Friday, October 31, 2014

The Frighteners

I don't have much use for horror movies. The number of times in which I was scared by something in a movie is very low. (The overabundance of stupid movies is, if nothing else, scarier.) I am immune to the vast majority of horror movies - whose utility is - presumably - to horrify. I find them utterly ineffective. The Exorcist worked - it was effectively frightening. After years of Catholic school, William Friedkin's film finally made me think - momentarily of course - that Satan was real. But it was 1974 and I was just 15, even if I've heard a lot of grown ups admit that it scared them, too. (I jumped out of my seat in the scene when Father Karas listens to the tape recording of the demon speaking and the phone rings.)

This doesn't mean that I am incapable of being scared. If I were to mention some of the things that have frightened me over the years, most people would either laugh or wouldn't understand what I was afraid of. I don't mean the fear of dying, which I have felt on a few occasions, whether or not it was justified. (I agree with Woody Allen: "I'm not afraid of death. I just don't want to be around when it happens.")

Even if there is no proof whatsoever for the existence of ghosts, innumerable  serious-minded people have seen them and spoken or written of their experiences. Even George Orwell, who was one of the most clear-headed people of his age, mentioned in a letter that he saw a ghost; though he immediately discounted it as "probably a hallucination." I believe that I met a ghost when I was a sailor stationed in Okinawa, Japan. The base where I was living, called White Beach, had many small caves that had been dug out of the coral cliffs in which Japanese soldiers killed themselves rather than face capture. One evening I was walking the winding road that led up a hill to the main gate, catching up with my buddies whom I couldn't see but were only a hundred yards or so ahead of me. I met a young Japanese man wearing a cap coming towards me down the hill. He stopped in front of me and, without saying a word, asked me for a cigarette by putting two fingers to his lips. I shook my head and mentioned that I didn't smoke, and he just continued on his way down the hill. When I caught up with my friends, all of whom had lit cigarettes, I asked them why they hadn't given one to the man. "What man?" they all asked. Although the man couldn't have come down the hill without passing my friends, they claimed to have seen no one. I blew it off but later I guessed that it might have been the ghost of a Japanese soldier from the caves.

Being scared, genuinely frightened, isn't an experience that I enjoy or try to cultivate, but many people seem to. This time of year people are going to costume parties dressed as zombies, vampires, and various other monsters (or wearing hazmat suits) - not necessarily to scare anyone but to amuse one another with the stereotypes of terror, having fun with what's supposed to be frightening. It's also an opportunity to watch horror films, old and new - everything from Boris Karloff's Frankenstein to Insidious and Insidious Chapter 2.
At the end of 1999, when I was in the last year of my service in the Army, someone very dear to me suffered a terrible personal loss when a man who was in love with her shot himself to death. I never met the man, but I knew he was an Army Green Beret. They had argued the day before and he had cut his wrist so deeply that the nerves were severed. He was patched up in a local emergency room, but knowing full well that news of what he had done would be the end of his special forces career, he bought several bottles of all varieties of booze (he didn't drink, she told me) and then set about getting drunk. She left his apartment - which was only about a block away from hers - that evening and returned in the morning to check on him. She claimed that she hadn't seen the body, but when she described to me how she found his door unlocked and, upon pushing the door open, someone - or something, she said - had pushed back, making her panic and run away, she made me believe that she had probably found the body. The police told me that the evidence made suicide virtually unmistakable.

Along with another of her friends, I did what I could for the length of a weekend to console her. Simply to distract her from the situation, she and I watched a lot of television. We were in the basement of her friend's house, watching cable TV for most of the day and night. I decided to dictate what we watched, which meant that I tried to steer clear of programs depicting violence, people shooting off guns, or people dying. But as I very quickly discovered, it was nearly impossible for me to find a movie or a show on channel after channel that wasn't about guns and killing.

