Saturday, 1 October 2011

Japanese Poetry

Art film.  It can suffer the same problems as lyric poetry.  Marvellous in short moments of crystallised atmosphere; but sinking into insipidity when extended into longer forms.  The intensity of a few stanzas stretched into monotony when strung out across hundreds of pages; with too many longueurs; too many dull images filling up the valley floors between the mountain peaks of the individual scintillating shot and the few extraordinary scenes.

It is the use of film as texture that marks out the art movie.  It thus lives with the ever-present danger of image overload; risking the failures of the “poetic” novel with too many inconsequential characters lost amongst too much description.  This Transient Life is no exception.  From the first moment to the last this film is dominated by its own surface; the camera shoving images between our willing eyelashes; Jissôji Akio some old train hand shovelling coal into the fire…

Some of these images are extraordinary.  Yuri’s face in close up on top of a hill; Ogino melting over a statue in his monastery, groping each and every fold of its flowing robes; two men on a train platform, billboards behind and above, and a bullet train shooting over all of them (imagine the screen divided into three horizontal sections) – one of the great cinematic images.  Then there is the diminishment of human scale: there are many scenes where the individual is dominated by the buildings; sometimes you hardly see them for their size; reducing life to abstract form and movement – a human just another tile in the cinematic mosaic.  Patterns are everything.  The faces that in long close ups look like masks later become masks.  One peeping tom becomes an echo chamber of peeping toms: Ogino goggling the two siblings in their sexual embrace; Iwashita looking at Yuri, and watched in turn by Masao; Iwashita later returning the compliment, discovering his wife in her incestuous ecstasy.

Images are everywhere.  In the monastery grounds there are thousands of stone sculptures; a whole army of pictures for us to see.  Masao absorbs the photographs of Buddhist statues, Iwashita his soft porn; his only course of study, it seems.  Very quickly we discover that Masao is an artist, his character expanding beyond the borders of his personality to colonise the film; his consciousness creating our vision.  Everything is to be seen.  We wonder for a moment: should there really be no limits to what we see?  For surely our eyes have no morality; a danger to the rest of our being…

At other times the images are simply banal: such as the long shots of trees and walls.  Can the camera bring them alive?  We will to believe, but end up lacking faith.  The problem of art film.  But we are patient, and we know the rules, we accept the weaknesses and wait for the camera to find the next cluster of brilliant shots; sure that it will come.  It does, and they do.

The camera is all over the place!  It follows Yuri as she leaves her parent’s house.  The camera meanders back and forth between the pavement, the streamlet, the walls of houses, the back of the kimono ahead of us - we are following Yuri, our eyes darting from surface to surface, from house to water to the diverging streets...  In an ordinary film everything is determined by the final destination; that surprise which waits for us impatiently at its end.  In such a film there would be an interest in what Yuri encounters on her journey, all art, even the most crude and popular, needs decoration, but it is the person she will eventually meet that would ultimately matter; only they could only satisfy our curiosity, justify the whole excursion.  The walk would be merely functional, speeding up time to race us to that final, fateful meeting.  In this film, and in these scenes, we lose sight of Yuri’s purpose, our senses swallowed up by the houses we see, the train entering our vision, the corner of the buildings that block all sight; we are losing her, and her walk’s purpose, to windows, doors and overhanging roofs that jump and skittle around us.  Our viewpoint has been changed.  We are not watching a person walking through a small village, but are following Yuri from inside the film itself; our pursuit obstructed by the objects and viewpoints that attract our eyes; absorbed in the moment, lost to this transient life.

Suddenly she is gone; and we find ourselves in the monastery grounds.  There she is!  Talking to Ogino, on the way to her brother.  It is a technique we see on a number of occasions, that sudden shift in scene and perspective, like a train entering and leaving a tunnel, suddenly emerging on the other side to create a different sense of movement - of sharp change and collage.   At other times the scenes are almost static.  Like the Buddhist prints the brother looks at obsessively; and the stone sculptures that surround the monastery - the ossified dead; and an echo of the living characters who the director turns into sculptured stone through his long close ups; enabling us to admire their beauty and a certain ugliness.  For up close nothing is forbidden to us.  We see how beauty is turned into the rough texture of a face that from afar looks like smooth skin.  And there is a technique that combines these painterly extremes within the same scene: someone at the foot of the film, still and hardly moving, contrasted with a tiny figure who leaves the picture at the top right hand corner; having turned the light on and off…  These few frames seem to expand with possibility; these contradictory movements making the canvas appear bigger, more exceptional, more alive, than the conventional talents of most of our cinematographers.

