Friday, July 11, 2014

Tezuka Osamu: Ayako

I've been reading some more Tezuka.  I teach him, he's major, and I should read more of his stuff.  I always feel that way, even though by this point I've probably read more by him than any other mangaka:  I've read Phoenix, Buddha, Jungle taitei Leo, Dororo, Shin Takarajima, all complete, plus several volumes of Black Jack and Mighty Atom.  That's enough to know more or less what I think of him, but of course there's always more, and since I teach him (in small doses), I should know it.  So, more Tezuka.

Ayako 奇子 was serialized in 1972-1973, and was, like Dororo, part of Tezuka's response to the more mature, adult-oriented manga that had appeared over the course of the '60s.  Even more than Dororo this one tries to escape the kiddie-comic ghetto that Tezuka had owned for so long.  This one's even more ambitious:  Dororo was working in established manga genres, while Ayako is a bid for comics-as-literature.  I.e., no samurai, no spaceships, no monsters;  a few gangsters, but mostly this is an attempt at realism.  Multi-generational family drama, set against the historical backdrop of postwar Japan. 

Dirty realism, or naturalism in the sense of dealing with humanity in a state of nature, unreconstructed, filthy and mean.  He's telling the story of a wealthy rural family in northern Japan that's resisting postwar land reform, and all kinds of democratic reform, by becoming more and more insular and inbred.  Literally.  It's a family at war with itself - we get murder, incest, rape, all sorts of nasty stuff.  All of this Tezuka ties to larger political things - not only the question of rural landownership, but also Occupation politics, spying, political corruption, and the Economic Miracle.  Whew.

I kind of wanted to love it.  I love the ambition.  But I didn't feel like Tezuka's heart was in it.  I know he loved the Russian novelists, and that this is supposed to have their grand scale, but the particulars of the story are largely drawn from contemporary Japanese film and/or fiction - Kurosawa's The Idiot and The Bad Sleep Well come to mind, along with Yokomizu Seishi's Inugami-ke no ichizoku.  And the lurid details of the family's degradation feel tossed in just for cheap thrills.  It all hangs together plot-wise, and Tezuka's smart enough that it's all nicely integrated in terms of subtext, but the nihilism feels unearned, adopted from early '70s underground manga because that's what the revolutionaries liked. 


I read this in English.  I almost never read manga in translation, because, well, I can read them in the original.  But we happened to have this in English lying around, and I had a bout of insomnia, and I read it straight through in a day.  Interesting experience.  I read manga in Japanese, but not as fast as a native reader of Japanese can, which means that while I may be getting the same verbal experience, I'm not getting the same visual-verbal experience.  That is, I'm not apprehending the visual-verbal synergy at the pace at which it's designed to be apprehended.  That picture-and-text-at-a-glance thing that, really, comics as a medium is all about, I'm just a step too slow to really get when I'm reading in Japanese.  So it was interesting to read Ayako in English.  I kept wanting to check the original for language, of course, but meanwhile I felt like I was getting a more direct take on the comicsness of the thing than I sometimes do...

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Anno Moyoco: Kantoku fuyukitodoki

Anno Moyoco 安野モヨコ initially serialized this between 2002 and 2004, and the book came out in 2005.  Kantoku fuyukitodoki 監督不行届 - it's been translated as Insufficient Direction, which is a great handling of the title.  

Anno is best known as an author of women's and or girls' comics, often with a really sexy flavor;  this is a little different.  It's about her first year or so of marriage, and it just so happens that she's married to Anno Hideaki, director of Evangelion, etc. etc.  So this is a celebrity marriage memoir in manga form.  The subtext is that since Hideaki is Lord God King of otaku, for Moyoco the first year of marriage was a crash course in otakudom;  but the punch line is that she's constantly realizing how fundamentally otakkii she is herself, so it's not a big leap for her. 

This manga works perfectly on every level.  As a gag manga about newly-married life it's funny and
sad and wise in all the right places - it hits all its marks.  As a meditation on otaku and their ways, from inside the citadel, it's thoughtful and perceptive (and it does its homework - it's accompanied by an exhaustive glossary of the titles and terms that come up in the comic).  And as a piece of manga art it's brilliant.

