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

Something Old, Something New: Beauty and the Beast and Cinematic Adaptations (1946,2014,2017)

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It’s very easy when you first see a version of a story, in a theatre somewhere or a film or hearing it in an audiobook, or even just the images you conjure up in your mind when hearing or reading the story for the first time, to cement that as your concrete vision of how the story should look. The uproar that fell upon the casting choices of J.K Rowling’s stage performance of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, where the role which Emma Watson had filled for the cinematic versions of the installments of the Harry Potter series was given to a woman of colour helped to bring those deep cemented ideas of what our characters should look like out of the woodwork, in this case in a particularly unattractive way.

It is harder then, as a viewer, to detach yourself from what you think of as “your version” of the story, at least I have found this in my experience. To allow yourself to dive back into the same story over and over, often with its shape and structure morphed and tinkered with by whoever is adapting it, and continue to enjoy the version even though your reference point is a lot more deeply rooted in your head. For me, my reference point of the story of La Belle et la Bête or in English Beauty and the Beast is the 1991 Disney animated version, directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise. Of course the original reference is the 18th century novel itself, but our modern understanding of fairy tales is most widely found in our films, or so I believe.

So then I wanted to take a look at three different versions of the story and see how they brought the story to life, where they succeeded and where they might not have. Adaptation of a story is something which can bring radically unique instances of the story itself, and so by looking at these versions (the cinematic classic of 1946, the more faithful adaptation to the literary source of 2014, and the Disney live action remake of 2017 of its own animated classic), I’ll try to find what makes these films beyond their shared core, that of the love fable.

CINEMA CLASSIC (1946)

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Why do I call this one a cinema classic, what makes it so? Well, this adaptation is directed by Jean Cocteau, one of French cinema’s most distinguished auteurs and accomplished artists at a time when celluloid was beginning to really stretch its legs. Not only that, but it also starred one of the biggest names of French cinema, Jean Marais. And finally, the reasoning for it being held up as a cinema classic is because it has endured long beyond its time, the film being released one year after WWII finished, some 71 years ago on this day of writing. The first full length feature adaptation of the French story itself, this version has helped cement the legacy of Beauty and the Beast in public consciousness, and has most likely been a touchstone for every adaptation since.

So what makes up this version, this adaptation? Well it is closer to the original literary source, Belle’s troubles primarily enlarged by her surrounding family and amorous suitor as well as her stay with the Beast himself. But there are changes, permutations of it. Minor alterations, the amorous suitor himself Avenant is not in the original story, or the breaking into the glass room containing the statue of Diana. One inclusion from the story itself which deserves recognition is Belle’s sisters rubbing onions in their eyes to pretend they are weeping, something which evoked proper laughter from me.

But the story is only one part, and it is the part where the cinema has the least impetus to reveal itself. After all, the backbone is in the script, in word form. But what about what’s put in front of the camera? Well, besides the poetic language and dialogue which runs through like a rich vein, the images themselves are a haunting spectacle. In black and white, striking compositions of light shine through the castle, in near pitch-black darkness, evoking near holy imagery at some points it seems in the silence of the audio track. The setting of the castle itself is true magic, with silent human faces carved in elaborate baroque flourishes watching Belle silently, or the candelabras held by human arms lighting in tandem. It’s a testament to the skill of Cocteau that he manages to get so much out of a little, in comparison with the computer generated spectacles of the other two adaptations. Through old cinema tools, the fades and the superimpositions, the straight cuts and reversed footage, the work looks positively old-fashioned by today’s standards, but then so what? In the context of 1946, this mastery of cinematic trickery and illusion would have been breathtaking.

And while the film’s style will entrance you or irritate you, depending on your penchant for flowery elaborate French cinema, it is always interesting to see the story through the prism of the director. In this adaptation, the Beast himself is an agonised wretch “My heart is good, but I am a monster”. The pain he exhibits, though filtered through a costume which exceeds Liberace levels of extravagance, really helps to ground the nature of the story itself, of how this woman could fall in love with an animal. Josette Day as Belle is entrancing, even if her character would seem positively one-dimensional by today’s standards. And Cocteau stays true to the magical nature of the story, by having them ascend into the sky back to the Beast’s kingdom where they will rule in true happy-ever-after fashion. Through all this, it’s not hard to see why the film has endured, even if it has inevitably aged, its beauty in its cinema is undeniable.

LITERARY CLASSIC (2014)

Beauty and the Beast 2014.jpgThere are more than three adaptations of Beauty and the Beast, and they all have their own unique stamps to be placed upon the story. This adaptation, by Christophe Gans, occupies a unique space in my opinion however, due to two things; 1) it is the first adaptation of the original story written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villenvue, rather than the abridged versions most commonly known by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont (see history here). 2) The film occupies a space in time after the Disney rewriting of the fable itself, so that the most commonly known version of the story in Western culture is the musical 1991 version. As a result, this commitment to the original story, plus its choice to film the dialogue in French can possibly seen as a committed attempt to try to recover the French sense of identity of the fable itself. However, I’m hesitant to commit to that idea, mainly because it lies outside the scope of what I write about, namely how the film adapts the story. With that said, let’s delve into this adaptation.

If there’s one stark contrast to its cinematic predecessor, the abundance of computer generated imagery in this film is such a visual reminder of the chasm which has opened up in terms of cinematic tools since the time of Jean Cocteau. Not that CGI is inherently evil or good, in fact in this film its’ abundance works to its advantage in truly ramping up the scale of its fantasy setting, the film spilling out with glorious, impossible vistas and landscapes. Even the beast himself, aided with heavy CGI, shows how far technology has come.

However, technology is one thing, and how you utilise it is another. In this adaptation, which again must be noted is the most faithful to the original (although it takes its liberties and is not a straight adaptation), the technology is used often for spectacle rather than necessity. It’s grandiose and spectacular, but ultimately it also distracts (and rightfully so) from rather muted, subdued performances. The cinematic spectacle is abundant, but feels rather hollow when put up against these rather monotone characters. It’s odd that in an adaptation of the unabridged version, the characters feel more archetypal and one-dimensional than in their alternatives. Furthermore, the spectacular imagery also hides some of the more lacking elements of cinema, its loose editing, it’s perfunctory soundtrack. What works in its favour is the settings themselves, although you can never tell when they’re real or when they’re CGI, and the costumes which take inspiration from their older counterpart, rich and extravagant.

The film speaks a lot more to the mainstream cinema of today, with action sequences in between the love story, and suffers from a severe tonal problem. In the prism of this director, the Beast (Vincent Cassel) still carries the anguish in a lesser form (“enhanced” through an unnecessary subplot) but the CGI actually hampers it, creating this constant dead lack of expression. In fact, for a film so visually expressive, all the performances seem to suffer from this. Léa Seydoux’s Belle occupies a much fiercer, more progressive role than her role might originally suggest, but really the lack of chemistry throughout all involved really has nowhere to hide. And its ending is also further cause for confusion, as it falls into the other side of the spectrum, in that the Beast comes to live with her family while she takes care of her father (André Dussolier). It seems to be completely shunning its magical aspects then, as they go off to live a simple, provincial life. It’s not necessarily bad, just very different. It just speaks to the strange mutations that a story can undergo during an adaptation.

DISNEY CLASSIC (2017)

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It’s easier to adapt fables because their simplicity lends itself well to the creation of a new version. There are not any intricate complex plot twists or power reversals, not in the same way we might find in a film such as The Godfather (1972, Dir. Francis Ford Coppola), and while you can argue that even our fables require a coherent and complex level of understanding, there is a reasons we read them to our children. They are elemental in a way that more mature stories do not immediately reveal themselves as. That, and the copyright on them is expired which makes them free rein for all.

This most recent adaptation of Beauty and the Beast then, directed by Bill Condon, occupies a space in which it must live up to the spirit of the original material, written some 200 years before, and must also live up to its own internal successor, that 1991 animated version which came during the period of Disney’s “animated renaissance” as they brought to life through hand-drawn 2D animation, various fables and folk tales which are now getting their own live-action adaptations. An intricate mess, I imagine.

This film then, is a hybrid more than any others, a delightfully musical Frankenstein of Beauty and the Beast. It strays very far from the literary source material (while also straying from its animated counterpart), Belle’s family beyond her father is non-existent, the castle is inhabited by various talking furnishings who do musical numbers (what a sentence), those characters themselves are revamped or reinvented in some ways (one with an added LGBT slant), Belle’s amorous pursuer (named Gaston) is given much more to do, and meets a much more grizzly end. The tool of CGI is also used extensively here, but much more focused on imbuing the animated furnishings with a sense of life and human personality. The castle itself occupies that similar baroque/gothic world, though in this adaptation it retains neither the haunting darkness of the 1946 version, nor the medieval stone aesthetic of the 2014 version, instead opting for a much more golden aesthetic which runs over everything.

The story itself has been warped as well, though no more than its counterparts. Beyond the characters, backstories and elements (the central rose and the spell by the witch is close to, but not identical to the source). Obviously the music shines, though that too has to fight for space under the weight of Alan Menken’s stunning original score.

So what does this film do? Well the story seems to be shaved of its rough edges, the Beast (played by Dan Stevens) is less menacing, less of an animal, less of an obsessive creeper, with most of the ugliness forced onto Gaston (Luke Evans, a current favourite of mine) who gets his just deserts. The CGI enhanced beast doesn’t suffer the same emotionally dead problems of its modern counterpart, which is a godsend. It’s more sinister undertones of the romance (Stockholm syndrome) are sanded down in favour of the humour and the spectacle, which is not a surprising choice. Belle, played here by Emma Watson, also follows the path of being a much fiercer, more combative and equal partner in this dance, and while neither central performance is perfect and without some clumsiness, the central entwining of the two is mostly pulled off. The ending finally, with its unifying musical number and dance as Belle and the Beast live in the castle ends in the middle ground between the realist ending of the 2014, and the pure fantasy of the 1946.

SO WHAT DID I FIND?

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Why did I chose Beauty and the Beast, as opposed to any other? Well obviously I saw the most recent one, which sparked it. But I’ve read and watched a lot of fables, and I find the story of looking beyond one’s appearance a greatly important one to learn, one probably partially motivated by my own insecurities and partly due to the great wisdom involved in doing so.

So in the adaptations, each maintains that core ethos, though him being rich and magic nevertheless almost always helps.  And in this way they’re the same, each adaptation spinning around this story, adding bits on and taking bits out, but always around this core story.

But they are also incredibly different in a million different ways. In all aspects of cinema, their cinematography and editing, their misé-en-scene either real or computer generated, their performances and their direction. You can look at every film and know that even though they’re telling the same story, they could never all be done by the same director. It’s a testament to the infinite little unique variations of what makes a film unique from its counterparts, either imposed through the director and his supporting crew in their choices and abilities open to them at the time (the work Cocteau would be able to carry out with today’s technology is dizzying to even think about).

What it really shows is that a work never survives completely intact through adaptation. From literary source to film, it undergoes a morphing process, as an experience which takes place solely inside your mind, the reading of the book, is transformed into an external piece to be seen. But even from cinematic adaptations, the 1991 Disney animated to its 2017 live action counterpart, it has been transformed along the way. So is there any definitive version of the story? All of them have claims, but how do you measure which one is “the” version?

Easy: You can’t. You can have more accomplished versions, but the best thing about stories is that they can be told and retold in a million different variations, but as long as you’ve still got that central ethos at the core, the world’s your oyster.

-Alex

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Something Old, Something New: Beauty and the Beast and Cinematic Adaptations (1946,2014,2017)