Anno Dominus

October 1995 saw the appearance of what may yet turn out to be the defining work of 21st Century science fiction.

Written and directed by Hideaki Anno 新世紀エヴァンゲリオ is an animated TV series that ran for 26 episodes and birthed one of the most enduring and successful franchises in the history of anime. Released in the west under the nebulously evocative title of Neon Genesis Evangelion, the series’ original title can be literally translated as “Gospel of a New Century”.

Gospels are useful things to bear in mind when approaching the Evangelion franchise as Eva is not just a TV series but a series of more-or-less consistent works that more-or-less rework the events and themes contained within the original TV series. Given that Eva is a hugely commercially and massively commoditised trans-media franchise, it is tempting to view these later films in the same way as we might view the similar properties that have emerged from Hollywood over the last ten years. Concepts like ‘remake’, ‘reboot’ and ‘reimagining’ might be useful in trying to understand the relationship between different Batman  and Star Trek films but the Eva properties are far more personal and so the relationship between them is a lot closer to that between the various Christian gospels.

While the gospels may share a setting, a cast of characters, and a message to convey, they do not necessarily line up in terms of narrative and character detail. For example, the book of Matthew claims that the Resurrection was reported by women while the book of Mark suggests that they kept the fact to themselves. More substantially, the book of Mark presents Jesus as a conduit for information about the world to come while the book of John treats Jesus as a spiritual teacher whose example we are expected to follow. Theologians may well argue that the various gospels are consistent as long as you squint a bit and deliberately misinterpret things but another way of accounting for the inconsistencies is to view the different gospels as different and more-or-less successful attempts to articulate a single divinely-inspired vision. Anno’s desire to articulate his vision has taken over twenty years and resulted in four broadly different iterations of the same basic story.

It is tempting to explore the differences between the various iterations of the Evangelion story but that would require me to write a much longer article. Suffice it to say that people who are interested in getting to grips with Eva are advised to start with the most recent run of films. The original TV series and Evangelion: Death and Rebirth are also worth checking out but they are considerably harder to find and End of Evangelion is really just an expanded and reworked version of the events described in Rebirth meaning that it will make little sense to anyone not already familiar with the themes and characters.

I’ve not written anything about Eva before but the recent UK release of Evangelion: 3.33 struck me as an interesting place to start as the current iteration of the story — the so-called Rebuild of Evangelion tetralogy — is now several years behind schedule and growing ever-more opaque with each additional volume. In fact, the development problems are so severe that Western home releases of the film were delayed by two whole years amidst rumours of demanded re-translations and re-dubbings. At time of writing, it is not clear to me that Rebuild of Evangelion will be any more successful or definitive than previous articulations of Anno’s vision but the incomplete vision we have is already more arresting and mind-blowing than any Western science fiction film in recent memory.

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A Farewell to Arms: Midnight Eye

I recently spent several thousand words complaining about how 21st Century film journalism has allowed itself to become little more than an unpaid cog in the Hollywood marketing machine but there will always be exceptions to the rule. For as long as I have been reading about world cinema on the internet, I have been aware of the brilliance that is the website Midnight Eye.

For over fifteen years old, Midnight Eye has set the gold standard for online film criticism. Devoted where others were fickle, serious where others were glib and passionate where others were opportunistic, Midnight Eye has showcased the new and the old in Japanese film and now its journey has come to an end as its operators Tom Mes, Jasper Sharpe and Martin Mes have decided to stop updating and get on with their lives.

As readers will have come to expect, their parting message is as insightful as it is despairing about the nature of contemporary Japanese cinema:

There is still quite a bit of guts and artistic vision on the no-budget end, but that side suffers from a lack of outlook – for the vast majority of young indie filmmakers there is nowhere to grow after they make their first self-financed feature, even if they had their film shown at festivals abroad and picked up a few awards along the way. Self-financing a movie is an exhausting process that you are not terribly likely to repeat (unless you are Shinya Tsukamoto and it’s in your DNA). They can’t go professional either, because there is simply no room for them in the industry: since the collapse of the video and DVD market medium-budget productions have to all intents and purposes vanished, while the production committees of the high-budget films prefer to hire someone of whom they can be sure, which means either a TV director familiar to the network that has a stake in the production or an experienced hand like Takashi Miike or Yukihiko Tsutsumi who already has a track record making hits.

