28 February 2007

Scarlet Road (朱の路 2002)

Scarlet Road (朱の路, 2002) was the first completed film from Tomoyasu Murata’s acclaimed stop-motion Michi (Road) Series. I have read that he plans a total of five films in the series, three of which have been released so far. I am not sure of the order in which they are meant to be screened. Although Scarlet Road was the first film released, the DVD cover for Indigo Road
claims that it is Episode 1.

I suspect that it doesn’t really matter in which order they are screened because the films themselves blur the boundaries of time and space a bit. It took me several viewings of Indigo Road to pick up all the subtle details that indicate movement between past and present. With Scarlet Road, Murata has more clearly delineated the movements between present and past, dream and reality. The film still has an unusual structure, with a flashback to a past reality occurring in the middle of an extended dream sequence.

* * * * *

Film Summary (if you prefer not to know what happens in this film, skip to the next starred break mark to read the analysis only):

The film begins with the pianist staring morosely out the window of a train, looking out into the night sky as lights flash by at regular intervals. A young girl, also with sad eyes, approaches and tries to sell him a scarlet-coloured flower, but he shakes his head. The girl bows her head in disappointment and draws in her lip. Just as the pianist looks up at her again the train brakes suddenly causing the girl to loose hold of the flower which flies into the air as the scene fades to black.

We are then transported with the pianist into a dream sequence in which the pianist awakes to find himself sitting on a bench resembling his train seat, under a dilapidated shelter with a tiled roof. The sound of the clacking railway train is replaced by the sound of rain pounding on the mudflats that surround the platform. This setting reminded me of the Rashomon gates in Kurosawa’s famous 1950 film. The story that takes place at the gates of Rashomon open and end the film, with the pouring rain emphasizing the pathetic situation of the protagonists that seek momentary shelter under the gate.

In a similar state of despair, the disoriented pianist of Scarlet Road looks around himself in amazement. The fact that this is some kind of dream world is indicated by a small school of fish that swim in mid-air past the pianist’s face. The pianist gazes out at the mudflats for a while then is startled by the arrival of a thatch-roofed cart drawn by a water-buffalo. The driver, wearing a conical straw hat, gestures in Asian fashion (おいで!) for the pianist to board the cart.

The cart has space enough for several passengers and a piano. The pianist – I should add that I know he is a pianist because I have seen Indigo Road, the film itself does not indicate this yet – goes to the piano and shuts it. As the cart journeys across the mudflats, the sound of the rain dims and soft, sentimental piano music indicates the mood of the pianist. The music stops and the sound of rain dominates the soundtrack again as the cart approaches the next station, where the flower-selling girl waits, water streaming down her face. She frowns when she sees the pianist – even though it is a dream sequence she clearly recalls the incident on the train when he refused her flower – but she boards the cart anyway.

The light seems to change when the girl boards the cart, as if the sun is setting. She goes straight to the piano and begins to play, though with more enthusiasm than skill. The pianist’s face saddens even more and a dissolve takes us into a flashback of a different girl, this one with long braided hair, playing the piano. Murata cuts to show the pianist watching her. The following shot gives us an establishing shot of a brightly lit Japanese-style room with the pianist kneeling on the tatami with his hat on the floor next to him.

In the next shot the pianist is still kneeling, but his hands are fiddling with a white cloth. The camera cuts back to the establishing shot position to reveal that the girl is dead and lying under white cloth. A dissolve causes the dead girl and the piano to disappear, leaving the pianist in the empty room, his hands still outstretched in front of him.

A sound-bridge brings in the sound of the rain again and we return to the dream sequence as the cart passes through an old tunnel. Then darkness falls, the rain has stopped and the girl is huddled up on the ground in front of the piano. In the bluish light, the pianist looks at her and at the length of the piano. He takes off his hat as if standing in front of someone’s grave. He then sits at the piano and tests out the piano. The girl is delighted. He takes her on his lap and plays a song that, while not quite upbeat, is more hopeful than the music used thus far.

The dream sequence ends with the girl placing her hands in his and then a white out transports us back to the interior of the train. The sun has risen and shines with its slanting rays onto our main protagonist’s wide-eyed, open-mouthed face. The pianist looks down at his clasped hands. When he opens them he discovered that the girl has given him one of the scarlet flowers. He holds it up to his face then looks out the window. The film ends with a shot of the train going over an aqueduct.

* * * * *

I don’t usually narrate the story events of a film with such detail, but as this film is not widely available outside of Japan, apart from at film festivals, I thought it was worthwhile. Knowing the story does not in any way detract from the viewing of the film either for, as with Indigo Road, this is a film that needs to seen several times in order to appreciate it fully. The melancholic mood of the film is evoked without words. Instead, one must take in the combination of the character movement, hand-crafted figures, sets and props, and the carefully composed soundtrack.

