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May 20, 2009

Nippon Modern: Japanese Cinema of the 1920s and 1930s by Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano

nippon_modern.gifIn Nippon Modern: Japanese Cinema of the 1920s and 1930s, Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano presents an insightful, multi-faceted analysis of Japan's interwar cinema within the context of Tokyo's rebuilding efforts in the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 (even as the process of industrialization had already been underway), in particular, the output of Shochiku Kamata Film Studio which, as the only studio in Tokyo remaining operational after the earthquake, continued to produce films during this transition period that embodied Japanese society's ambiguous relationship with modernization. To this end, Wada-Marciano examines the studio's prevailing representations of domestic and social spaces, the emerging middle-class, athletic competition, the modern girl (moga), nationalism, and ethnic identity that expressed the public's anxiety over Japan's rapid modernization, as well as the cultural transformation created by the country's international emergence ushered by the Meiji Restoration.

The chapter, The Creation of Modern Space analyzes the complex role of spaces as a reflection of social and cultural transition. In this respect, the father's alternating role as both authoritarian figure in his home and office subordinate willing to make a fool of himself for his boss's benefit in Yasujiro Ozu's I Was Born But... reflects what Wada-Marciano describes as the public's unresolved negotiation with the process of modernization. Wada-Marciano further explores the social dichotomy through the bifurcation of geographic space itself, in this case, Tokyo's post-earthquake, transitional landscape that embodies what sociologist Yoshimi Shun'ya classifies as kakyo kukan (hometown space) and mirai kukan (future space) urban spaces.

Citing the stories of the visiting provincial mother in Ozu's The Only Son, the bus driver's encounter with a Tokyo-bound country girl in Hiroshi Shimizu's Mr. Thank You, and an industrialist's decision to stay with his new rural family instead of returning to Tokyo (and his legitimate family) in Mikio Naruse's Wife! Be Like a Rose!, Wada-Marciano illustrates the idealization and nostalgia for a distant, irretrievable home evoked in these colliding images of tradition and modernity. Another manifestation of negotiated space is in the integrated setting of Yokohama harbor as a gateway to the outside world in such films as Yasujiro Shimazu's First Steps Ashore, Hiroshi Shimizu's Japanese Girls at the Harbor, and Mikio Naruse's Everynight Dreams to represent the alien other, whether through overt notions of foreignness as criminal element and economic marginalization, or ethnic and cultural assimilation (Wada-Marciano astutely points out that the characters Henry and Dora in Japanese Girls at the Harbor represent a mixed race - and by implication, culturally diluted - population, and were portrayed by Eurasian actors, Ureo Egawa and Yukiko Inoue).

The negotiation between domestic and social spaces in I Was Born But... also leads to the broader examination of the urban white collar workers and the amorphously defined middle-class that constituted the predominant audience for these films and popularized the shoshimin eiga (middle-class) genre. In the chapter, Vernacular Meanings of Genre: The Middle-Class Film, Wada-Marciano expounds on the idea of hometown by highlighting the studio system's ancillary creation of an interconnected, virtual "extended family" in the recurring casting of the studio actors who would appear in various roles across several film productions. Wada-Marciano further provides a comprehensive discussion of I Was Born But... within the context of audience identification by analyzing the sons' rebellion through the prism of ambiguous social roles in the face of a new, emerging urban middle-class, where society has paradoxically embraced modern ideals of equal economic opportunity through hard work, even as it reinforces archaic models of hierarchy:

The middle-class genre film suggests the antinomy between Japanese modernity and rising nationalism in the 1930s, in the sense of a Japanese national subject's split between the call to modernize and the contradictory longings for the mythic cohesion of the past. The idea of 'the middle class' at the center of the genre worked to mitigate long-standing differences in social strata and in the particularities of Japan's interwar social transformation; the collective image of the middle-class served as a national identity for the modern subject. The middle class that emerged in interwar Japan referred less to a reconfigured labor force than to a new citizenry of a modern social transformation.

