Sion Sono’s latest film, Himizu, is an urgent and topical film. Located in the midst of the devastation caused by the 2011 tsunami, Himizu shows a society which is not only physically destroyed but also falling to pieces socially. Fifteen-year-old Yuichi Sumida (Shôta Sometani) lives with his neglectful mother in a boat hire shop. His drunken father only lurches into view when he needs cash. Sumida is also the object of a school girl crush on the part of the hyper Keiko (Fumi Nikaidô), to whom he is (at best) indifferent. The boat house is also a gathering place for a disparate bunch of refugees who serve as a Greek chorus and attempt to help Sumida in his troubles even as he hopelessly pursues his wish to lead an ordinary, normal and boring life.
John Bleasdale talked to Sion Sono at the Venice Film Festival in September 2011 and asked him about adapting a manga, incorporating the tsunami in the film, and softening his trademark violence.
John Bleasdale: When did you decide to adapt Minoru Furuya’s manga?
Sion Sono: It was before the earthquake: what we refer to as 3/11. Actually, I had already completed the screenplay when 3/11 happened, but I had to adapt the script after 3/11. The original screenplay was very faithful to the manga, but I could not ignore what had happened and continue to make the film.
The film is very different from the manga, especially the ending.
The manga was published 10 years ago, when Japan was a little more peaceful, and a little milder compared to now. Minoru Furuya wrote about a life of boredom and peace and the endless continuum of those days, but after 3/11 we were in a situation where we were living the unordinary, and the unordinary became our daily lives. The unending unordinariness is what we’re living now. The time has completely flipped. The manga is more depressing, because it was written in a more peaceful time. Now we’re not living in a peaceful time; we’re not secure enough to show these depressing things. That’s why it changed.
How did Furuya react to the changes?
He is very jealous, and he said, ‘I’m not going to read the screenplay because if I do, I’m probably going to give lots of notes, but as long as I don’t read the script I won’t feel I have to make any suggestions. So I’m just going to wait until you finish the film and then watch it.’
During the production was there any difficulty shooting the film?
The schedule for the principle photography didn’t change that much, as it was a low-budget film, and my crew wasn’t too open to incorporating the events of 3/11 into the film. But it was what I wanted to do, and so I very hurriedly rewrote the script because we already had a date to begin shooting.
In the film the protagonist seems to become a comic-book superhero, a masked vigilante, but that seems to be a parody almost, an idea that fails him.
[SPOILER] Looking back I agree, but he was in no way trying to be heroic. By committing parricide, he actually wants to kill himself, but in the time that he’s deliberating, he decides he wants to commit one good act for society, for mankind, before taking his own life. And he felt that to find and kill somebody who is obviously evil would help others. [END OF SPOILER] So it’s not like he’s a Kick-Ass type of character – he’s not a geek, he doesn’t read superhero comics – it’s not as if he’s emulating those heroes.
Like the anti Kick-Ass?
Maybe not even that, because he doesn’t have the reference.
Can I ask about the use of music? What influenced you in choosing Mozart’s Requiem and Samuel Barber?
When I was in editing, there was a melody that would haunt me. I wanted to be faithful to that, and I thought Mozart’s Requiem would be too easy a choice, but it’s just the best. It’s not about it being a requiem – that’s not the significance. It’s more about the melody. And I had seen a couple of films where there is a main theme that is repeated with variations, and I found that effective, so I always wanted to try that with the Requiem.
Were the ruins used in the beginning and closing of the film real?
I did actually go on location to a place that was hit by the tsunami, but I didn’t shoot the location like a documentary at all because Himizu is a feature film, a drama. I wanted to film the place in an un-documentary way, which is to say we had a different way of shooting. We had a very long tracking shot that showed the rubble, which is something a documentary film wouldn’t do – it will give you an idea of how vast that landscape is. It is very dramatic, as nothing in particular is going on, but it just shows you the scope of the devastation.
How did the actors react to being in a ruined place?
We actually shot the scenes very quickly, right before the light failed, so maybe three hours, four hours tops, and within that time frame I didn’t want to make it a big production, so we just had the actors and the cameraman. It was beyond a director directing it. The actors hadn’t been there before, they hadn’t seen the place where the tsunami hit, and so I was just filming their raw reaction.
What is the film’s relationship with violence? Is it an aesthetic choice?
In just this film?
In all your films.
I haven’t really compared them to others, and I can’t really talk in relation to other people, but it is quite normal for me. Say you have a Francis Bacon painting, and you go to Francis and you say: ‘Francis, you have very violent, grotesque expressions – why is that?’ He’ll probably just say, ‘that’s the way I draw, that’s the way I paint’. It’s like a tick. Like a tendency, or habit. It’s not that it has come out of a place of intent, it’s not planned in a conscious way. Like you see the sky, and some people will see it red. They don’t see the blue in the sky, and you might say where’s the red. I don’t see that.
There is much less violence in Himizu than in your previous work. The film is softer.
Yes, you are absolutely right. I think I was more restrained in my expressions of violence, but it’s funny because people keep asking about the violence in the film. I feel that it is much tamer than my previous films. Violence isn’t a theme of the film, and there are so many violent films, so why do mine stand out? I didn’t want to show the murder too graphically, because it is such a sad scene. I didn’t want to emphasize it.
There is poetry in the film. Do you still write poetry?
Before I started making films, I wrote poems. One day I realised that I had started making films instead of poems, and now I don’t write films any more, but all the impulses and passion I put into poetry, I now put into my cinema. It’s like making films is like writing a book of poetry.
The adolescent point of view is very isolated. The parents and the schools are not there, and the kids have to do it themselves. Were you influenced by any films told from the child’s point of view, for instance The Tin Drum?
The Tin Drum is one of my favourite films, but this was an adaptation of a manga. Within it, there was the character of a policeman who showed understanding for the boy. I didn’t put him in the film, because I wanted the boy and the girl to be (as you said) isolated. I wanted them to work things out, to drive the story; the world’s most isolated and alienated characters.
On TV we see that everything is in order now in Japan, but in the film there is chaos.
Journalism, I think, may not reflect the truth, so maybe it shows only a part of what the youth in Japan are going through now. Some journalists will say that the smiles are returning to the faces in Fukushima, but actually I went back a week ago to where we shot, and I didn’t see anyone smiling. Everyone is living in misery, and you can see the disparity between what is being reported and what is happening. In this sense my film is truer than the journalism.
Throughout the film we hear the sound of the earthquake, giving us the feeling that the earthquake is about to happen again. Could that be a social earthquake?
Yes. Absolutely, the apprehension of not knowing what is going to happen at any time. Ambiguous worries about what will happen in the future. To visually or cinematically convey that sense, I used that sound.
The community act as a second audience in the film. They seem to be the only community that works…
Yes, those characters had suffered so much. They had hit rock bottom and so they are able to bond. I went to the area that was hit most by the tsunami, and there were many bonds that were created as families lost members.
Is this an optimistic film?
I am going to make a film about Fukushima next, which is going to be much more about dealing with reality. This film in a way doesn’t feature radiation leakage issues that much, because if I delved into that, it would be too much. But with my next film I’ll deal with it. Talking to people, interviewing people, investigating – that is not optimistic or hopeful at all. The process itself… I am doing it so that I will find hope, but it isn’t optimistic now. To cover your ears isn’t good. You have to have the clarity and everything out in the open in order to find hope.
At a recent seminar on sound design held at the ÉCU (European Independent Film Festival) in Paris, mixer and recordist Nikola Chapelle talked about the tendency of American films to emphasise and exaggerate natural sounds to such an extent that ‘we are always disappointed with reality’. In response to this Hollywoodian hyperacusis, Takashi Miike’s Ichi the Killer proffers a sound design so amped up as to suggest the experience of some kind of severe neurological disorder. Blood does not merely flow in this immensely bloody film: it gushes, ripples, roars from wounded bodies like waterfalls close-miked and amplified to the point of distortion.
Amid all this, there are many sounds that are on the borders of music and sound effects, or ‘noise’. At which point in the mobile-phone-ringtone-computer-game-soundtrack-muzak continuum do we enter the realm of music per se? The score by Karera Musication inhabits an equally liminal space on the edge of music – albeit coming from the other direction, as it were. There is no functional harmony, no progressions, no build-up and release of melodic tension. Rather, there are rhythms and textures – and not always at the same time; there are gurgling, whirling, sweeping electronic sounds; white noise, high-pitched test tones, processed voices and nature sounds; all sliced up in the editing suite with the same psychotic surgical precision as Ichi’s victims.
Karera Musication is in fact Japanese band The Boredoms, here without their usual ringleader and founder member Yamantaka Eye, with guitarist Seiichi Yamamoto taking over conducting duties, aided and abetted by drummer Yoshimi P-We. The Boredoms were formed by Eye in 1986 out of the ashes of the performance art/noise group Hanatarash, who had been banned from performing due to the tremendous amount of property damage and physical danger that had become a hallmark of their concerts (which would involve circular saws, Molotov cocktails and bulldozers).
Taking their name from a song by The Buzzcocks, The Boredoms started off playing a kind of highly abrasive, yelling, screaming free-form punk noise. But by the end of the 1990s this sound had evolved into a percussion-heavy psychedelic space rock, heavily influenced by krautrock and p-funk. The soundtrack to Ichi the Killer proved to be the last thing the band recorded together before the departure of Yamamoto and other members led to an extensive regrouping around the original core of Yamantaka Eye and Yoshimi P-We.
The music exhibits a great deal of the kind of intense polyrhythmic drumming and wild free electronics that one would expect from The Boredoms, with added moments of Sun Ra-esque jazz trumpet, sludgy wah-wah guitar, and a playful, almost childlike, use of samples and traditional Japanese instruments. The soundtrack as a whole is as delirious and exploratory as the film it accompanies, the frenetic editing style and plethora of post-production visual effects matched punch for punch by The Boredoms’ music. A surreal mix of visceral intensity and wistful lost innocence that might be less an attempt to ‘score’ the film’s images to specific targeted cues, and more a kind of aural animal magnetism, striving to leap directly into the febrile imaginative life of Ichi himself.
‘I sometimes wish words could be my friends… you can’t shake hands with words, but they possess a feeling of nostalgic intimacy that even words themselves cannot describe.’ Shûji Terayama
Despite expressing such affection for words, Terayama, avant-garde poet, essayist, screenwriter, director and critic, called out for his readers to discard them in his 1967 collection of essays, Throw Away Your Books, Let’s Go into the Streets. In Terayama’s universe, words escaped from the pages and found themselves elsewhere – and one place they found a home was on the screen. Perhaps more famous in Japan for his poetry and abroad for his theatre, Terayama first ventured into cinema as a scriptwriter for Japanese New Wave directors, before directing experimental films. Some readers may have heard his words spoken by the character of Nanami in The Inferno of First Love (Susumu Hani, 1968), screened in last summer’s BFI season devoted to the Art Theatre Guild. Yet, despite his legendary cult status in Japan, Western audiences have had limited exposure to Terayama’s cinematic adventures, a deficiency the Tate Modern will remedy for Londoners in March with their film and performance retrospective, Shûji Terayama: Who can say that we should not live like dogs?’
The moving image was never a mistress for Terayama and nor was poetry ever his devoted wife. Bed-hopping between images and words, Terayama was also attracted to the spontaneity and liveliness of performance-art theatre, the capacity for sonic exploration in radio, and the bodily exertion in boxing and horseracing, for which he provided insightful public commentaries. He never kept these relationships a secret; in fact, what he preferred were chaotic cross-pollinations and rampant art form orgies, with him as the voyeur. The words in Throw Away Your Books, Let’s Go Into the Streets were hurled onto the stage in his stage vérité theatre production, and tossed onto the streets, only to get lobbed back onto the cinema screen for his first feature-length film of the same title (1971).
There will be a day-long symposium entitled ‘I Am a Terayama Shûji’ at tate Modern on March 23. This symposium will bring together experts and collaborators, including Julian Ross, Nobuko Anan, Shigeru Matsui, Henriku Morisaki, Steven C. Ridgely, Hiroyuki Sasame and Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei, to reflect on the diverse media blend created by the Japanese poet, photographer and film-maker, whose stated profession was always ‘Terayama Shûji’.
Terayama not only spoke, but also graffitied his poems onto the walls of Shinjuku and, most memorably, chalked them onto a football pitch, only for the letters to disappear into dust when trampled on by teens. In A Tale of Smallpox (1975) and Les Chants de Maldoror (1977), words are written onto the -image to obstruct our view. If words were indeed his best friends, Terayama certainly found a way to mess around with them, with his art as his playground.
Just as he forced his words to escape from the pages, Terayama saw the confines of the proscenium arch and the cinematic screen as limitations to overcome. In Pastoral: Hide and Seek (1974) and his play Inugami (1969), the walls of the sets collapsed to reveal their artificiality, as if he wanted the cinema, as well as the theatre, to burst out of their illusionary space and invade the streets. For the TV film American, Who Are You? (1967), made for TBS, and screened outside of Japan for the first time as part of the Tate’s programme, unsuspecting passers-by were suddenly confronted with a list of questions, thereby mutating a film shoot into a performance-art ‘happening’, then in counter-cultural vogue. In projections of Laura (1974), performer Morisaki Henriku literally jumped into the screen and appeared as an image. In screenings of The Trial (1975), performers and audiences hammered nails into the screen, most infamously at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1984. Terayama’s cinema refused to stay static, and was never at home when simply projected. It’ll be exciting to see whether his screen experiments, always interrupted by words or actors, still hold any relevance for us today.
Close-Up members get concession discount at the Terayama season. More details on the Close-Up website.
Having started his career as a comedian and television presenter in the 1970s, Takeshi Kitano has always been more than the writer-director and actor of his own films. Already established as a multimedia superstar (working as a TV personality and actor) in Japan under the name ‘Beat’ Takeshi, Kitano earned himself an international cult following with yakuza gangster movies such as his feature debut Violent Cop (1989), Sonatine (1993) and Hana-Bi (1997). But the recent series of what Kitano has self-deprecatingly called his ‘auto-destruct’ cinema, including Takeshis’ (2005) and Achilles and the Tortoise (2008), has disconcerted distributors and damaged his standing, leading to increasingly limited or straight-to-DVD releases for his films outside of Japan in recent years. Yet, his latest offering, Outrage, which premiered in Competition at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, sees Kitano back with a vengeance both behind and in front of the camera, in what feels like one of his most refreshing and enjoyable yakuza thrillers to date.
Pamela Jahn took part in a round table interview at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival in which Kitano talked about tackling genre conventions, dentist horror scenarios and what it feels like to be the boss of it all.
Q: Outrage marks your return to the crime genre but there is clearly a shift in tone compared to your early yakuza films such as Violent Cop and Sonatine. Although the film is equally violent, the characters are not as cold and cool as they used to be and and you seem to have fun playing with the genre conventions. Was it a conscious decision you made when you started the project to test new grounds with this film?
