Monthly Archives: December 2010

Des hommes et des dieux (Of Gods and Men, France 2010)

The monks meet in their chapter house to decide on future action.

This fascinating film has become a surprise hit in France and provoked a range of sometimes odd but generally very positive responses internationally since it won the Grand Prix at Cannes in May. For a film with such an ostensibly religious thematic I found it a remarkably humanist narrative – though ultimately disturbing.

Plot outline (no spoilers)

Based on actual events during 1995-6, the story focuses on a community in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria where a group of nine Cistercian-Trappist monks live in close contact with a village that has grown up around the monastery. The monks grow their own food and sell their honey in the market. One of the oldest monks, Brother Luc is a trained physician and runs a clinic for the villagers, some of whom work with the monks and seek their counsel. There is no tension between the monks and the villagers and they are shown celebrating together. But the peace of the region is shattered by the arrival of the GIA (Armed Islamic Group) opposed to the Algerian government. The monks are clearly in danger from an organisation which openly kills ‘foreigners’. Should they stay or should they go? The Algerian government and the Army think that they should leave. But the villagers want them to stay and their ‘mission’ is to serve in the monastery. What will they do?

Commentary

Filmed in Morocco and shot in ‘Scope, the film looks very good (cinematographer Caroline Champetier ) though I did notice a couple of shots which appeared to be still images which the camera panned across. I’m not sure if this was an intentional effect. Director Xavier Beauvois is also credited with ‘adaptation and dialogues’ (screenplay by Etienne Comar) and he has constructed a relatively conventional narrative that not surprisingly draws on the daily rituals of monastery life. I was reminded on several occasions of one of my favourite films, Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (UK 1947): the story is very different but the narrative structure has similarities. The difference is that in the British film the nuns are effectively agents of a colonial power, whereas in the Atlas, the villagers see the monks as the basis of the community (not a view shared by the Algerian government) and there is a degree of shared understanding about Islam and Christianity. Nevertheless, the monks have a leader, Brother Christian (beautifully played by Lambert Wilson) and he must play diplomat and leader of a democratic community – not an easy pairing of roles. The other monks must be distinguished in some way by appearance and behaviour and in this respect the film is almost generic. The other star name in the cast, Michael Lonsdale, excels as Brother Luc.

The narrative situation – a group of ‘European’ monks – is replicated in several Hollywood films, e.g. John Ford’s Seven Women in which Chinese missionaries are threatened by a warlord. As I understand it, the Cistercians are less threatening to the ‘host’ community because they do not seek to convert or to proselytise. (Indeed, one monk who describes his boyhood thoughts about becoming a missionary clearly recognises that what he is doing now is rather different.)

One of the real pleasures of the film is the use of music. Mass is sung throughout and the men’s voices meld beautifully. The Press Notes tell us that only Wilson had any prior choral training, but the cast really got into the singing rehearsals and their commitment is evident. There is also a scene in which the monks listen to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and that has been singled out by many commentators as a high point.

The Cistercians focus on manual work – agriculture in this case – and although Brother Luc is both physician and metaphysicist (Pascal and Montesquieu), other brothers are simpler souls with human doubts and failings. This is what makes the film more powerful for me. We can all recognise the dilemmas which faced these men and I found the understated ending of the film affecting. I can’t begin to think how emotional it may be for French and Algerian audiences.

This extract gives a good sense of the sung mass at Christmas:

10 from 2010

By dint of catching four festivals this year, my cinema visits have topped 100 in 2010 – the first time I’ve managed such a total for many years. I’ve chosen ten of the best films I saw on the big screen, leaving out the three Hollywood films that got the most press (Shutter Island, Inception and The Social Network), not because they were poor but because they don’t really need any more coverage. All the films on my list were first released in the UK in 2010. Here they are, not necessarily in rank order (with links to original postings on this site):

1. Winter’s Bone, dir. Debra Granik (US 2010)

I think that this is the film which hit me hardest in terms of an emotional response.

2. Skeletons, dir. Nick Whitfield (UK 2010)

. . . and this is the film which struck me as the most original.

3. Still Walking, dir Kore-eda Hirokazu (Japan 2008)

Just perfect?

4. Un prophète, dir Jacques Audiard (France 2009)

I’m not sure why I didn’t write about Un prophète when it came out – possibly because I used it in an event almost straightaway, meaning I watched it twice over a period of a few days. It was such an intense experience, I probably felt unable to write about it again. I must try to do so soon.

5. Vincere, dir Marco Bellocchio (Italy 2009)

I’ve enjoyed many films during festivals this year. Watching festival films is quite liberating as usually I know little about the films in advance and therefore respond to them very directly. I loved the high melodrama of Vincere and I was rather taken aback by many of the lukewarm reviews when the film was released. I’ve been impressed with several Italian films over the last few years.

