Endnote, and Goodbye. For now.

Despite having watched all the films—and it was truly a fun experience—I have to admit that it is a massive struggle trying to juggle the impending examinations whilst doing adequate research, analyzing key scenes and drawing frequent parallels between films, as well as maintaining the stamina of the standards of the write-ups that I have set myself since Day One.

Alas, the deadline of the project is coming right up, and I still have six films that I have yet to do a proper write-up for (the dates I’ve back-posted to the date I watched the film). I am not about to make excuses for myself; I have to admit that I got lost midway through the project with all the other assignments and readings that were piling up as well.

Yet whilst I was straddling the pros and cons between running the risk of not being able to finish on time versus sacrificing the consistency of quality of the report (at least, I would like to think that they are pretty good) I write for each film, I opted to go with the former instead, creating pieces that are on average 800 words long each (35,200 words *gasps*)

Hopefully this blog will be the start of something special, and will not die off after the conclusion of the FIL230 Asian Film History module, that indeed has taught me a lot about Asian films, their value and their innate quality, as well as the skill sets required to analyze a film, whether for aesthetic/cultural/historical context.  For that, thank you Bee Thiam for your patient guidance throughout the length of the course, and I apologize if I have not been a good student in any way. I have tried to include as much as what I’ve learnt as I can, and I certainly do hope that it has been a fun read.

I would like to hereby apologize once again for not being to keep up with the work I have done on the blog so far. But for now, here is a brief summary of the six films that I have not touched on, including a short analysis of the pertinent aesthetic style and my reflections upon watching the film. And no promises – but I’ll try to relook at this after my examinations end.

Blissfully Yours (2004, Thailand)

  • Thai film directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul
  • Winner of the Un Certain Regard prize at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival
  • A believable experimental film (no, that is not an irony) set in a jungle near the Thai-Burmese border
  • You suspect that there is more to the jungle than meets the eye in this deadpan funny film
  • A lot of full-frontal nudity occurs in this movie. And sex. But it is admirable that Apichatpong Weerasethakul approaches the taboo head-on rather than shy away from it by creating shots that obscure the gist of the action. Reality has always been in your face, and when you’re out in the woods in the middle of nowhere there shouldn’t be anything to hide.
  • The opening credits only appear 45 minutes into the film, and that took me by surprise.
  • Rather than scrutinize the film for any political innuendoes that many online critics have done (I’ve read some that proposes connections to the shaky Thai economy, the Burmese military junta causing the collapse of the Burmese economy, which from the rather hilarious and tragic hyperlink it is easy to draw a correlation why), I much preferred to appreciate the film for its simplicity, and the rawness of the desire and longing for love.
  • Ultimately the film meanders but it is ultimately akin to listening to a jazz piece play on the stereo, ethereal and romantic.

Jellyfish (2007, Israel)

  • Israeli film directed by Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen
  • Winner of the Camera d’Or at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, and was part of the official selection at the 2008 Toronto Film Festival and 2008 Telluride Film Festival.
  • The cinematography is stunning little wonder it clinched the Camera d’Or prize, with poetic images cast against the emptiness of the sea.
  • “Life Stings” as the movie tagline perhaps the only connection between the title to the film, the allegory being quite an intangible one unless you consider how the jellyfish has no control over its movements – somewhat akin to the lack of direction of the characters in the film who opt to go with the tide rather than yield control over their lives.
  • Happenstance and chance occurrences are favored in a zero-sum game that gives perhaps just too much emphasis on fate.
  • An arthouse film that packs a punch in its very abstract yet ultimately haunting tale weaving the narrative threads of the three interconnected women together.
  • Some have even termed this film “spiritual”.

Shutter (2004, Thailand)

  • Thai film directed by Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom
  • One of the most genuinely creepy horror movies of all time, and it has also cemented Thailand’s reputation in producing scary horror movies.
  • Rather than adopt cheap in-your-face thrills like—for the lack of my ability to conjure Asian examples at the moment—the American Saw franchise or a complete psychological affair like Paranormal Activity, Shutter is successful in being, simply, a marriage of both horror techniques. It eats into you, it toys into your psyche, and it leaves you scared.
  • Adding to its weight is how it revolves around analog photography – one of the most leisurely and common hobbies today – and how the darkroom scenes are at once creepy because there is no option of flicking a light switch on. Circumstances force the room to be dark, and the protagonist’s job as a photographer forces him to be in the darkroom. It is not like some B-grade horror flick like The Human Centipede that has the victims luring the killer to their doorstep themselves.
  • As in a horror movie, it is worth contemplating the elements of sound effects that can really add to the atmosphere of the film. By far one of the best elements of the film, it literally jolts you at the sudden moments, and pre-empts you in the scariest moments. The funny thing is, the sound usually precedes the imagery, but no matter how mentally prepared you are, you still get taken aback.
  • And no, do not bother with the remake. At all.

Nobody Knows (2004, Japan)

  • Japanese film directed by Hirokazu Koreeda
  • Yuya Yagira won the Best Actor award at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, while the film was also nominated for the Palme d’Or.
  • This is an emotionally affecting film based on a 1988 real-life event that is known as the “Affair of the four abandoned children of Sugamo”
  • A mother has four children, but each fathered by a different man. Abandoned, they are left to fend for themselves.
  • There is no need to wring about any lengthy ethical discussion about the moral righteousness of the mother, who is plain in the wrong. But at least she had the decency to turn herself in.
  • Critics have lambasted the film for not being true to the original story and for painting the children in a more positive light as compared to their real trials and tribulations, but I find this necessary for the movie to be taken seriously. Any further sensationalization and it would have been degraded into a major sob story.
  • The stoic resilience of childhood is paralleled against the aloof nature of the big major city, pretending that everything is okay so as to escape the purview of the social welfare system.
  • There is hardly any dialogue in this sentimental tragic masterpiece that has evoked plenty of visceral emotions that are admittedly hard to grapple with – the senseless cruelty the root of it all.

Rashomon (1950, Japan)

  • Japanese film directed by Akira Kurosawa
  • Clinched the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival as well as an Academy Honorary Award at the 24th Academy Awards.
  • Minimalist sets convey Akira Kurosawa’s love of silent film and modern art.
  • The crime/murder mystery unfolds in flashback sequence as the four characters, also involving the raped wife and the murdered husband, each respectively recount the events one fateful afternoon in a grove.
  • The audience is tempted into becoming the judge, the determinant of who is right and who’s wrong as the movie unfolds. Kurosawa dangles the carrot of taking sides, of forming judgment in such a cinematic arrangement.
  • This is perceptual cinema as its best, casting light on the respective characters and their different perceptions of the same event.
  • Lighting is an aspect of the film that has garnered plenty of accolades, with the clever use of natural lighting, albeit reflected by a mirror that creates a dappling effect that creates beautiful shadows amid the trees and branches, while the rain was tainted with black ink so as to appear visible on film.
  • But is there really a resolution to what must definitely be Kurosawa’s most defining film?

Eros Plus Massacre (1969, Japan)

  • Japanese film directed by Yoshishige Yoshida
  • Black-and-white film that contravenes the color technology that was already available at that point of time. Why? Could it be because of the need to create a more realistic flashback of 1923 Japan, that would otherwise only be seen in black & white sequences on film?
  • The story is a biography of an anarchist, Sakae Osugi, who was assassinated by the military in 1923, and the story of the relationship with three women, while two students research on and discuss the ideologies of love that he upheld.
  • Moulds time and space within the confined edges of narrative cinema to create a world where the characters are real. It does not attempt to conform at all – as seen from the color choice. It is simply different from all the cookie-cutter biographical films out there. The movie doesn’t seek to solve questions and conjure answers, but to encourage more questions to be asked, thus is the elusive nature and ephemeral quality of the expressionistic scenes.
  • Could there have been an influence from Japanese theatre given the narrative devices used?
  • A cinematic classic, and a milestone in Japanese cinema for sure.

Empire of Passion (1978) 愛の亡霊

Country: Japan
Director: Nagisa Oshima
Language: Japanese
Runtime: 104 minutes
Starring: Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Tatsuya Fuji, Takahiro Tamura, Takuzo Kawatani, Akiko Koyama
Theme: Romance/Erotica, Crime

Ratings:
IMDb.com: 6.9/10

Film Festivals:
1978 Cannes Film Festival

Awards:
1978 Cannes Film Festival: Best Director
1979 Japanese Academy Awards: Best Music Score

Nominated:
1978 Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or
1979 Japanese Academy Awards: Best Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Film, Best Lighting, Best Sound, Best Supporting Actress

