Monday, July 29, 2013

The Human Condition (Ningen no Jōken) (Film series/Trilogy) (1959 - 1961)

***NOTE: The following analysis/review may contain MILD SPOILERS regarding some detail in the film, but not to the extent of making the film viewing experience any lesser.***


Finally stumbling upon a film that can't be done justice in mere words in a small blog spot such as this, even though your humble reviewer finds himself at a loss of words, an attempt shall definitely be made. For the hope to put this miracle of cinema across to his readers still prevails. A hope inspired by the central character of this soul-crushing film. Masaki Kobayashi's earnest story of Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai) must be told. For it is not just his story. It is the story of essentially every human being. Notice the deliberately highlighted usage of that word. It is difficult to find a real human being in this universe. There are but a handful like him, like Kaji, the unsung hero of this fateful saga.

Part I: No Greater Love

A young Kaji is sent to supervise some mining operations in a far off location, as part of a deal that would exempt him from a much dreaded conscription to the military service in turbulent World War II times. This is more so, because he writes a thesis that contradicts the current Japanese policies regarding exploitation of Chinese labour to help with the war effort. His supervisor thinks it is only fair that he puts his theories into practice. Kaji seizes the opportunity as it would also give him a chance to marry his sweetheart Michiko (Michiyo Aratama) and spend the rest of their lives together.

Alas, Kaji's excitement is short-lived, as upon arrival he finds himself thrown in a vast sea of exploitation and depravity. He comes face to face with the brutal truth of the horrid living conditions, blatant exploitation of labourers, akin to slavery, and rampant corruption amongst almost all hierarchical levels in the brass. Needless to say, they prove to be trying times for Kaji. He realizes that he may be the only morally sound person around, excepting maybe his kindly older partner, Okishima (So Yamamura) who comes to respect Kaji's ways.

Things take a turn for the worse when the Kempeitai unleashes around 600 Chinese POWs on their labour camp in order to assist with their work!

This heart-rending first chapter in Kaji's harrowing journey chronicles the trials and tribulations of his stint as the labour supervisor. It establishes that there is no greater love for Kaji than the love for humanity itself. In a world where humans seem to have ceased to be humans, Kaji struggles to keep his own moral fabric and humanistic ideals. He finds that the mining company could be a much worse battlefield than the actual battle grounds, for here, the enemy are his own people. Deemed an enemy sympathizer merely because he demands humane treatment for the special labourers that are the POWs, he ultimately finds himself sandwiched from all sides, for the system rots from within and there is no way he can salvage anything by himself. 

With rich characterization and an absorbing script Masaki Kobayashi tells a powerful tale that makes the viewers mute witnesses to Kaji's hapless situation. One circumstance is explored from different perspectives, that of Kaji, of his peers, of the brass who are only following orders and helping out their country, and finally of the Chinese prisoners! A deadly game of greed and sexual politics puts Kaji's methods to the test as he sinks in deeper and loses all hope of handling the matter his way. It is impossible not to be emotionally stirred by Kaji's predicament, even as he ends up losing his sleep over his workers and their plight that is just completely wrong and out of control, and in the process ends up neglecting her. So much for a happy married life!

Part II: Road to Eternity

In the second part of his journey Kaji ends up being conscripted into the Japanese Kwantung army anyway! He is a recruit in a company, leading a life that is far tougher than what he previously endured. Away from his wife, he now struggles to keep up with the strict military regime, but rotten apples exist everywhere. It is now the veterans and their immoral and unethical acts that Kaji has to battle with. Obara (Kunei Tanaka) a meek recruit ends up being the bashing boy for all these seniors. Kaji keeps his head, and earns the support of perhaps the only real friend he has, Shinjo (Kei Satô), a three year senior private. 

