depend on them and successors like them for their preservation and interpretation - so why not get to know them? Interviews aside, Herzog does all the talking. True, some of his comments are off the wall, but others are thought- provoking. That is Herzog.
Most reviewers were put off or mystified by the ending, but it struck this one as apt. The incongruity of white albino crocodiles thriving in a place where they could never exist naturally dovetails nicely with that of Herzog hauling 21st-century cinematic equipment into a cave to meet people dead 30,000+ years ago. What would the artists have made of these intruders, who may have looked just as strange to them? Which of the two match-ups seems more remote or distant? And the area was ice-age cold then; who could tell how the climate would change 30,000 years from now, and due to what technology - or lack thereof? Thirty- thousand years constitute that much of a chasm. The crocs are there for these sorts of perspective.
The spare, even austere, music makes fitting accompaniment. Too bad that Florian Fricke and Popul Vuh, who did many of the soundtracks for early Herzog flicks, are no longer with us - this one would have been right up their alley.
Not Herzog's fault that there weren't more paintings to shoot, but the movie does go back over the same ones again and again (the final looks - provided sans narration - are the longest and best). But I, for one, never tired of seeing them. They are inspired in the sense of being spirit-works, and his unique movie shows that Herzog understood this very well.
Remembrance of bad taste, 70s style
Gustav Mahler slips in and out of fantasy and memory on a train ride with his wife Alma on their way to Vienna. (I liked the segments on his childhood best.) Roger Powell as the protagonist bears a certain resemblance but hardly as close as some reviewers would have their readers believe. Despite spirited performances by Georgina Hale (as Alma) and Powell, this reviewer found the conversations between the famous pair on art, life, and love neither particularly deep nor riveting. This had a good side: it made the interludes of Russellian excess less distractions than diversions.
Nevertheless, though portrayal of Cosima Wagner as a bumping and grinding proto-Nazi might have been hilarious in the 50s, by the 70s it was banal. I felt sorry for Powell having to appear in the same scene. The sight of the newly Catholicized Mahler dining on hog's head is disgusting enough (for some reason I was even more put off by the way he avidly washed it down with milk chugged from a pitcher, blithely breaking the injunction against mixture of meat and dairy, of course). But for me the worst transgression was less blatant, and came when Russell had what looked like an oom-pah hofbrau band, but a marching one, play a passage from the third movement of the first symphony, apparently oblivious to its lilting klezmer echoes. Now that's what I call offensive.
Incredibly to me, some reviewers see this flick as Russell's best, a place I would give to "Gothic", in which the mix of fantasy, excess, and reality (history) jells to perfection. A six mainly because I have a soft spot for the subject matter.
Kong Zi (2010)
One big C carries another
Like Socrates, who was a near contemporary, Kongzi (Confucius) died without committing his own thought to writing - at least any that survived. It must be gleaned from the "Analects", which was probably put together within a century after his death and contains sayings of his, as his disciples remembered them. But the "Analects" often says nothing about their context. When and why were each of these aphorisms spoken? The film "Confucius" was conceived as an answer to this question.
"Confucius" is essentially a string of episodes that follow the chronological sequence of known events in the career of Confucius, which was certainly less than spectacular or successful on the surface. Each vignette is punctuated with certain aphorisms, and climaxes with one deemed particularly important. Some if not most of the episodes are purely products of the imagination (for example, the initial one that has Confucius harboring a human sacrifice fugitive, though the sage was said to be opposed to the practice). I didn't buy the context for the aphorism about the dearth of men who would rather pursue virtue than women, which was spoken in a somewhat diffident reply to the tempting consort of the king of Wei (played deliciously by the fetching Zhou Xun) and delivered with undue seriousness. I would have preferred to see it treated as a humorous yet thought-provoking one-liner, as it could also be rendered: "I never met a man who liked virtue as much as sex."
In the process of telling its story, the film tries to impart the basics of the sage's philosophy, which almost invariably ends up appearing insipid or ceremony-bound in textbooks. A good example is the key concepts of "li" and "ren", which are touched upon in the film. "Li" is usually translated "ceremony" or "etiquette", and "ren", something along the lines of "love of man", but both evade a firm grasp by the modern mind even with commentaries. In my understanding, Confucius devised nothing less than a social technology. He came to the conclusion that people and countries could prosper if they figured out how to manage every relationship properly. "Li" could be viewed as the codification of proper behavior in relationships - man & wife, ruler & subject, teacher & student, parent & child, etc. etc. And "ren", the infusion of "real feeling" that prevents "li" from devolving into stale and empty formality (as Confucianism as a whole eventually did). But such expositions are not amenable to the film medium in the first place, and the movie is not going to help out those who know nothing of the big C in this department.
Sprinkled into the blend now and then are spectacle-type interludes with CG works and warfare. I found these merely distracting. They serve to convey the troubled, war-torn times, I suppose, but that is thin grounds indeed for their admixture. I doubt the crowd hankering to see action is going to put "Confucius" on its must-see list anyway.
Despite the flaws, "Confucius" is a gallant attempt. It surely cannot be easy to make a flick about a philosopher or thinker in any culture - as opposed to Biblical characters whose wonder-working and fiery prophesies lend their stories to cinematic treatment. Confucius, in contrast, simply espoused a creed that was human-centered (for its time), divinity-free, non- violent, and low-key. Not much material for cinematizing there. Chow Yun-Fat absolutely carries the movie, and it is a real pleasure to watch the whole spectrum of emotions that cross his face over the course of the roughly two hours. I also liked the touches of ancient life - the music of zithers and bronze chimes, the costumes of nobles and commoners, the pottery, the oxcarts and chariots. Could have been even slower and more thought-focused as far as I am concerned. I came away regretting that director Hu Mei had not ventured a context for some of the more enigmatic sayings. I guess that means I was left wanting more - and that is saying something, too.
In Japan, this film is being positioned as the last installment of director Wakamatsu's "Showa Trilogy", "Showa" being the name of the era covered by the reign of Hirohito (1926 - 1989), and tells the Mishima story in the context of the tumultuous "Showa 40s" (mid 60s - mid 70s). As in "United Red Army" and "Caterpillar", the two previous installments, Wakamatsu sprinkles his opus with plenty of newsreel footage about mainly political incidents leading up to his climax, which in this case means violent demonstrations in central Tokyo against the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty and the Vietnam War, the occupation of Yasuda Hall at the University of Tokyo, and the Red Army hijacking of a commercial flight, among other things. But Wakamatsu wisely opens with an event that took place a bit earlier: the 1960 assassination of the leader of the Socialist Party by a right-wing youth who later hangs himself with a torn bed sheet after scribbling characters meaning "Seven lives I'll give for the country! Long live the emperor!" on the wall in his own blood, presumably. This, in turn, leads him further back, to what is known as the February 26th Incident, an attempted coup led by self-styled "patriotic" young officers in 1936. The Incident is no less than an archetypal model of ultra-right ideology and action in the modern period, and is still presented in a romantic light in Japan. Wakamatsu correctly discerns the thread linking these two events with Mishima's and, indeed, all the other right-wing lunacy that followed and is still sporadically occurring.
This, however, is precisely the problem with his film. Wakamatsu focuses exclusively on the political strand, and so ignores the many other strands that went into the complex and conflicted psyche that was the real Mishima - his homoeroticism, his narcissism, his flamboyance, his taste for rococo and admiration of Greece, his delicacy, his fecund imagination. Granted, Wakamatsu did not set out to make a bio. But as a result, Mishima appears in only his last incarnation, whose makings we are told nothing about. He has about as much depth as cardboard, and is about as interesting. Ditto for the character of Morita, who comes off to me as a simple-minded fanatic. Viewed in a purely political light, their "thought" is beneath consideration and doesn't deserve the term, for it is nothing but sentimentality proceeding from wrong-headed, and dangerous, notions about bushido (the way of the samurai), the emperor, and above all, Japanese identity. Indeed, the last day is, obviously, best construed not as a political act but as spectacular (I would say stock as well) theater by an author and playwright stepping into and playing out in reality the persona he had come to idealize, following an anachronistic script complete with all the de rigueur elements, right down to the oaths written in blood, swordplay, headbands with heroic slogans ("Seven lives..." again), the rousing exhortation, death poems, and of course the belly-cut itself.