The Empire of Passion (1978) is Japan’s official submission to the 51st Academy Awards for the Best Foreign Language Film award, although it missed out on a nomination in the end. Yet the controversial director did pickup the Best Director gong at Cannes for this film. It is definitely noteworthy this is Oshima’s follow-up film to In the Realm of the Senses (1976), the film that directly taunts the censorship board with full-frontal explicit nudity, unsimulated sexual sequences and several unflinching bone chilling scenes that involve the shoving of a hard-boiled egg up a woman’s vagina and the severance of a man’s penis in its full glory. Comparatively, Empire of Passion is a much milder offering, though the international attention that In the Realm of the Senses received would definitely have helped thrust—no pun intended—The Empire of Passion into international spotlight. It is noteworthy that Director Oshima opts to keep faith with the male lead from In the Realm of the Senses, Tatsuya Fuji, who plays the protagonist in this film as well. There is this innate physical quality to Fuji’s look that makes his portrayal of the attractive, horny, philandering male so alluring and convincing – he turned in a decent performance as the master who falls in love with his servant in In the Realm of the Senses, and was equally convincing here as the young man who falls for – and rapes — a much older woman in this film.

The Empire of Passion is also Oshima’s only foray into “horror” in his prolific filmography, with the supernatural elements involved that yields an arresting mix that involve eroticism as well. The ghastly appearances of the deceased husband create several spooky moments that can rival those in a full-fledged horror movie that Japan would become famous for several decades later. Seki (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) is a 41-year-old working-class mother who falls in love with the 26-year-old Toyoji (Fuji), and they begin an affair surreptitiously behind the back of her rickshaw-puller husband Gisaburo (Takahiro Tamura) away from the watchful eyes of the close-knit village. Their initial exchanges were that of open flirting, and when Gisaburo at one point of time questioned whether Toyoji might have taken a fancy for Seki, became more discreet. One day, Toyoji forced himself on Seki in a rape sequence that ended in Seki relishing the process and desiring for more, as opposed to the conventional norms of hysteria that rape victims typically end up in. That marked the turning point as they grew closer and closer in an infidelity that sees them having coitus much more often and eventually indulging in erotic behavior. Toyoji “shaves” Seki clean, and they hatch a plot to murder Gisaburo when it becomes apparent that he would probably notice something amiss. Gisaburo’s body was dumped into an old, unused well and the couple goes on their adulterous ways after his death, not expecting that rumors surrounding his sudden disappearance would resurface three years later. Apparently Seki’s story that he had gone to work in Tokyo was flawed, and no one in the village was buying it.

The Empire of Passion explores themes like guilt, passion and dishonesty, especially that of how passion can easily convince people into unthinkingly performing immoral acts. Oshima’s unrelenting close-ups and style leads me on a guilt trip where I actually empathize with the adulterous couple, rather than cast a judgmental eye on them. They want each other so badly, but unfortunately fall prey to societal norms and pressures. The director’s mastery of skill becomes apparent from the way he deals with stereotypes and conventions that prevail in such a movie. In fact, the climax is pretty much expected, though he deals with clichés in an alternative manner that sees the introduction of supernatural beings in a context that does not seem ludicrous. In fact, the “ghosts” may not even have been real as per an archetypical horror movie, but rather the “ghosts of Seki’s past” manifesting as she allows the rumors that are flooding around the village and her immense guilt in her hand at murdering her husband to take reign over her psychological senses. We notice how the pair struggle to come up with cover-up stories the more they lose their head, to which Seki’s chaste and non-manipulative nature shines through from her unwillingness to lie and her inflexibility to deal with the murder in the moments after it happened. Toyoji himself is not as headstrong as he seems, and the guilt he suffers manifests in a bizarre habit that sees him returning to the well the infidel couple disposed the body off in to throw in dead leaves, handful by handful.

This is a humble tale by Japanese folklore standards, and a far cry from the big-budgeted Godzilla films that have thrust Japanese cinema into global spotlight by that point of time. Oshima delivers, through stunning luscious shots, a breathtaking tale of sex, lust and passion. It is hard not to draw Freudian references to the film. Eros and Thanatos are prevalent in the movie as love and death take centerstage. Further, there exists a compelling Oedipal desire between the 26-year-old Toyoji and the 41-year-old Seki – the 15-year-old age gap making Seki scientifically old enough to be Toyoji’s mother. We see this manifesting in a scene where Toyoji chides Seki for breast-feeding her baby son and wondering when he will ever get his turn. In a reversal of conventions from the typical femme fatale that sees a female villain turning on sexual desires in the male, we see a male disrupting the nature of the family and society in The Empire of Passion.

The love surrounding the couple is bittersweet – beginning with a romance that would not be incongruous in a Shakespearean play and culminating in a psychological drama full of remorse, guilt, anguish and fear as the spirit of the wronged bites back.

Princess Mononoke (1997) もののけ姫

Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Running Time: 134 minutes
Starring: Yōji Matsuda, Yuriko Ishida, Yūko Tanaka, Kaoru Kobayashi
Theme: Culture (Anime)

Ratings: IMDb.com: 8.4/10 | Metacritic: 76/100

Film Festivals:

Awards:
2001 Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films: Saturn Award
1998 Awards of the Japanese Academy: Best Film, Special Award
1998 Blue Ribbon Awards: Special Award
1998 Mainichi Film Concours: Best Animated Film, Best Film, Reader’s Choice Award

Nominations:
2000 Annie Awards: Outstanding Individual Achievement for Directing in an Animated Feature Production
2000 Las Vegas Film Critics Society Awards: Sierra Award for Best Animated Film
2000 Golden Reel Award (Motion Picture Sound Editors, USA): Best Sound Editing – Animated Feature
2000 Satellite Awards: Golden Satellite Award for Best Motion Picture, Animated or Mixed Media
2001 Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America – Nebula Award for Best Script

The main reason I chose this animation movie for one of my 50 films is because it would definitely be severe injustice to the huge cultural movement that surrounds anime in Japan if the genre is left out. Princess Mononoke (1997), to sum it up in one word, is epic, and that comes from someone who is not even an anime fan to begin with. The film is directed by animation visionary Hayao Miyazaki, who later went on to direct Spirited Away (2001) that clinched an Oscar for Best Animated Feature in 2002, and Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) that was nominated for the same award in 2005. His latest work is Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (2008). The prolific manga artist and prominent film animator has nearly five decades worth of experience, and this shines through in the sharp pacing and crisp imagery of the film, that also had a 1999 English-dubbed American release.

Princess Mononoke combines both historical elements—being set in the late Muromachi period of Japan—with the paranormal as supernatural beasts and spirits take centerstage here, much like all of his later works. The titular character is otherwise known as San, a human being adopted by a pack of wolves when she was abandoned by her parents as a baby. The self-righteous character is against the industrialization of the nearby Iron Town, run by Lady Eboshi, an authoritarian feminist leader who renders the men slaves and the women her aides. Feminist lines such as “Women are more intelligent than men” are reiterated throughout the show, for instance. The development of Iron Town means the forests have to be cleared to make way for more factories and buildings. Meanwhile, the forests are full of (very cute) diminutive tree spirits and a Forest Spirit that adopts the form of a deer reigns.

Miyazaki avoids moral simplifications as he opts not to take a stand for or against industrialization versus environmental protection in this struggle for triumph. His sympathies switching between both sides in a rather convoluted manner that would perhaps be clearer in a more straightforward story thread. The protagonist is Ashitaka, the “Chosen One” brought to the area because he was wounded and poisoned by the boar god whilst fending off the enemy to protect his hometown. He becomes the middleman between the two parties as he tries to seek a compromise between the environmental perpetrators with the industrialists, and is the ultimate victim of the hard-wringing battle for supremity between the two. I’m not sure whether the release of this movie has anything to do with the lead-up to the Kyoto Protocol that was released the same year, or was it sheer happenstance. But the environmentalist messages against global warming and the emission of greenhouse gases that started taking prominence in the 1990s make the release timely. Miyazaki also succeeds in not making Ashitaka the typical hero, revealing in an interview that, “Ashitaka is not a cheerful, worry-free boy. He is a melancholy boy who has a fate. I feel that I am that way myself, but until now, I have not made a film with such a character. Ashitaka was cursed for a very absurd reason. Sure, Ashitaka did something he should not have done – killing Tatari Gami. But there was enough reason to do so from the humans’ viewpoint. Nevertheless, he received a deadly curse. I think that is similar to the lives of people today. I think this is a very absurd thing that is part of life itself.” (Toyama, R., 1997).

The movie is ranked 6th on seminal film critic Roger Ebert’s Top Ten movies of 1999 (apparently he only managed to catch to English-dubbed version). He writes, “Animated films are not copies of “real movies,” are not shadows of reality, but create a new existence in their own right. True, a lot of animation is insipid, and insulting even to the children it is made for. But great animation can make the mind sing.” (Ebert, 1999). The critical and box office acclaim garnered by the movie is significant because it marked a shift away from the Disney monopoly into the other ancillary markets of Japanese anime, and other animation films by the up-and-coming studios of Pixar and Dreamworks.

