Thursday, 14 August 2014

Uncomfortable Company

Too often I criticise the critics.  A couple of punches, a head butt; one carefully placed kick to the goolies, as they approach the postbox to mail their manuscript, usually has the effect I desire.  Take that old fella… Down he goes, his sentences sprawled on the floor around him; “Grahame Greene as an early English example of transgendered martyrology” spreading across the pavement like vomit.  As I stamp on “the aporia generated by an upper class whore whose infidelity becomes a fundamentalist religion” he pleads for his research grants, the three children at public school, the wife who works for the Macmillan Trust…  Suddenly I see myself for the hooligan I am.  I walk away, pleading youthful exuberance and too much literary testosterone.  I crumple up rationality, and throw logic into the nearest dustbin.

The BFI Notes are usually a good place on which to sharpen my polemical wits.  But today they disappoint me.  For this one is good and useful, the only disagreement I can find is that of emphasis - Alexander Jacoby believes the film is about the need to revivify a tradition, while I am not so sure.  In my view A Woman’s Uphill Slope is an advertisement for a new kind of Japanese capitalism: the heroine inventing an original synthesis through fusing the dynamism of the modern - America - with the refined craft of the old -  in Kyoto.  Such a fusion could, it is true, lead to the revivification of a tradition, but it can also produce something completely new - a 20th century company.

This difference in emphasis is reflected in our choice of scenes.  Jacoby picks out a scene at the pottery workshop, where an old master is producing avant-garde designs - because, he says, they are popular and sell.  For Jacoby this studio is where, “the boundaries between tradition and modernity are becoming less clear-cut.”  He then describes an urban landscape whose mixture of the old and the modern appears to support his argument.  I don’t doubt there is some truth to this view.  But…  Yes.  Always there is a but.  Let’s add an exclamation mark to make it more emphatic: But! this film is more polemical than this actually quite anodyne conclusion.  Let us cogitate for a moment on Japanese history: [               ].  You need some more moments?  [               ].  Ah!  Now you see….  In Japan the modern was actually an attack on a culture believed too primitive to compete with the West.  Such an attack containing within itself the glamour of the modern, which being new is more alive and attractive; it is beautiful in its own right;1 the reason why Akie is the film’s heroine - she represents the new spirit of the age.  In contrast the potter only uses the forms of avant-garde art to sell what are effectively traditional pots.

Akie is a completely different type of person.  The 20th century is flowing through her veins.  In spirit she is an American, who slowly learns to become Japanese - there is something odd and counterintuitive (at least to Westerners) about this movie.  When she does in fact become fully naturalised - in the moonlight scene described in my last piece -, she rebels against it, and returns to her independent self; an essentially modern woman, who nevertheless has acquired some of Japan’s traditional ways of thought.  

This (cultural) imbalance is important because it is her (stronger) American spirit that triumphs, and which significantly changes the business that she has inherited.  Her first inclination is to junk it.  But once educated into its beautiful secrets she makes it into a thoroughly modern company - completely new sweets are created, and they are sold using the most up-to-date of commercial practices.  That is: Akie has both revivified the tradition and created a 20th century firm.  Contrast this with the potter: he merely copies the superficial aspects of Western art.  Compared to our heroine he looks like a dilettante.

This film was made three years before Night Butterflies, which is more sceptical of modern life; seen now as something of a threat through its dehumanising commercialism that may include a reference to imperial submission – are the Kyoto takeovers (by Tokyo firms) a reference to America?  In A Woman’s Uphill Slope modernity is viewed much more positively.  The United States is beautiful, and modern life can make us both sweet and successful.

Jacoby also notes what for me is the most extraordinary aspect of the movie: the independence of Akie.  It is a wonderful and powerful feminist statement; and suggests something of the essence of all traditional societies when forced to confront the 20th century.  In such patriarchal and conservative cultures women were often the catalysts of change; no more so than in the 1950s, with the explosion of consumer goods that were designed mostly for them – as daughters, wives and mothers.   A modern life is a woman’s life, or so it appears to be.

 1. This is how Jacoby describes “the lantern” scene referred to in my last post:

“…the set is sharply illuminated by red and blue light filtering in from outside.  Akie pulls back the curtain to reveal a flashing neon-lit concrete tower beside the wooden building which contains the factory…  [T]he employment of this kind of visual rhetoric in a generally naturalistic film suggests the symbolic importance of the scene, which emphasises that tradition and modernity now co-exist in Kyoto.”

What this description misses is the beauty of the modern when it is refracted through a dilapidated past.  This scene is not about coexistence but about the triumph of a modern spirit over a past that appears to have reached its sell-by-date.  Later this idea is modified by the craft of the master sweet-maker.  It is one example of over a century of argument within Japan about the value of modernity and tradition; an argument that has often been decisively won by the advocates of Western practices and styles of life; because it is only through copying the West’s techniques that the country could remain independent.

Unconvinced?  Ok.  Note the timing of the scene: it was after looking at these lights that Akie decides to turn the business over to textiles.  It is only later when she sees the master sweet-maker at work that she decides to produce the old products.

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