Tuesday, December 12, 2006


I went and watched two movies in the theatre on Saturday, both in Japanese, one film an American film, directed by Clint Eastwood, the other film a Japanese film, directed by Yoji Yamada, and the American film felt American, and the Japanese film felt Japanese.

Letters From Iwo Jima (which I watched in Japanese, which meant that I didn't exactly understand everything that was being said, true, but hey, war is war, fear is fear, acting is acting, so I got the drift) is a good film, possibly a great one, because it is, like all of Eastwood's films, low-key and understated and suitably laconic. (Much like life, come to think of it, or the best parts of it, anyway, the truest parts, the parts that matter.)

War is bad; nationalism is confusing; suffering is universal. The movie doesn't reinvent the wheel, and there are times when its sole purpose seems to be to inform us that 'hey, the Japanese are people, too', but, the more I think about it, the more I think that people do need to be reminded that, yes, the scared shitless kids on the opposing end of the artillery fire are just like you and me, mortal. Perhaps it's sad that I feel that way, or that one should be thinking thoughts like this in our multicultural world of the 21st century, but thoughts are thoughts and those are mine. And the film itself is a moving, decent and humane story, simply told, filled with Japanese actors speaking Japanese and acting in Japanese ways. Watching it in Japan, surrounded by seniors who may, who knows, have been there, in the movie, on that island, for real, added impact.

But it felt American.

The style, I mean.

The texture.

The compositions.

The framing.

All of that stuff.

You can put the language and the people in the movie, but there's something else. (That's what Thomas Magnum said, 'there's something else', hauntingly so, a line I remember, God knows why, as he, Magnum, was convinced that there was a reason he should stay alive, be alive, as he walked through limbo and the almost-afterlife after an almost fatal gunshot in what was supposed to the final episode of his eponymous TV series, directed by Jackie Cooper, Superman's Perry White, and who am I to disagree with Tom Selleck, as the episode itself, after all, though not the last, ultimately, was still fucking great, and so was the episode the following season that brought him back from the brink of death, Infinity and Jelly Donuts, the name of that episode, that is, and it was clever and honest and true, and consistent with the spirit of the supposed finale -- it brought Magnum back, and it didn't cheat, and it all, made, sense. Life doesn't, of course, but that episode did. We take wisdom where we can find it, and I find it, still in Magnum P.I. Sue me.)

And yet the other movie I watched, Bushi no Ichibun (which is translated here into English as something like Love and Honor, inexplicably, but which actually means something like 'One Part of the Samurai'), feels Japanese through and through. Front to back.

Which means, essentially, that there is an economy of movement, gesture and framing to each and every scene. The takes are long; the movement swift. Small details are evident in each and every moment, and these small things, like the best small things, accumulate, then resonate.

Leaves fall, gently.

Swords slice, swiftly.

Looks are exchanged.

All very precise, and measured.

All very Japanese.

Both films are good films. Indeed, Letters From Iwo Jima has already picked up a couple of critics' awards back home, and it isn't even out yet back there. Bushi no Ichibun, meanwhile, continues to pack the cinemas here in Japan.

But it's interesting to me.

How one can feel a culture's approach to art, through the lens. How some things remain rooted in a time and a place, a tone and a posture.

How culture transcends language and actors. How one can sense its presence in a film, in the choices made by the invisible director, in the style, in the shape and manner of people and objects. In who goes where, and why, and how. Delicately, or with force. Alone, or in groups. Towards, or away from us. All of this, cultural.

The glorious thing, of course, is that cinema, regardless of our origins, can bridge that gap, link those threads, finding a way, sometimes, at the best of times, to make us feel connected. Despite our differences, and, quite possibly, through those same differences, thus unearthing our common, indivisible dimensions of humanity which too often remain buried beneath rumbling rhetoric and colourful, fluttering flags.

No comments: