Sunday, 21 August 2011

Night & Fog in Japan

An unsteady zoom shot finds us at the centre of a wedding reception. The opening scene, and the focal point of the action throughout the film, is a peculiarly joyless union of two former student activists, Nozawa and Reiko. Instead of being a celebratory occasion, it turns into a moral inquisition as various wedding guests and associates come forward to tell their story. In so doing, they gradually poison the atmosphere with accusations of political and personal infidelity.

Oshima's contempt for the ineffectiveness, as well as the hypocritical, bourgeois tendencies of the leftist Zengakuren movement is plain to see. As the history of Nozawa's faction unfolds, revealed through a series of flashbacks, their collective will is shown to be fatally undermined by internal power struggles. The demonstration against the US-Japan AMPO Treaty, a key battleground in the Zengakuren struggle, is lost. Characters like Nakayama, the group's vainglorious and didactic leader, are more interested in feathering their own nests than putting into practice the Marxist ideology they espouse.

In some ways, this austere, serious film about the generation gap (symbolized by Reiko, Nozawa and their professor at the bridal table) and the failure of matrimony and fraternity to bridge that gap, could be viewed as a triumph for Oshima; it was daring for its time, not just politically but also in a filmic sense - the expressionistic use of shots and overt theatricality are bold choices. But they are also bad choices, to my mind. The unrelenting dryness of the subject matter, the dark lighting, spatial constraints and humourlessness of everyone involved induces a grim ennui (it took me 4 separate attempts to get through it!). Likewise, the staginess of the production doesn't lend itself naturally to film. The AMPO demonstration, for instance, is given a symbolic treatment - pitching the set into darkness and spotlighting key protagonists in static postures of insurrection, like paintings of war in a dark, silent gallery. Your imagination is supposed to fill in the blanks. It's the kind of thing that works well on stage, but transplanted to the screen, just seems lifeless and self-consciously stylized.

In truth, this is a film that has become stratified in time. Taken out of the context of its very specific historical locus, stripped of its political relevance, it serves only to document a darkly remembered undercurrent of Japanese post-war history. On a narrative and dramatic level, it simply fails to engage.

Dir. Nagisha Oshima, 1960

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Black Rose Mansion

Out of the blue, mysterious chanteuse Ryuko starts frequenting Kyohei's private club, Black Rose Mansion, serenading its members (mostly middle-aged men) with romantic ballads. The whys are wherefores are never made clear but quickly she takes on an almost mythical aspect in the club, captivating everyone who lays eyes on her - not least of all Kyohei himself. In a grand romantic gesture, Kyohei renovates the mansion for Ryuko to live in in a bid to ensnare her affections. His plans are laid to waste though by the return of his prodigal son Wataru who, predictably, also falls in love with Ryuko. She duly betrays Kyohei for his son and ultimately Wataru is forced to choose between her and his father. Throughout the film, Ryuko carries a black rose, which she says will turn red when she finds her true love. As Kyohei predicts, it finally turns red through Wataru's spilt blood.

As I'm finding to be the case quite consistently with Fukasaku, the plot is essentially hokum and the narrative chock full of clunky devices - most obviously the eponymous black rose in this case - but all is not lost. Whilst still infused with the same 60s psychedelia, it doesn't feel as painfully modish as Blackmail Is My Life. It basically boils down a rather old-fashioned cautionary tale about the dangers of acceding to impetuosity; of confusing lust with love. And at its heart is the classic femme fatale in the shape of Ryuko. Except that she's not exactly a classic: in fact, a big dollop of suspended desbelief is required to buy into the idea that she is some kind of irresistable temptress. Her looks are unconventional to say the least, and her singing voice is deeper than an Arctic borehole. So it wasn't a complete shock to learn that she was played by famous female impersonator of the day, Akihiro Miwa. A strange casting choice, but in a way it just adds to the film's already unreal air - a curious melange of Buñuel, The Mod Squad and Hammer Horror, at its hammiest.

There's some ropey dialogue to be sure, and the visual effects leave a bit to be desired - the red poster paint makes another appearance, along with a proliferation of rather heavy-handed flashbacks, shot through a lurid scarlet filter - but I can't say I had a bad old time.

Dir. Kinji Fukasaku, 1969