In Imaging Modern Girls in the Japanese Woman's Film, Wada-Marciano proposes that the image of the moga has been shaped by modernity and nationalism in the absence of assimilating Western liberalism - in essence, reinforcing the distinction between modernization and Westernization. This distinction is revealed in such moga themed films such as Ozu's Woman of Tokyo, where the perceived scandal is implied in the sister, Chikako's (Okada Yoshiko) involvement with a left-wing organization rather than created by a morally transgressive act, a politicization that could not be explicitly stated because of government censorship and an imposed ban of socially progressive, tendency films since the early 1930s:

In a further reading of Chikako's sacrifice, the film deploys another parallel in an act of whispering that occurs as the film reveals Chikako's moonlighting. The scandal is revealed to Harue by Kinoshita; first he states, 'Chikako seems to be working as a barmaid after her daytime job... The rumor involves not only that... '; then he whispers the rest to Harue, although the information is not shared with the audience. At this point we might imagine Chikako is involved in prostitution or something worse. More whispering occurs in a later sequence, when Harue reveals the rumor to Ryoichi. She says, 'What would you do if your sister was not who you think she is?' Then she whispers to Ryoichi, and again, the film conceals the information from the audience. Ryoichi replies, 'What are you talking about? It's too ridiculous!' Harue continues, 'That's not all. Your sister has disgracefully become a barmaid.' This information, as delivered, effectively undercuts the possibility that Chikako's suspected disgrace involves prostitution, but leads the audience towards another possibility - that of Chikako's involvement with a Communist political group. The film encourages such a political inference by embedding details of a hidden social progressive narrative, as in an earlier scene of the police officer's inquiry at Chikako's office and later in a headline announcing the arrest of a criminal organization.

The idea of Japanese modernity as a convergence of social discourse and national policy also forms the critical framework in the chapter, The Japanese Modern in Film Style, which distills the essential themes from the previous chapters into an analysis of Yasujiro Shimazu's Our Neighbor, Miss Yae within the varied contexts of modernist filmmaking (shooting the soon-to-be divorced, older sister Kyoko through old-fashioned, shinpa styled framing to emphasize the visual disjunction), urban spaces (images of the Ginza shopping district from a moving car that convey progression in its conflation of absolute and relative motion), athletics (after-school baseball practice), and nationalism (Yae-chan's family's relocation to Korea as part of Japan's expansionist campaign during the Fifteen Years' War).

Posted by acquarello on May 20, 2009 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2009, Film Related Reading


May 7, 2009

Lock-Out, 1973

lockout.gifIn its tongue-in-cheek illustration of misguided revolutionaries, Antoni Padrós's Lock-Out suggests a rough hewn and metaphoric - if more impenetrable and decidedly uneven - precursor to Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The Third Generation, interweaving episodes of straightforward narrative, dream-like interludes, and political manifesto into an abstract portrait of resistance and marginalization. For former finance worker Walter and his motley group of friends, ground zero for revolution is appropriately found in a salvage yard, where they have set up camp to pursue their own version of Francoist ideals to live off the land - albeit through recycling scrap materials rather than farming. Dropping out of society to lead a bohemian existence, the freedom they had hoped to find in the discarded rubble continues to elude them, their lives complicated by an unexpected pregnancy, romantic rivalries, and boredom. However, when their tedium is broken one day by the unexplained appearance of a handsome stranger who silently watches over them and refuses to leave, the friends decide to abandon their paradise and return to their former lives. Commemorating their return to "civilization" with a celebration, the friends soon discover that their delirious rite of passage is akin to a death ritual. Alternating between commitment and indulgence, absurdity and inanity, Lock-Out is perhaps the most artisanal and demanding installment in the series, where all-too-organic editing decisions to leave in verbal gaffes, miscues, and giggle fits sharply contrast against highly formalized, Bergmanesque shots and swooning pans (in particular, the celebration sequence) that invite germinal comparison to the intoxicated dance in Béla Tarr's Sátántangó. In hindsight, the captured sense of grotesqueness and dysfunction behind Franco's conservative ideals is paradoxically lost in the noise, translating as cavalier observation rather than call to action.