Because she liked Michael J.Fox, we settled on watching a movie called The Frighteners. Believe it or not, it turned out to be one of the least violent programs on the air. It's about a man - Fox - who is mistakenly suspected of being a serial murderer. He has the ability to see a number on the next victim of the serial killer's forehead, but every time he tries to prevent their deaths, he winds up being implicated. Peter Jackson was the director, and he overindulged in the digital effect of superimposing ghosts in many scenes along with the "live" action. This movie special effect is as old as film itself - and almost as old as photography. Originally it required simple double exposures, so that it appeared that two planes of reality existed in the same image.

But Jackson, not content with such analog tricks, used his own brand of digital double exposure that placed the living and the dead side by side in the same frame. The result isn't at all frightening, except when Michael J. goes undercover, so to speak, by deliberately dying so that he can interact more directly with the dead. His death is only temporary, but when it threatens to become permanent, and the film touches on actual mortality, the plot comes to life.

But sitting on a sofa with someone whose friend had killed himself just a few days before made watching The Frighteners far more than merely frightening. 

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Scowls of a Summer Night



In the opening credits of Smiles of a Summer Night, a title announces that it as "en romantish komedi av Ingmar Bergman." By the end of the film, however, it's fairly obvious that we have not been watching a "romantic comedy" in anything close to the conventional sense. Every time I see the film aired or read a review of it or any reference to it, I get the feeling that it's being misrepresented. Even the works inspired by it fail to capture its unique tone. Few people seem to notice how Bergman's film barely lives up to its title - there's very little smiling in this summer night. 

Not that this disqualifies the film from greatness. It is justly identified as a masterpiece, one that occupies a place among the few dozen greatest films ever. Its uniqueness, in fact, derives from its exquisite blend of elements, its fine control over a surprisingly wide range of sometimes violent emotions, from jealousy to bereavement, from the murderous to the suicidal to the pinnacle of true love's fulfillment. All the while we wait for the romantic comedy to appear, we are subjected to something that is deceptively romantic and deceptively comic. Bergman, who would become famous for a quite acrid view of the interplay of men and women, is subtly and brilliantly criticizing our notions of love, sexuality, and the truth.

Frederik Egerman has a very young wife, Anne, who thinks of him as a darling uncle. And he has a very young son who thinks he loves no one but God. Fredrik has a former mistress, Desiree, a successful actress, whom he forsook for his utterly chaste marriage. He thinks he doesn't love her - cannot love her - because her low social status disqualifies her as proper marriage material. Desiree - who comes closest to a master/mistress of ceremonies in the film - has a young son whom she named Fredrik, but doesn't think the man respects her enough to make an "honest woman" of her. Desiree is also the mistress of Count Malcolm, who has a contemptuous view of both wives and mistresses. His wife, Charlotte, loves him painfully - since he cheats on her openly.

On a visit to her old mother in the country, Desiree conspires to bring everyone's latent feelings into the magical light of a midsummer night. She tells her mother to invite everyone to her house for a soiree - an evening that will last until morning. By the time it is over, truth has prevailed over delusion, old relationships end or are renewed, and new ones begin. The film ends a bit far from happily. Bergman clearly had scant use for what is conventionally known as happiness. his characters are all either pitiable or contemptible, despite the thoroughly neat tying up of all the story's loose ends. The only characters that are neither sadists nor masochists are the servants, Frid and Petra.

And Bergman indulges in the hoary old saw that bestows mastery on the mistress, the literary and theatrical conceit of women's superiority over men. Throughout Smiles of a Summer Night there is the suggestion that only women know what's best for men. At one point, Desiree delivers the line,"Men never know what's right for them. We have to set them on the right track." There are even a few hints that loving a man is beneath a woman. There is this exchange between Desiree and her ancient mother when she has the idea of inviting everyone to her summer house:

Desiree: How could a woman ever love a man? Can you tell me that?
Mother: A woman's view is seldom based on aesthetics. And one can always turn out the light." 

