March Madness at the New Beverly Cinema: The Whole Bloody Affair

Standing in line tonight I had an infuriating conversation.

“Yeah, I only went to Grindhouse and Kill Bill. But I came to Kill Bill yesterday and today, and I’ll be coming some other days too. I’m a huge Quentin Tarantino fan,” the young man said, nodding at me wildly, trying to assure me of his fandom.

My eyes widened. They must’ve gone fiery. “No. You. Are. Not,” I calmly informed him, “if you were a ‘huge’ fan, you would’ve been to at least a few of the other shows that he programmed this month. You would not have just attended the films that he directed.”

The young man fumbled a bit and came up with a few reasons that he couldn’t be at the other shows during the month. Work, life, and so forth. Now, I will readily admit- not everyone is as big of a cinephile as I am. Very few people are. I know most of the ones in Los Angeles, and I treasure them like they are my Holy Grail. However, this specific argument upset me.

I’m not going to blame this particular gentleman. For all I know, he could have been insanely busy, and these occasions very well could have been the only times he was able to come to the New Beverly. However, what he is bringing up is an issue that I take issue with. This month we had a very special calendar. One that was very carefully and lovingly put together by Quentin Tarantino himself, as it was his birthday month.

Now, whether or not you are a fan of Tarantino, there is one thing that you cannot deny no matter how hard you try: the man LOVES film. When someone loves film as much as he does, there is a better than average chance that in a month of programming movies, there are going to be at least a couple of great choices. In addition to this possibility, even if you dislike every film on the roster, the chances of you getting to see some of them again, in actual print format, on a big screen…? Well, I don’t think I have to tell you the likelihood of that. So, if you’re into rarities, you got that going for you too. And, for those out there who are fans (and this is what really gets my goat), this month of movies is essentially serving as a microscope onto HIS films. Each film shown this month had something in it that was directly related to his own work (aside from the pieces of his own work that he showed). For me, that was the true gift. All the kids out there complaining about the fact that Quentin hasn’t done any commentaries or doesn’t take pictures with fans or assorted other excruciatingly shallow comments missed the point of the festival: this was his commentary track, guys.

I saw a plethora of great films this month. I saw a double feature of Blume in Love and Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, with a Q&A with Quentin and Paul Mazursky himself. Not only did these films floor me, but they were perfectly programmed.

Paul Mazursky, 1969

While Bob and Carol will fill your heart with joy and hope for relationships and teach you that marriage CAN work and that human beings CAN properly communicate with one another if they wish to, Blume in Love will disturb the hell out of you, and teach you how one person’s ego can completely ruin a relationship to the point of disaster. Blume is fascinating in its dark horrific complexity where Bob and Carol is equally fascinating in its comedic intricacies.

Paul Mazursky, 1973

I got to put another notch on my Clint Eastwood belt and see Escape From Alcatraz (I have a goal which is to see every film either starring or directed by Clint Eastwood on a big screen- silly, I know, but whatever. It’s my dream, lemme have it!!) alongside this INSANE film called I Escaped From Devil’s Island. What can I really say about Devil’s Island except that any movie that has alternative male sexuality, native nymphomaniac women wielding coconuts as weapons (and no tops), a prison camp narrative, and random bits of stock footage shark sequences pretty much automatically has my heart. That movie don’t fool around, no way, no how.  And will I ever get to see such a beautiful print of that again? Nope, I seriously doubt it.

William Witney, 1973

And then, of course, there was Rod Taylor night…the night that so many of my friends were looking forward to and I was so very interested in. To be frank, I had only a peripheral knowledge of Taylor. I knew him slightly, but so many people whose opinions I valued so very highly were so very very excited about this event that I knew I had to attend. Once again, my lovely cineaste-cohorts were not mistaken. While I felt a bit embarrassed about not knowing more about the actor and yet being excited about the night, I was more excited about learning what I had been missing. See, I’m not one of those people who will fake it if I don’t know something or haven’t seen something. I will come right out and tell you, here and now, I have never seen Jaws. Go ahead, make fun if you like, but my first time seeing it will be on a big screen dammit, and I. Will. Have. A. Blast. In any case, I figured that this could only be another case of me getting to know a new person in my life! So, I strapped on my Rod Taylor MAN-boots, and went to the double of Dark of the Sun and Hell River. While I greatly preferred Dark of the Sun, Quentin’s intro to the films and his enthusiasm for Taylor was catching. I was an instantaneous fan, and a few days later at stupid o’clock in the morning, I found a Rod Taylor film playing on TCM, and I totally watched it.

Jack Cardiff, 1968

I saw so very many things this month from Tarantino’s programmed calender. I watched Richard Franklin’s Road Games (1981) along with Sydney Lumet’s The Anderson Tapes (1971). I finally got to see Stone (Sandy Harbutt, 1974) and enjoyed the living HELL out of the moonshine double-feature of White Lightning (Joseph Sargent, 1973) and Last American Hero (Lamont Johnson, 1973).

While I didn’t see everything, I saw quite a bit of what was offered. While I didn’t like everything I saw, what I liked, I loved. I think my favorite part of the whole deal was that for a month straight not only did I see my film-friends at the movies (who also seemed giddy at the chance to see rare films on the big screen) but we were all having fun. The main theme in all of these films was a kind of energy that is endemic to the Tarantino product. Each film projected held some kind of spice that Quentin has used to build his own works, and not in some “rip-off” way as I used to believe. I also do not believe it to be simply homage either, but that is due to tonight’s viewing of Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair.

I will readily admit that I was never a huge Tarantino fan. I always adored him for Rolling Thunder Pictures and was forever grateful for his help in making Wong Kar-Wai a “film household” name. I always respected his film knowledge and I always admired his passion for cinema as it seemed as gargantuan and as intense as my own. While I have often gotten made fun of over the years for my obsessive devotion and outspokenness in regards to the Seventh Art, so, too, have I heard people knock him for the very same thing. But in my world there is absolutely nothing wrong with getting seriously excited about something that you love dearly and that gives you so much joy .

In any case, suffice to say that I certainly liked his films a lot but didn’t love them. Except maybe Jackie Brown. For some reason, I really loved that one. But that’s a whole other blog entry for another time. My fandom was basically predicated primarily on his self-achieved academic success and only partially on cinematic product. Things have since changed a bit. And this is where his March programming at the New Beverly fits in.

As I moved through the month with my friends and we cheered and clapped and laughed our way through the films, I noticed other things besides the fact that there were certain running themes of moonshine, racing cars/motorcycles, Dyan Cannon, and prison escape. There was cinematic tension to be sure, but I also started recognizing elements that Tarantino had taken from these particular types of films (and sometimes exact films) and used for his own- the “spice” I mentioned earlier. Many people have seen this as a kind of “lifting” or “borrowing,” which would ultimately mean that a Quentin Tarantino film is nothing but a collage. People accuse him of being nothing but a rip-off artist. Years previous to now, I might have agreed. But after having seen many of the films being paid homage to and worked with, I see that that is not at all what Tarantino ends up creating in his own pieces. Even by placing actual set-pieces that are almost identical mirror-replicas from the original source (ie the fight scene in Kill Bill between Lucy Liu and Uma Thurman in the snow is shockingly similar to one in a film called Lady Snowblood) it does not mean that the film itself is a “rip-off.” In fact, to me, it is the exact opposite. While that scene may end up becoming part of the history of that piece, certainly, it does not cause the initial piece of cinema any harm nor does it mean that the new cinematic creation is carrying all the little bits and pieces of meaning from the “first draft.” After all, no one got angry at George Lucas for “ripping off” Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces with Star Wars, did they?

What Tarantino manages to do is something that I have written on many times- he creates a kind of cinematic palimpsest; something that only someone who truly loves the originating work can do with any modicum of success. Now whether you like/love/hate/feel indifferent towards his own films, his meticulous ability to create new and exciting media while reworking older visuals and themes is to be respected. There is indeed much within Tarantino’s film content that may indeed seem familiar. OK, fair enough. But to oversimplify the work and say that his films are mere pastiche is to underestimate the original content and downplay the effect of the newly created feature. I have many compatriots who are not fans. To each their own. My take is that, regardless of personal feelings on the content, one should be able to respect the construction. And as far as that is concerned, Tarantino just keeps getting better every film he makes.

What happened this month for his birthday celebration that was so very fabulous was that he revealed that construction- he told his New Beverly audience what goes into making a Tarantino film. This was quite a bit different to the last festival he did at the New Beverly, which was the Grindhouse Film Festival, back in 2007. That was another one that knocked my socks off. In fact, I went to so many shows, I couldn’t remember the exact number! My ex-boyfriend reminded me that I only missed 2 out of 25. It was another awesome engagement, but that one was focused on celebrating the release of the film Grindhouse (2007), thus they were all GRINDHOUSE features. This month? It was a slow build-up, and you HAD to be there. If you missed it, then you missed out.

As a cinematic architect, Quentin Tarantino built up the entire program this month in accordance with showing the grande finale which was Kill Bill: the Whole Bloody Affair. The last films I saw before I saw Kill Bill were the films contained in the triple martial arts feature: Avenging Eagle (1978), Duel of the Iron Fist (1971), and Fighting Fists of Shanghai Joe (1973). I believe that the first two films were the very first Shaw Brothers films I had ever seen in my life, although I cannot say for certain. Going to college in Santa Cruz, I have to admit that there were several times I found myself hanging out with young men who would light up a joint and toss on a kung-fu movie, while I sat there amused on the couch, drinking a beer. In any case, I was totally consumed by the ones I watched at the New Beverly. Unlike those lazy college afternoons, I was sitting in my favorite movie theater watching an incredibly colorful print and engulfed in some pretty intense storylines regarding honor, friendship and respect. Avenging Eagle was undoubtedly my favorite (and not just because the stars were super hot). This film got me due to the fact that the narrative had a wild amount of humor intermixed with the drama and the physical dynamics that were truly on a different level than anything I had seen (at least recently). It was shot in such a way that the camera work itself seemed balletic alongside the intensely beautiful martial arts.

What I remember noticing as well was that each fight told its own story. Being a noir scholar, I felt that these fight sequences were not dissimilar to the way that noir cinematographer John Alton used to talk about physical darkness in film: he said that there was more contained within and more fullness/usefulness to shadow than there was in light. Thus he used more dark. If you see any of his films, they are some of the BLACKEST films ever committed to celluloid. Now, I’m definitely an action girl. I dig me some Die Hard, some Commando, some Lethal Weapon and many more. But what action films seem to do and martial arts films do not is weave the action directly into the narrative. Martial arts films create a very significant and almost sacred space for the action to take place in. Within the films we are used to, the action simply is part and parcel of the film, just as most films are shot using light as a method of focus. Alton’s theory of using darkness to flip things around was significant. It said: read this film differently- this is not your standard film, with your standard everyday narrative. And, indeed, Alton’s films were most definitely not standard fare. Watching these Shaw Brothers films and seeing these action sequences spoke to me on that same level.

I didn’t think I was going to get a chance to see Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair, to be honest. It sold out in no time flat. I was gut deep in the middle of writing something for the Film Noir blogathon when they went on sale, and totally missed out. To be honest, I wasn’t that upset. I thought, “No big deal, so there’s gonna be s’more gore, in color, it’d be cool…but I missed my chance at a ticket. Oh well!” I got lucky. And I am so very very thankful that I did.

New Beverly Cinema, March 28, 2011

I would like to point you towards two lovely write-ups that have been done on Kill Bill, as they are smart, succinct and perfectly written. They also go into quite different arenas than I will. However, I think they deserve to be read, as they assist me in my argument on why this version of the film is so wonderful. The first, from Mr. Beaks at Ain’t it Cool News, is a beautifully composed piece that essentially posits: “Shorn of commerce-conceding baggage, turns out KILL BILL is a masterpiece after all.” The second, from Todd Gilchrist over at Cinematical, discusses all the things that were done correctly in this updated version and the things that he feels were not necessary. Both pieces say much of what I feel on the subject and are exceptionally written. In addition to those pieces, however, I have a few thoughts that I would like to share.

