Cast: Constantin Barbulescu, Camelia Maxim, Catalin Paraschiv
Dark business is afoot in an isolated Romanian village. There are inept executions in the dead of night, and the whole town seems to be in on something. All in all it’s a bad time for faint-hearted local boy Vlad (Catalin Paraschiv) to return from Italy and start poking his nose into a local drunkard’s death. The local priest (Vlad’s father) is involved somehow. The local cop seems more concerned with his marijuana supply. His grandfather is clearly barking. Vlad appears to be on his own, but any conspiracy is going to be impossible to maintain if the bodies refuse to stay buried….
Faye Jackson’s winningly offbeat vampire/zombie picture is a welcome addition to the genre, functioning more as a dry-witted magic realist mystery than a conventional horror film. The strigoi are quite chatty for the undead and seem to have a hard time grasping the ramifications of their state. They are florid of face and incessantly hungry, and the cause of some consternation among the villagers, who quibble about folklore and seem more concerned that the inconvenient buggers are upsetting the boat than anything else. Jackson foregrounds the small-town politics and the inability of anybody to get to grips with the problems that rise out of the communist past, inherited through land and blood.
Anybody demanding the kick-ass kung fu or CGI splatter scenes that have dominated the vampire flick over the last decade or so will be disappointed. But Strigoi is more interesting than all that guff, with a tone closer to Whisky Galore! than The Wicker Man. It keeps you on the back foot with eccentric characters and cat-and-mouse dialogue, odd visual flourishes and strange situations. As when a terrified woman spends the whole night feeding a ravenous strigoi all the food in the house to stop the creature from supping on her, a scene that’s weird and funny and domestic at the same time, and typical of a film that’s playing a different game to the one you might expect. It’s a UK/Romanian co-production in English, and the DVD comes with a Faye Jackson short, Lump, a queasy little medical tale. Well worth a look.
Suitably for a film written by Mamoru Oshii, Musashi is alternately beautiful, intriguing, enlightening, impenetrable and frustrating. As with his earlier film, Tachigui: The Amazing Lives of the Fast-Food Grifters (2006), it’s a type of animé unlike any I’ve seen before. While Tachigui was a fictitious drama made in the style of a documentary and animated in a unique way, Musashi is an animated documentary with dramatised scenes, mainly narrated by a Chibi-style CGI professor. Occasionally, the narration is sung and the animated set-pieces taking place in the 16th and 17th centuries are contrasted with live-action footage of the same locations in modern times.
In addition to the simplistic style used for the narrator, reminiscent of early Pixar short films, the animation style varies from chapter to chapter as we are told the story of Miyamoto Musashi, writer, artist and samurai who lived from approximately 1584 to 1645, and given lessons in the history of sword fighting in the East and the West, army tactics and the development of chivalry. You might have guessed that a film trying to cover all these topics and more in its brief 72-minute running time would feel a bit rushed, and as an educational tool, it would possibly work better as an extra on a box-set of Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai trilogy (1954-1956), which starred Toshirô Mifune as Musashi. The excellent animation used for the various scenes of the samurai at battle only leaves the viewer wanting more, as while we’re told how brilliant and innovative Musashi’s tactics were on the field of battle, it’s better to show rather than tell - particularly in animation - and excised from a greater narrative, the fight scenes don’t give us particular insight into the character as a real person.
Allowing for the frustrating nature of the film, there is still much to enjoy on screen. For a film made by a single director, it’s intriguing how many different animation styles are used, from monochrome, sepia-toned pencil work used to evoke silent movies, to stark black and white with a splash of red, and more caricatured line work depicting the cruelty of some of the foes Musashi meets in the field of battle, rendered in the style of Peter Chung. This anthology approach recalls an earlier Studio I.G. production, Batman: Gotham Knight (2008), which assigned a different director to each segment, and given the number of commentators and disparate films on Musashi’s life there have been, suits the material well. The film’s director, Mizuho Nishikubo, is an old colleague of Oshii’s. They both started their careers on the TV series Gatchaman II (1978-79), the sequel to an earlier show, better known in the West as Battle of the Planets (1978-85). This makes me wonder if the two men now use opportunities like Musashi and Tachigui to make films that are experimental and willfully obscure, their bulletproof reputation built on three and half decades in the industry permitting them to take on projects that wouldn’t be commissioned otherwise.