As with Indigo Road, colour and light play a significant role in Scarlet Road. The colour red does not pervade every sequence as strongly as the blue in Indigo Road, but it’s presence is certainly felt as a motifrepresenting love and charity, most importantly in the colour of the flower offered by the girl on the train. The scarlet-coloured flower also appeared in the window sill in the film Indigo Road, where it was the only sign of optimism in an otherwise very melancholy film. Murata’s careful attention to the intensity of light subtlety changes the mood and adds a sense of realism to the scenes.

I am also quite impressed by the camera movement in the film. Many stop-motion films, because of the sheer amount of work needed to move the characters themselves frame by frame, restrict camera movement. In contrast, Murata employs sweeping crane and panning shots to emphasize character emotion.

The locations are often hard to place. Indigo Road had a very European flavour to the design of the town and the room interiors. The only indication of “Japaneseness” for me was the apron the woman wore in the flashback sequences. In contrast, the use of a Japanese-style room for the setting of the flashback sequences in Scarlet Road indicate the scenes are set in Japan. The setting of the dream sequence was not immediately clear to me. The water-buffalo and its cart and driver first made me think that it was inspired by Vietnam, a country where Murata has been and taken photographs. Then I happened upon a picture of a water-buffalo and cart in his photographs of Okinawa. It seems the mudflats of Okinawa are well-known for the ecological status and are quite popular with birdwatchers. Although the cart differs in appearance, the inspiration is clear. Check out Murata's Okinawa photo albums on his website.

As with his graphic art, Murata is fond of employing a nostalgic look in his set and character design. The pianist reminds me of middle-aged Japanese men from films of the 1940s and 50s. In particular, his air of melancholy, old-fashioned suit and rumpled hat are reminiscent of the character Takashi Shimura plays in Kurosawa’s Ikiru (To Live, 1952).

The costume and movement of the pianist are also reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin, whose films had a huge impact on early Japanese film directors. Like Chaplin’s films, the Road Series relies heavily on sentimentality and a main protagonist who is endearing despite the fact that he is constantly down on his luck. So far, the Road Series seems to be a study of despair and melancholy. I do hope the quintet of films will end of an upbeat note, but we will have to wait a couple more years for the last two films to be completed.

For more images from this film or to purchase the DVD, see Murata's website or cdjapan.co.jp: Aka no Michi / Animation

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2007

21 February 2007

Teinosuke Kinugasa (衣笠貞之助, 1896-1982)

The National Film Center at the National Museum of Modern Art is currently running a special exhibition on the life and works of Teinosuke Kinugasa (衣笠貞之助, 1896-1982) to celebrate the 110th anniversary of his birth.

Kinugasa rose to fame as an oyama (female impersonator) in theatre and from 1917 in Shimpa silent films. In early silent cinema in Japan it was quite common for men to play the roles of women. This tradition was adopted from the cinema, but by the end of the silent period women were the norm.

Kinugasa adapted to changing tastes by moving into the director’s chair and he became a pioneer of avant-garde film in Japan with films such as A Page of Madness (狂った一頁, 1926) and Crossroads (aka The Slums of Yoshiwara, 十字路,1928). Kinugasa managed to get Crossroads picked up by a German distributor, making it the first Japanese film to be screened in Europe. It played in Berlin, Paris, London, and New York.

He also made many period films for Shochiku that brought Chojiro Hayashi (林長二郎), also known as Kazuo Hasegawa (長谷川一夫, 1908-1984), that were box office hits including the smash hit of its day The Revenge of Yukinojo (雪之丞変化, 1935-6). Like Kinugasa, Hasegawa had also started as an oyama in Kabuki theatre. He starred in hundreds of dramas and was a popular leading man for over 30 years.

Kinugasa is also famous in the west for being the first Japanese director to win the Grand Prix at Cannes. The film, Gate of Hell (地獄門, 1953) starring Hasegawa and Machiko Kyo (京マチ子) was the first Daiei film to be shot in colour using imported Eastman film stock.

The National Film Center labels its exhibits only in Japanese, but if you do not read Japanese it is still worthwhile (the entrance fee is only 200 yen!!) just to have a look at the impressive collection of photographs, artifacts, and to view some of the remarkable film excerpts that play on small flat screens throughout the exhibit. I found the blown-up photographs of Kinugasa himself particularly stunning. My favourite is the shot of him sitting at his make-up table preparing himself for an oyama stage performance.