And when Charlotte visits Anne, she suddenly launches into one of the most painful admissions of her enslavement by love:

"[referring to Count Malcolm] I hate him. I hate him, hate him, hate him, hate him! Men are horrid, vain, and conceited. And they have hair all over their bodies. He smiles at me, kisses me, he comes to me at night, driving me insane with his caresses. He speaks kindly to me and brings me flowers, always yellow roses. He talks about his horses, his women and duels, about his soldiers and his hunting - talks and talks and talks! Love is a loathsome business. In spite of everything, I still love him. I would do anything for him. Anything, do you understand? Just so he'll pat me on the head and say,'That's a good dog.'"

None of this is in the least convincing as an argument, except for the fact that the film - as with nearly all of Bergman's films - is dominated by the powerful actresses at his disposal. Smiles of a Summer Night belongs to Eva Dahlbeck, who plays Desiree like she was poured into the role. Gunnar Bjornstrand, Max von Sydow and Erland Josefsson are splendid actors, but Dahlbeck, Harriet Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, and Bibi Andersson are the gist - and the grist - of Bergman's films. 

By the time the summer night - and the film - is over, we have the feeling that we've been up all night, but we can't go to bed when the sun, which had never set, cannot rise. It's too late for breakfast, and far too early for a midnight snack. The film leaves us in a quandary: where do we go from here?

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Blue Angel


I was moved to watch The Blue Angel (1930) last week, after reading one of Stanley Kauffmann's reviews - something I do almost daily, it seems, ever since his death last October.(1) The film has never been on my list of favorites. Josef von Sternberg, who adopted the "von" to give himself prestige that impressed the hicks in Hollywood sufficiently to land him a career, is responsible for catapulting Marlene Dietrich to a stardom she would've been better off without. Sternberg is also responsible for the irritating Danish director Lars von Trier adopting the "von" in his honor. 

Having read Lotte Eisner's wonderful books on the subject, German film was leading the way in Europe before the Nazis took over, with producer Erich Pommer, Ufa, Fritz Lang, and G.W. Pabst making up for the loss of F.W. Murnau to Hollywood. Having written before about Pabst's spectral silent film, Pandora's Box, which was adapted from two plays by Wedekind, The Blue Angel comes closer to capturing something of the Berlin cabaret life that Christopher Isherwood wrote about in Berlin Stories and I Am a Camera. Carefully restored from elements that owe their existence to luck, accident, and the erstwhile efforts of Henri Langlois, to whom a cinephile Nazi entrusted the original negative, even as Hitler's agents were busy destroying all evidence of the film and of anyone who appeared in it, it's an example of what Goebbels called "decadent" art, because it showed us a Germany that bore no resemblance to the Nazi fantasies of a master race. So it was condemned, along with other priceless works of art and literature, to the bonfire. Freud, who was safe in England, remarked on the wholesale destruction of German culture with an oddly forboding joke: "This is progress. In the Middle Ages, they'd have burned the artists, too."(2) 

The role of Henri Langlois, founder of the Cinematheque Francaise, in the preservation of The Blue Angel is widely acknowledged. In the film Le Fantome d'Henri Langlois, Serge Losique, of the World Film Festival Montreal, tells the story of how, during the German Occupation of France, Langlois had to resort to elaborate efforts to rescue certain of the films in his possession from confiscation and destruction by the Nazis. In particular, Hitler was bent of destroying all the negatives of The Blue Angel. Losique explains:

"The Blue Angel was, as you know, very rare, and Langlois saved the negative. . . . An SS officer who loved the film and loved Marlene Dietrich, he phoned Langlois to propose a trade: in exchange for a documentary on the Maginot Line, Langlois would get the Dietrich negative, which was smuggled to safety in Switzerland. Henri found a documentary of no military pertinence and gave that to the Germans. And that's how he saved The Blue Angel negative." 

In the aforementioned review, Stanley Kauffmann discussed a documentary called Prisoner of Paradise, made by Malcolm Clarke and Stuart Sender, which examined the fate of Kurt Gerron:

"Those who have seen Sternberg's The Blue Angel have seen Gerron. He plays Kiepert, the manager of the cabaret troupe that features Marlene Dietrich - a heavy man, with jowls and a gruff yet humorous voice - with accessible compassion. Kiepert is also the magician of the troupe, and at the wedding party of Dietrich and Emil Jannings he pulls eggs from the groom's nose. In the climactic cabaret scene, he breaks eggs on Jannings's clown-wigged head. . . . Gerron and some of the rest of The Blue Angel cast were prominent in the Berlin entertainment world of 1930. (Hans Albers, the strongman who tempts Dietrich, was a popular star who not only survived the war but later even had his face on a German postage stamp.) The fate under Hitler for some of the others was as black as Gerron's . . . When we pick up any German or Austrian artwork that was made in the decade before Hitler's rule, we almost always pick up at least one tragedy with it. The Blue Angel has more than one, but Gerron's strikes hardest." 


Marlene Dietrich made good her escape to Hollywood, as did her idolater Sternberg, whose subsequent films with her helped to create an image that made "smut," as Vernon Young once put it, "divine." She also transformed herself from the fleshy, winningly genuine young woman in The Blue Angel into an emaciated Hollywod goddess; and Sternberg was changed from a risk-taking artist into an obedient factory employee. Dietrich and he parted company after the string of films they made together - six more in just five years - degenerated into ludicrous, fetishistic trash.


For me the most fascinating aspect of this film, from the perspective of eight-four years later, are the shots of the crowd at the nightclub The Blue Angel, the faces of the audience, laughing and heckling at the extraordinary goings-on on stage. Sternberg caught a moment in history in those faces, and as a representation of the lower strata of German society that would've frequented a dive such as The Blue Angel, it's no wonder Hitler wanted the existence of the film effaced, since the Germans Sternberg shows us look far too human.    

Looking at Dietrich, in her bloomers and gartered stockings, it's amazing what our grandfathers once found titillating. After all the hoopla over Dietrich and Sternberg and, by now, the memory of the hoopla, The Blue Angel simply isn't all that satisfying as a film. Professor Rath's downfall, as acted by Emil Jannings, looks like a slow-motion train wreck. The Heinrich Mann novel on which the script was based, like others of his novels that were eventually made into films, demonstrates why his brother Thomas won all the awards.(3) 


(1) "The Berliner," The New Republic, December 22, 2003.
(2) Freud was dead by the time the death camps were discovered.
(3) The Hungarian director Istvan Szabo succeeded in making one of Heinrich's novels into the intriguing film Mephisto.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Right One



In the long and mostly unrewarding history of remakes, nothing better illustrates the differences between Hollywood and the rest of the world (including, of course, that largely undiscovered country called America) better than a Hollywood remake of a foreign-made film. When a film from France or Argentina or Mexico scores a better-than-expected international success, one or another Hollywood producer can always be relied on to try to repeat its success with a remake.

In some cases, they will hire the Japanese or Polish or Turkish guy who made the original film to make the remake. To use one example among many, a Dutch thriller named The Vanishing was released in 1988, which was directed by George Sluizer. It was a remarkably effective, carefully crafted film about a young woman's disappearance and the lengths (including, among others, guilt) to which her lover goes to find her. A young Dutch couple, Rex and Saskia, on vacation in France stops at a gas station for refreshment when, to Rex's - and our - mounting astonishment, Saskia vanishes, seemingly, without a trace. Rex searches everywhere for her, but after days, turning into weeks and then months, Saskia's whereabouts remain inexplicably unknown. Did she simply leave with someone else, not wanting Rex to find her? Rex commits the whole of his life thenceforth to finding her. He appears on television and posts placards around the place where she was last seen. Finally, he is contacted by someone, a Frenchman, who claims to know where she is. When they meet, the Frenchman explains that, in order to know what happened to Saskia, Rex must drink the contents of a thermos cup. If he refuses, the Frenchman will never tell him where she is. The rest of the film fulfills the brilliance of the writing, pacing, and framing of this set up.

When the film became an international hit, George Sluizer got the inevitable call from Hollywood. He was hired to direct a remake, ostensibly for everyone who can't stand films in a foreign language and who believe that "nothing alien is human to me." The remake, however, was just about everything that the original film was not - blatant, prodding, and utterly unconvincing. It consequently failed on virtually every count in which the original triumphed for both both critics and audiences. What happened? Clearly, the American producers believed that, to attract a bigger audience, Sluizer had to forget all his subtlety and skill to make his film luridly - and stupidly - obvious. And he had to change the ending.

Another film, Let the Right One In (Låt den Rätte Komma In), made in 2008, was similarly mistreated by Hollywood. The overall effect of Tomas Alfredson's film, adapted by John Ajvide Lindqvist from his own novel, is of a serious film momentarily streaked with bizarre details. These details are jarring not because they are intrusive and blatant. They jar because everything around them is exactingly convincing. After the credits, the first thing we see is snow falling against a dark sky. We are introduced to a boy, Oskar, who, we learn, is bullied at school and who has a fetish for knives, pictures of knives, and newspaper clippings about violent events. Then we follow an older man who has moved into the vacant flat next door with a young girl whose name is Eli. The first thing the man does once they're inside is block the windows with posters and cardboard. Then he leaves the flat with a case carrying a few objects - an empty plastic jug, a funnel, a large carving knife, and a small gas canister with an attachment to cover a person's nose and mouth. Outside, at night, he meets a man on the road, gasses him with the canister, takes him farther into the woods, hangs him by his feet and cuts his jugular vein. We can hear the blood trickle into the jug, but the man has to abandon his victim (and the half-filled jug) when a poodle appears nearby, followed buy voices. The woods are incongruously well-lit for such a gruesome act, and two girls discover the dangling body.

Just when we reach the point when we think that the film we are watching is going to be about school bullying or about a serial killer, out of the frozen blue comes a living, breathing vampire. (You can see the steam when she speaks or exhales.)  It's Eli, the young girl who just moved in next door. The older man is a quite incompetent caretaker who provides her with blood. He does this voluntarily, it seems, but he is obviously terrified of her. Oskar and Eli somehow become friends. No attempt is made to try to make us believe in vampires. If there had been, my opinion of the film would be much lower than it is. It is all simply presented like the details of any ordinary story involving ordinary people. But not so simply - the film is shot with a delicacy and clarity one has come to expect of Swedish film since the beginning. And the actress playing Eli, Lena Leandersson, was a genuine discovery. She reminded me of Patrizia Gozzi, the girl in the now forgotten Sundays and Cybele.

There is another tradition, however isolated, for such a film as Let the Right One In. In his long career, the fabled Danish director, Carl Theodor Dreyer made films about vampires (Vampyr), witches (Day of Wrath) and about resurrection (Ordet), each of them made from Dreyer's approach of what if such things were real? Dreyer was, according to accounts, a devout Christian, so his belief in any of these things was aesthetic rather than real. He wrote and directed his films with an absolute trust in the authenticity of his skill as a filmmaker.

Such a skill can be seen in the framing, staging and pacing of Let the Right One In. The expensive Hollywood superhero movies employ digital effects that make things like flying, which would seem to be one of the most common fantasies, look so real that one wonders if the next Superman will actually be able to fly. But not even such seamless and perfect effects make anyone in possession of their senses believe that superheroes have any existence outside of comic books and the tawdry imaginations of their creators and their fans. Between them, there seems to be a tacit agreement that reality is best is best left outside in the street.

Never to be seen to be outdone, someone in Hollywood (Matt Reeves) decided he could do this crystalline Swedish film one better.(1) He kept very close to the plot of the original, duplicating many of the scenes. Of course, he also decided that the original was too fine, too true, and far too careful with its subject. So instead of looking at a typical snowbound Scandinavian city (the latitude of Stockholm is 60 degrees - the same as Anchorage and St. Petersburg), the Hollywood film is set in a quite unreal, gloomy, northern locale (Minnesota?) where it's nearly always cloudy and where everything is frozen. It seems more like a fantastical place than a real city, and that was one of the director's choices. The film gave me the feeling that it had been adapted from a graphic novel. By the time the last scene arrives, with the boy and the vampire traveling on a passenger train (Amtrak?), it doesn't come as any kind of surprise - as it did in the Swedish original.

The American version does have its merits. But it comes across as little more than an offbeat horror film, whereas the strange beauty of the Swedish film derives from its careful matter-of-factness being streaked with the vampire elements, which, though they are handled just as carefully, seem to have come from some other film.  


(1) Let Me In is the title of the remake. It features good performances by Chloë Grace Moretz as the girl/vampire, and Richard Jenkins as her caretaker.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Detrimental Tourist

No journey is truly aimless. There is always some ineluctable force that drives us this way or that, with or without an itinerary. Explorers without maps usually had some goal, even if it was nothing but to get to the other side. Most of the time, whether we're aware of it or not, choosing a direction is a moral decision, a choice that we make purposely. Robert Frost found two roads diverging in a yellow wood, and took one. But he wrote a poem about the road he didn't take. It was the fact that he had to choose that made him wonder.

Over the past few years, I have watched most of the episodes of Anthony Bourdain's curious travel cuisine TV shows, No Reservations, Layover, and his award-winning CNN show, Parts Unknown. His pervasively world-weary tone gives his travels a strange feel, as if he were a very reluctant traveler. He is cynical, acerbic, and morose in places where we might dream of going, like Vietnam, Myanmar, Brazil, Russia, and right at home, it seems, in places like Cleveland and Detroit. He seems determined not to be surprised. He sounds like he's already seen it all, and is only seeing it again in order to get his jaundiced observations on the record. He is underwhelmed. He spends so much of his time dwelling on the things he doesn't like - complaining about the heat, the laws, the overcrowding, the language barriers - that by the time he settles down to eating a satisfyingly meal, which is the reason he went there in the first place, it hardly seems worth the trip.

He tells us proudly that he doesn't go where the tourists go - that he has never been to the Louvre or visited Big Ben or seen any of the "must see" sights of virtually any of the famous places he visits. Food is his true pursuit. Fellow chefs are often his guides through Europe, Asia, America North and South. But, watching his shows over the years, I notice how much of time his world-weary mood is the result of his heavy drink the night before. It seems like he looks at the world through the fog of a hangover. If you were to travel with Bourdain, you would be taking your liver into your hands. And he is sometimes open to taking other drugs, which might explain why his latest program, Parts Unknown, is blacked out to viewers in East Asia.

He is absolutely the last man I would choose to promote tourism to anywhere. I'm surprised he isn't banned from some places in the world, simply because his going there will automatically get it checked off many people's itineraries. Because, if there is one feeling that pervades Bourdain's video travels, to the back streets of Rangoon or Brazzaville, it is disdain. He reminds me of another travel writer, Paul Theroux, who once visited a Philippine island not far from the one on which I am living (if you can call this living). Theroux was left alone on the tiny, deserted island for a day and night, which inspired him to muse that he considered it his paradise, one whose most noticeable characteristic was the complete absence of people.

There is a story that Cicero related about a friend who returned from a vacation just as exhausted as he was when he departed. "Of course you are," Cicero told him. "You took yourself with you." I'll bet Bourdain writes things in his journal like, "Remember to be nauseated." He sometimes talks about his "bucket list." It must be the weirdest bucket list in existence. As Bourdain should know, Life - and especially a life of travel - isn't a stupid checklist of Things To Do Before One Dies. Too often in life, the phrase "been there, done that" only causes one to return, to be there and to do it again and again and again.



Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Fine Art of Remembering


Every now and then there are reports in the news about a Japanese prime minister visiting a shrine called Yasukuni that honors - or at least tries to honor - Japanese war dead. What makes visiting the shrine such a sensitive issue for other Asians is that it honors the war dead of World War II, a war in which the Empire of Japan invaded first China, then Korea, Indochina,and a great number of Pacific islands, leading eventually to the surprise attack on American naval forces on Pearl Harbor and the simultaneous attacks on the Philippines, Hong Kong, Malaya, and Singapore. After three and a half years of tenacious and often suicidal fighting, the Japanese suffered total defeat, the country was occupied and war crimes trials convicted the leaders of Japan's Imperial war machine - with the exception of the man for whom the Japanese fought so tenaciously and in whose name every atrocity of the war had been committed, Emperor Hirohito himself.