That's what I enjoyed most about it, I think:  the art.  Particularly the way she's chosen to draw herself and her husband.  In the manga she calls him kantoku-kun - Director-boy - and she draws him with a wickedly accurate but inexcapably affectionate caricature.  It's recognizably him, with the wispy beard and the glasses and the Ultraman poses, so it has all the specificity needed to make an effective parody of an individual, but it's also abstracted enough to make him everyotaku, and in some ways everymiddleageddoofus.  I.e., there's universality there.  And it's funny:  she's such an expert artist that even though he's drawn in a really cartoony way every gesture, every pose, every facial expression communicates.  It's human.

Meanwhile she draws herself as a big baby in a onesie and a bib;  she calls herself Rompers.  This is the genius, the fascinating bit.  There's a weird and wonderful disconnect between the two characters:  he's cartoony, but as I say realistic enough to be recognizable as a middle-aged dude, while she's much more cartoony, and as a big baby who's nevertheless introduced as a 30-year-old professional comics artist, she's pure sign.  There's no indication that the other characters see Rompers as a baby - no baby jokes at all.  There's no way in which Rompers can be taken as a physical representation of the author, no attempt at self-portraiture here on an external level.  And yet in nearly every frame we have the two of them side-by-side, interacting as a married couple.  It's gleefully surreal.  Here's Rompers trying on wedding dresses, here's Rompers having a beer, here's Rompers lying in bed with Director-boy. 

It's surreal, and it's funny, but it's also tremendously effective.  What it's doing is giving us, in the same visual field, an external view of her husband and an internal view of herself.  We see her husband as she sees him, and we see her as she sees herself.  It's first-person in a way that I've seldom seen in a comic - it's a wonderful device.  And it's made possible, again, by Moyoco's tremendous drafting skill - even though Rompers is as cartoony as a Peanuts character in terms of line and level of detail, Moyoco achieves a tremendous nuance of expression with her, somehow conveying totally adult mannerisms, reactions, emotions. 


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Igarashi Daisuke: Kaiju no kodomo

Igarashi Daisuke 五十嵐大介, Kaijū no kodomo 海獣の子供 (Sea-creature children, although the official title of the translation is Children of the Sea, and I can see why).  It was published in five volumes between 2007 and 2012.  I read the first two when they first came out, and here are the notes I made for myself then:

This is still in progress, but I’ve read as much as has been published, and I can’t wait for more.   

It’s about an adolescent girl names Ruka who lives in a fictionalized version of Enoshima/Kamakura, and two boys, Umi and Sora, who have been raised by dugongs and have mysterious powers in the ocean.  Sounds hokey, very girly, but somehow it works.  The writing is good—a mix of myth, science, science-fiction, environmentalism, and adolescent angst—but the art is superb, and carries it.
Ruka’s father works at the aquarium, while she lives with her mother (parents divorced).  Other characters include a foreigner named Jim Cusack who also works at the aquarium, and is Umi and Sora’s guardian, although he can’t really control them.  Ruka is independent-minded but dreamy and moody.  Her father is kind of bland, always working;  her mother is clearly a beach bum who got pregnant too young.  Jim is fascinating:  tattooed all over with traditional designs from each island culture he’s lived with;  speaks Japanese.  And Umi and Sora are enigmas, constantly disappearing from the story, going off to speak with fish, etc.  The plot is moving kind of slowly—something about fish vanishing, usually in a cloud of phosphorescence;  Sora just disappeared at the end of Vol. 2, although we don’t know if it’s forever.  There are vague hints of climate disturbances (an echo of global warming), and international research bodies with unknown agendas who want to examine the boys.  

But what you really read it for is the art.  Igarashi has possibly the best draughtsmanship of any manga artist I’ve read, certainly recently.  All his shapes—people, buildings, landscapes—feel really solid and real, like he really understands the principles of sketching.  But they’re all rendered in this shaky, impressionistic style—if there’s a pen equivalent to watercolor, this is it.  It gives the whole thing a dreamy, gauzy quality that perfectly fits the aquatic themes.  And what really makes it work is that his tone, which could have been cloying, especially with this kind of art, is actually quite dry and reserved.  Anyway, it’s a masterpiece of visual tone. 

