Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 19, 2020

Japan Cuts 2020

Filed under: Film,Japan — louisproyect @ 9:46 pm

Like other film festivals I’ve reviewed since the pandemic began, this year’s Japan Cuts is virtual. While nothing will ever match the experience of see a film on the big screen among other film buffs, the show must go on as they say in a Busby Berkeley film—can’t remember which one. At $99 for the entire festival or $7 per film, it is certainly worth it. In the past, when I have covered a NY film festival, I always regretted that many of my out-of-town readers will never be able to take part. Fortunately, for them and for the filmmakers who put so much time, money and energy making leading-edge cinema, virtuality has its benefits. Time constraints did not allow me to cover more than four films but based on what I have seen, this festival is a must for film buffs. Japanese films have been a mainstay of serious cinema for the past seventy years and it is still going strong.


i -Documentary of the Journalist

Isoko Mochizuki is Japan’s Helen Thomas. Until she died in 2013, Thomas was famous for stubbornly asking tough questions during press conferences at the White House. Mochizuki is Thomas on steroids. The documentary follows her around collecting information for her next article in the Tokyo Shimbun, usually focused on corporate an governmental malfeasance. Under Shinzo Abe’s administration since 2012, corruption has been rife and she has been practically the only reporter with the guts to take on the establishment.

What you will discover in this mostly cinéma vérité work, which follows her about on her rounds and at press conferences, is that the Japanese government is shielded from the most part from gadflies like her. To get access to a press conference, you have to be part of an old boy’s network that keeps trouble-makers out. It is not so much ideological as it is institutional. Picture McNeil-Lehrer at its most soporific and you’ll get a sense of the typical Japanese reporter.

You can’t help but think of Kurosawa’s “The Bad Sleep Well” as the film progresses. She has discovered that the USA has been expanding the Henoko military base in Okinawa at the expense of the people living there, which has been the case since 1609 when Japan colonized the island nation. To make room for its partner’s war machine, the government conveniently covered up how red dirt was being used for a landfill into the bay. Since red dirt upsets marine ecology, regulations do not permit using earth with more than 10 percent of red clay. In her interviews with environmental scientists in Okinawa, Mochizuki learned that it was closer to 70 percent.

Much of the film consists of her trying to pin down Abe’s chief spokesman at press conferences, Yoshihide Suga. Suga is a master of stonewalling, making most of Trump’s mouthpieces looking transparent by comparison. Unlike the American press corps that has any number of reporters willing to challenge Trump or his lackies, it devolved upon Mochizuki to challenge the lies.

Although most of us, including me, tend to associate Trump with people like Duterte and Bolsonaro, an argument can be made that his real soulmate is Shinzo Abe. After seeing the film, I was convinced that I had to allocate time for getting up to speed on Japanese politics since the Abe government has vowed to make Japan a first-rate military power. As part of its increasingly nationalistic military and economic posture, Japan has targeted South Korea in the same way that the USA has targeted China. An article titled “Forget Putin and Kim. Trump’s real soulmate lives in Tokyo” describes the bromance between the two nationalistic and corrupt politicians:

That Abe is now borrowing from Trump’s playbook on trade should come as little surprise. The two leaders have established a positive chemistry that is evident during their long and frequent meetings. When Trump visited Japan in May for the enthronement of the country’s new emperor, the two leaders embraced each other, sharing a round of golf, sushi, sumo wrestling and exchange of MAGA-inspired caps. Abe is known to be one of a few Western leaders Trump is fond of.

Reiwa Uprising

Although I didn’t plan my coverage this way, this film is a perfect companion piece to “i -Documentary of the Journalist”. It is a four-hour mostly cinéma vérité look at the election campaign of the Reiwa Shinsengumi (“new squad”) party that fielded 10 candidates to run against the Abe machine in 2019.

Reiwa can best be described as Japan’s version of the sort of guerrilla theater Abby Hoffman made famous in the 1960s. If Abe’s party was determined to represent itself as the embodiment of Japan’s largely militaristic and authoritarian culture, Reiwa turned that culture upside down and ran candidates who were the country’s outcasts and underdogs.

The star of the film is candidate Ayumi Yasutomi, a female transgender Tokyo University professor whose hobby is horseback riding. To show her love for horses that represent the natural world disappearing beneath Japan’s feet, she was accompanied by a horse at all her campaign appearances. Yasutomi’s politics are not exactly ideological. At one point she says that Marxism, liberalism and conservatism have failed Japan. If she was referring to the Japanese Communist Party, I suppose she had a point.

Two of the candidates were quadriplegics, who also happened to be the only two that were elected to the Diet, thus making Reiwa an official party.

The film was directed by Kazuo Hara, who like Isoko Mochizuki has no use for Shinzo Abe’s retrograde social and economic policies. Like Werner Herzog, Hara is drawn to those who are square pegs in bourgeois society’s round holes. Made in 1972, his first film “Goodbye CP” featured men and women with cerebral palsy. His 1987 “The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On” features Kenzo Okuzaki, a 62-year-old WWII veteran who searches out those responsible for the unexplained deaths of two soldiers in his old unit. Errol Morris listed it as one of his Top 5 Favorite Films for Rotten Tomatoes. After seeing his latest, I hope to see more of his work. Highest recommendation for “Reiwa Uprising” that at four hours goes quicker than 90 percent of the films coming out of Hollywood.

Narrative films

The Murders of Oiso

Although people are killed in this film, it is really not a murder mystery. Instead, it is a character study of four high-school students who represent the kind of toxic values that might explain to some degree how Shinzo Abe has become longest-serving Prime Minister in Japanese history.

Their time is spent hanging out, smoking cigarettes, drinking beer and playing cards. Perhaps, they are no different than most teens but it is their indifference to anything outside their narrow frame of reference that makes you wonder about the health of Japanese society. Indeed, a large part of Reiwa’s success at the polls has to do with the country’s moral and spiritual rot.

The leader of the pack is a kid named Kazuya, whose father and uncle are partner’s in a crooked construction company, probably one not much different than the one pouring red dirt in to the water near the US military base in Okinawa. Kazuya gets his three pals jobs with the company but they seem to spend about as much time working as the guys that Tony Soprano placed in various New Jersey unionized shops.

The film does not have a conventional narrative arc and dispenses with the kind of suspense you expect in a murder mystery. (Not a single cop shows up in the entire film.) Like the two documentaries above, it is much more of a critical eye on Japanese society that is very much watching if you forgive its defiance of conventional filmmaking gestures.

Tora-san, Our Lovable Tramp

The festival includes three of the Tora-San films as part of a retrospective. I was especially interested in them since I regard the director/screenwriter Yoji Yamada as one of Japan’s greatest. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I had hopes that it might have been in the same vein as his samurai trilogy that I regard as a masterpiece.

I guess I should have realized that any film with “our loveable tramp” in the title is not going to be about sword fights. Instead, it features Kiyoshi Atsumi as Toro-san in just one of the 48 films Yamada did with him in this series from 1969 to 1995. Perhaps the only thing that Toro-san has in common with the samurai, especially after the Meiji restoration when they became itinerant swords-for-hire, is that he is rootless. He is a traveling salesman who owns nothing but the clothes on his back and his suitcase filled with dubious wares, none of which would qualify for an ad on a cable TV commercial at 3am in the morning.

As for being “loveable”, that’s used ironically since like Charlie Chaplin, Toro-san is anything but. Just as the little tramp was not above turning a dinner party into a food-fight, Toro-san always finds a way to antagonize people, always with no awareness of the consequence of his actions.

After returning to the town where he was born, he reunites with his long-lost sister who he hasn’t seen in twenty years. When he accompanies her to a dinner party hosted by the boss of the company where she works (she is soon to become engaged to his son), Toro-san gets drunk and starts to tell off-color jokes and generally embarrassing his sister. If you’ve seen Borat in action, you’ll get an idea of what kind of mischief his character is capable of.

Unlike Borat, Toro-san has an epiphany toward the end of the film when he discovers that the woman he loves has plans to marry someone much higher-up on the social ladder. Although the Toro-san films are comedies, they do reflect Japan’s strict class-based social codes that the anti-hero defies with abandon. Ironically, in his own way, he was the kind of film character that prefigured the Reiwa uprising. A man sick and tired of hierarchy, materialism and hypocrisy.

November 27, 2018

The Dark Side of the New Deal: FDR and the Japanese-Americans

Filed under: Counterpunch,Japan,racism — louisproyect @ 1:36 pm

Boys Behind Barbed Wire (Norito Takamoto, Albert Masaichi, and Hisashi Sansui), 1944, Manzanar concentration camp


Not long ago, I had lunch with Arn Kawano, a friend and Marxmail subscriber whose parents had been interred during WWII for no other reason than being Japanese-Americans living in California. I was anxious to discuss a film with him that I had reviewed recently titled “Resistance at Tule Lake”, which described how Japanese-Americans stood up for their rights as citizens against FDR’s fascist-like Executive Order 9066 that gave the green light to the camps.