References

Eberts, R. (1999, October 29). Sun Times: Princess Mononoke review. Retrieved on November 1, 2010, from http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19991029/REVIEWS/910290303/1023

Toyama, R. (1997). An interview with Hayao Miyazaki. D. Goldsmith [Ed.] Retrieved on November 1, 2010, from http://www.nausicaa.net/miyazaki/interviews/m_on_mh.html

Black Rain (1989) 黒い雨

Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Runtime: 123 minutes
Director: Shôhei Imamura
Starring: Yoshiko Tanaka, Kazuo Kitamura, Etsuko Ichihara, Shoichi Ozawa

Theme: War

Ratings:
IMDB: 8.1/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 83%

Film Festivals:
1989 Cannes Film Festival
1989 Asia-Pacific Film Festival
1989 Ghent International Film Festival

Awards:
1989 Cannes Film Festival: Prize of the Ecumenical Jury / Technical Grand Prize
1989 Asia-Pacific Film Festival: Best Screenplay (Toshirô Ishidô)
1990 Awards of the Japanese Academy: Best Actress (Yoshiko Tanaka) / Best Cinematography (Takashi Kawamata) / Best Director (Shôhei Imamura) / Best Editing / Best Film / Best Lighting / Best Music Score / Best Screenplay / Best Supporting Actress (Etsuko Ichihara)
1990 Blue Ribbon Awards: Best Actress (Yoshiko Tanaka)
1989 Ghent International Film Festival: Georges Delerue Prize, Grand Prix
1989 Hochi Film Awards: Best Actress
1991 Independent Spirit Awards: Best Foreign Film

Nominated:
1989 Cannes Film Festival: Palme d’Or
1990 Awards of the Japanese Academy: Best Art Direction / Best Sound

Black Rain (1989) is a film based on the aftermath of the nuclear bombings in World War II. It tells of life in Japan after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed, with the film following the lives of survivors (hibakusha) who were contaminated by the radioactive fallout – also known as black rain. They struggle with social discrimination and suffer from isolation in psychological repercussions that may be much worse than the health damage they experienced. The film is based on Masuji Ibuse’s titular novel of 1965.

Essentially, the film focuses on Yasuko, a young girl who was not in Hiroshima when the bomb was dropped. However, while returning to Hiroshima to find her uncle and aunt, she was exposed to the ‘black rain’ together with other survivors who were searching through the contaminated ruins. With the ebb of time, Yasuko and her fellow survivors begin to resemble time bombs, with certain telltale signs of their sickness and ultimate death.

First of all, to fully appreciate this film, we have to understand why director Shohei Imamura shot it in black and white, and that is because he felt that this was the best way to convey the magnitude of the atomic destruction. It wasn’t just the deaths or debris, but also the way people went about their lives. Life was bleak and stark. Furthermore, the use of black and white film played an important part in amplifying the horrific nature of the incident; it evoked an eerie resemblance to the archival photos of the victims after the bombing. The choice of black and white had artistic merits.

Imamura did not set out to create a film condemning anyone for the war or the incident that led to its end. America for example, was only mentioned once throughout the film. What he did really wanted to do through Black Rain was to make a statement against war in general. Furthermore, a deeper look into the film’s narrative and focus reveals that what Imamura really wanted to condemn his own country for the way they went about picking themselves up/recovering after the bombing.

Imamura interjects realism with the underlying horror of the whole post-bomb situation gripping the country and the peoples’ attempts to recover. He intersperses shocking scenes of “impressionistic horror” (Schenker, 2009) between calm mundane domesticated scenes. Some examples include the upping of lighting and sound for flashback scenes that dramatically change the mood in an instant, and the use of haunting images of unrest. A pertinent example would be the recurrent shots of the quintessential household clock, given exceptional prominence in these scenes through the shadows cast by the hands burnt during the nuclear meltdown.

Black Rain is an excellent cinematic portrayal that explores not only what the survivors experienced before, during and after the explosion of the bomb, but also addresses how the lingering effects of such a weapon can transpire throughout a survivors life. Throughout the film, the characters constantly refer to experiencing “pika-don” (English translation: pika refers to the flash of light and don refers to the thunderous blast)— and speculate its longstanding effects that appear out of nowhere and afflict those exposed to the explosion. The opening scene is a good example that brings out pikadon – where survivors aboard a train experience a sudden bright flash of light followed by an immense blast that pulverizes through the interior of the train. The entire scene is a visual spectacle that allows us, as viewers to understand and experience the impact and disorientation of the blast. It’s as if the entire world was torn apart in one blinding instant.