Well, I guess I could wait to read more.  I didn't get around to finishing it until now.   Partly that was intentional - I have a bad memory for plots, so as much as I love serialized fiction I don't really enjoy reading it in real time, because I've always forgotten what's going on by the time a new installment appears.  So when I get hooked on a current title I tend to put it aside until it finishes, or at least until enough volumes pile up to make it worth coming back to.  That's what I did with this.

Then it took the author an extraordinarily long time to come up with the last volume - 4 came out in 2009, and 5 not until 2012.  And I can see why - he obviously had trouble with the ending.  And in this case my plot-centric reading strategy kind of didn't pay off.  The ending is a letdown.  That is, it's hardly an ending at all.  Things go along pretty well through Vol. 4 - we learn more about Ruka's mother (she's not a beach bum at all), and about Cusack, and a couple more interesting secondary characters are introduced.  But Igarashi can't seem to figure out how to wrap it all up.  He keeps adding new layers of subtext - the aquatic sea is the cosmic sea, science is recapitulating myth, death is rebirth, the microcosm is the macrocosm - until the only way he can end it is with page after page after page of wonder-filled, text-less illustrations of Ruka cavorting with sea creatures.  And then it all resets - summer vacation ends and Ruka goes back to school.

So, yeah, I was right, but I forgot I was right.  You read it for the art.  Which is impeccable, all the way through.  The long textless passages of Vol. 5 remind me of some of the flights of fancy in Tezuka's Phoenix for sheer wordless eloquence.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Kono Fumiyo: Ballpen Kojiki

Bōrupen Kojiki ぼおるぺん古事記 (Ballpoint-pen Kojiki) (3 vols., 2012-2013) is the third thing I've read by Kōno Fumiyo こうの史代.  I've read Yūnagi no machi sakura no kuni 夕凪の町 桜の国, which has since been translated, and one volume of Sansan roku さんさん録.  To be honest I wasn't too impressed by the earlier works of hers, although I've had others argue to me, persuasively, that Yūnagi no machi is important and good.  I find myself in somewhat the same position on this one.

Here's what it is.  It's a manga adaptation of Kojiki, the Record of Ancient Matters, some of the oldest surviving writing in Japan and a repository of the archipelago's most ancient myths.  Myths that form part of the foundation of modern Shinto, I should add:  this book has religious as well as historical and literary significance.  Kōno is aware of all of this in her manga adaptation;  perhaps too aware.

Kōno is a good example of the contemporary phenomenon of literary manga.  In the last couple of decades the manga phenomenon has spawned an ecosystem of criticism, awards, galleries, and other kinds of institutions devoted to encouraging and preserving serious manga, challenging manga, manga with artistic and literary ambition and merit.  I see this as a Good Thing.  It doesn't militate against popular, mass-oriented manga, but instead often celebrates it - we're seeing a kind of incipient high-low culture divide within manga, just as happened with film in the 20th century, but so far I don't see the high attacking the low or seeking to delegitimize it.  So:  no minusses.  And the plusses are big:  there's more of a place for ambitious, challenging manga than ever before.  Kōno is someone who works this territory, and this work inhabits it nicely.

Which means that she's essentially free to be difficult with this manga, and difficult it is.  Primarily (although not only) in terms of the language.  She keeps the original language intact, as much as possible.  This is a huge thing. 

The language/writing system employed in Kojiki is famously difficult, but also tantalizing, since it holds out the promise of preserving the Japanese language at its earliest recordable stage.  Kojiki and a few other key contemporary documents have for this reason been fetishized for centuries for their language as much as, in in some ways more than, for the stories.  At its most extreme this has shaded over into a worship of the language as a form of kotodama - word spirit or sacred word, an idea that the language of the text itself is truth, is magic, is power, above and beyond its capacity to convey information.  Of course this is not a totally strange concept to anybody familiar with other holy books in the world...