The film’s excellent visuals are accompanied by a terrific soundtrack that mixes Rôkyoku singing, funk, ambient and Western classical music, let down only by a dreary power ballad that accompanies the end credits. Although the film is short, a 45-minute edit without the CGI professor would be better still. But while not quite a good enough project in its own right, Musashi is a great introduction to both the character on screen (10 films so far, plus cameos elsewhere) and animated samurai cinema in general. If nothing else, this film made me want to track down Mizuho Nishikubo/Project I.G.’s TV series Otogi Zoshi (2004-5), about five folk heroes who save Kyoto from destruction during the Heian period, and their reincarnations in the modern day, which at a total running time of 626 minutes, unlike Musashi, presumably won’t suddenly be over just as it feels like the plot has begun.
A young boy in a white shirt and shorts races up the stairs of a department store. The camera closes in on the boy’s eyes, his hand on a banister, his feet on the steps. He stops only in front of a display case containing a butterfly; after, in a field of ferns and birch trees, he chases his prey with a white net, the rushing, soaring camera capturing both his point of view and the fluttering butterfly’s. But the object of his desire, the Nagasaki ageha, is not found in Hokkaido. Thus begins a journey: the director Kuroki Kazuo takes the audience on a trip across Japan, following the path of a larva as it evolves into a caterpillar and finally a butterfly, dipping into various people’s troubled lives as it’s carried from its home in Nagasaki to Hiroshima, Osaka, Yokohama, and finally to Hokkaido - all places of significance in Japan.
The premise and story alone don’t do justice to the true nature of Kuroki’s ground-breaking 1967 film, an elliptical, experimental, abstract and poetic vision that also mixes genres, from documentary to road movie and spy thriller, with stylistic elements of the nouvelle vague. The elusive butterfly is symbolised by the gorgeous Kaga Mariko, who plays a number of enigmatic characters; in the beginning, she’s an ethereal figure shrouded in a white mist; in the end, a woman clothed in a long, black dress, seemingly in mourning. In Hiroshima, she flits through a crowd wearing glamorous European dress, chased by her lover; it’s a beautifully choreographed scene, echoing the boy’s pursuit of the butterfly. She later performs a musical number with an umbrella, dancing through a temple. In Osaka, she appears only as a model, her face peering out from a billboard.
While Kuroki later acknowledged that the film’s politics were overshadowed by its poetry, the war is an important presence, reflected in the choice of Nagasaki and Hiroshima as locations. Kuroki mixes footage of the bombed-out cities with scenes of protest and remembrance and, in a gorgeous use of black and white, a memorial service where people float glittering paper lanterns on a flowing river. Survivors recount their stories on the soundtrack as Mariko stumbles through ruins. An atomic bomb explodes. The caterpillar becomes a pawn in a mysterious game of espionage. Kuroki cuts together footage straight out of a thriller with shots of Japan’s military industrial complex, to the sounds of jazz and sirens (the soundtrack is as important and experimental as the visuals). A man is assassinated; as he lies face down in the middle of the road, the caterpillar is seen an inch from his lips, as if exhaled by the dying man.
Silence Has No Wings seems to become ever more abstract the longer it goes on; it’s a beautifully filmed allegory, a puzzle with reoccurring motifs that are slowly pieced together. There might be clues in the words ‘Butterfly is eagle and flies between swans’, which appear on screen twice, but it would take more than one viewing to really get to the heart of Kuroki’s first feature film.
Produced by a subsidiary of Toho, who were hoping for a commercial success, the controversial film sat on the shelf for a year before it was picked up and screened by the Art Theatre Guild of Japan (ATG) - yet another testament to the importance of that alternative production and distribution organisation in the history of Japanese cinema.
