Floating Weeds Randomised

moccastfloatingweedsThe films of Yasujiro Ozu are probably the opposite of random in their structure and composition, so it seems rather perverse to make one his films the subject of this ongoing series of randomised film reviews. But that’s not a good enough reason to avoid giving it a try, this time working with Ozu’s gorgeous 1959 Floating Weeds, a remake of his own 1934 silent comedy-drama. It’s also a good opportunity to sing the praises of Eureka’s magnificent Blu-Ray edition of the film, from the Masters of Cinema series (though today’s frame grabs are taken from a DVD – for an idea of the BD quality, this link should help). If you need a primer on the formal style of Ozu’s films (though admittedly it just focuses on a few of the late works), I wrote one for my students a few years ago.

The rules are simple: I use a random number generator to give me five numbers, and these dictate the minute-marks of the frames I take from a DVD of the film. These three images then form the basis for a discussion of the film. The numbers are 7, 36, 41, 56, and 78, meaning that we begin with … Continue reading

Fragment #24: The Invention of Godzilla

[In this extract from his book Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters, August Ragone describes the development of the eponymous monster for the original Japanese Gojira (1954), better known to international audiences as Godzilla.]

“They … wanted the film to reverberate with current geopolitical, national, and social concerns, as well as evoking the spectre of the Tokyo Fire Raids and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They agreed they should approach the film in earnest, treating it as they would any serious, real-life subject, rather than as a ‘monster movie’. The monster’s attack on Tokyo could be seen as an incarnation of war itself, and [executive producer, Iwao] Mori thought the creature should carry the physical scars of H-bomb tests.

Originally, [Eiji] Tsuburaya wanted to bring the nuclear nightmare to life using stop-motion effects, as King Kong had been made. When asked how long it would take to produce such effects, Tsuburaya told Mori it would take seven years to shoot all of the effects required by the screenplay, based on the current staff and infrastructure at Toho. Of course this was out of the question – the film had to be in theatres by the end of the year. Tsuburaya decided that his department’s considerable expertise in miniature building and visual effects photography could accommodate working with a live actor in a monster costume instead of using stop-motion techniques. Mori and Tanaka agreed and gave him the green light to proceed with planning and construction.

Planning was a painstaking process. To ensure that things would run smoothly, [director Ishiro] Honda and [writer Takeo Murata] would present scene ideas to Tsuburaya, who would tell them whether his team could pull them off. (More often than not, he told them he could.) Problematic scenes or shots were rooted out during the extensive storyboarding process, helping prevent costly mistakes during shooting.

[…] To design the creature, Kayama suggested popular mangaka (comic book artist) Wasuke Abe, who had illustrated several of Kayama’s juvenile adventure stories and worked for numerous publishers and in many genres. Abe’s most famous work was Kenya Boy (Shonen Keniya), written by his brother, whose pen name was Shoji Yamagawa. The story, about an orphaned Japanese youth lost in Africa, was more Lost World than Tarzan, set in a land alive with prehistoric creatures. When Abe conferred with the Godzilla staff, he brought with him the current edition of Kenya Boy, which featured an encounter with a Tyrannosaurus Rex. This would prove to have a decisive influence on the production design of Godzilla. While Abe’s designs were ultimately rejected – they were more abstract and humanoid than animal, and the beast’s head was rendered like a mushroom cloud – he was retained to help draw the hundreds of storyboards required for the film.

Tanaka, Tsuburaya, and Honda decided to focus on an original dinosaur of their own design. Inspired by a Life magazine pictorial on prehistoric times featuring paintings by Rudolph Zallinger and by the celebrated Czech dinosaur artist Zdenek Burian, production designer Akira Watanabe combined attributes of the Tyrannosaurus Rex and the Iguanodon, and added the plates of the Stegosaurus. To bring Watanabe’s drawings to life, Tsuburaya contacted his old colleague from The War at Sea From Hawaii to Malaya, Teizo Toshimitsu. Toshimitsu took Watanabe’s drawings and began to render the creature in clay. After experimenting with scaly, warty, and alligator-skin textures, the staff agreed on the alligator version.

Toshimitsu and the staff of the visual-effects department began construction of a Godzilla suit for an actor to wear. The first version of the suit was built over a cloth-and-wire frame and layered with hot rubber, which was melted in a steel drum and applied in layers over the frame. This resulted in a heavy and immobile costume in which the actor could barely move, and so it was scrapped.

A second suit, while still incredibly heavy at 220 pounds, allowed more freedom of movement, and became the final costume. The first suit was cut into two sections and used for scenes requiring only a partial shot of the monster, and Toshimitsu also created a smaller-scale, mechanical, hand-operated puppet that could spray a stream of mist from its maw, to simulate the creature’s nuclear breath in close-ups. A young actor and stuntman, Haruo Nakajima, was given the part of Godzilla (a role he would play a number of times in a long career that found him frequently cast as a monster), alternating with fellow thespian Katsumi Tezuka, which allowed production to continue when Nakajima needed relief from the physicality demanding part.

[…] The first day of shooting miniature photography involved Godzilla’s destruction of the National Diet Building, Japan’s Parliament, which was built in 1/33 scale so that Godzilla would appear to tower over the structure. They decided to let Tezuka play the scene, Nakajima later recalled, but he fell flat and hit his jaw square on the miniature set, ruining the shot and necessitating retakes, this time with Nakajima in tight close-ups because Tsuburaya did not have time to rebuild the set.