Arn, who has a law degree, told me that despite liberal obsessions with constitutional rights, there is very little to protect such citizens when a government acts in the name of a national emergency. If anything, FDR’s willingness to shred the constitution should alert those invoking the New Deal as some kind of golden era for democracy and human rights to look more closely and objectively at American history. To give you an idea of the inability of American liberals to comprehend the depravity of FDR’s internment camps, Herbert Wechsler, an attorney who was part of the Nuremberg prosecution team, was also the government’s lawyer in a case defending the legality of Executive Order 9066. Later on, when Wechsler was teaching at the Columbia University law school, a student named Arn Kawano asked him if he had to do it all over again, would he have defended 9066? When he answered yes, Arn gathered up his books and walked out of the classroom.

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June 22, 2014

Is Russia imperialist? A reply to Roger Annis and Sam Williams

Filed under: imperialism/globalization,Japan,Russia — louisproyect @ 8:03 pm

Hideki Tojo: he anticipated Vladimir Putin

On June 18th Truthout published an article by Canadian socialist Roger Annis titled The Russia as “Imperialist” Thesis Is Wrong and a Barrier to Solidarity With the Ukrainian and Russian People that is an extended polemic against a view he describes as follows:

More deeply, the empirical, economic and political evidence disproves the claims of Russia as “imperialist.”

The role of finance capital is the benchmark of any measure of the core nature of a capitalist country. In Russia, it is nothing resembling that of the imperialist countries. It’s the state, not finance capital, which plays the overriding, directing role in Russia’s economy. The state happens to own much of the vaunted oil and gas industries; so too in finance and much of manufacturing. The CIA Factbook explains some of the consequences thusly: “The protection of property rights is still weak and the private sector remains subject to heavy state interference.”

Before addressing his arguments, a word or two about Annis’s recent evolution is in order. Shortly after the war in Iraq began, Annis resigned from the Canadian sect that was allied with the American SWP over its abstention from the antiwar movement. I have not followed his trajectory closely but was not prepared for his recent turn toward the Donetsk separatist movement. Along with Boris Kagarlitsky, Alan Woods, and Socialist Alliance member Renfrey Clarke, Annis has essentially defended a movement as anticapitalist no matter the presence of leaders with connections to the Kremlin, or more alarmingly, Russian fascism. Kagarlitsky, who runs a think-tank funded partially by the Kremlin, spoke at a conference on “colored revolutions” in 2010 hosted by the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, the Austrian party formerly led by Jörg Haider, a politician widely regarded as a neo-Nazi. In addition to Kagarlitsky, speakers included the Russian fascist Aleksandr Dugin and Israel Shamir, the eccentric journalist who smeared me as a shill for NATO. Clarke has been faithfully translating Kagarlitsky’s pro-separatist articles into English while Annis makes sure to reproduce them on his blog. It would seem to me that these people have lost their way.

Annis is strongly influenced by blogger Sam Williams, whose 30-page article “Is Russia Imperialist” reprises many of the same points made by Annis, especially the business about finance capital being key. I was only aware in the past of Williams’s blog “A Critique of Crisis Theory” having an orientation to the ongoing debates about the falling rate of profit, etc. This was the first article, as far as I know, that took up questions outside of the value theory bailiwick.

It is safe to assume that Williams was a member of the Workers World Party based on his “about me” page:

It was in this period [the 1970s] that I met my friend and collaborator Jon Britton. With his help and encouragement, I began to write articles for the socialist press, though under a different name.

Along with Bill Massey, Britton had joined the WWP after leaving the Socialist Workers Party. Sam Marcy formed the WWP after leaving the SWP over differences on how to regard the Hungarian Revolution. I have very fond memories of Jon Britton and can only say that if he chose to join the WWP, that speaks highly of the organization even if I have deep disagreements with their “global class war” analysis.

James P. Cannon viewed Hungary in 1956 as a workers revolt against Stalinist oppression while Sam Marcy took a position very close to the Kremlin’s, namely that it was a CIA plot. Oddly enough, despite the obvious embrace of Marcy’s analysis on the left, including many writers on CounterPunch where I am a regular contributor, the WWP never seemed able to exploit the broad support for its positions.

When you look at Williams’s article, you will see immediately how it dovetails with the WWP type analysis:

The Orange Revolution was part of a series of pro-Empire “color revolutions”—some successful and some not—that were organized by the Empire and its local representatives with the aim of replacing governments that resisted the Empire in one way or another. Other such “revolutions” include the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon; the unsuccessful Green Revolution in Iran, which also attempted unsuccessfully to overturn a presidential election; and the Rose Revolution in Georgia.

This, of course, was the theme of the conference organized by the FPO that Kagarlitsky spoke at. As has become quite evident in recent months, the left and the ultraright have come to an agreement that Putin is a heroic figure standing up to NATO, the IMF, Western banks, the CIA and all the rest. Even the Golden Dawn, that now has the brass to sing the Horst Wessel song at its rallies, regards Putin as a savior.

After a few thousand words reprising the talking points of the pro-Kremlin left about how Euromaidan was a fascist plot organized by the CIA, Williams turns to the question of whether Russia is imperialist. Like Annis, he insists that everything hinges on finance capital:

What is the relative position of Russian banks today? If Russia today is not only capitalist, which it indeed is, but also imperialist, we would expect Russian banks to be increasingly prominent in the world, since the “great” universal banks are the most important organizations of finance capital. The publication Global Finance lists the world’s 50 biggest banks as of 2012 in terms of assets. Despite the size and natural wealth of Russia, not a single Russian bank appears on the list.

Besides finance capital, NATO distinguishes the real imperialists from Russia:

If you have to describe the difference between the imperialism of 1914 and the imperialism of 2014 in one word, it would be NATO. Unlike in 1914, there is one military machine, or “czar,” that dominates the imperialist world. And its roots are not in feudal but purely capitalist relations. This machine includes the armed forces not only of the United States but also of other countries in the NATO “alliance,” including Britain, Germany, France and, though formally part of a separate security treaty, Japan as well.

Part of the problem with this analysis is that it focuses on imperialist rather than imperialism. Lenin’s 1914 pamphlet is a guide to understanding a system, not a handbook on classifying countries. For much of the past ten years or so, I have seen arguments on Marxmail going on at length on how to classify apartheid South Africa (or even post-apartheid) or Israel. Are they imperialist? Sub-imperialist? Lenin never intended to provide some kind of birdwatcher’s guide for such classifications, however.

Lenin’s pamphlet was written for a specific time and place, not a universally applicable textbook. If you take it that way, then you might as well conclude that the war in the Pacific pitted an imperialist USA against a non-imperialist Japan. Do we really want to view Japan as non-imperialist? I don’t think that would have sat well with someone living under occupation in Manchuria or the people of Nanking.

Unfortunately Germaine A. Hoston’s Marxism and Japanese Expansionism: Takahashi Kamekichi and the Theory of “Petty Imperialism” that appeared in the Journal of Japanese Studies (Winter, 1984) is behind a paywall  but I will be happy to send a copy on request. Takahashi Kamekichi’s made the case that Japan was not imperialist according to Lenin’s definition of the term. His evidence was impressive even if it led to the wrong conclusion.

Kamekichi honed in on the phenomenon of yukizumari, a term that meant deadlock and that referred to the failure of the post-Meiji restoration period to propel Japan into the first rank of capitalist nations. The previous partition of the world had deprived Japan of access to raw materials, especially the oil that was crucial to full-scale industrial and military prowess.

It meant that Japan was incapable of producing heavy capital goods like Germany or Britain. In the 1920s 73 percent of Japanese exports were textiles and even when capital goods were being produced, tariffs from more powerful capitalist nations inhibited sales.

Finally, and most importantly given Sam Williams’s emphasis on finance capital, Japan was simply not in the same league with the USA and Europe. Roston writes:

Finally, Japanese imperialism could not be powered by “financial capital” in the Leninist sense. Finance capital had grown prematurely in the late-developing Japan, with the support of the Meiji state, in advance of industrial capital. This process constituted a reversal of the development sequence of Europe and America. Consequently, the finance capital to be found in the zaibatsu was not identical with the finance capital Lenin and Rudolf Hilferding had described as characteristic of the “age of finance capital.”45 These internal and international financial conditions placed severe constraints on Japanese economic expansion. Even where Japan had been able to execute imperialistic ventures, the benefits of these to Japanese capitalistic development and the extent of Japan s imperialistic exploitation were necessarily more limited than those gained through comparable activities by the U.S., Great Britain, and Germany.

Japan pinned its hopes on the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, a policy that was designed to achieve imperialist goals in the name of anti-imperialism, anticipating to some extent Putin’s Eurasian Economic bloc. Just as Putin positions himself as a friend of nations suffering from IMF, NATO, Western banking interests, etc., so did Japan appeal to Asian nations as its benefactor.

You get the same kind of demagogy surrounding China’s penetration of Africa today. In exchange for some clinics, roads, and rural schools, China gets access to precious resources necessary for capital accumulation.

Prime Minister Tojo gave a speech to the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere on November 5th 1943 that will ring a bell with those who have been paying attention to the left that has been suckered into supporting the Donetsk People’s Republic:

During the past centuries, the British Empire, through fraud and aggression, acquired vast territories throughout the world and maintained its domination over other nations and peoples in the various regions by keeping them pitted and engaged in conflict one against another. On the other hand, the United States which, by taking advantage of the disorder and confusion in Europe, had established its supremacy over the American continents spread its tentacles to the Pacific and to East Asia following its war with Spain. Then, with the opportunities afforded by the First World War, the United States began to pursue its ambition for world hegemony. More recently, with the outbreak of the present war, the United States has further intensified its imperialistic activities, making fresh inroads into North Africa, West Africa, the Atlantic Ocean, Australia, the Near East and even into India, apparently in an attempt to usurp the place of the British Empire.

What can we conclude from all this? It is useful to remind ourselves that Lenin wrote a pamphlet titled “Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism”. For some on the left, the emphasis on capitalism has been forgotten. Everything is reduced to a struggle between nations that are imperialist against those who are not. As Marxists, the emphasis should be on the class struggle, however. As class antagonisms deepen inside Ukraine, the small and weak left will become more critical as a voice of reason. I would urge people like Kagarlitsky, Annis, and Clarke to offer its solidarity to that left and cut its ties to the Russian propaganda machine. There’s a good chance that they will ignore me but I would hope that those still trying to make up their mind will give careful attention to what I have written. Time is of the essence.

July 5, 2013

New York Asian Film Festival 2013 (Japan)

Filed under: Film,Japan — louisproyect @ 7:20 pm

This is the final post on the New York Asian Film Festival. Once again I strongly urge you to check out the schedule here: http://www.filmlinc.com/films/series/new-york-asian-film-festival-2013. I suppose the best argument I can make for attending one or more of these outstanding films can be reduced to two words: “Lone Ranger”.

I have to confess that Japanese films have been the least satisfying to me at the yearly NYAFF. To a large extent, this has been a function of the curator’s prioritizing the “hippest” kinds of films from Japan, usually around some plot like space aliens opening up a sushi bar that serves fish from their planet that turns the eater into a zombie. I guess my exposure to Kurosawa films at the tender age of 16 as a Bard freshman spoiled me. Considering Japan’s recent trauma over the Fukushima disaster, it amazes me that no filmmaker is motivated to take on corporate greed after the fashion of “The Bad Sleep Well”. Then again, the failure thereof might simply express the power of money in Japan’s culture, just as after the fashion that the dollar rules Hollywood.

All that being said, I was able to sit through all three films under survey here, which is more than I can say about the “blockbusters” showing in my nearby Cineplexes, including “The Lone Ranger”, “World War Z”, and “White House Down”.

Although the plot sounds as far-fetched as the one I invented above, “Thermae Romae”, that plays at the Japan Society on Sunday, July 14, 5:15 PM, is a perfect delight. Based on a manga (comic book) that sold 5 million copies and led to a TV show, it is the story of a Roman architect from the second century AD whose specialty is designing hot baths for the public. One day as he has been sitting in a bath with dozens of other Roman men and growing weary of the noise and tumult all around him, he dives to the bottom of the water to get some peace. Once there, he is swept into the drain and down a long tunnel of water into—believe it or not—the 21st century and the sales floor of an upscale Japanese bathroom fixture store. Once there, he meets a young and attractive woman who is working there part-time but who is really trying to make it as a manga author.

Speaking not a word of Japanese, the architect wanders from hot tub to toilet taking it all in, with the woman in tow. His both bafflement and awe over the advances of modern technology are played to comic effect but without the coarseness or cruelty of Borat’s encounter with American plumbing.

All in all, the film is in the spirit of “Mork and Mindy” or the hilarious but neglected “Earth Girls are Easy” with the difference that the alien is a second century Roman transported into the brave new world of the future.

Midways in the film, the process is reversed with the Japanese woman, who has sped-taught herself Latin, transported through time back into the second century where she helps Lucius, the architect, apply modern plumbing principles to the ancient world—including the design of outdoor mineral baths that help the Romans triumph over barbarian invaders. Like ancient Rome, Japan still has public baths and their amenities inspire Lucius as well. Yes, I know it sounds perfectly ridiculous but it is more fun than a barrel of monkeys.

While the plot for “Dreams for Sale” is somewhat less zany, it is still quirky by any measure. Kanya and Satoko are the husband and wife owner-operators of a popular restaurant that catches fire and burns to the ground within the first five minutes of the film.

A week or so after the fire, Kanya has fallen asleep in a train station next to a woman who is just awoken from a booze-induced slumber. After throwing up on Kanya’s pants, she recognizes him as the owner of her favorite restaurant—someone she always had a crush on. He follows her to her apartment where she first cleans his trousers and then seduces him. After finding out about his disaster, she insists that he takes a small fortune from her since she really wants to see him get back on his feet.

When he returns home with the cash in hand, Satoko figures out almost immediately that it was payment for sexual services rendered and takes a match to the money as he sits in a bathtub mellowing out. Coming to her senses and forgiving Kanya in one fell swoop, she retrieves the partially burned and soggy bills from the tub and begins sorting them out to dry with him. They now realize that nothing must get in the way of putting together the funds for a new restaurant even if it means pimping out the rather homely sushi chef, who has a powerful attraction for lonely women, including a 300 pound champion-class weight-lifter. As they seek out targets for their scam, Kanya and Satoko pretend that they are brothers and sisters. She goes even further and tells the women who Kanya is proposing marriage to that she needs money for cancer surgery.

Although the film has some very funny moments, the cringe factor can sometimes make you feel that you are watching a Billy Wilder comedy with the dark side totally overcoming the light. Cynicism and bad faith are the main qualities exhibited by the main characters. Perhaps the film is a commentary on the contemporary social scene in Japan but something more direct would have worked better for me. In any rate, it does have its moments. It is showing at the Japan Society on Saturday, July 13, 3:45 PM.

Finally, there is “The Kirishima Thing”, an examination of the mores of high school students as they respond to the crisis brought on by the voluntary “dropping out” of school activities by Kirishima, a BMOC. As the linchpin in the volleyball team and the guy that both women and men rely on for inspiration and advice, he forces them to fall upon their own resources.

I found the film entirely unremarkable although some critics spoke highly of it. To be fair, this film was not my cup of tea at all. I will allow one of its fans from the Hollywood Reporter have the last word:

Many of The Kirishima Thing’s central ideas are familiar ones — that Kirishima’s power is given to him and not earned; that the constant demands to conform in Japan quash natural growth — but Yoshida, best known for lighter comedies like his breakout Funuke Show Some Love, You Losers!, wraps them in compelling enough characters to move the story forward. Watching the kids struggle with being forced into personal agency is at times bittersweet, at others almost thrilling. Yoshida doesn’t get fancy with the camera, and the cinematography by Kondo Ryuto effectively mirrors the kids’ headspace as the story progresses: sharp and colorful when Kirishima is still a guiding factor in their lives, murkier around the edges once he vanishes.

You can see the film at the Japan Society on Sunday, July 14, at 7:30 PM. Or you can watch it entirely on Youtube starting with part one above.

July 24, 2012

Hari-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

Filed under: Film,Japan — louisproyect @ 4:06 pm

In March 2010 I wrote a review of Masaki Kobayashi’s Harikiri, a 1962 film that was as much of a assault on bushido (warrior) values as the knife upon the stomach in ritual suicides.

Following up on his 2010 remake of 13 Assassins, a film I reviewed last year that was more partial to bushido values, Takashi Miike presents a new version of Harikiri now showing at the IFC Center in NYC titled Hari-Kiri: Death of a Samurai. Other than its use of 3D, the film does not stray too far from the original, as was also the case with Miike’s reworking of 13 Assassins. Considering this 62 year old prolific director’s (88 films to his credit) unquenchable appetite for the bizarre (see my reviews of the whacked-out Great Yokai War, Zebraman, Happiness of the Katakuris and Dead or Alive), he plays his versions of Harikiri and 13 Assassins fairly straight. I can only surmise that this is out of respect for two of the greatest films to come out of Japan in the 1960s, both on a par with anything by Kurosawa.

