What’s Your Function in Life?–#2

The next film on my list needs…well, a little bit of introduction. It may be the only film on the list that readers haven’t heard of and/or seen, and it is very likely to be the strangest of the bunch. While the whole film doesn’t take place at Christmas time, enough of it does that when I first saw it, I immediately put it on my list of “Favorite Christmas Movies.”

It is a Japanese film and the filmmaker is primarily known for directing television commercials. In addition, he is also quite well-known for his visually dynamic and surreal style. I was first introduced to this film at an all-night film fest, and was stunned into submissive awe, excitement and jaw-dropped silence (if all three of those can go together, which, in this case, they did).  I attempted to search it out, and found that it was quite difficult to find. I was lucky enough to get a copy and can now watch it at my leisure (which I do).

This film, while definitely not for everyone, is a special film. I love it and am extremely happy that I own it and can add it to the films I will watch to celebrate Chanukkamas/Christmukkah.

2) Survive Style 5+ (Gen Sekiguchi, 2004)

The first thing to note about this film is that it is a pop-culture aesthete’s wet dream. Then again, it is a Japanese film. It is all shades of pinks, blues, greens, and neon…everything. In fact, one could even say the soundtrack is neon. Watching Survive Style 5+ is like mainlining immense amounts of acid and ecstasy to your eyeballs and narrative analysis zones all at once. In other words, this movie is a trip, man.

The inimitable Sonny Chiba

But I love it.  Not only does it have Vinnie Jones of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels fame, but it also features Sonny Chiba (has been in everything), Tadanobu Asano (most famous for playing Kakihara in Ichi the Killer but also has a reasonable roster), and Jai West (in Love Exposure, another crazy film I adore, and played Young Ioki on the original 21 Jump Street TV show).

Survive Style 5+ : a movie that is unlike anything you have ever seen or will see again

The film doesn’t take place entirely at Christmas time, nor is Christmas the MAIN theme to the film (if there is just *one*), but in my humble assessment, it is during the “Christmas act” of the film where all of the different storylines take their final, pivotal turns. The film itself functions as a type of interlocking anthology piece of sorts, and when each storyline reaches the Christmas chapter, they peak, like they were on the drugs guiding the creation of this piece of enthusiastically adrenalized coloring-book madness.

There are tons of films that have “famous Christmas scenes.” As I’ve been watching all the multitudes of Xmas specials on television, most of them have been quoting Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincent Minnelli, 1944) as being first on that list. While there is no denying Minnelli or Garland, I have to say that the sheer visual explosivity of Survive Style 5+ mixed with just the right amount of sweetness works for me on a level that I treasure dearly. Yes, I admit to having very different proclivities when it comes to my holiday cinema treats, but I dare anyone to watch the Kobayashi family storyline and not become attached to their struggles within the narrative, surreal or not.

While Survival Style 5+ may not be Capra, it is certainly memorable, and I do not say that in any kind of backhanded compliment-type manner. While it may not initially come across this way, this film has wonderfully redemptive qualities, and (for me) makes perfect holiday viewing. The lessons that the characters learn within the sequence of events are not dissimilar from many within a standard Christmas special: love, family, loyalty, friendship, gameshows, psychotically-charged existential hitmen…ok, so maybe not every Christmas special involves the last two, but my point still stands.

Viva Friends!

If you get a chance to check out this film, I highly recommend you do so. But before you do, I would suggest that you ask yourself what your function is in life. You might need to know. Just in case.

We Are Nobodies: 13 Assassins and the Elegance of Miike

Elegance of Miike?

The hell you say.

The man who gave us Ichi The Killer? The man who shocked people’s delicate sensibilities with Visitor Q? No, surely no. You must have the wrong guy. You mean to say that he made a film that gestured with grace and style towards the works of Kurosawa? Are you…saying that a Takashi Miike film was…restrained?

Yes. That is precisely what I am saying.

While other posters exist for this film, I actually prefer this one. It seems to express the duality of Miike perfectly.

Is that what I liked about it. YES. Is that what I loved about it YES. Did I miss all the usual “Miike-isms”? No, because they were absolutely there, you just had to look a little harder for some of them. They were studied, intentional, and entirely present. Yet, during the course of the film, I came to believe that  it was entirely possible that some of the things that we have come to take for granted as being part-and-parcel of a Miike film have been subsumed into this film under the guise of narrative and character development.

13 Assassins is not just a good film, it is a wise film that pays homage to Japanese cinema on the whole and yet also makes raging commentary on it and it is not in a soft voice. Miike can be accused

of many things but having a soft directorial presence on-screen is not one of them. People know who the man is and not only that…they know what he is capable of. In a sense, Miike is like one of the characters within his own film- but not the reserved, trained, samurai variety. No. Miike is the loose cannon-character.

The character of Makino almost seems to serve as Miike's surrogate within the film, commenting on various situation in a beautifully challenging manner.

He is the one who, when you see him on-screen, your first thought (if you’ve seen a couple of samurai epics from the “good old days” of Japanese cinema) is: Ah hah! This would be the Toshiro Mifune role!

Now, due to my stubborn refusal to give away spoilers, I don’t want to go into too much heavy detail on the actual narrative. Details-wise, this film involves samurais, the shogunate of feudal Japan(in particular the Edo period), and a future leader of the shogunate who is relentless in his sadism.

Lord Naritsugu- historically based upon Matsudaira Narakoto, the 25th son of the 11th shogunate, Tokogawa Ienari. While I'm only assuming the same about Matsudaira, I can tell you this much for certain: Lord Naritsugu is *not* the guy you wanna bring home to dinner.

Here is the story’s bottom-line: Dear awesome samurai guys, please get rid of the raging prick who will be taking over the country in a few years. Regardless of the fact that we’re in a “time of peace” and your samurai-status has been rendered practically irrelevant, we know you can do a good job…or at least die trying? OKTHXBYE.

So you have your standard underdog samurai picture. However, this film is far from standard. While it may rely on the well-worn path of honor and the Samurai Way, it deals in issues that are much further reaching. Upon viewing 13 Assassins, I was honestly blown away due to the shattering number of things that it tackles without being preachy or hitting you over the head.

While Miike can place politics in his films, they are, many times, too balls-out crazy to grab them on the first (or fifth) go around. And, unlike many of my good friends, I’m not always in the mood to watch and/or study Miike. Thus I will openly admit: no, I have not looked for political insignias in Dead or Alive and I have not done a full psychoanalytic and historical perspective run-through of Visitor Q. I honestly have no doubt that the stuff is there. But it is much more…well…subtle. Due to the high-shock and/or hyperbolically violent nature of his films, any substantial messages seem to be the subtle aspects in a non-subtle text. But that’s Miike. He’s not a stupid man.

Not only does is this film displayed in a manner that is breath-takingly gorgeous and intensely well-constructed, it is a high-adrenaline ballet that will leave you gasping for air, and prying your hands from the seats. Tension, drama, EPIC (and I’m not using that word lightly) action, all condensed into a historically-based Japanese samurai film.

While ideas of war and peace are investigated, there are other concepts that are even more fascinating. Miike uses the rhetoric of the samurai film to investigate the state of Japanese cinema today. Wildgrounds.com quotes Miike as saying that “Maybe older japanese films have much more energy and are just much more interesting than films that are currently being made now (…) When it comes to making movies, we [Japanese people] sort of lost a lot of things over the years and we had a feeling that if we try to get back to, try to make movies the way they used to make them, we might learn, gain something.” In a sense, what Miike does through various character compositions and structures is rip apart modern Japanese cinema and let us know exactly what he thinks. In order to do this in the most effective manner, he chose to use the samurai film to do so.

Miike is not a fan of standard/traditional cinematic tropes, so one might find it curious for him to do a picture like 13 Assassins. But looked upon more closely, this seemingly traditional film plays more like Yojimbo with a machine gun. Not literally, of course, but in the content. Every choice that Miike makes in this film is careful and considered, meticulous and studied. However, he seems to be attacking more than just the fictional enemy in the narrative.

What I found the most attractive in this film is that while he celebrated the Old Guard, he ripped it apart. 13 Assassins felt to me like a type of Trojan Horse of Japanese cinema. While Miike certainly wanted to bring a reverential treatment to those that went before him, he also wished to inspire critical thought. But this is being done by working from inside the system.

The juxtaposition of older and younger samurai within the picture and their individual experiences underscores this intention quite nicely. In what I see as one of the most seminal sequences, some of the elders look on as the younger men deal with their first kills. The pregnant pause that follows this action is telling. Not only does it speak of the older men’s high level of experience and familiarity with the act of killing (they are clearly more seasoned professionals at the task) but it also illuminates the position and mentality of the younger men. While these young men may be good at what they do and brave as hell, they have not yet had to, as they say, “withstand the slings and arrows” of Real Action. Facing the reality of what they were about to engage in was a very important feature of this film. It is almost as though Miike was making a kind of commentary about older/younger filmmakers. Both are strong assets to the film community as a whole and bring essential components to the “film battle.” But if we follow Miike logic, the younger filmmakers take some influence and what they need from the elders but will still do it their own way and manage to kick the living crap out of the enemy, no matter how scared they are to do so.

For Miike, film is not a light, airy subject. It is not simple entertainment to be tossed off in the manner of an overblown comedy or a fluffy melodrama. His take on cinema is not unlike that of the Russians in the late 1920’s. What I’m about to say may seem far-fetched, but work with me a little. If you know your history, Russia in this period was a slightly crazy place to be. They were moving and shifting a whole lotta stuff around, and one of the things that they had to make some decisions on was the film industry,  a very popular part of Russian culture. The politicians were no dummies. They knew what they

Anatoly Lunacharsky, art critic, journalist, all-around pretty neat guy!

had. But how to figure this out? What was crucial for them was the technological aspect that was coming into play alongside their incessant politics. They realized that with sound pictures, they could get the message across with more fervor and, to be frank, easier. In addition, Anatoly Lunacharsky, who, as the People’s Commissar for Enlightment from 1917 until his forced resignment (yes, due to the very same lovely politics) in 1929, recognized one of the other major Catch-22 issues about film that we still deal with today. He stated, “Cinema is an industry, and, what is more, a popular industry.” (1)

Additionally, at this same time, in March of 1928, part of the Soviet desire to get things “together” with the cinematic world was to construct some kind of set of rules and regulations (they were into that kinda thing- then again, seeing the Hayes Code in the USA a few years later, seems like we were too…). So a bunch of folks, including industry professionals such as Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov and Vsevolod Pudovkin, went to the Party Conference on Cinema and tried to participate. They were able to do so…but only to an extent. Due to the Soviet way of thinking about the film industry, it became a full-on policed machine, commercialized and propagandized mercilessly.