I like to refer to myself as a feminist film theorist. People bristle when I say that…I could care less. But I’m that chick that has a raging hard-on for horror films, action films, Giallo, pre-code and noir and finds very little that is “anti-women” in any of it. I don’t think violence inflicted upon a female in a film is, in and of itself, misogynistic. You have to really prove to me that there is misogynistic intent. Then again, there are so many films that are furiously angry towards women in such a way that it cannot be immediately understood. To me, those are the most dangerous pieces of media. Then again, it’s a very tricky area with lots of fine lines. That said, I would like to argue that Kill Bill:The Whole Bloody Affair is, by and large, one of the strongest pro-female films I have ever seen. Indeed, I feel that Tarantino himself is an incredibly pro-female director. Unlike many filmmakers who divest their female characters of all their agency (and yes, this does include some female filmmakers sometimes) Tarantino’s modus operandi is to instill as much power in his ladies as possible. Powerful examples of this (aside from basically every female character in Kill Bill) include the characters played by Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (1997),

Pam Grier as Jackie Brown...The New Beverly showed several trailers of her early films during March; films that clearly influenced the way Tarantino chose to portray women in film

Zoe Bell, Tracie Thoms and Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Death Proof (2007), and both Diane Kruger and Melanie Laurent in Inglourious Basterds (2009).

Melanie Laurent as Shosanna/Emanuelle in Inglourious Basterds, the brave and talented projectionist who, essentially, wins the war through her actions in the film

The empowerment that the women in his films receive is, by and large, more effective than the empowerment that I have seen any women receive in “chick flicks.” But then again- perhaps Kill Bill is just my kind of Chick Flick. Tarantino uses the Kung-Fu rhetoric within Kill Bill to establish and discuss the reclaiming of power within one woman, played by Uma Thurman.

Uma Thurman as The Bride/ Beatrix Kiddo

He leads us, through several different time shifts, through her multiple rebirths. He shows her powerful as a well-oiled machine and as helpless as a newborn baby and aligns us with her each time through her direct address. And just at the point in the film when she is the most powerless, when she has been stripped of all possibilities of escape and the world at large thinks she has been, literally, laid to rest…she is reborn yet again through her inner strength that she was trained to translate into outer strength. Now…seriously…how new-age-y does that sound, right? But that’s what happens. And it’s damn BLOODY. Holy CRAP.

The devastation of the Crazy 88 in The Whole Bloody Affair takes on a whole different meaning than it did before. The additional footage and the fact that it was entirely in color made the scene completely seamless. By repairing the color consistency and removing the black and white shots, the whole thing reads more like the gore-filled ballet of beauty it was intended to be.

Just as I noticed that the Duck hood ornament from Deathproof was the same one featured prominently in the trailer for Convoy showing right before Five Minutes to Live (Bill Karn, 1961), I realized that many of the elements that had been featured in the martial arts triple feature were the ones focused upon in Kill Bill. Honor, integrity, physical dexterity/ability, and (most importantly) revenge. However, placing it within western confines and the female spectrum lent it a uniquely new flavor. While Tarantino clearly used the original Kung-fu films as part of the original thematic parchment, the strong female iconography was the other main layer he put on top, in addition to the other, more aesthetic ones (the anime section, the graphic violence, etc). In total, his Kill Bill palimpsest reflected the Shaw Brothers title card that he slated at the very beginning of the picture, but also each of the additional filmic influences, from Lady Snowblood to The Searchers. Through this combinatory tactic, Quentin Tarantino created a new product that we know as Kill Bill and is best seen as Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair.

If one were to look closely at Deathproof or Inglourious Basterds or his other works, you could see the same kind of architecture. They are all cinematic palimpsests: layered parchments that reflect the past but have new stories written upon them. Cinema itself is like that, a kind of self-reflexive medium, so it is no surprise that Tarantino’s work would constant reflect and refract its own history. But his twist is that it is not simply mirroring, it is creating as well. And to me, that is impressive.

I know that what I learned this month was that I really don’t need any damn commentary for a Quentin Tarantino film, because I needed to know about Tarantino films, I learned at the New Beverly Cinema. Thanks again guys for an amazing month. See ya in the front row soon!

Controlled Testimonies: Cinema, the State, and Nationalism

Hey there! Here is my final piece for the Japanese Cinema Blogathon. I hope that you have enjoyed these pieces and perhaps donated a little money along with the your time spent reading them. I appreciate and so do the people of Japan. Thanks again to Japancinema.net and Cinema-Fanatic.com for putting this blogathon together so quickly. Great work, guys!

Once again, if you would like to donate, just click on the Totoro below, and it’ll take you to the donation site. Enjoy!

The historical relationship between cinema, the state, and nationalism is as complicated as it is far reaching. In reality, these things have always been intertwined; although, for reasons that will be made clear, this fact has not always had the greatest outcome. As the state governs the finances of any given country, and many countries’ film industries are at least partially sponsored by those monies, many a country has seen economic state involvement in their filmmaking. Film is essentially a cultural product and, as Benedict Anderson states, the cultural products of a country have always shown immense dedication to a sense of national spirit or pride[1]. Following this logic, whatever involvement the state might have had with film has also been an involvement with a strong sense of nationalism. Amongst the many examples of this, the two most explicit examples of the historical involvement of politics and national identity in cinema can be seen in the cinemas of Italy and Japan.

According to Paolo Cherci Usai, Italian film production began fairly late compared with the rest of Europe. However, after 1905, the “rate of production increased dramatically in Italy, so that for the four years preceding the First World War it took its place as one of the major powers in world cinema.”[2] From this point up until Mussolini came into power and the talkies began, the Italian national cinema was fairly free and successful, barring the periods of hefty competition that it suffered from other nations such as the US and Germany. When Mussolini and fascism got involved, the entire industry and its product altered dramatically.

As sound was being introduced, the national cinema that had previously ranged from historically-based films (such as Alberini’s La Presa di Roma, 20 Settembre 1870/The Capture of Rome, September 20, 1870 or Pastrone’s Cabiria)

Cabiria (Giovanni Pastrone, 1914)

to socially concerned literary adaptations (like Ambrosio’s Cenere/Ash, based on a book by Grazia Deledda) shifted its content as a result of being under complete state control. Although the “official sanctioning” of censorship passed in 1923 and was “honed and perfected” throughout the next few years, the committed involvement of the Fascist regime was, as Morando Morandini notes, late in arrival.[3] However, once they got involved, they effected harsh and quick changes to the entire Italian cinema culture. While previous Italian films had definitely promoted a sense of nationalism, the fascist state sought to gear Italian cinema toward its own concept of national identity, through censorship and other means.

As far as the silver screen was concerned, Mussolini’s slogan, paraphrasing Lenin, and mirroring the sentiment of the German Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, was “For us, cinema is the strongest weapon.” He advocated a strong censorship code as well as economically facilitating a complete restructuring of the Italian film industry. In 1935, the Direzione Generale per le Cinematografia was established to “co-ordinate film industry affairs.” As Ephraim Katz relates, by the onset of World War II,

The government had taken firm control of the film industry…an ingenious scheme made it illegal to show foreign films in their original language versions or subtitled: they had to be completely dubbed into Italian, a process that made it easy to substitute whole sections of dialogue, thus purging the films of any “harmful” ingredients.[4]

The vast quantity of Italian films during this era belonged to (primarily) one of two categories. The first category was the telefoni bianchi films or “white telephone” films, known as such because of the continual presence of shiny, white telephones.

"White Telephone" movies

These movies were primarily made up of  “glossy” escapist comedies or dramas, emphasizing upper class values and glamour. The second category was the propaganda film, which Morandini divides up into four types: patriotic and/or military films, films about Italy’s “African mission,” costume dramas that were a “parade of precursors of the ‘Duce,’” and anti-Bolshevik/anti-Soviet films.[5] All of the propaganda films concentrated heavily on a nationalistic spirit, proving the “superiority” of Italy and Italian culture through cinematic representation.

Whether a propaganda film or a telefoni bianchi film, it is clear that Mussolini’s influence altered cinematic product. Within these genres that either emphasized complete negation of contemporary realities or centered solely on the government’s definition of national identity, the incestuous relationship that had been forged between government, nationalism, and cultural product was obviously at the forefront. Mussolini’s censorship laws and dubbing laws made it impossible for any outside product to enter the country without being tampered with, not to mention the fact that any and all films with “questionable” content were considered illegal and therefore not allowed to be made. There was even a law that stated that for every three foreign films shown (which were “fixed”, censorship-wise), an Italian film (also “fixed” due to national cinema-creation laws) must be projected, reiterating the nationalism that Mussolini wanted to instill in his subjects. The state maintained complete control over what the Italian public was exposed to. It is not surprising then, that shortly after this period, the Neo-Realist movement came along to try to break free from governmentally imposed ideologies of national identity.

Italy, however, was not alone in being affected by the relations between cinema and state. The Japanese cinema culture had been dealing in national identity since it began, and, at approximately the same time that the Italian Neo-Realists moved in to try to shatter the hold that Fascism had on their cinematically developed national identity, a group of directors in Japan attempted to do the same thing.

Audie Bock identifies the Japanese cinema as having three significant periods: the “first golden age” in the 1930’s, the generation that “emerged from the moral chaos after the war,” and what she calls the “new mood” in the 1960’s, that spawned a “new wave.”[6] Within the first two periods, the three most common genres in the Japanese cinema were jidai-geki (period dramas),

Hibari Misora, famous Japanese Enka singer who starred in many jidai-geki.

gendai-geki (modern dramas), and, the lesser known, shomin-geki (films mainly portraying the daily life of the lower-middle class). After the war, the United States occupied Japan, outlawing any film that seemed to possess nationalistic rhetoric, thus the jidai-geki, seen as supporting the feudal system and celebrating Japanese historical events, were made illegal.

The imperialistic action taken by the US in banning the jidai-geki was not only one of the catalysts towards the creation of the Japanese New Wave, it also serves as an example of how governmental incursions (even from foreign governments) can have a serious effect on a given cultural product and its influence on national identity. The removal of the jidai-geki was a huge blow to Japan’s national image. Censoring or outlawing this genre was one of the ways that the US was able to humiliate Japan, and maintain power. Like Mussolini, by controlling the images, the US was attempting to control national identity, as well.

Not everyone took too kindly to being occupied by the US. In fact, a cadre of filmmakers objected to it and its impact on Japan with fervor, and displayed that in a set of films made in the 1960’s. In his incisive work on Japanese New Wave cinema, David Desser defines the New Wave as a movement “concerned with creating a film content and form capable of revealing the contradictions within Japanese society and with isolating the culture’s increasingly materialist values and its imperialist alliances.”[7]

Japanese poster for Ko Nakahira's film, Crazed Fruit (1956). This film is widely considered to be one of the first films in the Japanese New Wave movement.

Annette Michelson historicizes this movement for us in a very insightful manner. She addresses the political events and resultant student protests that sparked the hearts, minds, and cameras of these New Wave filmmakers into action, stating

It was in the struggle of 1959-60, against ratification and implementation of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, in both its original and revised versions, that the movement reached its culmination. Ending in defeat, the struggle, which left its mark on the Japanese polity- and upon its artistic practices-must be seen as linked to the more general movement of opposition to the United States’ Cold War policy. [8]

By identifying the movement as being located within the confines of this protest against imperialism and political policy, Michelson catalogues the location of this film movement. In doing so, we are shown the development of a new Japanese national identity, based not on past oppressions, but upon breaking free of those bonds.

