Thursday, December 31, 2015

Lamentable

So I am left
To mourn (without a chance of consequence)
You, balanced on a bike against a fence;
To wonder if you’d spot the theft
Of this one of you bathing; to condense,

In short, a past that no one now can share,
No matter whose your future; calm and dry,
It holds you like a heaven, and you lie
Unvariably lovely there,
Smaller and clearer as the years go by.

Philip Larkin, "Lines on a Young Lady's Photograph Album" 18 September 1953



Regarding film, which is my eternal return, an event has taken place this month - appropriately at the year's end - that has signaled a sad transition. It was the announcement of the death, at the age of 95, of Japanese actress Setsuko Hara. The sadness that the event awoke in me is part of a very long and, for film, very arduous journey.

Hara, whom the late Donald Richie adopted as "our Setsuko," was the last of a generation, a very great generation, of people whose enrichment of their culture through their work in film is inestimable. Although I lived for awhile in Japan and for a time immersed myself in Japanese literature, from Lady Murasaki to Kenzaburo Oe, it is primarily and most powerfully through its films that, over the years, I have got to know Japan. 

I wrote about Hara, who became known as the "Eternal Virgin," more than a decade ago for Senses of Cinema. She appeared in her first films during the war, even becoming a pin-up girl for Japanese soldiers, and emerged after the war as a favorite actress of both the veteran Ozu and the young Kurosawa, although she represented for the two masters quite different types of Japanese heroines. For Kurosawa she was, in his initially overlooked but now treasured film, No Regrets for Our Youth, a new Japanese woman, emancipated and headstrong. But it was for Ozu, in what are regarded as his late masterpieces, Late Spring (remade a decade later, also with Hara but in the role of the abandoned parent, as Late Autumn) and especially Tokyo Story, that she played the perfect daughter, the loving and long-suffering object of Ozu's paternal adoration. 

Ozu died in 1963, and shortly after that Hara unceremoniously withdrew behind a veil for the last fifty years of her life. She became a curiosity, the subject of wild rumors - as anyone might become who revokes all the fame and glamor that so many others seek and can only dream of. She silently retired at a time when Japanese film was in a crisis, when filmmakers like Shinoda, Oshima and Imamura were finding new ways to see a new Japan. But Hara would live long enough to witness an end, but not - I hope - the end, of Japanese film as we once knew it, and film production in Japan given over almost exclusively to anime, a peculiarly Japanese brand of animated films.

I remember an essay from the Seventies by Richie that was inspired by something he witnessed in a Tokyo subway. Commuting in a typically jam-packed subway car, Richie saw a young man standing, with one hand on an overhead strap to keep himself from falling to the floor as the train hurtled to its destination and the other hand gripping a thick paperback manga - a hugely popular Japanese comic book. The young man was holding the manga within six inches of his face and he was wearing headphones. So here, Richie commented, was the new Japanese citizen: completely cut off from the world around him, absorbed by the music blasting in his ears and a quasi-pornographic comic book in his face. 

Hara must have looked at the anime phenomenon in Japanese film as Donald Richie did, as an incalculably lamentable moment in which the Japanese chose to stop looking at themselves, to avoid clear and honest representations of themselves and their lives in films and to turn instead to an entirely manufactured, artificial place, some of which reveals great artistry, but which also asks us to look away from life, away from an image of ourselves that we can give to succeeding generations.

Watching as the Japan that Ozu, Kurosawa, Kinoshita, Naruse, Toyoda, Kobayashi, and Yamada brought to such vivid life walk so determinedly into the sunset has been intensely sad - and even sadder for Donald Richie and Setsuko Hara who belonged to that world and knew every square kilometer of it.

The people who loved their world enough to have created such an imposing monument to it - Tokyo Story, Ikiru, Repast, Kaseki, and The Eel, among so many others - are now all gone and there is no one prepared to take their place. It isn't just people we have lost, it's the world - a real world and not a pretend universe of idealized fantasy figures - they, or someone like them, might have showed us that is also lost. 

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