When I say she keeps the original language intact, what I mean is that she more or less sort of faithfully reproduces it as the narration and dialogue of her manga.  What she adds is the illustrations, but her illustrations are essentially just acting out the mostly-unchanged original text.  Now, anybody who's looked at the Kojiki in the original will notice that the text she presents is not completely unchanged - she changes the notoriously enigmatic original orthography into something that much more closely resembles modern Japanese.  But the grammar she leaves more or less intact, and since Kojiki Japanese is at least as distant from modern Japanese as Beowulf English is from modern English, that presents huge potential problems for her readers.  She adds extensive footnotes to help the reader, but it's still not easy.  And I'm a premodernist - I have no idea how much patience your average manga reader will have with this.

So it's difficult in that sense:  it's just plain hard to read the language in it.  Luckily the illustrations are fabulous, really fantastic, and for the most part she has employed the visual language of comics well enough that you can almost follow the story without understanding the language.  But still, the total package is one that makes the reader work.  She could have jettisoned the original language and just retold the stories in a pure-manga format, with modern Japanese dialogue, and made it totally accessible to the modern reader, but she doesn't do that.  That would have allowed the reader to forget the source;  in her version, the reader is constantly brought into close contact with the source.

In some ways that's exciting (to me as a premodernist).  But to be honest it's also a bit worrying.  In places it does feel that she's privileging the original language so much, and so reverently, as to invest in it a little of that old-time kotodama religion.  This is most glaringly apparent in how she handles the names of the gods.  Now, there are a lot of gods in Kojiki.  There are whole chapters that are nothing but catalogs of gods - gods who appear once and never again, all of whom have extremely long tongue-twisting names that moderns inevitably have problems remembering and distinguishing.  Most of the time these long names can be broken down into meaningful elements - i.e., there's some debate as to whether these are names or titles, or whether at this point names can even be distinguished from titles.  And there's great scholarly debate on this.

What this means for her is that there are excuses if she wants them for sidestepping some of the linguistic difficulty with this text.  She could have used an abbreviated form of each god's name, treating the rest as a title to be rendered in more easily understood language, once and then dropped.  But instead, for each god she uses the full, incomprehensible (mostly) name/title each time.  She knows this is hard on her reader - she puts a square around each god's name each time it comes up to make sure the reader can separate a god's name from the rest of the sentence - but she does it anyway.  That's (a).  And (b) she includes all the catalogues of gods - all those gods who pop up once and never again.  It's like the begats in the Old Testament.  There's no reason to include this stuff - except that it's Holy Writ, right?

This is what I mean when I say that it feels like she's being reverent to the original language in a way that goes beyond historical fidelity and shades into religion.  And given the way some of these myths were used by 20th century imperialists and nationalists, and given the current revival of the right wing in Japan, this gives me serious pause.  I see nothing in this manga to make PM Abe, or the Yasukuni crowd, the least bit uncomfortable, and that's worrisome.

Which is a shame, because it's a smart manga, and a beautiful one, and an experimental one.  It's all drawn with ballpoint pens, for example - none of the tones or CG shortcuts or different kinds of pens for different kinds of textures that most manga artists consider essential to their toolkit.  She's doing it all with ballpoint pens.  And there's a really interesting parallel she makes between her tools and the myths - because of course one of the early stories is about the heavenly spear dripping liquid into the primordial sea, and this makes land.  The symbolic connection between the ball of ooze on the end of the spear and the ink-covered ball on the end of her pen is made quite early, and it's really a beautiful connection between form and content.  But there, too, it's not hard to feel a kind of religious impulse at work - maybe the decision to use only ballpoint pens proceeded from the perception of this parallel.  Given the long history in Japan of sutra-copying as a form of religious offering, it's possible to see the self-imposed strictures Kōno assumes in creating this manga as a kind of spiritual discipline...

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Los Lobos 1985-1986: An Essay in Discography

What I think of as the third phase of Los Lobos' career comprised the aftermath of How Will The Wolf Survive? and the run-up to and recording of their second album, By The Light Of The Moon. This took them two full years - the first album came out in late '84 and the second didn't come out until January '87.  And in that, they're once again not quite following the template for rock band careers.  They should have taken no more than twelve months to produce a follow-up.  How Will had been a critical favorite and almost a hit on college radio and the like - I was in high school at the time, not particularly immersed in underground music papers, and I remember reading and hearing a lot about it.  A late-'85 follow-up would have been a smart move, commercially.  But they took their time, and did it right.