Ironically, most of the Japanese New Wave filmmakers were not independent. Like the US, the Japanese film industry had a system that involved not only vertical integration, but contracted directors. Thus, most of the films that are considered “New Wave” were actually studio films! Directors like Shohei Imamura, Seijun Suzuki, and Nagisa Oshima all subverted the system from the inside out, although eventually leaving the big studios like Shochiku, to search of a more autonomous creative environment.

Shohei Imamura's Pigs and Battleships (1961) directly confronted issues having to do with the US military and the Japanese class system.

Out of all the New Wave directors, the one who exemplifies and reveals the most in regards to the movement is Nagisa Oshima. Not unlike Sergei Eisenstein, or many of the young men at Cahiers du Cinema, Oshima was not only a skilled director, but he was a frequent contributor to many film publications. Throughout his career he wrote extensively, not only about his own work and films he enjoyed, but also about the state of Japanese cinema and its relation to politics and history. His film, Night and Fog in Japan (1960), is an exquisite example, not just of a New Wave film, but also of the relationship that Japanese cinema and its “studio system” had to the political situation at the time.

Night and Fog in Japan (Nagisa Oshima, 1960)

David Desser describes Night and Fog in Japan as

One of the paradigmatic films of the Japanese New Wave Cinema…The film is explicitly about the political protests surrounding the renewal of the Security Pact and about the politics that characterized the immediate postwar era. As if to insist on the difference between the generation of the 1960s and its immediate predecessor in the postwar era, Oshima’s film juxtaposes two groups of student radicals- student Communists in 1952 and student protestors in 1960.[9]

Four days after the film was released, Shochiku, the studio Oshima was under contract to at the time, pulled Night and Fog, claiming “poor box office.” Oshima was livid. He knew that it was not the box office that was the problem. After four days? It wasn’t even given a fighting chance! In a highly passionate article in Film Criticism, Oshima addresses Shochiku, directing his protest to their “executive offices.” With “unrelenting anger,” Oshima writes,

This massacre is clearly political oppression. This is demonstrated by the film’s having been withdrawn in spite of the fact that its box-office figures were only slightly lower than usual, and by the sudden way it was withdrawn. If this isn’t political oppression, let even one theater, one independent screening group, give it one opportunity to be shown! Lend it out!…If this isn’t political oppression, what is it?[10]

Oshima continues, stating that Shochiku has “succumbed to political oppression” and that Night and Fog is a crucial film if for no other reason than the Japanese audiences have been given “foolish movies” for too long. Oshima ends the article on a determined note. He grimly states that he is not about to give up, because he believes “in the potential of the audience- that is to say, of the people. I believe they can change…I will continue to make work like this.”[11] The fortitude that Oshima shows, as well as his populist stance, exhibits a sense of strong national identity against the workings of the state. In addition, this article shows Oshima’s immense dedication to the cinema, even within a system of politics that was seeking to undo him, and disassemble the power of a movement designed specifically to stimulate a new kind of nationalism for the Japanese people.

Within the cinematic histories of Japan and Italy we can see two explicit examples of the relationships that are formed between cinema, nationalism and the state. Viewed in a larger perspective, there is a relationship between the two countries based on time period and global history. Italy was not alone in its experience. Many countries previous to and during World War II experienced periods of forced artistic submission, creating feelings of oppression that built up and exploded onto the creative world in the 1960s. Even the United States film industry was a victim of the state, dealing with the Production Code Administration and its censorship techniques. The Japanese New Wave demonstrates the next stage in this process, showing the ultimate effects of a country’s subjugation to an unwanted authoritative power.


[1] Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. New York: Verso, 1983.

[2] Usai, Paolo Cherci. “Italy: Spectacle and Melodrama.” The Oxford History of World Cinema. Ed. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

[3] Morandini, Morando. “Italy From Fascism to Neo-Realism.” The Oxford History of World Cinema. Ed. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

[4] Katz, Ephraim. “Italy.” The Film Encyclopedia, 4th ed. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001.

[5] Morandini, ibid.

[6] Bock, Audie. Japanese Film Directors. Tokyo: Kodansha, 1978.

[7] Desser, David. Eros Plus Massacre: An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.

[8] Michelson, Annette. “Introduction.” Cinema, Censorship, and the State: The Writings of Nagisa Oshima, 1956-1978. Ed. Annette Michelson. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1992.

[9] Desser, ibid.

[10] Oshima, Nagisa. Cinema, Censorship, and the State: The Writings of Nagisa Oshima, 1956-1978. Ed. Annette Michelson. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1992.

[11] Oshima, ibid.

Zombies, Interdimensional Travel and Rock’n’Roll: Pulp Fiction and Japanese Cinema

This is my second piece for the Japanese Cinema Blogathon for Tsunami and Earthquake relief. If you can, I would ask that you donate a little bit of scratch for them. They’ve given us an incredible amount of culture to enjoy. Let’s help them recover from this, ey?

So, if you’re feeling generous…Here’s the link. Just click on Totoro! He will love you forever for it. PROMISE.

***warning: there are some small spoilers within this article, however, considering these films- there is really no such thing as a spoiler. However, I feel it important to say this…just in case.***

What do zombies, vampires, cannibalism, reincarnation, motorcycles and alternative sexuality have in common?

Modern Japanese cinema and pulp fiction.

It may seem strange that a literary tradition that has defined itself as being so very singularly American could have influenced a strain of Japanese cinema that is so singularly Japanese, but it has indeed done just that. While perhaps not as quantitatively traditional as Akira Kurosawa’s samurai pictures or Yasujiru Ozu’s look at Japanese familial and marital daily life, films like Wild Zero (Tetsuro Takeuchi, 2000) and Versus (Ryuhei Kitamura, 2000) reflect the history of Japan and Japanese culture in a manner that has now become part and parcel of Japanese cinematic tradition.

Released in the same year, Wild Zero and Versus not only represent a modern, industrialized Japan, but they are also multi-layered cinematic pieces. They are perfect examples of the axiom “without your past, you cannot know your future, because your future will be a child of your past.” Quite literally, these films display the future while making constant reference to the past. While not a new feat in the world of Japanese cinema, the methodology that these films have chosen to complete this task is quite original, not to mention more than a little strange. By utilizing the tenets of pulp fiction, these films manage to convey a Japanese”ness” that, while present, does not make itself known in shouting declarations. It lets the pulp do all the shouting for them. While most people would not consider either of these films subtle by any stretch of the imagination, I contend that the revelatory facet of these films is how well they manage to deftly slip a defined Japanese national pride within the context of genre pieces. It is an admirable achievement.

The term “pulp” is used to describe a very particular media during a very specific time period. They came up during the very last dying breaths of the 19th century, and faded out in the 1950s.

Named after the paper that they were printed on (these were the cheapie mags, and thus were all printed on wood pulp), the majority of the content was based upon things that later made their way to the American screen in the form of film noir/detective films, monster movies, and science fiction.  Opening up a pulp magazine guaranteed you entrance to an entirely different universe; one where many of the things that we now know as generic conventions were just being birthed.

Aside from the stories, these magazines were all about the covers. While they were generally only on the magazines that were a little pricier than the “pulps,” the visuals were what sold that journal, and the “pulpier” the better. While pulp started out referring to the paper, due to the exploitative components of the entire genre of magazine, inside and out, pulp came to mean something more akin to the fleshy part of an orange- juicy, colorful, and unfettered by a protective skin. One look at most of the cover artistry, and this would be obvious.

The topics covered ranged from romance/love stories, detective fiction and gangster drama to science fiction elements and horror stories. Whatever the most “hot ticket” item of the day was would be the cover of the latest pulp fiction magazine. More often than not, these magazine covers depicted a beautiful girl in some kind of trouble- gangster kidnapping, alien capture, or just your run-of-the-mill terrorizing monster attack. Since with pulp fiction they were actively attempting to shove the “tell a book by its cover” principle at you, the sheer sexiness of the scantily clad, terrified female was definitely supposed to sell the book- and it did. They sold like hotcakes. By combining sex, action, violence and fear on practically every cover, these low-quality magazines became a huge piece of modern day culture. The influence of these books can be seen everywhere from comic books to the exploitation films of the 1950s and all the way to Quentin Tarantino’s film entitled pulp fiction, which had a poster that looked as though it actually were a magazine from back in the day.

Pulp Fiction (1994, Quentin Tarantino)

Pulp magazines were highly representative of America and American politics. Whether they visually expressed the strength of the military, police and/or other authority figures through the covers or told gripping tales of suspense and terror that were lightly veiled allegories to WWII or the burgeoning Cold War, there was something within both the substance and the aesthetics that made it an All-American format. While there was certainly descension and governmental criticism in many of these tales (writers like Ray Bradbury and Philip K. Dick are not well-known for blind patriotic spirit), they are as American as apple pie. Aside from comic books (a very close sibling to the pulps), if you want to signify a kid as an “all-American youngster” in a film, just shove a copy of “The Shadow” or “Amazing Stories” in his grubby paw. That’ll be your signifier, without fail.

Versus: Prisoner KSC2-303 and the Journey Through the Forrest of Resurrection

If there were a pulp cover to Ryuhei Kitamara’s Versus, it would be too cluttered to even see the title. This film is so packed from start to finish with generic elements and caricatures that it almost seems like it is too much. However, that is part of the film’s inherent charm: its utter chaos.

The first time I saw this film, I think I actually understood it better than subsequent times. When I say that this is a piece of cinematic madness that makes Tom Waits’ Renfield look like a normal upstanding guy! The short list for this film would tell you that Versus contains the following: zombies, Yakuza, intergalactic travel, reincarnation, and a cyclic conflict between two warriors that repeats itself every time the individuals involved are back in human form. The longer list would give you cannibalism, vampirism, homosexuality, murder, revenge, and escaped convicts, all interacting within a Forest of Resurrection. According to Versus logic, this forest is in Japan, and is therefore the 444th out of 666 portals that connect this world with the next. And I haven’t even told you what the film is about!

Here’s the plot: prisoner KSC2-303 has escaped and has met up with some yakuza who are supposedly going to get him out of the forest area that he is in that even the gangsters note is “weird feeling.”

Prisoner KSC2-303

But they have to wait for The Man.

The Man- doing what he does best: bloody destruction.

During this, KSC2-303 frees the girl who these men have kidnapped (“here’s the thing- I’m a feminist,” he growls at them before engaging in a nasty battle), and then total chaos ensues. It doesn’t stop for the rest of the picture. Not even a little bit.

They all discover that the dead come back to life in this area, and the prisoner takes off with the girl. The yakuza chase after him only to realize the stakes are totally against them: they’ve been using this area to bury their kills for years. Not a great thing to do in what we find out is the Forest of Resurrection! Long story short, many battles and insane action sequences later, we are informed that KSC2-303 is part of a cycle that happens every time his soul is reincarnated into a different body- he must fight for the girl and prevent The Man (a character who is basically redefining how far evil can go) from his purpose- going through the portal.

KSC2-303 versus The Man

Ramie Tateishi writes of Japanese horror films that “the notion of horror implied in this buried/forgotten past is that the remnants of yesterday may turn vengeful as a consequence of being denied, ignored, or otherwise erased.” (1) Kitamura’s use of zombies and reincarnation only serves as an anchor for this statement. The fact that the yakuza cannot get away from the men that they have murdered and that The Girl and KSC2-303 keep coming back to repeat the same act every hundred or so years, just makes it more relevant. Part of what makes this film unarguably Japanese is its reliance on the past.

