Friday, September 02, 2005

japanese, japanese

Went to see Rashomon and The Taste of Tea recently.

Rashomon. A cinematic landmark? If you say so. I liked it a lot, even though it was late and I sometimes had trouble keeping my eyes in focus. Beyond whatever technical wizardry Kurosawa pulled out of his hat, the philosophical questions he posed remain. Yes, there's the impossibility of objective truth, of a narrative detached from subjective motivations. More than that, it seems to me that Kurosawa was mainly asking about the possibility of good in a shades-of-gray world. Clearly, at the end, as the monk chooses to restore his faith in humanity, even though a baby has been abandoned, even though the person they told their story to has stolen the bundle left with the baby, even though the redeemer is also (presumably) a thief and guilty of perjury. The theme is present throughout the various accounts of the bandit/samurai/wife encounter.

The bandit makes the woman a consenting sexual partner and the samurai's death the issue of an honourable duel. The samurai makes his own death an honourable hara-kiri (by the way, did 1950s Japan really consider a medium giving evidence to a court anything but laughable? I don't know. Kurosawa films it seriously, but still...). The wife is animated by a really interesting mix of fear, guilt, courage and cunning as she tries to escape an impossible situation. I don't know if it was Kurosawa's intention to portray the subordinate place of woman generally (in 1950 certainly, and far too often today), but he does so quite clearly: she's been raped, yet must bear her husband's scorn, the bandit's inevitable disaffection (if there was any affection to begin with) and (implicit in her husband's reaction) excommunication from respectable society. The situation has changed little enough for Kurosawa's dramatisation to still be painfully contemporary.

It should also be noted that Kurosawa tricks us. We do not hear each participant's version and we are not placed in the judge's seat. Rather, we hear the wood-chopper and the monk tell us what they heard, and by now we should know how unreliable that is.

The Taste of Tea. The great thing about this film is that (almost) everything in it is absolutely normal. The nebula of plots out of which fragile storylines are pieced together is exactly what ordinary life is like. Which makes that aspect of this high-art film oddly, enchantingly artless. Even the most outlandish scenes (the instant-classic photo shoot in the train, for example) are just weird things that happen to all of us, that are tangential to our lives. The ghost stories and family secrets, the time spent sitting together in silence on the porch, basking in the setting sun, the elation of chaste yearning, the exertion of running and cycling, the inevitability of missed plot-lines (Hajime blithely cycling past the trap set by school-mates): that's life. Which makes the elements that would be surreal/absurd part of the fabric of our lives: didn't you have an equivalent to Giant Sachiko? Just about my only criticism is that it's a bit long and makes obvious too many opportunities to end, though the one it seizes is obviously the right one: 143 minutes, so make room in your calendar.

If a ghost can surface, comically but to no great astonishment, in a 2004 film, than maybe in 1950 the medieval medium was taken seriously. Drawing connections between the two films simply because they're both Japanese and I happened to see them a few days apart is precisely what both films, each in their own way, say I should do.