Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple – bridging two films capably with character and thematic developments

Hiroshi Inagaki, “Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple” (1955)

Its predecessor in the Musashi Miyamoto trilogy might have won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film for 1954, but this second installment is a superior film in its characterisation, plotting and cinematography. The plot makes greater demands on its audience’s attention and understanding of pre-Meiji Japanese culture and Buddhist philosophy in amongst the clashing of swords in combat and a sappy love triangle. While the conventions of the American Western film genre are followed in the detail of the lone itinerant fighting hero who forswears love and a normal life in his quest for self-knowledge and understanding, these conventions are extended to embrace and illuminate Buddhist values and beliefs and to impart a message that toughness and stoicism need to be tempered with compassion and love and respect for others, especially those who are weaker than oneself.

Our man Takezo aka Miyamoto (Toshiro Mifune) challenges a swordfighting school led by Seijuro Yoshioka to a fight to demonstrate his skill and underline his reputation as a swordsman. The coming showdown anchors the film and focuses attention. In-between skirmishes with members of the school, keen to set an ambush for him and wear him down before he meets Seijuro, Takezo is pursued by the women Akemi and Otsu, both of whom were betrayed by Takezo’s former friend Matahachi. Takezo’s encounters with the ill-fated women and his feelings for them both are as much a battleground for him as the marshy grounds surrounding Ichijoji Temple. The biggest battlefield though turns out to be his own ego as Takezo slowly comes to realise that his pride, stubbornness and fixation with his reputation as a fighter are a cover for various inadequacies which he must deal with before he can truly be called great.

In real life, Miyamoto probably never had to contend with 80 seasoned fighters at the crack of dawn over fields of swamp but let’s not allow reality to intrude upon gritty and brutal fighting through mud and slush. As expected, Mifune performs capably as the cynical gunfighter … err, swordsman, with not too much required of his acting skills at least until a scene near the end where without words Takezo is overcome by his desire for Otsu. The supporting cast play their roles, stereotyped and one-dimensional as they are, well for the most part; an unexpected and droll little twist is provided by a courtesan’s young assistant with a breathy little girl’s voice.

The countryside becomes a significant character in the film as well with the main battle taking place in swampy, muddy territory during the dying hours of night. Scenes of nature feature throughout the film and perhaps the best use of nature comes near the end where shots of flowing water are interspersed with shots of Takezo and Otsu together, with no dialogue but the camera focused on their faces. The water alludes to the growing affections they feel for one another.

Although the movie falls far short of what the great Akira Kurosawa did with his samurai films – there’s too much melodrama, characters are flat for the most part and the various sub-plots are not handled too well with some minor characters appearing for no other reason than that they appeared in the first movie so we’d better not forget them – “… Ichijoji Temple” performs adequately as a second installment that builds on what the first film established and sets up the framework for the third movie, in which Takezo must meet and fight a swordsman who not only is his equal in skill but may even be superior to him in fighting tactics.

Fanny and Alexander: a film of many personas revisiting familiar Bergman themes

Ingmar Bergman, “Fanny and Alexander” (1982)

In part an autobiographical film based on his own childhood experiences of growing up with a severe Lutheran pastor father, “Fanny and Alexander” was Ingmar Bergman’s last major film and is a celebration of family and its continuity, and an affirmation of life and rebirth. The film under review is the 188-minute theatrical version and splits into three parts. The first part which takes up the first 90 minutes brings together the Ekdahl family members at their matriarch’s mansion for Christmas dinner in 1907. The Ekdahls are a theatrical family whose scion, Oskar (Allan Edwall), runs a drama company. Besides Grandma and Oskar, the family includes Uncle Gustav who carries on a secret affair with a young maid with his wife’s tacit acceptance, and Oskar’s wife Emilie (Ewa Froling) and their two children Alexander (Bertil Guve) and his younger sister Fanny (Pernilla Allwin). Through the way they celebrate Christmas, the Ekdahls are shown as lively and exuberant people who enjoy life and its luxuries, live for the moment and who are rather at a loss at dealing with the real world. Oskar worries about the debts his theatre company is accumulating and this concern puts a strain on his health. Grandma is having a secret affair with the family’s banker (Joseph Erlandsson) and seems unconcerned that the domestic staff are aware of it.

Although the film usually takes a third-person view of events, it generally revolves around the boy Alexander, a highly imaginative lad who enjoys showing his sister and cousins moving pictures on a kaleidoscope-like contraption. The boy is sensitive and becomes aware early on that his father’s days might be numbered. Sure enough Oskar falls ill and deteriorates rapidly. Emilie is devastated by Oskar’s death and finds coping without him difficult; she is drawn to the bishop Vergerus (Jan Malmsjo) for comfort and eventually agrees to marry him. After the wedding, Vergerus brings her and the two children to his home to live with his relatives in what becomes the second part of the film. Viewers will guess very quickly that Alexander and his step-father won’t be the best of friends as Vergerus imposes a severe regime on his new family and Alexander chafes not only at the physical restrictions but also the restrictions on his thinking and imagination. The two clash and Emilie begins to regret the haste with which she married Vergerus but she is pregnant with his child and Swedish law in the early 1900s did not favour women who divorced their husbands.

The film’s style ranges from lavish to minimal in a calm and understated way that one associates with Scandinavian film-making. Sven Nykvist’s cinematography is rich and beautiful and is one of the film’s major highlights. The actors fulfill their roles admirably whether they play main characters or supporting roles. Though the plot may be a simple and hackneyed Cinderella-style piece with an unbelievably happy ending, Bergman uses the three-part narrative not only to express the themes and ideas that have been dear to him throughout his directing career but also to underline his career and the people who have worked with him. The Ekdahls represent the family he would have liked to have had as a child and also the actors and technical crew Bergman relied on over the years of his career on stage and in film; Bishop Vergerus’ family on the other hand represents Bergman’s birth family.