In the interim they were touring heavily on that first album.  Nothing from that period has been officially released, but there's a perfect candidate for it on youtube:  a Canadian TV special filmed in Montreal on 4/22/85.  This is prime Lobos, and what's more it's full of rarities:  "Buzz, Buzz" (a Hollywood Flames oldie which they'd later record in the studio), the Howlin' Wolf classic "Three Hundred Pounds Of Joy," "Mighty Old Love" (a cover, but I can't figure who of), "The Town I Live In" (Thee Midnighters), and lo and behold, two years before they reimmortalized it, "La Bamba." This show is nothing short of a revelation.  The authority with which they rock Howlin' Wolf, the depth of the groove they get into on "Mighty Old Love," and the way they snap it straight into "La Bamba."  They're unstoppable.

Their cover of "Three Hundred Pounds Of Joy" actually made it to vinyl, but not this rendition.  They performed it live with Roomful of Blues on the latter's 1987 album Live At Lupo's Heartbreak Hotel.  Worth tracking down, but it's not quite as satisfying a version as the one from Montreal - it's shorter, and all those extra horns don't add anything that Steve Berlin's not already delivering on his own.

What the Roomful of Blues collaboration does is remind us just how much the band's critical acceptance was matched by their peer acceptance.  It's one of a long series of guest appearances that the Wolves made on other people's records, or that other people made on theirs.  In the period in question there are two others that I know about, each significant in its own way.

One is their collaboration with Ry Cooder on the traditional "Quatros Vicios," which he recorded for the Alamo Bay soundtrack in 1985;  it's widely available because it's on the El Cancionero box, but to me it's a little disappointing.  Rosas and Hidalgo get to sing, but Cooder himself handles the
accordion and bajo sexto parts - which is like asking Eric Clapton to sing on your record, but handling the guitar part yourself.  People wouldn't be making that kind of mistake much longer.

The other is the song "All Around The World Or The Myth Of Fingerprints," which closes off Paul Simon's Graceland album, released in 1986.  This would never show up on a Lobos compilation, but the thing is, it should.  Steve Berlin insists that the band wrote it, the music at least (he says nothing about the lyrics), and it's easy to believe him, because it sounds nothing like a Paul Simon song, and a hell of a lot like a song Los Lobos would have been working on to follow up "Will The Wolf Survive."  It has that kind of suspended-over-percussion gentle verse going into that chimey, anthemic chorus.  And of course the boys supply all the instrumental work on the song.  Regardless of how things went down between the artists, it's a great record, tight, crackling with energy, and I've always thought it was a key part of their '80s work. 

I know of one other rarity from this period, which is also easily obtained courtesy of the Cancionero box.  We've already heard their cover of the Fats Domino song "I'm Gonna Be A Wheel Someday" on the 1983 PBS special that celebrated their e.p.  They laid it down in the studio in 1986 for the soundtrack to the film A Fine Mess

There's a little live Lobos from '86 around, to complement the Montreal show.  I like this segment from a show in San Rafael on 11/21/86: not only does it include more cool covers ("Your Love Keeps Lifting Me Higher"! "Tequila"!), but it has them jamming with Carlos Santana.  Not quite a passing of the torch - there's not really a whole lot of similarity between what Santana does and what Los Lobos do.  But still it's a cool moment.

And that brings us to the second album, recorded in 1986 and released as the New Year (which would be Los Lobos' miracle year) of 1987 began.  By The Light Of The Moon was a much-labored-over album, by all accounts, and in the end all that work was overshadowed by the fluke success of La Bamba later in '87.  And that's an entirely different phase of the band's career.  So I like to try to hear the second album the way I heard it when I first bought it, when it first came out:  in isolation, with no inkling of what would come after.  Taken on those terms it's a beaut.  It's clearly trying to hit most of the notes the first album hit - you have the chiming-guitar anthem ("One Time One Night"), the rockabilly bruiser ("Shakin' Shakin' Shakes"), a Spanish number ("Prenda Del Alma"), and a bunch of chugging r&b with a Latin flavor.  But it feels no less original for that - rather, it just feels like this is a band that has staked out its territory, and knows how to work it.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Horie Toshiyuki: Kuma no shikiishi (2000)