Other items of note include the famous round glasses he wore as a director, his suitcase covered in stickers that document his stays in hotels across Europe, and an amazing selection of film posters. Not only are the posters for Kinugasa’s films works of art, but he also picked up a remarkable Russian poster for Battleship Potemkin when he was visiting Eisenstein and Pudovkin in Moscow in 1935.

In the section about his travels abroad in the 1930s, one can watch also footage Kinugasa took of things he found of interest. A short clip from Crossroads is also on display with English inter-titles.

For more on Kinugasa, read these essays on the Midnight Eye website:

Gate of Hell and A Page of Madness.

The National Film Center can be found near Kyobashi Station on the Ginza line. A map can be found on here.

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2007

18 February 2007

Mr. Children's Hero (ヒーロ、2002)

In my ongoing investigation into the work of Tomoyasu Murata, I discovered that he re-edited the short film Shiro no michi (White Road, 2003) into a music video for the popular J-pop band Mr. Children (aka Misuchiru). It was a strange experience to watch the images accompanied by a pop ballad, when the original film is much more quiet and reflective. At least it gives you an idea about the look of his films, as they are not available on DVD outside of Japan as far as I can tell. The song "Hero" was released in December 2002 and was a number one hit for the band.

Shiro no michi belongs to a series of films about a pianist. In this film he recalls two losses he experienced in childhood: the loss of a childhood friend who moves away, and the death of a puppy the two friends found together. The full-grown dog in the video seems to be the living spirit of the puppy that died. Let me know what you think.

Mr. Children Concert Tour Q 2000-2001 / Mr. Children

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2007

13 February 2007

Lost in Translation (ロスト・イン・トランスレーション, 2003)

This piece on Sofia Coppola’s Oscar winning film, Lost in Translation, has been quietly simmering away in the back of my mind for the past three years.

My husband and I went to see it on our first date since the birth of our son at the wonderful repertory cinema, the Exeter Picturehouse in Devon, England. My husband had just accepted a job at Tokyo University and we were heady with excitement at the prospect of moving to Tokyo. We met each other in Japan in 2001 and my husband, who speaks Japanese fluently, has fond memories of Tokyo dating back to his first stay there when he was just sixteen.

We entered the elegant cinema expecting to delight in details of recognition of things that we know and love about Japan. Instead we experienced one of the most uncomfortable viewing experiences I had ever had (not quite as bad as watching Makavejav’s sexually disturbing Montenegro in university, but I was pretty fidgety). We found that while the British audience laughed at the puerile visual gags like Bill Murray towering above the Japanese occupants of an elevator or his sarcastic quips in response to a Suntory whiskey commercial director who refuses to engage with him in English, we just sat in silence. I could feel my husband growing more and more agitated throughout the film.

As we walked home along the Exe River my normally easy-going husband exploded with anger at what he termed the “stupidity” of the film. In particular, he found the rude language (toned down by the interpreter) of the commercial director extremely unlikely and over-the-top. We couldn’t quite figure out exactly why we hadn’t liked the film as a whole and speculated that perhaps it was because Japan isn’t so “lost in translation” to us. We just hadn’t been in on the joke. I wasn’t quite as annoyed as my husband at the representation of the Japanese in the film, but something had disturbed me about the film and I couldn’t yet place my finger on it.

The shakuhachi player Kiku Day, wrote a piece called “Totally lost in translation” for the Guardian accusing the film of racism, an accusation that was echoed on many blogs. I’m not so sure that I would use such a strong word as ‘racism’, but I do feel that the film goes for easy gags based on stereotypes about Japanese people and their culture. The film’s story doesn’t really engage on any meaningful level with its setting. For a while I speculated that the film could have been shot anywhere ‘non-Western’, but recently I am not so sure. Japan, with its veneer of “Americanisation” mixed with the exoticness of its unique Asian culture make it a particularly easy target for stereotype and misrepresentatation.

In January, I had my Japanese graduate students watch the film and read Kiku Day’s article. I was surprised to find that none of my students had seen the film and most had not even heard of it even though it is widely available in rental shops here. As we screened the film in class, the students did laugh at some of the jokes – in particular, the really quite funny scene in which a photographer asks Bill Murray’s character to invoke a feeling of Roger Moore (not Sean Connery!!) as James Bond.

In discussion afterward, my students told me that they felt it didn’t really show a very accurate image of contemporary Japan. Yes, Matthew Minami is a real TV presenter and people do enjoy pachinko and karaoke in Japan, but the middle-aged call girl and the extremely rude Suntory film director seemed unlikely. On the whole they had enjoyed the film, but felt that the Japanese characters were all one-dimensional.