Rigorous boot camp training ensues, and the veterans and superiors continue to be slap-happy with their subordinates, perhaps just venting out their frustration in the name of being men out to do away with the cowards and preparing themselves for battle! Those who cry or express fatigue/pain aren't men anymore! The character of Obara has very clearly inspired that of Pvt. Pyle in Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket" (1987). A lot of notable similarities can be found here. A certain incident with Obara fuels Kaji's anger and he takes matters in his own hands and attempts to show the middle finger to the military code and ethics, despite the book of the penal code being thrown at him as a reminder! A chance occurrence brings him back with his old buddy Lt. Kageyama (Keiji Sada).

This great second chapter showcases Kaji's desire to be one with his wife again; to live a life that was once his. Nakadai's performance is different in this film, for Kaji has now toughened up. He doesn't cry in helplessness as much. He keeps his straight face, but continues to keep his humanity alive. The meeting with his old friend has convinced him. Everyone finds kindred spirits. Everyone meets their loved ones again; if they survive. 
The road to eternity is followed, and hope lives on as he keeps reminding him of the promise to his wife. He will stay alive and will return to her. He will make every effort even to survive the worst storm that eventually shows up when the Russian army advances. A gritty battle, one of the best battle sequences ever filmed takes us to the finale of this chapter. 


Part III: A Soldier's Prayer

Kaji survives the deadly combat along with two other soldiers. His commander is killed in combat. But Kaji decides not to fight on. He doesn't want to die a dog's death, as he puts it! He wants to reunite with Michiko and live his former life again. He doesn't care about the army ethics; never much cared for them anyway. He always believed that it is important to live. It is human to live and want to live. His fellow soldier reminds him of the "Soldier's code" that Kaji seemed to be forgetting in his decision to go back home. Kaji points out to him that what they needed really was the defeated man's code! What is the point of battling on, when there is certain death and no victory? What honor are they protecting? And how does it help anyway? 

He decides to walk on, possibly to the nearby railroad station from where he can go back. The soldiers follow. It would prove to be a long and strenuous march to freedom. They lose their way in the woods, encounter passersby and refugees fleeing from areas attacked by the enemy. They choose to walk with the soldiers for they feel safe! Hunger, thirst, exhaustion follow; Kaji's followers give up or die, some add, some subtract, and the march continues, across thick, dense forests, marshlands, corn fields, and friendly camps of the Japanese army where they only face rejection for being deserters and are denied food and supplies!

Thus, Kaji gets more than he bargains for. The enemy has tripled with the Chinese farmers Militia and the Russian forces both close on their heels and of course, his own people who are still loyal to the army! What's worse is, even the Japanese women refugees they come across seem to think the Russian soldiers treat them better. It is a bitter truth nonetheless that Kaji himself witnesses but feels helpless about. He is clearly in the minority when it comes to being a "paragon of virtue" as one woman calls him.

This final chapter tends to get a tad repetitive and could have done with some editing. Kobayashi makes extensive use of dutch angles to portray the exasperation of the travelers and the impossibility of the herculean task of walking across vast lands in search of an oasis or a rescue or a good life that supposedly lies on the other side! In a tragic turn of events, life comes full circle and Kaji and his men land up as POWs of the Russian victors, and are subjected to rigorous labour work! Despite it all, Kaji, who is a pessimist as well as an optimist, never gives up and remembers his longing for Michiko. He talks to his wife in his head, imagines her waiting for him to return...!


And so it continues. The eternal human condition. The endless struggle of man. Kaji's tribulations serve as a metaphor for everything that is purely human! A will to survive, to face the storm, to challenge the odds, but move on anyway. In the end it is all about living life and standing your ground. One of the main themes of "The Human Condition" reflects in some of Kobayashi's later films. In the same vein as he attacked on the Samurai code of honor in his films "Harakiri" (1962) and "Samurai Rebellion" (1967) and upheld the human code, through Kaji's story, he highlights the futility of war and the importance of a single human being. 