One of the key sentiments put forth within the statements that evolved from this Conference was what cinema was really for and what it really did. While the Soviet mentality geared it towards political intent, the facts, as stated, were not entirely incorrect. As Richard Taylor writes, quoting some of the Soviet documentation, “Party leadership had been determined to develop a Soviet cinema that was ‘the most powerful weapon for the deepening of the class-consciousness of the workers, for the political re-education of all the non-proletarian strata of the population and above all the peasantry.'” Cinema for the Soviet Union was a weapon. But it wasn’t just the Soviets who then realized this. They were just some of the first to put two and two together. Say what you like about communism and the rest of it, but they were no fools when it came to media practice.

So I’m sure you’re wondering at this point what any of this has to do with Takashi Miike and/or 13 Assassins. I argue that it all does, in some funny way. Perhaps not down to political detail, but on a larger scale. See, Miike is down with Lunacharsky’s struggle. He gets it. To date, Miike has directed 83 films in 20 years. That’s off the charts. He knows he can make a bit of change making movies, so he does. But he also has the mentality that was sculpted from all of the different filmic and political practitioners of Soviet Russia: film is a weapon. And he can wield it any way he wants. And he does exactly that.

When asked about making the audience happy, Miike was quoted as saying that he doesn’t even think about it. He said, “there’s no way for me to know. To try to think of what makes for entertainment is a very Japanese thing. The people who think like this are old-fashioned. They think of the audience as a mass, but in fact every person in the audience is different. So entertainment for everyone doesn’t exist…” (2) He also added that even as hard as he works, it is that hard work that motivates him. It doesn’t necessarily wear him out. He sees it differently. He states,

We have to change the negative things into positive. In today’s Japanese film industry we always say we don’t have enough budget, that people don’t go to see the films. But we can think of it in a positive way, meaning that if audiences don’t go to the cinema we can make any movie we want. After all, no matter what kind of movie you make it’s never a hit, so we can make a really bold, daring movie. There are many talented actors and crew, but many Japanese movies aren’t interesting. Many films are made with the image of what a Japanese film should be like. Some films venture outside those expectations a little bit, but I feel we should break them. (3)

Miike’s philosophies on the audience and the Japanese film industry are the essence of 13 Assassins and why it is so beautiful and why it works. He went into the film to do a remake, an undergoing he had taken on before with Happiness of the Katakuris (and possibly more- I will openly admit I have not seen all 83 things the man has directed!), but did it his way. What was his way? Traditionally bound, with a heavy Miike visual lens and narrative cradle.

I refuse to use the word “mature” here (it’s condescending- that phrase “his most mature work to date” makes me want to throw things). But I’ve seen it used in other reviews and I wish that people could see what his actual point in creating this masterpiece was. There is no maturity here. He didn’t all of a sudden go from a kid to a grown-up due to a FILM. And frankly, Audition is a quite lovely film, Katakuris is incredibly skilled and Ichi‘s chaos requires a very defined sensibility. I don’t think we’ll be seeing a mess of costume dramas out of Miike anytime soon. THANK GOD.

See, 13 Assassins requires that you look a little closer. This film has teeth- and they’re sharp. Like the Soviet Party in the late 1920’s, Miike has a cinematic gun and he knows how to use it.  This film’s careful deliberation was like a slow-acting poison that was more of a commentary on the pretentiousness of modern “art” cinema or any overdone/overpriced cinematic exploits than anything else. I have a feeling he’s not a fan. While there was clearly money spent on this film, none of it was wasted. Which makes me even more glad that there’s a guy like Miike around to show us how to do things right and properly, while everyone else is failing so miserably.

If you can see this film on the big screen PLEASE DO. It is way more affective. Laugh, hoot, holler, JUMP UP AND DOWN IN YOUR SEAT!! I know I did. In fact, I will probably go see it again just to get that same adrenaline rush. 13 Assassins– the samurai movie that provides your body with the same endorphin-like energy as heavy exercise and sexual attraction. Yeah, I liked this movie.

(1) Anatoly Lunacharsky as quoted in Taylor, Richard. “A ‘Cinema for the Millions’: Soviet Social Realism and Film Comedy.” Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 18, No. 3.  Historians and Movies: The State of the Art: Part 1 (Jul. 1983). p439-461.

(2) Interview with Takashi Miike, Midnight Eye.com. http://www.midnighteye.com/interviews/takashi_miike.shtml

(3) Interview with Takashi Miike, Midnight Eye.com. http://www.midnighteye.com/interviews/takashi_miike.shtml

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.