Through re-screening the film in preparation for the class I finally realized why the film had made me feel uncomfortable the first time around: its sexist portrayal of women. It’s quite remarkable to me that a woman director could make a film that treats women so blatantly as objects, but she does. The film invites us to look at women as objects straight from the opening: an extended shot of Scarlett Johansson’s backside in see-through underpants. This portrayal of women as sexual objects is only magnified by the middle-aged call girl, who the script sets up as an object of ridicule and the random scene where Charlotte and Bob arrange to meet some of Charlotte’s friends in a bar that turns out to be an exotic strip club. Were these girls met to represent the “exoticness” of the locale? Was this scene even necessary?

As a female spectator, I can identify with Charlotte’s dilemma in the film: she has finished her education, gotten married, and has reached a crossroads where she isn’t sure what she wants to do next with her life. What I cannot relate to is her depiction as a “poor little rich girl.” She follows her husband to Tokyo on his business trip as a professional photographer then whines that he’s working all the time and isn’t making any time for her.

Despite the fact that she claims to Bob that she and her husband have friends in Tokyo, she seems to have nothing to do during the day. Her ‘friends’ only turn up when she wants to go out at night. There are so many wonderful restaurants and coffee shops to hang out in this town, I find it hard this hard to believe.

With her friends unavailable to distract her, she prances about her expensive hotel in her underpants listening to self-help audiotapes. She seems unable to find anything more exciting to do with herself in Tokyo apart from wander aimlessly about Shibuya and Roppongi acting generally bored with everything. I was relieved when she finally boarded the shinkansen and went to Kyoto to take in a bit of ‘culture’.

On one hand the film mocks educated women, while with a backhand it mocks uneducated women. For example, her husband makes comments that imply that Charlotte’s philosophy degree from Yale has made her snobby, and Charlotte herself is almost apologetic about telling people she studied philosophy. She then sneers at the Cameron Diaz-esque character Kelly (played by Anna Faris) for being stupid. Do we really need another film with a dippy blonde in it? ***Sigh***

The saving grace of this film for me is the irrepressible Bill Murray, whom I have loved since his SNL days. His wry, laid-back wit combined with his sheer bravery in allowing Sofia Coppola’s camera to linger over every pock-mark of his aging face resulted in some very fine comic scenes. Not wanting to slight Johansson as an actress, I must add that she did a commendable job in her role, I only wish that Coppola had given her better dialogue and filmed her in a more progressive manner.

Lost in Translation / Movie

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2007


12 February 2007

Murata: Black Room & White Room

Acclaimed animator and artist, Tomoyasu Murata (村田朋泰), has opened a new exhibit at Gallery Momo in Roppongi called “Black Room & White Room.” Murata’s work embodies a wide variety of styles and techniques. If someone new to his work watched his film Sakadachi-kun (Handstand Boy) Intently Running (さかだちくんひたすら走る!, 2005) back-to-back with White Road (白の路, 2003) one would be surprised to discover that the artist is the same man.

Murata’s stop motion puppet work, as featured in the My Road Series and in his award-winning Nostalgia (睡蓮の人, 2000) is an example of pure cinema. There is no dialogue and meaning is created through metaphor, music, and character expression. Like reading a poem, these short films can only be fully understood through repeated viewing.

Murata’s hand-drawn and computer animated shorts, such as the Sakadachi-kun (Handstand Boy) series, while still open to interesting interpretation, represent the flip side of the Road Series. It is a less cerebral, more tongue-in-cheek kind of animation style. Thus the black and white rooms of the Gallery Momo exhibition seem to represent the dual nature of Murata’s artistic identity.

On one wall of the white room hang ten pastels inspired by themes and images from Murata’s most recent installment of his Road Series: Indigo Road (藍の路, 2006). The images are not reproductions of stills from the animation, rather they are creative interpretations of Indigo Road’s themes and motifs. In the picture at the top of this blog entry, for instance, the themes and motifs referenced include the melancholy of the main protagonist, the table set for two, the door to the apartment, and the predominance of shades of blue. See my review of the film for a still from the film.

The opposite wall of the white room features manga-style paintings of little Sakadachi-kun. I say “manga-style” because of the thick black outline of the figures. The Sakadachi-kun paintings have a seventies-retro air about them. Much of Murata’s manga-style / retro work reminds me of Andy Warhol.

The white room also contains a three-dimensional piece of art. On one side it appears to be an exterior apartment set in the style of the My Road Series, but the other side has miniature television sets playing various images. These portable televisions are a theme in Murata’s installation work and also appeared in his exhibition at H6 gallery on Hongo-dori last autumn. In that exhibition the TVs were incorporated among books on a large bookshelf.