The music is obtrusive, and grates somewhat; except for the final scene where a pop song follows a mother and her young child as they amble up the endless steps to the top of the monastery’s hill.  We assume it is a complement to the visual overload: sounds and images downgrading words as conveyers of meaning and emotion.  Although even here there is contrast: the climatic set piece speeches between the smart Masao and Ogino, the slow and inhibited Buddhist monk.  It is a clash of two philosophies; two approaches to life.  It is an eruption of words; and is the meaning, we are told explicitly, of this film.

Ogino has come to believe that Masao is a devil, destroying people and the sanctity of things.  We know his reasons:

  • Sexual intercourse with his sister
  • Seducing the master’s wife
  • Encouraging the master to watch their love making
  • The master’s perversion flowing into the Kannon statue he is making for the monastery.
  • Masao’s own assistance in the work, and his own nihilist philosophy, degrading its value.  He is polluting a sacred place. 
The monk, affected by his own jealousies, has put a high moral value onto the sexual act; surrounding it with the conventional taboos that Masao does not accept.  He is impervious to them.  It is this that strikes us most: his nonchalant way with other people’s moral difficulties.  The assumption that Yuri should have an abortion, thus removing the moral stain and obstacles to future marriage, are removed at a stroke – keep the baby and marry an unsuspecting admirer, he says.  He seems to coolly manipulate people as if they were objects.  After the initial shock of incestuous sex he comforts Yuri by telling her it is normal.  He means the sexual attraction of man and woman; other relationships do not count. That whole world of human convention, its creation of moral laws and codes, of inherited, ingested, custom, does not exist for Masao.  Only his desire, his relationship to the here and now, his responsiveness to the scenes around him, is what matters.  He wants the purity of the moment; which he achieves from time to time.  Everything else he manipulates like an artist his materials.

He is detached and self-contained, which allows him to break the taboos and the moral conventions quite easily.  He lacks a feeling for others.  A prostitute, wanting some comfort, wants him to spend the night with her after they have had sex.  He doesn’t, and he tells her why when she asks: I don’t like you, for you are just a commodity.  He was no care for another’s thought or feeling; so finds it easy to transcend the traditions and habits, the emotional barricades, that both imprisons and protects the rest of us.  It is this, not the breaking of taboos (the relationship with the master’s wife is complicated because of the master’s impotence, the wife’s unsatisfied desire) that is his real immorality. He has no respect for other people; even his sensitiveness is an extension of his own ego; a heightened generator of pleasure and his own complicated emotions.  Not sharing the feelings of others he breaks them quite simply…

When they first visit the master Masao asks him a blunt and somewhat naïve question: do you have Buddhist faith?  After a long silence, and the facile interjections of his son, Takayasu, he replies: these statues live because of the life that I put into them.  The quality of the Kannon statue depends on the quality of life they receive; which the worshipper experiences when they see it.  Life is turned into art; energy into wood; years of vigorous creative activity into an immobile statue; which enlivens each believer when they visit its monastery.  Inevitably after each creation, which takes years to complete, the Master feels older, more tired, as the energy drains out of him.  Energy is everything!

Here is the battlefield between Masao and Ogino; and the film’s set piece scene.  For the monk his erstwhile friend is a sexual predator, unleashing immorality, and polluting all he touches.  His energy is destructive, because it breaks the customs society has created to maintain order.  And Ogino knows what he is talking about: in love with Yuri he has watched her have sex with her brother; an act which has turned all the temple’s statues into alluring women; his religious house into a strange brothel.  For Masao nothing exists but desire and its fulfillment. There is no heaven and there is no hell; there is only nothing beyond the satisfaction of one’s momentary urges; that unleashing of a creative energy: the master’s re-found artistic strength, the sexual act, the creation of his own baby…  “Energy is Eternal Delight”.  Yes, William Blake was eating popcorn in the seat next to me.

Of course there are casualties, the master’s son cannot deal with the complexities of desire set free; he cannot accept the death of his own father – he blames Masao for shortening it, by revitalizing the old man’s sexual instincts; he dies having intercourse with his wife.

Ogino has attached a profound meaning to sex; he has accepted the received wisdom of society’s established codes.  Masao disagrees: we are, it seems, just centers of energy, that come to fruition, crystallize, and fade out and die.  The last shot is a long one.  It is of Yuri and her young child walking up the monastery steps.  They are the first tentative steps of new life, of new energy, as it rises to the top of the hill…

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