Tateishi discusses the state of  what he calls “cultural nostalgia” in Japan. He writes that while there is a certain sense of wanting to reclaim the past, remember it and re-experience it, there is also a certain desire to destroy it. He notes, “this response entails a type of active destruction, insofar as it involves a wiping away of the previous foundation in order to create a new one. What is most interesting about this process is the way in which the elements that characterized the past are (re-) defined as chaotic and/or monstrous, embodying the spirit of primal irrationality that is supposed to have threatened and worked against the new, modern way of thinking.”(2)  Kitamura’s involvement of monsters on every front in addition to the severely chaotic pace of the film tends to support this statement.

It must be noted, however, that Kitamura refuses to just let it stay with Tateishi’s destruction theory. With his involvement of reincarnation, Versus seems to be a film that not only pits two warriors of the ages against each other, but the past and the future. Even the introduction and the coda of the film seem to correlate to this theory, as it begins with images of a samurai warrior and is completed with the aesthetics of a futuristic setting. In a sense, Versus is a film about the conflict that exists within Japanese culture in regards to dealing with the past and moving towards the future. While the film seems to simply give heated and meth-fueled ruminations upon how this is playing out in this “alternate Japan,” the very fact that it is like a gore-addled music video that moves lightning-fast through everything says that perhaps this is part of what is so problematic. This conflict between the two warriors seems to continue, indefinitely, which seems to indicate that until the past is properly dealt with, then this fast-moving, forward-thinking culture will never fully be able to have solid unification.

Kitamura relies on the monstrous and generic iconography to help express his concepts. This tactic is not unfamiliar to the world of pulp fiction. Most science fiction stories and monster stories weren’t really about actual aliens coming from another planet, nor were they about the monster-of-the-week. These characters served as stand-ins for other, more controversial matters. In order to express political distress or in order to profer ideas that criticized the culture at large, the writers of pulp used the “monstrous” as a narrative tool. Subsequently, these stories may be seen as purely horror/sci-fi/adventure, and yet they are active political discourse.

Kitamura’s methodology is largely the same: serious action, lots of blood, guts and monsters, science-fictional environment, all leading to a subtle deconstruction of Japan’s conflicted feelings about how to navigate through the past/present/future.

Remember the Past: Wild Zero and Interpolated Nostalgia

While Versus concentrates on the Fantastic and ideas of conflict and battle, Wild Zero is more of a reflection on pop culture and nostalgia intermingled with zombies, yakuza, flying saucers and alternative sexuality. Using the band Guitar Wolf as a jumping off point, this film takes ideas of the past and modern fears and creates a sort of cartoon out of the entire thing. In a way, where Versus (silly as it gets sometimes) is serious, Wild Zero is almost parodic. Yet, just like every joke has a bit of truth, every “goofy” thing in this film also has a side that compliments it by being romantic or victorious. To be sure, where Versus runs dark, Wild Zero runs exuberantly light.

The pulp magazine business had a heady variety of romance magazines-Rangeland Romance, Romance Round-up, Romantic Detective and many, many more. Romance was a huge component of their business.

Within these romance pulps, the theme of being "faithful" was not unusual. It was a practical concept to try to "strongly suggest," due to the fact that many of the reader's boyfriends/husbands were away at war.

Considering that they ran throughout WWII, when all the ladies were at home working for the “good of the country,” there needed to be something for teenage girls and women to read while their men were away! (3) These magazines served a function within the US. Not only did they indulge a kind of romantic world that had been going strong in Hollywood films for a long time, but they also created a kind of Cult of Feminine Desire. The sighing-at-the-drop-of-a-hat kind. However, these books gave lonely women hope for a future in a wartime society that was pretty low in the hope department and also depicted women in some fairly active roles at times (cowgirls or ranchhands, primarily). While I’m not sure if the somewhat powerful roles on the covers of the Westerns were a good trade-off for the consistent depictions of helpless women needing to be saved on the covers of the rest of the pulps, there you have it.  In any case, the romance pulps served a very effective function in keeping hope and positive thinking alive.

Wild Zero has taken the pulp aesthetic, and put an entirely new spin on it. While pulp magazines (and indeed, most cultural objects at the time) were heavily heterosexist, Wild Zero takes romance and love to an entirely different place.

Japanese theater and film history has a very unusual gender history. Kabuki, one of the most famous and highly-regarded forms of theater, has used men to play female parts since practically the beginning. While it started out with both men and women in the plays, women were banned from Kabuki in 1629, due to the suggestiveness of many of the plays being performed in tandem with the fact that most of the actresses were also available for “special services.” On the other hand, when they started to put young men in the roles originally designated for women, that didn’t seem to change the situation much. those young men (Wakashu, as they were known at the time) were also available for prostitution. And their customers? Well, let’s just say that the wakashu were equal-opportunity providers!  While the wakashu were eventually banned as well, both the ban on women and the one on young adolescent men playing women were later rescinded.Women, however,  did not re-enter the theater in an acting context until much, much later.

Men continued to play both the male and female roles in all the major types of theater in Japan: Kabuki, Kyogen, and Noh. This was such a basic part of Japanese culture, that it continued into the cinema for a good amount of  time. Movies began being made in Japan in 1897. The first time that they put a female actress before the camera was in 1911. Considering that the Japanese film industry worked fast and hard, this was a fairly long time to wait to have a female play a female role.

Wild Zero plays on this theme with brutal honesty. Our hero, Ace, finds a young girl at the gas station that he is at. He is on his way to see his favorite band, Guitar Wolf (who he has, incidentally, just become blood brothers with after helping them out of a jam back at the previous show) again, when he stops to fill up on gas. As he steps off his name-emblazoned motorcycle, his eyes meet hers. Her eyes meet his.

It is indeed love at first sight. Tetsuro Takeuchi uses this particular moment to not only emphasize the film’s ultra-sensational pop-culture aesthetic, but also to accentuate the pulpiness of the film’s general narrative. While the nostalgia that Wild Zero seeks to re-create is most definitely a strange amalgamation of 1950s Rebel Without a Cause-ness meets hyperbolic punk-rock superhero of the Repo Man variety, this particular scene is, in effect, created to inspire all the romance and “girly-gushiness” of a romance pulp.

Ace and Tobio’s relationship is a complicated one, however. The main issue? Well, as Ace finds out after saving Tobio from an onslaught of zombie attackers, she is really a highly attractive he. The idea of being in love with a transexual freaks Ace out. He runs and hides from Tobio, just as she has opened herself up to him and told him of her secret. It is at this point that the Spirit of Guitar Wolf appears to Ace, and tells him in a quite disciplinary and reprimanding way, “Love has no borders, nationalities, or genders!”

In a sense, Takeuchi’s film is referencing Japanese theater/film history and making an attempt to recall and rewrite a new one. Tobio’s transexuality not only plays on the existence of the wakashu, but decidedly challenges modern homophobia. This film has a fun and playful front, but it does recognize some extremely powerful and significant topics. In this particular instance, Ace’s adoration for Guitar Wolf makes him realize that his fear was misguided, and he spends the remainder of the film looking for Tobio in order to be reunited with the person that he loves, regardless of their gender.

Wild Zero has many things in common with Versus and I’m not referring simply to the fact that they both deal with yakuza, zombies and space travel. Takeuchi obviously utilizes the same tactics that Kitamura does by creating a hyperbolic, cartoonish and explosive narrative in order to relay issues of Japanese culture. While Versus works mostly with ideas of traditional Japanese-“ness,” Wild Zero confronts modernity and Western influence.

Wild Zero is about rock’n’roll and it is about being attacked by zombies. The band, Guitar Wolf (made up of Guitar Wolf, Bass Wolf and Drum Wolf), serves as a reminder of the past but how one might utilize the past in order to create the future. Their greaser-aesthetic and the pounding soundtrack only serve to support this idea. While songs like Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl” are not exactly rockabilly anthems, the rest of the soundtrack is filled with retro-sounding songs that have been renegotiated in order to fit a more punk-rock beat. But, as stated in the beginning of the film by Ace in response to the Captain (the corrupt, drug-dealing club manager), “Rock’n’roll is not over! Rock’n’roll never dies!” And it doesn’t. But as nostalgically rock’n’roll as Guitar Wolf look, they also drive a more modern car, Guitar Wolf’s motorcycle shoots fire out of the back, and they have (essentially) superhero powers. They are past and future, all intermingled within the rockabilly rhetoric of rock’n’roll living forever.

Wild Zero‘s penultimate concentration on science fiction, horror and heroism brings back ideas of pulp magazines. The concentration in many pulp magazines was victory over the invading force, whether that force was a robot, an alien, the opposing military side or an evil monster. Within this film, Ace must conquer his personal demons in addition to the zombies who are trying to kill him and keep him from saving Tobio. While he is engaged in this journey, the film makes continual references to the past in order to show how Ace’s eventual victory is also, in a way, a victory over what is outdated. Even the Captain, when he makes the statement “Remember the past!” to Guitar Wolf receives a very clear message of what the past means at this juncture.

In a sense, Guitar Wolf serves the same role in this movie as The Ramones did in Rock’n’Roll High School . The Ramones were there to be a band but also be a symbol. While Guitar Wolf is a much more active figure within the diegesis than The Ramones were, they serve similar functions. Not only does Guitar Wolf’s look bring up the highly Japanese addiction to the Western rock’n’roll aesthetic, but they are tour guides through the film. One thinks from the several songs that they do, that they would serve a very minor function; that they would simply be there to be the rock stars that Ace sees them as and have a simple performative role. But Takeuchi approaches it differently. Because fan culture is such a large part of Japanese culture, Wild Zero is used to celebrate that aspect of being Japanese but also deconstruct it. While Ace follows the band blindly at first, he learns that there is much to be gotten from their existence that is not received from simple hero-worship. As Ace says in his final voiceover, “From that day on, I never saw a Guitar Wolf show again…Courage and rock’n’roll: that’s what he taught me that night. Love has no boundaries, nationalities, or genders. And he was right.”

Confronting zombies, is a way of negotiating pop-cultural influences. And Wild Zero does so, no holds barred. The zombies are displayed like traditional iconic American zombie archetypes, a la George Romero. I would argue that the destruction of the zombies is analogous to the Western hold on Japanese culture. More importantly however, the existence of zombies that are so very Western in aesthetic only goes to show that there is a certain discursive element to their appearance. The characters’ conversation in regards to Night of the Living Dead seems to sustain this theory since none of them have actually seen the movie and yet they argue about it. This particular scene lays bare many features of Japanese fan culture. Add that to the character of Guitar Wolf (the entire band), and you have Takeuchi’s loud and proud declaration of Japanese pop-culture.

Look at Guitar Wolf themselves: they look like a rock’n’roll band, but they play music on their own terms. While I’m at a loss to describe exactly the kind of music that they play, it is certainly an amalgamation of noise, punk, rock and other genres alongside surrealistic lyrics. Takeuchi essentially makes the statement that, while Western pop-culture certainly informs Japanese pop-culture, it does not create it. While it may seem like a superficial thing to just take the aesthetic of one country’s media and apply it to your own, it is, in fact, more nationalistic and entirely Japanese.

As films, both Versus and Wild Zero may initially seem like wild, action-packed, fluff with acid-hallucination-like versions of plotlines (mostly in the case of Versus, but Wild Zero‘s wacky and comic-book-like story definitely counts). But, much like the science-fiction and horror pulps with their attacks on government and culture, these films have managed to sublimate ideas of Japanese culture within otherwise generic conventions. Part of this is not sublimated- I have yet to see a Western-culture film that is so densely packed with horror/scifi/romance iconography as these, and especially one that flips many of these conventions on their heads. On the whole, however, these films seem to introduce new methods of Japanese film-making that I, for one, enjoy a great deal.

(1) Tateishi, Ramie. “The Japanese Horror Film Series: Ring and Eko Eko Azarak.” Fear Without Frontiers: Horror Cinema Across the Globe. Ed. Steven Jay Schneider. Godalming, UK: FAB Press, 2003.

(2) ibid.

(3) Incidentally, WWII was also when romance comic books became extremely popular, for largely the same reasons. I would contend that one likely spawned the other, since romance pulps (and their famous covers) have a much longer history and go further back than romance comics. Of course, the irony of this is that romance comics continued and pulp magazines fell out of favor.

Eastern Ways in Western Dress: Cultural Hybridity and Subversion in Yojimbo

This post is for the Japanese Cinema Blogathon.  It was started to help assist in the earthquake & tsunami relief. If you like my post/hate my post/are bored to tears by my post, or just enjoy the damn pictures, PLEASE help. Living, as I do, in an earthquake-prone locale (Southern California), earthquakes are quite frightening, and I would like to do my part. Since I am broke as hell, all I can realistically do is what I do best: write. And so I will write for Japan, and hope that someone makes a donation off of what I’ve written or just makes a donation, period. Japan has given us some of the most incredible cinema in the entire world and will continue to do so. Let’s help out a little in appreciation, shall we?

The standard assumption about modern Japanese culture is that because it contains elements familiar in the west, perhaps even born in the west, it has become, in effect, entirely Westernized. Looking closer at Japanese culture, however, we can see that this assumption is about as ridiculous as saying that the United States has become more Chinese because a good many people prefer that cuisine. It is only an example of the kind of binary thinking that revisionist histories and neo-colonial thinking have created within the world that would necessitate this kind of compartmentalization.

Within this essay, I will be looking at an example of Japanese cinema that expresses not only the Japanese-ness noted previously, but also certain aspects of cultural hybridity and significance within Japanese culture. In order to explicate my argument, I will be using a variety of texts varying from discussions of cultural hybridity and Japanese history to Hamid Naficy’s work on accented cinema. What I hope to show in this work is the remarkable ability of one culture (Japan) to reappropriate and “poach” different themes and iconographies from another culture (United States) and feed them through their own, culturally specific machinations in order to create something wholly new and different.

The film I have chosen, Yojimbo (Akira Kurosawa, 1961) illustrates the ways in which cultural identity is asserted through the conscious blurring of boundaries and intentionally fluid interpretations of genre. By re-placing the American Western within historically important samurai contexts, Japanese cinema can be seen to be making its own cinematic space.

Yojimbo (1961), Akira Kurosawa

This claiming of cinematic environment and demand for a location of cultural expression places modern Japanese cinema squarely within the definitions of Third Cinema. As defined, Third Cinema is “an alternative cinema…a cinema of decolonization and for liberation.”[1] By retaining individual signifiers and insisting upon their own generic interpretations, these films reject cultural depreciation and celebrate ethnic identity, and expound the tenets of the Third Cinema in a very localized fashion.

In order to truly understand Japanese cinema, it is crucial to know the history of the country itself. As Teshome Gabriel writes,

Lacking this historical perspective, the film critic or theorist can only reflect on the ways in which this cinema undermines and innovates traditional practices of representation, but he/she will lose sight of the context in which the cinema operates. An equally significant component of the critical perspective that must be adopted is the recognition of the TEXT that pre-exists each new text and that binds the filmmaker to a set of values, mores, traditions and behaviors- in a word, “culture”—which is at all moments the obligatory point of departure.[2]

Thus, in order to not fall into the “trap of auteurist fallacies and ‘aesthetic’ evaluative stances,”[3] I shall give a brief historical and cultural outline of Japan. Although by no means exhaustive, I will cover the primary events that many historians feel to be the most essential and transformative, as well as those occurrences that have singular importance to my argument.

Although there was clearly a great deal that went before, the Heian period, which lasted from 794 a.d. to about 1185 a.d., is where we will begin. During this era, there was a “flowering of classical Japanese culture in new capital of Heian-kyo (Kyoto). Court aristocracy, especially women, produced a great body of literature–poetry, diaries, the novel The Tale of Genji–and made refined aesthetic sensibility their society’s hallmark.”[4]

image from the illustrated scroll, "The Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari)" - a narrative novel authored by Lady Murasaki; painted by Takayoshi in the 12th century

The cultural product that resulted from this period was significant and vital, being reproduced continually even today, within Japanese painting, cinema and television. However, although the creative vitality still existed, the relative peace was not to remain, as the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) ushered in the beginning of military rule. The significance of this was vast, as it replaced noble rulers with the samurai (warrior). Although there is recognition of artistic development during this time, the primary feature for over a century is civil war, and until approximately 1600, Japan is immersed in Sengoku Jidai (Era of the Country at War). There is no unified Japan, only a series of warlords fighting with each other. Intriguingly, this is also the period during which the Portuguese enter the Japanese islands and introduce firearms and attempt missionary work to convert the Japanese to Christianity. The Portuguese fail in their religious mission, however, and are punished severely for attempting to dilute the national culture.

In 1568, a man named Oda Nobunaga starts the process of reunifying Japan. Followed by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the foundation of modern Japan is laid. However, although these men laid down the base, it was up to another man to change the course of Japanese history forever. After he brutally beat Hideyoshi (and a few years later forced Hideyoshi’s legitimate heir to commit seppuku, ritual suicide), a man named Tokugawa Ieyasu became the Shogun, and ruled with a strict, isolationist sensibility. He cut off exchange with all countries except China and the Netherlands, expelled Portuguese missionaries and essentially shut the doors of the country for 200 years. Michael Cooper, the former editor of Monumenta Nipponica, an interdisciplinary journal on Japanese culture and society, states quite simply that, “Tokugawa wanted to clear the board of all these foreign influences which were just muddying the waters, making life more complicated.”[5] And clear the board he did. Not only was trade extremely limited, but also foreign books were outlawed, travel abroad was forbidden. For 200 years Japan was kept away from the rest of the world, and the rest of the world was kept out of Japan.

Tokugawa Ieyasu

During this period, however, the Japanese had ample time to refine and hone its multitude of cultural assets, without any infiltration or any disturbance from anyone. Literature, ritual customs, art, and theater all prospered in this period. However, this could only last for so long. Finally, around 1867, the Tokogawa shogunate was ended and this started the Meiji Period.

The Meiji Restoration (called this because power was restored to the Emperor Meiji) began the colonization of Japan by the west. It is noted that during this period, the Japanese, “like other subjugated Asian nations…were forced to sign unequal treaties with Western powers. These treaties granted the Westerners one-sided economical and legal advantages in Japan.”[6] Beyond this, significant modernization and Westernization occurred. Compulsory education, now reformed to resemble French and later German systems was implemented, as well as a European-style constitution in 1889.

1686- the Meiji emperor of Japan moves from the old capital, Kyoto, to the new capital, Tokyo

After being closed off from the rest of the world for so long, its seemed to the Japanese that they needed to hurry and “catch up,” so they sent scholars away to different countries to attempt to get what they needed in a more condensed fashion. However, after a certain period of time, and successfully winning two wars, all of this Westernization became repugnant to the Japanese, and there was a significant rise in nationalism again.

Western forms of modernity proved to be like a virus- once they entered the Japanese system they stayed. The symptoms were treatable, but the virus would always be there. On the other hand, the more this virus showed itself, the more nationalistic the country got. The West continued to colonize Japan until the end of World War II, when Japan was physically occupied by the US, and forced to alter everything from cultural specifics (such as what they could and could not put in cinematic or literary texts) to political structures (religion and state were now entirely separated). After two hundred years of relative peace and cultural unity, it took less than half that time for the West to rope Japan in, and force it into what they saw as submission.

While the historical evidence does show the “conquer” of Japan, and its subsequent punishment and demonization within much of Western culture (especially the US), what occurred within the cultural borders of Japan was something very different. With the sudden influx (initially desired, consequently abhorred) of so many different cultures after the Tokugawa period, it is difficult to conceive of Japanese culture not having been influenced in some way. However, the consolidation of nationalistic identity was so strong before the ports opened that even the influences that had become present were now filtered through a Japanese lens.

The three phases that Frantz Fanon discusses in the progression towards cultural decolonization are defined by Teshome Gabriel as

(a) The unqualified assimilation phase where the inspiration comes from without and hence results in an uncritical imitation of the colonialist culture; (b) the return to the source or the remembrance phase, a stage which marks the nostalgic lapse to childhood, to the heroic past, where legends and folklore abound; and (c) the fighting or combative phase, a stage that signifies maturation and where emancipatory self-determinism becomes an act of violence.[7]

If you follow Japanese history from the end of the Tokugawa Period forward, it seems that Fanon’s text is accurate and appropriate. Certainly the Japanese were fascinated by the outside culture that they had not experienced for over 200 years, but when that outside force sought to dominate their carefully nurtured autochthonous culture, the Japanese bristled. In fact, according to Donald Ritchie and Joseph I. Anderson, the Japanese reaction to new innovations in early cinema followed Fanon’s structure as well. In the beginning, the Japanese audiences “embraced the novelty of the moving picture with at least as much enthusiasm as other nations” but they did not, however, embrace the new cinematic methods, and neither did the directors. Now whether this was due to culturally bound aesthetic preference or not is still up for debate, but Ritchie and Anderson do note that in this aesthetic decision, the audience was “following what has become recognized as a peculiarly Japanese pattern of behavior: first the enthusiastic acceptance of a new idea, then a period of reaction against it, and finally the complete assimilation and transformation of the idea to Japanese patterns.”[8] If this is indeed the case, the Japanese have been in the process of decolonialization in the cinema for almost as long as the cinema has been around.

The cinema in Japan, though initially full of foreign product, soon began to create its own, complete with genres that celebrated nationalism and cultural history. Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino write that “real alternatives differing from those offered by the System are only possible if one of two requirements is fulfilled: making films that the System cannot assimilate and which are foreign to its needs, or making films that are directly and explicitly set out to fight the system.”[9] What if, in the presentation of these highly ethnocentric and history-centric pieces, Japan was able to do both? I maintain that Japan’s early genre cinema was not only a way of recuperating feelings of nationalism and pride in cultural identity, but also a way to fight the virus of colonialism that had already swept through the country.

Two of the most popular genres in Japanese cinema (up until they were occupied and forced to change cinematic content) were jidai-geki (historical dramas) and gendai-geki (modern dramas). Stories such as Chushingura (the tale of the forty-seven Ako ronin), which was set in the Tokugawa period and based on historical incidents, were incredibly popular. In fact, that particular story was made into a film over eighty times between the years 1907-1962![10]

Chushingura (1962)

But stories like Chushingura would not have been assimilable to an outside culture, let alone the System that Solanas and Gitano mention. And the jidai-geki made up close to half of the feature films in Japan from 1910 onwards![11] The very structure of Japanese Cinema, from its origination, prohibited its cooptation and cultural dilution. By utilizing their history and cultural signifiers within the cinematic texts, they not only denied the System but also outright thumbed their nose at it.

Donald Ritchie discusses the theory that it was Japanese theater conventions that helped teleologically maintain the cultural identity of the Japanese cinema. It is a distinct possibility that theatrical features like the benshi (a live interpreter for the silent films), or the use of men acting in women’s roles did help in the cultural preservation. However, I feel that Ritchie’s own analysis is far more perceptive. He states that though these theatrical attributes might have “somehow served to preserve the ‘Japaneseness’ of this cinema, protecting it from rapacious Hollywood, [this theory] fails to take into account the fact that…any Hollywood ‘takeover’ was a highly selective and invitational affair. If anything, it was Japanese companies that took over the ways of the California studios. It is probably safe to say that Japan has never assimilated anything that it did not want to.”(italics mine)[12] While it is of utmost consequence to recognize the agency that Ritchie mentions, it is also appropriate here to mention the concept of cultural hybridity. The nature of Japanese cinema is not one of assimilation but of translation. While Japan was a colonized nation, considerably flooded with Western ideology, they managed to hybridize the west with the east, and filter it through their own cinematic language. In their own way, they did what Francisco X. Camplis was suggesting when he connected Raza cinema to Third Cinema, stating that, for decolonization, Chicano cinema needed to “explore and discover our own sense of aesthetics. Our own language.”[13]

Japan, while maintaining sovereignty over their cultural product, also enunciates their voice through the hybridization of colonial product. This technique of cultural hybridity is a highly subversive act of decolonialization, according to Robert Stam. He writes, “these aesthetics share the jujitsu trait of turning strategic weakness into tactical strength. By appropriating an existing discourse for their own ends, they deploy the force of the dominated against the dominant.”[14]Thus, when films such as Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) re-place the Western within a samurai context, it is actually creating a site of resistance.