6. Whip It, dir Drew Barrymore (US 2010)

My original review suggested that this was a little ‘baggy’ and overlong, but having watched it again a couple of times and shown it to a student group, I’ve decided that it all works. The fact that it has a relatively poor box office record says something about contemporary taste and perhaps ideologies. Perhaps in time it will find the audience it deserves.

7. The Ghost, dir Roman Polanski (France/Germany/UK 2010)

The brilliance of Polanski’s film seems to have been overshadowed by his re-arrest and subsequent release. No doubt this affected the film’s reception in North America. OK, it is perhaps an ‘old-fashioned’ film, but anyone who loves cinema must surely relish the sheer skill with which this is made? Kudos to Robert Harris for adapting his own novel and to Olivia Williams and Ewan McGregor for responding to Polanski’s direction.

8. I Am Love, dir Luca Guadagnino (Italy 2009)

This is the film that seemed to divide audiences the most – it even divided us and Keith didn’t like it. Whatever one thinks of it, it is certainly audacious in terms of visual style, a score using the music of John Adams and a strong performance by Tilda Swinton.

9. 24 City, dir Jia Zhangkhe (China/Japan/France 2008)

Jia Zhangkhe has now emerged as the major figure in Chinese independent cinema – and as a leading international auteur. I hope to be writing more about him in 2011.

10. The Time That Remains, dir Elia Suleiman (Palestine/France/Italy/Bel/UK 2009)

The recent history of Palestine is such that Sulieman’s surrealist approach seems like almost the only possible response. I enjoyed this film immensely at the same time as feeling so angry that the persecution of Palestinians under Israeli occupation is allowed to continue. This is probably the most important film of the year and the one that needs to be seen and discussed.

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And here is an extra one. Chris Morris could be an irritating man, as some talented people unfortunately are (e.g. Stephen Fry), but he generally keeps a low profile and allows his work to speak for itself. Having shown Four Lions to three large student audiences and experienced some excellent discussions, it is most encouraging to think that wit and intelligence can thrive in British Cinema. Given the low budget, I suspect that this is the most profitable British film of the year – and it deserves much more acclaim than it has got so far. (The idiocy of awards means that it lost out at the British Independent Film Awards to The King’s Speech – even though that film is not released in the UK until 2011).

11. Four Lions, dir. Chris Morris (UK 2010)

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I’m conscious that the list above does not include any films from Central/South America, South Asia or Africa. The African situation is very serious with very few films seen on UK screens, even in festivals. There have been excellent films from Argentina, Mexico and India, however, and several could have appeared in the list – please don’t read anything into their absence.

Les plages d’Agnès (The Beaches of Agnes, France 2008)


The 'beach' in Paris outside Varda's home in the Rue Daguerre (named after Louis Daguerre, one of the inventors of photography)

The French movie channel Cinémoi is currently free for a two month period on Virgin cable in the UK and I’m trying to see as many films as possible. Les plages d’Agnès is Agnès Varda’s autobiographical essay about her life and work and I wasn’t sure what to expect – despite being a fan. I needn’t have worried. This is a magical film which is as much about Varda’s visual ideas as an artist as it is about cinema. The title refers to various beaches (or at least coastlines) that feature strongly in her life story plus a beach of the imagination that she creates to represent the Parisian period when she met Jacques Demy, her partner for 30 years before his death just as she finished her film about him, Jacquot de Nantes in 1990.

Agnès Varda (born 1928) left Belgium in 1940 when the Nazis invaded and ended up in the Mediterranean port of Sète in Vichy France. This is the second ‘beach’ – although she spent her time on boats and the dockside. The first beach is in Belgium. From Sète she eventually graduated as an art student bound for Paris. Art led in turn to photography and film and her first film in 1954, La Pointe Courte, was set in a fishing village close to Sète. Other beaches are near Nantes and on the coast of Southern California where she went with Demy in the late 1960s.

This is a fascinating film in terms of structure as well as ideas about cinema and art and various filmic techniques. The beach on the Île de Noirmoutier in La Vendée, Pays du la Loire, takes the place of a stage in a one woman show – complete with actors and circus performers acting out aspects of memory. One of the interesting visual devices involves mirrors and frames with a central moving image framed by smaller static images. Perhaps the standout device that I almost feel tempted to try out myself is a film of the streets and characters in Sète shot in the 1950s which is projected onto a small screen. The projector and screen are secured on a cart which is then pushed around the same streets in the dusk, which makes the black and white images clearly visible  – and stunning and beautiful in the simplicity of the sequence.