The exemption of the Emperor from prosecution for war crimes has since been revealed to have been a condition of Japan's "unconditional" surrender. Wanting the costly and protracted war to be over, the Allied forces agreed that putting the Emperor on trial would keep Japanese nationalism alive and make their pacification more difficult. It was the Emperor who announced to the Japanese people - who had never before heard the voice of their divinity - on the radio that their country had surrendered.

The reconstruction of Japan was miraculous, but it was based on mass amnesia: not only were memories of the war sealed off from the present, but it's roots in feudalism had to be unearthed and eradicated.(1) History books supplied to Japanese schools either glossed over the salient events of the war, like the Rape of Nanjing, in which an estimated three hundred thousand Chinese civilians were slaughtered by a rampaging Japanese army, or eliminated. The surviving "comfort women" - women forced into prostitution for the Japanese army - emerged in the 1990s to tell their stories. When I lived in Japan at the time, I watched an elderly Dutch woman tell her story at a government hearing. She was taken prisoner when the Japanese invaded Malaya, and was singled out because of her youth and beauty and forced to provide sex for battle-weary soldiers. What I remember particularly about her story was that she said that she could easily identify the soldiers who raped her by the permanent marks she gouged in their flesh with her fingernails.

Regardless of how the Japanese have gone about it, they have been utterly meticulous in the mending of their ways, of transforming themselves from a nation prepared for and focused on war to one of the most remarkably peaceful, and peace-worshipping nations in the world. For the sake of their survival as a race, they have turned their backs on their martial past and on the values that both fostered it and that it engendered. Today, the only memorials to the era prior to 1945 that you will find in Japan are peace memorials - monuments and shrines devoted to the values and perpetuation of peace.(2) Unfortunately, this peacenik culture has made it difficult for the Japanese to come to any genuine terms with their war-time past. 

This doesn't mean that all Japanese people forgot the events of the war or tried to evade responsibility. In the 1950s, several books were published that recounted some of the worst moments of the war. If the books had a single prevailing theme, it was defeat. Since the books were best sellers in Japan, prompting film producers to purchase the rights for their adaptation, there must have been plenty of people who wanted to keep some memories of the war fresh in their minds. The films based on three of these books were released in the West to widespread acclaim: The Burmese Harp, Fires on the Plain, and The Human Condition. While two of the three films - both directed by Kon Ichikawa - can be interpreted as powerful statements against war, in keeping with the pervasive cultural revulsion against it, the third film, directed by Masaki Kobayashi, is a direct indictment of Japanese militarism, and, released in three parts, is one of the longest and most harrowing films ever made.        

The Burmese Harp (Biruma no Tategoto, 1956), set in Burma in the closing days of the war, is about a platoon of Japanese soldiers traveling the front lines, entertaining the troops with their singing. Among them is Private Mizushima (Shoji Yasui), who plays a Japanese harp. The war ends and while the Japanese soldiers wait for their repatriation to Japan, Private Mizushima is asked to help persuade another group of Japanese soldiers, that have barricaded themselves in a cave, to surrender. They shoot at Mizushima as he reaches them in the cave, and he tells them that the Australian soldiers outside have given them a deadline to surrender. The Japanese soldiers decide, despite Mizushima's efforts, to fight to the death and in the ensuing bombardment, Mizushima is nearly buried alive.

Thanks to the help he receives from a Buddhist monk, Mizushima survives, but he steals the monk's robe and decides to devote himself to burying the bodies of the Japanese dead that remain strewn across the country. He doesn't realize the terrible futility of his efforts until he comes to a broad river and discovers a huge pile of Japanese corpses on its banks.

The film has its flaws, which are due to its mawkish sentimentality.(3) The story of the film was derived from a children's novel by Michio Takeyama, which should come as no surprise when you find yourself squirming in the scene in which Mizushima's platoon, surrounded at night in a hut, try to deceive the British soldiers outside by singing. The song they sing, to Mizushima's accompaniment on his harp, is better known to English-speaking audiences as "There's No Place Like Home." The British soldiers recognize the tune and sing it in English along with the Japanese soldiers. There is also the implausible use of a parrot that is "taught" to deliver messages between Mizushima and his comrades held prisoner in a camp. They try to persuade Mizushima to come back to Japan with them, but he tells them he cannot find peace until he buries all the Japanese dead in Burma.     


Fires on the Plain (Nobi, 1959), based on the autobiographical book by Shohei Ooka, is, as far as possible, an even more relentless despairing depiction of Japanese soldiers in the war. Set on the Philippine island of Leyte just after the enormous American invasion in 1945,(4) it follows one Japanese soldier named Tamura, who, to top things off, has TB as he retreats across the island, a nightmarish trek on which he encounters other Japanese soldiers, all of whom are slowly starving to death. With nowhere to run, Tamura finds himself in the company of a man who has been reduced to eating human flesh - the flesh of his dead comrades. He calls it "monkey meat," but Tamura runs away from him. Ichikawa, three years after The Burmese Harp, doesn't need to explain what's happening, like the Filipino partisans who fire on surrendering Japanese soldiers. Why would they be so bent on revenge?

Ichikawa changes Ooka's ending. The partisans have lighted bonfires (the "fires on the plain") to attract Japanese soldiers and promise them food if they surrender. Ooka survived his ordeal, and was converted to Christianity by his Filipino captors. But Tamura in the film surrenders only to be gunned down by the partisans.


Probably the most overpowering Japanese film about the war era is Masaki Kobayashi's The Human Condition (Ningen no Joken, 1959-61). Based on the six-volume work of Junpei Gomikawa, Kobayashi adapted it two volumes at a time, with each part of his three-part film lasting more than three hours. Altogether, without credit sequences and intermissions, it is 579 minutes - or 9 hours 39 minutes - long.

Gomikawa was a pacifist and socialist who was sent by the Japanese army to work in Manchuria. It is there that he witnesses the true genocidal face of the Japanese empire. Kobayashi had been a soldier serving in Manchuria. He expressed his resistance to the brutality he witnessed by never seeking advancement to a rank higher than private. The story concerns Kaji, played masterfully by Tatsuya Nakadai, who is sent to Manchuria with his wife during the war to supervise a mining project which uses forced labor. He witnesses acts of brutality against the Chinese laborers that are so routine that he gradually turns against the Japanese army commander, and against the Japanese role in the war.


Kobayashi considered making The Human Condition his life's work. But he didn't stop there. Kobayashi would go on to make more popular films like Harakiri (Seppuku, 1962) and Samurai Rerbellion (Joiuchi, 1967), both of which are attacks on Japanese feudalism and the hollow samurai ideal. Then he made a documentary in 1983 on the Tokyo Trials. The war and its legacy, which most Japanese were trying to forget, was his lifelong subject.     


(1) For example, one of Akira Kurosawa's earliest films, They Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail, was banned by the American Occupation authorities because of its supposed support of feudalism.
(2) This has led inevitably to distortions of the truth. In Hiroshima, for example, many American visitors have been driven by the horrific evidence on display in the museum of the atomic explosion there to tears and apologies. The overwhelming message that such memorials are sending is that Japan was the great victim of the war, no matter what they may have done to provoke a response as terrible as the dropping of the Bomb.
(3) The version screened in the West, and the one released on DVD by Criterion, is 116 minutes long. The version Ichikawa released in Japan is 143 minutes. Oddly, Ichikawa directed a color remake of his film in 1985 that has none of the raw power of the original.
(4) The site of the landing is just south of the city of Tacloban, which was hit by the most powerful tropical cyclone to make landfall in history on November 8, 2013. I'm now living about a hundred kilometers from there.