Posted by acquarello on May 07, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Clandestine Catalan Cinema Under Franco


May 6, 2009

Sexperiencias, 1968

sexperiencias.gifAlthough allusions to François Truffaut's Jules and Jim and Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless suggest José María Nunes's affection for French New Wave, Sexperiencias finds greater kinship with Nagisa Oshima's fractured, interconnected themes of sexual and social revolution. In a way, young hitchhiker, María (María Quadreny) is also a stand-in for accidental revolutionary, Motoki in The Man Who Left His Will on Film, a cipher who, in trying to capture the rhythms of everyday life (albeit through photography rather than filmmaking), is politicized by an atmosphere of unrest. Finding momentary connection with an outspoken activist, Antonio (Antonio Betancourt), María's life is upended when her lover is imprisoned for dissent. Restless and adrift, she embarks on an affair with a nurturing, middle-aged engraver, Carlos (Carlos Otero), only to find her newfound life of comfort and stability at odds with the chaos of the world around her. But while Oshima's melding of fact and fiction captures the spirit of an internal revolution, Nunes's revolution is a distant one - a reminder of an empowered other reality that can be turned inward to incite change - galvanized by geopolitical headlines that dominated the local newspapers of 1968: Prague Spring and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, May 68 protest, the coup in Panama, the turning of the tide in the Vietnam War with Lyndon Johnson's decision not to seek re-election. Incorporating an incongruous soundtrack of nature sounds, assorted music, and ambient noise, Nunes creates a disorienting environment that is literally out of sync - the separation between image and sound implicitly reflecting the disconnection between the reality of Franco-era Spain and its projected image. Framed against the bookending reference to the U.N.'s adoption of the nonbinding Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1968, the question of enforcement becomes an ironic coda to the problem of inaction, where the struggle is not in the ability to speak, but in an unwillingness to listen.

Posted by acquarello on May 06, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Clandestine Catalan Cinema Under Franco


May 5, 2009

Field for Men, 1973

field_men.gifOn the other side of the rural exodus captured in Llorenç Soler''s Long Journey to the Rage is Helena Lumbreras and Marià Lisa's multi-faceted polemic, Field for Men, an exposition on the inequitable systems of landownership and tenancy farming under Franco that perpetuate a cycle of exploitation, unproductivity, and indenture. Wryly prefaced as the fairytale of a bountiful kingdom that once drove away evil forces looking to seize the land, the story is an overt reference to regressive Falangist ideals of returning to the simplicity of an ennobled peasant life. Dismantling the notion of the Second Republic's 1931 agrarian reform as a simple land grab aimed at seizing generations-old farms (a myth instilled by Franco as justification for his own revolution), Lumbreras and Lisa instead frame the reform in the context of disproportionate private ownership in places like Andalusia, where nearly half of the arable land is owned by less than one percent of the population, leading to such widespread problems as collusive, low wages, mismanagement, and wasted productivity. But beyond the familiar left-leaning calls for solidarity and collectivism, what is perhaps the most compelling argument in the film is the problem of urban migration. Far from the popular notion of campesinos moving to the city for entertainment and leisure, Lumbreras and Lisa instead presciently examine the repercussions of an independent, dual economy system in Franco-era Spain - one driven by a robust (and state-friendly) capitalist system, the other, by a traditional rural economy - that has led to mutually exclusive workforces (and consequently, social classes) that could not be easily integrated with the dissolution of the other: creating a subculture of disenfranchisement and transformational struggle (themes that Jia Zhang-ke would also subsequently capture in his images of modernized China).

Posted by acquarello on May 05, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Clandestine Catalan Cinema Under Franco