If you read my review of the 1962 Harakiri, that should suffice as an introduction to Miike’s remake, especially these paragraphs:

It stars Tatsuya Nakadai as the middle-aged ronin Hanshiro Tsugumo who has arrived at the Iyi palace in order to make a request that was frequently being heard in such quarters in the capital of Edo in 1630.

Without a job and any prospects in a period of general peace, the warrior decides to do the only thing that makes sense—to disembowel himself in the house of a powerful Lord with all the dignity that entails.

The lord of the house Kageyu Saito (Rentaro Mikuni) feels duty-bound to explain to Tatsuya that when another ronin named Motome Chijiiwa showed up a couple of months earlier with a similar request, they decided to force him to go through with harakiri even though it was likely that he was only seeking a handout to last him for a few days. Given the collapse of so many samurai clans in the recent past, there had to be some way to set an example for other such beggars. Tatsuya reassures the lord of the manor that he fully intends to kill himself.

Unlike Masaki Kobayashi, the director of the original film who had deep pacifist and anti-authoritarian convictions spurred by his experience as a soldier during WWII, Miike does not have a reputation for being political. Despite this, he clearly had an affinity for the story of dispossessed warriors based on his heartfelt direction. Given Japan’s protracted decline over the past quarter-century, it would be hard for any sensitive filmmaker not to be drawn to material that dramatized the conflict between the haves and the have-nots.

As a long-time enthusiast of samurai movies, dating back to my encounter with Kurosawa’s Yojimbo in 1961, I watched Miike’s latest with a somewhat different perspective. After Fukushima, it is difficult not to think about the problems of Japanese authoritarianism whether it is manifested in 17th century feudalism or 21st century capitalism. Of course, the underlying explanation for the continued existence of authoritarianism is Japan’s failure to have undergone a thorough-going bourgeois-democratic revolution.

So deeply engrained in Japanese culture is bushido that the men who volunteered to go into the nuclear reactors initially were referred to as Atomic Samurai:

THEY are being hailed as the modern-day samurai — the 180 brave men who stayed behind to fight the crisis at Fukushima nuclear power plant knowing it was very likely they had volunteered for a suicide mission.

It is virtually impossible to talk to the workers by phone. But the message came out from one that he was “not afraid to die” — that was his job.

The families of these brave men may never see them again, but they are proud of their sacrifice.

A 27-year-old woman, whose Twitter name is @NamicoAoto, tweeted that her father had volunteered for Fukushima duty.

“I heard that he volunteered even though he will be retiring in just half a year and my eyes are filling up with tears,” she said.

“At home, he doesn’t seem like someone who could handle big jobs. But today, I was really proud of him. I pray for his safe return.”

Another loved one says in an email: “My father is still working at the plant. He says he’s accepted his fate, much like a death sentence.”

Prime Minister Naota Kan told the volunteers: “You are the only ones who can resolve a crisis. Retreat is unthinkable.”

And just as those higher up in the feudal chain exploited those lower down in 17th century Japan, so do the corporate elite and their political servants take advantage of these workers and the Japanese people in general.

When the Japanese economy was expanding rapidly back in the 60s and 70s, so much so that pundits began writing about the country overtaking the U.S., the social basis for blind loyalty was more solid. However, the steady decline of Japan makes the samurai ethos applied to the corporate world more difficult to sustain. The salaryman, the modern version of the warrior ready to commit harikiri on behalf of the boss, is not so eager to make an equivalent sacrifice as the October 5, 2002 Sydney Morning Herald reported:

In the late 1980s, when Japan’s economic miracle was in full bloom, an ad appeared on television exalting the corporate warrior hero, the salaryman. “Businessman! Businessman!” went the chirpy jingle. “Can you work 24 hours a day?”

It was selling one of the quick pick-me-up tonics in little brown bottles that helped push the salaryman to work harder and longer. The yellow and black label of this brand, the ad said, was a “token of courage”.

At the time, it must have made perfect sense as Japan Inc seemed to be on the verge of taking over the world, and the Japanese way of doing business was the way of true enlightenment. Then, of course, the bubble burst, so spectacularly that Japan has endured a slump for most of the past 12 years.

What has happened to the salaryman? He still drinks his tonic, and puts in the punishing hours. But warrior hero? Try tragic figure – a crumpled soul in a crumpled suit.

He still leaves for work at 7am, makes a long commute sardined into trains, and may not get home until 10pm. But there is little of the bushido, the spirit of the samurai, about the salaryman today. Like a reflection of his country, he is just hanging on grimly, hoping for better times but not sure how or when they will come.


March 22, 2012

The New York Times’s neoliberal crap on Greece and Italy

Filed under: Greece,Japan,media — louisproyect @ 6:38 pm

Last Sunday I attended a workshop titled Understanding the Essential Economic Role of the N.Y. Times at the Left Forum that included Robert Chernomas and Ian Hudson, the co-authors of The Gatekeeper: 60 Years of Economics According to the New York Times, a chapter of which appears on New York Times Examiner: An antidote to the “paper of record”. Chris Spannos, who founded NY Times Examiner, was the third speaker. Chernomas’s talk consisted of a reading of the same chapter that includes this observation:

The ability of the media to shape stories and issues has long been recognized. The press became known as the Fourth Estate precisely to acknowledge that while the first three estates (nobility; clergy; and commoners, which in those days meant the middle class with property) had a formal voice in democracy, the press was the institution most able to advocate for and frame political issues. Over time, those discontented with what they saw to be the cozy role of the mainstream press in supporting the status quo coined the term the Fifth Estate to describe forms of media that challenged the powers that be. In this context we will demonstrate how the Times can be seen as the preeminent example of the Fourth Estate, using its prestige and formidable skills to advocate for the U.S. capitalist class as a whole by helping to frame political issues.

Almost as if on cue, the N.Y. Times offered up two articles on the following morning that confirmed its role in “using its prestige and formidable skills to advocate for the U.S. capitalist class as a whole by helping to frame political issues.”

On the front page, you could have read an article by Suzanne Daley that was titled A Tale of Greek Enterprise and Olive Oil, Smothered in Red Tape. Judging solely by the title, you can figure out that this is the expected neoliberal diatribe against regulation. Daley’s lead paragraphs:

It was about a year ago that Fotis I. Antonopoulos, a successful Web program designer here, decided he wanted to open an e-business selling olive products.

Luckily, he already had a day job.

It took him 10 months — crisscrossing the city to collect dozens of forms and stamps of approval, including proof that he was up to date on his pension contributions — before he could get started. But even that was not enough. In perhaps the strangest twist of all, his board members were required by the Health Department to submit lung X-rays — and stool samples — since this was a food company.

“I laugh about it now,” he said. “But it wouldn’t be so funny if I didn’t have a very good job with very good pay. It would have been an absolute nightmare.”

With Greece’s economy entering its fourth year of recession, its entrepreneurs are eager to reverse a frightening tide. Last year, at least 68,000 small and medium-size businesses closed in Greece; nearly 135,000 jobs associated with them vanished. Predictions for 2012 are also bleak.

But despite the government’s repeated promises to improve things, the climate for doing business here remains abysmal. In a recent report titled “Greece 10 Years Ahead,” McKinsey & Company described Greece’s economy as “chronically suffering from unfavorable conditions for business.” Start-ups faced immense amounts of red tape, complex administrative and tax systems and procedural disincentives, it said.

Even if it occurred to Daley that small and medium businesses were closing because unemployed workers lacked the money to buy their products, her editors would have surely deleted any reference to that in her article. My guess, however, is that she believes her own bullshit.

Filing numerous reports from Greece since the financial roof caved in, Daley finds fault with just about everybody and everything except private property and the profit drive. On October 10, 2010, the problem once again was red tape:

Antonios Avgerinos, 59, a retired army pharmacist, always wanted his own pharmacy here. And why not? Greek law ensures that pharmacists get a 35 percent profit on all drugs sold, even over-the-counter medications.

But Greek law also limits just about everything else about pharmacies. They must be at least 820 feet apart and have a likely market of no fewer than 1,500 residents. To break into the business, an aspiring pharmacist generally has to buy a license from a retiring one. That often costs upward of $400,000.

”It is an absurd system,” Mr. Avgerinos said recently. ”But it has been that way my whole life.”

Maybe not for much longer.

As the government of Prime Minster George Papandreou struggles to get the nation’s financial house in order — reducing the size of its bloated civil service, chasing after tax evaders and overhauling its pension system — it has also begun to tackle a much less talked about problem: the cozy system of ”closed professions” that has existed here for decades, costing the economy billions of dollars a year.

