Category: Film

The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On

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“The termination of the war has been brought about solely through the benevolence of our Sovereign. It was His Majesty himself, who, apologizing to the spirits of the Ancestors, decided to save the millions of His subjects from privation and misery, and to pave the way for an era of grand peace for generations to come.” — Prince Higashikuni to the Diet about Emperor Hirohito’s surrender to the U.S.

“I really came to dislike Okuzaki.  He was chaotic.  In the film he sounds logical only because of skillful editing.” — Director Hara on his subject

To say that Japan has always fallen a bit short in apologizing for, or even acknowledging, its epic aggression of 1931-1945 would be a gross understatement. Maybe “criminally recalcitrant” best summarizes their approach to this somewhat thorny period in their international relations. Compared to Germany, where there was an increasing level of youth outrage and leftist insurrection as the decades wore on, Japan was relatively insular on the matter, more often casting themselves in the roles of victims of atomic catastrophe, which they undoubtedly were. Still, citing Hiroshima and Nagasaki as pinnacles of human cruelty does not require a high level of introspective reflection and conveniently avoids any admittance of culpability. Even Emperor Hirohito, amazingly absolved of all responsibility for 15 years of violence, would have the audacity to include himself in this “victim” category, being duped as he was by clever Japanese militarists. Surely no one in Washington believed such nonsense, but for the sake of a smooth occupation, it was agreed to strip him of all authority and allow him to remain a figurehead of the nation state, a “divine” powerless puppet in an Americanized Japan. Overnight, Hirohito became a warm and fuzzy facilitator of national healing. Questioning this was beyond the pale, and those Japanese politicians that publicly did so quickly got back in line.

Out of this expanse of sad denial comes the voice of  Kenzo Okuzaki, the focus of filmmaker Kazuo Hara’s 1987 documentary The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (Yukiyukite shingun). Okuzaki, a veteran and captive of the New Guinea campaign, has no qualms about loudly speaking (his version of) truth to power. In equal turns refreshingly conscientious and disconcertingly unhinged, Okuzaki is tireless in his role as historical truth-seeker, the aging voice of a manipulated and sacrificed Imperial youth, screaming into the face (often through loudspeakers affixed to his car) of those he feels responsible for its execution. With incredible focus and drive, particularly given the decades since war’s end, he confronts his former superiors and tracks down the fellow survivors of his Engineering regiment, which was decimated in one of the most notorious disasters of the conflict. Hara stays in the background, constantly filming his fascinating subject and refusing to intervene in volatile situations, even where perhaps it was his moral responsibility to do so, at least in the eyes of some of his critics. Like Michael Moore and the Maysles Brothers, Hara does not pretend to be the objective observer, detached and aloof, documenting events as they unfold. He recognizes his part as a tacit instigator, as a social agent in the convoluted chain connecting himself with his chaotic subject. Yet, he clearly has a great respect and sympathy for Okuzaki and admires his tenacity and complete lack of propriety, his obsessive drive. The film is not without its moments of dark humor, as Hara has freely admitted. As scenes unfold, viewers find themselves squirming uncomfortably as Okuzaki presents his calling card with an eerie congeniality. It is simply unbelievable when, over calmly poured tea and smiles, he launches into questions about cannibalism and accuses superiors of atrocities punishable by death.

Like Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, the seminal 9-hour documentary on the Holocaust, Hara avoids dwelling in the past. There are no newsreels, no historical voice-overs. The visceral and lasting pain of the war is expressed in the present, in the fractured stories and violent outbursts, in the melancholic faces that just want to forget and move on. This is what is so remarkable about Okuzaki: he seems incapable of moving on. He is stranded in time, holding on to beloved grudges while probably suffering from some form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. In Shoah and Marcel Ophüls’s The Sorrow and the Pity, participants speak with a certain degree of detachment–even nostalgia–from the events that altered their lives. But in Hara’s film, the urgency with which Okuzaki carries out his mission makes one feel as though the conflict is still raging, as if he is fighting to end a genocidal war happening at that very moment, not one that ended thirty-five years earlier. Only it does still rage, in Okuzaki and others conscripted (or convinced) to fight wars of imperial aggression for honorable and “just” causes. Needless to say, the causes continue, and the deceived seem to deal with it in different ways. Some drift further towards patriotism. Others just want to erase it forever. And occasionally, some, like Okuzaki, devote every remaining moment to attacking the authoritarian institutions they feel are responsible for wrecking their young lives.

When released in Tokyo in 1987, the film renewed the debate about civilian complicity in the war effort. It helped to shatter long-standing myths of Emperor Hirohito’s peaceful benevolence. And more importantly, it removed the stigma of shame that still hung over many families whose men were taken captive during the war, as opposed to dying gloriously in the service of their “benevolent Sovereign.”