Cast: Satoshi Tsumabuki, Eri Fukatsu, Masaki Okada, Hikari Mitsushima, Kirin Kiki
Villain is distributed by the small specialist distributor Third Window Films. They (as well as many other small UK film distributors) have had all of their stock destroyed in the Sony warehouse fire during the riots on August 8. Please help support them by going to see the award-winning Villain.
A young man with dyed, dirty-blond hair sits in a car in a petrol station. While Yuichi (Satoshi Tsumabuki) waits for the tank to be filled up, he watches a video on his mobile phone of an attractive girl, lying on a bed in her underwear. The girl, Yoshino (Hikari Mitsushima), works for an insurance company, lives in a dormitory, and has her heart set on the cool, attractive playboy Masuo (Masaki Okada), but toys with the socially awkward Yuichi in the meantime. When the girl is found dead, it’s easy for the audience to guess who must be responsible for her murder - either the working-class loser who lives with his grandmother (terrifically played by Kirin Kiki), or the popular, charismatic Masuo.
But Yuichi’s relationship with the murdered girl isn’t really the key to Lee Sang-il’s Villain, which won five of the top prizes at the Japanese Academy Awards - four of them for acting. Rather, the story swirls around Yuichi’s relationship with Mitsuyo (Eri Fukatsu), who leads her own lonely and depressed life, working in a stuffy men’s clothing store in a town that she’s never left. When she’s alone at home in the apartment she shares with her more popular sister, Mitsuyo sits at the low table, tucked up in blankets, shovelling huge forkfuls of cake into her mouth. Her encounter with Yuichi, whom she meets on an online dating web site, will change everything. She’s so desperate for love that she will do anything to protect him.
While Lee, who based the film on a hugely popular 2007 novel, leaves little doubt in the minds of the audience about who’s guilty, he does plant the seeds of doubt in the search for motive and circumstance. As events unfold and clues are dropped, moral ambiguity takes hold. Masuo goes on the run; finally found by the police alone in a love hotel, he’s their first suspect. When the police turn their attention to Yuichi, Masuo is hounded by Yoshino’s distraught father (Akira Emoto), who’s enraged when he catches sight of him soon after, laughing and drinking in a bar, surrounded by friends, while his daughter lies on a slab in the morgue. Whoever the murderer is, it becomes ever clearer that there is more than just one villain in the story and that no one is wholly innocent.
Set in winter, the film has a cold, bleak feel, the only real touches of beauty found when Mitsuyo and Yuichi reach the isolated lighthouse where the final tragic scenes will play out. Despite the murder and unravelling mystery at the heart of the film, Villain is not a thriller; it’s a slow-burning drama, restrained in its emotions, building in intensity, drawing in the audience as details are revealed. Lee has crafted a sparse, elegant portrait of loneliness, grief and desperation, with some brilliantly convincing performances adding to the film’s appeal.
Original title:Arakajime ushinawareta koibitotchiyo
Cast: Momoi Kaori, Ishibashi Renji, Kano Tenmei
Mostly unknown to UK audiences, Tahara Sôichirô and Shimizu Kunio’s debut Lost Lovers (1971) perfectly encapsulates the spirit and function of the production company that enabled its creation. Formed in 1961, the Art Theatre Guild of Japan became a counter-cultural refuge for voices frustrated by Japan’s mainstream film industries and an exciting place of convergence for different artistic mediums. Lost Lovers brought together a TV documentarist (Sôichirô) and avant-garde playwright (Kunio) to produce an allegorical portrait of Japan’s youth in the wake of the 1960s’ failed student protests, a startlingly relevant subject matter in current times. The influence of both mediums is keenly felt; physical theatricality from the lead actors and elaborate staging are teamed with a voyeuristic, unobtrusive style of camera work, reminiscent of direct or free cinema. This impassive cinematography is particularly apparent at the outset of the film as the camera lurks among passengers on a bus or surveys dead fish heads at a food market.
The film follows a former champion pole-vaulter, Ko (Ishibashi Renji), on a rootless journey through desolate sand dunes and apocalyptically abandoned US army bases in Northern Japan. Carrying a canvas bag large enough to smuggle a human body, Ko is first seen strolling down an empty highway, Stetson hat cocked at a rakish angle, all Spaghetti Western outlaw swagger. But his cool is deflated when a speeding bus knocks him over in the dust. Ko lies, sprawled out, hugging his bag and crying out a girl’s name, ‘Chiko!’ From the start, Ko is a somewhat hapless and naive anti-hero, chattering endlessly and moving with a rubber, cartoonish physicality, with a hint of Malcolm McDowell’s charisma in Lindsay Anderson’s Mick Travis trilogy.
A jobless vagrant, Ko robs two of his fellow bus passengers - a suitably bourgeois middle-class couple - to make his way. He may be a petty thief but Ko commits the crime without violence and with a charmingly mischievous streak, throwing their trousers and skirt off the road bridge into the river below. While Ko is essentially harmless to society, society soon reveals itself to be a malignant force. After an unfortunate encounter in the food market, Ko is falsely accused of rape by a woman looking for sex and chased by members of the public, who dishonestly attest that they saw him commit the crime, and the police, who dismiss his strong protestations of innocence. Locked up in a cell, Ko looks out to the dark street below. A crowd gathers and fills the screen, holding glowing lanterns in their hands. Ko reaches out to the onlookers with words of protest: ‘I’m a domestic lion. I have no memory of the savannah. All I know is this small cage. My voice may be small but I will roar for you.’ Without a word in response, the crowd silently turns away and disperses from view.
Released and outraged by his treatment, Ko stages a one-man protest backed by a band playing Purple Haze-style riffs. As Ko makes an impassioned speech against the ‘sweet home of violence’ once again, disinterested listeners depart until a lone girl remains. Ko promptly gives up his rhetoric and attempts to have sex with his reluctant fellow protestor. In a self-fulfilling cycle, the victim becomes the aggressor. ‘Go away old bags,’ he shouts at two elderly women who are witness to his actions; and, to explain his sexual harassment, he cries, ‘We’re of the same generation’. From the outset of the film, Ko represents the unharnessed impulses of youth and their isolation from society. His failed attempts at speech-making symbolise the failure of the student protests and the inability of Japanese society to understand the grievances of its younger generation. It’s a fairly standard portrait of disenchanted 60s youth.
It is when Ko meets a young deaf-dumb couple that his odyssey really begins and the film becomes increasingly opaque and bleak, as well as witty and beautiful. Composed of a non-actor (the film’s stills photographer) and a newcomer, the deaf-dumb pair is wholly mesmerising. The isolated bubble they create as they float through the film, impervious to Ko’s nattering and unflinching in the face of various obstacles and dangers, is a magnificent achievement. Momoi Kaori is especially captivating as the enigmatic beauty, whom Ko swiftly falls for, and the ensuing love triangle takes precedence as society gradually disappears from the film’s frames. The trio swim in the sea and run across the sands, hiding out in the disused army bases, making a home in the barren wasteland. Ko learns to bury his chatter and use non-verbal forms of communication, learning from the sensual connection of the two lovers. When society begins to re-appear in the latter part of the film, it does so in increasingly bizarre and sinister ways: a group of men are invited by a rejected Ko to watch the deaf-dumb couple having sex; Kaori is kidnapped by the same shady group who arrested Ko in the food market; and the army marches over the dunes to test deadly weapons. The trio lie naked in the sand together before explosions wake them from their reverie and blind the young couple, blood pouring from their eyes. The final shot of Ko helping his deaf, dumb and blind friends along the sand is an inspired ending. A car speeds straight at the group but swerves at the very last minute, leaving the three heroes to continue their journey into the unknown horizon while it crashes and burns in the background. The protective shield of the couple’s missing senses has saved their lives.