Things go in waves (or in circles), so surely these recent developments in Japanese film (and hopefully those in politics too) will eventually be replaced by other trends. That an increasing number of directors are looking to make films overseas is both a sad consequence of the current situation and an opportunity to redefine our views of what constitutes a “Japanese film”. But the current situation and the films it engenders do not exactly fill us at Midnight Eye with the enthusiasm we need to keep this website running when so many other important things require attention.

The closure of Midnight Eye has left me wondering whether cultural scenes might not just wind up getting the critical press they deserve. How can we expect film journalists and critics to be brave and pioneering when the creators they write about seem content to chase the last big hit?

I have long been an admirer of Midnight Eye and will profoundly regret their closure… great works should not end in a chorus of indifference.

Nobody Knows (2004) – Left Luggage

Art house film is a really shitty cultural milieu. Back in the 1960s, when European directors began to chafe against the studio system and competition from an ever-expanding Hollywood machine, they looked to the East for legitimacy and proof that cinema didn’t need to be about three act structures and infantilising melodrama. The history of European film may be dominated by European names but those early Japanese victories in Berlin served to remind the world that Hollywood is not the default option when it comes to film. Half a century later and Japanese film is treated in the same cavalier fashion as every other piece of non-English language cinema: Invisible until someone has a breakthrough at which point the floodgates open until everyone gets bored and moves on to the next big thing. Don’t believe me? When was the last time you saw a Spanish horror film or French thriller at your local cinema? Was it after one Spanish horror film or French thriller had a breakthrough success? I thought so.

It is now a long time since a Japanese film was embraced by European audiences and so the lines of communication with the Japanese cinema scene are growing increasingly faint. Fancy watching a cartoon series about World War II battleships that are anthropomorphised as sexualised pre-pubescent girls? No problem! There’s a massive website that will sub-title that shit and stream it so that you can see it at the same time as Japanese people! Fancy watching a Japanese live-action film that peels back the surface of Japanese social problems and exposes the embattled spirit that all humans share regardless of their race, gender or sexuality? Yeah… that might appear on DVD eventually but only if it does well at Cannes. Clearly, Japanese directors are missing a trick by not having their intricately-drawn characters be semen-drinking demons that look like 10 year-old girls.

Hirokazu Koreeda is one of only a handful of Japanese directors who retain some visibility in the West. Over the past twenty years, his films have charted the emotional landscape of contemporary Japan with a degree of humanity that nearly justifies Koreeda’s reputation as heir to the cinematic tradition of Yasujiro Ozu. Released in 2004 and winner of the Best Actor award at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, Nobody Knows finds Koreeda using one of his favoured narrative techniques: Taking inspiration from a contemporary news story and producing a film that unpacks the emotions underpinning not only the story but its relationship to Japanese society.

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Kotoko (2011) – Track the Emotions, Not the World

Back in 1986, Shinya Tsukamoto began producing short experimental films with science fictional themes. One of these films entitled “A Phantom of Regular Size” featured a man living in a dystopian Tokyo being pursued, infected and ultimately transformed by a cybernetic spirit of the age, a woman in dark glasses and immaculate tailoring who could have stepped right out of The Matrix almost a generation later.

Phantom went on to form the backbone to a series of feature films that brought Tsukamoto to the attention of a global audience. Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Tetsuo II: The Body Hammer, and Tetsuo: The Bullet Man are all attempts to communicate what it felt like to be a member of the Japanese middle-classes at the end of a period of unprecedented economic growth that had completely transformed Japanese society in the space of a generation. These films portray the Japanese as a people worn down by the technologically sophisticated society that they themselves constructed. The opening scenes of Phantom are of a man in a subway convulsing with anguish as trains roar past like the blades on an enormous mincing machine. Every passage shaves away another ounce of humanity until there is nothing left but a host for technological infrastructure, as though the machine that had robbed the Japanese of their humanity was now putting them to work debasing and infecting the people around them. The early Tetsuo films not only diagnosed the sickness that was the late-20th Century Japanese experience, they also articulated what that sickness felt like by using imagery inspired by science fiction and horror.

Tsukamoto’s Kotoko feels a lot like a companion piece to the early Tetsuo films but rather than grappling with feelings of rage and alienation brought on by the experience of living under capitalism, Kotoko is all about articulating what it feels like to be a mentally ill single mother.

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Keeper of the Clockwork Heart: The Late Films of Kenji Mizoguchi

Late-MizoguchiIn a career spanning thirty three years, the Japanese film director Kenji Mizoguchi produced a total of eighty three feature films. While many of those films have now been lost and only a few have ever been made available to Western audiences, recent years have seen an attempt to reclaim the legacy of Mizoguchi and introduce his work to a new generation of film-lovers. So far, the most visible element of this campaign has been the very visible release of Mizoguchi’s later films by Criterion in America and Masters of Cinema in the UK. Next week, Masters of Cinema are releasing a blu-ray box set entitled Late Mizoguchi: Eight Films 1951-1956. The set includes:

  • Ugetsu Monogatari (1951)
  • Oyu Sama (1951)
  • Gion Bayashi (1953)
  • Sansho Dayu (1954)
  • Chikamatsu Monogatari (1954)
  • Uwasa No Onna (1954)
  • Yokihi (1955)
  • Akasen Chitai (1956)

My review of the complete box set is now available on FilmJuice. As you might expect for a review of an eight-film box set, the review is kind of long but I think the length was necessary in order to explore not only Mizoguchi’s approach to narrative but also his attitudes to women and how these attitudes to women transitioned over time from bewailing their fate to celebrating their courage and finally to railing at the capitalist system that dehumanises and immiserates them. I personally consider Akasen Chitai to be one of the greatest films of all time as no other film so perfectly captures the ways in which the system bullies and coerces us into betraying each other for personal advancement.

I was actually lucky enough to review some of these films when they were first released on DVD back in 2007:

Re-reading these reviews just now, it’s interesting to see that while my dim opinions of Yokihi and Chikamatsu Monogatari have not massively changed, my feelings on both Uwasa No Onna and Akasen Chitai have improved immeasurably with time. Akasen Chitai may have impressed me at the time but it also stayed with me and had a real impact on how I thought about both the world and film. Since then, I’ve seen quite a few works that have been celebrated for their politics and their devotion to social realism but nothing in either British or Italian Social Realism come even close to the focus and power of Akasen Chitai.

REVIEW – Bakumatsu Taiyo-Den (1957)

Bakumatsu-Taiyo-DenFilmJuice have my review of Yuzo Kawashima’s Bakumatsu Taiyo-Den also known as Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate.

Widely considered to be one of the greatest Japanese films of all time, Bakumatsu Taiyo-Den follows Kenji Mizoguchi’s Street of Shame and Shohei Imamura’s The Insect Woman in using the Japanese sex industry as a microcosm for Japanese society as a whole. Indeed, populated by customers from different levels of Japanese society alongside more-or-less successful members of staff, the brothel shows the economic and social forced that twist lives and destroy personalities. However, while both Mizoguchi and Imamura used the miserable lives of their characters to angrily critique and accuse Japanese society, Kawashima takes their travails and plays them for laughs using the character of a charming rogue:

Using the rogue as a foil, Kawashima explores the complex array of social and economic forces that elevate some people but destroy others. This is a world in which people attempt suicide in an effort to escape debtors and fathers sell their daughters into indentured servitude in order to pay off gambling debts and yet, because Kawashima’s rogue stands to one side making snarky comments, the world seems more absurd than it does horrific or depressing. Played by one of the foremost comedians of post-War Japan, the rogue understands the social and economic systems surrounding him and yet he does not feel constrained by either of them. This sense of existential rebellion is particularly evident in the film’s final scene where an old man castigates the rogue for disrespecting the gods only for the rogue to run away laughing and declaring that there’s no such thing as heaven and hell.

