23.8.15

Audition

And it was all just a dream... But was it? I haven't read the book so don't sue me if I get this wrong BUT I lean towards the dream-filled interpretation. Partly because the balance of evidence tends to point that way (the jump cuts, the recurring scenes and dialogue, all the stuff Aoyama can't know about Asami). But also because the film would be richer as a result. If the torture is all real, all we have is a version of the rape-revenge film – a favourite ploy of pulp directors to have and eat their feminist cake. Tarantino loves doing this, and loves this film as well, apparently. But what if it was something more? What if it was about the pulp director's guilt about his use of women as objects? What if he turns the rape-revenge onto himself?

Aoyama feels guilt first and foremost because in trying to find a girlfriend he is betraying the memory of his dead wife. But his fantasies about Asami highlight a deeper uneasiness at his behaviour towards the other women in his life. The housekeeper who praises him for raising a son by himself, even though he's actually rich enough to employ her to help out. His son's prospective girlfriend, who is sexually objectified by him. The secretary he foolishly slept with and does his best to ignore, even though she still pines for him. He is perfectly civil to all of these women, and he is also nothing if not a devoted father. The horror is made all the more acute because he is such a sympathetic character.

But there's the business with the audition. The conceit cleverly underlines the omnipresence of male domination in the film, and Japanese society. How many job interviews with powerful middle-aged men are really tests of marriageability? Aoyama remains super uncomfortable and quite sweet throughout the process. The real monster in the film is his film producer friend Yoshikawa, who organises the whole rigmarole. But Aoyama is complicit in the con trick. The measure of the man is how he checks his privilege, brutally, in his dreams.

And the twist at the end is all the more succulent. Aoyama awakes from an unforgettable nightmare next to a docile Asami, who he has promised to wed even though he now feels horror at the thought. Will he go back on his word? Will Asami be cast away, as the secretary was?

22.8.15

Yukiko's Spinach

Frédéric Boilet is a French artist who lives in Japan and is a practitioner of 'Nouvelle Manga'. My guess is that the term is in part a reference to the French 'New Wave', because there's an awful lot of fourth wall-breaking in Yukiko's Spinach. The story (of a short-lived affair between the artist and a native) is actually about how the story was put together, to the point where Boilet scans in pages from his notebook containing the sketches that ended up as panels. The foregrounding of the creative process allows for key moments to be revisited several times at different stages of refinement. Repetition, one of the basic techniques of meaning-generation in art, is shown to be a particularly powerful tool for comics, which are always a succession of frozen moments.

The sense of certain images being picked out for particular study is enhanced by Boilet's contrasting talent for portraying stream-of-consciousness in panels. Much of the comic is in P.O.V. with the protagonist's dialogue in captions at the bottom, while the other characters get speech bubbles. The gaze is liable to drift away from the person 'we' are having a conversation with, often when the subject strays into uncomfortable territory. It's a clever way to juxtapose the immediate sensation of time-bound life with the objects and practices that capture that time and allow us to meditate on it.

The story itself is barely there, but it does have a certain resonance for me. My girlfriend is Japanese and I've done a lot of the dating things the two lovers get up to (onsen, purikura). As should be obvious from the above, Boilet is very good at conveying what sharing those romantic experiences in Japan is like.

7.8.15

Heavenly Creatures

David Lynch apparently made sure Peter Jackson won the Silver Lion for best director when he was chairing the panel of judges at the Venice Film Festival. That he should warm to the film makes sense – Heavenly Creatures shares more than a little with Blue Velvet. Not just period decor and an interest in noir, but a general concern with the way we police our imaginations. Like the bohemian decadent aesthetes that slither through Lynch's film, the two childhood friends start losing track of where their imagination ends and where reality begins. Jackson's innovation is to block out any attempt to judge the killers, at least before we understand what led up to the crime.

Part of it is the fierce mutual fellowship that comes with shared ostracism (it emerged after the film that the relationship was never sexual). Part of it is the urge to escape a lonely and parochial world, one that is too confident in its finger-wagging prejudices. Part of it is also the loss of trust that comes when secrets and lies are revealed beneath what appear to be secure family units.

Incredibly, I didn't actually know the story of the film, and had no idea about the scandal it was based on. And even though Jackson foregrounds the horror of the murder in a busy sequence at the start, much of the film is free of any presentiment of where it is all heading. For me more than perhaps most, Heavenly Creatures is less of a foreboding true crime drama, and more of a film about the delights of friendship and fantasy. Jackson's achievement is to make sympathy with these two killers so easy, and then to put a murder weapon in your hands.