Made a decade after ATG’s inception and several years after the student uprising, Lost Lovers reveals an anxiety about the state of Japanese society and also an attempt to build something out of defeat. Towards the end of the film, Ko talks about being ‘free from all languages’ and not denying his physical existence. He says he wants ‘to use confused thought and make a leap into the future’. Yelling out these sentences to the sea, he eventually sees how his words are lost, tossed out to the waves. His angry, ineffectual speech-making gives way to a new kind of protest: a determined refusal to carry on and find different ways to exist in a hostile world. ATG offered outcast Japanese filmmakers a retreat from the mainstream and, in doing so, provided an environment to develop innovative modes of expression. The film is an allegory not only of the political situation but also of the artistic process. When audiences fail to listen, the speaker must find fresh ways of making him or herself heard or new paths to follow.
A bracing stroll through an emergent American Muslim punk sub-culture, The Taqwacores follows newcomer and straight A student Yusef as he moves into a shared house in Buffalo, New York, to get his head thoroughly rattled by its inhabitants. There’s a dope smoker, a feminist riot grrl, a flamboyant gay dude, various drinkers and promiscuous party people, all of whom claim to be devout in their own way. Thus we have skateboard sequences jostling with moments of unconventional worship (‘You gotta come to Friday prayers!’ ‘Totally, I’m there!’). We have a call to prayer played on an electric guitar and we have bands called Osama’s Tunnel Diggers and The Guantanamo Bay Packers. Tensions build within the house as the contradictory belief systems clash, and it all comes to a head at an ill-starred all-star punk blow-out.
The film The Taqwacores brings most readily to mind was Penelope Spheeris’s cult gem Suburbia, which detailed the LA squatter punk scene of the early 80s. Like Suburbia, it’s a bit gauche and earnest and embarrassing in places, with lots of on-the-nose dialogue as the ‘cores thrash out their conflicting ideologies. Like in Suburbia, the story has a tragic arc we can sense in the offing, and we have to endure a central character who’s mainly there to ask dumb questions and get opinions thrust at him. Unlike Suburbia though, The Taqwacores has pretty good performances, especially Noureen DeWulf as Rabeya, who manages to convey a forceful personality through a customised full burqa, and Dominic Rains as the mohawked poster boy Jehangir (‘I’m too wrapped up in my mismatching of disenfranchised subcultures!’). It has energy and humour and a nice bleached out look. And it throws a startling image or off-the-wall piece of dialogue at you every few minutes of its lean 83-minute running time.
Apparently the Taqwacore scene didn’t exist until Michael Muhammad Knight’s novel, on which the film is based, inspired a number of bands to spring into being. If so, more power to their various elbows, at least if they’re anything like the mess portrayed here, a welcome vision of Islam as something not set in stone by humourless pricks, but something fluid and playful.
High-concept is an Orwellian phrase when it comes to cinema, usually meaning one concept, as in one idea, which can be pitched, tag-lined and sold. And most high-concept films have a job getting that one idea off the ground. So we should celebrate this month’s screening of Funeral Parade of Roses, a film crammed with ideas, from soup to nuts. Released in 1969 and shot in black and white, the film has the temperament and daring of an underground art film, but without any of the drawbacks. The acting is uniformly excellent, from the young transsexual Eddie, played in his debut role by Pîtâ, with more than a passing resemblance to Edie Sedgwick, to a series of well-established Japanese stars (one of the samurai from The Seven Samurai no less) and TV personalities, who both play roles and appear in the film as themselves.