Long Journey to the Rage, 1969

journey_rage.gifSimilar to Llorenç Soler's previous film, 52 Sundays, Long Journey to the Rage is also a sobering portrait of poverty and marginalization. And like the bullfighting students of his earlier film, the people in Long Journey to the Rage are also anonymous immigrants who have abandoned a hardscrabble existence in the rural provinces in an illusive search of a better life in the city. Unable to find affordable housing, the immigrants pile into overcrowded, dilapidated apartments in rundown districts, paradoxically taking on menial jobs in a construction boom fueled by the transforming cityscape of a rapidly modernized Barcelona that systematically excludes them (a paradox that José Luis Guerín also revisits in his 2001 film, En Construcción). Soler's incisive sense of juxtaposition creates a remarkably complex and textural work from seemingly mundane images. At times, Soler contrasts rapid-fire images of luxury and conspicuous consumption - advertisements, fashion, high-rise apartment buildings, skyscrapers, fast cars (punctuated by the rhythmic precision of flamenco footwork) - against sobering accounts of exploitation and displacement that reflect the realities of economic polarization. At other times, Soler incorporates culturally iconic music to reinforce the cycle of hardship and desolation: the sound of fados as a family sleeps in a cramped apartment; Aretha Franlkin's Chain of Fools punctuating the morning commute to the city; a chorale that accompanies the image of homeless people sleeping on a vacant lot, presumably, new immigrants to the city, that cuts to the shot of the church baptism - both reflecting figurative rites of passage into a brave new world of constant struggle and ephemeral moments of grace.

Posted by acquarello on May 05, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Clandestine Catalan Cinema Under Franco

52 Sundays, 1966

52_sundays.gifOn the surface, a film about bullfighting would seem an unlikely source of resistance. But Llorenç Soler's 52 Sundays is far from a flamboyant celebration of Franco-friendly displays of skill and aggression. Filmed from the perspective of aspiring toreros, often poor, undereducated teenagers from the country who get together on Sundays in makeshift schools on the outskirts of the city to train as bullfighters, 52 Sundays is instead a sublime and haunting portrait of marginalization. For Felipe, bullfighting offers a way to out of hazardous metalworking, provide respite for his parents, and an opportunity to escape the poverty of the slums. Rafael expresses youthful dreams of social mobility, flashy convertibles, and being able to afford the more high-end prostitutes in El Paralelo (along with altruistic whims of charity). Juan Manuel hopes to return to his village and embellish the town's modest statues of Jesus Christ and Virgin Mary, as well as build a ranch that will provide well-paying jobs for the community. Juxtaposing shots of the wide-eyed students in training with an actual bullfight, Soler implicitly parallels the fractured, parallel images of young bodies with the formidable presence of the bull in the ring. In a sense, their fates, too, are as intertwined by resilience and determination as it is by the inevitability of defeat - reflected, not as one clean, fatal stab, but after a prolonged struggle of debilitating strikes that lead to broken, exhausted surrender - death coming, not in the heat of battle, but in a crumpled coup de grâce, dragged from the fleeting glory of the arena back into the shadows of obscurity.

Posted by acquarello on May 05, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Clandestine Catalan Cinema Under Franco

Happy Parallel, 1964

happy_paralelo.gifPart of the Morality and Society program in the Clandestí: Forbidden Catalan Cinema Under Franco series, Enric Ripoli i Freixes and Josep Maria Ramon's Happy Parallel emulates the familiar format of official Noticias Documentales newsreels - the only shot footages of "real life" permitted by Franco under a 1942 ban on non state-sponsored documentary filmmaking - to capture a decidedly more candid, unofficial view of the rhythm of life in El Paralelo, a once bustling entertainment district in Barcelona during the 1920s and 30s that had fallen into hard times after the war. Composed of quotidian street images that were shot over the course of a day, El Paralelo transforms from a seemingly nondescript, working class community by day (in the shots of residents opening windows and heading to work), to notorious red light district by night - the streets dotted with bars, burlesque shows, hourly motels, brothels, and drugstores. But rather than simply illustrating socioeconomic division in the parallel tale of two cities, Ripoli i Freixes and Ramon also reveal through the day to night progression of the images that the disparity is integrally connected to the underlying symptoms of the neighborhood's dramatic transformation - problems that have been swept under the rug by the regime in an attempt to project its image of conservative and moralistic ideals - poverty (dilapidated buildings), unemployment (a busy pool hall), stagnation, substance abuse, homelessness, and untreated mental illness. Closing with a montage of El Paralelo at daybreak as workers supplant vagrants and the streets are swept clean again, the images express the broader hope of revitalization and transformation through community and hard work.

Posted by acquarello on May 05, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Clandestine Catalan Cinema Under Franco