The punishing role would bruise and scar both men. Stuffed into the stifling suit, roasting alive under the studio lights, they suffered from heat exhaustion and blackouts, and found themselves breathing fumes from burning rags soaked in kerosene, used to give the impression that Tokyo was ablaze. More than a cup of sweat was poured out of the suit after each scene was shot, and Nakajima ended up losing twenty pounds during the course of the production. On one of his rare days off, Nakajima received word that Tezuka and several crew members had nearly been electrocuted when a live wire fell into the indoor pool set. While using live actors was less time-consuming than tackling stop-motion animation, it was far from an easy shortcut, and involved long, arduous hours, often all-nighters.”

Air Doll

There is no reason why an inflatable sex doll spontaneously comes to life at the beginning of Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s Air Doll. It just seems to happen, and thus begins a tale of a toy’s explorations of human life and interaction. Maybe it happens because her owner, a lonely, introverted Tokyo salaryman, has invested so much energy in believing her to be a real partner that she is given agency: when we first see them together, they are having dinner, him telling her the gossip from the office while she “listens” passively. She shows the same composure throughout their subsequent one-sided sexual encounter:

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Picture of the Week #33: Motoko Kusanagi/Ghost in the Shell

I’ve just started putting together the abstract for a paper on the Ghost in the Shell franchise, with some emphasis on its metaphors of puppetry, dolls and simulacra (I’m also treating it as an “existential detective”) narrative, and while scrounging for sources online, I came across these wonderful drawings and cels from the films and, I reckon, the TV series, Stand Alone Complex from the personal collection of Geoffrey Clifton at his blog, Animation Utopia. I love to see these rough versions of the finished, painted products that will be laid on top of them. You can see so much dynamic energy in the artist’s strokes of the pencil. That energy will later transfer to the character, and the traces of the animator’s hand will be concealed beneath the perfected chassis of Major Motoko Kusanagi, still the most enigmatic, compelling figure in anime. In a brilliant article about the first film, Christopher Bolton argued that previous studies of the Major treated her as if she were a real cyborg facing existential crises, ignoring the extra layer of synthetic performance that her status as an animated fabrication brings into play:

The virtual or artificial nature of animated “actors,” who are always already technological bodies, complicates any effort by the film or the critic to draw or blur the line between natural and artificial or human and machine.

Nothing brings home her “technological body” like seeing the sketches beneath the facade.

  • Christopher Bolton, “From Wooden Cyborgs to Celluloid Souls: Mechanical Bodies in Anime and Japanese Puppet Theater.” Positions 10.3 (Winter 2002): 729-71.

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Big Man Japan

We probably overuse terms like “bizarre”, especially when reaching for adjectives to describe some of the more colourful corners of Japanese popular culture. If American superheroes are treated with square-jawed earnestness, and given deconstructive exercises that extend only so far as grumbling about the heavy burden of their duties, Big Man Japan sets about the similar task of upending the mythologies of the kaiju eiga (giant monster movie) with a wicked sense of the absurdity of the whole situation. It spoofs it’s target genre with something approaching affection, but primarily pokes fun at it not by mimicking its excesses and taking them a little bit further into comic extrusion, but by juxtaposing the ordinary with the fantastic and showing them to be aesthetically, tonally and, by extension, purposefully incompatible.

Click here to read on…

Love Suicides at Sonezaki: An Appeal

sonezaki_shinju_01Sorry to burden you with this. I don’t want to use my blog for personal appeals, but I’m hoping someone out there can help. I’ve been trying to view a film called Sonezaki Shinju / Love Suicides at Sonezaki (Midori Kurisaki, 1980), and it’s proving to be a bit of a slippery customer. I can’t even find any pictures from it online, though I’ve seen some stills in a 1989 issue of Cinefantastique.

The film is a rare recording of a bunraku production of the play by Chikamatsu Monzaemon, who wrote it specifically for the Japanese puppet theatre. It’s probably the most famous of all his bunraku tragedies. The lead puppeteer was Tamao Yoshida, who was designated a “living national treasure” for his decades of service to Japanese cultural life. It is also, to my knowledge, the only time that the official bunraku troupe were persuaded to take their puppets outdoors for shooting in natural locations. The film was shot by Kazuo Miyagawa, who has an extraordinary track record of cinematography credits working for Ozu, Mizoguchi and Kurosawa. If you’ll excuse a little bit of hyperbole, there is nothing of its kind anywhere in world cinema. And I’d quite like to see it.

sonezaki_shinju_02It was released on laser disc in 1998, but has long since gone out of print. I’ll be happy with VHS or DVD, with or without English subtitles, and I’ll travel a reasonable distance to watch it in an archive. If you think you can help, please don’t hesitate to contact me. I’m probably needy enough to pay good money. We tend to think that the internet makes all films accessible to us, and I’ve certainly seen a lot of movies that I would otherwise probably never have been able to see, but just as often it teases us with enticing works that are just out of reach…

King Kong Escapes Again…

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King Kong Escapes Poster

[More Kong action can be found in this post: King Kong Randomised.]

In my earlier post, about King Kong vs Godzilla, I pondered what the appeal of Japanese movies in which big monsters beat the living cack out of each might be to their devotees. You know, apart from the obvious: monsters fighting, metaphors scrapping to gain the semic upperhand or hold the ideological fort, can hardly be less than entertaining. Which is not to say that fans of kaiju eiga are undiscerning, more that different criteria of quality apply. Cult films, those which attract loyal adherents and completists who arguably adopt alternative critical frameworks of appreciation, tend to feature tend to feature hermetically sealed, aesthetically consistent environments. It is this opportunity to spend time in a familiar diegetic space that makes them attractive for repeat viewings rather than customary adherence to traditions of quality. As I’m fond of noting, Toho monster movies create a parallel world of lovingly crafted miniature sets, a place where global events and political struggles are dwarfed by the more pressing concern of massive lizards, moths and robots blundering around through wafer-thin cityscapes, a more colourful visualisation of cities rendered pathetically vulnerable when uncontrollable weapons are deployed.


Madame Piranha (Mie Hama) and Doctor Hu (Eisei Amamoto)

In the Toho King Kongs, which borrow and rework RKO’s best known character, the big gorilla is, as Godzilla sometimes becomes, a heroic figure fighting for the good of Japan and humanity. In this one, a Chinese-Japanese alliance (actually, the villains never discuss their nationality, but there are strong hints: the main villain is a Fu Manchu-style master criminal called, gloriously, Doctor Hu) aims to take over the world.  Doctor Hu builds a giant robot version of King Kong to do his bidding. This Kong is going to help him mine a mysterious, world-conquering “Element X”, which he will sell to the Japanese, represented by the mysterious Madame Piranha, played like a Jackie-O supervillain by Mie Hama, still most famous to non-Japanese audiences for her role as Bond Girl Kissy Suzuki in You Only Live Twice (and perhaps also for being the first Asian woman to pose for Playboy). With inexplicably fast costume changes, she makes an alluring, if unlikely  supervillain (you get the impression that all of her commandments would be fashion-based), timidly representing “a certain country”; though it’s never named as Japan, she changes her plans as soon as the mayhem she casuses threatens Tokyo. When it becomes clear that Robokong can’t dig up Element X because the magnetic forces interfere with his circuitry (don’t they have regular equipment for mining stuff?), Doctor Hu decides that controlling the mind of Kong, using a cute blonde as bait, will be a better strategy.

The robot King Kong prepares to go digging.

The robot King Kong prepares to go digging.

Like King Kong vs Godzilla, Escapes selectively restages scenes from the 1933 original, this time the scene where Kong fights a Tyrannosaurus Rex while “the girl” (this time played by Linda Miller, looking not unlike Naomi Watts) is stuck in a tree. It even repeats the jaw-snapping killing blow, and ends with a flight up a tall tower (though here Kong battles his robotic alter ego rather than the local military).

Linda Miller in King Kong Escapes

Linda Miller in King Kong Escapes

King Kong punches out a dinosaur.

But unlike the earlier film, Escapes is a more fully integrated Japanese-American co-production, so there are none of the clumsy inserts of media commentators to explain events for external observers. Instead, there’s an American research team, led by Commander Carl Nelson, played by Rhodes Reason. Stop a moment and think about that. The lead actor is called Rhodes Reason. They don’t name ’em like they used to. The research team plans to study Kong in his natural habitat (rather than, for example, drugging and dragging him back to New York to star in his own hit show), and a struggle ensues for the soul of the big ape. In my previous post about King Kong Escapes, I offered an excerpt from Vincent Canby’s 1968 review, which I’ll reproduce here to save you clicking back and forth:

The Toho moviemakers are quite good in building miniature sets, but much of the process photography—matching the miniatures with the full-scale shots—is just bad. The English language dialogue that comes out of the mouths of the Japanese actors could well be Urdu, and the plotting is hopelessly primitive, although it is littered with found symbols, most of which have to do with a (perhaps Hiroshima-inspired) national death wish. Really unforgivable, however, is what has been done to King Kong himself. The great, dignified, 80-foot ape-hero of the 1934 Hollywood classic has been turned into a spineless, grovelling Uncle Tom in the community of prehistoric beasts. At the direction of the simpering blonde heroine, he destroys the world domination plans of some Chinese Communist agents, pining all the while for a love that—for quite obvious reasons—cannot be.

So, does this criticism stand up? Well, yes I guess:  except that Kong is hardly “spineless” in this case. He battles against the odds to kick the cogs out of his robot nemesis, risking his own life for his girl. He doesn’t give a flying feck about the geopolitical wranglings going on around him. It’s all about the blonde. The same blondeness has been restricting Kong’s decision-making capacities in all his incarnations:

Fay Wray in King Kong (1933)Jessica Lange in King Kong (1976)Evelyne Kraft in The Mighty Peking ManNaomi Watts in King Kong
Fay Wray in King Kong (1933), Jessica Lange in King Kong (1976), Evelyne Kraft in The Mighty Peking Man (1977), Naomi Watts in King Kong (2005)

Perhaps the consistency of Kong’s desire across so many films indicates how the character is used as a dumb vessel for an agglomerated set of signifiers pertaining to the spectator’s desire as previsualised by the films’ producers (it’s not that fanciers of non-blonde alternatives don’t exist, just that they show up as a smaller piece of the demographic pie-chart when these things are calculated), and that desire is not just sexual but acquisitive. Guys, Kong is you in your dumbstruck, amorous consumer guise – he sees it, he wants it, he’ll hang onto it regardless of what happens around him.

King Kong battles his robot self.

King Kong battles his robot self.

