January 25th, 2008

Cooper and Bowie

Breaking Glass in Your Room Again

I was a rather lousy person a couple nights ago. You know, a former friend of mine once said she preferred books as friends over people. At the time, I thought this was a sort of pathetic view on her part, that it essentially meant she didn't have the fortitude to handle friends who were capable of looking back at her with consciousnesses that could note her imperfections. But now I think she was pretty smart.

It's been a long time since I read Fahrenheit 451, but I remember a scene where the character named Faber talks about how the power books have is in the power the people have who read them to be able to put them down at any moment.

I've been thinking about that. I think it thereby makes every piece of information or imagery that comes out of a book consensual by default. It's an intimate and fully engaged relationship because the reader can only engage voluntarily, which results in some dissolution of the reader's potentially fearful and numbing reflexes.

So, since I feel like I haven't been a very good person lately, I'm going to see if I can be more of a book.

Thursday I finally saw Juno. It's a pretty good movie. The first twenty minutes felt like a flat, Bugsy Malone version of Citizen Ruth, but after that, the characters start to seem a little more interesting and complex and it becomes a nice little story that only puts you at arms length on one or two more occasions with what it apparently thinks is wit.

Oh, and I've also been re-reading Dostoevsky's White Nights. Maybe there really is something to be said for books as friends, because Dostoevsky never fails to make me feel less alone.
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Unfamiliar Ceiling

"I am Barred from the Event; I Really Don't Understand the Situation, but It’s No Game"

Torrents are continuing to be an addiction for me. I downloaded the remastered Neon Genesis Evangelion, which is a vast improvement on my DVDs, not just in terms of picture and sound but also in terms of subtitles, which are much better written in the remastered edition. I also downloaded Mikio Naruse's Floating Clouds, which isn't currently in print in the U.S., which is sort of extraordinary when you consider, as the imdb entry notes, it was voted "Third in the centenary poll by Kinema-Junpo magazine about all-time best Japanese films, Shichinin no samurai (1954) and Tôkyô monogatari (1953) preceded it." The Wikipedia entry consists only of one short sentence; "Floating Clouds is a 1955 film directed by Mikio Naruse."

Watching the movie and the first couple episodes of Evangelion got me thinking about Japanese attitudes regarding sexuality and the socially proscribed roles for men and women. The second episode features Misato Katsuragi, a beautiful, 29 year old woman who takes in 14 year old Shinji Ikari and thinks nothing of barraging him with sexual innuendo in a couple of scenes that resemble the sex comedy of awkwardness typical of anime, though the significance of this relationship is broadened later in the series. Even by this second episode, there's the curious juxtaposition of Shinji being forced to adapt to this newly sexually charged atmosphere at the same time that he's being asked to perform acts of extreme violence. It's understood that Misato has no true sexual designs on Shinji, and she seems to think she's flattering him with the attention. A character later in the series points out to Shinji that he ought to feel honoured because Misato lets him see her as no-one else does.

But it is a sloppy relationship with ill-defined boundaries. I never really thought about it before.

Japanese film and television is often filled with enormous catastrophe, and it's hard not to see this as a reflection of the atom bomb's lasting influence on the culture. The popular American attitude is that Japan had it coming, though a lot of people don't think that's really true. As William S. Burroughs said, "Bombs bursting in air over Hiroshima proved through the night that our flag was already there."

Floating Clouds is a movie of post-war Japan, which is really beginning to fascinate me as a subject, after seeing this movie and Kurosawa's Ikiru, Druken Angel, and Stray Dog, which are none of them directly about the impact of losing the war on Japanese society, but are nonetheless permeated by it, psychologically and, very impressively, visually. Extensive location shooting can't fail to show the overwhelming, and very real devastation of Japanese cities. A nation-wide humiliation is ever palpable, which, by the way, is one of the reasons the Neo-Con idea of Iraq reconstruction being analogous to Japanese reconstruction is complete baloney. The Japanese cared. The nation was fully invested in war against the Allies, and they thought they were on the road to a glorious victory. They didn't just lose, they lost big and bloody.

I can understand, I think, why Floating Clouds has gotten so little western attention--which is the case for all of Mikio Naruse's movies*--because it deals so fully with the characteristically Japanese gender dynamic.

The film stars the beautiful and talented Hideko Takamine, Naruse's regular star, and Masuyki Mori of Rashomon and Ugetsu. Takamine's character, Yukiko, having been raped by her brother-in-law, takes a government job in Indochina during the war where she has an affair with her superior officer, Mori's character (Tomioka), whose wife is back home in Japan. After the war, Yukiko is forced to return to Japan, where she understandably thinks nothing of stealing many of her brother-in-law's possessions in order to get by. She has a meeting with Tomioka, who's not interested in continuing their relationship.

In Indochina, Tomioka's attitude was cool towards Yukiko. He spoke casually insultingly to her, making her tell her age in front of strangers, telling her she looked older. There's an ingrained assumption of his superiority to her. In Japan, after the war, they both go through a complicated series of humiliations as their roles are broken down by circumstances in their world. While their relationship was hardly equitable by objective standards before, at least they had the comfort of knowing what was expected of them. But in post-war Japan, where Yukiko is forced to become a prostitute and eventually finds herself financially far better off than Tomioka, nothing seems to work right. The two love each other, and are irresistibly drawn back into each other's company, even as they find themselves bitter towards one another and completely at a loss as to how to interact. Yukiko's forced to realise she's smarter and better equipped to survive than Tomioka, and that she resents his endless string of superficial affairs with other women. He's in the uncomfortable position of depending on Yukiko more than he feels he has a right to, and knowing that she's a smarter, more able person that he is. It's painful and humiliating for them both, but they can't escape because they love each other.



*I wrote an analysis for Naruse's When a Woman Ascends the Stairs early last year. You can view it here.
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