We learn a lot about Varda, her love for Demy and her two children – who appeared in many of her films. We also learn about her friends including Godard, Resnais and Chris Marker and something of her politics and thoughts about being in California with the Black Panthers amongst others. As many other commentators have noted, what is so uplifting and inspiring is the sheer vitality and imagination of this remarkable filmmaker, scampering about (a “plump and pleasant person” as she describes herself) and producing beautiful and fascinating images. I think anyone despairing of cinema at a time when it seems to be losing some of its magic should watch Beaches and rejoice.

This trailer illustrates some of the points made above:

Everlasting Moments (Sweden/Den/Nor/Fin/Ger 2008)

A screengrab of the camera at the centre of the narrative (from DVD Beaver)

Jan Troell’s film was the Swedish nomination for best foreign language film at the 2009 Academy Awards. Troell (born 1931) is one of the masters of Swedish Cinema, probably best known for his two epic films about Swedish emigration to the US (The Emigrants (1971) and New Land (1972)). I don’t remember those films very well, but one sequence has always stuck in my memory when, trying to bring home an ox in a snow blizzard, one of the immigrants decides that the only way to survive is to kill the animal and crawl inside its still warm carcase. I’ve probably got the details wrong, but as a survival tip, I’m unlikely to forget the basic principle.

Everlasting Moments was a very ‘personal’ project for Troell. The story comes from a woman who was related to Troell’s wife, Agneta Ulfsäter with whom he created the scenario (thus the film’s Swedish title, Maria Larssons eviga ögonblick). The actual screenplay is by Niklas Rådström. Maria (‘Maja’) was one of seven children of a Finnish immigrant who married a Swedish man and raised her family in Malmö and its environs – Troell’s home region. Maja ‘narrates’ the story. Maria (the mother) won a camera, a ‘Contessa’, in a lottery. As a working-class woman with a growing family to support in 1909, she took the camera into a photographer’s studio hoping to sell it. But the photographer, clearly affected by something in Maria’s manner, persuaded her to try taking a few pictures first. When her first attempts are developed the photographer sees immediately that she has a special eye for a strong image. She decides to keep the camera, but her chances to use it will be limited – not least because of her violent husband’s dangerous drunken tantrums.

The film’s narrative details the family’s history over the next fifteen or so years, during which time more children are born, Sigi the father has a succession of jobs – including a stint as a conscript in the Swedish Army – and Maria takes a number of significant photographs. The marital relationship will also get further strained.

For some reason, the UK release print of the film was cut by 20 minutes. There is no indication of why this occurred and I don’t know if it was the director’s or the distributor’s decision. The Independent‘s reviewer thinks that “something might be missing” whereas the Sight and Sound reviewer says the film could lose 15 minutes – perhaps she saw an American cut and the distributor followed her advice? I mention this only because the slow pace of the film and its lack of a Hollywood narrative structure are inevitably mentioned in the various critical responses. At the same time, the film is described as ‘conventional’. What this means, I think, is that the narrative follows the major incidents in the history of the family in chronological order. The story has a ‘natural’ end which I won’t spoil and none of the contrivance of Hollywood. The striking feature about the look of the film is that Troell (himself a cinematographer and photographer) chose to shoot in Super 16mm to preserve a sense of grain and age and to use filters to create a golden/sepia tone – which does not necessarily ‘prettify’ what are often dark scenes.

Themes

This is a beautifully written film – and features acting, cinematography, set design and direction of the highest standards. Many of the important ‘moments’, in themselves often small events, are representative of the changes in Swedish society in the early 20th century – and they are captured in wonderful still photos. (The DVD includes a gallery of the ‘real’ photographs which informed the script.) Those changes include the struggles over Sweden’s emergence as a modern industrial nation with strikes and communist/socialist/anarchist actions followed by the decision to follow a policy of ‘armed neutrality’ in 1914. The central role of photography also inevitably means that we see the family enjoying the arrival of the ‘cinematograph’ (rather later for them than for many in the UK or US). But the main theme is the struggle for female independence and how the lure of photography both provides a focus for Maria’s sense of identity and purpose (beyond her central concern for her children) and the means to record aspects of women’s lives. One of several beautiful images is created for a neighbour who asks Maria to take a picture of her daughter in her coffin after a drowning accident.

I should also point out (whilst trying to avoid spoiling the narrative) that the actions of the violent husband and Maria’s responses have invoked strong reactions from some audiences.

I think that despite the subject matter and the expressionist way in which the scenes are rendered, Everlasting Moments is not a melodrama. I might change my mind if I see the film on a cinema screen, but I did not sense the emotional pull of ‘excessive’ music or acting style. However, there is a great deal of emotion residing in the images and what they connote and this is the triumph of Jan Troell and his collaborators.

Here is the film’s US trailer:

Kurosawa #8 Throne of Blood (Japan 1957)

Miki (Kubo Akira) and Washizu (Mifune Toshiro) approach the witch (who wears a noh mask).