In reality the Greek economy has cratered not because of such regulations but because the Greek bourgeoisie and its friends at Goldman-Sachs decided to keep the interest rate of Greek bonds artificially high as Mark Weisbrot points out:

In fact, this whole crisis and recession could have been prevented very easily if the European authorities had simply intervened to maintain low interest rates on the Greek debt a year and a half ago. It is possible that some restructuring might still have been necessary, but the cost would still have been very small relative to the available resources of the European authorities. Because they refused to do this, and instead shrank the Greek economy, increased its debt burden, and allowed its borrowing costs to skyrocket – the crisis spread to the weaker countries of the eurozone, including Italy.

Speaking of Italy, the very same day that Daley’s article appeared you could have read another pile of crap blaming the labor unions on Italy’s woes. In an article titled Stuck in Recession, Italy Takes on Labor Laws That Divide the Generations, Rachel Donadio uses the same exact kinds of generation gap arguments that Peter Peterson has been making for decades, focusing mostly on Social Security. Peterson, who is the obvious inspiration for Obama’s entitlement “reform” task force, makes scapegoats of the elderly (my peeps). If only they would be less piggish, the young will prosper—just as Donadio argues:

Assunta Linza, a bright-eyed 33-year-old with a college degree in psychology, has been unemployed since June, after losing a temporary job as a call-center operator. Her father, who is 60 and has a fifth-grade education, took early retirement with full benefits at age 42 from a job as a workman at the Italian state railway company.

“Everyone said that kids should study to get ahead, but I graduated with highest honors, and the only thing my degree is good for is to hang on the wall,” Ms. Linza said dryly.

The Linza family is emblematic of a yawning generational divide that experts say is crippling the Italian labor market. While older workers came of age with guaranteed jobs and ironclad contracts granting generous pensions and full benefits, younger Italians — the best-educated in the country’s history — are now paying the price. They are lucky to find temporary work, which offers few benefits or stability.

It is precisely that two-tier labor market that Prime Minister Mario Monti is proposing to correct with changes to Italian law that are the subject of intense, politically delicate negotiations. The government is proposing measures to make it easier for companies to hire and fire, and to create shorter-term contracts with greater pension and unemployment benefits, a middle ground in a divided market.

As I continued digging into Rachel Donadio’s track record, I discovered another N.Y. Times article along these lines that I posted on June 23, 2011. Apparently she has also been proffering advice to the Greek bourgeoisie just as her colleague does. In forwarding the article, I made the Peter Peterson connection:

(The NY Times is shameless. They cite an expert in this article from the Peterson Institute for International Economics about the need for drastic cuts in Greece. So which Peterson do you think this institute is named after? You guessed it. Peter G. Peterson.)

NY Times June 22, 2011

Some Greeks Fear Government Is Selling Nation


ATHENS — They are the crown jewels of Greece’s socialist state, and they are now likely to go to the highest bidder: the ports of Piraeus and Thessaloniki; prime Mediterranean real estate; the national lottery; Greek Telecom; the postal bank and the national railway system.

And then comes the mandated deeper round of austerity measures, which will slash the wages of police officers, firefighters and other state workers who are protesting in Athens, and raise the taxes of citizens already inflamed by a recession-plagued economy and soaring joblessness.

Some independent economists accept that Greece has no choice but to try a fresh round of cuts. Edwin M. Truman of the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington said Greece had to go through more pain because it had run a budget deficit even before making payments on its debt, meaning it needed loans to pay off its loans.

Only after Greece reorganizes its budget, tax collection and labor market and is running a surplus — not including interest payments on the debt — can economists begin to calculate how much in debt payments Greece is actually able to afford, and then figure out how big a debt restructuring it needs.

“As long as they’re running a primary deficit, they need to keep tightening the belt,” Mr. Truman said. “Rescheduling now doesn’t relieve Greece of the burden of fixing the economy to create a surplus.”

One of the main points made in The Gatekeeper: 60 Years of Economics According to the New York Times is the Grey Lady is forced to play both sides of the fence, appearing liberal and conservative at the same time:

This book will argue that the usual liberal-conservative dichotomy that has been used as the previous spectrum of media bias, while accurate, overlooks a more profound bias. Casting the debate in such a narrow fashion is, in fact, very misleading because the liberal/conservative or Democrat/Republican spectrum is remarkably limited. An economic debate that limits itself to options pursued by these two camps would be similarly limited. It is also misleading because it omits the real bias of the Times, which is that it supports the long-term interests of U.S. business involving both liberal and conservative policies.

So this boils down to writing fairly accurate articles about European suffering while at the same time cheering on the economic policies that are fueling that suffering. In order to maintain some kind of credibility, the paper has to assign reporters to cover financial collapse and the culpability of the powerful men and women responsible. That is why Goldman-Sachs director Greg Smith published his open letter of resignation on the N.Y. Times op-ed rather than the N.Y. Post.

The underlying cause of economic suffering will go unreported, however. You will find book after book reviewed in the Sunday edition that go into the most minute details about subprime mortgages, but nothing that deals with the declining rate of profit or any other structural defect—the kind of study that is published by Verso or Monthly Review. In fact a search of Lexis-Nexis turned up not a single book from these august publishers being reviewed  in the N.Y. Times.

That is what I would call a conspiracy of silence.

July 14, 2011

Three samurai movies

Filed under: Film,Japan — louisproyect @ 7:17 pm

Now running concurrently with the NY Asian Film Festival is the Japan Society film series titled Japan Cuts that includes ten films that are co-presented with the NYAFF. This is a review of three samurai movies, two of which were part of the Japan Cuts festival and that I saw on Tuesday night: Hideyuki Hirayama’s “Sword of Desperation” and Shigemichi Sugita’s “The Last Ronin” (a ronin is a samurai without a master—just like Toshiro Mifune in “Yojimbo”.) The third is a NYAFF “director’s cut” version of “13 Assassins” by Takashi Miike that was shown on July 2nd, and also playing in a shortened form at the Cinema Village in New York that I saw last night.

A colleague at work, who is an expert on Japanese film, informed me that the director’s cut of “13 Assassins” includes scenes that are classic Miike. As someone who appreciates this director’s darkly florid imagination, particularly in his treatment of cruelty and violence (essential elements of samurai movies), I hope to see the director’s cut some day but have no problem recommending the shortened version that has a 96 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. This review will make it even fresher.

I imagine that just about everybody has seen at least one samurai movie in their life. Ever since I saw Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” in 1961, I have made a point of taking in every work in this genre I can, treasuring above all the Samurai Trilogy directed by Yoji Yamada, an 80 year old who was once a member of the Japanese Communist Party and on record as saying that he tried to make some reference in his films “to man’s disaffection with society.”

These films are imbued with the bushido (way of the warrior) ethic that stresses blind loyalty to the master, bravery, chivalry, and willingness if not enthusiasm to face death in pursuit of such values up to and including seppuku or ritual suicide. Obviously, if I had to live in a society that was organized around such values, I’d try to find the first boat leaving for a country that eschewed them. But in the highly romanticized version found on the big screen, it’s another story altogether. Or perhaps not, as my comments on the two Japan Cuts films will indicate.

“Sword of Desperation” begins with a Kabuki play being performed in the palace of Lord Tabu Ukyou (Jun Murakami). As the performance ends, the audience remains silent. It is only when Renko (Megumi Seki), Ukyou’s concubine, begins clapping that everybody else joins in. This is an early hint at her power.

As the audience streams out of the recital hall, a samurai named Kanemi Sanzawmon (Etsushi Toyokawa) accosts Renko. Without saying a word, he pulls a dagger from beneath his robes and plunges it into her heart. As she is taking her last breath, he bends over her and says, “Forgive me, madam”.

Kanemi is arrested immediately and the Lord’s vassals are seen discussing what punishment awaits him. Will he be beheaded or forced to commit seppuku? All of them, including Kanemi, are astonished to learn that he will be treated leniently. After spending a year in confinement (house arrest, basically) and having his rice allotment halved, he will be freed. Even more surprisingly, he learns that not long after his release, he will be promoted to become the Lord’s top bodyguard. As we will learn eventually, this promotion was a scheme devised to ultimately punish Kanemi. Since this film might eventually make into general release, I will not divulge how this plays out.

Through a series of flashbacks, we learn why Kanemi killed Renko. She is a villainous creature in the mold of Lady Macbeth who holds a tight grip on her master, persuading him to divert funds on wasteful projects at the expense of his peasant subjects who face starvation as a result of higher taxes. When they protest at his front gates, she convinces him to make an example of the leaders who are beheaded.

The dilemma for those of us trying to get into the spirit of a traditional morality tale is that perhaps one of her greatest sins is being a too powerful woman. Those who would have her put down seem as offended by her intrusions into court deliberations as much as her role in having peasant leaders beheaded. The sexism is almost palpable.