5.8.15

Blind Beast

There's quite a lot to unpack in this erotic horror retelling of Beauty and the Beast, made by Japanese New Wave director Yasuo Masumura. It's partly a compact and meaty drama with three characters in a couple of sets slowly pulling each other apart. The central dynamic is the sheltered child-man detaching himself from a devoted but overbearing mother and being seduced by a new woman of the 1960s keen to push the boundaries of art and sex. The gradually escalating scenarios of ploy and counter-ploy between the mother and the new arrival contain some impressive character work. Like with the Oshima films I watched previously, there is a nod to the idea of a more individualistic generation breaking the bonds of duty that tie them to parents, family and society more widely (which may reflect a debt to Ozu as much as a prevalent mood in the culture of the time). A town/country divide is also alluded to – the artist's model is a city girl, whereas her kidnapper is a naive country bumpkin who is unprepared for the duplicity of his captive.

The film takes a sudden gear shift away from this tight three-way drama as soon as it is (violently) resolved. The almost theatrical family struggle is bracketed by a more cinematic exploration of images as a mechanism for dampening the awesome power of physical sensation. There is some confusion here, because Masumura's portrayal of blindness in part evokes the desire of the audience to feel their way through an image and into the fantasy it portrays. But it also represents the danger of living a life without images. The sense of touch becomes obsessive, and without the distancing effect provided by seeing things, ultimately brings humanity down to the level of insects and jellyfish. The photos Aki poses for have her bound up in chains. In Michio's warehouse, where hundreds of gloopy sculptures of body parts cover the walls, those chains are removed, and sculptor and model both lose themselves in a masochistic, sexual frenzy. Desire and dissolution melt together.

The sculpture Michio creates magically crumbles as its real-life subject is mutilated and destroyed. By this stage, the sense of otherwordly fairy-tale has completely enveloped the film, and it doesn't come as a surprise. But what to make of it? Maybe Aki's spirit has become so infused with her simulacrum that she becomes a work of art in her own right – an idea rather than a person. Or perhaps it's the director passing judgement on the two mad lovers, ensuring that no work of art escapes to stand the test of time and inspire other sybarites to emulation. There are many ways to read it, which is another way of saying that this is a film that would reward repeat viewings.

2.8.15

Paradise Lost

Harold Bloom is onto something when he describes how Paradise Lost reads today like science fiction. A lot of that is down to Milton's distinctively monist cosmology. For him, Heaven and Hell are not in separate parallel dimensions. He believed that if you get in a rocket and went past the solar system you will eventually hit the pearly gates. Angels are physical space-faring beings that eat food and excrete through their pores. God is an awesomely powerful alien. Imagine a benevolent Galactus sitting at the top of a giant mountain.

And what's interesting for the purposes of the poem (which the beginning makes clear is to explain the ways of God to men) is that our universe was not created ex nihilo. Rather, God fashions it using pre-existing materials. Philip Pullman may have fixated on these world-building elements because they indicate some limit on God's jurisdiction. The poem personifies Chaos as a grumpy grandpa enduring chunks of his realm being annexed by his more powerful neighbour, who builds Hell and then our world during the course of the narrative (and presumably Heaven as well before the action starts). So what if these materials exist independently of God? What if other awesomely powerful space aliens have built their own worlds?

Since Blake and the Romantics, it has been all too easy to get carried away with Satan and presume some subconscious subversion on Milton's part. On this re-read I did my best to stick to my university training and take Milton at his word, without being seduced by Straussian attempts to read between the lines. Fact is Milton was a deeply pious man trying to explain the problem of evil – an insoluble theological puzzle if ever there was one. What was important for Milton was that God freely chose to create – to share the universe with others. Likewise he left his creation enough freedom to dissent from his overwhelmingly obvious and necessary lordship. Although foreseeing the Fall, he allows it without interfering, preferring devotion that is freely chosen rather than mandated. The link with Milton's political liberalism comes through at the end, where he condemns religious persecution and a politicisation of religion that leads to citizens performing empty rites that do not express their internal convictions. The only royalty Milton submits to is God – kings are but men, and removable if necessary.

All that said, for me there remains an impression of God as a limited figure. He creates angels and then realises he needs the Son as a bridging device that will allow them to more closely identify with him (the Son will later fulfil a similar purpose for humanity). Needless to say, the plan backfires spectacularly. Adam and Eve are created in God's image, but they (like the rebel angels) are in some respects pre-fallen. Eve's pride leaves her open to temptation, like Satan. Milton is at pains to point out that Adam has all the knowledge he could possibly ask for and yet he still eats the forbidden fruit. God does not seem to have a grip on his creation – it spins away from him. His dark materials are wayward elements. There is still a little bit of Chaos in them. We're not too far away here from the atomistic 'mechanical' view of the universe that will become ever more prevalent during the Enlightenment.