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.
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.
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