Channeling the zeitgeist of the French new wave, The Koumiko Mystery assimilates Jean-Luc Godard’s enraptured clinical deconstructions of the feminine mystique (as well as a penchant for structuring these ruminations within the framework of noir) with Jacques Demy’s achingly nostalgic evocations of elusive, romanticized longing into a whimsical, organic, and fractured, yet quintessential Chris Marker exposition on culture, identity, contemporaneity, and strangerness. Consisting of a series of conversations with – and observations of – an attractive, French-speaking, twenty-something Tokyo resident named Koumiko Muraoka, the film is set against the backdrop of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, a critical milestone for postwar Japan to demonstrate to the international community that the nation had not only recovered, but also culturally evolved from its feudal, militarist history into a modernized, free economy, democratic society. In its characterization of a complex, historical city as an organic, self-propelled, and autonomous personality (and specifically, as an enigmatic woman), the film can be seen, not only as an homage to Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City but also as a prefiguration of Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her in which the ambiguously attributed “her” of the title becomes an interchangeable allusive reference to the city of Paris, the actress Marina Vlady, or her fictional character Juliette at different vertices within the film. As in Godard’s subsequent film, a great city is shown at the cusp of transformation, regardable as both a quaint, hometown with indigenous character, and as a bustling, constantly evolving city on the threshold of becoming an impersonal – and intrinsically characterless – modern metropolis.
For Marker, a visual survey of European-featured mannequins at a department store and advertisements for cosmetic products that purport to create the appearance of enlarged eyes and narrowed noses illustrate this subconscious dissolution of identity in the face of globalism, even as Koumiko considers her own features to be too classically Japanese – a face more suited to the Heian period, she muses – and lightheartedly argues that she wishes that she had a more in vogue, “funny face” instead. This seemingly anecdotal exchange precisely articulates Marker’s sense of alterity in this cultural encounter, as he interprets these aesthetics of contemporary fashion as a subconscious desire to neutralize Asiatic features – to erase the otherness that attracts him to the culture (and to the heroine) – even as she seeks her own sense of otherness in a culture of (perceived) monoethic sameness. The theme of conformity and erasure of identity is also presaged in the images of an Everyman comic strip that prefaces the film in which the interpenetration between occidental and oriental cultures is depicted as resulting in a superficial mimicry of the other in an attempt to model Japanese postwar society in the manner of “civilized” nations, and eludes true comprehension of either culture. In this respect, Marker’s intrinsic sense of strangerness is the folly of melancholia for a lost, exoticized past that never was confronted with the curiosity for the mundane reality of an assimilated traditional and modern culture that is the identity of a “new” Japan, and it is this intrinsic bifurcation that inevitably captures the enigma – the ephemeral mystery – of Koumiko.
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