Although Kurosawa has been called the “most Western” of all Japanese filmmakers,[15] he himself stated that he made Western films for “today’s young Japanese.”[16] While these statements might appear to have similar meaning, it is crucially significant that Kurosawa designates who his audience is. While Western critics may be able to see familiar narrative patterns or generic properties, Kurosawa’s work is a multi-layered text that, although seeming familiar to them, is still a foreign film. A.O. Scott writes that “filmed images do not require translation; we know what we see. Narratives, of course, are another story; even when they seem to be transparent, they come encrusted with local meanings, idioms and references, some of which will inevitably be lost as they move from one audience to another.”[17] Although immediately recognizable as an example of the Western genre, Yojimbo is a perfect example one of those films that, as Scott notes, is “encrusted” with its own set of culturally-bound signifiers.Toshiro Mifune as Sanjuro Kuwabatake/ The Samurai

The story of Yojimbo takes place just after the end of the Tokugawa period. A ronin (masterless samurai) who was “once a dedicated warrior in the employ of Royalty, now finds himself with no master to serve other than his own will to survive…and no devices other than his wit and his sword”[18] Traveling in solitude, he comes upon a village and is fascinated to learn that it is in the middle of a turf war between two extremely morally corrupt clans. The ronin, Sanjuro, takes it upon himself to rid the town of these evil clans and their warlike ways by pitting them against each other, and letting them do the damage. In the end, the two clans do destroy each other, but the irony is that when they do, the town is left empty- a literal ghost town.

The two clans do battle

In his book, An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking, Hamid Naficy writes,

Accented films embody the constructedness of identity by inscribing characters who are partial, double, or split, or who perform their identities by means of the strategies already mentioned. By so engaging in the politics and poetics of identity, they cover up or manipulate their essential incompletion, fragmentation, and instability.[19]

In Yojimbo, Sanjuro’s constant changes in affiliation between the two fighting clans underscore his fractured character. Sanjuro is a wanderer. He is a man with no allegiances and no home. He has arrived in a town that is already split in two, and now, in order to unite the town (and perhaps his own identity), he must fracture himself even further by playing both sides. To go even further, whatever side he is playing is also instable because it’s a lie. David Desser describes Kurosawa as a “dialectical” filmmaker. He describes Kurosawa’s films as cinematically split, noting that Kurosawa “offers enjoyment to the audience seeking escapism and the audience seeking substance; he speaks to the Japanese and to the West. More importantly, through a dialectical combination of the two, he speaks to both about each other.”[20] If this is indeed the case, then Sanjuro’s split identification is standing in for Kurosawa’s, a self-reflexive position that, Naficy notes, is also not unusual for accented film.

Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune) and director Akira Kurasawa

In accented cinema “neither the home-seeking journey nor the homecoming journey is fully meliorating. The wandering quests, too, are often tempered by their failure to produce self-discovery or salvation.”[21] Kurosawa’s deliberately open-ended yet dark and ironic close to Yojimbo attests to that theory. After all the effort that Sanjuro put into saving the town, the only people who are left alive at the end are the coffin-maker and the tavern keeper. Sanjuro looks at them, says, “Now it’ll be quiet in this town,” turns his back and walks away, clearly continuing on with his journey. It is clear that, although he has saved the town, there was really nothing there to save. Although nihilistic, this scenario further explores Kurosawa’s identity as an accented and hybridic filmmaker and reaffirms Sanjuro’s identity as his cinematic double. With this ending, Kurosawa clearly demonstrates his own border consciousness, which “like exilic liminality, is theoretically against binarism and duality and for a third optique, which is multiperspectival and tolerant of ambiguity, ambivalence, and chaos.”[22]

Yojimbo possessed many of the standard features of the Western genre, yet also ended up revolutionizing it. I contend that Desser’s theory of Kurosawa as a dialectical filmmaker should be widened to include his position as a dialogical filmmaker as well. Yojimbo did not remain contained within Japanese borders. In 1966, director Sergio Leone remade it in Almeria, Spain. The film starred Clint Eastwood, and was released under the title Fistful of Dollars. Jim Miller writes,

Although the storyline remained much the same in Fistful as it did in Yojimbo, a man alone playing both sides against each other, the end result of Clint Eastwood’s role brought about a whole new look at the Western hero as a lone wolf, anti-hero that was totally different from characters John Wayne had played. The anti-hero had been done before and been well received…but…[this] was a Western anti-hero who had not been viewed by American moviegoers, and that made the character and the actor who played him a different kind of Western hero.[23]

While Fistful of Dollars became the first in what would be a series of films starring Clint Eastwood as Sanjuro’s American surrogate, the Man With No Name, it is integral to recognize that the American translation of Kurosawa’s work introduced a new archetype. My position is that Japanese films (even Yojimbo, which David Desser admits is “dependent on Western [genre] structures”[24]) subvert Western colonial narrative structures through their cultural filtration system. This is further proven by Miller’s discussion of the reception of Clint Eastwood’s character.

The three central roles in the Western genre are “the townspeople or agents of civilization, the savages or outlaws who threaten this first group, and the heroes who are above all ‘men in the middle,’ that is, they possess many qualities and skills of the savages, but are fundamentally committed to the townspeople.”[25] Kurosawa’s conflation of archetypes is vital and entirely intentional. By creating a climate in which the townspeople are the savages and the hero is committed to the destruction of the townspeople, he is forcing the spectator to reflect on “a world of uncertainty.”[26] In many ways, this film can be seen as analogous to the confusion brought on by Westernization. The main villain, Unosuke (the son of one of the clans), is in possession of a gun, and waves it around like a cowboy. The rest of the men are armed only with swords. The presence of this weapon, and Unosuke’s ultimate defeat, signifies that even though the Western world might have invaded Japan historically, forcing change and cultural infiltration, the basic structures of Japanese identity are strong enough to withstand that change. Essentially, Sanjuro’s abrupt but confident departure from the town signifies the triumph of the samurai, symbol of loyalty and honor, and Japanese history, over the attempt by the West to conquer the East.

In the introduction to Donald Ritchie’s book on Japanese cinema, he traces the hypothetical life of a 50-year-old man in each period of early Japanese cinematic history. From the man in 1896, who “would have been born into a feudal world where the shogun, daimyo, and samurai ruled” to the man who “would have witnessed the forced adoption of the Gregorian calendar, the emergence of a nationwide public school system, the inauguration of telephone services…and the construction of railways,” Ritchie briefly looks at what a Japanese man might have experienced. But, Ritchie says, “through it all, he…would have been told to somehow hold on to his Japaneseness. [A] slogan indicated the way: ‘Japanese Spirit and Western Culture’ (Wakon Yosai)- in that order…[and] In this manner, it was hoped, Japan might avail itself of the ways of the modern West and, at the same time, retain its ‘national entity.’”[27] Teshome Gabriel says that Third Cinema “must above all be recognized as a cinema of subversion.”[28] By working through the ideas of Wakon Yosai, the Japanese cinema is a proud and active part of Third Cinema. Through the jujitsu model of hybridity and a refusal to dilute their national identity, Japanese cinema has, and is continuing to have, the best of worlds. They truly have subverted the dominant paradigm and are only richer as a result.


[1] Gabriel, Teshome. Third Cinema in the Third World: The Aesthetics of Liberation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Research Press, 1982.

[2] Gabriel, ibid.

[3] Gabriel, ibid.

[4]Heinrich, Amy Vladeck.  Ask Asia, a K-12 Resource of the Asia Society, History of Japan, 1994. available at http://www.askasia.org/image/maps/timejape.html, Internet; accessed 16 March 2011.

[5] Michael Cooper, interviewed in “Japan: Memoirs of a Secret Empire.” Empires, narr. Richard Chamberlain, PBS, 26 May. 2004.

[6] Meiji Period (1868-1912), Periods of Japanese History, Japan Guide, 2 June 1996. available at http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2130.html, Internet; accessed 20 November, 2004.

[7] Gabriel, ibid.

[8] Anderson, Joseph I. and Donald Ritchie. The Japanese Film: Art and Industry. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982.

[9] Solanas, Fernando and Octavio Getino. “Towards a Third Cinema: Notes and Experiences for the Development of a Cinema of Liberation in the Third World.”

[10] Barrett, Gregory. Archetypes in Japanese Film: The Sociopolitical and Religious Significance of the Principal Heroes and Heroines. Cranbury: Associated University Presses, Inc, 1989.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ritchie, Donald. A Hundred Years of Japanese Film. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2001.

[13] Camplis, Francisco X. “Towards the Development of a Raza Cinema (1975)”. Chicanos and Film: Representation and Resistance. Ed. Chon Noriega. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992.

[14] Stam, Robert. “Beyond Third Cinema: the Aesthetics of Hybridity.” Rethinking Third Cinema. Ed. Anthony Guneratne and Wimal Dissanayake. New York: Routledge, 2003.

[15] Desser, David. The Samurai Films of Akira Kurosawa. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1981.

[16] Ritchie, Donald. The Films of Kurosawa. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1965.

[17] Scott, A.O. “Us & Them: What is a Foreign Movie Now?” NewYork Times Magazine, 14 November 2004, 79.

[18] Yojimbo, dir. Akira Kurosawa, perf. Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, DVD, Criterion Collection, 1999.

[19] Naficy, Hamid. An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.

[20] Desser, Ibid.

[21] Naficy, Ibid.

[22] Naficy, ibid.

[23] Miller, Jim. “Clint Eastwood: A Different Kind of Hero.” Shooting Stars: Heroes and Heroines of Western Film. Ed. Archie P. McDonald. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

[24] Desser, ibid.

[25] Kitses, Jim. “The Western: Ideology and Archetype.” Focus on the Western.Ed. Jack Nachbar. Eaglewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc, 1974.

[26] Desser, ibid.

[27]Ritchie, Donald. A Hundred Years of Japanese Film. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2001.

[28] Gabriel, ibid.

Blogging for Japan!

So for a few posts, I shall be participating in this Blogathon and there will be a link to donate money to Japan and the folks there who are going through all the tsunami/earthquake horrors. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE either donate a few bucks or repost to someone who will. They give us great fucking movies and have for many years. Let’s give Japan some relief, eh?

Let Your Seoul Glow: My Journey to Korean Cinema

This will be my last and final piece for the Korean Blogathon. It has been a pleasure to participate in it, and I can’t wait to watch a slew of the films that have been written about by everyone else! Thanks to everyone that put this together and to Martin for designing such a lovely page to showcase our writing! It’s been fantastic. So, in conclusion…..

I live in a city where everyone is obsessed with the motion picture industry. If you aren’t pitching a script or don’t have one on the backburner, then you’re on your way to a meeting or to meet with your agent. If not that, then you are location-scouting or bitching about budgets or other production issues. Yes, that’s right folks, I live in the Devil’s Playground- Hollywood, CA. I was born and raised here, and it’s what I know. Is it always what I enjoy? Not by a longshot. But it’s where I’m from, for better or for worse.