House

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Film in Japan in the late 1970s was in a difficult spot. The heady days of the Japanese New Wave were over, and American film was beginning to start its decades-long dominance of the global cinematic marketplace. Even past greats were not spared the slump: Akira Kurosawa was unemployable after the failures of Dodeskaden (1970) and the Soviet co-funded Dersu Uzala (1975) and altogether written off by the major Japanese studios. Genre films that once brought a consistent stream of box office revenues began to suffer as audiences grew bored of endless yakuza mob scenarios and tired samurai tales. But most damaging of all to mainstream Japanese cinema was its own gradual shift towards pinku eiga (“pink film”), or what in the West was commonly known as “sexploitation” films. Since the mid 1960s, independent studios had focused on offering the public sensationalist subject matter that pushed the envelope on acceptable content and censorship (e.g. last week’s Gate of Flesh). By the 1970s, desperate to remain relevant and competitive, the movement was quickly co-opted by the mainstream, who could put their considerable budgets behind erudite titles like Apartment Wife: Affair in the Afternoon and Female Convict #701: Scorpion. The content remained similar to that offered for years by the indies, but these were backed with larger budgets and higher production values, and were often more successful as a result. Things went a step farther with Oshima’s highly-controversial and more artsy In the Realm of the Senses (1976), which featured actual on screen sex between actors; censors banned the film completely in Japan–a ban still in place today–and it faced countless troubles elsewhere, even among the most open-minded cinephiles. As for external threats, both Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) and Spielberg’s Jaws (1976) were game-changers of magnanimous proportions, drastically upping the ante with regard to audience expectations of action and horror films. That is what Toho Studios wanted, and what they hoped director Nobuhiko Obayashi could deliver them: something scary, hi-tech and preferably exportable in the same way that Godzilla had been for them twenty years before. What they got was House.

Although his first feature, Obayashi started his career in the late 1950s, doing experimental film with Takahiko Iiamura and Donald Richie, with whom he would co-found a collective in 1964. From there, he went into advertising and became known in industry circles for his popular and ironic Japanese T.V. commercials with stars like Kirk Douglas and Charles Bronson, the latter shirtless on horseback in Monument Valley, espousing the benefits of Mandom deodorant as “All the World Loves a Lover” plays in the background. Honestly, one could retire after such an achievement. But as luck would have it, he was then approached by Toho to work on a new film project, albeit a B-list film, but a feature nonetheless.

Just why he was handed a horror film when his background was cowboy deodorant is somewhat unclear to me. Still, from the fantastical results of House, it is clear that strong synergy exists between the two. Maybe it was his lack of being tied strongly to the conventions and trappings of the horror genre that gave him the ability to improvise so wildly and embrace surrealist and absurdest tendencies. His daughter gave him many ideas for the script, including much cat-related material, which he worked on for nearly two full years before shooting began. Having specialized in popular short narratives with teenage girls as protagonists in his 1960s film work, Obayashi again returned to this dynamic. But instead of skipping rope and gossiping about boys, they are being eaten by pianos and stalked by an elderly cat-woman. An unavoidable progression perhaps. The film was a big success in Japan, and, while not at Hollywood blockbuster level, still easily buried the A-list romantic comedy to which it was attached on the Japanese marquees. Of 1970s horror films, only Dario Argento’s classic Suspiria, coming out of Italy that same year, achieves the same overwhelming ambiance of sound and image.

Today, House stands as the prime example of just how freakishly original Japanese horror films could be, before everything became the standard creepy ghost girl with white kimono and Joey Ramone bangs. If it only had the Mandom.

Gate of Flesh

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There are certain notorious collaborations in popular culture that, over time and subjected to endless rumors and speculation, assume mythic proportions. We seem particularly fascinated by the misunderstood creative genius battling the stodgy conservative corporation to which they are financially beholden, whether it’s Orson Welles trying to eek out funds for one more film, or Lou Reed giving the big “f- you” to RCA with 1975’s Metal Machine Music; it’s the centuries old Artist vs. Patron relationship transferred to the world of litigation, where, instead of having to compose harpsichord essercizi for thirty years for some king’s “gifted” daughter, you can instead “compose” 65-minutes of guitar feedback and call your contractual obligations fulfilled. Such is our fascination with the genre-warping works of Seijun Suzuki, the rebellious bad boy of 1960’s Japanese cinema, and his now legendary showdown with Nikkatsu Studios.

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Seijun Suzuki

During the late 1940s, as the US attempted to remake Japan it its image, the film industry underwent a period of contraction, with a dozen or so film production companies consolidated into essentially three firms. One of these, Nikkatsu, shorthand for Nippon Katsudō Shashin, promised young filmmakers the opportunity to rise quickly through the professional ranks. Seijun Suzuki answered that call, hoping to bypass the long apprenticeships that were the norm in those days. It was a time when the United States had direct ideological control over what Japan could and couldn’t say within its film narratives, a sort of occupation-imposed Hayes Code more concerned with signs of resurgent nationalism than enforcing the rule that adulteresses must always get killed in act three. These restrictions created an atmosphere of banality in filmmaking, with only the cleverest and most influential of directors able to pull off anything of lasting substance. Alas, in 1951, Suzuki did not fall into this category, and the majority of his early output is the typical contractual stuff: long-forgotten escapist tales, costume dramas, the occasional light comedy. It would be years until he found his voice, or rather, until he was entrenched and confident enough to insert it into existing scripts. The first signs came with 1963’s Youth of the Beast, which critics generally consider the real launching point of his career; and, not coincidentally, the point at which he began to butt heads with Nikkatsu, pushing the envelope for what they considered to be acceptable content.

