The Human Condition (3/3) – Escaping Death/Wandering in the Wilderness

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Masaki Kobayashi’s monolithic trilogy, The Human Condition (1959-61) is a legend in cinema history. Based off of the six part novel by Junpei Gomikawa (which has never been translated into English, fun fact), the 9 hour trilogy is an epic chronicle of one pacifist’s journey through the last years of Japan’s involvement of WWII and its defeat, while exploring and navigating the brutal heart of darkness of the governing systems of imperialism and aggression, alongside its often vicious and intolerant perpetrators. Seen through the eyes of Tatsuya Nakadai who plays Kaji, we take an ardently non-conformist journey through Japan’s savage heart.

Using the recently re-released Arrow Films version (found here) I will be detailing the experience of the 9 hour epic in three parts. Each film is divided according to its Japanese version into two parts, making for six parts in total, the names of which title the entry.


A final reckoning with death is everyone’s last stop. The infinite paths of life can take you in almost every direction, in any combination, with everything in between ready to distract and re-direct you. But no matter how complex or confusing your path may be, you and everyone and everything around you will inevitably weave your way towards the same point. Whether something comes beyond it, whether you run from it and try to circumvent it, whether you walk willing into its arms or if you’re taken there by a cruel twist of fate is all part of your games with life. But you will always arrive at that door. And it will always open. And you will always have to go through it.

A.O Scott said in his 2008 review that “Kobayashi’s monumental film [referring to the whole series] can clarify and enrich your understanding of what it is to be alive.” Kaji (like all of us) is fated to die. And as he reaches that point, as his soul is stripped bare for a 9 hour and 47 minute celluloid odyssey, I really did gain some clarity in what it means to be alive, or at the very least, I managed to see the flames which drive us onward in the dark of night.

A Soldier’s Prayer (1961, Dir. Masaki Kobayashi) is the final installment in The Human Condition/Ningen No Joken. In film history, often the last film in a series has usually faltered in quality in comparison with the first or second installment. Regardless of your opinion of The Godfather Part III (1990, Dir. Francis Ford Coppola), it is a laughable challenge to make a case for it being a better film than The Godfather (1972, Dir. Francis Ford Coppola). Spiderman 3 (2007, Dir. Sam Raimi) may be a dream or a nightmare in your eyes, but it is tough to argue its a better made film than the first one, Spiderman (2002, Dir. Sam Raimi). That is not the case with A Soldier’s Prayer, this in my eyes is easily the most intense and well crafted of the three, if only because it builds on the already well established expertise and foundations of the first two.

It does this in two ways. The style of the film evolves in this part, most prominently in Yoshio Miyajima’s cinematography, which morphs from its stark realism into these hallucinogenic dutch angles, as characters traverse the increasingly feral landscapes, with increasingly feral desperation. The first episode in the film is one of its most harrowing, as Kaji leads a group of refugees and defeated soldiers through a seemly endless forest, food dwindling, tensions fraying and people dying. As they wander the terrain, the camera’s impact increase tenfold as it becomes disoriented, falling off its axis and looking at its subjects in increasingly strange angles. They begin to brush with death from sheer exhaustion, and even the camera struggles to stand. The cinematography is still just as exquisitely precise, but after two films of realist looking, the switch is powerful.

The soundtrack slowly begins to segue into a more nebulous world as well. Not only does the work of the composer Chûji Kinoshita grow increasingly intense and overwhelming when it is used, but Kaji engages in a series of internal monologues and visions of his imagination, mainly to do with his primal goal driving him home of his devotion to his wife Michiko (Michiyo Aratama). Beyond the sound, the lighting of the film becomes far more impressionistic and influenced by techniques of chiaroscuro, as Kaji’s battle and his character become increasingly darker. This is a far cry from the fresh-faced Kaji who came to improve labour conditions in the prisoner’s work camp, in No Greater Love, and the technical choices of the film are incredibly well orchestrated to reflect that, right up until its final seconds.

Meanwhile, as I’ve been hinting at, Kaji’s trajectory continues on one of the cruelest downward spirals ever committed to celluloid. True there are many stories of suffering, of characters inhabiting worlds somehow even uglier than the one Kaji lives in, but watching every step of Kaji as he is laid low by the world around him, as the half dreams of the socialist republic are destroyed piece by piece when Kaji finds his role reversed, now a prisoner in a war camp rather than managing the prisoners. Every act of his rebellion, resistance to the ugly and vicious world surrounding him, is betrayed the moment he turns his back. His pain lies not just in that people can’t be as good as him, but that people are so indifferent to the concept of good at all. Kaji reckons with the realisation that only the strong survive, but the cost they pay is one he can hardly bear.

When I spoke on part two, Road to Eternity, I talked about Kaji reaching his breaking point to survive. Here however, Kaji breaks well and truly because his pacifism shatters into an act of furious vengeance, rehabilitation giving way to the bursting dams of retribution. Kaji furiously beats a man to death with his own prisoner’s chains, before leaving him to drown in the latrines, a man responsible for the purposeful death of Kaji’s friend and surrogate son, Terada. Kaji becomes unbearably human as the weight of the injustices he had to endure forces him to snap, he can no longer turn the other cheek to the violence he has suffered through. It’s both intensely cathartic and deeply sad.

The film expands even further beyond Kaji here, as he encounters figures beyond his immediate surroundings. Refugees fleeing the fighting are cut from all cloths, and their wounds bleed too. In this existential world, there are no heroes and villains, only humans who are capable of both. This reaches its crisis when Kaji and his soldiers enter a town made up almost exclusively by soldier’s wives. In what many would simplistically as a detour into a fantasy harem, Kaji understands the morbid revelations told to him by one of the more outspoken wives, as oaths of fidelity and marriage are broken against the terror of the abandonment the women suffer. The conflicting ideals and desires and fears are the stuff of humanity, and the film’s scope is enriched more so than the previous installments simply due to the range and variety of people encountered.

A Soldier’s Prayer really is a reckoning. A reckoning with death yes, but also with every theme and instance of suffering Kaji and the audience endured. Due to the novel’s and film’s immense popularity, it’s said that Kobayashi received letters reportedly begging him to give Kaji a happy ending. What really cuts through this, is not the fact the letter was written, but where the letter came from, a sense of profound empathy and a desperate hope to allow Kaji some grace, some respite from his sufferings. And Kobayashi’s unwillingness to compromise is reflected in Kaji’s unwillingness to give up, right up until his last breath. What it cleared up for me then (in being alive), was the reckoning that life contains many sufferings with only glimmering moments of relief snatched from its jaws, no matter who you are. You may never win, but resistance is not futile. For all of Kaji’s trials, what makes them worthy is his ability to inspire, not through physical violence or shrewd trickery, but by sheer force of will.

Even if Kaji is just a fictional construct, a character in a story that was put together in the head of another man, who’s played by an actor (with legendary eyes) it doesn’t matter. Kaji is an idea. And you can’t kill an idea. It will just wander in the wilderness until its rediscovered. Go rediscover it.

Kaji

-Alex

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The Human Condition (3/3) – Escaping Death/Wandering in the Wilderness

The Handmaiden: Shifting Exotic Sands

The Handmaiden

WARNING: The following blog post, like the film itself deals with some very frank and explicit mature themes, sexual and non-sexual and please be noted of that before reading on.

There’s a saying about buses. You wait and wait for the bus which never arrives, and then suddenly two or three or all of them come at once. It’s not Shakespeare, but it constantly resurfaces in my mind. While I try to look at every film on its own terms, I find it humourous than in my life, I should have experienced two films concerned with lesbianism, BDSM themes, and the undercutting of audience expectations in such a short space of time, the first being The Duke Of Burgundy (2014, Dir. Peter Strickland) and now The Handmaiden (2017, Dir. Park Chan-Wook). Of course they’re not two sides of the same coin, but I find the parallel too relevant to pass up.

The Handmaiden is lots of things, most of them shrouded in shadows until they’re suddenly brought out into the light. Primarily, it’s an adaptation of the 2002 novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. Taken from its original setting in Victoria era England, it’s replanted in 1930’s colonial Korea under Japanese rule. It gains much from this, allowing the director to fuse his own culture into the film’s DNA, melding quite literally its English heritage and its Asiatic influence into every part of the film. Most prominently in the mansion which the characters inhabit for half of the film, as the English style manor, (which echoes the Manderley estate found in Rebecca (1940, Dir. Alfred Hitchcock)) literally has a Japanese inspired wing attached to its side. This, alongside with far more subtle and delicate introductions, shows how impressively a story can be transported across the artistic and cultural boundaries we might unconsciously draw when placing a work into a particular time, a particular history.

One thing The Handmaiden might be is not necessarily timeless, but certainly in that place where it becomes a lot harder to keep track of. It’s world is isolated, enclosed in itself. You could imagine months, years passing in its languid flow and barely noticing. It’s characters are so interested in each other, that everything else falls away beyond their own commitments and desires to each other, or against each other. It’s world is one of suffocating isolated beauty and cruelty in equal measures, like an alluring but poisonous flower.

Another thing The Handmaiden might be is profoundly intelligent, for better and for worse. I find it wryly amusing that in a blog whose name literally means truth, it should be so concerned with a film which is based on so many levels of intimate deception. But the genuine pleasure of watching (more on that later) the film is mainly involved in its careful intricate layers being revealed to you, as your expectations are constantly conned, the nature of the hustle like playing cards with someone using a stacked deck. You may feel cheated at times, furious you have been taken in so completely, but its a tribute to the film’s quiet entrancing power.

One thing The Handmaiden could be is incredibly sensitive, both in its eroticism and its handling of its themes. It’s world is muted and dreamy, and its’ two main inhabitants, the Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) and the Handmaiden Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) find that fragile blooming of love in a nest of vipers, which Park Chan-Wook displays most intensely in moments small and large. In small moments, a delicate tooth filing while the Lady bathes (much weirder in text form than in the imagery) and in large moments, in intense erotically charged sex scenes. The scenes probably will provoke strong analysis’s  from those who love to politicise film and its makers, but I believe you’ll be hard pressed to discover more genuine and more sensitively crafted scenes of intimacy in film that are this uncovered and open. Furthermore while they’re arguably crafted in a voyeuristic way for the camera, this is integral to that key aspect of cinema, of watching without being seen, all of us Peeping Tom’s and voyeuristically taking part in their relationship, just as the men surrounding them try to do.

The thing The Handmaiden could be about is those power dynamics which take place in those hidden secret realms of men and women, those dark corners where perversions and desires grow in our hearts, which can turn them black and twist and distort those around us to places we don’t even let ourselves imagine, much less speak out loud to each other. It’s opulence, its exquisite surroundings, its beautiful landscapes and obsessively fetishised clothing hide such ugliness underneath, an ugliness which lies in the revelry of pain and the inflicting of it, on themselves or others. Those power dynamics of darkness twist round these characters, and its only through outmaneuvering the black hearts, not by appealing to their better nature that our main protagonists can allow themselves the freedom and the ability to allow something light to grow from their darkness. It’s power dynamics feel horribly real because good doesn’t triumph through its own virtue, it triumphs because it’s guarded, kept secret, kept hidden while its murderers are pitted against each other.

I can’t be completely sure about anything in The Handmaiden, it would be missing the point of the film. What I can say is Park Chan-Wook’s work is elaborately and intricately well crafted, it’s subject matter both emotionally and intellectually strong and twisting and at each level its style is unique and entrancing, even if it might not be to everyone’s taste. There’s a lot of truth in that, even if I can’t be 100% sure of it.

-Alex

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The Handmaiden: Shifting Exotic Sands

Lost In Translation – Translation Errors

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The first time I saw Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation (2003), it was after a 34 hour all nighter. Naturally, I fell asleep about 25 minutes in. But what I had seen during those hallucinatory minutes, drifting in and out of consciousness before falling into slumber, had been enough to enchant me, so that when I awoke, like a fairy tale, I immediately watched the film. Spellbound, it became one of my favourite films, a film of intense subtlety and desires.

Re-watching it again recently on a big screen, reminded me just why I loved it.

Lost In Translation, directed by Sofia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides) stars Bill Murray as an ageing middle career actor, Bob Harris, arriving in Japan to shoot an advert for one Suntory Whiskey. Scarlett Johansson plays Charlotte, a recent graduate from Harvard married to a man she’s not sure about (one of my favourites, Giovanni Ribisi), while Bob’s marriage has arrived at a point in time where the functional has taken over completely. Both of them are alone, both of them in a country they find alien, both of them wanting intensely that they had someone who understands.

All of this becomes accentuated by a gorgeously shot Japan. Credit where credit’s due, Lance Accord cinematography presents a world both stunningly beautiful and incredibly jarring in its complexity and stylistic differences to the Western world. The rich vibrant colours of Japan feel tactile here, subtle but luxurious, and the visual presence of scenes is one of deep intensity, constantly pulling you into the world these characters are in.

One of the things that has been raised about the film is about its portrayal of the Japanese culture, how often it seems like it is played for cheap gags at the expense of the Japanese people, how their isolation relies largely on their inability to integrate or understand the Japanese way of life. Which is a deeply frustrating and misguided criticism, because it seems to stem from such a place of malice. Culture shock is a very real phenomena, and very rarely does one have the opportunity and experience and luck to be truly exposed to another culture in a way that someone who has lived it would understand. The Japan they experience is alien to them because it’s a completely different way of life, and the vast chasm of culture is bridged throughout the film, haphazardly and awkwardly, but bridged because they get out and see some of Japan, even if through the eyes of a foreigner.

Anyway, it is not the film’s primary concern to bridge that gap. The location becomes a character in the film because it helps to visually reinforce and explain the inner turmoil of the two lost characters. If that relies on a construction of misunderstanding and misinterpretation, then that’s precisely the aim and driving message behind the film. The translation errors are not just in the language, or the culture, they’re in the ways we lie to ourselves, lie to each other, warp things around us to help avoid some of the more painful burdens we carry. The film seems to carry a warmth for the land they’re in, and presents many facets of the Japanese way of living, from the traditional (Geisha sequence) to the new at the time (Pachinko Parlor, Arcades) to the isolated bubbles built up in every culture to avoid the homeland’s culture (the Hotel itself, which could be anywhere in the world). To suggest that it relies on making fun of the Japanese people is to miss the point entirely, something cruelly ironic in regards to this film.

Bill Murray is nothing short of a modern enigma, one of those actors who simply is employed time and time again over, simply for his persona but also his ability to act. Half of it seems to stem from being Bill Murray, the other half being his genuine astounding ability to fill the impressions of whatever role he’s in. He is Bob Harris in this film, never once are you plagued by that searing doubt mid film where you go “Oh, that’s Bill Murray playing someone”, he is consistent and constantly believable in an achingly painful role. Exactly the same can be said for Scarlett Johansson, at the time still a relative unknown. I’ve already waxed lyrical about its cinematography, but again the way the frame allows the characters room to breathe, to be mellow, to allow for those natural pauses in dialogue which makes it feel more intimate, more well real.

Finally of course, as all great films, its strength lies in its story. The writing is sincere, honest to the point of painful, as we see how relationships might really fall apart, even for those who live up in ivory towers of wealth and fame and fortune. How the dramas of life often unfold in those subdued, quiet longings rather than those great dramatic explosions we’re so used to. How those relationships we build drift slowly downstream, sometimes into a different current, pulling us away from what we were so sure about moments ago. How our inner worlds only barely peek through at the light on the surface, the attraction growing between them through snatched glances, despite everything surrounding them. It’s a dream, played out away from the reality of the consequences that follow it. The story beyond it is probably filled with pain, heartbreak, probably a messy divorce on both sides (who knows?) But in the moment, it’s a beginning, and it helps to keep in mind the beginnings that our main characters had before with their partners who they’re so dissatisfied with at the time of the story, and that while its painful to acknowledge that things aren’t right anymore, at least for Bob Harris and Charlotte, that’s because they’ve found something that is right.

But who knows, maybe that will get lost in translation too.

-Alex

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Lost In Translation – Translation Errors