The story takes on the arc of an Oedipal tragedy, which sees the young Eddie quietly but tenaciously rising through the gay scene to become a madam of his own gay bar, only to subsequently suffer a horrifying downfall. There are flashbacks of a childhood trauma, but also a film within a film as a documentary is being made about the gay scene, with lots of interviews about what it means to be a queen. The tone shifts radically from breathless gay erotica to Chaplinesque knockabout comedy, Godardian reflexivity to Hitchcockian suspense. Marnie (1964) seems to have been particularly in mind, but also Psycho (1960). The speeded-up sections and the use of flash imagery and ironic music are testament to the film’s impact on Kubrick, who cited it as a direct influence on A Clockwork Orange (1971). The rush of the film makes it slippery and difficult to pin down. The attitude to homosexuality is likewise playful and evasive. On one hand, it offers a sympathetic platform for the film’s interviewees and an affectionate, if not glamorous, portrait of a scene, while on the other, it follows a tragic trajectory that sees homosexuality born of violence and trauma - the ‘death to the vagina’ murder of the mother is particularly disturbing - and heads towards an inevitably tragic dénouement. But even this cannot be safely summed up. After a particularly gruesome murder, there is a frame-breaking interview with the actor, who says he likes being in the film as ‘Gay life is portrayed beautifully’. Defying expectations at every turn, Matsumoto constantly wrong-foots his audience, starting with the opening sex scene, shot beautifully in a gleaming white image. Melodrama is undercut with irony, the detachment of the documentarian is relieved by the madcap ‘happenings’, with the camera crew apparently flinging themselves into the action with abandon. Even the tragic conclusion is not immune. Ultimately, this is a film to watch and watch again. Genuinely high-concept.
Funeral Parade of Roses is available on DVD from Eureka Entertainment.
The recent international reappraisal of pink cinema, in many ways due to curators Roland Domenig and Go Hirasawa’s programming initiatives and Jasper Sharp’s publication Behind the Pink Curtain, has resuscitated many important filmmakers in danger of being buried under the carpet of Japanese film history. With its emphasis on carnal lust and the darkest libidinal desires, pink cinema is not exactly what Japan would want to offer as an official image of the nation, and yet, as Sharp argues in his book, its presence is undeniable and it is no longer possible to neglect its significance. Masao Adachi is just one of the names cast under this limelight in recent years and, now with retrospectives at the Cinémathèque franí§aise and Shibuya Vuera under his belt, he has secured his place as a key figure of his generation. As a director of unique pink films under the auspices of Wakamatsu Productions and the scriptwriter for many of the best titles directed by Kôji Wakamatsu, Adachi’s contribution to the evolution of pink cinema into more than just sex films cannot be ignored.
Although his name is shaded in pink, more colours are needed to paint Adachi’s portrait. At university, he was closely involved in the making of Bowl (Wan, 1961) and Closed Vagina (Sain, 1963) as a member of the legendary Nihon University Film Studies Club, which produced many pioneering experimental films in the late 50s and early 60s. Together with Motoharu Jônouchi, he was an instrumental figure within the VAN Film Research Centre, a filmmakers’ lab and artists’ commune where films like Document 6.15 (1961) were produced as a continuation of the protest movements that defined the decade. Adachi also worked closely with the leader of the Japanese New Wave, Nagisa Ôshima, as a scriptwriter for Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1969) and actor for his seminal Death by Hanging (1968), even directing a lengthy trailer for the film, which became a trademark for titles produced by ATG. His film A.K.A Serial Killer (1969), made in collaboration with Ôshima’s scriptwriter Mamoru Sasaki and film critic Masao Matsuda, developed a theory of landscape (fûkeiron) in its portrait of a teenage murderer through shots of landscapes he may have seen during his upbringing and subsequent rampage. Adachi was invited with Wakamatsu and Ôshima to the Cannes Film Festival in 1971 and, with Wakamatsu, he visited Palestine on the way back to shoot PFLP: Declaration of World War (1971), a newsreel film produced by the Japanese Red Army. In 1974, Adachi abandoned filmmaking to join the Palestinian struggle and disappeared until, over 20 years later, he was arrested in Lebanon in 1997 and extradited to Japan in 2002.
Galaxy (Gingakei), in many ways, embodies a transitional point in Adachi’s direction as a filmmaker. Many of his fellow society members offered production support, and in a sense the film could be construed as a continuation of the activities of the Nihon University Film Studies Club. Although at this point Adachi was already involved with Wakamatsu, the film was produced as the inaugural title for the Theatre Scorpio, where people began to take pink cinema seriously. Yet, Galaxy is quite unlike anything else Adachi has been involved in before or since, a substantial piece of art cinema that reveals the singularity of the filmmaker’s vision.
The narrative is nearly impenetrable; the meshed storyline is entirely subsumed in the nameless protagonist’s subconscious as he attempts to navigate his inner psyche, which has become a mercurial realm where space and time constantly redefine themselves. In his perplexed state, he encounters a doppelgänger, his father dressed in Buddhist attire and his girlfriend, whose size varies from normal to monstrous, and they all have a go at explaining where and what he is, only to cast darker shadows of mystery on the enigma. Deeply influenced by surrealism, each of the film’s gestures pulls us further into a dreamscape where reality and imagination are inseparable and logics of continuity, sense and oscillation in emotion are constantly refracted in different directions. The cyclical structure of the film gives an illusion of coherence yet, within the sphere, clarity spirals out of control while somehow managing to sustain its own dream logic. However, it is clear from our protagonist’s reference to an unspoken event of ’20 years ago’ that he is confronting what he has become in the post-war years.
What is most remarkable about Galaxy is its continuous ability to discover a film language of its own and its command of the abstract universe it has envisioned. Visual tricks unremittingly throw the main character in and out of spaces, always using captivating stylistic methods delivered with playful confidence. Characters emerge out of splatters of paint or from beneath a river, only to altogether disappear, and figures are frozen in position while their surroundings abruptly transform. A sequence on an enormous set of stairs plunges the protagonist into a real sense of bewilderment and conveys a depleted sense of self due to the mischievous tricks the monk, allegedly his father, plays on him. The soundscape, orchestrated by Yasunao Tone, who performed for Japan’s first improvised music collective, Group Ongaku, and who later joined Fluxus, interweaves different aural flickers to further layer the muddled haze. The dialogue, its content unfathomably cryptic, is often delivered in whispers, overlapped with other voices and distorted to accompany the racket of sound arrangements. Yet, amid this cacophony of noise and images, there is a certain clarity and a defiant urge for innovation that sustains the film and makes Galaxy a standout title in the overcrowded line-up of dreamscapes in the history of cinema.
Bill Morrison and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s The Miners’ Hymns made its first appearance last year in Durham Cathedral, a setting that appears at the end of this film, which is constructed from archive footage of Durham miners’ lives from the 1900s through to the pit closures and strikes of the 1970s.
Perhaps because it was originally conceived as a live music and cinema performance, with Jóhannsson’s powerful score played along with the film by a brass ensemble, The Miners’ Hymns‘ impact lessens slightly when transported to the small screen with this DVD release. Not only do we lose Morrison’s haunting double-screen set-up, but also the warmth and presence of music performed live in a very significant (not to mention resonant) space. Excerpts from the performance are included here as an extra, and it’s easy to imagine the chills felt by the audience as the building they sit in appears in ghostly multiples on screen, making clear the film’s dual themes of loss and continuity while the music swells around the cathedral’s ancient walls.
However, the opportunity to pore more closely over the footage in The Miners’ Hymns, sourced by Morrison from BFI National Archive as well as local TV archives, is a welcome one, as is the chance to appreciate Morrison’s skill in transforming this documentary material into poetic, often mysterious, cinema. While showing us some of the miners’ daily graft in unsentimental detail, the director, whose 2002 film Decasia was an ode to the degenerative processes of old film, is also mesmerised by the formal qualities of his source material, lingering on the coal itself as it’s hacked from its seam and poured in obsidian-like fragments through the machinery that will take it to the surface. Elsewhere, in contrast to the dark underground footage, men pick up coal fragments on a pebbled beach and load them into a horse-drawn cart, in a slow, meditative sequence that feels especially timeless.
This sense of temporal oddness is deliberate: Morrison has trawled the archives for sequences that echo one another over the years, so the men and horses we see in one shot might be from the 1950s; in another, the 1920s. This device, particularly when we see children from two different generations playing on slag heaps, is very moving, but its strangeness stops it being overly romantic or nostalgic - rather, it’s slightly distancing. Perhaps Morrison’s literal distance from his subject matter - in that he’s from the US - adds to this effect; a similar quality seems to be present in the way Jóhannsson, who’s Icelandic, tackles his musical source material.
