City of God (2003)

City of God

Why do you make a film? It’s only a relatively new medium, one which has a history now of over 100+ years, but the written word has been around for thousands, same with paintings. And City of God (Dir. Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund) or Cidade de Deus, was originally a recounting by author Paulo Lins first, in book format. But there are millions of books, and millions of stories. So why do you make a film? Why tell a story with images, with sounds and sights and do you best to create and reflect a world to an audience?

If I could answer those questions, I wouldn’t be asking them. But I think City of God has some of those answers. Because one of the things a film does, is communicate. It’s an arrangement, a mosaic of thousands of pieces arranged in order to present a picture, a view. And a mosaic can be described with words sure, but it is at its best when it’s seen. And City of God, needs to be seen. Forever.


It’s a film which if you ever needed to blow away someone’s common understanding of the world, the laws and rules and moralities which seem to govern the world you might live in, this film holds that understanding down and puts a gun into its mouth before pulling the trigger. Everything in the film destroys those boundaries, ripping apart their flesh. There’s no delicate innocence placed in this world, no societal halo’s applied to anyone. Criminals, kids, police, adults, drug runners and drug takers, every citizen in the City of God is a warrior, fighting the inhabitants or even the space itself. Every crime, every act damned by the law and society, takes place here. And not just takes place, but is encouraged, celebrated and becomes the reason for living. If this is God’s city, then God is more akin to the bloodiest Roman emperors than a benevolent caring father.

It’s also a film which gets to some of the darkest understandings of the human condition. That life can be cheap. That violence can be continuous, brutal and explosive, spilling all over the city like oil, coating its inhabitants in its sticky darkness. That your life can be upended by power, by chance, by accident, by anything with enough force to suddenly put a knife in your back when you’re not looking. And how witnesses, become participants, become casualties, and give rise to more witnesses who get caught in the same gravitational pull of time and action. And furthermore the film itself is a witness to it all, because the story it tells is of the city and its inhabitants and they both fed back into each other, a feedback loop splattered and distorted by the violence and struggle of a world turned upside down.

But even the residents of a hellscape live, and City of God is a witness to the life in all its perspectives. Even its most violent residents need to relax from time to time, and to see the favelas here only as places of violence is a mistake that the film refuses to make. The people who live there are just that, people. And they spend their time doing what every one else does. Working, eating, playing. The world is vibrant and sunny, and everything is soaked up, blood of the dead mixed with the blood of life. If life is short and uncertain, then it must be lived while it is still there. And through Buscapé (Alexandre Rodrigues)  primarily, we see how the space of the city works, how its’ heart beats.

But the heart supports the body, and the body of this film is one bursting at its seams. A dizzying, continually multiplying cast of characters spread over the city’s landscape, reminding me that in the real world everyone is their own protagonist, and their aims and ambitions sliding and crashing against each others. And the blood that pumps through the film, the racing, vibrant music is whips you through the landscape itself. And that’s balanced against the film’s cinematography, the films’ eyes, a camera which never dares to look up for fear of getting shot. A camera which keeps close to the ground, caught and trapped inside the winding and looping close quarters of the streets, a camera which is caught in the multiple currents of the film’s river. It strongly evokes war footage, captured first hand on the ground by journalists who put their lives on the line to present the images of what happens in a field where lives are staked.

I could go on about this film forever, it’s one of my favourites. But, if I had to put some kind of resolution down, to answer that question from earlier; why do you make a film? And I think one of the secrets is in the film’s tagline: “one man will do anything to tell the world everything”. One of the most powerful things a film can do, is present a world, real or fictionalised. And to show a world like City of God to the world, a world of spirited and electrifying danger, of adrenaline, of exhilaration moral and amoral, is one of the most incredible things you can do with a film. City of God transports you to the place, the time, the lives. And it does so by all accounts except by actually living there.  And to even catch a glimpse of the things which make us different, and the things that make us the same, in the eyes and hearts and stories of these characters, is a pretty fucking powerful reason to make a film.

-Alex

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City of God (2003)

Irreversible (2002)

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This one is going to be tough.

WARNING – BELOW CONTAINS FRANK DISCUSSIONS OF ADULT THEMES, VIOLENCE, RAPE AND MURDER.


 

When you make a film, you make a statement.

When you make a film which concerns the darkest of natural evils, it only succeeds if it accurately reflects those evils in the real world.