Another thing that bothers me is the way Wakamatsu seems to fall for these trappings himself. The camera dwells lovingly, it appears to me, on the formulaic death poems of each member. And in a burst of pure bathos, it cuts to a scene of petals fluttering down from cherry blossom trees at the moment of decapitation. I audibly groaned at the resort to this incredibly hackneyed cliché of Japanese cinema. (At least no petals fell on the paper on which the death poems were written.) Do we really want more romanticizing of this sort of ironically self-indulgent behavior?
Arata Iura and Shinnosuke Mitsushima (as Mishima and Morita, respectively) emote like crazy, but in a losing battle, for the film per se is extraordinarily ill-conceived, and the script, tedious. (One little thing - I did wish Arata had hit the gym more and pasted some hair on his chest for the part, for his physique did the real YM a dishonor.) I would recommend this film only to viewers who are interested in seeing a re-creation of the events leading up to and on the fateful day, for these were reportedly well-researched. For a portrait of Mishima, all would do much better to see the 1985 film "Mishima - A Life in Four Chapters", directed by Paul Schrader and starring the late Ken Ogata, a first-rate actor who is much missed in Japan. And for those curious about Japanese fanaticism, by all means see the real thing in the documentary "Yasukuni", the 2007 stunner directed by Li Ying.
I saw "Mishima" in a theater in Tokyo's Shinjuku district, the scene of some of the rioting depicted in it, on the very first day of its run. Given the pervasive political ennui in the country, it was hard to believe things were once so overheated. The movie ends with Mishima's widow asking a former member sitting at a bar counter what the militia had bequeathed. He offers no answer, but merely unfolds his hands, holds them palms up (empty, in other words), and turns to the camera. Wakamatsu seems to be looking for an answer from the audience. But judging from the fact that the theater was barely half full, the question is apparently of little concern to the theater-going public. One can only conclude that there is a resounding lack of interest in either Mishima or Wakamatsu, or both. If that is their reaction to Mishima as portrayed by Wakamatsu, anyway, I think it is the right one, and a good thing, too.
A riveting documentary for concerned viewers
This is a stunning movie. It was put together from footage shot by director Li Ying at the shrine over a period of about ten years beginning around 1997, when he was motivated to make the film after witnessing a Japanese gathering dedicated to denial of the massacre known as the Rape of Nanjing, and coming away from it in shock. Taking a cinema-verite approach, Li wisely merely points the camera and lets the shrine tell its own story, or rather expose itself, with the exception of scenes in which he interviews Naoharu Kariya, master swordmaker for the shrine. The lack of any substantial narration makes the film only more powerful. I read it as a scathing and startling indictment, and I know it struck many Japanese the same way, as none who did not make the August 15th pilgrimage to the shrine could have imagined the tumult and, yes, alive-and-kicking fanaticism.
Unfortunately, due to the lack of narration, the full meaning of it all may be lost on viewers who are not knowledgeable of the nature of this shrine, which was built by the fledgling Meiji government in 1869 to enshrine the souls of all soldiers who died fighting for the emperor in any wars. (It therefore does not enshrine any non-military who died in wars, or soldiers who died fighting against the new government shortly after its birth.) Unlike Arlington or Kolmeshöhe (Bitburg), it is not a cemetery and contains no graves or ashes. Strictly speaking, people go there not to "pay their respects" to these dead but to worship their "heroic souls" ("eirei") enshrined as "gods" ("kami"). It was the veritable basilica of prewar State Shinto and emperor worship (it is right across the street from the imperial palace), and has retained its essential character even after WWII, right up to the present. Time has, in effect, stopped within its precincts. I would say it stands as a monument to lack of repentance for misdeeds during the war. Any pretense to the contrary was dropped in 1978, when it took the brazen step of officially enshrining 14 Class A war criminals, an act which reportedly soured even the late Emperor Hirohito, who arguably belonged in their number himself, on the idea of resuming his visits there.
