Trompé Setsuled (setsuled) wrote,
Trompé Setsuled
setsuled

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Accidental Japanese History Lesson

Let it not be said that I don't know how to spend money. I had a little extra this week, and already I'm down to about twenty dollars.

Last night alone I spent a hundred dollars; off Amazon I ordered Caitlin R. Kiernan's Alabaster and To Charles Fort with Love, and I also pre-ordered her Daughter of Hounds. And I ordered Alan Moore's Lost Girls. All these lovely books, and I don't even have time to-day to read the new Sirenia Digest, though I've been especially looking forward to this one.

I also bought a lot of movies this week; Akira Kurosawa's Stray Dog, both of Yasujiro Ozu's Floating Weeds movies, I got the aforementioned first season of DuckTales, and, on the same day, a nifty twenty dollar two-pack of Lost in Translation and Broken Flowers.

It was only last night that I realised I'd gotten for myself a little cinematic tour of Japan's roller-coaster evolution in the twentieth century. First I watched Ozu's A Story of Floating Weeds. Made in 1934, it's easily the oldest feature length Japanese film I've seen. I was amazed at the apparent utter lack of western influence on the clothing and manners of characters in the movie. Except for the telephone lines and trains, the events in the film may've taken place at any point in the preceding two hundred years. Yet the story, about a travelling entertainer ashamed to let his son know of his profession, seems to highlight a movement in Japanese culture away from its traditional class system.

Being accustomed to the only sparingly sentimental films of Kurosawa, it was a little strange and slightly uncomfortable watching an unabashed melodrama like A Story of Floating Weeds, and it didn't seem at all strange to me that young Kurosawa was not a fan of Ozu, and in fact often worked against Ozu's sentiments. But taking A Story of Floating Weeds as, it is, a silent film, its melodrama doesn't seem exceptionally overwrought compared to the silent films of America from just a few years earlier. That this Japanese film was made as a silent a few years after talkies had become the norm in Hollywood suggests to me that cinematic imports in Japan were likely slightly outdated.

But the movie does have a genuinely interesting visual style. Most frames could be beautifully elegant photographs by themselves, and there's an interestingly lingering pace; there are many still shots of props and landscape features, which seem to serve as a counterpoint of ambiguity to the film's scenes of steamroller sentimentality.

Next watching Kurosawa's Stray Dog was a startling contrast. Made in 1949, the film has a great deal of documentary style footage of the unmitigated squalor of post-World War II Japan as Detective Murakami, played by an almost unrecognisably young and skinny Toshiro Mifune, searches Tokyo's dregs for his stolen gun. The movie's events take place during a spat of unseasonably hot weather, and the sight of Takashi Shimura constantly mopping sweat from his face and the lingering shots of scantily clad showgirls crammed into a small room, doing nothing but lying around and sweating, seem to heighten an air of oppressive demoralisation. It's in this atmosphere we see Murakami feeling an increasingly unbearable guilt as his stolen gun becomes responsible for one murder after another, and a girl named Namaki combating herself over her own attachment to the murderer. Both Murakami and the murderer are war veterans, and a none-too subtle parallel is drawn, showing the two separated by a very thin line of desperation.

Watching Lost in Translation next provided a view of Japan yet again massively transformed. Tokyo in the Sofia Coppola movie bears no resemblance to the hell hole in Stray Dog, but I could see similarities to the city in Ikiru, where a massively crowded and gaudy nightlife can already be seen, as well as strange vertical pinball games that seem to be the ancestors of the clamouring forest of video games Scarlett Johansson wanders through.
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