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Suzuki (L) on set of Gate of Flesh

But it was Suzuki’s subsequent film, a 1964 “NikkatsuScope” full-color assault called Gate of Flesh, where he truly became creatively unhinged (in the best sense of the word). This is particularly clear given the film’s source material, Taijiro Tamura’s 1947 novel of the same name, which was a lurid tale of postwar prostitution during the American occupation. The first film adaptation, released in 1948, was a toned down version subject to all of the censorship restrictions previously mentioned. So essentially, Suzuki took the novel’s narrative and ran amok, upping the smut ante with spitting Machiavellian prostitutes, aimless veterans, bully GIs, a bit of sadomasochistic flagellation, and a random dead cow to keep audiences partially shocked and thoroughly confused. The intense, vibrant color palette chosen by Suzuki and set designer Takeo Kimura (a color assigned to each of the four lead “pan-pan girls”) contrasts wonderfully with the dingy, burned out surroundings of occupied Tokyo. The result is unlike anything done by Suzuki before, and one wonders, given Nikkatsu’s emphasis on producing accessible popular films and clear-cut narratives, how some of these scenes even saw the light of day. It was one of the first domestic films to challenge Japanese censorship laws, and many scenes were cut for international releases, making the narrative more disjointed than it already was, which surely didn’t help its critical reception. Furthermore, the negative portrayal of Americans did not play well with Japan’s cultural ministers; the 1964 Olympics, held that same year in Tokyo, was the nation’s moment to shine, to show off its newfound modernity to the world, not rehash old grudges from its imperialist past. Gate of Flesh was a sensationalist embarrassment miles away from the tranquil and non-threatening works of establishment directors like Ozu.

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Suzuki (L) on set of Tokyo Drifter

Nikkatsu’s message was consistent and clear: essentially, “Stop being an artsy weirdo, just make the damn movies.” Given the plots that followed Gate of Flesh, one gets the impression that the studio made a concerted effort to restrain Suzuki’s creative meanderings by providing straight-forward genre narratives with little room to maneuver. Both Tokyo Drifter (1966) and Branded To Kill (1967) were, on paper at least, rather conventional yakuza “mob” films until they passed through the Suzuki filter. Nikkatsu was in dire financial straights and needed the latter to be a big box-office success in the action genre. But audiences got an inept killer obsessed with the smell of boiling rice and a crime film that, well, sort of forgot the crime (or at least the elements that the genre’s audience expects). It was the final straw: Nikkatsu saw the finished product and axed Suzuki immediately. Despite commendable-if-futile protests from fellow Japanese artsy weirdos, the unemployed director had no real supporters, at least none with deep pockets. He was effectively blacklisted from the industry and would not direct a film again for ten years. Interestingly, when he did have full creative control, his films tended to suffer from excessive length and rambling incoherence; in the end, it seems the meddling Nikkatsu was good at doing one very important (if unintentional) task in the creative process: pulling Suzuki back just enough from the edge for him to make interesting and unique narratives.

Today, along with Jean Luc Godard and Agnès Varda, Suzuki is one of a dwindling handful of master directors from the “golden age” of international cinema still living.

Harakiri

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Although his life’s body of work is relatively small, Masaki Kobayashi produced two landmark films of Japanese cinema between 1959 and 1962. The first, The Human Condition, is an intense nine-hour rumination on Japanese atrocities through the eyes of one dissenting soldier. Although based on a novel, Kobayashi himself had served during the war and, like his protagonist, had resisted offers to be advanced into the officer class, preferring to remain rank-and-file. The work reflects Kobayashi’s broader world view, that all hierarchies of authority are ultimately destructive and should be resisted by the individual. This theme becomes the nucleus of several works to follow, the finest of which is 1962’s Harakiri (a.k.a. Seppuku).

For our screenings, Harakiri is the sole example of a genre that was enormously popular with mid-century Japanese audiences, that is, the jidai-geki, or what’s known in the West as costume dramas or period pieces. More often than not, these were escapist, action-oriented films, with very little in terms of controversial subtext. There were notable exceptions, however, the most famous of which is Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Despite that films greatness, Kurosawa often had a conflicted and confused view of feudal Japan, a caustic, critical eye jaundiced by romanticism and nostalgia for the past. It is an aesthetic of his work that brought both accolades and derision throughout his lifetime, and I think it would be fair to say that Kurosawa was more concerned with building up than tearing down, with offering quasi-egalitarian alternatives that some interpreted as wishful thinking, given the long-standing class divisions in Japanese culture.

Kobayashi, although a champion of Kurosawa’s work and close friend, could be seen as the converse. He possessed the caustic edge that Kurosawa lacked and used this to greatest effectiveness in Harakiri, a story that relentlessly dismantles the untouchable “golden age” of the Tokugawa era and exposes it for what Kobayashi believed it was: a thin facade of honor and nobility atop a foundation of hypocrisy and indifference to human suffering. Of course, Kobayashi’s pointed message transcended its safe jidai-geki setting. Japanese viewers at the time understood that he was also taking aim at the war criminals and military industrialists, as well as the new western-style capitalist corporations overtaking Japan, the zaibatsus, which he accused of domination masking as democracy.

As happened with so many other Japanese directors in the 1960s, the studio system stifled one of its most creative, if dissident, voices. Kobayashi found his opportunities drying up and eventually formed the film collective Yonki-no-Kai, or Club of the Four Knights, with fellow filmmakers Kurosawa, Ichikawa and Kinoshita. Despite the noble idea, the complete failure of Kurosawa’s Dodes’ka-den, and his subsequent suicide attempt, doomed the collective from the outset, with it producing only one script before disillusionment set in. Still, Masaki Kobayashi’s The Human Condition and Harakiri stand as two bold anti-authoritarian statements that could have never been produced at any period before in Japanese filmmaking.

High and Low

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To this day, Akira Kurosawa is undoubtedly the most influential non-Western filmmaker in the world, and definitely the most celebrated from Japan. In fact, by the time you are typically exposed to his work, you will have already seen the films of dozens of American directors borrowing freely from his style, particularly from the 1970s. He is also accused, or maybe criticized is a better word, of being overly influenced by Western culture and too entrenched in Hollywood’s cinematic conventions, especially when compared to his younger, more radical peers, Suzuki and Oshima. Much of this is a by-product of Kurosawa’s subtlety, which can often serve to mask deeper meanings; some key point that other directors would belabor to death, Kurosawa will pass over in a flash, maybe as bits of dialogue between actors. Above all, Kurosawa asserted, film is about telling a good story, and his career-long obsessions with authority, conflicts of conscience, and the “darkness of the human heart” (to use his phrase) all come into play brilliantly in High and Low, what I consider to be the finest film of his career.

The Japanese title, Tengoku to Jigoku, is more accurately translated as Heaven and Hell, and it is here that Kurosawa sets up the dichotomy that will define this film. They are themes visited earlier in both Drunken Angel (1948) and Stray Dog (1949), mainly, the precarious chasm between the haves and have-nots. But whereas these early film-noir works reflect more haves than have-nots and are driven by narrative’s from the perspective of the marginalized and disenfranchised, High and Low–a creation of the fully modernized “success” story of postwar Japan, and from an older Kurosawa–takes a different approach. Although quick to praise and cherish his Western influences, he was careful to differentiate between respect for its cultural movements and blind acceptance of its economic and political institutions, which he felt too often led to inequality and social strife. What was unique about Kurosawa was his ability to empathize with the humanity on both sides, to have his characters undergo transformations through struggles and suffering, and nowhere does he do this better than High and Low, which is essentially a simple kidnapping/ransom scenario, adapted from an American crime novel, King’s Ransom by Ed McBain.

Kurosawa’s selection of this source work is interesting given the events going on in Japan at that time. In the years leading up to the film’s release, several high-profile child abductions and/or murders had galvanized the nation and highlighted serious shortcomings in Japan’s archaic penal code, which had undergone only small alterations since 1907. Specifically, “simple kidnapping” was punishable by a mere 1-5 year prison term. Furthermore, this was often applied unevenly and reflected certain class/gender biases that had been shifting but ever-present in Japan since the days of the Shogunate. Kurosawa came down firmly on the side of the reformists, and High and Low can be seen as both a great crime film and a topical vehicle reflecting broader civic concerns within the Japan of 1963.

The novel itself is boilerplate, its characters cardboard: the criminal is punished, the wealthy protagonist’s dogged determination wins the day, his business and wealth restored, etc.  Kurosawa takes these clichés and twists them into a massive tapestry of Japan during modern/westernization. A Marxist when he was younger, Kurosawa was disheartened by the capitalist transformation and how it was eroding empathy between the classes. Mifune, a fixture in most of Kurosawa’s films since Seven Samurai, does an incredible job playing the stern artisan still trying to hold true to his ideals in a culture now preoccupied with profit margins, not true craftsmanship. Heat permeates the film, and Kurosawa often juxtaposes this air-conditioned industrialist on the hill (less than 1% of homes in Japan had air conditioning in ’63) to the miserable and desperate man in the hovel below. At the novel’s end point, the film is only half over, Kurosawa boldly changing track, switching protagonists altogether, and focusing intensely on the police as they track the kidnapper, who spirals into chaos. The final scene is handled masterfully, its lack of resolution and absence of easy answers at the very center of Kurosawa’s “darkness of the human heart.”

In closing, a word should be said about the film’s most profound technical achievement: cinematography. It was the first time Kurosawa worked with the TohoScope aspect ratio, and even today, High and Low remains one of the most striking films ever to use widescreen. Actor movements and camera angles were coordinated and blocked meticulously, particularly in the first half inside Mifune’s home, where some shots last as long as five minutes of continuous, unbroken interaction between the cast. It is a true testament to the days when widescreen meant something besides “just more.”

Gojira

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“The theme of the film from the beginning was the terror of the bomb.  Mankind had created the bomb, and now nature was going to take revenge on mankind. . . .  As long as the arrogance of human beings exists, Gojira will survive.”  — Tomoyuki Tanaka, Producer of Gojira

Although mainly ignored by the first wave of film historians due to its “escapist” trappings, no analysis of modernist Japanese cinema would be complete without pausing to examine the postwar classic that sparked a 20th-century export business unto itself: 1954’s Gojira, or Godzilla, King of the Monsters as it was released in the United States. I confess that it is difficult for me to view the original film today without seeing it through the haze of nostalgia for its copious (and often unintentionally hilarious) knock-offs, so synonymous was the lizard king with cheap Saturday afternoon programming on WTBS throughout the 1980s, where rubber suits wrestled clumsily atop a sea of pagodas and Japanese men in cool skinny ties and horn-rimmed glasses pointed skyward, shouting asynchronous English dubbing. Often he would heroically come to defend Tokyo from some mutated antagonist only to destroy it himself in the next film; this, my young brain could not reconcile. What was wrong with him? He seemed a capricious beast at best, and I never did understand how he ended up with that creepy son.

But before the goofiness of Destroy All Monsters, there was Ishiro Honda’s classic original, Gojira (on a technical note, Godzilla is not an inaccurate American translation but an alternate of Gojira using a different transliteration scheme; Toho Studios themselves assigned the film this title for export abroad, feeling it would be more “pronounceable” to westerners.) The film did not exist in a cultural vacuum and is but one of a long string of outstanding 1950s science fiction films with deep humanist undertones and leftist subtexts–The Day the Earth Stood StillThem!Invasion of the Body Snatchers, to name but a few of the better A-list titles. These films stood as bold counterpoints to the proto-Fascist attitudes that would soon come to embody the great McCarthyists’ witch hunt for Hollywood’s elusive “Bolshevist fifth column.” In fact, burying these allegorical themes within the innocuous escapism of the science fiction genre became one of the few ways for artists, many of whom were highly-politicized radicals, to openly oppose the American political status quo. Gojira, of course, has nothing to do with Communism, or even overt anti-Americanism for that matter. But the film nevertheless asserts its own humanitarian message, and a message that has a surprising amount of complexity and depth, given that it is essentially about a giant lizard stomping on things.

Two separate events acted as catalysts for the film. First, King Kong was re-released to Japanese audiences in 1952, on its 20th anniversary. It was a massive success, and Tokyo’s film studios all began toying with the idea of creating special effects films, then still a very small industry. This goal intensified following 1954’s The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, whose plot shares more than a few passing similarities with Gojira, albeit with fewer radiation overtones.

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“Castle Bravo” H-Bomb, March 1 1954, Bikini Atoll

But the biggest influence on the film, or at least on how its script resonated with its contemporary Japanese audiences, was Castle Bravo and the fate of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru, or Lucky Dragon #5. On March 1, 1954, the crew of this tuna fishing boat watched in shock as a massive atomic mushroom lit up the horizon–so massive that it took a full eight minutes for the sound to reach them. It was the first H-bomb detonated by the United States as part of the Castle Bravo program, from the Bikini Atoll of the Marshall Islands. There was no advance warning. Native islanders of the closest atoll were evacuated, but the blast was twice as large as anticipated, with fallout raining down on at least a dozen inhabited islands officially outside of the danger zone. Lucky Dragon #5 pulled in their nets and headed home, realizing that they would probably be unable to escape the approaching radiation and fallout, which fell upon them several hours later. The boat’s radio operator became sick in the coming days from radiation poisoning and died a drawn-out and excruciatingly painful death over seven months. His dying wish was that no one else on earth die as a result of atomic weapons. The growing resentment at the United States, kept mostly in check throughout the occupation, now exploded in a widespread wave of anti-American rage. The Japanese public was furious that they were given no advance warning of these dangerous tests (the U.S. intentionally kept this a secret lest the H-bomb fail to detonate and embarrass them in front of the world, particularly the Soviets.) To make matters worse, it was learned that the Lucky Dragon was the closest tuna boat, but not the only one in the area impacted, many of whose catches had already been sold to market and entered the Japanese food chain (also mirrored in the script, as other boats “vanish” due to unknown forces.) In all, between 1946 and the partial ban in 1963, the U.S. carried out 105 above-ground nuclear explosions in the Pacific, at which point they were moved to Nevada.

And it is here that Gojira vs. Godzilla becomes its own ideological showdown of sorts. It is a unique moment in film studies, where two products are produced, for two separate markets, both from the same source material, one by the conquered, the other by the conqueror. Unfortunately, for those at the time waiting for a smoking gun of censorship, they were disappointed I suspect. There are passing references to the contaminated tuna, and a striking scene where a Japanese woman tells her three small children, all of whom are about to die, that they are about to “go see Daddy now,” the implication being his death in the war. Most intriguing is a scene showing the open public debate in the Diet (the Japanese parliament) between those wanting to suppress Gojira’s H-bomb origins and those angrily demanding that it be announced to the world, thereby exposing the falsehoods of the bomb-testers. You can sense at once that this scene would be destined for the cutting room floor when edited for U.S. distribution, which it was. Gone also are the poignant hospital scenes where Emi attends to the child victims of radiation sickness. Other references to Hiroshima and Nagasaki are also eliminated, and while some involved have claimed that this was not intended to alter the message of the film, the deleting of all passages that mention past U.S. war atrocities is surely no accident done for the sake of just “tightening a script.” The original references were hardly vitriolic or accusatory, and their paranoid omission clearly says more than the statements themselves. In fact, the American cut of Godzilla does not delete large swathes of content and keeps the humanitarian, anti-nuclear message fully intact. Newly-shot footage of Raymond Burr, as reporter Steve Martin, was shot and included to tie the various plot threads together. This has the added consequence of removing the viewer from the immediacy of the action, and these non-political aesthetic issues are the most common criticisms leveled at the U.S. version today.