Horie Toshiyuki 堀江敏幸  shared the 124thA-Prize, for late 2000, with Seirai Yūichi.
The title story, Kuma no shikiishi 熊の敷石, is the winner:  a novella whose title could translate as “The Bear’s Paving-Stone.”  I’d be tempted to translate it as “Bear Paving-Stone,” for the pun, but there’s no pun in the original.  Rather, it’s a direct translation of a French proverbial expression, “le pavé de l’ours,” which comes from the story in La Fontaine’s Fables about “The Bear and the Gardener.”  A lonely gardener made friends with a lonely bear, and things were going well for a while, each doing the other favors, until the bear took it upon himself to chase away all the flies.  One landed on the sleeping gardener’s nose, and no amount of shooing would drive it off.  So the bear picked up a paving-stone from the garden and chucked it at the fly.  And killed the gardener.  Because bears aren’t too smart.  The moral being:  be careful about your friends. 
The effect of the story, for the Japanese reader (or any non-French reader, really, this one included), depends on not knowing that proverb, though.  The story begins with a dream of the narrator’s about rambling in a forest, then realizing that the path he’s on is actually the backs of bears, all running toward a hill in the forest.  I.e., the bears themselves are (in the dream) paving-stones.  The dream isn’t commented on or explained, and only at the end do we have the narrator coming across the French idiom and learning its meaning and reflecting on how it fits his life…

The story is mostly flashback.  The present-moment frame is the morning after the dream.  The narrator wakes up in a house in Normandy.  He’s a guy in his 30s from Tokyo who makes a living translating from French to Japanese.  He was on a research trip to Paris, buying books and making notes on what might translate well before he approaches publishers, when he had a free couple of days and decided to call up an old friend, Jan.  Jan is about to leave the country for Ireland, but he invites the narrator out to Normandy to visit him for the afternoon, and the narrator ends up spending the night, and staying on a couple of days to work alone in the empty house after Jan leaves.
The bulk of the story has us following the narrator as he rides the train from Paris, meets Jan, and drives around the vicinity of Avranches.  Much of it is their conversation.  Jan is a photographer, and they drive picturesque granite quarries, the monastery of Mont Saint Michel, and various villages and cafés and country lanes.  Their talk runs to books – Jan brings up Jorge Semprún, and it’s at this point that the narrator realizes that Jan’s grandmother was a Holocaust survivor.  They also talk about Émile Littré and his Dictionary;  the book the narrator is scoping out for possible translation is a biography of him, and he’s amazed at the coincidence that he’s now in Avranches, because that’s where Littré’s family was from. 
The story ends with the narrator in Jan’s house after Jan’s departure.  He finishes his work on Littré, and in the process runs across the idiom that gives the story its title.  He finds a copy of La Fontaine’s Fables and looks it up, and takes from it the moral about being careful about one’s friends.  And as he’s eating lunch with Jan’s landlady before she drives him to the train station, he wonders if perhaps he wasn’t a bear to Jan’s gardener – doing him harm by forcing him to talk about things too personal or difficult for him, such as his grandmother’s experiences in the Holocaust.
I loved this story, and I loved it more the farther I got into it.  It’s unprepossessing.  The style is light but subtle – just off balance enough to force you to pay attention.  And the characters and their relationships are realized with the same graceful touch.  It helps that the situation and the setting are unfamiliar, so that we have to trust the narrator but we don’t know how much we can.  Horie himself is an accomplished French translator, so when he has his narrator getting together with an old friend like this out of the blue, staying at his house with no warning, we trust that maybe this is the way friendships work in France, or in Horie’s France.  And when Jan opens up, we assume the two friends must have a history to justify it – but we’re never told that, so we’re free to speculate all sorts of relationships.  And then at the end we find that the narrator wonders if he has been presumptious.  Like, it was a weird relationship all along, but the narrator never considered how weird.  And why not?  Because things always get weird for expats?  Because after all these years he’s still not sure he understands how the French do things? 
Jan’s landlady tells the narrator over lunch that Jan had talked about him before he came.  Saying that you can’t believe national stereotypes – we always hear that Japanese are workaholics, but I have a Japanese friend who’s as happy-go-lucky as they come.  And the narrator turns it into a nice joke – he’s adroit that way.  But for the reader it sinks in:  this story is about the fragility and unknowability of friendship at all times, but particularly across cultures.
There’s more going on than that:  I’ve only touched on the Holocaust theme, for example, which is handled very deftly and lightly, but with reverence.  And there’s the way photos and dream-images bleed into each other – there’s a lot of thinking about how the images captures thought, or transcends it.  It is, in short, a very deep story, but told with a wonderfully delicate and light touch.  This is the work of a master.