Ironically, “Sword of Desperation” is based on a novel by Shohei Fujisawa, whose “Love and Honor” was turned into the screenplay for the final installment of Yoji Yamada’s altogether progressive-minded Samurai Trilogy. One must conclude that “Sword of Desperation” was simply establishing the context for a samurai’s desperate act without endorsing any of the oppressive social conventions that made Renko a target of the nobility’s resentment. At least we hope so. The fact that we can identify with Kanemi and cheer for him is a reminder that art operates on its own level, independent of the values that any open-minded society holds dear. This, of course, is the paradox of all samurai films.

“The Last Ronin” is a kind of back-story to “47 Ronin”, a historical incident that has been adapted many times in literature, theater and film, including the 1962 classic “Chushingura” directed by Hiroshi Inagaki. This is a story about 47 ronin who took vengeance on the cruel Lord Kira who had forced their master to commit seppuku. After they succeed in killing Kira, they take their own lives. This movie embodies the bushido spirit as well as any I can think of. (In an introduction to “The Last Ronin”, the Japan Society’s film program director mentioned that a Hollywood version of “47 Ronin” will come out next year, in 3D and starring Keanu Reeves no less. You heard it from me first: this will not be competition to “The Magnificent Seven”.)

In “The Last Ronin”, we discover that one of the forty-seven did not die. Kichie (Koichi Sato) was ordered by their leader to travel the countryside and provide assistance to the surviving family members. In the course of his travels, he spots Magoza (Koji Yakusho) in a small village who manages to elude him. Kichie wants to ask him why he ran away from his co-conspirators just one night before the attack on Kira’s palace. The assumption is that he violated bushido.

We learn eventually that Magoza has abandoned the life of a samurai and makes his living as a trader, looking for antiquities that he can sell to the wealthy. He lives in a modest house in the forest with a sixteen year old girl that he has raised from infancy. Again, since this film might eventually make its way into general release, I will not divulge the relationship between Magoza, the young girl he has raised, and the mystery of why he went awol.

As was the case with “Sword of Desperation”, there is a sense of futility in Magoza’s ultimate redemption. There is little doubt that the director Shigemichi Sugita was questioning a core element of Japanese culture.

“Thirteen Assassins” is a remake of the 1963 film directed by Eiichi Kudo. The plot is very similar to “Chushingura”, with thirteen men this time organizing a plot against the evil Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki) who is the Shogun’s half-brother and totally out of control, to put it mildly. Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira) summons the samurai Shimada to his manor to propose an assassination plot. To help motivate him, Doi introduces him to one of Naritsugu’s victims, the daughter of a peasant leader who had her arms and legs hacked off and her tongue cut out. When Shimada asks what happened to the peasants her father had been leading, she takes a brush in her teeth and writes out the words: “Massacre them all”. This is what Naritsugu cried out just before their deaths. And it is these words that Shimada will act on when his plucky band of assassins takes on a troop of 200 warriors under Naritsugu’s command.

Shimada is played by Koji Yakusho, who played Magoza in “The Last Ronin”. He is an exceptionally talented actor who I would compare to Toshiro Mifune in his prime. That should be ample reason to see this film, without mentioning the climactic battle scene that is Miike at his best. I will only add that a number of Takashi Miike films are available from Netflix, including “13 Assassins”.

Is there any connection between bushido and the predicament Japan is in today, with blind loyalty to corporate heads leading to the disaster at Fukishima? I suppose no more so than there was a connection between frontier lawlessness in Dodge City and the war in Vietnam.

Furthermore, one historian has questioned whether bushido had any real role in the development of the Imperial Army as the killing machine that was made infamous through the rape of Nanking and the ensuing horrors of the Pacific War (not that America was any more civilized in light of Hiroshima and Nagasaki).

In an article provocatively titled “Bushidō or Bull? A Medieval Historian’s Perspective on the Imperial Army and the Japanese Warrior Tradition” that appeared in the May 1994 “The History Teacher”, Karl Friday makes an essential point that the term bushido was not used to designate a code of honor until the late 19th century. There was a code of conduct for samurai but it came into existence in the 17th and 18th centuries when Japan was at peace.

The samurai of the post-medieval era were bureaucrats and administrators, not fighting men. Indeed, there is a reference to this in “13 Assassins” when the leader Shimada says that it might be difficult to organize a conspiracy since so few samurai use a sword nowadays. Further evidence of this exists in Yamada’s trilogy where one of his samurai heroes is a clerk not much different from Bob Cratchit in “A Christmas Tale”.

With respect to a desire to embrace death, Friday states that even when the samurai was a practicing warrior, he preferred to use guile than exercise the kind of zealous self-sacrifice seen in a typical Japanese movie, no matter how thrilling the sword play of 13 men against 200 is to watch. One wonders if the medieval era samurai had more in common with the wild west’s gunmen who more often than not were trying to figure out a way to shoot an enemy in the back than meet him at high noon in the village square.

Friday also questions the blind obedience that is so pervasive in these films. He asserts that Confucianism has more to do with this than bushido, a point that makes sense considering how the same kind of authoritarian behavior can be found in Chinese society as well.

He also has some interesting things to say about the actual historical incident that gave rise to the 47 ronin literature and films. Yamamoto Tsunetomo, a samurai who lived during the time of the incident and who wrote a book on samurai ethics, was leery of the decision made by the conspirators to wait two years before carrying out their vendetta. He said that a real samurai would not have wasted time and should have carried out their attack immediately.

Whatever relevance bushido has to a modern Japanese society that seems stuck in a rut, there is little doubt that there is an authoritarian mentality that sustains an increasingly unsustainable status quo. The persistence of a blindly obedient warrior mentality, however, is not unique to Japanese society as a cursory look at the United States will reveal. The failure of the military to get to the root of war crimes that was widespread in Vietnam and in the “war on terror”, the “corporate mentality” that made the subprime meltdown possible, and more generally the inability of those in power to make capitalism work on even their own terms suggests that a new code of honor is necessary throughout the world. That code of honor has to be based on the equality of men and women and the elimination of social classes that breeds authoritarianism. This period of history, in a time of deep environmental and economic crisis ranging from Daichi to Wall Street, is as good a time to start as any—perhaps better.

July 17, 2010

About Her Brother

Filed under: Film,Japan — louisproyect @ 6:07 pm

This year I was initially disappointed to discover that the New York Asian Film Festival had gone upscale. No longer would the movies be shown at the funky Anthology Film Archive on East 2nd Street, but at Lincoln Center. Half in jest, Subway Cinema—the long-time organizers of the NYAFF—described the move as “selling out”.  The move to Lincoln Center would have been okay with me as long as I was still on Subway Cinema’s a-list. Unfortunately the relocation coincided with some kind of restructuring at Subway that ended up with me being deleted from their mailing list—and hence without press privileges. I suppose that I could have made some phone calls to be reinstated but it hardly seemed worth the effort given this year’s program which puts the final touches on a trend that has been developing for some time now.

Basically, Asian film—especially from Japan—has become more and more influenced by anime, the comic book style that emphasizes lurid subject matter, campiness, kitsch and a shallow punk sensibility. This 2010 NYAFF feature called Death Kappa is typical. From the NYAFF website:

A double-barreled blast of 80’s VHS nostalgia, DEATH KAPPA is the ultimate lo-fi giant monster movie. Produced by the same evil geniuses who made MACHINE GIRL, DEATH TRANCE and TOKYO GORE POLICE, it’s directed by Tomoo Haraguchi, a special effects and creature craftsman who did the effects on Kore-eda’s AIR DOLL as well as spiral-madness motion picture, UZUMAKI, and even GAMERA 3. It stars Misato Hirata, famous for her appearances on Ultraman, and the teeny tiny miniature cities pancaked under giant monster feet are courtesy of Isao Takahashi, veteran of almost every major kaiju movie since GODZILLA ’85.


Last week Bill Thompson, my co-worker in the financial systems team at Columbia and a curator of Asian films at Bleecker Street Cinema in the 1980s, left a brochure on my desk for a festival of new movies at the Japan Society in New York, an event that I still had press credentials for. A quick glance revealed the same kind of fare as NYAFF, such as Mutant Girls Squad that was described thusly:

In 2009, Tak Sakaguchi (Versus), Yoshihiro Nishimura (Tokyo Gore Police) and Noboru Iguchi (RoboGeisha), came to the New York Asian Film Festival, got drunk and decided to make a movie together. The result: this splatter-ific, kick-tastic, raunchy riff on the X-Men movies. It takes three directors to make a movie this messed up.

Yeah, I’ll bet it is quite messed up.

When I saw Bill on Thursday I confessed my disappointment with the programs at both festivals, something he understood completely. But thankfully he tipped me off to a movie by 79-year-old director Yoji Yamada that would be shown on Friday night. Yamada is one of my favorite directors and I would go to see anything he made, including one starring Adam Sandler.

At first blush About Her Brother would appear to be something off the beaten track from Yamada who is best known for his Samurai Trilogy. The Japan Society website described it as the reunion of middle-aged sister and brother Ginko and Tetsuro. When Tetsuro, “an actor with a stalled career and a penchant for drinking, jeopardizes the marriage of Ginko’s daughter, she must take the necessary steps to disown him.” Not a likely place for sword duels. Bill explained to me, however, that it was the samurai movies that were the departure for Yamada, whose previous movies were much more like “About Her Brother”.

After having seen About Her Brother, it dawned on me that on a higher level all the movies were consistent with each other, regardless of sword fighting and feudal values since they all deal with the problems of family life, especially in a period of economic decline.

As I have stated about the Samurai Trilogy, Yamada—a one-time Marxist who has retained sympathy for society’s underdogs—viewed the warrior class as the exploited victims of a feudal system rather than as dashing supermen.  From my review of Twilight Samurai, the first in the series:

Seibi is a lowly 50-koku samurai, which means that he gets an annual stipend of rice that can feed 50 people (a koku is equal to five bushels.) This is insufficient to support himself, his two daughters and his elderly mother who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. (His wife has died of consumption, brought on obviously by poverty.) Forced to make ends meet, he spends every free moment tilling his fields or making cages for the crickets that were kept as pets in Shogunate households. A combination of exhaustion and depression has taken its toll on the lowly samurai. His fellow workers notice that he has body odor and that his kimono is frayed at the edges. When a high-level commissioner conducts an inspection of the palace warehouse, he instructs Seibei to take a bath and mend his clothes. Afterwards, his boss bawls him out.

We first meet the wayward brother Tetsuro from Osaka at the wedding scene in About Her Brother. He has decided to crash the wedding in Tokyo despite Ginko’s decision to keep him as far away from the event as possible. The last time he attended a festivity he drank himself silly and caused embarrassment for the family, an obvious taboo for a Japanese society fixated on propriety.

After promising that he will stay away from the booze, Tetsuro is admitted into the banquet hall where he proceeds without delay to get drunk once again. He staggers to his feet, approaches the dais, and warns the groom that if he ever cheats on Ginko’s daughter Koharu, he will beat him up. Things get worse from that point, climaxing with Tetsuro toppling a banquet table, scattering dishes to the floor. The groom blames his bride’s family for ruining the event and his parents accuse Koharu for introducing bad DNA into their future bloodlines.

It turns out that the groom’s family would have nothing to worry about since the marriage would end before the year was up. The groom, a wealthy doctor, refuses to pay Koharu for driving lessons. He believes that she should have seen learning to drive as preparation for marriage. Not only is he cheap, he is cold. When Koharu insists on sorting out their many differences, he tells her he is too busy at the hospital for a face-to-face and asks her to send him email.

When Ginko learns about the foundering marriage, she sets up a meeting at the hospital with the doctor who keeps looking at his watch and answers a cell phone call despite the seriousness of the matter. At some point the question of Ginko’s finances comes up. She inherited her husband’s pharmacy that is losing money to the competition from big chain stores, the Japanese equivalent of CVS. The doctor says that this is progress and she should expect to go out of business eventually. It is clear that Yamada would see such a cold and self-centered character as embracing the crushing of small businesses.

It is also clear that he would make sure to include signs of Japanese economic crisis, a force that undermined a pharmacist’s family today just as the decline of feudalism would put pressure on a samurai’s family in the 1800s. In many of the street scenes, we see homeless people carrying their belongings in a shopping cart. In one scene, the visiting Tetsuro strolls along a Tokyo river and runs into a man living in a shack. Watch out for the rising waters Tetsuro warns him that the previous day’s heavy rains might bring.

Tetsuro himself is only one step ahead of the homeless man. A failed actor in his middle ages, he makes a living frying octopus in a restaurant. Despite his marginal existence, he is a victim of costly vices—drinking and gambling. After he borrows the equivalent of about $20 thousand from his girl friend in Osaka, he throws it all away on booze and pachinko games. The girl friend then shows up at Ginko’s home expecting his older sister to make good on the debt, which she does.

When Tetsuro shows up soon afterward, Ginko tells him that she is done with him. Tetsuro, who has the alcoholic’s incapacity for self-awareness, tells her that she should have ignored his girl friend that he describes as a worthless person. This provokes the normally self-contained Ginko to slap her brother in the face. He storms out telling her that she does not understand what it is like to go through life as a loser, the first sign that the alcoholic haze is lifting.

This is a spoiler alert. Read no further if you do not want to know about the final third of the movie that is critical to my analysis even though it might rob you of the pleasure of being surprised at the brother and sister’s reconciliation.

Not long after Tetsuro returns to Osaka, he falls ill on the street and is taken to a nearby hospital where doctors discover that he is incurably ill with a cancer that has spread throughout his body. He is accepted into a hospice where he will die within a few months. After Ginko learns of his fate, she goes to Osaka and does everything she can to provide moral support until he dies. After being rebuffed initially, Tetsuro accepts his sister’s compassion and love.

The final scenes in the hospice deal more graphically with the final act of life, which is death of course, than anything I have seen in a movie in years. There is no attempt to gloss over the suffering that Tetsuro endures. Despite his misspent life, you feel hollowed out by his passing that was clearly Yamada’s intention. By making this unlikeable wastrel the focus of the audience’s sympathies, he assumes the highest levels of artistic achievement. This is a movie that will eventually be seen as the equivalent of Akira Kurosawa’s To Live, a tale of a dying man who is redeemed by his selfless devotion to other people. By the miracle of art, Yamada transforms a flawed character into an object of wonder even though his flaws remain with him to the end. In keeping with the dark humor of this most powerful and realized film, Tetsuro asks his sister to fill his feeding tube with a water bottle beneath his bed that turns out to be filled with booze.

Since Yoji Yamada is one of Japan’s most respected directors, it is likely that About Her Brother will come to the USA before too long. It is not to be missed.

March 8, 2010

Chushingura; Harakiri

Filed under: Film,Japan — louisproyect @ 11:10 pm

The figure of the ronin, or unemployed samurai, is a staple of Japanese movies that received its most celebrated treatment in Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and The Seven Samurai. Recently I saw two movies made in 1962—both available from Netflix—that offered starkly contrasting views of their ronin heroes, suggesting as a corollary alternative takes on Japanese culture and values.

The first is Hiroshi Inagaki’s 206 minute Chushingura, a name given to literary accounts of the 1703 vendetta by 47 ronin of the house of Asano whose master was forced to commit seppoku (ritual disembowelment known as harikiri outside of Japan) after landing only glancing blows against Lord Kira in the Shogun’s castle in Edo. Not only has the incident inspired several movies, it is also the subject of Kabuki and Bunraku (puppet plays) as well as serving as a kind of national martyrdom mythos on a par with Joan of Arc for the French or the Battle of the Alamo for the Americans. There is no trailer unfortunately for the 1962 movie on Youtube or elsewhere but this Kabuki version might give you a flavor for what is in the film:

At the beginning of the movie, Lord Naganori Asano (Yûzô Kayama) is embroiled in conflicts with Lord Yoshinaga Kira (Chûsha Ichikawa), a much more powerful figure with far less scruples than Asano who he presses repeatedly for bribes. When Asano refuses to make payments, Kira refuses to turn over instructions from the Shogunate about his duties. Without the document, Asano will lose his place in the pecking order of a grotesquely feudal pecking order and all that goes with it. When he strikes Kira with his sword in a fit of rage, he still ends up losing everything—including his life.

The conflict between Kira and Asano takes up perhaps the first half-hour of the film. From that point on, it becomes the story of his retainers who are forced to vacate the clan’s castle and take jobs as common tradesmen. Eventually we discover that their leader, Asano’s second in command, has a vendetta planned to kill Kira and uphold Bushido, the Samurai’s ethos of loyalty and courage. For most of the film, up until the final 20 minutes or so that depicts the bloody battle between Asano’s 47 ronin and Kira’s bodyguards, the plot revolves around the quotidian existence of an unemployed Samurai.

The Kira camp is lulled into a false sense of security from the seeming withdrawal of the 47 ronin from vendetta. But unbeknownst to their enemies, Asano’s former retainers have a major assault on Kira’s mansion. It is as much of a surprise as the Corleone family’s attack on the Five Families at the end of Godfather Part I.