Music is at the core of The Miners’ Hymns, from the title - taken from the song ‘Gresford’, which commemorates a Welsh mining disaster in 1934 - to the choice of brass instrumentation, inextricably associated with colliery bands. Jóhannsson’s score is simple but cumulative in effect: short melodic sequences are repeated and built upon throughout the film, with a layer of electronic texture and concrete sound used sparingly alongside some of the more industrial, abstract footage. With each note slow and measured, we’re invited to focus on the timbre of the brass, noting its austere, mournful qualities and drawing parallels with the heavy machinery and raw power of the industry it laments. Occasionally the dynamics are a little extreme, with dramatic, emotional swells in volume at what feel like odd points in the film; again, you can imagine this aspect of the music being far more effective in a live setting.
Jóhannsson’s melodies are drawn from hymn tunes such as ‘Gresford’, and at times you sense those Victorian, Church of England-ish inflections in a certain cluster or notes or a particularly emotive cadence. But perhaps because he’s coming to them from relatively anew, the composer makes these familiar tunes fresh, interrogating the passion and faith at their core. I started the film feeling that the music was too ‘obvious’; yet by the climax, where miners process into Durham Cathedral for the yearly Miners’ Gala, it was hard not to be swept up in the solemnity and dignity of both sound and picture. Both Jóhannsson and Morrison treat the miners’ stories with great respect, teasing out the elements that resonate with them as artists with starkly moving results.
This Transient Life reminds us that monikers like ‘new wave’ are misleading in the way they suggest a cohesion of like-minded artists. Tokyo’s Art Theatre Guild, during its two and a half decades as a production outfit, was home to a very diverse range of filmmakers, of whom Akio Jissoji was hardly the most typical. This Transient Life was the feature film debut of this veteran of television superhero series Ultra Seven, Ultraman and Operation: Mystery! (Kaiki daisakusen). The previous year, he had shot the Nagisa Ôshima-scripted short When Twilight Draws Near (Yoiyami semareba), which ATG distributed as a pairing with Ôshima’s The Man Who Left His Will on Film (Tokyo senso sengo hiwa).
Much more than the capable taskmaster his modest roots would suggest, Jissoji had gained fame for the singular approach he brought to his serials. Buddhist symbolism abounds in his small-screen work and he had a knack for juxtaposing the fantastical with the mundane, giving birth to what admirer Shinya Tsukamoto calls ‘yojohan SF’, roughly translated as ‘science fiction on the tatami mat’ - a paradox whose fascinating, surreal effects Tsukamoto himself applied through the everyday suburban setting of his own epoch-making debut Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989).
In This Transient Life, the juxtaposition is of an eternal nature: sex and spirit. Its protagonists are a brother and sister from a rich Kansai family who resist the roles given to them by tradition: she refuses the many marriage proposals that come her way while her brother has no interest in enrolling in a university. Their close spiritual bond gives way, through a playful game with No masks, to incestuous coupling. When the sister finds herself pregnant, the siblings concoct a plan whereby she will accept the wedding proposal of a naí¯ve suitor and pretend the child is his. The brother departs for Kyoto to become an apprentice to a sculptor of Buddhist statues and begins an affair with his mentor’s wife - with the impotent older man’s blessing. But the incestuous lovers will not be kept apart for long.
Jissoji’s film was the first ATG production to gain success outside of the company’s established circuit, going on to win the Grand Prix at Locarno in the year of its release. It was not, however, the only ATG-produced film from the period that tackled incest, a doubly controversial subject matter in Japan for its prevalence in the history of the imperial family (even the two mythical ur-deities from which the family supposedly stems were brother and sister). Examples abound in the ATG catalogue, one of the most notable being Toshio Matsumoto’s Funeral Parade of Roses (Bara no soretsu, 1968), with its homosexual retelling of the Oedipus myth. Masahiro Shinoda even tackled the issue of imperial incest head on with his rendition of the story of prehistoric empress Himiko (1974).
Equally memorable are Jissoji’s stylish visuals. The hyperactive camera makes this a movie that truly moves, something the director intended as an evocation of the titular concept of transience, or the Buddhist belief that everything in this world is fleeting.
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