The other two stories are somewhat less memorable.  The first, “Sunauri ga tōru 砂売りが通る” (The Sandman goes by) has the narrator getting back together with the younger sister of a deceased friend, on the third anniversary of the friend’s death.  She had been a child when the narrator knew her, but now she is an adult, divorced, with a daughter of her own.  Most of the story involves the three of them walking on a beach;  we also get reminiscences of the friend, the woman’s childhood, and the narrator’s time in France.  The second story, “Shiroato nite 城址にて” (At the ruined castle) takes place during one of the narrator’s earlier trips to France.  He visits a (different) friend in Normandy, and the two of them climb the wall into a historic site where an old castle is being excavated and rebuilt.  They’re caught by the crotchety caretaker and separated.  The narrator ends up wandering alone in the dark, broke, almost panicked before the friend and his wife find him.  These stories share the title novella’s prose style and its way of balancing the perspective of a lone individual against his need for others and/or others’ need for him.  They’re not quite as moving, but then maybe that’s why they didn’t get the Prize.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Third thoughts on Terrence Malick

So there we are.  Rewatched The Tree of Life and watched To the Wonder.  My opinion on the former hasn't changed at all;  and I'm sorry to say that I'm not even sure that watching the rest of his films deepened my understanding of that one any.  Having seen anything by Malick (in my case, The Thin Red Line) is probably advisable, just so you don't go in expecting anything conventional.  But too many probably would have blunted the impact.  It certainly did with To the Wonder.  It felt like self-parody in places.  I laughed out loud, rolled my eyes, and snorted as often as I nodded my head in appreciation.

To the Wonder is a puzzling film.  A lot of critics seem to be taking from it the same thing they took from Tree of Life, but I see it as trying, at least in part, to do something different.  That film was largely about an ecstasy (embodied/accessed by/through the mother) that can never be effaced - the light that never goes out.  This one is at least sometimes trying to be about what happens when that light does go out.  Loss of faith, God, joy, love, beauty, what-have-you.  That's a bold enough departure that I was swayed, sometimes.  Parts of the film are undeniably there.

But I suspect (and Malick's such an auteur that you almost can't help but judge his films based on the personality they present, even if it's not real) that Malick hasn't ever actually felt what his fallen priest Javier Bardem feels.  There's too much angelic twirling in the fields in this film:  too much of the Wonder seeps in.  So it feels like he's gesturing toward a depression that the mortals who surround him assure him exists, and that he feels he should probably try to address if he wants to get everybody to tune into the Wonder, but that in the end he's clueless about.

And again, I think it's because he's clueless about actual people.  The Real Oklahoma People that Javier Bardem encounters are not presented as anything but grotesques.  They speak, but just like the rest of the actors their words are drowned out by Emotive Music and whispered voiceovers by other people.  They're not individuals, and in the end they're hardly human.  We're certainly not invited to empathize with them as we are with Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, and Rachel McAdams.  And there's no in-between.  In Malick's universe there are Beautiful People and then there are grotesques. 

I'm starting to find myself puzzled by the cult of Terrence Malick.  His films are dazzlingly shot, provocatively edited, exquisitely scored, and in so many ways different from typical film that I can understand the initial excitement.  But so far he's only demonstrated an ability to do one thing, and it's not the kind of thing that lends itself to reiteration.  His themes are almost childishly naïve, and his spirituality is a combination of New Age facileness and old-style Catholic mysticism.  And his characters - okay, granted he's trying to deal in human archetypes, not individual characters.  But what are those archetypes?  Man goes out and works upon the world.  Woman stays home and waxes maternal.  I mean, he's utterly regressive. 

I imagine Terrence Malick as the cinematic equivalent of Sarah McLachlan singing "It's A Man's Man's Man's World."