Yasujirō Ozu, Late Spring (1949)

There is a certain sadness that permeates Ozu’s films, of the passing of time and an era; of transience, of a time that will be long gone, but needs to be preserved. This is most particularly true for his so-called “Noriko Trilogy”, which stars Setsuko Hara, Ozu’s muse; Last Spring is a part of the trilogy. The film follows Noriko as she is living with her father, her devotion to him and her reluctance to get married and leave him. It is a domestic drama that strives for simplicity, but also portrays an era Japan is going through, the post-war period. The rapid change of social structure and most particularly young generations is presented.

His other films, Tokyo Twillight, for example, show the consequences of those changes for the structure of the society, most notably the family. Ozu is called “the most Japanese” of the directors famous in the West; Akira Kurosawa was never recognized in Japan in a way the Western societies valued him. Ozu was called a “social conservative” by the New Wave Japanese directors, and that may very well be true. His portrayal of the changes that ocurred in the post-war Japan show the impact of Westernization policies in everyday life and in the prevailing atmosphere.

 Late Spring opens with a shot of a railway station sign written both in English and Japanese and a shot of a traditional Japanese building. This scene alone shows that the film deals with the traditional and newly emerging influence on the Japanese culture. Later, Coca Cola sign appears; it was not unusual for Japanese directors of that era to use its symbolism as a sign of the Western influence on Japanese culture – the ending of Imamura’s Profound Desires of the Gods uses this particular symbol extensively. When Noriko’s father and his friend are talking about in which direction Tokyo, the ocean and the shrine are located, his friend seems to lose orientation with regard to the exact location of the places and static objects. This implies that Japan is losing its cultural locus  and identity in the historical changes, and is lost in the transformation that is taking place; the identity needs to be rashaped and found again.

West Tower

The changes are not just cultural, in the sense that children are playing baseball and Gary Cooper is a symbol of masculinity; they are broad in the sense that the societal structure is changing, but there is a need to preserve the traditions of the people. This particular tension is the major force behind Ozu’s most important works. Late Spring seems to be a personal film for Ozu, since he never married and stayed with his mother until she died, he passed away two years later.

 The film is mainly about filial devotion and care, and ultimately the sacrifice for the loved one. A particularly powerful scene is the one in which Noriko and her father are at a Noh play in the theatre. Noriko, anticipating the possibility of leaving her father and marrying, looks down sadly, while the chants and music are being performed. The camera beautifully captures Noriko’s feelings and sadness over her anticipated departure, the solemn atmosphere and her father’s face showing delight make it the key scene in the film.

 

Noriko’s father tells how she was engaged in forced labor during the war and  used to “spend her holidays scrounging for food” and how that built her character. Ozu implies that character is built through sacrifice and suffering. The scholar Motoori Norinaga invented a term to define the essence of Japanese culture; it is called mono no aware, the phrase derives from aware which means “sensitivity to things.”. This kind of sensitivity is particularly present in Ozu’s films, Late Spring seems to capture the moments with great care and the film delicately captures the feelings of the protagonists and the spirit of the tradition. There is a certain warmth in this portrayal, characters are shown as deeply sensitive and caring toward others and prone to endure what is necessary.

 

Vigourous line:

“If I had said otherwise she wouldn’t have married”

Noriko’s father

 

Noriko’s father lies about remarrying, wanting to leave impression that he will ve someone to live with and take care of him. This is particularly hard for him since Noriko repeatedly expressed her wish to stay with him so he can be taken care of. When they talk for the last time before her marriage, she says: “Even marriage couldn’t make me happier. My greatest happiness is to be with you.” Ozu uses an ellipsis, which is a characteristic of his cinematic style, when he does not show Noriko’s marriage on screen; her fiancé is not present as well. Her father’s lie about remarrying is what Plato presented as a “noble lie”, a lie which is necessary to be the foundation of something of utmost importance; for him the foundation of a state, for Noriko’s father the prospect of his daughter starting a new life in marriage.

Noriko’s father’s friend remarries and Noriko calls him “unclean”, jokingly, but she sees that act as indecent, to say the least. Her father’s sacrifice is thus even greater since the biggest lie he told, as he says, involves an act which his daughter sees as immoral. The viewer cannot but feel respect toward a man who does not shy away from putting his honor at stake for good ends; at the same time he loses his loved one and condemns himself to loneliness.

 

The film ends with father entering the house, sitting on a chair and peeling an apple. There is immense sadness in this scene, and the viewer cannot but feel father’s pain, alongside him. His head falls down in despair; he is left alone so his daughter can have a prospect of a good life and happiness. One cannot but think that this symbolizes the end of the old Japan, as it was known to many. A shot of the sea at the end reminds us of the transience of life, but also that endings are the new beginnings. Thus, with life’s spring ending, a new season begins.

Hrvoje Galić

Hayao Miyazaki, Princess Mononoke (1997)

In 1995 Hayao Miyazaki took a group of artists and animators to the ancient forests of Yakushima, which inspired the landscapes in the film. At the beginning, the narrator says:

“In ancient times, the land lay covered in forests, where from ages long past, dwelt the spirits of the gods. Back then, man and beast lived in harmony, but as time went by, most of the great forests were destroyed. Those that remained were guarded by gigantic beasts… who owed their allegiance to the Great Forest Spirit, for those were the days of gods and demons.”

Miyazaki’s vision of the “days of gods and demons” seems to be inspired by the ancient Japanese religion, still practiced today, Shintoism. Kami are the spirits that are worshipped; they are not separated from nature, but are of nature. In Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s vision of the life of prehistoric man, a savage lives in accordance with nature and in peace with animals. He states: “no animal naturally makes war upon man, except in case of self-defence or extreme hunger, nor expresses against him any of these violent anthipathies.” He also writes: “Nature speaks to all animals, and beasts obey her voice.” On the other hand, in Princess Mononoke man and beast wage war against each other.

It is a tale of corruption, of both beast and man. The corruption of man can be found in two different shapes. The enemy of both “industrial man” and beasts are the Samurai (Miyazaki seems to follow the tradition of great Japanese directors Masaki Kobayashi, Kikachi Okamoto and other New Wave directors in this matter); the enemy of beasts are men who possess iron. The Samurai are corrupt since they follow the authoritharian form of government in which some are oppressed and others rule, while the “industrial man” is corrupt because he uses technology, namely, iron, to subdue nature and others. Rousseau also writes: “It is a very difficult matter to tell how men came to know anything of iron and the art of employing it… mines are formed nowhere but in dry and barren places… so that it looks as if nature had taken pains to keep from us so mischiveous a secret.”

Rousseau sees the discovery of iron and agriculture as a great step toward man’s tyranny over himself, other men and nature itself. It is no coincidence that in Miyazaki’s animated movie man possesses iron which destroys animals and turns them into demons. Prince Ashitaka is touched by the demon and becomes cursed himself; his hand wants to murder Lady Eboshi, while his mind remains uncorrupted. He serves as a mediator between the Beasts and “industrial men”, while he makes no fine moral judgments regarding the Samurai, the relics of the Japanese past.

The Great Wave at Kanagawa

Katsushika Hokusai, The Great Wave of Kanagawa 1830-1832

In Princess Mononoke the nature is abused and it hits back, turns against man. The Beasts wage war against man, while their sovereign, Forest Spirit guards over them. This can be seen as a parable directed against contemporary man’s behaviour toward nature. His machines destroy it and nature “fights back” in the form of hurricanes and earthquakes. In the last few decades, the number of hurricanes in the world has tripled, and indicators show that this happens as a consequence of man’s actions.

Thus, Princess Mononoke is an environmentalist film, but its scope is even greater. The corruption of man is demonstrated by numerous examples; his lust for power is endless and he will stop at nothing to achieve that goal. It is symptomatic that the Emperor wants Forest God’s head to achieve immortality. The moral is that he will not get immortality, but he will only engineer his own destruction. The film ends with Lady Eboshi advocating  a return to the traditional form of life and states that she will build a village and live in accordance with Nature. This is fairly optimistic, it is a fantasy of reunion with our own essence.

Note: This lullaby perfectly captures the feelings princess Mononoke experiences throughout the film.
Vigourous line:

“Life is suffering. It is hard. The world is cursed. But still, you find reasons to keep living.”

Osa

buddha-199462_960_720

The aforementioned line reminds one of the works of Arthur Schopenhauer. He was well-versed in Indian philosophy and compared his philosophy to Buddhism. Schopenhauer’s anthropological and metaphysical pessimism emphasizes that to live means to suffer. Prince Ashitaka, although aware that he is cursed and is about to die, has the will to continue striving and fighting for what is good and just; he is a heroic figure. Princess Mononoke often calls him human; in other words enemy, yet he chooses not to take sides and strike whenever it is needed against those who bring chaos and disorder. Living in this world may entail suffering, Osa implies, but the moral of Princess Mononoke is the necessity to find the will to continue fighting. When all hope fades, those who can bring change by a heroic act or seemingly small acts ( e.g. of compassion), are the people who, against all odds, bring order and harmony into the world.

Hrvoje Galić

Akira Kurosawa, Rashōmon (1950)

To claim that Akira Kurosawa is an enigmatic director would be an understatement. One of the greatest filmmakers in cinema history, but also a paradigm (and a synecdoche) of post-war Japan, he combines influences from Western literature (e.g. Dostoyevsky) and philosophy with distinctive Japanese aesthetics and tradition. After the American occupation, Japan found itself flooded with Western influence but also wanted to preserve its cultural heritage. This makes Akira Kurosawa one of the most interesting directors of the Japanese post-war era (other notable examples are Shōhei Imamura and Hiroshi Teshigahara, just to name a few).

Rashōmon begins with the conversation between a woodcutter, a local thug and a priest. The priest says: “War, earthquake, winds, fire, famine, the plague. Year after year, it’s been nothing but disasters… I’ve seen so many men getting killed like insects, but even I have never heard a story as horrible as this. Yes. So horrible. This time, I may finally lose my faith in the human soul.” The apocalyptic heavy rain that falls during the film gives the movie its somber tone but also sends a message to the viewer: The catastrophe is about to happen. This quote may very well be a paraphrase from The Book of Revelation attributed to John. This sets the tone and the viewer may most correctly anticipate the horrors ahead.

 

Durer Four Horsemen

Albrecht Dürer, The Apocalypse: The Four Horsemen

Rashōmon tells the story of a murder and rape from four different perspectives. We can guess, almost with certainty, that they are all lies. A bandit (Toshiro Mifune) sees a noblewoman, considers her a goddess and wants to have her. He decieves her husband, dishonours her and then kills the husband. All of these facts are presented in all four stories so we can claim that the events unfolded in this manner.

The film draws heavily on Friedrich Nietzsche’s perspectivism. In his famous essay On the Genealogy of Morality, he writes: “There is only a perspectival seeing, only a perspectival ‘knowing’; the more affects we are able to put into words about a thing, the more eyes, various eyes we are able to use for the same thing, the more complete will be our ‘concept’ of the thing, our ‘objectivity’“.

Thus, paradoxically, the farther we are from the „self-evident truth“, the closer we are to the real truth at hand. For Nietzsche, there are no absolutes, no dogmas to believe in, no Truth. We can suppose that Kurosawa was familiar with Nietzsche’s work since in his Ikiru there are some lines that are straightforwardly Nietzschean. Keeping in mind these arguments, we can put the four stories by different characters into perspective and try to be nearer to the truth. This interpretation presumes that all these four stories are lies.

Note: This interpretation does not claim to be a definitive one, it is just that, an interpretation, one out of a thousand and one possible. Each character has his own motives to lie; the first three out of pride and desire to present themselves as strong or honourable, while the Woodcutter has his own motives that are the hardest to decipher.

Story A – Tajōmaru

By observing Tajōmaru’s erratic and uncontrolled behaviour and his vanity, we can tell that he considers himself a great warrior; in his version he is bragging about the way he killed the nobleman.

The reason why the story is a lie:  Tajōmaru seems to project his proud temper and fierceness to the woman he is in love with.

Story B – Samurai’s wife

It is obvious that she feels shame because she was dishonoured and wanted to commit suicide. She fantasizes of killing her husband because she resents him for not protecting her and thus facilitating the violent end.

The reason why the story is a lie: It is obvious that in the court she manipulates the judges and talks of suicide in a manner that is too blunt.

Story C – The spirit of the Samurai

He feels what Nietzsche termed as ressentiment (to look at someone with an „evil eye“, to feel resentment, to say it bluntly – the term is much more complex and far-reaching) toward his wife. He is angry because she let herself be dishonoured and then chose to live in shame.

The reason why it is a lie: His feelings and suffering in hell make him vulnerable to misinterpret himself and others: out of all the first three characters, he has the strongest urge to lie.

Story D – the Woodcutter

The story he presents seems to be in line with his concept of justice (both the Samurai and Tajōmaru are not virtous men), but is not the „real“ story.

The reason why it is a lie: Usually the interpretations tend to emphasize that he should not be trusted by the viewer because he stole the dagger (e.g. Donald Richie). That very well may be true, but also, his black-and-white moral beliefs (he simplifies morality in an almost Manichean form) cloud his judgment and he wants to believe that the world is a just place: Kurosawa suggests that it is not.

Vigorous line:

„Well, we are only men. That’s why they lie. They can’t tell the truth even to themselves.“

Commoner

„That may be true. Because men are weak, they lie to decieve themselves.“

Priest

An Allegory of Truth and Time

Annibale Carraci, An Allegory of Truth and Time

In his novel Light in August William Faulkner writes: „They say that it is the practiced liar who can deceive. But so often the practiced and chronic liar deceives only himself; it is the man who all his life has been selfconvicted of veracity whose lies find quickest credence.“

This quote from Faulkner’s novel captures the ideas Kurosawa presented, only with more psychological depth. The mechanism „works“ as follows: to mantain our positive image of ourselves we create lies about ourselves. Since we consider ourselves credible, we start to believe our lies and they become the „truth“.

Precisely that happens with Tajōmaru, the Noblewoman and the Samurai.  Nietzsche used to highlight that illusions are necessary for certain types of living, with the truth at hand, we suffer pointlessly. Dostoyevsky once wrote that if we told the truth, the naked truth to others, life would be unbareable.

Hrvoje Galić