Takeshi Kitano: Of course it would have been much easier to focus on the main protagonist played by myself and make a straightforward yakuza genre movie with lots of violence rather than trying a different route. But when I started working on the film I noticed that many people were very interested to find out what I was going to do next and I thought that if I simply repeated what I have already done in the past people would say, ‘Well, he’s just doing the same old stuff again’. So, yes, I consciously tried to do something different with this film. First of all, I intentionally changed the pace and the rhythm of the whole film and incorporated a lot of dialogue, which I hadn’t really done before in my earlier movies. I also stepped back from the limelight as the main character. I mean, although I am the main character, the film is not just about this one protagonist. It’s more about the whole group of gangsters, so it becomes an ensemble film. Most importantly, however, it has this kind of detachment, it’s like watching one of those nature documentaries shows where you see the bugs in the woods killing each other, or ants chasing worms – I kind of treated the characters in the film in that way. So, the emotional aspect is much less important here.
Did all this evolve quite naturally or did you work on the script for a long time?
I worked on the script for this movie backwards in that the very first scene, the very first idea that I had, was the sequence when one of the yakuza characters gets beheaded with the string attached to his neck and gets dragged away by a car. And from that point on I went backwards in terms of developing the story line. I started thinking of the many ways of killing people, and it was only then that I came up with how the whole trouble begins and what would be the cause of the warfare. But after the first draft I noticed that there were too few scenes featuring myself to make this movie work, so I had to add some more scenes with myself in them because otherwise I would have had too many scenes with different characters and the story wouldn’t have worked as a whole.
How did you come up with the idea of the man getting beheaded by the car?
It is the development of an idea that I ended up not using for my previous movie Achilles and the Tortoise, where I thought that the protagonist that I played in that movie would hang himself. He would attach a string to a tree and put the rope around his neck and then the car beneath him would slowly move forward. But then the woman would drop from the tree and he would fail to kill himself. But I dropped that idea after discussing it with my crew, who said it would look too much like a comedy and that it wouldn’t fit with the rest of the story. The scene in Outrage is almost a revised version of that.
You said elsewhere that you wanted to make the audience feel the pain…
While I was writing this script and while I was shooting, my intention was that all the violence should look as painful as possible because that’s how it is in real life. Violence is a painful thing. But then I felt that it was actually very difficult to find a balance in portraying the violence because if you bring a chainsaw into a yakuza movie it suddenly turns into a horror movie. So you can’t get too carried away with how people get killed in a gangster movie. But one of the ideas I came up with was the dentist scene, which is inspired by me having treatment at a dentist in the past. What happened was that while I was receiving treatment, my dentist’s phone rang and she said, ‘Mr Kitano, I have to take this call, do you mind waiting for a moment?’ I said ‘OK’ and she went out of the room. And then I had this weird idea thinking, ‘Oh my God, what if somebody broke into the room right now and started drilling my teeth, that would be a nightmare’. And suddenly it hit me, that this could be a great scene in the film and as soon as I got out of that chair I wrote it down.
Then there is this tongue scene, I thought that worked really well in terms of trying to combine the violence and the humour, especially because I noticed the reactions of the audience at the official screening. I didn’t have the intention to make those violent scenes comical at all, but I noticed during the editing that many of the scenes are almost hilarious unintentionally. But although it wasn’t my intention in the first place, it eventually turned out to be a good thing because it somehow works as a relief for the tension.
Outrage is very much a film about men in conflict about their egos, their self-serving aspirations and ambitions. In real life, being the boss of your own production company Office Kitano, do you often come across these sort of ego problems with other people, or do people in general get a bit nervous around you?
I don’t think people are usually nervous around me because there is never any conflict on set. I have never screamed at anybody on set, in fact, I am a very quiet director, I think. I try to be as cooperative as possible with my crew, and I am open to listening to their ideas. So I’d like to think that my producers and crew members just like to help me too. They might even think I cannot do anything without them and that they have to help me, so actually they might be my nurses rather than being nervous.
From your film’s perspective, do you think much of the influence and tactics of the yakuza have changed over the years since you made Violent Cop? Do you have, or used to have, close contacts to members of yakuza gangs?
I don’t think this film is a very reality-orientated kind of yakuza movie. Although it is not entirely fictional it is not intended to be realistic either, simply because the conflict and warfare scenes in Outrage are slightly exaggerated. Those things are not really happening in the Japanese gang wars and the violence is not as explicit as in the film. But in terms of yakuza businesses, how they work and how they make a profit, this is an open secret for any Japanese, you don’t have to do much research to know how they operate. Japan is one of the very few countries where the gangsters don’t hesitate to show that they are gangsters, they even put a billboard up on their building saying ‘so and so family office’. You don’t see this in Western countries, right?
Aside from dealing with the same subject matter, is there a common thread that runs through your yakuza films?
I haven’t given it much thought to whether there is some sort of common thread that runs through my films or my career, because as an actor it is important to try to achieve what you are required to achieve in a project rather than to think about the consistency of a series of similar or different movies. For instance, even if I work purely as an actor for other directors, I basically try to be as cooperative and faithful to the director’s instructions as possible, not thinking about my own ideas, not thinking about my priorities, I am only listening to the director. And when I work on my own movies, it is really the film that calls for a particular performance and it is important to convey that in each project. So it is really difficult for me to reflect upon my work and find out what is different or what has been added to each movie.
Another difference that you haven’t mentioned earlier is that you seem to be using a rougher soundtrack than in previous films?
In terms of sound, including the music but also the sound effects and the acoustics of the whole movie, I wanted to bring in some notion of comic book sound effects, this same sort of exaggeration. Like in a manga, where you actually read the sound, like ‘bang’ is written on the picture, and I wanted that kind of effect on the sound.
Stereo Total are a playful, madly eclectic duo, who like synth pop, new wave and electronica, and Françoise Hardy and Jacques Dutronc. They are proud of the fact that even though they’ve made a lot of records ‘they all sound the same’ and they ‘have made so little progress’.
For a person who hasn’t had a huge amount of sleep in the past few days, Brezel Göring, one half of Stereo Total, is brimming over with enthusiasm for their latest project, the film score of Underwater Love, directed by Shinji Imaoka. Described by an equally exuberant Christopher Doyle (In the Mood for Love, Chungking Express), who was the cinematographer on this fast-paced project, as a musical comedy with sex and dancing, Underwater Love is a pink film – soft-core porn – filmed in five and a half days (it’s usually five for a pink film, but Doyle was given a little leeway) and tells the story of Asuka (Sawa Masaki), who’s about to marry her boring boyfriend but has an erotic romance with a water spirit instead. Producer Stephan Holl approached the duo, and they couldn’t turn the chance of writing their first film score down. Göring says: ‘He connected all the loose ends, chased down all these people who would never have thought of being involved in such a project and got them to do it. And I’m always excited about working on things which are different.’
Stereo Total, who ‘more or less make music that [they] want to listen to’ had no idea what a pink film was, so Holl sent over a pile of DVDs and he and Françoise Cactus, the other half of the band, sat down and watched them. It was a bit of an eye-opener. ‘I was really insistent that I didn’t want to make music for a movie where young girls aren’t treated well, because, you know, in some Japanese movies that’s really common, they can be really violent, but I thought this was funny and original. I loved the girl with the big tits, with the sunburn (another love interest of the water spirit), and the hippy God of Death was fun.’
The filming may have been speedy, but the musical part took a little longer. ‘Three years, I think,’ says Göring. ‘We got the storyboard and then we did the music and then the singing.’ Cactus sings the lyrics in Japanese: ‘I know that I have a French accent when I speak, so I was a bit worried about that, but I had a Japanese teacher and she told me how to pronounce the words, and everybody seemed to think it was funny.’ Göring had finished the music ‘and then the whole script was re-written…’
He wrote more music than was used, cut out background stuff, and had a little go at making the music accompanying the sex scenes ironic. He grappled with the fact that some of the cinematography veers from the incredibly sophisticated and atmospheric to the resolutely lo-fi, and fought against the idea that most directors want the score to sound like Schubert. ‘I was surprised that so much of our music ended up in the movie, it was so exciting. As a band we have such a dilettante, un-academic, anti-professional approach, we always feel that’s it’s going to be wrong, if things are going right from the start. We like uncontrollable situations like this.’
