Patron Request: ‘Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence’

I’m not a big fan of the films of Nagisha Oshima. While I appreciate his Cruel Story of Youth, I find Empire of Passion utterly noxious and In the Realm of the Senses an inferior twin to Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Sada. His explorations of straight sexuality are alternately insipid and offensive in their insistent edginess. I just don’t like what I’ve seen of his work.

Except Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence remains incredible. It’s like it was made by a different filmmaker. It has none of the Oshima reflexes I find so off-putting. What it has to say about sexuality (homosexuality, in this case) it says non-explicitly, mostly through hard stares and fragile physical gestures. This film is not the work of a provocateur; it’s remarkably sensitive and gentle. How did this come from the man who made something as radioactive as Empire of Passion? Maybe auteurism is dead after all.

All joking aside, I love Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence. Oshima elides the themes typical of POW films — of endurance, bravery, and loyalty — and uses the setting to depict how intimate gestures reflect an individual’s inner desires as much as the political realities in which they live. Many Oshima movies are about sexual power relations, but Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence doesn’t turn that idea into some sort of game. Jack Celliers and Captain Yonoi aren’t playing some sort of sexy cat and mouse game, they’re just two men trying to survive their own worst impulses. When Yonoi takes out his repressed queerness in violence, it feels like the tragic consequence of emotion made illegal rather than the inevitable result of any and all sexual fixation.

What really sings about this film is the casting. Oshima made three brilliant and unusual choices here. The first is the casting of David Bowie, who had acted on-screen only a few times before this. Casting musicians as actors is always going to be a risk, but Bowie is a major talent in both fields. Speaking of, the film’s composer Ryuichi Sakamoto also stars as Captain Yonoi. Sakamoto had, to my knowledge, never acted before, making the casting of him in such a significant role a major leap of faith for Oshima. He made the right call, though; Sakamoto is revelatory. The way he plays Yonoi’s imposing yet trembling stature, a man whose inner turmoil is always on the verge of bursting forth, is astonishing. His performance expressions are so clear and vibrant. For a non-actor, it’s quite the work. (His score for the film is, for the record, also fantastic.) The final piece of this casting trifecta is the legendary Takeshi Kitano, in one of his first screen roles! Kitano was primarily known as a comedian and TV game show host at this point, so casting him in such a tender dramatic role is, yet again, a major risk that pays off tremendously. We could never repay Oshima for what he gave us by kickstarting Kitano’s career.

For all the guff I give Oshima, he’s very good at being what I think of as a “tableau director.” He’s so good at composing images of wide scale and intricate detail, where every little piece seems to be in just the right place. These shots can be complex or minimalist, but they’re always locked-off and still. Often the elements of the tableau arrange themselves within the shot itself, causing a commotion before eventually coming to rest in their proper positions. It’s like everyone on set is getting ready to take a group photo. Other times a shot will begin with the tableau and be interrupted and “ruined” by the chaotic movement of the actors. The film revolves around these still images, like an animated photo book. I have to laud Oshima for his technique here. Y’know, maybe he just shouldn’t have made films about women.

Ko-Fi Request: ‘Kamikaze Girls’

This article was based on a request from one of my patrons on ko-fi. For $3, you can recommend a film for me to watch and write an article about! Visit this link if interested!

Kamikaze Girls isn’t an unlikable film, but nearly everything I like about it is done better in other films. The wild stylistic flourishes are straight out of House or the work of Sion Sono. The cartoonish costumes and hairstyles are part of a more coherent whole in Takashi Miike’s Ace Attorney. And as for the central relationship, well, there are movies about actual lesbians to watch. This film doesn’t do anything wrong, per se, but I wish the things it did right hadn’t been outdone by films that came both before and after it.

The film depicts the unlikely friendship between the Rococo-obsessed, self-centered Momoko (all frilly dresses and lace sunbrellas) and the thuggish, bruising “Yanki” biker Ichiko (more into long leather trenchcoats and bootleg Versace). I say “unlikely” because Kamikaze Girls takes for granted their mutual fascination and attraction. We know quite a bit about these characters’ backstories, but this does little to explain what it is they actually like about each other.

The film’s main problem is that the answer is obvious: they’re gay! This has the exact structure of every romantic comedy I’ve ever seen, the girls have an instant chemistry and bond they can’t explain, there’s a meet-cute and a breakup and they get back together for a happy ending, it’s all right there. But they can’t be explicitly gay, because this film was made in 2004. They have to hide behind subtext and coding, even if that subtext and coding is so transparent as to be hilariously ineffective.

Now I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with queer coding. Throughout history it’s been the only way to openly express queerness in art without fear of reprisal. I’m happy to accept the queerness of certain works or characters based entirely on subtext and metaphor. My frustration with Kamikaze Girls arises because, as I said, it is so blatantly a queer love story and yet it still pulls back. The film is terrified to take that one extra step. A cynical appraisal would say that it slathers itself in style and artifice to create an ironic distance from the heart of its story. I’m not a cynical person or a cynical critic, but it’s hard for me to come away from this film at all charmed by its relentlessly idiosyncratic aesthetic when that aesthetic appears to be masking something rather than expressing it.

Take for example Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House, which I mentioned earlier. There’s lesbian subtext aplenty in that film, and it’s also a runaway train of visual affectation. The difference (besides Obayashi being a better director than Kamikaze Girls’ Tetsuya Nakashima) is that House’s aesthetic choices enrich and explore its subtext, bringing it to the fore in ways both campy and genuinely tragic. House doesn’t run away from the way its characters are coded. That’s the story it’s telling, on purpose. All of Kamikaze Girls’ bizarre effects, all its disorienting editing, its wacky characters, its animated sequences; all of it serves to distract and obfuscate, to emotionally detach from its narrative core. It just doesn’t add up to anything worthwhile.

Now, none of this is to say that I think it’s a bad film. I more or less liked it! I can certainly see why someone would be infatuated with it. Maybe one day I’ll revisit Kamikaze Girls and find more to appreciate about it. For now, though, I find it a fitfully entertaining, mostly frustrating experience.

Ko-Fi Request: Monochrome Dreaming in ‘His Motorbike, Her Island’

This article was based on a request from one of my patrons on ko-fi. For $3, you can recommend a film for me to watch and write an article about! Visit this link if interested!

Nobuhiko Obayashi’s His Motorbike, Her Island starts small. The film’s first images are tiny and squareish black-and-white, dwarfed by large black bars on all sides. Ko Hashimoto is a motorbike enthusiast and delivery driver, going about his work day. The frame grows taller as he’s confronted by the brother of his girlfriend Fuyumi, who demands he breaks up with her. It’s like the image bursts into shape with the arrival of this antagonistic figure, changing its height to suit his towering and intimidating presence. Once the work is done, Ko takes a nighttime ride, just him and his bike. It’s dark out, so dark that the distinction between frame and masking is briefly lost.

And as he rides, the sun rises, and the images comes to life. The new light reveals a fully wide frame, and inflections of color at its center. The margins of the image remain in black-and-white, but Ko and his bike at the image’s center are brightly colored, like they’re the only living things in the world.

“Some guys have vividly colored dreams, but mine were always in monochrome,” Ko explains. “This is the story of one of those monochrome dreams.”

The film shifts back and forth between grayscale and full color with wild abandon. Sometimes it changes multiple times in the same shot. Often part of the screen is in color and the rest is black-and-white. Are the black-and-white segments dreams, or perhaps memories? There’s no recognizable pattern to these shifts, nothing narrative on which to pin an explanation. It’s a dizzying effect. One can’t help but wonder, how much of the image can we trust? Like many Obayashi films, the answer is “as much as you want to.” He’s never overly concerned with established reality. The film, he seems to say, is just the film. Take it as you will.

And so we have a film where time and memory, past and present, dream and reality all flow in and out of each other, flirting at the edges, and eventually sharing the same frame. What is recollection? What is a hopeful dream? What is now, and what is then? For Obayashi, it’s all the same thing. It’s not non-linear, exactly; that would imply a new linearity constructed of back-and-forth leaps in time. It’s more like everything is happening at once, all in the same images.

This culminates in a color campfire scene wherein the light from the flames reflects so brightly on the main characters’ skin that they appear to be flickering back to monochrome. The moment echoes through time and space, at once blissful present and nostalgic past. It’s a breathtaking image, the creation of a memory visualized.

Calling a film “dreamlike” is hacky, but it’s appropriate in this case. Watching His Motorbike, Her Island feels like drifting in and out of restful sleep, with the rumble of an engine beneath you. It provides a comforting uncertainty as it pleasantly ambles through the beats of its central romance. So many of Obayashi’s films, particularly his early ones, rattle with the restless energy of a filmmaker eager to experiment with form. While this is by no means a relaxed film, it has a casual confidence that befits the uber-cool cinematic connotation of motorcyclists.

The clear source of inspiration here is 50s Americana, particularly films like Rebel Without a Cause, whose cliffside game of chicken is reflected here in a midnight motorcycle joust. Even in the 80s, when the film was released, the era was the pinnacle of American nostalgia. It seems Obayashi picked up on this. The time period of the film feels more contemporary, but its narration by an older Ko fills it with yearning for bygone days. It’s a film about desperately clinging to your memories, and how memories can desperately cling to you as well. Time in this film isn’t something under our control. The past pulls us back as much as we reach for it. We live inside our memories, whether we like it or not.

This theme is constant throughout Obayashi’s filmography. From more literal appearances in early work like The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, to the abstract remembrances of his most recent film Hanagatami, from a man wandering through the streets of his recollections in The Deserted City to a man obsessed with the ghostly reappearance of his late parents in The Discarnates, we find characters both delighted and tormented by a past they cannot escape. Even in his debut feature, House, the titular sinister building is animated not by pure uncomplicated malice, but by despair over the continued absence of someone whose life was stolen too early. It is Obayashi’s most enduring fixation.

While I adore all the films mentioned above, I believe he realizes it most compellingly in His Motorbike, Her Island. It’s here where it takes shape with the most chronological abstraction, but it’s also here we find Obayashi most at peace with the past. Whether you find the film’s conclusion tragic or hopeful, whether or not you believe in its happy ending, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is whether or not you’re comfortable with your own answers, and by extension your own history. By the time this monochrome dream runs out, it hopes you’ll be ready to wake up.