Friday, January 31, 2014

The Socio-Political Issues in Throne of Blood

In the years following WWII, the American military sought to eradicate all trace of Japanese military tradition and, around the same time, tested atomic bombs in the Pacific Ocean. This testing resulted in the deaths of several Japanese fishermen. The Japanese grew in their resentment. A fundamental quality of the Japanese military tradition was the use of bushido, or the samurai code of ethics. Furthermore, this code was and still is an important factor in Japanese culture so by attempting to remove this from Japan, the American military was, in effect, attempting to eradicate a core element of Japanese culture. Kurosawa's Throne of Blood mirrors this socio-political conflict thematically and technically; in doing so it examines the destructive nature of mankind as a whole.

The proximity of Japanese culture and military within Bushido warrants a thorough examination. Bushido is a philosophy composed of several other philosophies including Taoism, Buddhism, and Shintoism. One side effect of having multiple source philosophies is the presence of paradoxes. One such example is that Bushido stresses loyalty and duty to one's family or overlord while also demanding one's responsibility to make morally “right” decisions (Parker, 510). What is the cultural significance of these paradoxes? In the years leading up to WWII, the emphasis on loyalty and duty was exploited for militaristic ends. Kurosawa's attitude towards Bushido seemed to be ambivalent though he disagreed with certain aspects such as its regimentation and brutality (Parker, 509). In Throne of Blood, Kurosawa examines the significance of the breakdown of this code in addition to examining the code's paradoxes.
Kurosawa is often called the 'most Western' of Japanese directors but considers himself “the most Japanese” of directors (Parker, 508). In the case of Throne of Blood, Western influences appear on several levels; strong wind is reminiscent of American Westerns while the story is based on Shakespeare's MacBeth. However, in his adaptation, Kurosawa utilizes Western influences within a Japanese framework (Noh theater) to focus on the collapse of the samurai code, a phenomenon that is distinctly Japanese.

There is a stylistic contrast within the film. Kurosawa draws heavily from the traditional Noh theater, saying that it, “is the real heart, the core of all Japanese drama” (Richie and Mellen, 117). The actors' make-up is reminiscent of the masks worn by Noh actors. The cinematography is largely static which transforms locations (rooms in the Cobweb castle, or the evil spirit's forest hut) into stages. The characters are in primarily wide shots making them appear as if they are actors on a stage. A common thread in these scenes is the emphasis on the individual or socio-political issues. When Washizu (Mifune) and his wife (Yamada) enact the plan to kill his daimyo, for example, the style is very Noh: the murder occurs off screen, we watch Lady Washizu whose make-up resembles the shakumi mask, and hear the nohkan (the Noh flute). Their murderous plot is a rejection of the Bushido's call for both loyalty and for moral decisions. However, the decision to commit murder wasn't reached by Mifune strictly out of a desire for power. His wife pointed out his natural, and understandable, fears. She says that if Miki (Kubo) goes to the daimyo and explains the foretelling of the evil witch, the daimyo would probably kill Washizu. It is a realistic possibility which motivates Washizu to kill just as much out of self-preservation as it is a hunger for power.

One important quality of Noh theater is the emphasis on the universality of its subject matter. That is, the audience isn't supposed to relate to the characters lest we “...lose spiritual transcendence” (Parker, 512). As Parker also notes, such a style has received harsh criticism from some Shakespearean critics who find the result distancing “emotionally unsatisfactory” (512). This indicates the level to which Kurosawa has adapted the play by making it distinctly Japanese. By presenting a classically Japanese social issue, the breakdown of Bushido, within the context of Noh theatre, Throne of Blood resonates with the issues of identity felt by post-WWII Japan. The film ponders the physical and metaphysical implications of rejecting the supposed social order.

Sequences which involve nature or the supernatural mark a departure from Noh to something more dynamic. Tracking shots are the most characteristic detail. As Washizu and Miki ride through the cobweb forest, for example, the camera smoothly follows their movements. This movement coupled with the spider-web like branches between the actors and the camera causes the audience to relate to the forest (Parker, 515). By forcing us to relate to the forest, we lose the impartiality of Noh to be entangled in the cinematography and action on screen. This suggests another level of conflict between film and Noh theater.