The reason why Irreversible (2002, Gaspar Noé) is so terrifying, is because it feels so real.


 

But a film is not reality. And what this film does is take the human world, a world in which such awful acts and awful consequences can occur, and make it more real than real. And there’s two big ways that occurs. The first is the film’s structure, the story told from end to beginning in 13 scenes. It’s an experience equivalent to walking up a flight of stairs, the whole set of stairs moving rightwards but you’re walking up them leftwards. It’s a truly disorienting structure, akin to walking up(?) a flight of M. C. Escher staircases. It forces you to reverse engineer everything, something so abstract from our normal processes of daily life. Usually you start with thoughts, motivations, expectations which then lead to action, doing and consequences. But to be forced to refocus your mind, to not grow with and alongside the characters, but to witness their ending’s first and work backwards.  It’s a perspective which forces you to understand the events in a different way.

More than that, it’s a perspective which forces you to encounter the consequences of the actions, and their abhorrent nature, before you can use the framework of character motivation to talk about justice and justification. The film’s guttural, inexpressibly dark actions are presented as raw as can be understood, horrific actions that happen to the humans in front of us. Before we have gotten to know them, their motivations, their loves and fears and tensions and relationships, we witness what they’re capable of. And you are forced to bear witness to it, in some of the most uncompromising cinema and cinematography I have ever seen. You have to reconstruct the story, but not in the way you might in a film noir or crime story. You are not a detective working out a puzzle, because the ending is your starting point. All you can do is witness the strands slowly unweave themselves, as they become darkened by the knowledge of their ending.

It’s style is the other bastion of refocusing your mind, and it is delirious. The cinematography is mind-bending, the equivalent of starting off at the harsh end of an acid trip. It pays no attention to the traditional markers of human experience; scale, distance, orientation, perspective.  It rolls backwards, passing through the walls and skies of Paris with reckless, trippy abandon. It destroys your normal limitations of how you experience the world, but its power is volatile and explosive. It throws you into a cinematic typhoon at points, barreling through space and time completely lost, as a drunk might do on the edge of blackout. And then at other moments, it becomes still and clear, resolutely focused on witnessing the black, pulsing heart of humanity, rape and kill its way through the world.

It’s whole world is tainted,  tainted by the inevitability of its actions, but also as the film moves forward and backwards simultaneously, it’s tainted by the sheer horror of its actions. The irreversible actions you bear witness to, it is impossible for their effects to be irreversible either. There is no going back, no way to un-experience it, even as it moves into a time before those events. The hellish red, a colour which invokes blood, sex, violence, seeps into everything, practically bleeding through the films walls both literally and metaphysically. The scenes that happen earlier, become charged with sickening dread, charged with the knowledge that God might have of knowing how every story ends. And the sound of the film, explored here from pg 87 onwards, is one which matches that hell. One which through music and sound, is discordant, grotesque and nausea inducing (literally, through low-frequency sounds).

And you can’t talk about the hellish experience of the film, without invoking the actors, the human participants who you are anchored to. And never has that anchoring process, of aligning yourself with the characters of a story and sharing their experiences, felt so caustic and soul-destroying. As we watch Alex (Monica Bellucci), Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and Pierre (Albert Dupontel) have their lives up until then obliterated, our empathy is assaulted alongside it, the waves of events crashing over us and rippling through us. The obscene violence, the degrading and unending nightmare of the rape, all of those are endured, channeled through the actors into our vision, experiences so brutal they can often not be lived through. Noé asked his actors to go further, to do more than almost every other film ever made. To put them through the knife-edge of darkness, and it is some of the bravest performances I’ve seen.

The whole film is one of disorder, the most violent assault of chaos on the human soul. And it’s nightmare is so violently unendurable, just like the nightmare of rape is for so many sexual assault and rape survivors. It’s an experience which creates a void space, something that can become impossible to process, reconstruct, to ever properly heal from. The phrase “Time heals all wounds”, feels pitiful and ironic next to Noé’s ending statement, “Time destroys all things”. The one thing I was terrified of, going into this film, was the potential for the films events to not be given the weight they truly represent. Rape especially has had a poor, often misogynistic treatment in cinema history, but violence itself has also become something cartoonish. Countless experiences of action films, superhero movies, war films and all the like, portray the aspects of violence we want to believe in. The thrill of the fight, the valiant defense, the fight against invisible and unknown enemies we don’t need to empathise with.