In any case, try as I might, I was unable to get away from the cinema. It was like the siren’s call to me, although not in the same way as everyone else. While I fought anything and everything cinematic up until college (I was going to be a social worker, dammit!), I was unable to distance myself from the silver screen any longer, and got several degrees in it- but all in theoretical writing. Not as useful as building construction per se, but I loved it, and still do.

Within my film education, I encountered several kinds of Asian cinemas from my professors- but never Korean cinema. So I became very fond of Japanese cinema, and Hong Kong cinema and different Chinese filmmakers. From there, it was all up to me. So, being a rather exploratory person, I dove in head-first and didn’t come up for air for a very, very, very long time.

The first filmmaker I fell for was Wong Kar-Wai. His films came highly recommended by a friend, and that friend could not have been more correct. They were beautiful, sensual, graceful and smart. Some were action-type films and still contained the afore-mentioned descriptions. Wong Kar-Wai sold me, and got me involved.

About the same time, I developed a keen fascination with the Japanese New Wave and wondered intensely why no one knew more about it or was writing more about it. From there, I found Kenji Mizoguchi and became deeply obsessed with his work as well. To compliment the highly sexualized New Wave and the historical-yet-feminist-tinged-Mizoguchi, I was then introduced to my first slightly Korean figure- Takashi Miike. While born in Japan, he was from an area that was dominated by Korean immigrants. In addition, his father was actually born in Seoul. Miike had multiple Korean connections, a fact I was not aware of until a little while ago. He was still, however, a Japanese filmmaker, more or less, and so I added him to my bundle. However, his style added to the New Wave and Mizoguchi really made the kettle start to boil.

Miike has been described as “controversial and prolific” (both of which he is) and his films have been described as being “perverse and extremely violent” and also “dramatic and family-friendly.” Watching Miike’s work made me interested in seeing what else the Asian world had to offer.

Takashi Miike's film "The Happiness of the Katakuris" (2001) was a remake of the Korean film "The Quiet Family" (1998) by Kim Ji-woon

It was not until much later that I became aware of Korean cinema and what it had to offer, but I have to say that the previous films mentioned were the items that whetted my appetite. J-horror and all of its various offerings was starting to get a little repetitous, tragically, and I was not always a fan of how perverse Miike could get. Or at least not his methodologies. It wasn’t my bag, baby.To quote Huey Lewis and the News, I was in the cinematic mindset of: “I want a new drug.”

And lucky for me, I found one: Korean cinema. While doing my research and writing for this blogathon, I remembered that the first Korean film I ever saw was Tell Me Something (1999). To be honest, I have to congratulate Chang Yoon-hyun. While I may forget things about movies I saw last week or last month, I saw this movie over 10 years ago and it still stuck with me. I have thought about the film over the last few years, not remembering the title, but vaguely sure of the storyline and definitely remembering the imagery, and always thinking: “Damn. I need to find that movie and see it again.” So thanks, Chang Yoon-hyun. I’ll be making that purchase soon.

"Tell Me Something" really told me something about Korean cinema...

Continuing onwards, what I have discovered about this country’s cinema is that it has the unique ability to pull the rug out from under me in every single movie I have seen. Just when I think I know what’s going on, I don’t. I can’t think of another country that does that as well as Korea. Really, sometimes the content itself pulls the rug out from under the viewers feet. Look at Oldboy!

But that is what I like the most about Korean cinema and why I cannot stop watching it. My good friend (and fabulous writer) Dennis Cozzalio just recently pointed me in the way of a Korean cinema in my city. The CGV. It looks great. Some American films with Korean subtitles and recent Korean films with English subtitles. It’s got a little cafe, apparently, and I happen to know that it is surrounded by really great (and inexpensive) local food establishments. I’m sold, hook, line and sinker.

When I saw Mother (2009) and Memories of Murder (2003) on a double bill at the New Beverly Cinema, all I could think was that Good Suspense Films had returned to the silver screen. Alfred Hitchcock would be proud. I could just imagine him, sitting in the back, smirking away. I was astounded at how good they were.

July 6, 2010- New Beverly Cinema, Los Angeles, CA

Every time I see a new piece of Korean filmmaking I am blown away. I’ve seen Kim Ji-woon’s I Saw The Devil twice now, and I finally feel like I may be ready to write something coherent on it. It’s a pretty fascinating piece to me. I think what I am seeing come out of Korea is what Japan has not been able to do for me. There is something unexpected, every time. And living in a land where I have come to call almost everything in every film I see, it is a more than welcome facet to a film.

In addition, the humor makes me happy as a bird in springtime. It is so damn dark. This is a characteristic that I find endearing. Here in the US we find cynicism and sadism enjoyable, especially in our “dark” humor. I find that pathetic and super unfunny. I’m not a fan of Todd Solondz. I think he intentionally tortures his audience. But the Korean sense of humor comes from a pretty nasty history anyway, so why not laugh? If one looks at the random aside comments that are made in certain films, or the things that we are asked to find funny…not everyone I’ve been in the theater with has laughed, but I think that they are being played for fun. Almost all of the films that are serious films have a great deal of humor in them.

I know I’m new. I know I haven’t seen everything. But you know what? I’m really damn lucky.Now I get to go and watch all these other films that all the other folks in the blogathon have written about (and ones I’ve found while I’ve been researching for my writing) for the first time. And to me, watching a film you’re really excited about for the first time is like kissing someone you are really attracted to for the first time: you can only do it once, and it is destined to be amazing, even if it might seem a little sloppy at first.

I’m glad that I started out with my background in the Japanese New Wave and ghost stories, John Woo, Wong Kar-Wai, Miike, and all that. It was great stuff. There are aspects within those cinemas (especially horror-wise) that are shared. However, I am mostly glad to have seen those films/those cinemas so that I can appreciate  the Korean cinema on its own terms.

Mama Loves Her Baby and Daddy Loves You Too: Maternal Instincts and The Host

Welcome to edition #3 of the 2011 Korean Blogathon! Hope you enjoy reading this one as much as I enjoy writing it and possibly as much as I enjoyed watching it. I have a feeling this one is gonna be extra fun to do!

It is probably no accident that Bong Joon-ho’s latest entry into the Korean cinema canon is entitled Mother and centers around a maternal figure. His films seem to contain a great deal of discussion about the female body if not direct reference to the birthing figure, as in the 2009 film. While that may seem like an odd thing to say about a filmmaker who has made crime films, comedies and a monster movie, his oeuvre can actually back him up.This director is able to use subtext as skillfully as a trained circus performer, making it look just as natural and easy, and thumbs his nose at convention when he feels it is unnecessary. Like many of his peers, he involves Korean politics and culture, but unlike them he features them within a context of entertainment, humor and realism. To a certain extent, he is the Marvel Comics to everyone else’s DC. (1)

While we can see Memories of Murder(2003) as a dissection of the feminine form (it was a film about a serial killer, after all), and Mother(2009) as a study of true maternal dedication, what could we say of a monster movie?  How could the The Host(2006) possibly tie in to the themes presented in those other two films?

When I sat down to watch this film, I was in a very strange space. I had just gotten home from seeing a midnight showing of Battle: LA (2011) and I had just gone through Every. Single. Facebook post/Twitter and news item about the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. I was wondering what was coming next. Really, in the last few months we’ve had random groups of birds falling from the sky, school of fish washing up on the shore…maybe this was it. Is it time? Is this our last hoorah? I mean, really folks. I saw the footage of those cars and that ocean. Unfathomable. So I figured the hell with it. Perhaps it was time for me to watch my copy of The Host (2006). We seem to be going down anyways. Let’s see how the Koreans think we’re gonna get it. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Bong Joon-ho ended up doing something with this that no other Big Ass Monster Movie That Engages In Serious Politics (although- don’t they all?) has ever done for me before: it soothed me. Now I wasn’t entirely calm, mind you, there were bits and pieces that upset me (in a good way), but my reaction to The Host felt very similar, at times, to my reaction to Frankenstein (1931), one of my all-time favorite films. In a sense, The Host is not only a monster movie, but it is also a tragedy- of maternal proportions.

US Foreign Policy hasn’t always been the nicest kid in the world. In fact, I would venture to say that if every country’s Foreign Policy were represented by the kids in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory , the US would probably be Veruca Salt. With this in mind, it is important to look at the relationship that the US and Korea have had for a little over 60 years. This relationship had a great deal of bearing on The Host, and indeed is what helped make it what one Korean critic called “Korea’s first legitimate anti-American film.”(2) While Bong Joon-ho shrugs off the harshness of that title, he in no way denies it. Frankly, looking at history, I might have considered putting that description on the back of the DVD…if it wouldn’t’ve hurt sales. But that’s why I don’t make movies or try to sell them, right?

So let’s talk Korea, 1945. It was a good year, a grand year, a…not really. In fact, realistically, Korea hadn’t been in charge of their own country since before the Japanese took them over a couple decades earlier. Was there hope? Sure. World War II was done. There was hope for many things. But not for Korea. It is said that General John R. Hodge stated, just before arriving with his troops to peaceably “help” Korea post-Japanese annexation, “Korea is an enemy of the United States and any Korean who harms either Japanese or American personnel will be punished by death.” This attitude was not a singular one, nor was it one that dissipated. In fact, it was this general sentiment that led to the development of the 38th Parallel/Division of Korea, the United States Army Military Government in Korea, and the Korean War itself.

One can argue a plethora of motivations as to why the US, in 1945, went into a trusteeship with the Soviet Union for Korea in at the Potsdam Conference; a conference that not a single Korean figure of import was at. However, I would argue that one of the most salient reasons is what I call the Mommy Knows Best Syndrome. Those present- the US, the UK, and the Soviets- decided that since Korea hadn’t been making their own decisions since their diplomatic sovereignty had been removed by the Japanese in 1905, why let them start now? In any case, they didn’t. They moved right in, established themselves against the wishes of every Korean citizen, and divided up the country into North and South. If you hadn’t noticed, the lines ain’t changed much in the last few years.

But that wasn’t enough for the US. Every mommy needs to take care of her baby, right? And in a trusteeship (according to the United Nations, the biggest parent of ’em all), we had to make certain that the decompression from the Japanese annexation went smoothly. While the Soviets had their way with the North, General Hodges came in with the 24th Corps of the US 10th Army and proceeded to set up a military government in South Korea. Just what they needed, right? After all the time of living under Japanese subjugation, it must have been of great assistance to have the United States Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK, for short!) come in to a country that they knew little to nothing about (language, culture, people…you name it!) and try to run things. I’m sure that they were sensitive and caring and probably listened to the citizens’ needs, right? Yeah.

It was no secret that the US was interested in staying in South Korea indefinitely. While South Korea had more independence than it had previously had under Japan, that wasn’t saying much. Politically, they still had to get all of their friends approved by Mom. And if she didn’t like them, well…they didn’t get to come over and play. This was a big problem. 1948 came around, and finally a governmental candidate came around who the USAMGIK found acceptable. This one would, essentially, make nice with the US and not cause too much of a fuss. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Syngman Rhee, the first President of  South Korea had lived in the US long enough to have gotten a BA from George Washington University, Harvard University and a PhD from Princeton. He had a gold star from Mama!

The US left the Korean peninsula in 1948, as did the Soviets. However, they just. Couldn’t. Stay. Away. In 1950, the Korean War began, a lovely addition to the Cold War and a proxy war due to the fact that everybody’s parents had come home early to “protect” them- North Korea was being supported by the Soviets and South Korea had US backing…again. Ultimately, after the Korean War, the US never came home. In fact, there is still a military presence there, as part of the Armistice that was agreed upon.

There were other conflicts as well, such as the Korean DMZ Conflict, which was essentially another set of conflicts between North and South Korea…and the US. Additionally, in order to make themselves even more indispensable, the US supplied a hefty amount of economic support needed to rebuild Southern Korea. You might say that Mom paid the bail for the items that she had shoplifted and put in your purse. You’re still left with a record. And South Korea, although it is far better today than it has been in times previous, has scars that simply will not go away thanks to a foreign power that simply will not go away, either.