Some three minutes of Shôhei Imamura’s Black Rain (1989) have elapsed before the first entrance of Toru Takemitsu’s original score. The credits have rolled, the principal characters and the setting of the first act – Hiroshima, August 1945 – have been introduced. Within only 30 seconds of the creeping entrance of the violins, the blinding flash of white heat has burst upon the frame. So it is perhaps appropriate that one of the chief influences on Takemitsu’s music here is Olivier Messiaen, the composer of the Quartet for the End of Time.
Later, this music becomes the theme of the characters’ scarred memories of that day, as they alternately piece together and try to subdue their memories of the disaster. The strings drift in like a dark cloud. Languorous pedal notes provide a bed for waves of harsh Second Viennese School dissonances that crash intermittently upon shores of the tenderest harmony.
Takemitsu was a great lover of cinema who scored around a hundred films, including for such directors as Kurosawa (Dodes’ka-den, Ran), Ôshima (The Ceremony, Dear Summer Sister, Empire of Passion), and Teshigahara (Pitfall, Woman of the Dunes, The Face of Another). Takemitsu was born in 1930 and conscripted at the age of 14, and his music was founded at a young age on a rejection of Japanese tradition. He developed instead an early interest in the possibility of electronically generated music (roughly contemporaneously with Pierre Schaeffer in France). It was only through an encounter with the music and ideas of John Cage in the 1950s that he came to look again at, and re-evaluate, the music of his own country.
His work first came to international attention after Igor Stravinsky chanced upon his Requiem for Strings in 1957 – at around the same time that he first started composing film scores. The Requiem had itself been written on the occasion of the death of film composer Fumio Hayasaka, who had worked extensively with Kurosawa and Mizoguchi. After Stravinsky’s enthusiastic championing, commissions soon followed from America. By the time of his involvement in the 1970 Osaka Expo, he was firmly established as one of the world’s leading avant-garde composers, but this seems to have scarcely slowed the pace of his cinematic work. In many respects, the funereal music of Black Rain signals a return to the rich swelling tones of the Requiem that first brought him to world attention.
Considering it is the work of a former associate of John Cage, it seems overly reductive to think of Black Rain‘s music as no more than what can be read from notes on a page. The Spartan use of Takemitsu’s score only serves to give it power. The silences that surround it bring us close to his notoriously difficult-to-define concept of ma, which, related to Cage’s interest in the impossibility of silence, would be something like a waiting for sound to become silence, the void of empty space between notes. Throughout the film there is a lively sonorous bed of chirruping crickets and birds, and the fall of rain.
For former soldier Yuichi (played by Keisuke Ishida), the sound of a passing car engine is the trigger for a recurrent attack of post-traumatic stress syndrome. For other characters, the sound of their trauma is more internal, and that is the role taken by Takemitsu’s string music. The connection between the two, between the (diegetic, non-musical) sound that triggers Yuichi’s attacks and the (non-diegetic, musical) sound triggered by the memories of the other characters vividly brings to attention the relationship between these two sonic registers. The gap between the two, between the non-silence of the post-apocalypse and the dream-music of the falling bomb, might serve as a provisional definition of ma.
In a 1994 interview with the Japanese filmmaker Toichi Nakata, the nuberu bagu figurehead Shôhei Imamura explained that his interest in lower-class women stemmed from his post-war black market experiences: ‘They weren’t educated and they were vulgar and lusty, but they were also strongly affectionate and they instinctively confronted all their own sufferings. I grew to admire them enormously.’ It was a difficult period for Japan as the nation tried to rebuild both economy and morale, with lower-class citizens forced to undertake whatever work they could find in order to make it through the week. Imamura came from a relatively privileged background and studied Western history at Waseda University, but was less interested in attending classes than he was in associating with opportunistic racketeers and fallen women. Such encounters made a significant impression on Imamura, who felt sympathetic towards the hostesses, prostitutes and other women in demeaning jobs, and acknowledged the strength that made them more multi-faceted than mere victims of circumstances. Life is hard for the female protagonists of Imamura’s 1960s output, whose characters struggle with a host of obstacles (abuse, ostracism, poverty), yet usually manage to get on with things despite such setbacks. If such depictions of daily drudgery served to make wider points about Japan as a nation in the 1960s, the director never lost sight of the personal struggles. Imamura was very much an anthropologist, stating in a 1985 interview with Audie Bock, ‘My heroines are true to life – just look around you at Japanese women’.
Such themes would not emerge in Imamura’s work until he achieved a degree of independence from the demands of studio production line. As with many Japanese filmmakers, Imamura started his career as a contract player, initially employed at Shochiku Studios, where he worked as an assistant to Yasujirô Ozu on Early Summer (1951), The Flavour of Green Tea over Rice (1952) and Tokyo Story (1953). Disliking the manner in which the quiet master would portray the Japanese society of the period, and desiring a better salary, Imamura departed Shochiku in 1954 to work at rival studio Nikkatsu, where he also served as an apprentice, assisting Yuzo Kawashima, and was elevated to co-screenwriter status with Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate (1957). Having paid his dues on the factory floor, Imamura was offered the opportunity to direct with Stolen Desire (1958), a tale of travelling actors. His following films, Nishi Ginza Station (1958), Endless Desire (1958) and My Second Brother (1959), were pure pop, lightweight entertainments aimed at the youth market, but things changed when Imamura secured a larger budget to shoot Pigs and Battleships (1961). The director’s fifth feature is a scathing satire of post-war Japanese society that filtered its social-economic critique through the story of small-time crook Kinta (Hiroyuki Nagato) and his girlfriend Haruko (Jitsuko Yoshimura), who works as a waitress in a bar adjacent to a brothel. Haruko is the prototype for Imamura’s 1960s heroines in that she is horribly mistreated but remains resolutely practical and progressive.
Throughout the film, Haruko encourages Kinta to leave Yokosuka, a seedy port town where corruption is not so much under the table as out on the street, in favour of a new life in Nagasaki where Kinta could undertake a factory position. However, the young thug believes that he has what it takes to scale the underworld ladder, which turns out to be the kind of misguided self-confidence that fatally undermines life expectancy. Even before Kinta embarks on an ill-fated scheme involving pig-farming, Haruko is considering taking a walk, such is her level-headed nature. As this is an Imamura film, she will have to suffer a little more before she can make her escape from the slums of Yokosuka: reduced to prostitution, Haruko is gang-raped by three American sailors, then tries to rip them off in what could be an act of revenge or just a desperate need for relocation money, leading to a chase through Yokosuka’s red light district. In the closing scene, Haruko strides purposefully towards the train that will take her to Nagasaki, heading in the opposite direction to the large group of American sailors who have just arrived in Yokosuka; this signifies Haruko’s rejection of Japanese society as represented by local crime and the influence of the occupying foreign power, but her future remains uncertain and Nagasaki may just be the first of many temporary stops. While the story of Haruko is told in parallel to that of Kinta, Imamura’s subsequent films would move their heroines to centre stage.