Irreversible does not do that. It forces you to encounter the colossal, unimaginable weight of the real life actions. The ugly, brutal, cruel and often unpunished nature of humanity’s most irreversible sins. It presents unflinchingly, the closest experience besides real life. And it is a film which sears itself into your consciousness, a film which gives screen violence and screen rape the core-shaking effects it has on the real human psyche. And for Noé to pull that blood-drenched heart out and expose it to you, to confront anyone brave enough to watch it with an experience that mirrors the trauma of real life rather than try to hide it or edit it out, it’s to be supported. Films should not just be made for entertainment, because life is not just entertainment. And art must reflect the world around it, through whatever stylistic forms it chooses. And while the legacy of this film will remain forever muddied, in its violations of normal good taste, decency etc, it proves one thing.

Fearless works of art are irreversible, for better and for worse. That’s the truth.

-Alex

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Irreversible (2002)

You Were Never Really Here (2018)

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Sometimes you watch a film which reminds you just how plot obsessed we have become in our media landscape. The quest for weightier and more complex narrative continues to drive modern popular cinema, perhaps in a response to the complexities of the great stories being told on our TV screens. However in film sometimes you don’t need a lot of narrative shifts in order to leave a great impression. You Were Never Really Here (2018, Dir. Lynne Ramsay) is an exercise in taut and abrasive storytelling with hardly any meat on the bones to pick on.

We have a hitman hired to seek revenge on child pornographers or paedophiles in general and suddenly n one job things take a turn for the worse. This is essentially the entire narrative of the film, however within this Ramsey challenges the audience and uses every trick in her arsenal to make this short brutal film as effective as possible. Joe is our main character, played by the ever brilliant Joaquin Phoenix, a recent veteran with a gift for reeking bloody justice on the darkest and most depraved of society. His vigilante justice shares more than a little with Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver. He may be less talkative and perhaps a more endearing a psychopath than Bickle but it is clear that the two share a psycho cinema bloodline. Much like Bickle we feel the nihilism of the main character and his lack of care or sympathy for the dregs of society. Ramsey herself pulls our attention to the comparison between the two nutjobs, we have scenes of Joe walking in the exact same way as the swaggering Bickle. We also have parallels with the political figures of taxi driver, however they are much less sympathetically seen in Lynne Ramsey’s eyes, becoming embroiled deeper and deeper into Joe’s perverse alternative society. Scorsese is clearly the main influence here and it is writ very large for those who are familiar with the 70s masterpiece, however this is still its own film and in essence is more a reworking of the story for a modern age.

As may be apparent this is not exactly a fun watch and at points it can be teeth clenchingly nasty and brutal. Ramsey does not use this subject however to really leer at the violence of the story and instead often chooses to find some kind of prism to view the hyper-violence of Joe through. Be it in a mirror or through the lens of a CCTV camera the audience is often one step removed from whatever horrific thing is happening at the hands of Joe. It is as if Ramsey is reluctant herself to show these actions in stark HD and would rather the audience itself was able to step back and just observe him, like a caged animal ripping apart its lunch.

The film as a whole is more a character study than a video nasty and often spends a lot of time not progressing, Ramsey would rather give Joe the space to think and contemplate what he is doing in his life and in turn let us sit with him and contemplate our own reactions to him as a person. Instead of just powering ahead and letting the audience gawk at the horror of Joe we instead get to see him as a human being, we see him with his mother and the care he brings to her. We hear him be funny with her and also see the violence in his own past which has led to his own insensitivity to violence and his line of work. The film asks us to consider Joe as a real person much more than is often comfortable and as the film moves into its final act you do start to care about him much more than you may expect to. He is a man removed from the world around him, the film pays attention to him but also the spaces he leaves behind and will linger and shift its eye from him to those around him. We see the normality of the society that surrounds him and yet we know that we are not here to really look at that and as Joe spirals out the film starts to become more and more insular, we zone in whilst Joe zones out.

Ramsey here has created a razor-sharp, taut and Brutal meditation on the human psyche at its limits, and the confidence and strength of Phoenix’s performance pummelled me into submission to its savage viewpoint. If I see another film this year that is this tightly constructed and gut punching I will be very impressed.