The black room contains more surreal, colourful works, some of which feature little Sakadachi-kun. The example below, taken from the gallery’s website, appears to be an underwater scene featuring a figure in a scuba suit looking at brightly coloured coral or seaweed

In other paintings, although he looks exactly the same, the context leads me to read the suit and helmet as that of an astronaut. These images feature surreal landcapes, but with the star-like diamonds and planets shining on the landscape itself rather than in the sky. For an example, check out the artwork on Murata's homepage. Here is a screenshot:

The black room also had two boxes, the size of small televisions that one could look down into. They resembled sets for a stop motion animation, but I did not recognize the scenes from any of the films of Murata’s that I have seen so far. Above these two boxes, hung a flatscreen on which one could view a selection of Murata’s short films.

The exhibition is a great introduction to the work of Tomoyasu Murata. Gallery Momo is small but welcoming. My friend and I were offered fresh coffee while we viewed the selection of animation. The artwork, DVDs, and other Murata souvenirs are available for purchase. One can also order them from tomoyasu.net.

This exhibition runs until March 2nd.

Gallery Momo

Sun Building3 2F, 6-2-6 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo 106-0032

Open Tuesday to Saturday, 12:00-19:00

Tomoyasu Murata Sakuhinshu - Ore no Michi / Animation

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2007

06 February 2007

Marie Antoinette (マリー・アントワネット , 2006)

Sofia Coppola’s vacuous film Marie Antoinette (2006) is as decadent as the aristocratic world it portrays.The ingredients of this confectionery of a film include a high volume pop soundtrack, sumptuous costumes, Manolo Blahnik shoes, elaborately arranged dinners and desserts, and of course, the most luxurious set imaginable: Versailles.

It is a shame that all this elegance and attention to visual detail was not also applied to the script. I must admit that I really, really want to like Sofia Coppola’s films, but she grates my feminist soul the wrong way.Off the top of my head, I can count but a handful of interesting women directors in Hollywood since the heyday of Dorothy Arzner and I am yearning for a woman with a unique style who is willing to take artistic risks but still make an enjoyable movie to burst onto the scene (Zoe Cassavetes has good lineage, but the response to the debut of her new film Broken English at Sundance has been disappointingly muted).

In Sofia Coppola’s case, it is hard to get enthusiastic about a woman director whose camera does not provide us a with new perspective on the lives of women. This is Coppola’s third film about troubled young women and rather than show us the world from the female protagonist’s point of view, we are invited to look voyeuristically upon these women as objects of male desire.

The Virgin Suicides (1999) offered up the world of the Lisbon sisters from the perspective of the adolescent boys who lusted after them, complete with a male narrator. In Lost in Translation (2003) Scarlett Johansson spends half the film traipsing about her upscale Tokyo hotel in her underpants. Marie Antoinette continues in the same vein, inviting us to admire Marie Antoinette, played coquettishly by Kirsten Dunst, in her various stages of dress and undress.

Coppola rarely offers us access to the inner workings of Marie Antoinette’s mind. Most of the information about her comes in the form of salacious court gossip or in grand intonations of her mother, the great Maria Theresa of Austria (played ably by Marianne Faithfull), who writes her condescending letters imploring her to act in a more politically astute fashion that will benefit her family and her country of birth.

While in many ways this reflects much of the argument of Antonia Fraser’s biography of Marie Antoinette (the inspiration for Coppola’s film) which argues that the Dauphine was a political pawn, it does not do justice to the fact that Marie Antoinette was a witty, intelligent, and articulate woman in her own right who also wrote as well as received an epic correspondence. Where are her responses to her mother’s letters in this film? Indeed, where is her voice and personality at all?

Marie Antoinette’s only “character development” seems to be a random affair with the Swedish officer, Count Ferson (played by newcomer Jamie Dornan) – which appears to have been thrown in merely in order to get a great poster shot of Kirsten Dunst in a seductive pose wearing lingerie – her mother’s death, and the death of her second son – which is only depicted cryptically through the changing of portraits on the wall.How are we expected to swallow her sudden transformation from freewheeling party girl to serious, supportive wife at the end of the film with these hastily mentioned plot points?

In the end, I found the film an expensive-looking advertisement for the soundtrack (which tries to be avant-garde but actually comes off as rather cliché), accessory tie-ins, and the French tourist industry. Someone should really sit Sofia Coppola down and have her watch Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park (1999), Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table (1990), Claire Denis’s Chocolat (1988), or Dorothy Arzner’s Christopher Strong (1933) so she can see what interesting films can be made when a woman is in the director’s seat and actively challenges the status quo a bit.

© cmmhotes 2006


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