The imminent message is that macro worldly decisions can have potential repercussions on the micro-individual scale. One fateful decision, one fateful day, and one’s life course can be changed forever. The weaving of past and present further reinforces the uncertainty that existed then over the collateral damage that the bomb had afflicted on survivors.

References

Schenker, A. (2009, October 15) Movie review: Black Rain. Retrieved October 27, 2010, from http://www.slantmagazine.com/film/review/black-rain/4509)

 

The End of Summer (1961) 小早川家の秋


Country:
Japan
Language: Japanese
Runtime: 103 minutes
Director: Yasujirō Ozu
Starring: Ganjiro Nakamura, Setsuko Hara, Yōko Tsukasa
Theme: Romance

Ratings: IMDB: 8.0/10
Film Festivals: 12th Berlin International Film Festival (1962)
Nominated: 1962 Berlin Film Festival – Golden Berlin Bear

The End of Summer is Ozu’s penultimate film, succeeded only by An Autumn Afternoon (1962) before his untimely death of cancer in 1963. Following his forte of capturing realism through his camera lenses, The End of Summer is as down-to-earth as any of his earlier films, albeit with a comedic twist as he puts a spin on the common societal notion of marriage. Unlike most of his earlier films that is set in Tokyo, The End of Summer breaks this norm by being set in Kyoto and Osaka, with picturesque scenes in the Japanese countryside.

As mentioned, marriage takes centerstage in this movie, and in particular the themes of philandering and matchmaking. The protagonist is an elderly man with three daughters, Manbei Kohayagawa, who is also the head of a small sake brewery on the verge of a takeover. He tries to matchmake his youngest daughter, whilst he constantly and secretly sneaks out of home to meet his old flame Sasaki, a former mistress who has a grown-up Westernized daughter (whose Westernization is emphasized through her desire for a mink stole – “I’ll only consider him as my father if he buys me that mink stole”) who may or may not be Manbei’s own – a question that Ozu keeps audiences guessing throughout without providing a clearcut answer. Manbei has a weak heart, and survived an initial heart attack whilst at a memorial service for their late mother. However, he dies shortly after another heart attack on a secret trip with Sasaki, who then informs his daughters of what happened. Instead of a subsequent bust-up, we see the two families uniting in grief over the loss of their loved one, culminating in a final cremation scene as the family gathers and reminisces.

Cultural and sociological elements abound, with a reference to baseball at 05:16, the most popular sport in Japan. A character is also obsessed with collecting paraphernalia relating to the “ox”, a throwback to the year 1961 which incidentally was also the Year of the Ox according to the Japanese zodiac. We see a child being tuitioned in Mathematics, a sign that education has taken on huge significance within the forward-looking and progressive Japanese society. It is worthy to note that unlike Chinese cultures that consider the crow to be an inauspicious creature, crows are considered the Messengers of the Gods in Japanese culture and is accorded high respect in traditional ceremonies. This symbolism is evident within the final few minutes of the film, when the camera cuts away from the funeral procession that is marching across the bridge set on clear picturesque waters to land on a still shot (1:38:05) where five crows rest upon a small strip of land, followed by a cutaway to two crows resting on graves at 1:38:09. All this is juxtaposed against philosophical messages that were uttered in previous frames, like “New lives follow the old. This is the law of nature”.

We can infer from the scene from 16:27 a polarization of the gender classes of Japanese society at that point of time, or a cultural tradition at the very least, as the males and females are sitting on opposite sides of the dining table at the farewell ceremony of sorts. We get non-diagetic sound of a traditional folk song being sung in the background, before the camera cuts into the scene.

Standard cinematic semiotics apply, as the camera centrals on a particular female character through a medium shot with only her gaze directed at the male character (18:07), after the male’s glance towards the general direction. We can sense the importance of this relationship even before the context has been established. This is affirmed in the next scene with the two characters sitting by each other at the train station and talk about writing to each other in future.

There is a sharp sence of cinematic framing as light is cast against shadows in the scene at 43:45. The characters’ faces are always lighted up even whilst their bodies may be cast in the dark shadows as they move about. We also note that the camera is on a lower angle, capturing Manbei within the same plane as when he bends down to clean the house – a sign of capturing the humanity of his actions, that he would put aside his patriarchal nature and ego to help out with menial household chores. This is as opposed to a topdown frame that would perhaps mock his actions. Similarly, the entire conversation between the two ladies at 53:06 is captured within the same frame as they kneel down and talk by the river before cutting to a topdown shot only after their conversation has ended. This scene also has a balanced weight among all the objects within the frame.

