01 March 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.

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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.

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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