It is a known fact that war brings more losses than gains. It deprives people of their loved ones and their abodes. Destruction gives way to starvation and exploitation of the weak at the hands of the powerful. Men are killed or enslaved, women are raped, innocence is lost, humanity is destroyed. What good is the dignity of being a soldier, a loyal countryman? Should it be at the cost of foregoing humanism? Kaji reminds his fellow soldier who goes on a shooting rampage in the battlefield towards the end of Chapter II. While it is calm, run for it! There is no point dying like this in no man's land. No real dignity in it! No one left to recognize that dignity either! Whatever happened to preserving human dignity?

Throughout this 9-hour epic journey we see men and women walking on, on a road that seems endless. In the first chapter, myriad labourers walk in a single line across the vast open lands to fulfill their duties. In the second chapter the basic training ends with a long march that tests the soldiers' spirit and resilience. And the final chapter is essentially one long three-hour walk through the jungles of torment and grave danger of being killed. But Kaji is resolute enough. Kill or be killed, is his mantra. 

This final walk would be the march to freedom. This constant ambition to reach a goal, to touch the finish line is inherently a part of every human being's life. Man is essentially, perpetually seeking happiness. He is marching on endlessly towards that utopia, which seems non-existent at least in this universe. But Kaji's paradise exists. At least in his mind. A happy family life with his wife Michiko. Hope and perseverance are cardinal elements that a man must live by. And that is the lesson to be learnt from this extremely devastating film.

Masaki Kobayashi's "The Human Condition" is bleak and affecting and rips your soul apart. It is mighty effective storytelling that is capable of crushing and affecting the viewer psychologically under its heavy emotional weight. Nakadai makes it all the more believable with a flawless performance full of conviction. Those brooding eyes, the angst, the sheer helplessness and frustration of losing the trust of the people he really cares for, thanks to his own people who won't stand by him, all build up to one of the finest lead performances in the history of cinema. 

It is astonishing how a film of an epic scope such as this was made in a span of less than two years. It is a towering achievement in cinema that deserves its place amongst the World Cinema greats. Do not miss this journey. It is a miraculous film experience that will bring out the human being in you.

Final overall score: 10/10 

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Samurai Rebellion (1967)

From the maker of the powerful anti-samurai stunner "Harakiri" (1962) comes another stab-through-the-heart masterpiece, "Samurai Rebellion" (1967). Much in the tradition of the former, "Samurai Rebellion" tells a potent story that focuses on the negatives of the feudal Lords in Japan, their unjust ways and the condition of their vassals, the samurai clan and their families who are always at the mercy of the powerful. Made to live and die by the Samurai code of honor, the vassals always have to "obey" no matter how irrational or absurd the command issued by their superiors.

In one such unfair episode, an aging vassal, a master swordsman, Isaburo Sasahara (Toshiro Mifune), on the brink of retirement is approached with a rather unusual request from his superiors, the head of the clan and the Chamberlain. That of getting his son Yogoro (Go Kato) married to one of the Lord's mistresses Ichi (Yoko Tsukasa) who can no longer stay in the Lord's castle for she faces banishment for incurring the Lord's displeasure! This strange request (an order, actually, or as they call it, an honor for the Sasahara family!) sets things in motion. One event leads to another, the Sasaharas experience new joys in their lives but these joys are short-lived, thanks to yet another startling request by the Lord that finally makes Isaburo take matters into his own hands and protect the honour and happiness of his family rather than bow down to the unfairness of the fickle Lord.

The above plot synopsis is deliberately vague, for just like "Harakiri", the USP of "Samurai Rebellion" is its skilfully designed screenplay that peels off layers in its steady progression and plays with the viewer's judgment and initial impressions. It is in Kobayashi's dexterous usage of the material at hand, that the entire weight of the film lies. With fabulously handled flashback-within-flashback scenes, we are made aware of certain hidden truths about matters that initially present an entirely different picture. Shinobu Hashimoto seems to have a penchant for writing such screenplays that test the viewer's judging abilities, what with "Harakiri" and Akira Kurosawa's much celebrated "Rashomon" (1950) also inducing a similar effect of shifting perceptions. 