The Insect Woman (1963) famously begins with Imamura making the potentially unflattering comparison between rural peasant Tomie (Sachiko Hidari) and an insect that repeatedly attempts to climb a mound of dirt, only to slide back and try again. Tomie goes through similar struggles in her efforts to gain a footing in Japanese society: born into the incestuous village community of Tohoku in 1918, she leaves her mentally retarded stepfather and unfaithful mother to work in a city factory, only to be summoned home where she is raped and impregnated by a local whose father owns her family’s land. She decides to keep the child and leaves her daughter Nobuko in the care of her stepfather to return to the city, promising to send money home. The episodes that follow show Tomie’s evolution from self-sufficient worker to self-interested operator: jobs as a labour organiser and a nanny are followed by a dalliance with religion, before she seemingly descends into prostitution, only to demonstrate some street-smart business skills when she reports her madam to the police so that she can take over the brothel. As with Haruko in Pigs and Battleships, Tomie has understood the unwritten rules of a Japanese society that is undergoing rapid reconstruction following World War II. But unlike Haruko, she embraces these changes, thereby evolving from abused peasant girl to ruthless entrepreneur. Imamura is unflinching in his observation of Tomie’s questionable choices, but certainly not judgmental, and provides a direct link to his previous film by casting Pigs and Battleships leading lady Yoshimura as Nobuko.
The attempts made by Tomie to advance her standing in Japanese society, economically if not socially, can be contrasted with the efforts made by Sadako (Masumi Harukawa), the heroine of Intentions of Murder (1964), to simply hold on to what she already has. The basis for Intentions of Murder was a sociological study that Imamura had conducted of a woman living in Northern Japan: Sadako is a common-law wife and mother who, at a young age, settled for a life controlled by a librarian husband who cheats on her and a mother-in-law who does not respect her. Although she dutifully performs household tasks and balances the family budget – an emphasis on the appliances in their home serves to note how such things can easily be taken away – Sadako is mistreated by Riichi, who is reluctant to officially register her as his wife because of her ’embarrassing’ peasant background. While the husband is away, struggling musician Hiraoko (Shigeru Tsuyuguchi) breaks into the home and threatens Sadako with a knife in order to extort some money, his act of aggression extending to rape. Afraid of being ostracised from the family and local community if her violation becomes common knowledge, she does not report the rape, and Hiraoko actually becomes her lover as she seeks the sexual gratification that she does not receive from her husband Riichi (Kô Nishimura), who is having an affair. Hitting a low point, Sadako considers suicide, but comes back from the brink to reaffirm her familial status.
The heroines of Pigs and Battleships, The Insect Woman and Intentions of Murder demonstrate remarkable survival instincts; resilient and surprisingly resourceful, they refuse to give up in the face of adversity and manage, in some small way, to improve or stabilise their respective situations, even if happiness remains elusive. Each has a moment that signifies their admirable stubbornness: Haruko refuses to marry an American suitor even though it would bring her family a much-needed $400 per month, the elderly Tomie keeps moving when her wooden sandal breaks, and Sadako firmly denies having an affair despite photographic evidence. Imamura seemed to consider Intentions of Murder to bring closure to this unofficial trilogy of strong-willed women and subsequently directed The Pornographers (1966), which revolves around the activities of adult filmmaker Subuyan (Shoichi Ozawa). There are interesting female characters in Haru (Sumiko Sakamoto), the widowed landlady who sleeps with Subuyan, and her daughter Keiko (Keiko Sagawa), whom the filmmaker desires, but both are gone by the conclusion, which finds Subuyan living in a secluded area with a sex doll for company. To return to the 1994 Imamura interview, when Nakata suggested to Imamura that his heroines ‘all counter the Western stereotype of the submissive Asian woman’, the director matter-of-factly replied, ‘Japanese women generally are like that’. This exchange serves to underline Imamura’s point about Haruko, Tomie and Sadako: these women are as remarkable as they are ordinary, a contradiction that places them among the most fascinating heroines in the history of Japanese cinema.
Pigs and Battleships is available on Blu-ray + DVD from Eureka Entertainment.
The second Zipangu Fest, celebrating the best of cutting-edge and avant-garde Japanese cinema, will be held at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts and Café Oto from November 18 to 24, before moving to venues around the UK. The festival will showcase a selection of Japan’s finest features, documentaries, shorts, animation and experimental films. This year, it includes a strand exploring sound and film, which is previewed below by Eleanor McKeown and Tom Mes.
KanZeOn begins on a tranquil note. A young Buddhist priest kneels, softly chanting while the camera produces languid shots of the temple’s interior. The calm is punctured when he leaves the floor, picks up a set of headphones and starts spinning hip hop records on a set of decks. It is one of many magically strange scenes that make up this thought-provoking exploration of links between Japanese Buddhism and sound.
The documentary follows three individuals in Kyushu: Akinobu Tatsumi, the hip hop-loving priest; Eri Fujii, a master of the Sho, an ancient bamboo instrument that mythically mimics the cry of a Chinese phoenix; and Akihiro Iitomi, a jazz-loving performer of Noh theatre. Divided into elliptical segments, the film switches between the three musicians as they perform their art and discuss what sound and music mean to them. The beautifully filmed sequences leave behind strong images, from the shadow of beat-boxing Tatsumi reflected onto perfect turquoise river water to the inspired performance of Fujii, set against a backdrop of crashing waterfalls. The sounds of nature and human endeavour combine to create exquisite duets. The languorous pacing allows the audience to absorb these fascinating combinations and contemplate the part that music and everyday sounds might play in their own lives. Accompanied by a discussion between SOAS lecturer Lucia Dolce and filmmakers Neil Cantwell and Tim Grabham, the Zipangu festival screening should provide a thoughtful insight into the role of sound in Japanese society and religion. EM
Listen to directors Neil Cantwell and Tim Grabham discuss the film + Tatsumi Akinobu give a performance of his Buddhist chanting and beat-boxing skills on the Electric Sheep’s I’m Ready For My Close-Up radio show on Resonance FM 104.4, Friday 18 November, 5-5:30pm.
We Don’t Care about Music Anyway (2009)
Those who care as much about music as about movies will find a rich harvest at Zipangu again this year. Not least in the shape of We Don’t Care about Music Anyway, Cédric Dupire and Gaspard Kuentz’s rather fascinating documentary on some of the leading lights of Japan’s noise scene. Alternating a round-table discussion between the participants with their individual performance pieces, the film is less radical in its form than Kikoe, Iwai Chikara’s documentary tribute to the great Otomo Yoshihide from three years ago – not to mention Ishii Sogo’s pivotal film on German noise pioneers Einstürzende Neubauten, Halber Mensch (1986) – but it is all the more accessible and emphatic as a result. The debate/performance structure conveys the theory and practice that inform the divergent methods of these musicians. The sparse set-up of the round-table talk contrasts greatly and effectively with the more exuberant mise en scéne of the performance pieces, which see the participants at work on scrap heaps, in underground tunnels, in ruined buildings and – in the most eye-catching sequence (which also provides the film’s main promo visual) – on the beach. Those looking for a history lesson or a broad overview of Japan’s noise scene will be left wanting, since the focus of We Don’t Care about Music Anyway is firmly on the small group of featured artists. As a brief immersion, however, it is a genuine delight. TM
Enter the Cosmos: Takashi Makino Special (2004-2011)
As part of its exploration of Japanese sound and film, the Zipangu festival will be screening a showcase of three films by acclaimed experimental filmmaker Takashi Makino. Makino’s films provide bizarre journeys through enigmatic soundscapes, composed of various sonic textures from the dislocated organ of a carousel to discordant piano notes and extreme feedback. The whir, crackle and drone of machines are accompanied by the imperfections of film and pixelated distortions of video. The visual scale is vast and the pacing is slow, like a 45rpm record set to 33rpm.