-Ed

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You Were Never Really Here (2018)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Three Billboards

This is a tough one. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2018, Dir. Martin McDonagh) is a film which has had a real hype following it in the run-up to Oscar season. It will be weird to see how this film looks in retrospect, after the Oscar buzz, but McDonagh’s place in cinema culture at the moment is a bit of a weird one anyway. People still trip over themselves to acclaim his debut work In Bruges (2008), but opinions split around Seven Psychopaths (2012). His move to America did not seem to resonate with universal acclaim, even though I’m a big fan of Seven Psychopaths. Furthermore, McDonagh’s trademark of black(est) comedy, of violence wrapped up in bone crunching and rib tickling detail simultaneously, is one he continues to nestle into. A tiger can’t change his stripes, the only thing he can do is move around. That move around has come in Three Billboards, a murky rage filled revenge tale.

It’s a move which pulls no punches, regarding its subject matter or its humour. You laugh but feel bad. Moments of darkness are confronted with lilting southern belle ballads, McDonagh continues juxtaposing the light with the very dark, creating this awkward space for the viewer to sit in and feel conflicted. Should I laugh? Should I feel bad? Why do I feel both? In a story so bleak and often brutal, as Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) puts up three billboards calling out the Chief of Ebbing Police (Woody Harrelson) for not doing enough to solve the case of her daughter who was raped and murdered 9 months prior, the audience finds itself laughing and enjoying themselves. It sounds dissonant, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Darkness isn’t only just dark, and the humour itself becomes a breath of fresh air, but also a way to see the pain lurking underneath from a different angle.

That said, the tone of Three Billboards is like a game of darts. Not every one hits the board. And there are real moments of what I can only describe as ‘wonky-ness’ in its script and its performances. Characters deliver completely unrelated monologues to deliver a point with the subtlety of a shotgun spread, the most particular egregious example of this is when Mildred is laying into the well-meaning but hypocritical priest of the town (Nick Searcy).  The writing screams at us, delivering its one-two punches of attention in a pretty obnoxious way. It’s bad because it shows off quite simply. McDonagh’s a human, and while the through line of Three Billboards is intense and powerful, it’s side areas show chinks in the armour. There are moments of levity that don’t feel comfortable not because of intentional dissonance, but because McDonagh seems to not be handling the issue with the required weight it needs (see: racial violence and its “humorous” implications). It’s not necessarily bad, it’s just that some of the humour seems incredibly low-hanging fruit and as a result comes off as unthinking.

There’s no point dragging McDonagh across the coals for this, in my honest opinion. The film’s very attempt at bringing the racial backdrop of American society into the filmic landscape in a more honest way, in the fact that most people aren’t even aware of its nuances, is doing justice to the reality of the world. It’s not an idealised version of the world, where good guys win and bad guys lose. Three Billboards real strength is setting up a seemingly morally easy conflict, of the avenging badass mother and the inefficient dunkin’ donuts cops, and goes through its regular beats before quickly evolving into something much more “real”. Mildred’s declaration of war brings real consequences to the characters of the town, not just in terms of physical pain and scarring, but emotional and psychological wounds as well. An eye for an eye never looked so bloody, or so sad. The desire of revenge only brings about more violence, anger “begets” (you’ll know) greater anger.

The film has a beautifully human track running through it. At its best, it forces its audience to consider the complexities of humans, how monsters are really people, how heroes are really people, and how time can change both of those titles into little more than hollow words. An audience loves to play judge, but its hard to play judge when everyone’s hands are bloody.  The violence may be embedded with a line of humour, but it’s also awful and lasting. Characters may talk sharp, but sooner or later every one of them cracks visibly onscreen. It’s the equivalent of medical treatment in the field, medics pulling bullets out of you while your allies hold you down and you scream through the pain. Healing can sometimes be painful too.

I think Three Billboards is a very good, sometimes even great film. It’s cinematography is often functional, though moments of subtle framing work very well, while its musical motifs and art design are interesting without being distracting. It’s filmic elements have had to take a backseat for its main star though, the story. It’s humanistic brutal beauty is what carries it, even if it stumbles like a wounded soldier at times. Ultimately the film’s greatest weapon, the one which gets you to think and feel beyond your immediate assumptions, is the one you least expect:

It’s empathy.

Alex

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Possession (1985)

Possession

When a film gets labelled as a cult movie it usually means that the film doesn’t have a great reception on its initial release. It could have been badly reviewed but actually misunderstood, just plain bad or even banned upon its release. The most famous example of banned cult filmmaking is represented most starkly in the list of ‘video nasties’ which were titles banned from release in the UK for their gratuitous violence or dark thematic content by the sensitive 70s and 80s BBFC. Some of these were trash with titles like Driller Killer (1979, Dir. Abel Ferrara) or Cannibal Holocaust (1980, Dir. Ruggero Deodato). However other titles have gained huge popularity partially helped by the infamy of the list, films like The Evil Dead (1981, Dir. Sam Raimi) or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974, Dir. Tobe Hooper) later being recognised as hugely competent and important examples of genre filmmaking.

Now, Possession (1985, Dir. Andzrej Zulawski) was one of these ‘video nasties’ and having seen it I can perhaps understand why it wasn’t received by a conservative ratings agency with open arms. Not an easily digestible 2 hours this one, but for sure a worthwhile one. The film has intrigued me for a long time and after finally watching it I have to say that this is one that if you enjoy extreme filmmaking, this is a must watch. Following the breakdown of his marriage Andrzej Zulawski embarked on a project that no doubt just added fire to the flames of his already messy divorce. Think Polanski and his response to the murder of his wife in through the violence of his Macbeth (1971, Dir. Roman Polanski). Zulawski is channeling similarly bleak feelings, screaming at the top of his lungs about his divorce.

Sam Neill plays Mark, a man sent back from a mysterious mission and it soon becomes clear that he has successfully and almost totally isolated himself from his wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani) who has been caring for their son in his absence. The details of his mission or his job are never fully explained and honestly I’m not sure it matters that much, what does matter is that Anna has cheated on Mark in his absence. This is news that neither of them seem very well equipped to deal with as soon the screaming starts. No sooner has Mark found out the infidelity than he is smashing up a café and holing up in a hotel room for 3 weeks on a crazy marital problem bender. The hysteria of the film really is both its strongest suit and also is its least palatable, what will turn off a huge amount of viewers. Watching Possession in light of having seen last year’s deeply divisive Mother! (2017, Dir. Darren Aronofsky) you really understand exactly where he was looking for inspiration. Aronofsky does in that film a pretty decent impression of the extremity of expression that Zulawski nails in Possession. Divorce and marital strife are examined by Zulawski in broad strokes with neither the husband nor the wife being without blame for the events of the film.

To describe exactly what happens past the set-up is mute as the film is not ultimately about plot in plain terms. The couple go nuts in the first 10 minutes and only become more unhinged and extreme as the runtime counts down to the explosive final act. This is not to say that the whirlwind of emotions that the film expresses are done in an amateur way, it may be the most overwrought apocalyptic vision of this kind of story that you may ever see but Zulawski handles it all in his stride. He and DOP Bruno Nuytten swirl the camera around the action of the film with deft Steadicam and handheld photography only adding to the disorientation. The film is almost never still with almost every conversation being done in frantic movement with the camera following or preempting each movement almost working as a supernatural third character in the story. The virtuosity of the camerawork comes to a head perhaps the most well-known scene in the film. Set in an underground station walkway Isabelle Adjani’s justifies her Cannes best actress award in spectacular form. Her characterisation of her sheer descent into complete madness is almost balletic, the camera creeps around her as she throws herself around the harsh artificially lit space. The power of her performance is really crystallised in this scene and her commitment to the role is extraordinary, she seems to completely sink into he madness of the film and is powerfully effective in remaining a figure of shuddering possession and brutality throughout. I may seem hyperbolic in my reading of her turn but it really can’t be understated, it is very rare you see an actor commit in the way Adjani here does.

Andrzej Zulawski here places himself amongst the best examples of extreme filmmaking with his nightmare of marital problems and cart-wheeling madness, a truly brilliant piece of underrated European filmmaking. See this if you can stomach it.

-Ed

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Possession (1985)

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

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

The Human Condition (2/3) : Nostalgia/The Fog of War

the-human-condition-film-poster

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.


Why is this story called “The Human Condition”? It is impossible to encapsulate all the infinite variations and possibilities of conditions a human being could go through. Even if everyone is linked through six degrees of separation, can you really claim to build artworks which speak of the experience of every human, of their conditions? A claim in that direction could be the absence of colour in the film, since its tones are only that of the white-black spectrum. Technical choices aside though, what gives this story its right to lay claim to the experience of the “human condition”?

Entry two, Road to Eternity (1960, Dir. Masaki Kobayashi) has its own answer, just as its previous installment did, No Greater Love (1959). To crudely reduce the films to a single word and a single theme, if No Greater Love was about resilience, resilience in the face of an entrenched corrupt and mismanaged system of factions, then Road to Eternity is about survival, and surviving those systems. Kaji’s fate and his soul has been darkened by his previous encounters, his already innumerable failures to protect his ideals and himself through pacifism. Here Kaji’s pacifism is pushed to its breaking point, as the desire to survive eventually forces Kaji into the corner; to fight or to die.  And while he does his best to fight power with non-violence, to martyr himself for those around him at his own physical and mental expense, even Kaji must come to terms with the violent and brutal conflict which drives every human.

The technical choices I don’t have much to say on, simply because what has been said before continues to be the case here. Kobayashi (in an interview found in the Arrow release booklet) said he found the best cinematographer in Japan to film the series, Yoshio Miyajima, and his deep-focus multi-layered compositions continue to fill your eyes, arresting images through placement of the action in front of the camera, rather than any mechanical wizardry of the camera itself. So too does the music and soundscapes remain austere and sparse, the ambient noise of the world minimal, with the dialogue continuing to take precedent. Even the battle scenes are a far cry from the dense muddy clashing landscapes of sound and vision in say, Saving Private Ryan (1998, Dir. Steven Spielberg).

There is no spectacle of war here, no feast for the eyes, not in my opinion at least. Is this because of directorial intention, or simply the cinematic limitations of the time? After all, the way of shooting film by the time of Saving Private Ryan, not only the technology but the psychology and methods of directors nearly 40 years later would barely have been imagined in 1960. Not only that, but the psyche of the Japanese, and the way they viewed their war is miles away in the psyche of how Americans viewed their involvement in the war. Disentangling this issue seems fruitless, since it’s probably a mix of those two elements and more.

No doubt as to how Kobayashi and the story’s original progenitor, Junpei Gomikawa see the war though. Kaji swaps labour supervision for military ranks, and is exposed to a system which creates even more hostility and bitter resentment. Japan’s imperialistic mentality flaunts itself here, as cruel veterans and vicious commanding officers punish the recruits, to weed out the weak and create soldiers “worthy of Japan”. The suffering reaches its peak as a soldier Kaji was looking out for, Obara (Kunie Tanaka), commits suicide. Kaji presses for condemnation, but it’s no use. What changes in Kaji is his despair turns outward, as he begins to become willing to take matters of retribution and justice into his own hands. And hanging over all this, is the dream of the Soviet Union and socialism, a world which treats its men “like human beings”. Kaji’s hope no longer lies in reforming the world, but in a world where his reforms have already taken place.

But a martyr refuses a quiet death, and he continues to resist, taking over command of a battalion to prevent the same cruel treatment inflicted upon him happening to others. And his punishment at the hands of veterans climbs and climbs, until even unflinching defender Kaji breaks, in one of the films most powerful and well shot scenes, a man with nothing left to lose. Finally finding himself on the battlefield, undernourished, unprepared, and facing certain death, Kaji reaches the end of his transforming, as reality’s crushing weight comes down finally on him. Running into the wasteland of the scarred battlefield, Kaji screaming “I’m a monster, but I’m still alive” is mutely blood-curdling. Many more violent deaths have been filmed, been shown to us onscreen, but few have carried so much weight, not in narrative terms necessarily, but in terms of morality. Kaji’s beliefs are sundered apart from his actions, as his pacifism submits to the most primal instinct; the desire to survive, at any expense.

All this is naturally, bleak and depressing and tough to sit through. Suffering is a natural part of living. so why would you make a film, three films, or write a six volume novel about the relentless suffering endured by a single figure, to compound it happening to a single figure, watching him come apart at the seams under an unendurable weight, like Atlas holding the world?

Because Road to Eternity, is about “the human condition”, and its refusal to let up or compromise on the suffering endured by Kaji, and Obara, and everyone in the film is a reflection, a reflection of every act of cruelty and unfairness that worms its way into the hearts and minds of every man in every society, regardless of who you are. The painful reckoning is that what happens in the world so often, is not right. It’s not right, it’s not kind, and it’s not fair. But it happens regardless. It has to happen. It’s a game that everyone is rigged to lose.

What is noble is to try to win anyway. To battle the impulses of nature, to try to be more despite the stains of living, that’s what is admirable.

-Alex

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The Human Condition (2/3) : Nostalgia/The Fog of War