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.