The film can be slow and very understated. Viewers should rewatch it at least once to pick up and understand fully Bergman’s concerns with the life cycle and the fears of those facing the Grim Reaper sooner rather than later. As always in Bergman’s films, the plight of women in a society where the dice are loaded against them is of concern. The maid seduced by one of the Ekdahl men falls pregnant: in real life in Sweden at the dawn of the 20th century, she would have been turfed out from the Ekdahl household and either forced to put up the child for adoption or driven to live in the poorhouse with the baby.

Magic realist / gothic horror elements come thick and fast in the film’s second half and are associated with Alexander’s contact with his grandmother’s Jewish banker friend whose nephews run a puppet-making business and help the banker rescue Alexander and his sister on their grandmother’s behalf. The boy meets Ishmael (Stina Ekblad) who tells Alexander that his fantasies about his step-father’s death can come true as he visualises them; in eerie parallel, the bishop dies in a mysterious house fire. It would seem that with the Vergerus family out of their lives, Emilie and her children are finally reconciled with their Ekdahl relatives, and everyone can live happily ever after, but Alexander receives an unexpected visit from the bishop’s ghost who vows to give the boy a hard time from that moment on.

Bergman enthusiasts will find that “Fanny and Alexander” revisits familiar themes and aspects of the Swedish director’s past oeuvre: the film attacks the hypocrisy of institutional religion and social traditions that weigh heavily against mothers and their children; the film examines the different roles people play throughout their lives as they travel through the life cycle, and how role play reveals their inner characters; and it opposes Alexander and what he represents against Vergerus who, though a religious man, represents aspects of the restriction of life and nature, and ultimately of death. One can imagine Alexander constantly looking over his shoulder at the shadows that will follow him for the rest of his life; whether he can live his life in spite of Vergerus’ haunting or end up succumbing to the malign influence is left with the viewer as the film closes.

While the full 300-minute TV film would have cleared up the loose ends of the shorter film – there are many such loose ends and the fall-out between Vergerus and Emilie doesn’t seem quite convincing – as it is , the movie is very self-contained and its circular narrative is delineated very gracefully. The children are reunited with their family but they are not as innocent of the ways of the world as they were previously and there is a burden that Alexander must suffer in silence. The film has a low-key and graceful way of telling its dialogue-driven story – even the fire and the bishop’s demise are not nearly as startling as they could have been, thanks to the way the incidents are portrayed as report by a police officer – and this matter-of-fact style allows Bergman to explore the themes that were always important to him throughout his career. Admittedly the film is hokey in parts yet the silly bits co-exist well with scenes of horror in what turns out to be a work of many … well, personas itself: family drama, comedy, magic realism, gothic horror … it’s got it all.

Half of a Yellow Sun: a moving story sunk beneath soap opera antics, character stereotypes and sketchy history

Biyi Bandele, “Half of a Yellow Sun” (2013)

Adapted from the eponymous novel, written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, by playwright / director Biyi Bandele, this film is a melodrama against the backdrop of the first decade of Nigeria’s independence from 1960 to 1970. The film centres around twin sisters Olanna (Thandie Newton) and Kainene (Anika Noni Rose) who at the beginning of the film are bubbly 20-somethings fresh from postgraduate studies and eager to break away from their parents who are members of Nigeria’s political / economic elite. Olanna shocks her parents by moving in with her university professor boyfriend Odenigbo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in Nsukka and Kainene goes to Port Harcourt in southeast Nigeria to oversee Dad’s business interests.

Much of the first half of the film busies itself with Olanna’s tempestuous relationship with Odenigbo due in part to his mother’s interference which results in Odenigbo fathering a child with a servant. Olanna then sleeps with Richard (Joseph Mawle), Kainene’s fiancé, an act that is later to cause a rift between the sisters. In the meantime, Nigeria lurches from one political crisis to another, one military government after another, until the southeast province of Biafra declares its independence in 1967. Nigerian forces invade Biafra where the sisters are based and Olanna, Odenigbo, his daughter and faithful man-servant Ugwu (John Boyega) are forced to flee Nsukka. The four temporarily stay with Odenigbo’s mother but are forced to move again after Olanna and Odenigbo’s wedding is cut short by an air raid that kills one of their wedding guests. The four then go on to a refugee camp. Ugwu is called up to serve with Biafran forces and for a time is feared to be dead. Eventually Kainene and Richard, now her husband, rescue the four but further tragedy awaits them all.

The film tries to condense ten tumultuous years into just under 120 minutes and the result is a very patchy plot in which a few episodes of how the sisters and their men cope with ongoing war and the disruption it causes to them all. It’s best seen as a sort of Upstairs / Downstairs character study: the acting performances of the main characters are strong but the surprise performance is that of Boyega, whose character Ugwu has very little to say but proves to be the rock of stability for the sisters and their husbands. The couples tend to faff about and achieve little; if a message is to be taken away from the film, it might well be one about how the middle class and the intelligentsia as represented by the two couples were helpless during the civil war as they were targeted for killing by the military. For all his “revolutionary” (read: Marxist-socialist) ideas and debates, Odenigbo has no idea as to how to resist the military (much less his mum) and loses himself in drink. Richard is an ineffectual man who is dominated by Kainene but who finds deep reserves of love and courage when she goes missing.