The first work, Intimate Stars (2004), provides the most recognisable sounds and visuals of all the films with occasional glimpses of vaudeville performers and fairground rides. The film offers representations of both exterior and interior landscapes as shots of branches and rushing skies segue into images so enlarged as to be wrought into completely abstract forms. The later films to be screened show an even greater exploration of abstraction. Elements of Nothing (2007) and In Your Star (2011) take the audience on trips through different emotional states and immersive sensations from the peaceful plucking of strings to uncomfortably intense feedback. Not for the faint-hearted, these bold, challenging, extreme odysseys provide a fascinating introduction to Makino’s work. EM
Coming soon: Comic Strip Review of Abraxas, about a ex-punk musician turned Buddhist monk.
The 17th edition of the Etrange Festival celebrated psychotronic and gore cinema with two nights devoted respectively to grindhouse and the Sushi Typhoon label. The geeky atmosphere was summed up by the screening of Jun Tsugita’s Horny House of Horror (2010), which must be seen for the sequence in which a penis is prepared sushi-style. The film was presented by the director and special-effects expert Yoshihiro Nishimura, a hilarious pixie who leapt onto the stage and ended his speech with ‘I’m bald because of radioactivity’. The festival lived up to its reputation, with the diversity of the programming remaining one of its strengths, especially thanks to its policy of ‘carte blanche’ (given to Julien Temple and Jean-Pierre Mocky this year) and its unique selection of filmic gems. Nicolas Guichard
The Unjust (Bu-dang-geo-rae, 2011, dir Ryoo Seung-wan)
An honest cop is forced to resort to the worse methods (including joining forces with a criminal) in order to make progress as he investigates a series of children’s murders. This dark crime thriller follows in the footsteps of Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder, but despite a script penned by Park Hoon-jung (writer of Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw the Devil), and director Ryoo Seung-wan’s talent for action scenes, it is not as inspired as its predecessor, nor does it share its sense of the absurd and its delirious ‘realism’. The main idea of the central character’s betrayal (of his principles and of his team) and his voluntary degradation to solve the case (the end justifies the means) is weakened by some longueurs and verbose scenes that tend to water down the dénouement. NG
The Unjust is the closing film of the London Korean Film Festival on November 17. The festival runs from November 3 to 17 and includes a Ryoo Seung-wan retrospective.
Meat (2010, dir Victor Nieuwenhuijs & Maartje Seyferth)
Surreal Dutch neo-noirMeat, a film concerned with the flesh in all its forms, owes its existence in part to the generosity of a local butcher with a passion for cinema, and to that of lead actor Titus Muizelaar. A famous TV actor in his native Netherlands, Muizelaar gave up his holiday time for three consecutive summers to play a part that has since won him a lead actor gong at the Deboshir film festival in St Petersburg. The former provided the lamb, beef and pork – as well as the hands that chop it on screen. The latter plays both a lugubrious detective, coping dispassionately with the sudden suicide of his former partner, and a butcher, grunting and rutting amid the hanging carcasses of his own cold storage like a randy bull. In between the two, Nellie Benner plays Roxy, a young girl seduced, abused and abandoned by seemingly every man she meets. But the real star is undoubtedly the meat itself: chops, steaks and cubed beef heart, filmed in loving close-up, as erotic as any living flesh on the screen. The narrative unfolds with the logic of a dream, drifting wantonly and waywardly into abrupt changes of time, pace and style. A carnal film, both literally and viscerally, with its heart not so much on its sleeve, as on its plate. Robert Barry
Salue le diable de ma part (Saluda al diablo de mi parte, 2011, dir Juan Felipe Orozco)
In this thriller that deftly exploits Columbia’s political reality (the amnesty offered by the state to the guerilleros who have put down their weapons), director Juan Felipe Orozco focuses on Angel (nicknamed ‘El Diablo’), a repentant revolutionary who is having difficulty reintegrating into society. He lives with his daughter in a somewhat shabby flat until one day one of his former victims kidnaps his daughter and gives him three days to eliminate the members of his ex-group. The contrast between Angel’s ghostly appearance and the stylised violence of the action scenes is not unoriginal, but the revenge set-up, in which the victim forces their torturer to avenge them, sadly soon loses momentum because of the plot’s strict linear structure. NG
Alone in the Dark (1982, dir Jack Sholder)
Sometimes the border is the best vantage point for viewing territories on either side. Jack Sholder’s 1982 psycho-shocker Alone in the Dark is just such a liminal case, poised at the very moment when the more politicised, sociological horror films of the 1970s (Dawn of the Dead, The Fury, Scanners, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) turn into the supernatural psycho-on-the-loose slashers of the 1980s (typified by the extensive sequels to A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th). Alone in the Dark, the first film produced by New Line Cinema (A Nightmare on Elm Street, etc.) might have begun in the 70s, but from the entrance of Lee Taylor-Ann (in the role of nyctophobe Toni Potter) in her pink and black ra-ra skirt, inviting the other characters to go out and see a really cool band downtown (The Sic Fucks, as themselves), it is clear that we could be in no other decade than the 80s. In one particular scene we can see the crossover quite precisely. In the midst of a blackout, ordinary citizens are spontaneously looting and running amok. The blackout has caused the sophisticated electronic locking system of the psychiatric hospital to break down and release four homicidal lunatics who walk into this chaos, one of them wearing a hockey mask. It is as though Jason from Friday the 13th had wandered onto the set of Dawn of the Dead (Friday the 13th part III, the first of the series in which we see Jason Vorhees in a hockey mask, was released just three months before Alone in the Dark, so we can probably rule out any deliberate reference on either part). ‘Sure, they’re crazy,’ says Donald Pleasance’s pot-smoking shrink (based on R.D. Laing), ‘but isn’t everybody?’ It is perhaps a shame that the rest of the 1980s slasher films would tend to forget this second clause. RB
Viva la muerte (1971, dir Fernando Arrabal)
This film was presented as part of Jean-Pierre Mocky’s ‘carte blanche’. In his introduction to the screening, Mocky enthusiastically congratulated the organisers because he’d realised, after choosing the films, how difficult it would be to find copies (in particular John Ford’s The Last Hurrah).
Viva la muerte is one of the key works of Panic, the ‘movement’ founded nine years earlier by Fernando Arrabal, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Roland Topor. This autobiographical evocation of Arrabal’s childhood (based on his novel Baal Babylon) and of his memories of the Spanish Civil War moves between the ‘real’ life of Fando (whose father was denounced to the fascists by his mother) and his fantasies (in sequences filmed in coloured filters). But the boundary gradually becomes blurred and porous, as if the unconscious was pouring into reality. Even though Viva la muerte is not as impressive as Jodorowsky’s work, Arrabal recaptures the freshness of Buñuel’s surrealist imagery (Un chien andalou). Thanks to his sense of the baroque and his interest in confusion (a Panic key word), Arrabal invites us to a sort of orgiastic ritual that conjures the mythological figures of the sacrificial victim (the absent father) and the cruel ‘virgin’, both Eros and Thanatos (the mother, doubling up in the character of the aunt). NG
Super (2010, dir James Gunn)
This, perhaps, is what happens when Troma directors grow up – or rather, fail to: they make films in which grown men cry (and then brutally murder various inconsequential characters and cop off with girls half their age). Gunn broke into movie-making in his mid-20s, taking the director’s chair for Tromeo and Juliet. Following the success of this ‘no holds bard’ Shakespeare adaptation for the low-budget schlock stable (home of The Toxic Avenger), Gunn hit the big league with screenplays for two Scoobie Doo films and a big-budget Dawn of the Dead remake. Now he’s back doing his own thing, shooting his own original screenplay, and clearly having a whale of a time. Super follows the comic book life ‘between the panels’ of the world’s most pathetic super-hero, The Crimson Bolt. The film has all the yucks and irreverence you’d expect from a former Troma man – he even finds room to give his old boss, Lloyd Kaufman, a cameo – and it rattles along at a fine old pace. In truth, there’s little not to like here, as long as you weren’t expecting Tarkovsky – and if you were, then, my god, what were you thinking? Where the film falls down is in the moments where it tries to be a little more grown-up. The sentiment is weak and somewhat tacked on. In the end, it’s the bits where the film ‘exposes its real feelings’ that are the true mask, hiding the gleeful, anarchic face underneath. RB
Piscine sans eau (A Pool without Water/Mizu no nai puuru, 1982, dir Kôji Wakamatsu)
An outwardly dull man (played by the impressive Yûya Uchida) enters the house of young women at night, then chloroforms and rapes them. From this premise Wakamatsu creates a strange, oneiric film, a poetic parable on the relationship to the other in a fossilised society. The originality of the film lies in the manner in which the director uses the conventions of the erotic genre and the references to childhood (games with insects and dolls) to compose an ode to the common man’s quest for freedom. It is a freedom that is negative, just like the waterless swimming pool that gives the film its title, as if the relationships between men and women could only be created through transgression. A true moralist, Wakamatsu paints the picture of a man-child who has found the way to literally touch the object of his desire and liberate himself by giving free rein to his erotic madness. NG
Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010, dir Panos Cosmatos)
My pick of the festival by a country mile. Beyond the Black Rainbow is a highly stylised and oppressively atmospheric take on the kind of weird dystopian science fiction the 1970s did so well – Logan’s Run, Scanners, THX-1138, The Andromeda Strain, etc. – from which it picks up and exaggerates elements to the point of parody in a world of coloured lights and modernist set designs. The music is pitched somewhere between the mid-70s synths of John Carpenter and the ‘spectral’ sound of such recent electronic acts as The Focus Group and Boards of Canada. The story is set in a health-resort-cum-religious-community ‘in a beautiful place out in the country’, to quote the BoC track whose mood comes closest to capturing the spirit of this film. Indeed, it could be said that with its coloristic compositions and repetitive scenic plan, the film’s structure is more musical than novelistic, dovetailing neatly with the ‘hauntological’ moment in contemporary music pinpointed by critics such as Mark Fisher, Adam Harper and Simon Reynolds. What is perhaps most intriguing – and indeed most hauntological – about the film is its apt demonstration that, today, in order to present a future that is genuinely ‘other’ one must set one’s narrative not in the world ‘of tomorrow’, but in the recent past. RB
Beyond the Black Rainbow screens at Les Utopiales, the brilliantly ambitious science fiction festival that takes place in Nantes (France) from 9 to 13 November 2011.
Dementia (1955, dir John Parker)
Dementia is a true oddity, cited in Re/Search’s Incredibly Strange Films. Shot in the mid-50s, it is a black and white film with no dialogue, in fact no synch sound whatsoever (a voice-over was added later for the re-release under a different title), just an eerie, creepy score by one-time ‘bad boy’ of new music George Antheil. Tonight, Antheil’s score has been replaced (although ghostly traces of it remain, as distorted loops, somewhere in the mix) by a live soundtrack performed by Church of Satan councilman and occasional white supremacist pin-up Boyd Rice, along with Dwid Hellion from US hardcore group Integrity. Hellion and Rice make use of a bizarre selection of instruments, from the double bass harmonica (apparently recommended by Addams Family composer Vic Mizzy) and a curious brass-pronged device called a waterphone, whose sound is immediately recognisable from a thousand horror films. These instruments are then sampled and looped, punctuated by occasional bursts of distortion pedal guitar noise, in accompaniment to the oneiric narrative on screen. A woman wakes up, wanders the streets, meets a man, murders him, and runs away from the police – only to wake once more, the waves crashing over her dreams like ill-repressed memories. Dementia is usually credited to producer John Parker, but Wikipedia claims it was actually directed by actor Bruno Ve Sota (who plays the Rich Man, and also directed such classic 50s Bs as The Brain Eaters and Invasion of the Star Creatures). Most famous for being the film showing in the cinema sequence in Irvin Yeaworth’s The Blob (1958). RB
Take Shelter (2011, dir Jeff Nichols)
In the rural American south, a miner starts having dreams of a terrible storm coming. When the dreams start spilling out into his waking hours he begins obsessively taking precautions against what he is sure is a real storm to come. The second feature from Jeff Nichols makes more than a passing reference to Peter Weir’s The Last Wave, though thankfully with the magical-native-folk clichés excised. Instead, we are offered one of the more harrowing cinematic portraits of mental collapse since Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life, with which Nichols’s film also shares more than a passing acquaintance. Curiously, the more I found myself nerve-wracked and devastated by the unfolding domestic catastrophe on screen, the more the rest of the audience in Paris started laughing. Actually, now I come to think of it, when I saw Bigger Than Life at the same cinema a few months back, everyone else was laughing too. Maybe Parisians just enjoy watching ordinary Americans lose their mind. Either way, as torment or farce, Take Shelter is stylishly shot and convincingly performed by its two leads, Michael Shannon (My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?) and Jessica Chastain (Tree of Life). RB
Flesh+Blood (1985, dir Paul Verhoeven)
Before Robocop, Total Recall and Starship Trooper, Paul Verhoeven spent his first American film on an extended jaunt around the medieval castles of Spain, bringing along a few old friends from his native Netherlands – Rutger Hauer, Jan De Bont – for the ride. Flesh+Blood is a knights-on-a-quest epic with all the carnage and carnal knowledge one would expect from Verhoeven, playing fast and loose with accents and anachronism, and not a ‘forsooth’ or a ‘hey nonny nonny’ in sight. In a sense, the film is a kind of Once upon a Time in the West for the romance, an elegy for the end of the medieval era. All three of its principal characters represent the rise of a new order against the old feudal ties: Rutger Hauer’s Martin is the ruthless capitalist, who promises his fellows equality only to assume noble airs and graces when the opportunity arises; Tom Burlinson’s Steven could be the contemporary of Francis Bacon, turning science into technology subjugated to the war machine. They are of course one and the same, as Agnes (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh as a scheming opportunist, the very prototype of the modern footballer’s wife) realises only too well. One of the grimiest films about the era, Flesh+Blood is also one of the most insightful. RB
The Hitcher (1986, dir Robert Harmon)
The Hitcher has a great premise, and it knows it, exploiting some very basic fears that have doubtless been felt by any motorist who has ever seen an outstretched thumb on a lonely road at night. With that, the film has a confidence, an assurance that prevents it from taking too many wrong steps. The taut structure keeps the tension high when it needs to be, and always knows when best to diffuse it with a well-timed gag (a severed finger with your chips, sir?). The film’s star Rutger Hauer said in introducing the film at the screening that this is not just a horror film, but also a love story: from the moment his John Ryder thrusts his hand into C. Thomas Howell’s crotch, an erotic power play unfolds with several layers of complexity. One final thought on this film: towards the end, sitting in the back of a police van, Hauer’s hitcher is seen humming to himself the tune to ‘Daisy’, the song Arthur C. Clarke heard a computer sing at Bell Labs and decided to appropriate for Hal in 2001. At this point in the film, we have just discovered that this man has no records on any computer, no place of origin, and is almost impossible to kill. Might he, in fact, be reprising his role from Blade Runner, made four years earlier? RB
The Oregonian (2011, dir Calvin Reeder)
Of course, every festival has to have at least one real stinker, and The Oregonian, sad to say, is really, truly, irredeemably awful in every possible sense. The acting is pathetic, the shooting laughable, the script (there’s a script?!) even worse. The best I can say is that there is nice furniture in one scene. According to writer/director Calvin Reeder’s smug-as-chips IMDB page, he has been named one of Filmmaker magazine’s ’25 new faces of independent film’ – I can only presume they mean faces to run and hide from, faces not to trust with your production money, faces that seriously deserve a good kicking. How this film got accepted into this festival – let alone Sundance earlier in the year – is beyond me. I’d assume the people who made it were taking the piss, that this was some grand spoof on the pseudo-surreal, except this was probably the only film I saw at this festival at which nobody laughed once. I felt pity for the rest of the audience as we grimly endured this useless mess of a motion picture. I sincerely hope that no one involved in this production – from exec producer to set runner – is ever allowed to work in film again. RB
Sudd, a short film by Swede Erik Rosenlund, shows a world of elegant black and white cinematography, gradually being eaten by a disease of animated scribbles. With the rise of high-quality computer animation software packages available off the shelf and capable of turning any laptop into a professional cartoon suite, the narrative of this film could be the narrative of shorts programmes at film festivals the world over, with the increasingly prevalent drawn-not-ray-traced style a kind of compulsory supplement, as much a product of the slick digi-style it seeks to countermand as anything else.