Having reviewed this and found it sensational, I am struck by the feeling that there are certain types of film that I could quite happily watch forever and post-War Japanese dramas are definitely one of them. Having said, this is a particularly good one and its lighter tone and engaging characters make it quite refreshingly accessible meaning that it would probably serve as a pretty decent jumping-on point for anyone interested in learning more about post-War Japanese film and given that this has just been re-released by Masters of Cinema, what better opportunity to immerse oneself in one of the 20th Centuries true creative golden ages?

Millennium Actress (2001) by Satoshi Kon

millennium_actressKon’s magnificent debut Perfect Blue used animation to project the audience into the troubled psychological hinterlands of a woman who is attempting to reinvent herself as a serious actress. Kon’s second film, Millennium Actress uses a similar set of themes and techniques but rather than focussing on the painful process of becoming an actress, the film looks back over the life and career of a woman who managed to become precisely what the world of film required of her.

Millennium Actress opens on a director and cameraman making their sweaty way up a large hill. At the top of the hill is a house. Inside the house is a reclusive and long-retired actress based upon the legendary Setsuko Hara (who unexpectedly retired in the same year that the director Yasujiro Ozu died). Once the actress begins talking, Kon removes us from reality and positions us alongside the camera crew inside the woman’s memory. However, as the actress speaks, the world of the film shifts from memories of her childhood to memories of her life on set as a child actress and finally to memories of the roles she played on films. “What are we shooting?” asks the cameraman as samurai clash; cities burn and youthful actresses wring their hands in melodramatic lamentations. Good question.

Initially, Millennium Actress feels like a journey into senility. Ronald Reagan reportedly confused the things he had done on film with the things he had done in reality and the film’s movement between memories of making films and memories of film suggests a similar form of confusion. However, as the film progresses and the boundaries between films begin to dissolve, a pattern begins to emerge: each of the actress’s roles drew upon the realities of her life at the time of filming. Thus, by revisiting each of the roles the actress played, the camera crew are witnesses to the emotional beats of the actresses’ life. The further the film progresses, the older the actress becomes, the quicker she ages and the more her life comes to resemble a head long rush towards the grave. While the film’s opening acts sometimes feel like an elaborate but hollow technical exercise, the conclusion weaves all of these disconnected threads into the magnificent tapestry of a life in film.

Much like Paul Schrader’s biopic Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Millennium Actress explores not only the importance of the creative process in the lives of creative people, but also the way in which these very public displays of emotion forge a bond between the audience and the artist. Kon brilliantly explores the nature of this relationship by having the director insert himself into the memories of the actress in order to serve as her protector and guardian of the sacred flame. Aside from keeping the actress’s flights of fantasy on track, the director also directs her attention to the areas of her life that he finds most interesting suggesting that, far from being passive, fans can have a good deal of control over the lives of their idols.

Though undeniably a touching tribute to the enduring power of film, Kon’s film suggests that the relationship between performer and audience is actually a good deal more complex and problematic than we might otherwise believe. Indeed, despite being a central figure in the lives of millions of people, the actress never quite got to live her own life on her own terms. Great emotions flowed through her and back towards her but they never really belonged to her… they were never entirely private… never entirely personal.

In a sense, Millennium Actress is the perfect response to Perfect Blue as it answers that film’s un-posed question: Why would someone want to put themselves through the dehumanising and humiliating process of becoming an actor? Because to be is to be perceived and to feel is to be felt.