L'Amour Japan

Recent Frissons in Japanese Cinema

published in Metro Magazine No.149, Melbourne, 2006
Heart Beating in the Dark (New Version) (2005)

The bittersweet tears of European arthouse cinema

A staple cliché of cinematised amour French-style is the couple at a café who slap each other's faces, then lock into a passionate kiss. Then slap each other again. Then kiss again. It's the tell-tale perfume of arthouse 'relationship cinema' - a fragrant flip-flopping as a couple loose themselves in the madness of love. Early French Nouvelle Vague expressed it as a volatile mix of ennui and Eros, from the mannered chamber prose of Eric Rohmer and Agnes Varda to the heightened emotional collages of Jean Luc Goddard and Jacques Rivette. These very 'French' relationships of l'amour fou savour emotional instability in the face of clean commitment and dramatic resolution, and their ongoing depictions in arthouse cinema are persistently celebrated as having depth, realism and integrity.

Yet there is something tired about the way these dances of modern love are played out still - nearly half a century beyond the palpable explosiveness of Goddard's Breathless (1959) and a quarter of a century after the faux-French wallowing of Antonnioni's Last Tango in Paris (1974). Arthouse cinema and its affected ties to an intelligentsia that invests cinema with the purpose of enlightened literature and compassionate theatre has for a long time been a self-stating pantomime of flip-flopping as boys and girls slap, then kiss, then slap, then kiss. A self-proclaimed humanism is extolled in modern and contemporary arthouse cinema as if there is something noble and liberating in 'being human' - and as if mainstream cinema is by comparison 'un-human'. But the predictable opposition to vacuous modes of Hollywood cinema and its false characterizations is these days on par with wearing beads round your neck and flowers in your hair. A cinema that reactively spurs Hollywood's formulaic reductivism is merely generating a stance sans substance. Arthouse cinema as platformed internationally through the world's trans-national film festivals often seems to heroically 'defy' Hollywood's shallow rendering of the laws of attraction, but in place provides slackened characterisations which present 'being human' as obvious, given and boring.

These modern relationships - we might designate them 'romantic tragedies' with comforting outcomes - are continually bred in the world's arthouses, in precise proportion to Hollywood's viral spread of 'romantic comedies' and their sobering outcomes. They constitute two sides of the one coin heavy with sticky inertia: each portrays the emotional amniosis two people smear across each other as part of a pained rebirthing of their selves in the face-slapping, tear-wiping and crotch-massaging of their emotional connections.

Non English-speaking cinema amplifies and echoes the well-sung cries of the modern relationship drama, but the sound of one face being slapped is the same no matter how foreign or exotic the tongue. The 'waves' of 'new national cinema' trumpeted by film festivals annually become more unintentionally self-parodic. The cuisine smells different but the bittersweet tears taste the same.

The glycerine tears of Japanese arthouse cinema

Clearly, there is an audience for singles and couples who 'identify' with the emotional sado-masochistic exposure endeared by modern relationship stories. Clearly, this same sprawling audience invests heavily in what amounts to a mix of self-centred therapy and emotional pornography. And clearly this audience leafs through the pages of international cinema like a psychological travelogue, experiencing cultural difference while assured of the inalienable fixity of love and its effects upon those in love.

How to discern and/or maintain stable cultural difference upon the ocean churned by global arthouse cinema's frothy modern humanism is a difficult task. In such a saturated domain, modern love - despite its quasi-universalising in both Hollywood clichés and arthouse ordinances - becomes but a spinning gyroscope of serialised and modularised love-pulls. And the more a film tries to wrangle these dynamics at either script level or in performance modes, the more forced the flip-flopping. Hollywood script doctors thrust down your throat characters you must care for; arthouse malaised auteurs thrust down your throat identical characters. Critics in both camps transcribe the films' couch sessions. Rape, love, collapse, betrayal, suicide, retribution, redemption - these typical dramatic tropes morph into the high-brow equivalent of the Olympian gymnastics which currently determine the abject bodily objectification of hardcore pornography.

Shunichi Nagasaki's Heart Beating in the Dark (New Version) (2005) is a thoroughly saturated text in this respect. It is an openly declared remake of Nagasaki's Super-8 film from 1982 and in many ways is a collective re-consideration of the original film. The original cast (Takeshi Naito as Ringo and Shigeru Muroi as Inako) appears in this new version, extending their events twenty years later from when they were a couple on the run after having killed their baby. Running parallel to their stretched story is the contracted story of the new cast (Shoichi Honda and Noriko Eguchi, playing another Ringo and Inako respectively) who likewise portray a couple on the run after having killed their baby. Far from a sensational schism, the death of the baby in each couple's story is symbolic of an absence upon which their relationships are precariously and fraughtfully balanced.

On the one hand, a large proportion of the film is full of the irritating aimlessness and disaffected sallowness of the modern lovers' bond - embodied by the tortured tensions between the younger Ringo and Inako. On the other hand, the doubling of the dual relationship trajectories provides a meta-commentary on the landscape of modern relationship cinema. The film's interjections of its own filmmaking process (obliquely referencing the 'self-textualising' of the psychodramas of Goddard, Rivette, Garrel, et al) particularly give voice to senior Ringo's desire to punch out the character he played in the original film. More than a deliberated playfulness despite the genuine humour of these moments, the connection between the two Ringos is one of karmic atonement displaced across characters and generations. The beauty of the film is the unique sense of balance it strikes by its conclusion - even though the passage to the concluding folds of the drama of each couple and their chance networking is a long and draining one. The final temporal weaving of the two couples' guiding lack is memorable.

While so much modern relationship arthouse cinema lacks cine-materialist construction and prefers to 'author its vision' via prescribed literary, theatrical and cinematographic mechanisms, Heart Beating in the Dark (New Version) extols a deliberate rhythm which dramatically voices the film's momentum. Accordingly, a brief and repeatedly halted theme by Yoshihide Otomo combines slowed-down drum pulsing with shimmering electric guitar chords. The theme rarely gains momentum and its stop-start revolutions cannily delineate the claustrophobic mental spaces inhabited by both couples.

The acidic tears of Japanese transience

Green Minds Metal Bats (2006); The Volatile Woman (2004)

Japanese fiction moves through cycles of connection and stasis according to large arcs of karmic fate. Characters are rarely themselves, and tend to less 'find themselves' than become new versions of themselves. The who, how, what and why of character development can be rendered insignificant in this light, and chance occurrences are ground zeroes for character formation. Two films by Kazuyoshi Kumakiri exemplify this: The Volatile Woman (2004) and Green Minds Metal Bats (2006, based on the manga by Tomohiro Koizumi).

The story of The Volatile Woman is as familiar as the slapping of faces and smacking of lips. A pathetic young robber (Shunsuke Sawada) stumbles across a remote petrol station tended by the widow Etsuko (Mitsuko Ishii). Yes, he holds her captive; yes, she turns the tables on him; and yes a protracted love affair grows in the overlapping shadow of their emotional proximity. The title recalls the Tatsuni Kumashiro films from Japan's heady 60s psycho-exploitation 'pink/Eros' cinema emblazoned with the obligatory tag "woman" in their titles. As such, The Volatile Woman holds its stethoscope close to the mysterious internal ticking of Etsuko. Nearing her biological use-by-date and unfulfilled by a life yet lived, the silence of her isolation demarcates her domestic space with a deafening hum of unresolved desires. The invasion by a bumbling robber is less a rupture and more a receiver of the oppressive ambience within which Etsuko has entombed herself. It's as if she now hears herself humming in her self-imposed silence.

With terse yet tender precision, the film captures her quivering tensile fluctuations. From her undisclosed distaste for the banalities of her customers' lives to the private pleasure she enjoys in catching butterflies, Etsuko's make-up is that of the archetypically lonely woman whose loneliness is her true volatility. Conversely, the much younger robber is a brutish ball of inadequacy: he vomits continually, can't repair his motor bike, and is foolishly empowered by a young girl's thrill in discovering his notoriety as a petty criminal on the run. A deliberately unlikely couple, the film skilfully pairs them despite themselves. Their bond - occasionally tortured, mostly touching - is the fuel they use to escape the binds of the social macrocosm which ridicules Etsuko's individualism and her robber's ineptitude. It's an emotional fuel more inflammable than petrol and more volatile than a woman's unrequited love, leading to a cathartic conclusion that leaves one hanging onto the self-destructive high they momentarily enjoy by recklessly riding off into the sunset.

Green Minds Metal Bats is imprinted with the same study of how improbable relationships are actualised. Eiko (Masanubo Ando) is a frightfully self-destructive dynamo. Endlessly drunk, kicking and stomping at any object nudging her numbed physical perimeter, she appears intent on spinning toward some inevitable implosive end. Her path crosses for no reason with Namba (Pistol Takehara). A could-have-been contender repressively daring to continue dreaming of being a pro-hitter in a major baseball league, his job as a convenience store clerk has numbed him as much as alcohol has Eiko. A slyly cracked mirroring of these two is slowly revealed throughout the film. Eiko hits out at anything and everything: her stilettos puncture car bonnets; her fists flatten innocent teens' noses; her reckless test-driving of an expensive car incurs formidable damages. Namba is her reflected opposite: he only occasionally hits out by fiercely swinging his metal baseball bat. Mostly, he holds the stance ready to hit, waiting for the moment that has not come - fearing that the moment indeed may have passed.

The unlikely bond that shapes the relationship drama of Green Minds Metal Bats is actually a matter of synchronism. Eiko is grid-locked by a past she cannot transcend; Namba is frozen by a past he cannot transform. A school friend of Namba becomes the conduit for a temporal passage from their locked past to their present self-realization. Ishioka (Maki Sakai) is now a disconcertingly pessimistic policeman who can barely be bothered to lift a finger in the name of the law. Symbolising a harsh Japanese disregard for the rituals of legality, Ishioka sees through all social facades surrounding him. This inevitably includes the frail spectre of Namba which Ishioka belittles, thereby forcing Namba into acknowledging how his chance connection with Eiko can push him into realising his emotional potential despite his failed dreams. Namba and Ishioka's past hinges on an apparently insignificant game where Ishioka's pitching put himself and Namba out of action. Yet they both realise that their game was never played through, leaving them to now resolve its outcomes. Similarly, Eiko perceives Namba's capacity to synchronise with his true present as an example of how she might develop similarly and break her past-inducing cycles of violence.

Like A Volatile Woman, the conclusion of Green Minds Metal Bats is far from ultimate, yet its momentary glow - like the fireworks the latter's couple set off at the seaside - is brimful of the acknowledgement of transience which shapes Japanese notions of the self as a free-floating vessel always simultaneously half-empty and half-full. And like The Volatile Woman, Green Minds Metal Bats belies a cine-literate orientation in casting infamous director Koji Wakamastsu as a homeless drunkard baseball player. Wakamatsu's 60s/70s films like The Embryo Hunts in Darkness and Violated Angels constitute important developments in depicting the self as a blank figurine disturbingly dressed in layers of psychotic cloth. Less solipsistic than Wakamatsu, Kumakiri employs a similar fabric from which to cut outfits for his own disaffected characters.

The sickly tears of Japanese psychopathology

The Lost Hum (2006); Analife (2005)

The mask of Japan is a most impassive visage. The stillness of the face withholding the most simmering of compulsions is a formal archetype in Japanese fiction, theatre and painting. French passion is always a splattery detonation: lovers clash in a mash-up of Fauvist, Cubist and Expressionist refractions. Japanese lovers move toward similar phlegmatic splintering, but the extenuated shaping and timing of their expulsions firmly connects the l'amour fou of Japanese relationship dramas to the mannered peaks and planes of noh and kabuki.

The generational shift from Nagasaki Oshima to current directors might be caricatured as a slippage from kabuki to karaoke. Japanese love dramas since the late 90s have insolently revelled in an evacuated pop landscape, where the gaudy is flattened and the hyper-speed of modern life is motion-blurred into a debilitating sameness. Upon such an emotionless plane, Japanese lovers are rendered as complex and confused apparitions whose purpose and statement can be hard to register.

Hiromasa Hirosue's The Lost Hum (2006) effectively side-steps the convention of siting doomed lovers as displaced by Japan's post-modern social terrain, and shifts its narrative to what happens to a relationship after its consummation. Nagamiya (Hiromasa Hirosue) has recently killed a wheelchair-bound friend. Her sister Hasumi (Ari Takagi) then holds Nagamiya captive in a rented apartment. Immobilised by her compulsive action, she makes a website asking visitors what she should do with her captive. Visitors to the website are allowed to visit the apartment to enact whatever justice they see fit to the bound Nagamiya. In some senses, The Lost Hum is a reversal of so many 'pink' movies from the 60s based on a man enslaving a woman in an apartment and 'rebuilding' her psyche through sadistic intervention. These films form a major phase in the ongoing 'geisha effect' which presents Woman as a voided and self-voiding receptacle for aggressive sexual frustration - both Man's and hers. From an enlightened western perspective, this cultural lineage is a problematic one that makes for uncomfortable cinematic experiences. The Lost Hum relocates that discomfort from the gender arena into the wider social terrain of revenge, justice and retribution. Again, a familiar series of twists and turns shift the perspective from the morally justified to the maniacally judgemental, as the visitors to the apartment reveal themselves to be more dysfunctional than Nagamiya and the burden he bears of his dreadful actions. The power of this film is not the obviousness of such moral realignment, but the way in which it posits a singular relational tragedy - Nagamiya killing Hasumi's sister - as merely a node in a wider social network of disaffecting human relationships.

A trio of psychopaths are portrayed in Kenji Goda's Analife (2005). Sometimes unintentionally funny (mainly due to some unfortunately inappropriate British dubbing in the first three quarters of the film), their psychoses are definitely in the extreme - exemplified by the clinical naming of the characters as A, B and C. A (Takahashi Nobusada) is a serial anal rapist; B (Masuda Ayumi) forms a sexual partnership with a random killer by taking photos of his dead victims; and C (Yokota Yohei) obsessively collects and analyses trash and garbage left outside people's house. One could be forgiven for dismissing these obsessed characterisations as wilful attempts to shock an audience. The film's reserved tone morphs into one of unintentional absurdism as each tells their story in (British) voice-over through a series of digital stills and composited movement. Each of their confessionals ends with them noting rectal problems, which leads them by chance to end up at the same proctologist's waiting room at the same time.

Now it would be understandable to have just read the above and presume that Analife is either a wild Jap anarcho-comedy or a deluded sensationalised expose of modern life. It actually is neither, and the po-faced presentation of its sexual and anatomical dysfunction accords with a uniquely Japanese acceptance of bodily relations and functions which Western culture finds queasy or defensively ridicules. In this film, anal inflammation is simply and innocently a symbol of psycho-social malaise. Just as each of the characters has a bizarrely backwards 'rectal' connection with society (exemplified by their collective disregard for the lives and feelings of others), so too do they experience an anal numbness as a psycho-somatic materialisation of their unfeelingness toward others.

One could be equally forgiven for having an adverse reaction to the film's denouement. The confessionals are considerably drawn out and deliberately emotionless in tone, yet the visual stylisation is akin to a merger between Japanese CMs and the recent video art of Ryoji Ikeda: gratuitous digital effects abound and constitute a virtual noise spectrum for the character's internal monologues. Additionally, the gorgeous hyper-melodic electronic score by Rei Harakuma bathes the stilted demeanour of the characters in a compassionate ambience. And it is precisely here that a Japanese vernacular of characterization is evident in Analife: A, B and C are simultaneously repressed and expressed by and through their relation to others. While they simmer with invisible and inaudible psychotic compulsions, they definitely act out their urges with hyper-antisocial force. As with much Japanese fiction in various art forms, a contra-Freud effect is discernible in the self-awareness with which characters coolly yet violently workshop their schismatic sense of self.

If the film's complex contradictions of tone, style and orientation make for a difficult reading, Analife's conclusion confounds. Two aliens suddenly appear in the proctologist's surgery, transport the three patients to an alternative dimension of a forest, and force them to sing in rounds a children's song about bears in the woods. At this point the film shifts to manifest dialogue (as opposed to the preceding latent monologues) and through the song chorus forces the three to literally voice something beyond themselves, after which they return to an intergrated social reality and are effectively cured. It's a feel-good ending whose phantasmagorical allegory is less theatrical or cinematic and more synonymous with the teen psycho-theatrics of millennial anime like Neon Genesis Evangelion, Tamla 2010 - A Punk Cat in Space and Gantz, where outrageous symbolic means justify a calming, own-pitch resolution.

No more tears

Collectively though not definitively, the films discussed here (all presented at the 25th International Film Festival of Rotterdam, 2006) have been deliberately arranged to sound out Japanese inflections of the predominantly European modes of relationship drama of the arthouse calibre. Japan's special attraction to French culture - modulated by a unique dialogue since the Edo period - has in this case been highlighted to demonstrate ways in which recent Japanese cinema navigates the clichés and contortions of l'amour fou in a climate where the cinematic clutching of humanist aspiration has become overbearing and dogmatic. Abounding with dualities, contradictions, negations and imbalance, these films in a frail yet fulsome way confront the impasse reached by arthouse cinema in a lingering post-Nouvelle Vague milieu. Emotionally exhausted, their residual silence is a welcome respite to the histrionics of so much rote face-slapping and lip-smacking.

Text © Philip Brophy. Images © respective copyright holders.