The history lesson is very superficial and is portrayed mainly through insertions of actual newsreels of significant events in Nigeria. One has the feeling that the main characters are somehow disconnected from what’s happening around them during the early 1960s and as a result are caught like wide-eyed frightened rabbits looking into a car’s headlights as it bears down on them when war arrives in Biafra. Viewers need to have a good knowledge of the Nigerian civil war and its causes to make sense of the film. There is a chilling newsreel scene in which young boys are recruited as soldiers by the Biafran government and Ugwu himself is called to bear arms. A few scenes hint at the extreme level of violence and atrocities that occurred during the war: army officers cold-bloodedly shoot airport passengers for being of the wrong ethnicity and a gang of men with machetes menace Olanna as she tries to find her aunt.

The film might have worked better if it had been more loosely based on the novel and taken the viewpoint of Ugwu who initially arrives as a naif country-lad with hardly any education to serve Odenigbo and emerges from the film as a quietly loyal, brave and studious man who observes and remembers all. Unfortunately Ugwu is very sketchily developed and it is to Boyega’s credit that Ugwu comes out of the film as a real human being and not moving wall-paper. We would have seen through Ugwu’s eyes how ordinary working people were affected by the war and how they helped to rebuild the country after hostilities ended in 1970. The film’s end titles go on to say that Ugwu became a writer: well, there was just one tiny scene in the movie that intimated that Ugwu was continuing his education! Through Ugwu’s experiences, we might have seen a real character development through which current issues such as the use of child soldiers and the psychological effects of war on children and society generally are explored. We might also have seen how the civil war benefited the British ex-rulers and British companies extracting oil from Nigeria’s coastal regions and how the conflict and its consequences still affect the nation today.

I did feel that there was some stereotyping in the film – Olanna’s aunt is a fount of worldly wisdom and Odenigbo’s mother (Onyeka Onwenu) is bossy and manipulative but humorous all the same – and a trope of strong women / ineffective all-talk-little-action men was evident throughout.

A very moving story lurks in the film but unfortunately it goes to waste beneath the soap opera antics and the feather-light plot.

Beatriz’s War: Timor-Leste’s first film is a story of hope, determination and perseverance

Bety Reis and Luigi Acquisto, “A Guerra da Beatriz / Beatriz’s War” (2013)

A major first in the post-independence culture of Timor-Leste, “Beatriz’s War” is a moving testament to the triumph of hope, determination and perseverance in the face of unrelenting despair, suffering, heartbreak and sacrifice. The movie is expansive in its temporal scope, beginning with the Timorese’s bolt for independence from Portugal followed by the Indonesian invasion and colonial occupation in 1975 and continuing (rather patchily) all the way to the independence referendum in 1999 that led to a vicious reprisal by the occupation forces.

In 1975 Beatriz is an 11-year-old child bride to equally young groom Tomas: the union cements an agreement between two noble Tetum families to unite to pool their wealth together. As soon as the marriage takes place, the youngsters and the wedding party witness the Indonesian army’s takeover of their village. The villagers submit sullenly to the capricious rule of Captain Sumitro but quietly plot their revenge. Several years later, when Tomas is fully grown, the male villagers revolt and kill their occupiers but Sumitro manages to escape. He brings back more soldiers who separate the male and female villagers and who then proceed to massacre all the men. Tomas is not among those killed. Beatriz (Irim Tolentino), her son by Tomas, and her sister-in-law Teresa (Augusta Soares) are bundled off by Sumitro’s troops along with all the other women and children into a gulag.

Years pass, the women manage in very difficult conditions to grow crops and raise pigs, and rear children fathered by guerrilla fighters. Teresa is forced to become Sumitro’s mistress and bears him a daughter. After the 1999 referendum, Sumitro and his troops burn down the crops, kill the animals and depart abruptly, taking Teresa’s daughter with them after Teresa is forced to give her up. While the women take stock of their misfortune, a strange man enters the village: he claims to be Tomas, Beatriz’s long-lost husband. Teresa, having suffered too much over the years, welcomes him with open arms but Beatriz is not so sure. The stranger befriends Beatriz’s son and worms his way into Beatriz’s affections – but is he as genuine as he claims to be, and what is his connection to a massacre of Christian nuns and priests that occurred just before his arrival in the village?

The film falls into two distinct parts: the first part is basically expositional, laying out the background, the history and developing the main characters of Beatriz, Teresa and Tomas, and their relationships to one another. Captain Sumitro is the major villain in this section and a significant character though his appearances are few. Characters who appear in this part are both fictional and real: Teresa and Tomas’s father Celestino was an actual East Timorese freedom fighter who assisted Australian soldiers during World War II and who was killed by the Indonesian army in 1983. The second part which focuses on Beatriz and the stranger, and how his presence strains her friendship with Teresa, is based on the plot of a French film and in microcosm portrays conflicts and issues arising from the Indonesian occupation that Timorese society must now deal with: questions of forgiveness, reconciliation, social justice and reciprocal vengeance, whether it is right to avenge other people’s murders with more blood-letting, are broached in a way that is unflinching, forthright and yet subtle and graceful.

Acting is well-done though characters are more stoic than emotional. They betray their feelings through changes of facial expression and subtle body language. Local Tetum customs and traditions are showcased with good effect in the scripting and drama and this viewer had the impression that Beatriz uses the cult of ancestor worship and respect for the dead to stave off the stranger’s advances and to justify her suspicions that he is not what he seems.

Inevitably there are loose ends but on the whole the film moves steadily and quietly, skilfully weaving in an old soap opera plot into the script to develop a complex and moving story that tests Beatriz’s capacity for forgiveness and desire for justice. Hope, rebirth, reconciliation and the need to go forward in spite of all that has happened and all the old ghosts that will haunt you forever – if only because continuing to strive for freedom and hope is what keeps us alive – are a strong subtext in the film.