After watching Gojira again, I was struck by the sheer scale of its apocalyptic vision, its sense of utter hopelessness and nihilism. Its contemporaries, from King Kong to Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, used stop motion animation and kept destruction to a minimum; a few collapsed buildings, a few dead. In Gojira, Tokyo burns from end to end. And I can’t help but wonder what these visuals did to a citizenry that had just endured the worst incendiary fire-bombing in history less than ten years earlier, torching miles of the city (87% residential) and leaving over 100,000 dead, another million injured and homeless. Given the time and proximity, I would have a hard time classifying that as escapist entertainment.

Fists in Pocket

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“In Italy, the family is an almost holy institution, a pillar of society, and to criticize it is considered outrageous.”  — Marco Bellocchio

In many ways, the Spirit of 1968 started three years earlier in Italy, thanks to Marco Bellocchio’s Fists in the Pocket (I pugni in tasca), released in the relative calm of October 1965. The incendiary film sent shock-waves through Italian culture and was vilified for its irreverent and irresponsible attitude towards traditional Italian family values and Catholicism.

At a mere 26, Bellocchio is the first director in our Italian film series that comes from the babyboom, a generation of bourgeois-bred, highly-educated children rebelling against the conventions of their parents. “Disrespectful” mouthy kids with attitudes was nothing new, of course, but the 1960s crop held considerable cultural clout due to the massive shift in postwar demographics. And they weren’t just pissed off about the usuals, like not having access to a car and unrealistic curfews. They were pissed off about war, about church, about sex, about inequality, and, above all, about traditional family structures that they considered oppressive and outdated. In Italian life, the sacrosanct nature of the core family was something always held in high regard: in Rossellini’s Rome Open City, the family structure is disrupted and ultimately destroyed by outside forces, the Nazis and Mussolini’s fascists; in De Sica’s Two Women, mother and daughter struggle united against all obstacles to survive; and in virtually all Italian neorealist cinema, children embody the hope of the future, doing their bit dutifully in the reconstruction of their nation, never questioning the sanctity of the church or the supreme wisdom of their elders. Even the modernists to follow toed this line: Fellini’s closing shot for 8 1/2 is of his boy alter ego, his anima/animus; and Antonioni’s familial bond between mother and son in Red Desert is unquestioned, if a tad destabilized.

So, given its predecessors, Bellocchio’s anti-family, anti-hope, anti-everything manifesto was the molotov cocktail of Italian modernism, intended to burn both Pope and parents. Aesthetically, it was a return to extreme minimalism, far away from the increasingly baroque works of Fellini and Rossellini, both of which Bellocchio disregarded as has-been, sell-outs; he particularly loathed Fellini’s conflicted hand-wringing over Catholicism. But this wasn’t strictly an issue of young turk vs. his elders, as Bellocchio admitted his admiration for the great Spanish director Luis Buñuel, a man with a penchant for mocking religion and societal hypocrisy. Indeed, ideologically-speaking, Bellocchio shares more with Buñuel than with any of his Italian counterparts, the notable exception being Marco Ferreri and his caustically satirical “western” Don’t Touch the White Woman!

As always, the reality of Bellocchio’s vision is somewhere in the middle. He openly admits the film is not autobiographical in any way. His parents helped to finance the film, and it was shot at his mother’s country villa, so not quite the sea of bourgeois discontent he belittles so mercilessly on the screen. Still, Bellocchio’s bleak vision is the first taste of what would quickly balloon into a full-scale international counterculture in a few year’s time, with riots in the streets of Paris, the “levitating” of the Pentagon in the U.S., and Baader-Ensslin’s “Red Army Faction” carrying out terrorist attacks on the Springer Press corporate headquarters in Hamburg.

Red Desert

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“Modern man lives in a world without the moral tools necessary to match his technological skill. He is incapable of authentic relationships with his environment, his fellows, or even the objects which surround him because he carries with him a fossilized value system out of step with modern times.” — Michelangelo Antonioni, Cannes, 1960

If Federico Fellini was the flamboyant, self-reflexive modernist of the 1960s, Michelangelo Antonioni was his brooding, existential twin, a sort of shadow self. Both directors, along with Jean-Luc Godard in France, essentially reinvented cinematic narrative over the course of the decade. After starting off  rather conventionally, Antonioni embarked on a unique trajectory with L’avventura in 1960, with its unresolved central conflict, creeping slowness, and sparse, almost non-existent dialogue. Its Cannes premiere caused boos and catcalls from the crowd, with star Monica Vitti and Antonioni fleeing the theater, or so goes the legend. L’avventura became one of the most polarizing and debated works in the history of Italian film. The two films that followed–La notte (1961) and L’eclisse (1962)–moved along similar thematic lines, with all three loosely called a trilogy by film scholars today.

Although it was De Sica who initially filmed La ciociara (see other blog entry on that film), Antonioni is really the artistic spiritual kin of existentialist writer Alberto Moravia, who was at the very forefront of Italian literature throughout the 1950s-1960s. La notte, in particular, bares more than a passing resemblance to Moravia’s seminal 1954 novel Il disprezzo (Contempt), which Godard later filmed in 1963. Above all, Antonioni and Moravia are equally obsessed with the inability of human beings to interconnect in a real and genuine manner, to get beyond the facades of the everyday. Their protagonists are often embedded in inner conflict, stranded in situations of social and psychological alienation that are as self-perpetuating as they are unavoidable. And it was Antonioni who codified this shared vision of modernist isolation for the cinema, perhaps none more successfully than Il deserto rosso (Red Desert), from 1964.

Red Desert is Antonioni’s finest moment, combining his earlier stark visions and narrative ideas with a full Technicolor palette (all films prior were black-and-white). Admittedly obsessed with cinematography (he was an avid artist growing up), every frame of the film is a tightly composed work of art. Antonioni has often commented on how Red Desert is often misinterpreted as his “anti-industrialism” film, with its spewing nuclear reactors and factory landscape. In fact, his intent was quite the opposite and reflected popular Italian attitudes of the day: these were symbols of civic progress, of modernity, of entering a new era in Italian history. Environmentalism was not on the radar, as there was still an “away” for Italians to throw things to in 1964. Watching the film today can leave quite a different impression. Shot during the winter months, the landscape still lacked the bleakness Antonioni required, so, in an inspired fit, he had the ground and foliage covered in a dust of grey paint in order to accentuate the colors he had carefully selected as the psychological focal points for certain scenes.

Antonioni’s following three films were done in English for MGM, including the immensely popular Blowup (1966) and the counter-culture manifesto Zabriskie Point (1970); Antonioni’s failed attempt to get 10,000 extras for a lovemaking scene in the California desert should clue you in about the latter. The director was frustrated by Hollywood interference and, after The Passenger with Jack Nicholson, he returned to Italy. Although finishing several other projects, his legacy today rests on his hypnotically spartan early-1960s output, which revolutionized modern film narrative.

8 1/2

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By the early 1960s, Neorealism had run its course. The scars of war and the abysmal social conditions that gave rise to the movement were finally receding into the past. More importantly, Italy was embarking upon an age of intense industrialization and progress, and their cinema reflected this desire for modernity. Much of this was driven by an energetic youth culture, not unlike that found in France, Britain, and the U.S., where the pop markets became dominated by a new demographic. Italian composers Ennio Morricone and Nino Rota were redefining the role of the film score by using unconventional approaches to sound and questioning the rules of what constituted “acceptable” instrumentation, adding anvils, whistling, manual typewriters and dissonant harmonicas to the mix. Sergio Leone “out-Westerned” the Western with Per un pugno di dollari (A Fistfull of Dollars) and Il buono il brutto, il cattivo (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), creating an odd international hybrid of the classic American genre which came to be known as the “spaghetti western.” On the “artsier” side, Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni were redefining modern narrative and pushing the boundaries of linear storytelling.

Like so many others, Federico Fellini started his career during the war years, at first as a screenwriter, and then moving on to camera work in 1943; never one to feign intellectualism, he acknowledged later that this was to avoid conscription and not from some deep innate love of cinema art. Nevertheless, he found that he enjoyed his work and quickly developed a knack for organizing cast and crew. His first major artistic contribution of the postwar period was acting as co-screenwriter on Rossellini’s Rome Open City, and several of the film’s moments of dark comic humor are undoubtedly his. Despite the film’s anti-fascist views, Fellini was notoriously apolitical for the entirety of his career and admitted this openly, a position for which he often caught flak from Italian progressives. By 1963, he had already achieved international recognition with La strada (1954), Il bidone (1955) and Le notti di Cabiria (1957) to his credit. But it was 1962’s scandalous La dolce vita, starring Anita Ekberg and then-unknown Marcello Mastroianni, that had him proclaimed a “public sinner” by the Pope, a title Fellini no doubt wore with great pride.

History shows that the biggest success can segue into the biggest paralysis. So it was with tentatively-titled “La bella confusione” (The Beautiful Confusion), the project following La dolce vita. Fellini later described this terrifying moment of paralysis with an affinity that seemed to reflect its central importance to his creative maturation. By his own account, he unexpectedly hit the creative doldrums for what was to be his eighth feature film (the “1/2” is for an earlier co-credit). Things became so dire that both friends and financial backers began to question his ability to get things going again, with the project stopping and starting several times over the course of the year. His initial idea was to have Marcello Mastroianni play a disillusioned writer, not realizing that Mastroianni had just done the disillusioned writer bit in Antonioni’s La notte. Fellini found his sole idea dead in the water. Then, the what-seems-altogether-obvious-now dawned on him: why not make him a disillusioned filmmaker instead? The elimination of this barrier between himself and his protagonist was a bold and risky autobiographical move but one that ultimately paid off. After that switch, the problems in the creative process evaporated and things fell into place rather quickly.

One cannot really talk about the transition between “neorealist” Fellini and “oneiric” Fellini without acknowledging the revolutionary impact of psychology on his narrative and visual style. To treat the sudden onset of acute depression, he began psychoanalysis in the early 1960s and became an ardent admirer of Jungian thought, of Jung’s theories of anima/animus and subconscious archetypes. Seeds planted in La dolce vita came to fruition by 8 1/2, with its meandering and self-reflexive narrative. Fellini later talked at length about his supervised experiments with LSD during this time period, and it is clear that this drug had some impact upon his fractured approach to narrative, the merger of plausible and impossible, the solid with the symbolic. From this point onward, and for the next twenty years, “Felliniesque” would gain cultural ground on “Kafkaesque,” eventually becoming the de facto shorthand for all situations surreal, circuitous, or dreamlike. And it is this odd intangibility that makes 8 1/2 still so engaging today.

The Battle of Algiers

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It’s ironic that one of the finest film indictments against Western colonialism sounds like the title of a bad History Channel documentary. Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, released in 1966, stands, along with Costa Gavras’s Z, as one of the few meaningful political films to come out of Europe in the 1960s and, even today, holds great relevance to the current political situation in North Africa and the Middle East.

America’s post-1945 plans are well documented: secure the world’s markets, control its resources, convert war production to domestic goods, remake West Germany and Japan into hi-tech capitalist satellite states, and leverage them to help the U.S. dominate the global economy. Above all, avoid sinking back into another Great Depression by forcing the world to buy our toasters and guns, both designed to break periodically. What would be the developing world’s role in all of this? Enrichment of a tiny percentage of global elite loyal to American business interests, who would control their civilian populations by force and crush any leftist populist resistance to the siphoning of their natural resources. Anyone against this agenda would be against freedom.

One overarching concern began to preoccupy capitalist planners: there were tens of thousands of liberated partisans across Europe, and most of them were still armed. All had suffered greatly under the occupation, where they cut communication lines and staged quick attacks. In short, they had done their bit, and they all now wanted some say in how the governments returning from exile patched up their nations. Support for former leaders, while easy to keep congealed during the Axis occupations, started to dissolve rather quickly as the parades ended. In Italy, this took the form of increased radicalization away from the right wing, with Communists, Socialists, and to a lesser extent Anarchists, all making giant political headway. In 1946, the Italian Communist Party and the Socialist Party took the majority of seats in the Constituent Assembly, the provisional body in charge of drafting a new constitution for Italy, which meant that the Christian Democrats were now the minority clerical party. This was totally unheard of and reflected an increasing public hostility towards Catholicism and its complicity in the dissemination of Fascist doctrine. U.S. policy makers were terrified by this power shift and now saw a legitimate Communist victory in the 1948 electoral process–not a Bolshevik-style coup–as a real possibility. To compromise and control these free elections, the U.S. government funneled huge amounts of money into a propaganda campaign and used Italy as the first testing ground for its newly-formed National Security Council, which was created to advise the President on matters of foreign policy. That crucial counterinsurgency operation is beyond the scope of this blog but does make for enlightening reading of declassified government documents; suffice it to say, the Fascists would have been proud, particularly since many of them were elected back into the posts from which they had only recently been displaced. This became the pilot project for subsequent CIA-backed attacks throughout Latin America, where the violence and atrocities mounted tenfold.

For North Africa, the rotating door of European imperialists fighting self-serving wars on the backs of their colonial subjects meant the arrival of an unexpected power vacuum. The same occurred in southeast Asia, where the Japanese occupiers vacated parts of French Indochina (Vietnam). The U.S. put the final nail in Britain’s colonial coffin by stipulating, in the terms of its Anglo-American Loan of 1945, that the U.K. first liquidate its overseas assets in the Commonwealth, thereby ensuring American global dominance for decades to come. Britain would be paying annually on that bill until 2006. As for France, I’m not sure of the whys behind its staunch determination to stay in the colonial game when it was so outclassed by the new heavies, but they went at the task with considerable arrogance. Vietnam’s war of independence against French and U.S. invaders is well documented. The last-minute cancelling of the North/South unifying elections due to fear of Communist victory, just as in Italy, says all you need to know about the U.S./French dedication to democracy abroad. In Algeria, France also had some trouble letting go.

Gillo Pontecorvo is the best directorial example of the swing towards radicalism in postwar Italy. His output next to his peers is minuscule, with primarily The Battle of Algiers and Quiemada commonly discussed today in film circles. It was Italian socialist Antonio Gramsci who first coined the term subaltern, which advocated that indigenous histories be told from the perspective of the colonized rather than the colonizers; and although Algiers cannot be said to be a true subaltern film due to Pontecorvo’s direction and Italian financing, it nevertheless reflects a thorough understanding of the mechanisms of oppression and dominance, and their impact on human rights. More importantly, the idea for the film originated with the Algerians themselves. It was Salash Baazi, a former member of the FLN (the Algerian freedom fighters, by then victorious) that first approached Italian producers with the idea of filming the memoirs of Saadi Yacef, the FLN commander imprisoned by the French and later freed to become a long-standing member of the Algerian government. The first draft, done by an Italian screenwriter before Pontecorvo’s involvement, reflected the angle still so prevalent today, that is, the narrative vis-a-vis the conscience-stricken imperialist soldier who uncovers the “truth” about his nation’s actions. Thankfully the FLN rejected this idea and a second draft was produced that provided a more balanced approach. This persistence of the FLN, that their story be told with some modicum of fairness, is a very important point to keep in mind since it is this exact fairness to which Pontecorvo respectfully adheres when coming on board. Indeed, Pontecorvo went to great lengths to include the past participants, including the casting of Yacef himself as the FLN leader. The secular, politically-driven FLN were as ruthless and tenacious as their French occupiers; in that sense, it mirrors almost exactly Israel’s ongoing dominance of the Palestinians through their illegal occupation of the West Bank, with the endless checkpoints, harassment, torture, and indiscriminate bombings.

The film’s significance today is multi-faceted. The Battle of Algiers has been used by both the oppressed and the oppressor, depending on the spin, and yet it still stands as a strong political statement, created at least in part by then-powerless voices attempting to eradicate imperialist systems of tyranny and control.