How anyone can interpret this documentary as being neutral/noncommittal is beyond me, for its footage of paramilitary parading and right-wing thuggery is nothing but damning. For me, the real "heroic soul" is Taiwanese legislator Gaojin Sumei, who marches into the precincts to protest against the forced enshrinement of Taiwanese nationals and gives the covey of thoroughly cowed Shinto priests an eloquent dressing-down they richly deserved and undoubtedly never forgot. (Her criticisms stung so badly that, in August 2011, the Public Security Bureau of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department tried to have her arraigned on clearly trumped-up charges, in a bid to keep her from coming to Japan for any future protests.) Also making an appearance are certain revanchist Japanese politicians, most notably Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, who is another Nanjing denier, China-baiter, and dangerous advocate of a return to what he regards as prewar virtues. (For the record, ex PM Koizumi, who also appears, is not one of these).
To carp at "Yasukuni" because of its slow pace or ill-advised editing in parts is akin to pointing out warts on a unicorn, for this film is that rare. I, for one, was on the edge of my seat most of the time, but this may have been partly due to certain apprehension over personal safety, given the threats and coercion directed at many theaters that showed or were going to show the film from the aforementioned right-wing thugs. I strongly recommend it to any people who are under the impression that Japan went through a universal and rigorous soul-searching and was born anew, purged of its militaristic bent, after the war.
The film makes deft use of music from the first movement of Henryk Gorecki's Symphony No. 3, the "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs", whose 1992 recording was released to commemorate victims of the Holocaust. The piece is perfect accompaniment for "Yasukuni", which struck me as ultimately a meditation on chilling inhumanity, with similarly resonating tones of profound grief.
Another provocative opus from Director Wakamatsu
In premise, "Caterpillar" (the English translation of the title of a short story by masterful mystery author Edogawa Ranpo on which the movie draws heavily) may call to mind Trumbo's "Johnny Got His Gun", but whereas the latter dwells entirely on the slug of a man left from the battlefield, the former actually focuses on the wife who must care for and cater to a deified deformity of a husband. Director Wakamatsu walks the viewer through the war with newsreel footage and announcements from the "Daihonei" Imperial Headquarters, which duped the public into thinking their forces were winning victory after victory. There is also the text of the article prohibiting capture or surrender from the "Senjinkun" (Combatants' Code), which was distributed to all soldiers in early 1941 under the name of Hideki Tojo, and was a key factor behind the suicidal attacks and just plain suicides (voluntary or compelled) by Japanese soldiers throughout the war. Kurokawa (the husband) comes back limbless and mute, but there is nothing wrong with him downstairs, as his hapless wife soon discovers. There ensues a kind of sexual warfare between the two, portraits of the emperor and empress solemnly gazing down at the lurid scenes all the while, that lasts as long as the war. I took Kurokawa's attempted suicide as an attempt to end his personal torment, not as a sign of repentance for his own crimes per se. No one saves or is saved in this flick.
After the intense fixation on the couple and the rural home front, the A-blasts and war's end seem to break the spell, and the film embraces a more general anti-war sentiment. I felt this diluted the impact, but audiences (especially those in Japan) will do well to ponder the figure of 20 million on the screen at the film's end for the estimated WWII death toll in Asia alone.
Shinobu Terajima turns in a bravura performance as the wife (though she looked laughably incongruous standing in a rice paddy, farming implement in unaccustomed hand, her fair and flawless complexion shining under the sun - far cry from a sun-beaten peasant- woman!), and Shin Onishi, a creditable one in a difficult role.
Wakamatsu again showed courage in making this film, as he did with "United Red Army". I guess this is why mention of his name often elicits groans in Japan. He must be doing something right.