Ozu has also been credited for perfecting a sense of mono no aware through his films, that is, an empathy toward things or a sensitivity of ephemera. This can be seen in The End of Summer through Manbei’s understated last words: “So this is the end!”

All in all, Ozu’s early experience of dabbling with black & white silent films must have honed his unrivalled sense of geometry and  symmetry, as well as musical rhythms. Lines take precedence in many scenes, which fill the scene and capture attention just by virtue of simple symmetry and geometrical shapes. The traditional Japanese house setting also adds to this through the paneling in its doors, for example. An acute sense of musical rhythms is also seen through the ideal selection of musical tones that complement the mood of the movie, whether the light-heartedness quirkiness of Manbei sneaking away to meet his old flame (22:51), or the heavy atmosphere that surrounds his subsequent death.

The End of Summer (1961) is noteworthy because of Ozu’s nomination for the Golden Berlin Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1962 — his only in one of the Top Three film festivals.  Though ultimately it may not exactly be his most remembered work among his filmography of 54 titles that also consist of Tokyo Story (1952) and I Was Born, But (1932), in a cognizance of the cinephile only in the decades following his death.

Departures (2008) おくりびと

Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Director: Yōjirō Takita
Running Time: 131 minutes
Starring: Masahiro Motoki, Ryoko Hirosue, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Kimiko Yo, Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Takashi Sasano

Theme: Death

Ratings: IMDb.com: 8.1/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 81% | Metacritic.com: 68/100

Film Festivals:
2008 Hawaii International Film Festival
2008 Montréal World Film Festival
2009 Palm Springs International Film Festival
2010 Pacific Rim Film Festival (Santa Cruz, USA)
2010 Borderlines Film Festival (Hertfordshire, UK)

Awards:
2009 Academy Awards: Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film (controversially beating hot favorite Waltz with Bashir)
2009 Asia Pacific Screen Award: Best Performance by an Actor  (Masahiro Motoki)
2009 Asian Film Awards: Best Actor (Masahiro Motoki)
2009 Awards of the Japanese Academy: Best Actor (Masahiro Motoki) / Best Cinematography / Best Director / Best Editing / Best Film / Best Lighting / Best Screenplay / Best Sound / Best Supporting Actor (Tsutomu Yamazaki) / Best Supporting Actresss (Kimiko Yo)
2009 Blue Ribbon Awards: Best Actor (Masahiro Motoki)
2008 Hawaii International Film Festival: Audience Award for Favorite Feature
2009 Mainichi Film Concours: Best Film, Best Sound
2008 Montréal World Film Festival: Grand Prix des Amériques
2009 Palm Springs International Film Festival: Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature
2009 Yokohama Film Festival: Festival Prize for Best Director, Best Film, Best Supporting Actress (Kimiko Yo; Ryoko Hirosue)

Nominations:
2009 Asia Pacific Screen Award: Best Screenplay
2009 Awards of the Japanese Academy: Best Actress (Ryoko Hirosue) / Best Art Direction / Best Film Score
2010 Hong Kong Film Awards: Best Asian Film

Departures (2008) by Yojiro Takita won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2009, thus thrusting the otherwise humble film about traditional rites and rituals of death and funeral processions into international limelight. Much unlike the hot favorite nominee of that year, Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir (2008) that created waves in the film festival circuit, Departures (2008) was not picked up by any of the Top Three film festivals in the world, such is the nondescript, low-key nature of the modest production. Its stoic sentimentality borders on calmness and tranquility, even in the face of death. The underlying emotional currents will thus land the greatest impact on anyone who watches the film, which is also based on Aoki Shinmon’s autobiography Coffinman: The Journal of a Buddhist Mortician.

There are no pretentious effects or fancy cinematic techniques. Everything is portrayed in its  barest stripped-down beauty that does not steal attention away from the core subject of death and moving on. And it would take someone with a heart of stone for the story to not tug at the heartstrings by the third quarter of the film.