But this film isn’t all about the monsters. They’re proxy warriors moved into position (Kong Kong vs Godzilla did this quite literally by dropping Kong into the battle zone with giant balloons) as mascots for broader human concerns, be they environmental, political or supervillainous. It might be grandiose to suggest that, in the final showdown between Kong and Mechakong, the film constructs a dialectic between reality and simulation, organic and synthetic. In that sense, we’re on comfortable science fiction territory, with the machine’s emotionless brute force and efficiency finally overpowered by the real ape’s lustful persistence and exercise of free will. Or, as free as a horny giant gorilla can get.

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Metaphors are Attacking Tokyo!!

Gojira (Ishiro Honda, 1954) is an easy one. A big old dinosaur is awoken from its deep-sea sleep by nuclear tests in the South Pacific, exercising severe grouchiness against passing ships and Japanese cities. Made less than a decade after the end of World War II, whose finale saw Japan becoming the first and only country to suffer (twice) the full force of an atomic bombs, Gojira serves up a lizard-shaped allegory for the devastated nation and its fear of further nuclear devastation. Nice. Simple.

The metaphor is so succinct, so tidy, and the critical consensus so strong in favour of this interpretation, that it makes a certain kind of viewer reach for counter-readings that might unseat orthodoxy and poke received opinion in its beady little eye. That seems to be a common academic instinct – to deconstruct a film text by probing the weaknesses in its argument and the arguments surrounding it; it’s usually quite a healthy technique, as it can show up aspects of a film which adherence to the standard pathway through its formal framework might otherwise obscure. There used to be a critical consensus that the waves of alien invasion films spawned in the USA in the 1950s were a direct emanation from a widely held fear of communist infiltration. Some critics, including Peter Biskind and Mark Jancovich, suggested that these films could alternatively be read as expressing fears about domestic conformity and social control – the idea of a set of identikit extra-terrestrials aiming to assimilate humans into their mindset might be an example of this. Invasion of the Body Snatchers might be seen as most fearful of soulless conformity, of invasion from within (rather than from abroad) by emotional forces rather than technological or military ones. I echoed this interpretation in my PhD thesis, which featured a chapter on UFOs and special effects, claiming that cheap special effects make these subversive readings much more tenable. You’ll find a version of this argument in my new book from Wallflower Press. (OK, I felt quite dirty doing such a shameless plug, but I’m just happy because it finally came out…)

But maybe, just maybe, the received interpretation of the Godzilla story is frequently cited because it works. It describes, rather than superimposes, a truth about the film that, once ackwnowledged, assists in the digestion of the movie’s grander themes, and allows the viewer to focus on the finer points of street-stomping kaiju action. This is certainly not to say that Gojira is a simple, cut-and-dried piece of nuclear dread. By making the big G a lightning rod for the nuclear debate, the film permits a polyvocal discussion of the merits and demerits of blowing stuff up with weapons of mass destruction. The arrival of an angry, giant radioactive Jurassic relic prompts a debate between scientists who want to study and scientists who want to destroy the creature; there are those who want to suppress all knowledge of the attacks to avoid panic and social unrest, while others insist that the public has a right to be forewarned. And the biggest dilemma of all comes with the decision over whether or not to use a devastating new weapon against the monster, laying waste to vast numbers of other sea life.

So, it’s not simply the case that Godzilla is monster who embodies the destructive force of a nuclear bomb in order to replay and exorcise the spectre of devastation in the safe playground of genre conventions. Godzilla is the site for debates around the reasons for the appearance and deployment of such weapons. Yomota Inuhiko has explained this with a comparison to one Hollywood version of the genre:

“Godzilla is as much a threat menacing Japan as another victim of nuclear attack itself. That is, he is defined as a metaphor of post-war Japanese society that has survived the catastrophe caused by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Godzilla has a precedent in the Hollywood film, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (Eugene Lourie, US, 1953). This Warner Brothers B-film also features a nuclear bomb experiment and a monster; in this case, a nuclear blast at the North Pole awakens a dinosaur. Although the dinosaur attempts to raid Manhattan, a nuclear warhead attached to a US army missile finally destroys it. The film’s characters do not hesitate to use nuclear arms. Instead, what the film communicates is the vehement message that nuclear weapons are indispensable when it comes to the repelling of the enemies of civilisation. By contrast, what is distinctive about Godzilla is that its characters actively engage in earnest discussions about the best way to deal with the monster.”  (‘The Menace from the South Seas: Honda Ishirô’s Godzilla‘ in Phillips & Stringer, Japanese Cinema: Texts and Contexts, p.106)

An encultured belief about special effects is that they must move with the times, deploying the latest technology to assist with the increasingly photorealistic depiction of similar narrative events. Hence the tenacity of the monster film, which has been subjected to a near fetishistic recycling of a simple trope (primitive monster rampages in modern environments, embodying a clash of ideologies), with each revision marked by the use of ever more sophisticated effects, as if striving towards a perceived endpoint of absolute simulation. I have argued elsewhere that this endpoint is a mythical one, a measuring pole of progress that ignores the constructedness of all images. The wish of absolute simulation might suggest that there will come a point where the illusion is indistinguishable from the real, and thus that they will become semically co-extensive – in other words, an artificially rendered monster will appear so wholly to be a part of the filmic space that it will no longer be endowed with special symbolic capabilities. It will become an unobtrusive part of the diegesis, contributing to the making of meaning but not bearing its own “special meanings” through the nature of its construction.

Outside Japan, the reception of the Godzilla movies is not what it is at home. Other than the devoted band of cult followers, the monster is best known for its rampant merchandising and its “special” special effects. I hesitate to call them “cheap”, but that may well be how they are perceived since, despite refinements in the technique, the films are still made using an actor in a big suit traipsing across the skylines of miniature sets. To many viewers, it still looks comical that the illusion is so readily revealed, but those meticulously designed little worlds are things of beauty. Why haven’t they been redone using state-of-the-art CGI to avoid those obvious discrepancies of scale and detail? Wouldn’t it look much cooler with a digital monster crashing through a digital Manhattan? That’s the very question that Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich spent $130,000,000 trying to answer with their 1998 remake. The answer was “no, it would look like crap.” It might be that the man-in-a-monster-suit approach keeps the character of Godzilla tied materially to the merchandise, toys and replicas upon which his brand is stamped – the toys look more like the “real” thing than they might if Godzilla were a set of algorithms. Philip Brophy has provided a more intriguing explanation.

Rather than focusing on the allegorical manouevres of the Gozilla films, Brophy stresses the input of “phenomenological aspects of direct physicality” borne by the use of a man in a rubber suit to trash miniature sets at Toho studios. Comparing the practices of special effects in American and Japanese monster films, he proffers the following argument:

“The predigital mechanics of fantasy in American cinema lean toward the human-as-engineer, with Willis O’Brien (King Kong, 1933) and Ray Harryhausen (Jason and the Argonauts, 1963) exemplifying and perfecting the stop-motion animation technique of articulated figurines. The engineer in this process is the unseen God, operating beyond the frame and between the edit;
invisible in the act of animation yet perceivable through the product of motion. By contrast, concurrent Japanese fantasy privileges the human-as-agent, building upon the parallel crafts of Bunraku and Kabuki. These theatrical traditions invoke the phantasmagorical, but always through the presence of the human within the proscenium arch (as black-clothed puppeteer in the former and ornately costumed actor in the latter). It logically follows that Japanese sci-fi/fantasy cinema embraces the human figure within the cinematic frame rather than denies its status just because of the photographic medium’s propensity to be seemingly more ‘realistic’ (which itself is less relevant to Japanese visuality and its calligraphic base).”

This is an argument around cultural specificity as much as it is one of technical specificity, but the upshot is that the use of a rubber suit to depict gigantic creatures (as opposed to human scale ones that can ravish, for instance, their female co-stars) is to represent the unleashing of monstrous energy as opposed to the sexualisation of that energy through the threat of physical contact between monster and humans – i.e. Godzilla rarely shares the frame with human performers, but is instead isolated in compositions that position him at the centre of a site of destruction. It also promotes identification with the monster, acknowledging the temptations of destructive spectacle, the cathartic desire to indiscriminately unleash mayhem from a safe, vicarious distance. This may be a contradictory impulse in a film that expresses such extreme apprehension about the benefits of nuclear weaponry, but Gojira is a film that puts forward a powerful debate about whether or not nukes might be a necessary evil or an inevitable extension of humankind’s destructive instincts. In that context, Brophy’s argument makes perfect sense, and reminds us, though he may not have had such lofty goals, that teleological approaches to the history of special effects will not fly.


Ohayô / Good Morning: An Introduction to Yasujiro Ozu

For several years on our introductory film course, we’ve spent the first week conducting formal analyses of a couple of films, breaking down their editing patterns and shot selections. We usually give students an example of Classical Hollywood Cinema and juxtapose it with an Ozu movie. As a pair, they represent very different approaches to narrative-based continuity editing, and for teaching the basics of shot-by-shot sequence analysis, the connections between shots, as well as the composition of each of those shots, these two films always serve as excellent illustrative text. For the past few years we’ve used Tokyo Story, which the majority of students have found so sluggish and unengaging that they switch off from the task of tracking the passage from shot to shot (they rarely have trouble with The Big Sleep, probably because the quick pace keeps them interested, and the incoherence of its plot stops them getting too distracted by the story). So, this year, we’ve switched the Ozu film to Ohayô, one of his brightest, breeziest outings. It’s much shorter than Tokyo Story. And it has fart jokes.

I kind of regretted switching to the softer option on this, but actually the new film works just as well as Tokyo Story in illustrating the key aspects of the director’s style. Ohayô certainly features Ozu’s distinctive, idiosyncratic and endlessly fascinating visual syntax, a set of repetitive techniques which stand as one of the most recognisable in all of world cinema.

The story is simple, the nuances legion. It follows the interpersonal relationships of a group of Japanese families who share an immediate neighbourhood. The primary focus is on two boys, Minoru and his little brother Isamu, who desperately want a television. Their parents are annoyed that the pair spend much of their time rushing next door to watch TV at the home of a louche couple, around whom a fair bit of town gossip circulates (they spend the whole day in pyjamas, apparently!), when they should be studying their English homework. Railing against their parents’ antipathy towards television (read it as a symbol of modernity), the boys take a vow of silence until they are given a set. The ensuing stand-off reveals much about the bifurcated worlds of adults and children, with the youngsters refusing to communicate, and the adults’ communication blighted by reticence, gossip and misunderstanding. This running commentary on communication gives the film its title: “ohayô”, meaning “good morning”, is one example of the kind of barely sincere small talk that the boys deplore. How can their parents say that watching TV is a waste of time when they themselves spend so much time talking to people they don’t like or uttering redundant phrases? Most of Ozu’s abiding themes are here: tensions between duty and desire, between traditional behaviours and modern attitudes (often represented by incursions of American/Western culture into post-war Japanese society), dramatised as an inter-generational conflict.

If you’re new to the close formal analysis of sequences of film, Ozu is a great place to start. Although his style develops over the course of the fifty-something features he completed in his lifetime (he lived for exactly 60 years to the day, 1903-1963), in his later work it is fully formed and comprising an immediately recognisable set of visual consistencies. His shots are always meticulously composed, with prominently placed objects, such as the kettles and other domestic implements that you’ll notice peppering the frame. They’re not necessarily useful props for developing narrative, but they anchor the eye and preserve the beautiful order of the set. In his colour films, you will be struck by the use of chunks of colour to adorn these compositions. See, for instance, this moment in Ohayo when two consecutive shots are connected, not spatially, but with a graphic match between two bright red objects.

Usually, these objects are not significant in themselves (though the prominence given to domestic utensils and everyday tools may be telling), but sometimes they can reveal a lot. In Tokyo Story, we learn that Noriko (Setsuko Hara) doesn’t entertain guests very often in her humble home, just from the fact of her going to a neighbour’s place to borrow a bottle of sake. It’s a simple act that invites the inference of a great deal of private backstory that would otherwise have been elided altogether.

You can also see a reminder of the widowed Noriko’s childlessness in the prominently placed baby (not that I would brand the little guy as an “object”) if you so choose. The same can be said for this beautifully composed shot of the alleyway outside Noriko’s apartment:

Even as it seems designed to convey the cramped conditions and disorder of the location, it is almost fussily arranged and perfectly lit so that the child’s tricycle (connoting the family environment in which Noriko must live alone), and the large sake bottle will pop out in the composition. Finally, here’s another significant object shot from Tokyo Story. The elderly couple have been sent to a tourist resort by their children (ostensibly as a treat, but really to get them out of the way), where noisy young people are cavorting and carousing late at night. The quiet simplicity of the couple, and their utter togetherness, in comparison to this youthful frippery (!), is set out definitively in this lovely shot:

OK, I could fill this whole blog with wonderful frame grabs from Ozu movies, but I suppose that would be too easy. What are we to make of these objects, even when they’re not so obviously weighted with narrational baggage as those examples? Donald Richie, who wrote one of the first book-length studies of Ozu’s work, considered them to be “containers of emotion”, but for them to serve as “a focal point for aroused emotions” these objects “must be free of all ostensible directorial purpose. Otherwise it would not contain emotion, it would discharge it. This emotion, of course, is neither Ozu’s nor that of his characters, but the emotion which has been generated in the spectator himself.”

Richie cites an example from near the end of Early Spring (1949):

The image of the vase in the darkened room to which Ozu returns at the end of Late Springserves not only to bridge the transition between Setsuko Hara equitable and Setsuko Hara near tears, but also to contain and to an extent create our own emotions. Empathy is not the key here. To be sure we do imaginatively project our own consciousness onto another being, but this is perhaps a secondary effect. Primary to the experience is that in these scenes empty of all but mu [a zen term meaning “nothingness”], we suddenly apprehend what the film has been about, i.e., we suddenly apprehend life. This happens because such scenes occur when at least one important pattern in the picture has become clear. In Late Spring the daughter has seen what will happen to her: she will leave her father, she will marry. She comes to understand this precisely during the time that both we and she have been shown the vase. The vase itself means nothing, but its presence is also a space and into it pours our emotion.

I actually quite like this analysis. It seems to have an internal logic, so it’s tempting to take it on board. But, aside from the fact that it assumes that the spectator (i.e. every spectator) is operated on so directly by a poetic device, I wonder if it would still work for those objects which are not also receptacles of some sort. Does Richie’s idea of objects as repositories for our emotional energy only work on hollow things? Do we have to hand over our feelings to the vase even if we don’t feel like it at the time? No, it all falls down upon closer inspection. Bordwell and Thompson critique Richie’s stance on Ozu in their superb article “Space and Narrative in the Films of Ozu”, a lucid and sensible attempt to catalogue the key facets of Ozu’s style using the Classical Hollywood Cinema as a model for comparison. They refer to hypersituated objects, which are “treated in such a way that they become much more noticeable than their narrative function would seem to warrant in traditional terms.” They’re talking here not about the fairly prominent examples I’ve pictured above, but rather about the “tea kettles, neon signs, fire extinguishers, beer bottles, vases, striped towels, and similar items that are given such prominence in Ozu’s mise-en-scene.” These are not like the props which, under the Classical paradigm, are allowed to augment the frame only in so far as they clarify, punctuate or illustrate a narrative point. They question Richie’s attempt to force the vase to appear to be contributing to narrative sense, to enhance the emotional identification required by the character’s sadness. Instead, they argue that “the object’s lack of function creates a second formal level alongside the narrative; its motivation is purely ‘artistic’ […] Such ‘inscrutable’ objects (and it may be that their only signification is just this inscrutability) drive wedges into the cause/effect chain.”

Even if Ozu’s films can be used in this way to contrast with the Hollywood approach, they areedited for continuity, even if it is not for the sake of building up a continuously structured procession of narrative pointers – each shot follows logically from the last and preserves a spatio-temporal relationship between them, but with some crucial differences from the kinds of continuity that you’ll find as standard in Classical Hollywood movies of the same period. That is to say, the links between shots are rarely abstract or symbolic, but the spatial relationships between them are very different from that standard. In an earlier post, I outlined the 180 degree rule as a starting point for understanding the conventions of continuity editing in Hollywood. This convention depends upon the regulation of camera position in order to maintain spatial continuity. The camera stays on one side of an imaginary line and reinforces the positional relationships between characters by ensuring that, for instance, that a character’s eyeline will be confirmed in a shot that matches its direction and reveals its object. In this example from The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941), the characters’ position in relation to one another is clarified by keeping them in the same frame, with the diagonal composition meaning that cutting from one to the other keeps some of the same background in each shot but reverses that diagonal line and stating graphically that this shot is from the opposite direction:

Continuity between shots that follow a character in motion might also preserve the direction of that motion. An actor leaving a shot through a door on the left of the frame might be seen entering the next shot through the door at the right of the frame, establishing the new space as a continuation of the previous one through a match on action. In Ozu, you will notice that different conventions apply, utilising what Bordwell and Thompson designate a “360-degree shooting space”, in which one shot might cut to a view in a direction turned 90 or 180 degrees from the previous one.

Look at the shots in this sequence from Ohayô:

When Setsuko enters the house, we cut about 180 degrees as the occupants notice her. She leaves the frame and enters the house in shot 4, which has reversed the position of the couple. Setsuko follows a horizontal trajectory out of the right hand side of the frame and appears in the next shot walking down a corridor. This cut seems to turn 90 degrees away from the previous one, but the connection between the shots is clear by the match on action from Setsuko’s movement: her consistent presence in each shot is what links them rather than the spatial affinities of each composition.

When she gets to the door at the end of the corridor, marked with a big red circle, there is another 90-degree cut. We’re breaking the 180-degree line with these shots, but notice that the space doesn’t exactly become “incoherent”. We know why these shots are following one another, even if we might be accustomed to seeing them done differently. The red circle on the door is visible at the end of the corridor in both of these last two shots (sorry if it’s not clear in my frame grabs above), operating as a graphic bond between them. Finally, for my purposes at least, in these two shots there is another 90-degree cut to the other side of the door, and the reverse shot of the two boys frames them together from an angle that does not represent Setsuko’s point of view (she would have to move a few steps sideways to her right and crouch down to get that perspective). It makes sure we get a good view of the boys’ interaction, even as it ignores eyeline conventions, and it is a 180-degree cut:

Ozu’s camera doesn’t follow his characters, but rather holds its position while the actors move through it or position themselves in their alotted portion of the frame. When shooting inside a traditional Japanese house, as Ozu so often does, the camera stays at the same low height. This is not a low angle, as sometimes claimed, but a height that is lower than usual, the perfect height for shooting people kneeling to eat or converse. Notice the lack of diagonal lines in these shots. The straight lines of walls, screens or doors are perpendicular to the lines of floors, tatami mats and tables. There is so much symmetry, so much care lavished on these compositions, that the films could easily devolve into fussy formalism and indeed you might have this response because the films do not forcefully emotionalise the compositions. I’ll leave you to decide what your own feelings are about Ozu’s films, but I find that the apparent tidiness of Ozu’s shots sensitises me to the minor variations and subtle disruptions of the formula (and of course, the superb character acting, which should not go unreported). Even if Ozu’s techniques seem repetitive, it shouldn’t be presumed that similar shots always carry the same meanings. Here’s a particularly striking example from Tokyo Story. These two frames are from the beginning and the end of the film. The first sees the elderly couple preparing to go on holiday to visit their children. The second frame is nearly identical in its composition, but Tomi, the wife has recently died.

Rather than reframing the second shot to focus on the old man, Ozu lets the two shots echo one another, bookending the film and making the gap in the frame that was previously occupied be felt as a tangible lack. You’ll notice something highly distinctive about the way Ozu shoots dialogue. Rather than the “over-the-shoulder” shots familiar from Hollywood movies, he almost invariably shoots conversations between two people in a medium shot, with the speaker almost, but not quite, looking directly into the lens, often shot from the side and turning towards the camera. Here’s an example from The End of Summer (1961):

Another dialogue scene from the same film shows how Ozu might use an object to reinforce the continuity between shots:

The yellow ash tray moves to precisely the opposite position for the reverse shots, making it certain that this is the view from the other speaker’s point-of-view. These dialogue scenes are quite a jolt the first time you see them. We’re used to seeing this technique used for scenes of confrontation – the near-direct looks from the actors seem to come straight at you, breaking the voyeuristic comfort you usually find when watching people talk in a movie. Sometimes you can see the discomfort of the actors, as if they’re being subjected to great scrutiny, but the effect is, more often than not, to focus on the performances and to create an engaging level of intimacy with the humans who drive Ozu’s dramas.

For Bordwell and Thompson, Ozu’s use of space and composition cannot be adequately explained with reference to narrative causality, and they criticise Richie for attempting to force interpretations of Ozu’s style into such a shape. Crucial to their argument are the shots of intermediate spaces that you’ll find cropping up quite often. These might be sets which are not crucial to the narrative, sometimes using the objects mentioned above to give prominence to points of the frame which are not arranged to advance the narrative, or they might be the transitional shots that are usually placed between scenes of human interaction:
Although these operate as establishing shots in many cases, showing the area (if not the precise setting) in which the action will take place, they give rather more time and attention to objects and places than is required for narrative development. If Ozu’s interiors are frequently enclosed and framed with perpendicular lines, these shots abound with deep, diagonal compositions gesturing emphatically towards a vanishing point.  Once again, shots like this, offering pauses between the dialogue and character scenes that comprise most of the story information, Ozu’s films can prioritise space over narrative to varying degrees that contrast with the “loaded” mise-en-scene of the Classical Hollywood paradigm that affords little time to shots that have little or no relevance to the narrative or to the establishment of a thematic mood. Hollywood cinema is anthropocentric, with shots and sequences composed around the movements and the eyelines of protagonists. Ozu doesn’t privilege people in that way. As Bordwell and Thompson put it:

At the most radical level, in presenting space empty of characters – spaces around characters, locales seen before characters arrive or after they leave, or even spaces which they never traverse – Ozu’s films displace the illusion of narrative presence and plenitude. A scene in The Maltese Falcon without Sam Spade is possible, but not a scene without any of the characters, without any causal or parallel function in the narrative. Ozu’s cutaways contest the imaginary presence of “human nature” and “character psychology” in the system of narrative causality by structuring sections of the film around what the classical paradigm can only consider absences.

I hope this gives some clues on things to look for when getting started with Ozu. There is no substitute for watching a number of his films and noting the way that these stylistic devices gain force through repetition across the body of work. It also means that minor variations will leap out at you (the use of tracking shots in The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice might be a subtle effect in isolation, but is a real surprise for how it deviates from Ozu’s norm), and the resonances from film to film get stronger with each viewing. It goes without saying that Ozu’s films need not be viewed purely in terms of how they illuminate or are illuminated by a comparison with a Hollywood template. But I’ve said it anyway. Just in case.

Read More:

  • Download the whole of David Bordwell’s Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema.
  • Interview with Japanese film scholar Donald Richie.
  • Review of Ohayo at Midnight Eye.
  • Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Is Ozu Slow?”
  • Donald Richie, Ozu. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974.
  • David Bordwell & Kristin Thompson “Space and Narrative in the Films of Ozu.” Screen 17:2 (Summer 1976), 41-73.
  • Blog entry on Ohayo at the Criterion Contraption.

Vengeance is Mine

I’m not always inclined to post about entire movies, especially as most of what I post here is initial responses on a first viewing, partly to try and get my own thinking in order, and hopefully to share some unvarnished points of interest that make a contribution, however tiny, to the knowledge sediment that is the blogosphere (there must be a better word for it – any ideas?). So, I thought I’d say something about just the closing shots of Shohei Imamura’s Vengeance is Mine (1979). I don’t think I’m giving too much away about the plot that isn’t given away at the start of the film, but obviously I’m talking about the ending, so don’t read on if you want to go and watch it: you can always read about the film from far more well-versed commentators with these links:

When I’m introducing new students to the study of film form and giving them sequence analyses to carry out, I always warn them not to attach fixed meanings to particular formal techniques or types of shot, mainly because meaning is always a fluid thing inflected by context of the film and the particular proclivities, interests, intertexts and expertises brought to the film by each spectator, but also because there is simply no easy connection between a type of shot and the inference that is designed to be drawn from it in every case. Each close-up, each match cut or tracking shot must be taken on its own terms as part of a broader formal system. The last few shots of Vengeance are a good example of a series of freeze frames which are specifically significant to this film rather than the ritualistic enactments of a constant piece of filmic syntax. To be a bit less convoluted about it, the same shot will do different things in different films.
Vengeance is Mine is a largely factual account of a notorious Japanese serial killer, Iwao Enokizu (in real life the killer’s name was Akira Nishiguchi, and you can learn a litte more, but not much, about his case here) filling in the details of how he spent the last 78 days of his crime spree on the run prior to his apprehension. Much of the story is told out of sequence, but the ending shows his wife and father, who have explored but ultimately resisted consummation of their mutual attraction throughout the film, scattering Iwao’s bones from a mountain overlooking the city in which he’d lived. As each bone is thrown, it stops dead in the air, failing to fall to earth as expected.
The effect is achieved by means of simple freeze-frames, a basic technique which is peculiar to cinema, often as a way of adding emphasis to a particular shot, allowing it to be inspected more closely than other images and therefore to be privileged, making it an indicative image of a broader theme. The rest of the film has been constructed in a starkly realist fashion, cataloguing events in a soberly distanced and seemingly unemotional way. This is probably the only instance where an expressionistic formal flourish is allowed to come to the fore and issue a powerful statement. What makes it most striking is that the two characters in the scene seem to be able to see the bones stopping in the air, which is obviously not possible and contrasts with the diegetic logic of the rest of the film.
The POV shots, eyeline mathes and reverse shots, connect the shots of the flying bones to the faces of the people throwing them and watching them fly. They become increasingly frustrated at the failure of the bones to return to the ground and be reclaimed by the land. It appears that, even in death, Iwao’s memory cannot be banished. The legacy of his killings and the shame and abuse that he heaped upon his family will always hang over them, whatever rituals of expurgation and excommunication are performed. This seems like an obvious point that would have been made anyway – his execution concludes his life but it is clear just from the looks on their faces that his family have been deeply affected by events. I think that the use of such an anomalous technique is a self-conscious point of stylisation that pushes the closing statement beyond the diegetic space of the film and out into the audience. That is to say, it shows that the effect of the murders will resonate beyond the lives of those directly involved and send shockwaves into wider society. By unsettling the structure of the film itself, the viewer can be jolted out of an externalised engagement with the story: the viewer is usually protected by being a voyeuristic onlooker, a watcher who cannot be watched, and the fictionalised characters of the film cannot witness the mechanics of the film that tells their story, but in this case Imamura connects the two zones by having them both see something impossible at the same level, with all protective boundaries ruptured.