Irim Tolentino wrote the script as well as playing the part of Beatriz and many of the actors and extras in the film actually lived through several of the events the film refers to.

Floating Weeds: a graceful work of compassion for human frailties

Yasujiro Ozu, “Floating Weeds” (1959)

In the hands of a lesser director, the soap opera plot of this film would have become sensationalist drama, soon to be forgotten, but because the director is Yasujiro Ozu, the story becomes a comment on the generation gap and a society undergoing profound change under Western influence leading to the death of tradition, family break-up and people lost and anchorless on life journeys. A small struggling troupe of actors who perform kabuki plays comes to a sleepy seaside town in 1950s Japan. Its main actor, Komajuro (Ganjiro Nakamura), drops in on an old lover of his, Oyoshi (Haruko Sugimura), to see how his son, Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), has progressed in his absence. Progress might be an understatement: the son has just left high school and hopes to go away to college to study electronics – an unbelievable ambition for a child of humble village origins. Kumajuro’s mistress in the acting troupe, Sumiko (Machiko Kyo), is jealous that her man has gone to see an old flame and plots revenge: she persuades fellow actress Kayo (Ayako Wakao) to seduce Kiyoshi, aware that a liaison would ruin Kiyoshi’s plans and thus his future. Kiyoshi falls hard for Kayo and is prepared to throw everything away for her. In the meantime, Komajuro’s acting troupe, failing to draw full houses for their tired stage productions, break up and Komajuro is faced with having to depend on Oyoshi for a living and admitting to Kiyoshi that he, Komajuro, supposedly his uncle, is really his long-lost dad.

The style of the film is very understated and the acting is restrained, rendering the intense emotion bubbling beneath the actors’ quite stoic veneers all the more acute. Tension when it breaks out is sudden and shocking. We get a real sense of things careening out of control as Komajuro finds that his hitherto neatly compartmentalised life breaks down thanks to Sumiko’s scheming. People get upset, fall into messy and socially embarrassing relationships and Komajuro lashes out violently; his behaviour just leads to more misunderstanding and fall-out. What could have been reunion, reconnection and reconciliation becomes instead alienation. Komajuro has to learn what is of real value and where his loyalties should lie; they do not necessarily lie with traditional family structures but with family based on common experiences and life-long bonds, whether blood-based or not.

Apart from Komajuro and Sumiko, the characters are one-dimensional and represent particular stereotypes in the Yasujiro Ozu universe. The real glories of “Floating Weeds” lie in the creation of atmosphere and in the camera’s delight in stills of house interiors and village life. Sometimes the camera is placed on the floor or at knee level which affords a very intimate viewing of the action that occurs and the conflicts that are brewing. The camera rarely moves and the action takes place as if on a stage. In several scenes, we really do see plays within a play. The film’s approach tends to be cool, remote and objective, very formal, and the actors move and behave in restrained and formal ways as if the whole film itself is a kabuki performance. Even Komajuro and Sumiko’s first vicious argument is staged in an unusual way that at once stresses the distance between them personally and between them and the audience, yet intensifies the heated emotion: the two argue across an alley during a heavy downpour of summer rain. At one point in the film, Komajuro and Kiyoshi together discuss the troupe’s first performance: Kiyoshi jokingly tells Komajuro that he overacts but then later says that the troupe and its repertoire are too old-fashioned and stale for younger audiences who want something more current, while Komajuro tells Kiyoshi his troupe’s plays appeal to unrefined tastes and therefore Kiyoshi shouldn’t waste his time watching them. The two might very well have been talking about Ozu’s movies, the state of the Japanese film industry and popular tastes in cinema at the time!

Slow in pace, picturesque in a small-scaled way, intimate and revolving around human relationships rendered intense by studied acting, the film won’t appeal to everyone but to those not afraid of watching Ozu’s particular style of story-telling, “Floating Weeds” is a graceful work that casts no judgement on human frailty but instead urges compassion for people as they struggle and cope with life-long consequences of decisions they foolishly made years ago and now must come to terms with.

 

The Eel: tale of redemption labouring under too many complex abstract themes

Shohei Imamura, “The Eel / Unagi” (1997)

Japan’s boys in blue have an enviable record in obtaining a near 100% rate of criminal convictions and never more so than when the criminal walks into the police station, calmly announces that he’s just killed his wife and places the bloody knife on the customer services counter. Thus begins a complex character study in which a man, burdened with guilt and a heavy past, claws his way back into society and thus redeem himself. After eight years in prison for killing his wife whom he caught in flagrante delicto with a lover, Takuro Yamashita (Koji Yakusho) moves away from Tokyo and with the help of his Buddhist priest parole officer makes a new life for himself as a barber in a country town. The community is populated with some oddball types who include a young man who borrows Takuro’s barbershop pole in the evenings to attract UFOs.

Initially business isn’t great because Takuro is a morose taciturn fellow who talks only to his pet eel, acquired at the prison. Then into his life comes a mysterious young woman Keiko (Misa Shimizu) who has just attempted suicide. Takuro saves her life and in gratitude Keiko offers to work as his assistant. The priest parole officer approves of the arrangement and soon Keiko starts attracting business for the barbershop in town and beyond with her grace and beauty. She falls in love with Takuro and Takuro himself struggles to repress his desire for her. But as life would have it, Takuro’s former prison-mate Takasaki turns up as a local garbage collector jealous of Takuro’s luck in finding a new life and threatening to expose Takuro’s secret past; and Keiko’s past catches up with her as an old flame (Tomorowo Taguchi) tries to extort money from her mentally fragile mother and comes to threaten Keiko herself.