The protagonist is an ex-cellist in Tokyo, Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki), who moves back to his hometown with his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue). He falls for a cleverly-worded advertisement for a good-paying job seeking assistants for “departures”, and goes for an interview uncertain of what to expect. Comic relief is provided in the earlier parts of the movie with Daigo acting as a corpse for a DVD explaining the embalmment process. His first assignment involved a lonely old woman who has been dead for two weeks. While Daigo becomes more experienced, the sense of gratitude of the survivors of the dead gives him a sense of accomplishment in the job. But social taboos kick in as his peers started to ostracize and humiliate him for his “disgusting” profession. Yet the honor and respect of the profession finally shone through in a redemption only possible when he performs the rituals in front of his family when a family friend passes away. Daigo bears a grudge against his father, but when he dies Daigo was meant to prepare the body. The finale scene was emotionally affective, and it symbolizes Daigo coming to terms with the death and finally seeking closure to the innate hatred. It is ironic that Daigo has to give up his big-city dreams and reclaims his sense of his roots in the small-town context. Director Takita exercises restraint in sensationalizing the event, opting instead to show death as a commonplace cycle of life rather than flirting with it as a denouement or melodrama.

The topic is fresh as the hardly-understood profession takes centerstage and the movie is relevant in according morticians the transcendent respect amid cultural condemnations. No one likes dealing with death, and for someone to have to meet death face on everyday is no mean feat. The solemn film is able to straddle the balance of lamentations and regret of what could have been, with that of laughter—as the death of someone is clearly in today’s society taken on communal importance as people visit the funeral to pay their last respects, and this cuts across cultures. And it is with this positivity that the movie attempts to bring forth the positivity that might surround death. A euphemism for “death”, the title Departures hardly counts for a negative word especially when it primarily refers to the act of leaving for new places. Regardless of whatever cultural or religious beliefs you subscribe to, dying is a natural act of moving on, whilst the living—following a prolonged process of grief, denial and coming to terms with the unfortunate situation—learn to do so as well.

Tokyo Story (1953) 東京物語

Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Director: Yasujirô Ozu
Running Time: 136 minutes
Starring: Chishu Ryu, Chieko Higashiyama, Setsuko Hara, Haruko Sugimura

Theme: Family/Aging

Ratings: IMDb.com: 8.3/10

Film Festivals: N/A

Awards:
1953 British Film Institute Awards Sutherland Trophy
1954 Mainichi Film Concours for Best Supporting Actress (Haruko Sugimura)

Nominations: N/A

Tokyo Story is based around a very simple tale. An old couple comes to the city to visit their children and grandchildren, only to realize that their children are too busy to attend to them, and that their visit only served to upset their routines. The parents return home. A few days later, the grandmother dies and the scenario is reversed, as it is the children’s turn to make the journey home.

Billed as one of the greatest films of all time, Ozu’s Tokyo Story is a film that allows us, as viewers to “share its understanding … [rather than] force our emotions” (Ebert 2003). Unlike typical films that tend to exploit dramatic moments or situations to trigger our senses, Tokyo Story does away with all these. In fact, the beauty of the film lies in focus on the subtlety in everyday life that we tend to take for granted. A good example is Ozu’s use of brief evocative images from the characters’ daily lives such as trains, clouds, hanging clothes, street lamps and banners blowing in the wind. Watching the film is like looking out of the window, everything happens as it would in reality without overhyped drama or emotions.

Another thing to note about Tokyo Story is its visual style and strategy. Movement for example, comes not from the camera i.e panning and tracking but from the objects within the scenes themselves i.e. people and nature. Often, an empty room is shown before people start entering and filling up the visual space in front of the camera and it lingers for a while even after they leave. Furthermore, scenes are viewed almost always from the floor, lower than the eye level of a seated character, as part of Ozu’s theory that “no actor was to dominate a scene” (Malcolm, 2000). This is also known as Ozu’s trademark ‘Tatami-level shots’. There are no obvious cutaways or overlapping dialogue. If there are conversations, they are always shown in whole; otherwise the scene might be a totally silent one. Such simplicity reflects Ozu’s appreciation of the subtle shades of his characters and humanity – that what isn’t said can be more important that what it is and less is better.

Overall, Tokyo Story can be summed up in one word: “reality”. A delicately crafted story packaged in a deliberately leisurely manner, it draws the viewer into the sweeping, beautiful images with Ozu’s enchanting sets and cinematography key as the story transpires. The conclusion is muted yet heartbreaking in all its understated poignancy.

References

Ebert, R. (2003, November 9). Sun Times: Tokyo Story (1953). Retrieved on October 11, 2010, from http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20031109/REVIEWS08/311090301/1023

Malcolm, D. (2000, May 4). The Guardian: Yasujiro Ozu – Tokyo Story. Retrieved on October 11, 2010, from http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2000/may/04/artsfeatures1