I can only recommend this film for those with a particular interest in Japanese culture since it is clearly made for the domestic market and more particularly for the segment of Japanese society that has a thing about traditional values. At its most benign, this amounts to a commitment to courage, loyalty and honesty. At its worst, it is manifested as the 1941 version of Chushingura that was meant to arouse the Japanese army to a blind sense of devotion to the imperial cause. Unlike the hackwork put out for the Nazis by Veidt Harlan, the 1941 version was directed by Kenji Mizoguchi, one of Japan’s greatest directors who would go on to make Ugetsu in 1953, regarded as one of the greatest movies of all time. Mizoguchi made Chushingura under duress and the end product was considered insufficiently martial in spirit.

Also made in 1962, Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri is everything that Chushingura is not. Closer in spirit to Yojii Yamada’s recent samurai trilogy, it is a passionate denunciation of feudal values and especially the ritual suicide of the film’s title. For both Kobayash and Yamada, the feudal overlords represent a brutal and unyielding system that victimizes the samurai even as it puts them on a pedestal.

As art, Harakiri is Japanese movie making at its very pinnacle and surely ranks with Kurosawa and Yamada for its narrative and dramatic power. Unlike Chushingura, there are no slack moments as the movie hurdles forward with the power of a diesel locomotive until its wrenching conclusion.

It stars Tatsuya Nakadai as the middle-aged ronin Hanshiro Tsugumo who has arrived at the Iyi palace in order to make a request that was frequently being heard in such quarters in the capital of Edo in 1630.

Without a job and any prospects in a period of general peace, the warrior decides to do the only thing that makes sense—to disembowel himself in the house of a powerful Lord with all the dignity that entails.

The lord of the house Kageyu Saito (Rentaro Mikuni) feels duty-bound to explain to Tatsuya that when another ronin named Motome Chijiiwa showed up a couple of months earlier with a similar request, they decided to force him to go through with harakiri even though it was likely that he was only seeking a handout to last him for a few days. Given the collapse of so many samurai clans in the recent past, there had to be some way to set an example for other such beggars. Tatsuya reassures the lord of the manor that he fully intends to kill himself.

Through a series of flashbacks Lord Kageyu describes how the much younger ronin Motome was trapped into taking his life. He was prevented from leaving the palace until the deed was done in full view of his retainers. Unfortunately for Motome, he had to make do with a bamboo sword, an inexplicable replacement for the usually highly tempered steel instrument. Instead of lasting a second or two with a steel blade, Motome’s death is painfully drawn out he stabs himself with .the dull bamboo blade. Watching the lord and his retinue take in this spectacle is enough to inoculate one against Bushido culture once and for all, which was the director and screenwriters’ (Shinobu Hashimoto, Yasuhiko Takiguchi) intention.

Before taking his life in the same manner as Motome, Tatsuya only has one request. He wants to tell the imperious lord Kageyu how he came to such a desperate state and also why Motome was in such a state himself, adding that he knew Motome quite well and understood his decision.

Without giving away too much of the plot, it turns out that Tatsuya is Motome’s father-in-law and is seeking vengeance against the aristocrat and samurai warriors who forced him to kill himself. The movie moves forward through a series of flashbacks and encounters between Tatsuya and Kageyu as each flashback ends.  At each point, Kageyu demands that the ronin get on with the hari-kiri, only to be told that the story is not finished. The climax of the movie, as you might expect, involves a choreographed fight between the ronin and Kageyu’s men. It is about as exciting a sequence as you will see in a Japanese samurai movie. It should be mentioned that the actor who plays Tatsuya was Toshiro Mifune’s replacement in Akira Kurosawa’s movies after their falling out. He is simply brilliant.

Harikiri is the first movie I have ever seen by Masaki Kobayashi who also directed The Human Condition, a trilogy on the effects of World War II on a Japanese pacifist and socialist. The wiki on Kobayashi states that he himself was a pacifist, who after being drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II, refused to fight and refused promotion to a rank higher than private. Those are the kinds of values the Japanese should be celebrating, not Bushido.

May 21, 2009

Kabei: Our Mother

Filed under: Film,Japan — louisproyect @ 3:33 pm

Although at first blush far removed thematically from his Samurai trilogy, Yoji Yamada’s “Kabei: Our Mother” has many of the same elements.  This is a tale of how the wife of a Japanese professor imprisoned in 1940 for “thought crimes” struggles to raise her two young daughters under the most difficult of circumstances. It is a searing attack on the authoritarianism and stupidity of a  social system that retained many of the feudal traits of the period depicted in the trilogy. It is also an embrace of the decency and the courage of humble people being crushed underfoot by a system operating through a combination of repression and intense social pressure. At the age of 78 and now having made his 74th movie, Yoji Yamada demonstrates once again his kinship with such members of the great humanist tradition in filmdom shaped by radical politics—including his countryman Akira Kurosawa, Senegal’s Ousmane Sembene and India’s Satyijat Ray.

Sharing the meager circumstances of the underemployed Samurai of the trilogy, Shigeru Nogami (Miku Sato) is a one-time philosophy professor fallen on hard times. He is 3 months behind on his rent and has just learned in the opening scene that his latest book has been turned down by a publisher. Unlike most of his countrymen swept up by the ultranationalist fervor of the ruling party, he opposes the invasion of China and has the courage of his convictions to say so publicly. He has the misfortune to take philosophy’s teachings seriously, a flaw not shared by fellow academics who learn to get along with the system, just as they were doing in Nazi Germany.

A day or so later, he and his family are woken in the middle of the night by a pounding on the door. The cops have come to investigate a “thought crime” and pour through his books and papers looking for evidence. Convinced that Nogami is a traitor, they tie him up with rope, take him to police headquarters, and throw him into a holding cell. The other prisoners, discovering that he is some kind of “red”, try to make him as comfortable as possible.

Unlike her husband, Kayo Nogami is apolitical and only has the hope that he will be released from jail and returned to the happy if impoverished household that they share with their two children, a 12 year old girl named Hatsuko and her 6 year old sister Teruyo who provides the narrative and point of view throughout the film. As such, the film evokes Fellini’s “Amarcord”, another film about life under fascism seen through the eyes of a child. Unlike “Amarcord”, the emphasis is less on lyrical youthful evocations (although there is much of that) than it is about injustice and the struggle for dignity and freedom.

Indeed, Teruyo Nogami was a real person and this film is based on her semiautobiographical novel about her wartime experiences. Although the film does not make a point of this, the adult Teruyo Nogami worked with Akira Kurosawa for over 40 years in different capacities, including supervising the script of “Rashomon”. As alluded to above, Kurosawa and Yamada are kindred spirits.

Before the Japanese state had converted itself into an authoritarian war machine, Kurosawa traveled in CP circles as a youth. Some of his early student works were “socialist realism” exercises. After WWII began, he went to work in the Japanese film industry turning out propaganda films that glorified test pilots and female factory workers. Unlike Teruyo Nogami, Kurosawa succumbed to social pressure.

But one assumes that his early training in socialist realism acquitted him well, just as it did American CP’ers in the film industry. Kurosawa was extremely rueful about his role in all this. Perhaps shame motivated his desire to create a new kind of film for postwar Japan, one that would criticize a society that had become adrift. Although it no longer celebrated martial values, it still lacked a higher purpose. His youthful leftist beliefs combined with his family’s aristocratic sense of ‘noblesse oblige’ led to the creation of distinctly Kurosawan type of film, one in which a lone individual struggled to define a personal ethos against a callous and self-centered society.

Clearly, Kurosawa’s celebration of the selfless Samurai hero attacking a vicious feudal system and Nogami’s novel about WWII repression resonated with Yamada’s own values and experience. Program notes for a Yamada film shown at the Film Forum in 1982 stated that he was “’a member in good standing of Japan’s Communist Party”’ and usually tried to make some reference in his films to man’s disaffection with society.

In a January 31, 2008 interview with the Japan Times, Yamada was asked: “Kaabee is set in the early 1940s, but its themes, including the suppression of dissent, still have relevance today. Was that your main reason for wanting to make this film?” He replied:

What attracted me first was the childhood memoir by Teruyo Nogami. Her father was actually arrested under the Peace Preservation Law (which had the goal of clamping down on communists, labor activists and opponents of Japan’s militarism) and spent time in jail. That’s what Japan was like in 1940 and 1941, but Japanese today don’t know this. I wanted to rekindle their memories. Those were frightening times, when Japan started the Pacific War with an unstoppable wave.

Can we say the same frightening, out-of-control forces that started that war are absent from Japan today? In 1945 we made what was supposed to be a strong commitment to peace. But now (certain forces) are trying to change the “peace Constitution.”

Japan should have remained the one country in the world with no military and a prohibition against war (in the Constitution). Now Japan is going along with America and the Bush administration. I have doubts about whether that’s right.

For those who want to see film-making at its best, as well as a celebration of the values we cherish in our own struggle with another barbaric social system, a visit to the Quad Cinema in New York is not to be missed.

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