This film is noted as being a completely cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare's play and yet it draws heavily on Japanese theater. The line “all our yesterday's have lighted fools / The way to dusty death,” is altered to Washizu shouting “Fool,” while looking at his predecessor's regalia. It is an image which contains the same message but in a visual way. At the same time, Throne of Blood utilizes the telephoto lens which flattens and shortens a shot. It alters “the perspective to the two-dimensional, surface orientation traditional in Japanese art” (Parker, 513).

The stylistic difference develops the conflict between nature and society which Parker discusses (513). Nature, he explains, is presented in completely negative fashion. The prologue and epilogue, which frame the story as a flashback, establish a tone of desolation. Nature will undermine and outlast society and that any attempts of mankind to prove otherwise will only result in destruction. The army of trees shot in the film's finale is a key moment of nature's characterization. The army is surrounded in fog revealing only the tops of the trees. It is shot in slow motion with a telephoto lens which fills the frame with a cascade of branches. The music is menacing. It is a short image but it projects the sense of dread felt by Washizu. To emphasize the eventual erosion of society, Washizu's death comes at the hands of his own men, within his own castle.

If we consider the fact that, although Throne of Blood is considered completely cinematic, it is influenced heavily by other styles, this alters the initial conflict-based notion about the film as a whole. It isn't “nature vs society,” but “society functioning with respect to nature” or “societies building and crumbling through the passage of time.” In terms of cinematography, Kurosawa presents Noh theater using the language of film to capitalize on qualities of each style. We are forced to address the film from a disconnected perspective but still have the visual complexity provided by film. If we consider the larger cultural issues of post-WWII Japan, we will see a similar situation. Western military versus Japanese military fails to address the complexity of the situation. The Japanese were recovering from WWII while being influenced to adjust their culture by way of the removal of Bushido, a code which only years previously been utilized to cause untold destruction.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The new RoboCop PSA is kinda off...


Here is a link to the PSA

La Cage Aux Folles

Directed by Edouard Molinaro. Written by Jean Poiret, Francis Veber, Edouard Molinaro, and Marcello Danon. Starring Ugo Tognazzi (Renato Baldi) and Michel Serrault (Albin Mougeotte).

Bottom line: If you've seen The Birdcage, you've already seen this movie.

La Cage Aux Folles is about a gay couple living in St. Tropez. The one, Albin (Serrault) is the star of a drag club called La Cage Aux Folles and, the other, Renato (Tognazzi), is the owner of the club. The movie begins on an ordinary, busy night at the club; Albin is throwing a hilarious hissy fit in the most flamboyant way possible, much to the disapproval of his partner, before going on stage. While Albin is on stage, Renato's son arrives and announces his engagement. His fiancee's parents are staunchly conservative; her father, for example, is the vice president of “The Party for Moral Order.” Unfortunately, the future in-laws are coming to St. Tropez so the son requests that Renato and Albin change their appearance to something more conservative.

Granted, it doesn't sound like that much of a story but the execution is splendid (and I'm not usually a comedy person). Albin's antics are almost over-the-top but it serves as a contrast between the more tempered Renato. A big factor in determining whether or not you'd like La Cage Aux Folles is if you like awkward humor. The dinner scene between the two sets of parents is a barrage of cringe-worthy situations.

I found it fascinating how closely this version matches it's American remake, The Birdcage, starring Nathan Lane and Robin Williams. I'd call it more of a translation than a remake, quite frankly; situations, scenes, lines, and even actions are replicated. There are understandable changes (like casting) which do have a surprising impact on the tone of the story, particularly the actor who plays the son.

In The Birdcage, Dan Futterman plays Renato's son. His narrow features and cool demeanor come across as, if anything, sinister. Whenever I saw him, I expected to hear something cold and self-absorbed which detracted from the humor of the movie. La Cage Aux Folles' Remi Laurent, however, comes across as innocent. He's like a “dreamy” version of Eric (Topher Grace) from The 70's Show. The lighting on Laurent is soft which gives him aura. His request still self-serving but his intentions feel different. He is so transfixed on marrying this young woman that he is blinded to the fact that his request is unfair. He doesn't want to scare his future in-laws aways. In The Birdcage without that lighting and without that softness, the son comes across as a jerk.

Overall, I found La Cage Aux Folles to be a really funny movie. I would definitely recommend it, especially if you haven't seen The Birdcage. However, if you have seen The Birdcage, I must inquire as to whether or not you liked it. If you didn't, steer clear of this one. If you did, then by all means, see La Cage Aux Folles. I thought La Cage Aux Folles' ending was funnier and you might find it interesting to see the similarities and [the few] differences.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Secret World of Arreitty (Kari-gurashi no Arietti)

Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi. Written by Mary Norton (novel), Hayao Miyazaki, and Keiko Niwa.

Bottom line: Beautiful animated movie that I would highly recommend to anyone especially with children.

The Secret World of Arreitty is based on the novel The Borrowers by Mary Norton. You might be familiar with the 1997 adaptation The Borrowers starring John Goodman and Jim Broadbent. Jim Broadbent is one Harry Potter professor who tells Tom Riddle about that secret spell. Speaking of Harry Potter, do you know else is in that movie? Draco Malfoy! Or, rather, Tom Felton. Anyway, The Secret World of Arrietty is the Japanese version of that movie. It is made by, Studio Gibli, the same people who did Spirited Away (among other really great movies).

The story is about these two-inch-tall people called Borrowers. They are called Borrowers because they borrow what they need from humans to survive. They only take what would be easily missed (like sugar or a tissue) so as to remain hidden from the human world. Yeah, I know what you are thinking, “They are not borrowing. They are stealing.” The Thieves doesn't quite have the same children's movie ring to it.

Two of the things I love about Miyazaki films is that there is a strong female lead and a unique good vs evil theme. In an interview, he explains that in life there isn't really “good vs. evil” in the classical sense, but rather, that evil exists within us all. Haru, the maid, is the closest thing we have to a villain. She calls the Borrowers thieves and wants to capture them. She doesn't want to kill or harm them. She just wants to catch them. In the 1997 film, the driving force is that the family of Borrowers have to escape the villainous exterminator (Goodman). This threat of death doesn't exist in The Secret World of Arreitty. Primarily, it is a coming of age story; Arreitty learns the importance of family and friendship.

This is an incredibly beautiful movie. The animation is light and relaxing. In the future, I suspect that I will put it on in the background just so I can look up from time to time and see it. There is a shot early in the movie of a snarling cat which chases after Arrietty. Even though it is a ferocious image, it still has a happy and fun feel. The music by C├ęcile Corbel, with harp and acoustic guitar, matches the tone of the movie perfectly.

If you are familiar with Disney movies, you are probably familiar with their plot line pattern. I believe I may have mentioned this in a previous review but, in any case, the movie goes: happy, happy, sad, happy, happy, sad, happy. There is always a point before the happy ending where everything seems to go wrong for the protagonist. That scene probably has a thunderstorm in it.

In The Secret World of Arrietty, it never really gets too sad. It's like if you are planning a picnic for a gorgeous spring afternoon. You are preparing everything in the morning but then it starts to drizzle. It isn't a thunderstorm and the rain is itself picturesque but you can't exactly eat outside. Fortunately, the rain clears and, by late afternoon, everything is dry enough for you to continue with your picnic plans. If this were a typical Disney movie, you might've gotten caught in a torrent. The food would be ruined and you'd be soaked. Somehow, by the time the storm ends, things would wind up alright. You'd probably make a new friend and find a new restaurant.

If you are familiar with my reviews, you might know I like to make an analogy between film and food. The Secret World of Arrietty is like a perfectly ripe strawberry. It is a pleasure to look at, smell, and even hold. When you taste it, it is smooth, sweet, and healthy and, with a run time of only nintey-five minutes, it is a snack that won't leave you stuffed. If you have children or know anyone with children, point them to this movie. Even if you don't have children, check out The Secret World of Arrietty.