Friday, August 12, 2011

Miike Takashi's Sukiyaki Western Django (2007)

Somehow missed this until now:  Sukiyaki Western Django スキヤキ・ウエスターン ジャンゴ, cult fave Miike Takashi 三池崇史's 2007 film. Actually I have to admit this is my first Miike film - I'd always been turned off by rumors of the extreme gore in his films.  And this has it, but it's still a brilliant movie.  I want to see more.

I'm glad I went into this knowing basically nothing, because I was utterly unprepared for the Heike monogatari references.  When guest star Quentin Tarantino opened his mouth and, in his best rawhide drawl, recited the opening lines of the classic medieval war tale, you could have knocked me over with a feather.

So, to be clear, this film is a classic Edo-style naimaze, thoroughly intertwining two separate and distinct story-worlds.  Miike is combining an homage to Kurosawa's Yojinbō (complete to the calligraphy style of the opening credits) with a retelling of the Tale of the Heike.  Actually it's a little more delightfully weird than that, because he approaches Yojimbo through its unauthorized spaghetti-Western remake, A Fistful of DollarsDjango is, then, a Japanese appropriation of the Italian appropriation of the Hollywood Western.  (Why sukiyaki?  Because, I think, the the more natural Japanese analog to spaghetti, ramen, had already been taken by Itami Jūzō's Western pastiche Tanpopo.)

As such it's a delight:  if you love these disparate cinematic and literary traditions, you'll be endlessly entertained by picking up on the references. 

As a J-lit person I was of course most interested in the Heike references.  The blog post I linked to above (by A Man With Tea) runs some of them down.  Not only do we have the obvious, the great red army of the Heike led by Kiyomori and the great white army of the Genji led by Yoshitsune, but Miike brings several lesser characters from this cycle into his movie:  Yoshitsune's lover the dancer Shizuka, his brawny retainer Benkei, and the great Genji archer Nasu no Yoichi;  Kiyomori's sons Shigemori and Munemori. 

There's a bit more to be said, though, I think (and I'm sure somebody somewhere has already said it).  I'm pretty sure that the character of Ruriko, i.e. Bloody Benten, the female gunfighter played with such indelible charisma by Momoi Kaori, is based on the legendary Princess Jōruri (Ruriko = Jōruri), with whom Yoshitsune had an encounter early in his career (like Shizuka, she isn't part of the Heike monogatari proper, but comes up in other tales in the Heike cycle:  Miike did his research). 

Why is Miike overlaying Princess Jōruri with the goddess Benten, though?  I haven't figured this one out yet.  It seems that there's some hints of a historical connection, either because Jōruri sought to woo Yoshitsune with music and Benten is the goddess of that art, or because there's a shrine to Benten within the precincts of an old shrine in Tōhoku which is said, in legend, to have been where Jōruri died, having chased Yoshitsune up to the wild Northeast.  And of course the wild Northeast is where Miike filmed this...

Another aspect of the way Miike plays with the legends here deserves mentioning.  This is that he's bringing together figures from all stages of the Yoshitsune cycle.  If you know the literature you'll know that Kiyomori and Yoshitsune never share the stage, so to speak:  Kiyomori dies before Yoshitsune arrives on the scene.  Shigemori dies, too.  And, as I've mentioned, Shizuka and Jōruri don't figure in the battle narrative at all: Shizuka is only introduced after Yoshitsune has defeated the Heike and become a hunted man himself, while Jōruri is a figure from his youth, before he has ever proved himself in battle.  Miike is kaleidoscoping all this together.  Why?

Partly because it's fun.  Okay, maybe mostly because it's fun.  But I think there's more.  The key is that he has Kiyomori saying (screaming), "This time I win!"  The characters in this movie are conscious that they're reenacting battles that have already taken place.  It's as if all the characters in the war tales have been brought back to life in a new setting to play it all out again.  Which, of course, is true, in that Miike has brought them back to figure in his sukiyaki Western.  But interestingly there's a provision for this in the legend, as well, in the concept of the asura, the Warring Demon that constitutes one of the Six Realms of Buddhist existence.  These are creatures, just lower than humans, who spend their eternities locked in endless bloody combat, and to the medieval mind of course they provided an irresistible metaphor for, and object lesson on, the fates of warriors.  Professional killers:  doomed in their next incarnations, possibly, to never know peace.  Certainly this is the theme of more than one Nō play, as for example Yashima, which summons up the ghost of Yoshitsune himself to present the specter (pun intended) of a warrior condemned to endlessly reenact his battles. 

What Miike is doing, then, is nothing less than taking us to the Asura Realm, to see the Heike and Genji locked in eternal mutual slaughter. 


Thursday, August 11, 2011

Yamazaki Mari: Thermae Romae (2009-present)

Some friends are wild about this manga, so we borrowed it and gave it a try.  As usual, my wife zipped through the two volumes we borrowed in about five minutes (yukking it up the whole time), while it took me the better part of a Sunday afternoon...

The author is Yamazaki Mari ヤマザキマリ, and the title is テルマエ・ロマエ, or Thermae Romae.   It's from Beam, which is a pretty dependable publisher;  usually they do things that are aimed at grown-ups, and are relatively sophisticated, or at least interesting.

This is, sort of.  The set-up is a lot like that in JIN, only in reverse.  In ancient Rome (Hadrian's reign), we meet an architect named Lucius Modestus, who specializes in designing bathhouses.  While in a public bath one day he slips through a mysterious drainhole and surfaces in a modern Japanese public bath.  Astonished by everything he sees, he comes up with a great idea for the bath he's designing back in ancient Rome, and then just as mysteriously fades out of consciousness and wakes up in the bath back home.

It's a comedy, of course.  It's the gags that have made it a huge hit in Japan (there's a movie planned, live action), and I have to admit they're pretty good.  The art is mostly forgettable (Yamazaki employs a light, sketch-like line, which lends everything an airy, marble-like look), but good enough that a lot of the gags depend on making readers recognize similarities between the way she draws characters and the kind of Roman sculpture you've seen in school books and on public TV.  Not just famous people like Hadrian, but even Lucius himself is drawn like a sculpture come to life, with comically rigid postures and facial expressions.

Some of the gags amount to no more than that, visually punning on famous statuary.  Elsewhere her humor exploits the predictable situational humor of an ancient Roman showing up (naked, of course) in a modern Japanese setting.  Culture shock, technology shock, etc.

And it is enjoyable, as far as that goes.  I mean, I laughed at several episodes.

There's a disappointing undercurrent, though (is that a pun? can't tell).  Like JIN, there's a wish-fulfillment thing going on here.  Minakata Jin went back in time to introduce modern medical technology to late early-modern Japan and thus changed world history to make it appear that modern medicine depended on Japanese innovation and ingenuity.  Here an ancient Roman jumps forward in time and marvels at the superior technology and ingenuity of modern Japanese bath culture, then goes back to introduce it into Ancient Rome.  The manga doesn't take it seriously enough to develop this into a full-fledged alternate history of the Roman bath.  But still Yamazaki is pandering to her Japanese readership's cultural nationalism, flattering them on how superior their bath culture is to Rome's.

Which is kind of pathetic, if you think about it.  If you're reduced to boasting that you're technologically and socially superior to a 2nd century CE culture, you're not really boasting at all.

Of course, the implication is that modern Japan's bath culture is also superior to that of the modern West.  That's the real ax Yamazaki's grinding here.  And, let me hasten to add, I don't necessarily disagree:  I enjoy an onsen as much as anyone.  But Japanese cleanliness vs. supposed Western dirtiness is an old Nihonjinron theme, and Yamazaki is catering to it (not so much in the manga as in her prose afterwords to each episode).  And that's a little dispiriting.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Murakami Motoka's Jin (2000-2010)

My mother-in-law got me hooked on this one:  Jin, by Murakami Motoka 村上もとか.  (The official Japanese title is JIN ー仁ー, for what it's worth.)  It's a manga that ran in Super Jump from 2000 to 2010;  it's set in the late Edo period and has samurai in it, and my mother-in-law knows I'm a sucker for that stuff.  She sent me the first few volumes about a year and a half ago and I was hooked.  Eventually she sent them all.

The story follows a surgeon in present-day Tokyo who falls and hits his head and wakes up in Edo on the eve of the Meiji Restoration.  His name is Minakata Jin (thus the title).  He spends six years in the past, making his way as a commoner physician in Edo, revolutionizing the practice of medicine with his 21st-century knowledge, and getting tangled up in the politics of the day.

Its flaws are many.  Above all it's a Jump comic, which means that it's basically for boys.  Adolescents.  This shows in the way all the characters are stock, and all his friends turn out to be major historical figures that, oh hey, didn't we study that guy in history class last year?  Cool!  Like, it's so inevitable that he befriend Sakamoto Ryōma (every Japanese boy's favorite historical martyr) and Saigō Takamori (every Japanese middle-aged dude's favorite historical martyr) that it's almost painful when he actually does...

Then there's the transparent flag-waving fantasy aspect of it.  I mean, it's a time-travel story that actually allows its protagonist to affect history, which means it qualifies as an alternate history of late 19th-century medicine as well.  And in this alternate history it ends up being a Japanese physician who pioneers penicillin, modern anesthetic, brain surgery, and other revolutionary techniques.  Which is clever and fun to read, but also ever-so-slightly pathetic - there's such an element of 12-year-old patriotic wish-fulfillment in seeing all these foreign advances being made by one of your own countrymen instead...

The thing is, it's a tremendously entertaining manga. Not groundbreaking, not particularly deep, but a lot of fun.  The stock characters in particular I ended up enjoying, because they were deployed with such sincerity and gusto - there really was a hooker with a heart of gold, there really was a spunky pickpocket with a dangerous boyfriend, there really was a rival doctor who hated Jin's methods until Jin saved his life, there really was a stern samurai matriarch who had to be tricked into accepting his unorthodox treatment...  It's all terribly old-fashioned and earnest, and quite refreshing because of it.

The art deserves special mention. In the early volumes especially Murakami has a particular quality to his lines that I really loved.  There's a clarity and solidity to them, an exactness, that I find quite graceful.  He's definitely working close to the realistic edge of the comics idiom, but for him that means careful shading and almost architectural exactness of line, not impressionistic sketchiness.  The backgrounds are lushly detailed, the perspectives and angles all effectively chosen, and the characters are rendered with the perfect measure of cartooniness - just enough to give them more life than the backgrounds, without breaking the mood establshed by the realistic backgrounds.

The later volumes kind of drag, as the politics of the Restoration take center stage (lots of people sitting in rooms delivering expository dialogue), and the art becomes a little more generic.  And the wind-up to the whole story is just kind of silly.  Read the first five or six volumes and then let the story hang, telling yourself that someday you'll get around to reading the rest.  It's better that way.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life (2011)

I don't know much about Terrence Malick.  Only what I read.  We saw Tree of Life basically because lots of people we knew had asked us if we'd seen it yet.  We came out of it quite glad we saw it.

Me partly because it plugged into something I'd already been thinking about as a result of seeing Happy Together a couple of nights before:  film as something other than dramaturgy.

Tree of Life has a story, certainly, and scenes and actors and performances;  but that aspect of the film is so intentionally attenuated that I came away thinking that the story (and I'm sure if you know Malick this is obvious) isn't really the point.

But that's not quite the same as saying, as I would about much of Wong Kar-Wai's work, that the patterns of imagery, or the pattern-imagery, is the main point and the story is only incidental.  Rather, I came away from Tree of Life feeling that the story was of paramount importance, just not as a story.  Not as drama, the way we commonly think about it.  Rather, it seemed to me that this film is story as ritual - drama as ceremony, the way it began in most cultures - this film is like a mass.

Viz. The story is one of brothers growing up in Waco, Texas, in the mid 20th century:  we get to know them and both of their parents.  But despite some memorable specificity in several of the scenes I'd argue that we don't really get to know any of these people as individuals, but only as archetypes - the Lawgiving Father, the Lifegiving Mother, etc.  And the life events they go through are presented as universal stages as well - the Oedipal stages that the firstborn son goes through, for example. 

We're being shown, not specific lives, but essentialized Life.  And that's why it makes perfect sense thematically (even if it's a bit jarring) for this film to digress and go back to the beginning of life, tracing evolution through, yes, the dinosaurs up to the present day.  Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, right?  And ontogeny begets ontology, in this case:  we're being shown the life of Life, as well as the life of Man, in its most essentialized outlines, to enlighten us.  We're being told the Story of Life, in order to help us find some transcendent meaning in it.  Just like the liturgy of the mass tells a particular story of the universe and our place in it.

I don't think I've ever seen a film do that before.  At least, no film meant to be seen in theaters, rather than church rec halls or other dedicated spaces...