Throne of Blood is one of the best-known films by Kurosawa Akira. It was highly-praised in the West but not so warmly received in Japan. The reasons given for this difference in reception are (1) it is an adaptation/version/’re-imagining’ of Shakespeare’s Macbeth (2) Kurosawa used elements of noh theatre in a jidaigeki or period film, which in Japanese Cinema would traditionally have been influenced by the more populist kabuki theatre. The result is that the film ‘as a film’ has been rather obscured by the metatext about its status as Shakespeare and ‘Japaneseness’. That’s a shame because it is a great Kurosawa movie with a terrific performance by Mifune Toshiro and a wonderfully imaginative representation of time and place – forests, castles and windswept and fog-bound heathland.

The following notes have been adapted from material given out on a recent study day on Kurosawa:

Setting

This version of Macbeth is transplanted to the early part of the Sengoku period of civil wars in Japanese history (1467-1573). This assertion is partly based on the absence of firearms. These were important in the wars of the later 16th century that eventually produced the settlement of the Tokugawa Shogunate (otherwise known as the ‘Edo’ Period – Edo is the old name for Tokyo). During the long period of civil wars, the Japanese Emperor was confined to Kyoto and warlords vied for power in different provinces across Japan.

Although many Japanese filmmakers are associated with jidaigeki, these tend to be based on traditional stories that had become kabuki plays during the Edo period. Kurosawa was an innovator in staging much more historically accurate (more realistically detailed) films from the Sengoku period and the final warring period before the triumph of Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1603. Seven Samurai, Hidden Fortress, Kagemusha and Ran are the other Kurosawa films with this period setting.

The actions of the characters in Throne of Blood are consistent with those of the period in Japanese history – although as Stephen Prince (2003/2010) points out, the wars were perhaps not as bloody as Kurosawa makes them. But he was creating them from a 20th century perspective – informed by his own experiences of war and disaster.

Noh and kabuki

Japanese cinema developed roughly in parallel with cinema in the West and filmmakers such as Kurosawa were influenced by the Western films they saw in the 1920s. Japanese films were much more closely associated with Japan’s three traditional theatrical forms, noh, kabuki and bunraku (a form of puppet theatre) and the modern theatre associated with the contact with the West from the 1860s onwards (shinpa/shingeki).

Noh is the earliest of these forms, dating from the 14th century and is associated with drama and dance performed for the aristocracy in a refined and austere manner. Actors play heavily ‘typed’ roles and individuality is hidden behind masks. Movements are restrained and sometimes paradoxical, so that a small movement can signal a major dramatic act.

Kabuki is a later form developing in the 17th century during the Edo period and designed more as popular entertainment. In many ways, kabuki is the opposite of noh with its appeal to a popular audience in large theatres. Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro (2000) suggests that noh is a classical form and kabuki is a baroque form. Kabuki has been seen as similar to Elizabethan drama in its appeal to audiences and its dealings in spectacle. (Noh is more concerned with words: actions are often ‘off-stage’). Not surprisingly, perhaps, it was kabuki rather than noh that became the source of plots for Japanese period film dramas, especially action films. The same companies who owned the early cinemas and started to make films were also engaged in promoting kabuki shows in their live theatres. Kabuki might be said to be the more ‘earthy’ Shintoist response to the Buddhist austerity of noh.

It is interesting therefore that Kurosawa chose noh rather than kabuki as a prominent aesthetic influence upon Throne of Blood. The clearest examples of this in the film are in the depictions of the witch in Cobweb Forest and the central performance of Yamada Isuzu as the Lady Macbeth character, Lady Asaji. Although Kurosawa didn’t require his actors to wear noh masks as such, he showed them appropriate masks and asked them to study the facial expressions. They also wore make-up that shaped their facial features to resemble masks. In the case of the witch, she first appears as the old lady ‘yaseonna’ and in later scenes as the mountain witch, ‘yamauba’. Yamada was shown the shakumi mask – ‘the face of beautiful middle-aged woman on the brink of madness’. Mifune as Washizu was also shown the heida mask of the warrior.

Contrasts and clashes: Mifune

The whole film is built on a rhythm of contrasting styles, moods and tones. One of these can be seen in relation to the playing of Mifune Toshiro. Mifune was Kurosawa’s leading man in most of his films between 1948 and 1965. Casting Mifune is one example of the ways in which Kurosawa innovated. As an actor, Mifune stood out in two ways. First was his sheer physical vitality. He literally ate up the screen space. Kurosawa claimed that Mifune could convey the same meaning in a third of the time that it took all other Japanese actors. He seems the least likely actor to be in a noh play – far too coarse and brutal, always seemingly teetering on the edge of breaking out into violent action. (But Kurosawa tells us he was a sensitive man of refinement.)

Mifune dominates the screen with his physical presence – here presented in the context of the fog and stylised forest.

The second point was that Mifune’s accent was Manchurian and because he spoke as he acted – often violently – he offered a complete change to actors coached in kabuki theatre who enunciated clearly. One interesting aspect of the film is therefore the contrast between the acting styles of Yamada and Mifune in the internal scenes.

Japanese visual art: the pen and ink school

The history of Eastern painting is quite different to that of the West and up to the late 19th century, different forms of Japanese art were very popular in the domestic market. Kurosawa himself was interested in both Western painting styles and traditional Japanese modes. Stephen Prince (2010) describes this aspect of Throne of Blood:

The striking emptiness of the spaces in the film – the skies, the dense roiling fog that obscures mountains and plains – is a cinematic rendition of sumi-e composition. This style of pen-and-ink drawing leaves large portions of the picture unfilled, making this ‘emptiness’ a positive compositional (and spiritual) value. Kurosawa believed that this style of picture making resonated deeply with the Japanese, and he was eager to infuse the film with this aesthetic. (Production designer Yoshiro Muraki’s castle set was black and was built on the dark, volcanic soil of Mt. Fuji in order to heighten the sumi-e effect, the contrast of dark and light. Although based on historical sketches, the castle is not of any single period.) As a positive value, this pictorial and spiritual ‘emptiness’ is set against the human world of vanity, ambition, and violence, which Kurosawa suggests is all illusion. The Buddhist arts of Noh and sumi-e enabled him to visualise this disjunction between the hell of life as we poor creatures know it, subject to our strivings, our desires, and our will, and the cosmic order that negates them.

Contrasts and clashes 2: Camerawork and editing

Kurosawa has been highly praised by critics for several reasons – not least his command of the full panoply of the filmmakers’s art – camerawork, mise en scène, editing (which he did himself on this film) and sound design. Across his 30 films he demonstrates many different and styles and the ways in which he has absorbed and transmogrified styles from a variety of film movements.

In Throne of Blood, the film is predicated on the structure of static sequences, almost in tableau, broken up by scenes of dramatic action with a change of composition, shot size and camera movement. The great proponent of studying the formal characteristics of Japanese Cinema is Noël Burch whose controversial book on Japanese Cinema was published in 1979. (The book was controversial because of the use he put his scholarship to in terms of the politics of film studies in the 1980s.) Burch refers to the contrasting scenes in Throne of Blood (or ‘Cobweb Castle’ as he terms it in a direct translation) as ‘lyrical agitation’ on the one hand and ‘tense stasis’ on the other.

Burch also discusses Kurosawa’s debt to Eisenstein and the concept of the ‘shot-change’. In simple terms this means a style that contrasts with the invisible nature of Hollywood’s ‘continuity editing’. The shot-change celebrates the visible transition from one shot to another, possibly through deliberate ‘mismatching’ of eye-lines or as in Throne of Blood in the use of Kurosawa’s favourite device of this period, the ‘hard-edged’ fast wipe which abruptly takes us from one scene to another in the most visible way possible (cf the gradual fade out/fade in or the unobtrusive straight cut). This is one example of the way in which Kurosawa confirms the ‘artificiality’ of film, emphasising its constructedness. The use of noh acting devices is another. See too the distortion of space in the sequence of the funeral procession approaching the castle.

An example of Kurosawa’s dramatic mise en scène with its sparse decor and low-key lighting – and its overall resemblance to a scene from a noh play.

What does it all mean?

If we understand all these facets of the film, what do we make of Kurosawa’s approach to what is a familiar story? Stephen Prince offers us a particular reading:

The Noh masks point to a huge difference between this theatrical tradition and Shakespeare’s, one that helps give the film many of its unusual qualities. Noh is not psychologically oriented; characters are not individualised. Its characters are types – the old man, the woman, the warrior, and so on – and the plays are quite didactic, aiming to impart a lesson. Kurosawa, therefore, strips all the psychology out of Macbeth and gives us a film whose characters are Noh types and where emotions – the province of character in the drama of the West – are located here as absolute types. Emotion here isn’t an attribute of character psychology, but a formal embodiment in landscape and weather. The bleached skies, the fog, the barren plains, and characters going adrift against and within these spaces – this is where the emotion of the film resides. It is objectified within and through the world of things. As a result, the film has a definite coldness; it keeps the viewer outside the world it depicts. Kurosawa wants us to grasp the lesson, to see the folly of human behaviour, rather than to identify or empathise with the characters.

. . . If Kurosawa strips the psychology from Macbeth, he also strips out Shakespeare’s political conservatism, refusing to give us the play’s reassuring conclusion (flattering to James I) in which a just political authority triumphs. In Kurosawa’s film and worldview, the cycle of human violence never ends. Thus the film’s many circular motifs describe the real tragedy at the heart of the history that Throne of Blood dramatises. Why do people kill each other so often and through so many ages? Kurosawa had no answer to this question. But he showed us here, through the film’s chorus, its circularity, and its Buddhist aesthetics, that there may not finally be an answer within this world. The aesthetics and philosophy of Throne of Blood take us well beyond Shakespeare, and that’s why this is a great film. Its accomplishments are not beholden to another medium or artist. Kurosawa gives us his own vision, expressed with ruthless, chilling power, and it’s the totality of that vision, its sweep and its uncompromising nature, that move and terrify us and that we are so seldom privileged to see in cinema.

Conclusion

I confess that I don’t care much for Shakespeare. I’m sure that I am missing out, but I’m too old now to start over. It does mean, however, that I can watch Throne of Blood objectively, not worried about ‘fidelity’ to an existing text. At the same time, because I’ve seen other film versions, I know the basic story so I can focus on how the events are presented. It seems to me that Burch and Prince make persuasive arguments. Throne of Blood is certainly one of Kurosawa’s major achievements – and a film to which he would return with varying success in the later works, Kagemusha and Ran. Its strengths are in the careful structuring of the narrative, the strong and coherent visual style, the location and settings and the direction of a group of highly-skilled actors led by Mifune on top form.

In a lengthy essay on Throne of Blood, Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro (2000) explores the questions about both the Shakespeare adaptation and the supposed ‘Japaneseness’ of the film in some detail, marshalling a range of theoretical ideas. I don’t have space to explore these here but I’d like to quote Yoshimoto’s conclusion which ties in nicely with some of the discussion above:

Despite its use of noh and other types of traditional Japanese art, Throne of Blood has little to do with the affirmation of Japaneseness. Nor is it an attempt to create a new national film style. Instead, Kurosawa simultaneously tries to expand the possibility of film form and re-examine the specific history and genre conventions of Japanese Cinema. Throne of Blood is a unique film made by a true innovator of cinema. (Yoshimoto, 2000:269)

References

Noel Burch (1979) To the Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in the Japanese Cinema, Berkeley: University of California Press (this book is now available as a pdf on free download from the University of Michigan

Stephen Prince (2003/2010) Throne of Blood: Shakespeare Transposed’

Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro (2000) Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema, Durham NC: Duke University Press

Kurosawa #7 Scandal (Sukyandaru, Japan 1950)

The Japanese poster for the film showing the four principals. The handsome Mifune Toshiro is the artist. Below are Shimura Takashi as the lawyer, Yamaguchi Yoshiko as the singer and Katsuragi Yoko as the sick girl.

For much of his career up to 1965 Kurosawa Akira was contracted to Toho (in the latter part of this period through his own production company) but in the late 1940s, because of labour unrest at Toho, Kurosawa took his projects to other studios. Scandal was produced by Shochiku, more associated for cinephiles with the work of Ozu Yasujiro. Although often regarded as one of Kurosawa’s ‘minor’ works, Scandal has several interesting features.

Plot outline (no spoilers)

Mifune Toshiro plays Aoye Ichirô, an artist (Kurosawa’s ‘profession’ before he entered the film industry). Aoye is on holiday painting landscapes in the mountains. One day a young woman with a suitcase walks up to his painting spot. She appears to be heading for the hotel where Aoye is staying so he gives her a lift on his motorbike. At the hotel, Aoye visits the young woman’s room to see how she is settling in. Both are dressed informally and when they peer over the balcony to admire a view they hear a click – the paparazzi (or at least their predecessors in the Japanese ‘yellow press’) are at work. The young woman is a famous singer and there is a market value in an image of her and the handsome artist. Aoye then sues the scandal magazine (ironically titled ‘Amore’) which runs the photo. He chooses an unprepossessing lawyer to prosecute the case, seemingly won over by the lawyer’s sick daughter who is bed-ridden with TB. And this is where the problems begin . . .

Commentary

Some critics see this film as failing because it moves into melodrama. Several of us on this site are melodrama fans, so that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It must be said, however, that Scandal offers a rather unusual combination of elements. Kurosawa sets up an interesting proposition in the first few scenes. The artist paints a picture which is not a ‘faithful reproduction’ of a landscape – but it conveys a truth (which the artist eventually finds through hard work). The photograph at the centre of the ‘scandal’ is just the opposite – an accurate rendering of a moment, but ultimately ‘untruthful’ about what is happening. This ‘mismatch’ between ‘imitation of reality’ and the truth behind an image is carried through to Aoye’s relationship with the lawyer played by Shimura Takashi and with the lawyer’s sick daughter. These relationships become the focus of the melodrama (rather than the expected relationship with the singer).

Scandal is ostensibly a ‘social protest’ film about the ‘yellow press’ (what is now usually called the tabloid press). Because information and comment had been so severely repressed in the Japanese media during the long wartime period, there was an explosion of sensational journalism in the immediate post-war period. This was clearly a social issue. Exposure of corruption was, of course, a social good, but it was accompanied by exploitation of personal problems. Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro in his book on Kurosawa and Japanese Cinema (2000) observes that Kurosawa was early in critiquing this kind of journalism and it was not followed up in Japanese Cinema until Masumura Yasuzo’s Giants and Toys in 1958 (and again by Kurosawa in The Bad Sleep Well, 1960). But Scandal also has another reference to contemporary social problems. The lawyer is poor and his daughter is seriously ill with TB – just as the Mifune character in Drunken Angel (1948). The lawyer even lives in an area with a stagnant pool as in the earlier film.

The ‘media discourse’ which the film explores is well represented in the film’s mise en scène. Kurosawa and his cinematographer Ubukata Toshio have great fun with posters, microphones, flashbulbs, cine cameras and arclights in a series of montages and set pieces, such as the court case that comprises much of the last section of the film.

The problem with the film, I think, is in how Kurosawa has fashioned a narrative around the idea of a ‘true’ man and a ‘man of imitation’ – the Mifune-Shimura axis again played in a way that sees the artist character of Mifune puzzled by the new media environment and determined to preserve his honour (and that of the singer) whereas Shimura (the lawyer) is a much more feeble character who, although he does not understand the new world is easily persuaded to abandon his honour. This is a melodrama of redemption in which Shimura becomes the centre. (There is also a true melodrama ‘villain’ in the form of the magazine owner.) The court case is linked back to the ‘truth’/’imitation’ thematic in several ways. In the lawyer’s ramshackle office there is a photo of his daughter in school uniform. he artist recognises that this is a true photo and it helps him to decide to hire the father. The father knows this truth, so when he is about to do something shameful, he turns the photo to face the wall.

The expected melodrama involving the singer doesn’t happen, instead the focus switches to the lawyer’s daughter. The singer must be present for the court case and the narrative demands the presence of another woman – almost as a chaperone. This is the artist’s model and his friend. At one point, they discuss the conventions of Western painting and the artist suggests that Japanese art can’t deal with the nude. In this sense the artist is aware of the ‘westernisation’ of Japanese culture – and when he visits the lawyer’s family at Christmas he brings a tree on his motorbike.

I was struck by some of the American responses to the film (which has now appeared on DVD in Criterion’s box sets of Kurosawa). A New York Times review by Vincent Canby from 1980 suggests that the film is a satire on the Americanisation of Japan during the Occupation and that in some ways the film seems first like a pastiche of Hollywood romcoms and then undercuts this with its change of direction. Another reviewer points us towards Sam Fuller’s films about journalism. Yamaguchi Yoshiko (like Mifune, born in Manchuria) who plays the singer later appeared in some American films as ‘Shirley Yamaguchi’ – including Sam Fuller’s Japan-set thriller House of Bamboo (1955). The courtroom scenes are similar to those in Hollywood films, although the presence of newsreel cameras makes them look more like Senate hearings. There is a suggestion that some of the courtroom procedures might be ‘new’ – perhaps as a result of reforms by the Occupation forces?

This is certainly a film worth seeing, with some excellent set pieces and a real sense of the vitality found in so many of Kurosawa’s films in this period. Perhaps it has been overshadowed only because it was made in the same year as Rashomon. One warning though – if you don’t like melodrama acting, you may find Shimura’s performance just a little ‘too much’. I prefer him in Ikiru (1952).

A Day in the Life – Four Documentaries by John Krish (UK 1953 and 1961-3)

John Carter Ronson, the subject of 'I Think His Name is John'

These four short documentaries make up a 93 minute programme, part of the ‘Boom Britain’ project showcased at BFI South Bank in November and now on a short tour around the UK. They are also available alongside many other fascinating titles in a box set of 4 BFI DVDs with the title Shadows of Progress: Documentary Film in Post-War Britain 1951-77. Since the box set costs £34.99, I suspect that its audience will be limited to academics and documentary fans. That would be a shame. Some of the films discussed here are also available free in the UK, streamed to computers in libraries and educational institutions via screenonline. If you teach film or media studies you really should watch these four films and show them to your students – I watched them with Nick Lacey and we were knocked out by both the technical expertise and the artistic vision on show.

Each of the four films was written and directed by John Krish (born 1923) whose main career achievements were in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. He appeared on the BBC Radio 4 programme Front Row discussing his work when the films screened again in London and he is interviewed on the BFI YouTube Channel. The four films have been restored and are presented on a 2K digital print for cinema screenings.

The first film is The Elephant Will Never Forget (1953) (11 mins). This tells the story of the last tram to run in London in 1952 (trams have since returned in Croydon and Wimbledon). ‘The Elephant’ refers to the Elephant and Castle which lay on the old route ’36’ between Central London and New Cross via the Old Kent Road. Made for British Transport Films, this got Krish the sack for making his own ‘people-centred’ documentary rather than simply recording the end of an ‘outmoded’ transport system on behalf of a ‘forward-looking’ public transport body.

They Took Us to the Sea (1961) (26 mins) was made for the NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children). It shows a day out for quite a large group of children from the poorer districts of Birmingham, involving a train trip to the seaside at Weston-super-Mare.

Our School (1962) (28 mins) was made for the National Union of Teachers and focuses on a new secondary modern school in Hertfordshire called the Francis Coombe School.

I Think His Name is John (1964) (28 mins) is a beautifully realised portrait of a widower, a retired miner, living a solitary life in a block of flats. It was made for the Samaritans.

There is a great deal of reference material and both scholarly and fan discussion of these films readily available, so rather than duplicate many of the arguments, I’ll just list the sources and make some general remarks.

A good starting point is the website for Illuminations, the independent TV company making arts programmes. This is actually the blog of the company’s founder John Wyver and it’s an excellent source and well worth exploring. There are links here to many of the other sources on the Krish films and a great deal of background and discussion.

There is an interesting forum discussion of the DVD box-set on the Criterion forums.

Boom Britain is introduced on this BFI webpage (with further links).

Krish is interviewed at BFI Southbank by Patrick Russell, the Archive Curator of Non-Fiction Film and author of the book, Shadows of Progress. This is a gem.

This BFI YouTube clip gives some indication of the Krish method. (I don’t think I can embed BFI clips)

Our School is an extraordinary film for several reasons. It’s a fascinating social document simply on a level of how the teachers and students are dressed, their hair styles and ways of speaking etc. It also represents a very specific ideological intervention by the NUT, showing a ‘modern’ school with what were then quite radical ideas about changing teaching methods. This is a model school in many ways but that doesn’t invalidate its presentation of new education ideas in 1963. Viewers outside the UK should be aware that the school shown was at this time part of the national selective system. The most academically able students were ‘creamed off’ for the grammar schools. The students in the Francis Combe school in Hertfordshire were mostly expected to leave school at 15 and go straight into work (at a time of ‘full employment’). Such schools still exist in some parts of England (and across Northern Ireland) but most were replaced by comprehensive schools. The subject matter of this clip was highly topical and may seem now to present a rather authoritarian teacher position. But there is good humour and informality in the mix as well and the other classroom scenes in the film suggest a new breed of confident, articulate and dedicated teachers with the students’ needs paramount in their approach (I hope the NUT were impressed!).

But in some ways, the most extraordinary aspect of the film is the shooting method devised by John Krish. If you look carefully at the clip, you’ll quickly notice that it is very different to the direct cinema films of the time in the US or the so-called ‘fly on the wall’ techniques of later UK TV documentaries which claimed to be unobtrusive ‘observers’. Krish worked for many hours to get these shots with their beautiful framings (all four films present stunning portraits in close-up of all kinds of characters). The students behave in a seemingly natural way and Krish worked hard to get his subjects used to the presence of the camera. He was producing ‘art’ from ‘reality’ and in his Southbank interview he makes this very clear. This particular clip involves a small group discussion but other parts of the film involve wider shots, some stunning tracking camera and a range of classroom situations. Films like this, part of what was a major sector of ‘industrial’ and ‘sponsored’ films up to the 1970s, were not usually seen in cinemas. They were much more likely to have been seen as 16mm films in education, training or business contexts. (The last tram film was very popular and showed at the Odeon, Leicester Square, the most prestigious UK cinema.) But the four films here are so well made that seeing them on the big screen in High Definition in a cinema is akin to watching a contemporary art film. This is certainly the case with I Think His Name is John.

Film history has focused on the ‘Free Cinema’ movement of the 1950s/early 1960s as the important manifestation of documentary filmmaking in the UK in the post-war period. ‘Free’ in the sense of being ‘independent’ of studios, government or industrial sponsors as well as the conventions of the form, the movement helped the careers of major feature directors such as Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and some of the European auteurs who came to the UK in the period. Krish is quite disparaging about what he saw as a fairly ‘amateurish’ bunch. You can see his point (and anyway, Anderson and Reisz both worked first in ‘industrial films’). As in quite a few other cases, film history has been only partial in its coverage. We can’t any longer ignore the talents associated with industrial and sponsored films in this period and as well as the films of John Krish, there are plenty of other filmmakers whose work can be ‘tasted’ on the BFI YouTube Channel. I recommend Anthony Simmons and his 1953 film Sunday by the Sea.