I hadn't seen it in a while, but Project A-ko was one of the first real anime movies I saw in high school. It seems to get better as I get older.
I'm trying to stave off frustration at how long my current project is taking because I know all of the time I'm spending putting together background details is going to pay off. I finished another map yesterday, which I'm rather pleased with. These maps will be on the web site, but they're not exactly going to be a particularly exciting feature, I know. They're really more for my benefit, because I find it a lot easier to work out histories when I've got the visual to work with.
As I was map-making, I listened to rest of Stephen Prince's commentary for Red Beard. Here's another section I found particularly interesting, which focuses on the character of Otoyo, the character I focused on most in my analysis. Prince discusses her relationship with a character in Dostoevsky's The Insulted and the Injured, here referred to as Nelly. The translation I was using for reference in my analysis translated her name as Elena;
The epileptic seizures that Nelly suffers in the novel are based on Dostoevsky's own epilepsy which surfaced at this time. Kurosawa, too, suffered from congenital epilepsy and had frequent seizures as a child, and as an adult he would sometimes go into a trance-like state. He said, "I never noticed it myself, but it seems I would sometimes have brief lapses during my work when I completely forgot what I was doing and went into a kind of trance."
Kurosawa's major characters are all subjected to shocking experiences, as I have mentioned before. In Kurosawa's artistic vision, growth only comes through shock, and it may be that this vision has roots in the director's own physiology. A physiology that would have prompted him to feel a deeper level of kinship with Dostoevsky.
This next scene in the film, where Otoyo goes outside to get money, [is] so strikingly visualised by Kurosawa with all this howling wind and dust, and the extraordinary telephoto compression of his lenses. The images look virtually two dimensional. This scene has its source in The Insulted and Injured. It's an almost exact transposition of the scene where Nelly leaves Vanya's house and begs for money on a nearby bridge. Vanya follows her, watches her beg, and then sees her enter a shop where she buys a teacup to replace one of Vanya's that she had defiantly broken. Vanya calls her name, she sees him, is startled, and drops the cup, where it breaks upon the pavement.
This scene is one of the few in the film that takes place outside the clinic. And we see again Kurosawa's almost offhand evocation of a detailed historical period. Kurosawa's sets were enormously budgeted, the production design of this film was one of the most elaborate in contemporary Japanese film. And yet he's showing us these sets in an almost subliminal fashion. He is evoking this world in tremendous detail; we see a merchant's shop, fully stocked with goods, fishermen, hauling in their nets, samurai strolling across the bridge. And yet the scene itself is quite brief. It's a peepshow, really, a fast glimpse of a richly detailed historical era. For most of the film, we are in the clinic, which is a sacred space of healing, a zone that is set off protectively from the surrounding world. When Kurosawa evokes that world, as he does here, it's in a flash, a quick peep, and full of detail and texture, but not a place where the characters linger.
Let's allow this scene, of Otoyo breaking the cup, and then breaking down before Yasumoto, to play out in all the artistry that Kurosawa has given us. This is Otoyo's moment of release. She has been inhibited, protectively insulating herself from the world and from all emotion. People cannot be trusted. They have hurt and abused her. She cannot reveal herself to them, and yet she has gone out to buy this cup for Yasumoto, has opened herself up again to vulnerability and the prospect of being hurt. She's going to sink to her knees and release her emotion in a tremendously moving outburst. This wonderfully moving and cathartic moment is one that Kurosawa is filming almost literally from Dostoevsky's novel. Dostoevsky wrote, "All the feeling which she had repressed for so long broke out at once in an uncontrollable outburst and I understood the strange stubbornness of a heart that for a while shrinkingly masked its feeling. The more harshly, the more stubbornly, as the need for expression and utterance grew stronger, until the inevitable outburst came, when the whole being forgot itself and gave itself up to the craving for love, to gratitude, to affection and to tears. She sobbed until she became hysterical."
Dostoevsky, then, provided one source for the character of Otoyo. The other source on which Kurosawa based this character was an incident he witnessed during that period in his twenties when he lived with his brother, Heigo, in a little alleyway tenement in Tokyo that seemed to Kurosawa like a world from the feudal era. A floating world of colourful characters, down and out people, who had no visible means of support, but who depended on each other, and who sustained their difficult lives with humour and resilient spirits. Heigo was working as a benshi, one who narrated silent films at the neighbourhood theatre. To Kurosawa, he seemed like a larger than life storybook character, a masterless samurai, held in awe, and respected by all in the neighbourhood.
Despite the bon ami that Kurosawa found in the neighbourhood, nasty things happened there. An older man raped his young granddaughter and parents regularly beat their stepchildren. These events impressed upon Kurosawa the existence of savagery within the human heart and he remained haunted by this for the rest of his life. One incident in particular was terrifying; sobbing, a woman from next door said that a neighbour was torturing her stepchild. She had bound the girl to a bed and was burning moxa on her bare chest. In traditional Japanese medicine, small amounts of moxa were burned on the skin to treat inflammation. But in this case, large amounts were apparently being used in a sadistic fashion. The sobbing woman begged Kurosawa to go and set the child free. Peeping in the window, Kurosawa found the girl tied to the bedpost. He went into the room and began to untie her. But she glared at him and angrily said that if she were untied, it would only make her stepmother torture her worse the next time.
Kurosawa said that her reaction was so shocking, it felt like he had been slapped. Even if he freed her, he realised that she couldn't, or wouldn't, escape from that terrible environment. Pity for her would only lead to more trouble, an idea that he dramatises with Yasumoto's encounter with the Mantis. Kurosawa went away, but the scene of the beaten child lingered in his mind. He recreated that child in Otoyo and his experience made him especially receptive to Dostoevsky's account of Nelly. Kurosawa's portrait of Otoyo, however, is not as terrifyingly bleak as what he encountered in that bedroom. Otoyo does not collaborate with her torturer, and her own innate goodness does prevail.