So what does all of this have to do with The Host? Well, everything really. While it may seem like just another monster movie, at first, this film is based on a true event that Bong Joon-ho states occurred in 2000 when a Korean mortician who was working for the US military poured formaldehyde down the drain. According to Green Korea United,

On February 9th, in the US Eighth Army Mortuary Building 5498, 20 boxes of toxic fluids used for embalming, formaldehyde and methanol, were dumped without any detoxification in a drain.  Mr. Albert L. McFarland GS-11, DAC, after issuing an order to pour these fluids down the drain, was refused by his subordinate on the basis that the drain led to the Han River, and that the chemicals are known to cause cancer and birth defects.  Mr. McFarland swore at the soldier, and ordered him to execute the order. Although Mr. McFarland, the subdirector of the mortuary, was required to send the boxes to the American base in Okinawa, the boxes were covered in dust, and he ordered the chemicals to be poured down the drain. (3)

While American military websites have insisted that this is all environmentalist hogwash, the case was actually brought to the attention of the military by the soldier who got quite sick after dumping the contaminants. While the military still insisted that the formaldehyde-dumping was nothing to be alarmed by, it was reported to Green Korea United, the environmental website, who simply wish formal apologies to the Korean people and for the US Military to be more responsible and prevent things like this from happening in the future.

Bong Joon-ho’s film opens with two men, a Korean and an American- arguing about discarding some chemicals down a drain- in English. When I first put the film on, I thought that my DVD player had misfunctioned, and the subtitles were not showing up. Then I realized the linguistic choice was intentional. The young Korean man protests greatly against pouring the chemicals down the drain, as they would go straight into the Han River, one of the largest rivers in South Korea. The older American man says, condescendingly, “The Han River is very broad. Let’s try to be broad-minded about this, shall we?” The young man’s face falls, and the chemicals get poured down the drain.

"Broadminded foreign policy"

Cut to the Han River. We see a few things happen around the river that seem, well…a little “fishy” (please don’t kill me! It was there!). We meet two friendly fisherman, fishing in the river. One of them finds something in his cup! It escapes! And that is the last we hear of this oddity from them. They continue to fish. We witness a man about to commit suicide from jumping off a bridge. Before he does, he notices something…odd in the water below him. Not that this keeps him from sending himself plummeting to his death, but it’s still there.

These are what I call her little “peek-a-boo”s. Every monster movie has ’em. They are the “Oh, oh, oh, ALMOST saw it!!!” parts of the film before the Big Reveal. In standard Monster Movie Logic, this takes up most of the film. But she’s a different kind of Monster. This is a different kind of Monster Movie.

Next, we meet the Park family. Initially, we meet the seemingly lazy and slovenly Gang-du.

Gang-du, as played by a Bong Joon-ho favorite, Song Kang-ho

As a friend of mine said, “The Host is great because it is the only monster movie that he knows of with a mentally challenged father in the main role.” While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he’s mentally challenged, Gang-du is definitely different. He works at his father’s food stand right beside the Han River. His Dad, Hee-bong, spends most of his time watching out for his son and the shop as well as for his granddaughter (Gang-du’s child), Hyun-seo. We also find out at this juncture that Gung-du has a sister who is a highly-ranked professional archer (Nam-joo), and a brother who went to college and used to be a student protester but is now on the drunker end of the spectrum (Nam-il).

The folks that we physically meet at this point are Gang-du, Hee-bong, and Hyun-seo, and we see how their life is interacting with customers by the riverfront.  At this point we are about 12 or so minutes into the film. Within the next 2 1/2 minutes, the entire riverfront goes to hell, and we SEE THE MONSTER. Now, if that didn’t get you the first time, Bong Joon-ho’s The Host hasn’t even been running for 15 minutes and we already know what our monster looks like. And not just a “peek-a-boo” anymore, either. She’s out there, running around, in the bright and gorgeous sunlight, gobbling up people like they were Milk-Duds.Run, Gang-du, run!

As this is happening, not only does Bong Joon-ho insert an American who (vacationing or living within Korea- it is unclear) tries his best to “take charge” and “save the day” in a way that only an American Superhero Type would do (he gets brutally devoured- it’s pretty awesome), but Gang-du, while running away from the gigantic monster, finds Hyun-seo, grabs her hand, and then loses her…to the monster. Instead of maintaining his grasp on her hand, he falls while running due to his clumsiness, and his panicked state leads him to grab the next small hand about- another little girl. He looks back as he is running only to see Hyun-seo be snatched up by the monster and carried off across the Han River.

This is now the crux of the film and where everything changes. At this point the Korean authorities move in, and are seeming to quarantines and investigate the area, while Gang-du and his father move off to the site of mourning with everyone else, where they are joined by Nam-joo and Nam-il. However, once there, everyone is then also moved off-site and quarantined for having been within range of the monster and the river. Gang-du volunteers the information that the monster’s blood hit him in the face, making him an extra special candidate for study.

Once the government representatives who are dressed quite smartly in their bio-hazard suits have moved the Park family to the hospital and informed them that Gang-du will be tested on in the morning, the real story begins. Everyone goes to sleep, and Gang-du, against doctor’s order’s, fishes out a can of squid from the pocket of one of his belongings (they informed him not to eat before his tests the next day). As he is eating, his phone rings. It is Hyun-seo. She is alive, and stuck in a dark place but she is not certain where. And then the phone dies.

About this film, Bong Joon-ho says,

It’s easy to lose your sense of humanity making any film, not just monster films… With The Host, what kept this film human was the quality of the characters and the acting. In monster films you typically have a scientific reason for why the monster came to be and what their weaknesses are. Most of the story focuses on the monster. But in this film the monster comes out right at the beginning and then it’s mainly about the family, what each character is about, the details of their stories. I think that’s why the film retains a human aspect. If you want to be really picky about it, I don’t think you can say The Host is a monster movie. It’s more of a kidnapping movie. The kidnapper just happens to be a creature. It’s all about the family coming together and what they overcome. (4)

While I wholeheartedly agree with all those points, it is essential to look at this “kidnapping” feature of the film  as well as the monster-on-immediate-display feature in order to reveal one of the more prominent aspects of the film: the maternal features of the monster, which serve as her “humanity.”  This asset underscores the kind of pathos that many monsters throughout horror history have had (Frankenstein, King Kong, Dr. Jekyll, etc) and also serves as an integral cultural symbol. Multiple times within the film there are references to older Korean customs that are dying out and are being used by/taught to younger generations. There are discussions about the “generations” and the “generation gap.” What the monster and the kidnapping serve to do, in a way, is show that Korean youth is still relevant and important; they are not forgotten about, the way that Hee-bong admits that he forgot about Gang-du, when he was a child.

After the phone call is when we get a chance to see where Hyun-seo has ended up. She is in some kind of chasm, filled with dead bodies. But Hyun-seo does not remain stuck down there. The remainder of the film is spent trying desperately to locate her, by her family. Meanwhile, other (dead) adult bodies are dropped periodically, as the creature comes back. During the “drops,” Hyun-seo lays on the floor, still, pretending to be dead. Each time the bodies drop, Hyun-seo checks for signs of life, to no avail. Until there is another child. It seems that the monster, who drops these bodies, has the capacity for tenderness, whatever her version of that is. Upon dropping off the latest child and his older brother (who doesn’t make it), she was shown to possibly be giving Hyun-seo a gentle lick upon arrival. It is an ambiguous lick, but there, nonetheless. Paired with later actions of the creature, I read it as maternal interest in Hyun-seo.

While Hyun-seo deals with culture on the inside, the Park family deals with politics on the outside (although, really, they are inherently mingled). Gang-du and company have to beg, borrow and steal to get out of the hospital. Not only do they have to bribe Korean officials to look the other way but Hee-bong has to spend his life savings (he is insanely overcharged) to get a car, guns and other items just to escape properly. When asked about this kind of cynical portrayal of Korean society, Bong Joon-ho said simply, “The funny thing is that Korean audiences don’t receive it cynically or seriously but as comedy. Bribery and corruption are both very familiar but also very funny. Audiences don’t feel anger or grief. They accept this as a realistic picture of life. Koreans don’t react defensively, witnessing corruption for them is as natural as breathing.” (5) In addition to this, when the escape does not pan out, and Gang-du is recaptured, it is indeed the American military scientist (in tandem with a young Korean to translate) who pretends to be kind to Gang-du simply in order to capitalize on his misfortune. He reveals to his colleague that there really was no virus, and therefore all of the work that they are doing on Gang-du is for naught. Of course, the American military scientist underestimates Gang-du and his comprehension of English (naw, no throwbacks to history there at all, eh?). Even though Gang-du is unable to stop the totally unnecessary major brain surgery from taking place, he is able to escape and go after his daughter.

Meanwhile, back in the lair, Hyun-seo and the little boy are attempting to plan their getaway. But the creature has returned before they can fully enact it. This is where the creature truly reveals her function as a mothering character. Hyun-seo has strung up a line of clothing as a “rope” but cannot reach it. She must run up on the sleeping creature’s back in order to get to it. She tells the little boy to wait, and she runs up the creatures back, when all of a sudden…she is stopped, caught, and very gently returned to the ground.

Within the commentary for The Host, Bong Joon-ho says that he hates the conventions of the monster movie. Thusly, there was no “big reveal” and the monster never hid in shade of night. The monster’s gentle treatment of Hyun-seo, and even the small licks and cleaning procedures seem to go against everything we “know” of a monster. These things all not only depart from generic models but lead us to a more alternate way of looking at what or who this being is.

Our creature was created out of the US military’s thoughtless tainting of Korean soil. This is not the first time that US foreign intervention has created massive disturbance within this country. However, this is the first time that the country has gotten ample opportunity to fight back. And yet the offensive seems to be to protect its young. The adult figures that the creature meets generally meet a dark fate, and yet the children, the new generation, seem to get saved. While the monster will eventually meet the same end that all monsters in monster movies meet, the maternal instinct that she has must get recognized.

Children have traditionally played an important role in progressing culture. To spend an entire film searching for a child is clearly sending a message. The Host is an incredibly message-laden film that tells us that the future is important, not just within the narrative but perhaps for historic and cultural purposes. Bong Joon-ho’s film is not heavy-handed, even if it is seen as “anti-American” and blatantly political. Every which way you look there is a reference to the way that US foreign policy deconstructed a country that never wanted to be split up in the first place and was always looking to have a voice and never allowed one. Gang-du’s angry cries of “Fuck you, no one ever listens to me,” could simply be Korea’s cries for the last 60 years. However, all of this is deftly contained within the context of a good ol’ monster movie, and really- what else are monster movies for?

(1) DC comics located their heroes/villains in made up locations that were analogous to large cities (ie Metropolis or Gotham City), while Marvel located their heroes/villains in the actual locations.

(2) unidentified Korean critic quoted in Lee, Kevin B. “The Han River Horror Show: An Interview with Bong Joon-ho.” Translated by Ina Park and Mina Park, Cineaste, Vol. 32 No.2 (Spring 2007). Accessed 3/11/2011. http://www.cineaste.com/articles/an-interview-with-bong-joon-ho.htm

(3)  “The Eighth US Army Division Discharged Toxic Fluid (Formaldehyde) into the Han-River.” Green Korea United. Accessed 3/11/2011. http://green-korea.tistory.com/74

(4) “The Han River Horror Show: An Interview with Bong Joon-ho.” Interview with Kevin B. Lee. Trans. Ina Park and Mina Park. Cineaste 32:2 (Spring 2007). http://www.cineaste.com/articles/an-interview-with-bong-joon-ho.htm./. Accessed on 3/12/2011.

(5) ibid.