With Kobayashi's fluid storytelling mastery, brilliant Japanese traditional music by Tôru Takemitsu, excellent cinematography by Kazuo Yamada, exceptional dialog and dramatically superlative character interactions, "Samurai Rebellion" packs a mighty punch. It is yet another bold film from the golden era of Japanese cinema, that quashes all the glory associated with the Samurai code of duty, honor and loyalty towards their superiors and instead focuses on standing up for what is right, and protecting the family's pride and joy. 

Not the all-powerful Lord, the Steward or even the head of the clan are worthy of any respect as is Isaburo, who, in fact, shamefully admits to being a henpecked husband for twenty years, lives with a loveless marriage with a tyrant of a wife whose noble family he had married into. For these sudden change of events in his life finally give him a reason to live and boost his spirit to protect and fight for his and his family's right. The immense satisfaction of sticking to his guns is palpable as he says "I've never felt so alive" when he rebels against his entire family with only his son Yogoro by his side.

It is a miraculous performance by the great Toshiro Mifune and could arguably be his greatest act ever, as he invests his talent to the fullest, and exhibits an otherwordly intensity and ferocity. It is impossible not to levitate from your seat and get all goose-bumpy and inspired at the same time, as he grits his teeth and clenches his fist and expresses his resentment at a momentary display of cowardice by his son and wakes him up to the fact that he must protect what is his and what he loves. That is the kind of involvement and dedication that the legendary actor has put into this role. Mifune just dives into the character of Isaburo, an epitome of self-sacrifice and valour, with all he has got, right up to the gut-wrenching final duel with another Japanese acting giant, Tatsuya Nakadai, who sadly gets less screen time but still makes a significant impression with his restrained delivery, heavy voice, piercing eyes and brooding intensity. 

It is the filmmaker's passionate handling of the subject that makes "Samurai Rebellion" so effective that you feel the angst, the frustration and completely empathize with the protagonist's predicament. It all comes through with an almost invisible effort, thanks to Kobayashi's masterful treatment. One can't help but be moved in some piercing moments that tug at the heartstrings. Hope still lives on as the narrative reaches its explosive culmination of a one man army battling against forces from all directions, yet steers clear of mediocrity and never comes across as unrealistic. At the end of it all, it does tend to make you miserable, but that is obviously, a merit. If you are looking for a cathartic, emotionally draining film experience, you simply cannot miss "Samurai Rebellion". It is a rare Samurai drama that is bursting with energy and violence and yet at its heart, is a poignant morality play. It doesn't get much better than this.

Score: 10/10

Friday, July 19, 2013

Kuroneko (1968)

A woman and her daughter-in-law are ravaged, brutalized and killed by a gang of hungry, lost samurai in a war-torn feudal Japan. They steal and eat their food, coldly burn down the house with their bodies inside, the signs of which are first seen as smoke emanating from it, which looks almost fog-like. All this happens in the first ten, silent, dialog-free minutes of the film, one of the most shocking beginnings to ever grace celluloid.

The women return as vengeful ghosts, part human, part black cats, and unleash deadly revenge, not only on their perpetrators but the entire samurai clan by bringing in a prey each night, getting him drunk, seducing him and later feasting on his blood!

An all too familiar story, perhaps heard many a times, in not just Japanese folklore but elsewhere as well. A classic ghost story, is mostly a classic ghost revenge story and usually it is about a woman scorned, isn't it? But we have Kaneto Shindo at the helm and hence any skepticism regarding the done-to-death B-horror plot synopsis is allayed and expectations are automatically raised, after his masterful "Onibaba" (1964) that knocked the ball right out of the park with its fabulous retelling of an old Shin Buddhist parable.

In "Kuroneko" (1968) the story is not as unique as in "Onibaba", thanks to the countless film and TV show versions that adapted the same tale and recycled it every which way. So in "Kuroneko", don't be surprised to find familiar material full of revenge, werewolves (or werecats, in this case, to be more specific!), ghosts, seduction and vampirism. But then what makes "Kuroneko" so different if at all? Plenty!