The film’s style is smooth, graceful and studied with moments of intense emotion and slapstick humour that don’t really sit well together. The early scenes suggest that a gritty hardboiled drama is in the offering but as the film progresses, director Imamura seems to find handling some climactic scenes rather too confronting and intense as these are turned into improbable farce. The film is mainly driven by its characters and in this the two leading actors excel: Yakusho as Takuro combines patience, stoicism, self-guilt, remorse and repressed desire in the one taciturn character and Shimizu plays a complex self-conflicted woman who at first appears submissive and virginal but is later revealed as a passionate and assertive businesswoman who beats up her gangster boyfriend.

The film is an interrogation of contrasts within and between people and what these say about the rather schizophrenic nature of modern Japanese society. Individuals may deal with these contrasts and the stresses they create by indulging in odd and eccentric pastimes: Takuro by talking to his eel, Keiko’s mother by imagining herself as a flamenco dancer and the young townsman by trying to communicate with extraterrestrials. Takuro’s dead wife Emiko and Keiko are compared and contrasted in their sensuality and their homely domesticity, most notably in their offerings of lunch to Takuro. Takuro finds redemption in running a barbershop and talking to his eel while Takasaki is unable to find authenticity and a path in life despite chanting Buddhist sutras constantly. Madness appears to be a constant theme: Keiko frets that she might have inherited her mum’s unstable nature and Takuro has periodic hallucinations. At the end of the day, we don’t really know if Takuro really did catch Emiko with a lover. This possibility together with some disturbing implications are dealt with rather flippantly by Imamura by having Keiko fall pregnant with a baby whose paternity is unknown. Takuro accepts Keiko in her pregnant state but one wonders whether the way in which he passively agrees to support Keiko and her unborn child really does signify a wholehearted acceptance of Keiko with all her faults and foibles or if this merely suggests Takuro’s accommodation with society and its pressures.

It may well be that Takuro was truly himself when he killed Emiko, only to lapse back into his deadened self to face the consquences. His behaviour towards Keiko as their working relationship becomes close may either be interpreted as Takuro rediscovering his true emotional self, or paying off his karmic debt or simply acting as he should since he is on parole and must behave properly. The tension throughout the film comes from viewers’ knowledge of Takuro’s early intense rage and whether it will erupt again to such devastating effect. At the end of the film (spoiler alert), there is a real possibility that Takuro will not return to Keiko and that Keiko herself may return to her old job in the city.

The letters that Takuro receives in the film may or may not be real and the film suggests that Takuro’s real problem is his inability to be true to himself and to give and receive love. Takasaki plays on his mind quite a bit to the extent that Takuro has difficulty accepting his hallucinations about the man for what they are and projecting his hallucinations outwardly in ways viewers may find disturbing.

Ultimately the film suffers itself from the burden of its abstract complexity and the various mind games it plays with the audience. The movie starts off strongly but then doesn’t quite know whether it wants to be a romantic comedy or a drama of passion. Most of the support cast tend to be one-dimensional and parts of the plot appear as an after-thought: Takasaki is introduced quite late in the piece as a foil for Takuro and Takuro’s relationship with his eel is rather undeveloped – the eel is made to symbolise aspects of Takuro’s life that remain hidden and also carries him through his transition from prison life to civilian normality. Though when at last Takuro releases his eel into the sea, one must ask whether this means Takuro has regained what he lost in his distant white-collar job or whether he has finally accepted that mainstream society requires him to stay emotionally dead.

Royal Space Force – the Wings of Honnêamise: a handsome coming-of-age film about individual and communal redemption

Hiroyuki Yamaga, “Royal Space Force – the Wings of Honnêamise / Ôritsu uchûgun Oneamisu no tsubasa” (1987)

A very visually handsome and often stunning film to watch, “Royal Space Force …” reflects something of the global politics and various conflicts, expressed in war, society and culture, of the time when it was made. In a parallel universe to ours, on an alternative Earth, a kingdom and a republic – both representing the pinnacle of industrial civilisation – are on the verge of total war. In the kingdom of Honnêamise, a young man, Shirotsugh Lhadatt, lacking in direction fails his entry exam into the royal airforce and drifts into the nation’s moribund space program. He meets a young religious woman, Riquinni, who sees in him a potential messiah of sorts and who urges him to try out for the project to put a man in space for the first time. Shirotsugh follows Riquinni’s advice. There then follows a sequence of events that test Shirotsugh’s character and those of the other men in the project: they are assailed by doubt, technological problems, the disdain of the airforce, their government’s machinations and the pressure arising from their media celebrity and the kingdom’s hopes and dreams. The men discover that the rocket that will launch Shirotsugh into space is to take off from a launch-pad in a demilitarised zone between the kingdom and the enemy republic; this was planned deliberately by the kingdom’s top military personnel to provoke the enemy into a hot war. Sure enough, the republic reacts with extreme firepower and the project to send Shirotsugh into space is in doubt due to the danger from war.

The film’s greatest achievement perhaps is in the creation of a convincing world and civilisation that mix tradition and modern technology, out of which emerges a complex society with distinct values that are often contradictory and which give rise to social and cultural tensions. The kingdom is a hierarchy and its government appears to be bureaucratic and corrupt. The space program has been neglected at times and is the butt of humiliating jokes about its worth. At the same time, viewers are aware that this civilisation is an alien one, albeit one they accept quickly on its own terms: weapons, planes and other technology seem vaguely familiar and look like an amalgam of major late 19th / early to mid 20th century technology squished together until they blend into fantastic shapes and sizes. Thus at once we recognise them as familiar and as strange. Although a significant element in the film, the style of technology as a kind of cyberpunk retro-modern is consistent and it is very much at the service of the humans in transport, communication and fighting.

The path that Shirotsugh takes to become his planet’s first astronaut shapes his character and outlook and the film can be seen as a coming-of-age flick in which the protagonist finds new purpose in life and gains redemption and enlightenment in an endeavour which initially brings him scorn, then fame and celebrity, and finally a realisation that he is being used as a pawn. Nevertheless Shirotsugh achieves a significant goal for humanity and becomes an intercessor for his planet and the cosmos beyond. In this, he conveys a message of peace to his people far below, urging everyone to lay aside weapons of killing and war and to work towards repairing the damage they have wrought upon their planet. Redemption might come to humanity as a result of restoring their relationship with nature.

The film can be seen as a subtle criticism of religion, especially the type of unquestioning and passive religion which threatens to turn Riquinni into an eternal submissive victim. The very personal and intimate spiritual enlightenment Shirotsugh achieves can be compared to institutional religion and religious cults with the latter shown up as wanting. There may or may not a subtle critique of the patriarchal hierarchy that dominates the kingdom’s life and culture: nearly all significant characters are men and the one notable female character, Riquinni, appears as a figure of pathos.

Everything in the film flows steadily, enabling major characters to fill out as rounded individuals whom audiences can warm to and identify with. The first half of the film can be quite slow and most of the heavy action is in the last half-hour. Even so, in scenes of fighting and violent destruction the film’s emphasis remains on the Royal Space Force’s attempt to send Shirotsugh into space. The fight scenes are not treated as huge spectacles of complex technology being mashed up under a hail of bombs and fire-power; there is just enough action and killing to demonstrate the intense nature of the war between the kingdom and the republic.

Shirotsugh comes across as a likeable everyday man and most other characters have their quirks and eccentricities. Riquinni fails to inspire much sympathy even during an attempted rape by Shirotsugh; her later apology for bopping Shirotsugh and stopping him from ravishing her might shock viewers but is in agreement with her character.

One disappointment about “Royal Space Force …” is the mostly forgettable music by renowned musician and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto; there are some musical passages of delicate emotion but on the whole the soundtrack is not outstanding and has a staid air.

Although over 25 years old as of this time of writing, the film hasn’t aged much and stands up well against more recent animated competition thanks largely to the strength of its plot and themes, and of the well-rounded characters. While the plot is not complex, it is a character-driven piece and much of the pleasure in watching the movie is in seeing how Shirotsugh grows in maturity and wisdom. The art of the film is detailed though not too much so and background scenes can be very beautiful and serene in a self-sufficient way. As family fare, the film may be a little advanced for young viewers and older children who are not quite teenagers might need repeated viewings. It’s a film that believes wholeheartedly in the potential of the human spirit and the gifts that await when that potential is fulfilled.

 

 

Steamboy: epic cyberpunk film shooting its load too quickly and running out of steam

Katsuhiro Otomo, “Steamboy / Suchimoboi” (2004)

A decade in the making, Katsuhiro Otomo’s second full-length film is an epic cyberpunk fantasy that carries a message about how science and technology should be used to benefit humans and promote peace over profit and war. The fairly basic story revolves around a young boy, Ray Steam, living in an alternate 19th century Britain, whose father Eddie and grandfather Lloyd have invented a revolutionary machine called a steamball. It contains immense power that is self-renewing and the Steam family’s financial backers intend to profit from the steamball by selling it to the highest bidders. Lloyd Steam flees the United States with the prototype after an accident has felled Eddie and sends the steamball onto his family in Manchester. No sooner does Lloyd’s daughter-in-law Emma receive the steamball than agents immediately surround the family home and Ray escapes with the steamball on his own monowheel invention. He meets Robert Stephenson, for whom Lloyd Steam had intended to send the steamball, but is quickly whisked away by the agents. Ray soon finds himself hostage with the Ohara Foundation which has continued to hire his father (whom Ray had believed dead) to work on more steamballs.

Ray learns that his father and grandfather have fallen out over how the steamball’s power should be used. Lloyd is a utopian idealist believing that the steamball must be utilised for peaceful purposes and its benefits given freely to all, rich and poor alike. Eddie is drunk on the power and influence he imagines the steamball will bring to him. As is the case with epic action sci-fi family-friendly flicks, whether the steamball falls into the hands of people with noble intentions or not comes to depend on young Ray being able to decide if his father or his grandfather is right. In this unenviable situation which has the potential to change the course of history in this alternate Victorian universe, Ray finds an unexpected ally in the unlikely form of the spoilt heir to the Ohara Foundation, Scarlett (groan!) and maybe her pet chihuahua.

Aiming for an international audience, perhaps to recoup the immense costs of its production, the film features a bland story that packs in as many implausible narrow escapes for Ray as possible as he navigates the treacherous currents resulting from the moral dilemma that he shouldn’t have to face. Both Eddie and Lloyd represent two extremes – one collectivist, one individualist – of a continuum that reduces them to warring mad scientists. Characters are stereotyped to the point of giving offence to most people – the brave boy, the spoilt rich girl, the grim jut-jawed father figure, the eccentric grand-dad – and many viewers may recognise the stereotypes as typical Japanese stereotypes drawn from samurai dramas. Honour in the form of family honour and personal moral honour becomes important. Too many coincidences exist for the plot to be plausible: Lloyd arrives home after a long absence in the nick of time to warn Ray just as the agents have parachuted into the family home and Ray meets Robert Stephenson very much sooner than he anticipates. Surprise, surprise, we discover later on that Dr Stephenson is not such a good guy either and this really poses a moral problem for Ray who realises that maybe grand-dad Lloyd, for all his knowledge and wisdom, might not be entirely altruistic himself.

The animation has been lovingly worked over but the film moves at such a cracking pace that viewers are unable to fully appreciate the intricate detailing that has gone into many scenes. Too many dark neutral colours such as fifty shades of grey feature throughout the film. It’s as if Otomo and his team, once they started working on the visual technical details, lost sight of the overall work and allowed it to escape too far away from them. The film divides into two distinct halves, the first half being mostly exposition and the second half turning into no more than a serious of explosions, crises and the narrowest of escapes in which luck figures more strongly than quick thinking, ingenuity and skill. The second half of the film is so crowded with cliched cliff-hangings (and equally banal dialogue about being masters of the universe with scientific knowledge) and cor-blimey explosive scenes in which most of London is destroyed that viewers might well consider fast-forwarding through the lot of them and return to normal speed in the closing scenes where Ray and Scarlett leave his squabbling forebears going down with their proto-Titanic in the Thames River.

There are parallels with Otomo’s earlier work “Akira” and a number of characters could have been lifted straight from that film and deposited into this one with no difference at all apart from a change of clothes. Many viewers are likely also to compare “Steamboy” with the Studio Ghibli classic “Laputa, Castle in the Sky” which features similar protagonists, one of whom also has a compromised relative, and which takes place in an alternative Victorian universe where airborne technology got a head-start over our part of the cosmos.

I’m rather sorry that “Steamboy” founders on such a weak and derivative story and cartoonish characters (well, yes, it is a cartoon but it could have been more than just a cartoon) as the animation is stunning and really deserved a worthy plot and original themes.

Laputa, Castle in the Sky: a joyful adventure film with an earnest social responsibility message

Hayao Miyazaki, “Laputa, Castle in the Sky / Tenko no shiro Ryaputa” (1986)

One of Studio Ghibli’s great joys, this film has everything you could possibly want: a poor orphan boy’s dream of flying and of seeing a magical island paradise in the sky fulfilled; a girl lost and found who is the heir to a long-vanished civilisation; sky pirates with hearts of gold; and a sinister government agent ready to betray anyone and everyone in his monomaniacal desire to harness a secret power to rule the earth. Throw in a message about the use and misuse of powerful technology and a lesson on how to handle great knowledge and energy weapons responsibly, and you have yourself a wondrous family movie that stands the test of time nearly 30 years after it was made. That’s “Laputa, Castle in the Sky” in a nutshell.

All right, a bit more detail is needed: the orphaned miner’s son Pazu finds a young girl, Sheeta, apparently fallen from the sky and saved by a mysterious blue crystal on a necklace she wears around her neck. No sooner have they become acquainted than they are on the run from sky pirates led by elderly matriarch Dola and government forces led by Muska the spy. The two children literally go on a rollercoaster ride down a train track into a mine, then into a garrison that’s torn apart by a giant robot, thence into a flying pirate ship and a tiny glider plane, to land on a floating island high in the atmosphere powered by an ancient technology utilising a strange mineral element. Pazu discovers that the legend of Laputa his long-dead parents told him is true and Sheeta learns about her family heritage and the nature of her crystal and its source of power.

Pitched at a general family audience, the film is relatively uncomplicated compared to some of Studio Ghibli’s other films like “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” and “Princess Mononoke” and there is not such an epic feel to it. Characters tend to be one-dimensional and quite conservative in their portrayal, and the princess Sheeta is less independent and coherent than most of Miyazaki’s famous pre-teen / teenage heroines. There’s just enough ambiguity in the film to satisfy adult watchers who can fill in patches in the narrative with their own imaginations and to intrigue children wondering at the immense knowledge and command of technology the Laputans had, why they decided to abandon this technology and their powers, and why the Laputan craft is destroyed, leaving behind a giant floating tree that presumably will have to rely on storm clouds for the rest of its life for water. The film deteriorates into a series of clichés in its last half hour in order to resolve the plot and drive home its earnest anti-war message about how humans must use the resources of Earth wisely and with love and compassion for their fellow beings.

As is usual for Studio Ghibli films, the visual details and backgrounds are stunning in their beauty and the alt-world steampunk technology is at once original, inventive and faithful to the style of 19th-century steam-age Victorian technology before it leapt onto air travel decades before the Orville brothers took off in their little plane. The most inventive and memorable scenes in the film are those in which Pazu and Sheeta in their tiny glider are forced to separate from the pirate mother-ship and dive into the storm circling Laputa: the blackness illuminated by lightning and the terror and wonder on Pazu’s face close up are very impressive. On the other hand, the drawing and portrayal of the characters varies from good to mediocre: Pazu is called upon to perform endless feats of strength and endurance without taking so much as a sip of water, let alone a swag of performance-enhancing energy pills, and the pirates might have come straight out of old 1960s TV adventures of “Astroboy”.

The major letdown with the film is the schmaltzy movie soundtrack music which is par for the course for Japanese family movies.

As it’s pitched to young children, “Laputa …” delivers less complexity than other Studio Ghibli creations and does not immerse viewers as fully but it is one of the studio’s most joyful pictures.

 

 

 

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind: visually beautiful film with a strong but naive and woolly-brained ecological message

Hayao Miyazaki, “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind / Kaze no tani no Naushika” (1984)

Based on his own manga of the same name, Miyazaki’s film “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” established the style of the Studio Ghibli films with its compassionate young heroine, complex story-telling in which there are no clear-cut good guys and bad guys, and a strong environmental message that humans can and should exist together with nature and not harm or exploit it for short-sighted selfish purposes. The action takes place 1,000 years after our time in a post-apocalyptic world in which Nausicaä is a princess of a small isolated kingdom called the Valley of the Wind (hereafter called the Valley) untouched by pollution. A toxic forest known as the Sea of Decay and protected by giant arthropods called the Ohmu is spreading throughout the world through airborne spores. The princess is engaged in a long-term project to find a way of stopping the spread of this forest and help preserve her kingdom, and in doing so find a cure for her father’s terminal illness caused by the forest toxins.

Into this world an airship from the distant war-like kingdom of Tolmekia, carrying a lethal embryonic bioweapon called the Giant Warrior, crashes after being attacked by giant insects: Nausicaä tries to rescue the dying Pejite princess hostage who warns her to destroy the Grand warrior embryo. Next thing you know, the Tolmekian fleet, led by Princess Kushana and her deputy Kurotawa, moves into the Valley and occupies it, taking charge of the embryo also. Our heroine is taken as hostage and is forced to accompany Princess Kushana back to Tolmekia. The fleet is attacked by a solo Pejite plane and Nausicaä, Kushana and a few other Valley hostages barely escape alive. They all are lost in the Sea of Decay and Nausicaä determines to find the Pejite pilot. She does so but both are swallowed by quicksand and fall into a purified world below the Sea of Decay. Here Nausicaä discovers that the Sea of Decay jungle is cleansing the soil and purifying the water, and realises that the normally hostile arthropod Ohmu are protecting the jungle to stop humans from discovering the new world being born and trashing it before it can realise its potential.

Various other complicated shenanigans ensue, culminating in total war between the kingdoms of Pejite and Tolmekia, using both Ohmu and the Giant Warrior respectively to inflict massive casualties on each other and damaging the Valley’s environs. Nausicaä bravely stops the war but is severely wounded as a result and her life hangs in a precarious balance.

While the animation often leaves a great deal to be desired – Nausicaä looks far too young to be doing the things she does and she and other youthful characters look no different from most other young anime heroes and heroines – the landscapes and backgrounds are at least beautifully painted and detailed, and give an excellent impression of an alien world that partakes of futuristic post-apocalyptic dreamscapes and a prehistoric Carboniferous era of giant insects and forests of fungi. The behemoth bugs look convincing and move as realistically as their ancient forerunners might have done. Details of giant aircraft – a mix of old and new aeroplane technologies are imagined here – are a wonder to behold, especially during the attack scenes.

Characters are credible in their complexity and duplicity. Nausicaä shows unexpected ferocity in avenging her father’s death and Kurotawa is as much of a threat to Kushana as he is towards Nausicaä and her people. Other major characters such as Lord Yupa and the Pejite pilot Asbel are rather more one-dimensional; Miyazaki has never been able to handle male characters, particularly mature male characters, very well. The plot and sub-plots, however undeveloped some of these may be, convey something of the concerns of Miyazaki about the world we live in, in which great powers bluff one another, conduct their wars on smaller and vulnerable third parties’ territories and also engage in constant arms races that have the eventual effect of threatening the survival of the planet as well as themselves and the rest of humanity.

For a film made in the 1980s, “Nausicaä …” has aged very well: some of the electronic keyboard music, distinctively 1980s in sound, actually enriches the film with modern psychedelic melodic tones and ambience. The animated backgrounds and landscapes, and the careful depiction of the Valley’s culture hold up very well; on the other hand, there are very twee moments, during which Nausicaä either experiences anew a distant childhood memory or achieves spiritual union with nature, which deflate the film and risk turning it into a bit of a laughing-stock. The film’s denouement apparently did not satisfy Miyazaki and I suspect he probably preferred something more tragic which wouldn’t have gone down well with most film audiences. There are blunt references throughout the film to the life and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the coming of his Kingdom.

There is a strong though very naive (and in parts, wrong-headed) ecological theme: the Sea of Decay apparently has evolved to cleanse the earth of toxins left behind by centuries of human activity and the Ohmu exist solely to guard the toxic jungle so it can do its work. This suggests a utilitarian, even moral purpose for evolution. Such a view reduces the complexity of Nature, its creatures and its systems to a vague and simplistic concept in which everything about Nature is good or moral, and anything that humans create or do which might harm some of Nature’s creations is bad or immoral. The Ohmu play the role of avenging angels that more or less force humans to accept their place in their environment; there is no sense that they, too, might be individual creatures longing in their own way for freedom. The giant arthropods possess a hive mind which knows better than the wayward and often conflicting minds and behaviours of the humans; this also is a very troubling implication as it privileges a mysticism and group thinking without giving good reason why such thinking and behaviour based on consensus should be superior than an array of divergent individual opinions.

For all its good intentions, “Nausicaä …” interprets its ecological message in a way that fails to appreciate the complexity of Nature’s systems, the indifference of Nature towards humans, the possibility that there’s no such thing as evolution with a purpose (let alone a good purpose), that intelligent creatures like the Ohmu might be capable of self-interest and even malevolent and destructive tendencies, and that technology is as much a natural extension of humans as their arms and legs are, and can be used to work with and for Nature. I suspect this narrow view of Nature must have failed Miyazaki at some point later in his films because, as of this time of writing, his recent film meditations (such as “Arrietty”) on Nature show a deeply conservative attitude towards human capacity for change and a pessimism about the future of humanity and its ability to reconcile with the natural world.