Paths of Glory, shown as part of the fifth shorts package, is little more than a boy’s own adventure dogfight story with some demons and lame-ass heavy metal tacked on the end, etched in the style of the contemporary comic shop. Condamné à vie is more bande dessinée than Marvel Universe and at least raises a few laughs, but still uses the hand-drawn style as a sort of ideological screen to conceal its mode of production. Much better is the somewhat relentless Dutch fantasia Get Real! Here, the scribble is less a self-reflexive imitation pencil than the gleeful mouse-squiggle of a first-time Paint user, a chip-tune-soundtracked story about puppy love and arcade obsessiveness that takes every opportunity to emphasise its own cybernetic provenance.
Elsewhere, big-budget Brit animation A Lost and Found Box of Human Sensation starts off like a mournful, cautionary tale in a vaguely Hilaire Belloc sort of way and ends up as a car advert – it does, however, boast a voice-over by Ian McKellen, which is enough to redeem almost anything. Putain Lapin simultaneously satirises Jean Eustache and Donnie Darko, in a surreal take on the grainy 16mm of the nouvelle vague. As the title suggests, a prostitute meets a giant fuzzy bear, mistakes him for a rabbit, they fall in love. It’s all rather sweet.
The other British offering, Endless, steals from Antichrist and Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho installation with a super slo-mo bathroom murder story with a score that sounds suspiciously like the Handel aria used by von Trier (no prizes for guessing what their temp track was). A hint to Matt Bloom, director of this one: if you’re going to subject your images to the in-depth examination that slow motion inevitably induces, you’d better make sure you’ve got a good image, and not a rather clumsily lit home movie out-take.
The best films on the shorts programme I saw were Sudd (already mentioned) and Decapoda Shock, both of which mixed an inventive and articulate use of ‘real’ cinematography with the freedom of expression afforded by occasional intrusions of animation. The latter, a Spanish sci-fi movie with a man with a lobster’s head for a hero, got my vote for the audience prize in the festival’s ‘competition courts-métrages’. RB
Decapoda Shock screens at Les Utopiales, the brilliantly ambitious science fiction festival that takes place in Nantes (France) from 9 to 13 November 2011 and is curated by some of the people behind L’Etrange Festival. The programme includes scientific and literary talks, exhibitions, video games and films. The film selection includes premieres of Tarsem Singh’s Immortals and Nacho Vigalondo’s Extraterrestrial, screenings of Richard Stanley’s Hardware, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain and Ren&#e Laloux’s Fantastic Planet + short films, documentaries and a conference on Satoshi Kon.
Close-Up’s recent Theatre Scorpio season, running before the BFI’s Shinjuku Diaries series on the Art Theatre Guild of Japan, focused on Japanese cinema’s 1960s underground – literally, as the Scorpio was situated beneath the Art Theatre Guild’s venue. The Tokyo basement venue also played host to performance, dance and music; and while most of the Scorpio’s live musical happenings are no doubt lost to history, Masao Adachi’s Galaxy (1967) is a fascinating addition to what we know of the work of experimental composer Yasunao Tone.
Galaxy is a sort of psychedelic existential quest film in which a young man, laden with the ‘straight world’ trappings of work, tradition and respectability, undergoes a possibly psychotic meltdown, in a series of increasingly surreal, hallucinatory tableaux interspersed with slow pans across gory, cartoon-like drawings. The ‘rejection of society’ shtick is common to the time, but Adachi’s brilliant visualisation of the film’s city setting as a paranoid dream/nightmare space and Tone’s uncompromisingly dissonant, often disquietingly harsh score resonate together with a surprisingly fresh urgency.
Yasunao Tone’s work for film is rarely mentioned now, most likely because it is only to be heard at these very rare screenings. It’s also just one part of Tone’s long and impressively varied career, which started with improvising ensemble Group Ongaku in the late 1950s. Prefiguring European groups like AMM by quite a few years, Ongaku channelled influences like musique concrÃ¨te and the aleatory techniques of John Cage into spontaneous, visceral sounds far edgier than those of their more academic contemporaries. Tone soon became heavily involved with the Hi-Red Centre, a politicised, Fluxus-inspired performance art squad given to disruptive ‘happenings’ (Julian Cope’s Japrocksampler mentions one piece that celebrated ‘non-victory’ by staging a banquet in honour of Japan’s defeat in World War Two). His interest in emerging technologies saw him curating a computer art festival in the early 1970s; he also wrote extensively about Japanese experimental music, and subsequently left the country for New York, where he has lived and worked ever since, with video, dance and countless other media. Now in his 70s, his most recent release was a 2004 collaboration with extreme Austrian electronic artist Florian Hecker. His documenters, then, can be forgiven for seeing Galaxy as something of a footnote.
Additionally, I’m not sure if Tone composed music specifically for Galaxy, or if the director edited pre-existing recordings to the film – if so, it is extremely well put together, choreographed precisely with the characters’ movements. But in places, its heavy use of tape effects, frantic sax and jarring bursts of noise also sound a lot like the Group Ongaku recording ‘Automatism’, a live piece from 1960 compiled in 2000 on Music of Group Ongaku, and I wondered if it might be an edit from an Ongaku or other group recording of the early 1960s. Whatever its genesis, though, its use as a film score changes its meaning.
Galaxy‘s first half plays out amid the roads, roofs, stairs and car parks of the city, and the music reflects the density of this environment. The claustrophobia of the new concrete city is sounded out by a signal jam of collaged noise, radio fragments and repetitive, harsh percussion; the tiled, cold spaces of an office corridor and toilet echo with sharp sax blasts. Tone’s sense of the inherent music of the city is a natural fit with Adachi’s ‘landscape theory’, in which place becomes or replaces character.
As the film progresses to a long, surreal sequence where the protagonist battles with a violent Buddhist monk on a giant outdoor staircase, the music’s focus tightens, becoming less of a soundscape and more of a kind of abstract dance score, with a percussive, tense, stop-start motion similar to Adachi’s jump cuts and the characters’ stylised gestures. The sounds of Buddhist ritual – prayer rattles, gongs – are employed, perhaps as a none-too-subtle comment on religion. More ‘real’ instruments can be heard, but heavily processed. Tone’s fascination with manipulating recording/playback devices would continue: in 1997 he released Music for Wounded CD, the title of which is pretty self-explanatory. Here, the tape effects are another indicator of unreliability, things not being real: even if they’re recorded, Adachi and Tone suggest, they’re certainly not ‘true’. This offsets the visual uncertainty too, as we follow the ever more unreliable narrator through increasingly trippy scenarios.
Finally, the protagonist is spat back out into everyday life – or perhaps not, says the sound. As Galaxy ends somewhat ambiguously, the music states its claim more aggressively, hitting a peak of distorted noise that is a small precursor, perhaps, not just of Yasunao Tone’s own music, but of the Japanese extreme noise scene that would emerge in the 1980s and 1990s.
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews