Monday, May 17, 2004

April and May saw an outstanding program to the Harvard Film Archive to commemorate the centennial of the birth of Japanese Filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu. A collaboration between a Harvard and the Japan Society of Boston (coincidentally also celebrating its centennial) brought us an impressive representation of this director's body of work - spanning from the silent era to the 1950s. To finish off this program, Ozu student and vanguard of Japan's New Wave movement Masahiro Shinoda appeared this weekend in order to present his first and latest films and answer questions on them in a program called "Double Shinoda."

Friday night was devoted to his first film, "Double Suicide," a modern take on an 18th century puppet theater piece. The work dealt with the tension between love and social class - a merchant falling in love with a courtesan - ending, of course, badly for everyone. I'm sure that the shoestring budget had a bit to do with the austere feel of the film. The bulk of the film took place in a closed, stage set like area, and the actors' gestures were very formal and stylized, bringing to mind kabuki or no theater. These aspects lent an almost claustrophobic air to the piece, not at all unlike how I would have imagined the social climate to have been at the time.

Although I did not care so much for the story, I did find much to get interested in in the film itself. This largely has to do with Shinoda's great interest in areas outside of film: ballet, opera, theater. The music, composed by Toru Takemitsu, played a major role. Not really Japanese (Shinoda described it as an amalgam of 'primitive' influences - mainly from Balinese Gamelon music), it conveyed a powerful atmosphere of tragedy and death. What immediately comes to mind is the scoring of the harrowing final scene which, for me, anyway, invoked Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring."

Very interesting was the the usage black robed scene movers/puppet handlers to move the action forward. Shinoda referred to them as the movers of destiny. Their presence upheld the theatrical tone (a breakdown of the third wall? a reminder that this was not real life, but a story?) and instilled a slight sense of the Absurd (à la Ionesco) to this particular presentation. The opening scene showed the puppet theaterplace preparing for a performance with the director on the phone scouting locations for different scenes to be filmed, bringing to mind some of the theatricality of French New Wave.

Some other tidbits: the calligraphy on the floors and walls of the sets was actually the text of the script, painted by the director and crew. Images were copies of woodcuts taken from a book of erotic stories (interestingly enough, Shinoda mentioned that they could only go so far with what they depicted from this series without getting into trouble with the censors, yet some of the love scenes shown between the two main characters would be considered shocking even today.) Also, the graveyard scene was filmed in the actual resting place of the male hero of this story.

I enjoyed the juxtaposition between theatrical scenes and 'real life' scenes - shot outdoors. This brought to mind the Korean film "Chunhyang," similar treatment of a traditional love story between a young noble and a courtesan, but with a much happier ending. There was the same toggling between a Korean opera form and outdoors scenes. If you get the chance, do try to see this film - and be patient with the music - hard to take at first, but so worth it.

The second film was shown on Sunday night - "Spy Sorge." I heard that this is reputed to be Shinoda's last work - and what an epic. Completely different in style from "Double Suicide," this is the story of the German/Russian spy who aided the ally cause and was eventually tried and executed by the Japanese by the end of the war. Filmed in color with loud, sometimes bombastic romantic era orchestral music for the soundtrack, this work definately had a western tone to it. Most of the scenes were computer generated, as what they were trying to depict was largely destroyed during the war. CGI being what it is, you could tell that the sets weren't real, but rather than looking fake, there seemed to be a dreamlike quality about everything.

My reaction to this film was much more emotional than to "Double Suicide." Though it had plenty of espionage action to it, it wasn't your typical James Bond story. The main characters were all moved by the need to allay the suffering of the common people, by the need to avoid war. Though we know what sort of atrocities were committed by the Soviets, by the Nazis, by the ruling Japanese, I just could not dislike any of the main characters. They were human, trying to do what they thought was best, even if the ideology motivating them(Communism) was intrinsically flawed.

One of the scholars who talked about this film said that he thought it was the most accurate, the best representation of what he imagined Japan/China to look like during the years that led up to the war. Hal made the comment that the Shanghai scenes reminded him of the Tintin story "Blue Lotus." The attention to detail was impressive - I can only imagine that someone spent a lot of time poring over old photos of the represented cities at the time. Myself, I was tickled by the musical reference to the 'spheres of influence' in Shanghai by the playing/superimposing of National Anthems of the different countries as we hit their particular sphere. Really brought the concept home in a way that a visual wouldn't.

This last film was the culmination of a lifetime of learning, research, living - though I'm sorry if it is his last large work, I could understand. The frame of the story is an era - the point of view jarring in its difference from what we are used to seeing (both as westerners and standard hollywood consumers.) I don't really know what Shinoda could do to top it.

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