For one, it has the 1960s Japanese New Wave aesthetics. It was the golden period of Japanese cinema when some rebellious filmmakers broke free from conventional studio shackles and experimented away with radically new ideas in storytelling and filmmaking devices. The result was a great number of top quality films that fully realized their directors' vision. This film comes from Kaneto Shindo's own production company as well. Like Hiroshi Teshigahara, Shindo has his distinct visual style. All that made "Onibaba" so visually enthralling is there in "Kuroneko". Filmed in wide-screen black and white, chiaroscuro lighting effects with graceful and gliding camerawork make "Kuroneko" one of the most stylistically polished films of the time dealing with a horror story such as this. 

The blood and creature makeup effects are all there, and quite well accomplished at that, without coming off as shoddy or fake, a monumental achievement considering it was made a time when modern devices to pull off such effects were rare. Shindo also makes use of the Chūnori technique predominantly a part of the Kabuki theatre, which allows the ghosts to do back flips and get pulled up in the air right through the roof by means of invisible wire! The Taiko drum and low melancholic string score amidst long, uncomfortable moments of silence broken only slightly by a cat's meow, the fog effects in an empty house beyond the moonlit bamboo grove render a deliciously eerie atmosphere that modern horror filmmakers struggle to achieve in their works.

It is not just on the technical front that the film succeeds. Amidst all the (albeit in minor doses) body horror, with hairy limbs, slanted eyebrows, a woman's pony tail that waggles like a cat's tail, and supernatural elements such as evil gods and monsters, there is plenty of humanistic, compassionate drama at its heart.  Kaneto Shindo's tale doesn't end only with revenge and killings. In a twist of fate, the woman's son Gintoki (Kichiemon Nakamura) comes back from war three years after the killing of the women, as a valiant warrior who is taken in by the local warlord Raiko (Kei Sato) and is entrusted with the responsibility of tracking down the monster that is killing and feeding off the blood of the samurai. This is where the story takes a dramatically different route and shifts from a tale of horror to a tale of grief, loss, and longing. 

There is a poetic beauty in those scenes when the tearful mother Yone (Nobuko Otowa) performs a silent dance as her daughter-in-law's ghost makes love to her son who has returned a fine man. There is a delicate grace and sensuality to the love scenes. An otherworldly joy of immense satisfaction is seen on Shige's (Kiwako Taichi) face as she clutches her husband tightly in a warm embrace after years of separation. It is a moment that is heartwarming as well as heartbreaking, for the viewer knows that the separation is not merely bodily, but worldly too, for the couple now exist in different worlds. Their chemistry and a subsequent speech by Raiko highlight the underlying subtext about inherent class differences, of the respectable nobility, the weak farmers and finally the honour of the samurai.

The ever-bankable Kei Sato, the young Nakamura Kichiemon and the women Kiwako Taichi and especially Nobuko Otowa deliver with solid performances that range from restrained to highly theatrical and Kaneto Shindo holds his grip firm on a steady pace all throughout the narrative except in some portions where it slackens. Some startling revelations and bits that follow come across as slightly clumsy and unconvincing even in the film's supernatural universe, compared to the quality control exercised in the rest of the film. Nevertheless, the iconic image of the black cat's limb in the woman's mouth quickly brings things back on track and cements Kaneto Shindo's status as one of the most talented filmmakers to have happened to Japanese cinema, his humungous filmography being relegated to obscurity, notwithstanding.

Score: 9/10

Monday, July 15, 2013

Sita Sings the Blues (2008)

For years, we kids in India, have grown up hearing the tales of the greatness of Lord Rama the righteous Prince of Ayodhya, the man who put his duty and word above everything else. The ideal man, the ideal son; but what about an ideal husband? Was he one? Not really, as his married life as depicted in the Ramayana would testify. 

Told from an evidently feminist perspective American cartoonist Nina Paley's "Sita Sings the Blues" (2008) is a bold and thought-provoking animated feature despite its light-hearted and humourous nature. Paley's film is essentially a satirized retelling of the mother of all Indian epics, "The Ramayana", focusing on its first lady, Sita and her tribulations, juxtaposed against a contemporary parallel narrative based on Paley's own personal experience of being abandoned by her husband. Although Nina's story is hardly a proper parallel to Sita's story, the film itself exposes the other side of Lord Rama which is often overlooked in a society that is known to sing the praises of his virtuousness. 

But Nina Paley doesn't make it look as serious as it all sounds. She taps her talent of animation and creativity to the fullest and weaves a breezy little film that makes use of different forms of animation. She uses 2D graphics, flash animation, flat round crude animation reminiscent of the fantastic TV series South Park and squigglevision for the snippets of the contemporary story. Annette Hanshaw's songs are interspersed within the narrative seamlessly, with the lyrics reflecting Sita's own situation as she sings the blues following critical events in her life.

To take the story forward, simple flat cut-out animation is used, and characters speak in typically thick Indian accents, and laugh or cry hysterically while the camera zooms in into their faces as they stare agape and a sudden loud musical chord is struck; a clear spoof of the old fashioned soap-operatic storytelling. When Sita breaks into the blues songs, the animation changes into flat round caricatures, with Sita being an exceptionally buxom woman who sings blues, of course, with playback singing by Annette Hanshaw. 

Appearing at regular intervals between these light and funny moments are shadow puppets with contemporary voiceovers, discussing the problems with The Ramayana and pointing out the illogical nature of the story and the character actions. These are the kinds of interesting conversations almost all of the younger generation must've had at some point of time after hearing some of the laughable inconsistencies and logical fallacies of these stories that we've been led to believe actually happened many centuries ago. They may be exaggerated depictions of a true story or they may be fantastical yarns from someone's vivid imagination altogether. In fact, The Ramayana was apparently penned by Valmiki as narrated to him by Sita! The bittersweet story of Nina Paley surfaces once in a while but it takes some time before we realize how her story is exactly supposed to mirror Sita's. 

Paley's use of music is ingenious and her imagination is mischievously creative. In a hilarious intermission sequence, we see all the characters in the film passing by from one end of the screen to the other, going for washroom breaks and buying themselves popcorn and beverages. So while we see a ten-headed Ravana and Rama going out to buy food as buddies, we see some of the saints and Rakshasas going out together as well. 

Towards the end of the intermission, a woman from the audience is heard talking in Hindi which translates thus: "I thought this was a kids' film; hell it is not at all for kids!". Just after this funny intermission comes a very movingly powerful musical dance number that depicts the embodiment of the submissive and oppressed Indian woman in yet another variety of a sketch-like rotoscope animation. The woman dances and literally bares her soul in stark nakedness, claiming her purity and loyalty to her man. In still another intelligently written number, Valmiki teaches Rama's sons Luv and Kusha to sing Rama's praises with lyrics that very openly mock Rama. It is clever insertions like these and some wildly imaginative anachronisms (Rama sips from a cup of coffee in one scene!) that are a testament to Paley's genius. 

The blues songs do get a little tedious and tiresome, especially with some numbers in the second half stretching on for about five minutes or more and hamper the pacing of the film that should actually just whizz by given its 80 minutes length.

Some strata of the contemporary Indian society continue to be plagued with issues regarding the treatment of women. Constant disrespect continues and very unfortunately, domestic violence and subjugation of women in some lower strata of society is a norm that even the women have come to accept. As a feminist issue, it is often a matter of debate as to whether deeming Sita as an ideal woman and wife, depsite her constant subjugation by Rama is an endorsement of male supremacy and female servility and deeming Rama an ideal husband is misogynistic. 

Paley's film has been a target of criticism by right wing Hindu groups and it doesn't come as a surprise given the narrow-mindedness of any extremist religious group. All the controversy and troubled production process notwithstanding, "Sita Sings the Blues" is an enjoyable film, a fun take on serious issues in the great Indian epic The Ramayana that seem to have reflected in the modern Indian society as well. 

Score: 8/10

The full movie is available for streaming online on youtube at the following link: