Tanaka

by Andrea Grunert

Tanaka Kinuyo’s The Eternal Breasts (Chibusa yo eien nare) was released one year after Nakajō Fumiko’s premature death in August 1954 at the age of thirty-one (1). Based on Wakatsuki Akira’s eponymous book (2), the film deals with the life of this well-known tanka poet (3) and mainly with the last weeks before her death from cancer. The Eternal Breasts is the third of six films directed by the famous actress Tanaka. Following her screen debut in 1924, she very quickly became one of the great female stars in Japan, working with Gosho Heinosuke, Shimizu Hiroshi, Naruse Mikio, Kinoshita Keisuke, Ozu Yasujirō, Mizoguchi Kenji (4) and many other Japanese directors. In her directorial debut Love Letter (Koibumi, 1953) as well as in Girls of the Night (Onna bakari no yoru, 1961; 5) she addresses the issue of prostitution and the difficulties faced by former prostitutes who tried to reintegrate into mainstream society. Tsuki wa noborinu (1955) portrays the lives of three sisters and their marriage projects. The Wandering Princess (Ruten no ōhi, 1960) is based on the biography of the Japanese noblewoman Saga Hiro, who was married to Pujie, the younger brother of Puyi, China’s last emperor and from 1934 emperor of the Japanese puppet state Manchukuo (6). The emphasis in this film is on the years after the protagonist’s marriage in 1937, on her life in Manchuria, and on the hardship she had to endure following the defeat of Japan in 1945. Ogin, the main character in Love Under the Crucifix (Ogin-sama, 1962), is the adopted daughter of the famous tea master Sen no Rikyū (7). In the late sixteenth century, she fights for her love for a Christian lord and, after her refusal to become a mistress of Hideyoshi, Japan’s ruler at that time, commits suicide to preserve her honour and save her family from Hideyoshi’s wrath.

A woman’s predicament
The Eternal Breasts deals with a woman’s desire to live her own life and with the way illness can be a social stigma. The film starts with scenes of Fumiko (Tsukioka Yumeji) and her husband, who, without work and addicted to alcohol and drugs, gives vent to his frustration through outbursts of aggression. For Fumiko, writing poetry is an outlet that enables the heroine to describe her sorrows and her longings. When she presents some of her work to a group of amateur poets on the island of Hokkaido where she lives, it does not meet with the approval of her fellow writers, who find the descriptions of her unfulfilled married life exaggerated and disqualify it as “a woman’s truth”. Her friend Hori (Mori Masayuki) is the only one who supports her, and he sends her poems to a publisher in Tokyo. After her divorce, Fumiko is desperate because her former husband is given custody of their young son, one of their two children. She is also tormented by her love for Hori, who is married to her best friend Kinuko (Sugi Yōko), and she is devastated by his sudden death.
Fumiko’s marriage was arranged. However, she is not a submissive wife. She is the one who asks for a divorce – when she discovers that her husband is unfaithful – and she later refuses another marriage proposal arranged by her mother. She insists on her right to make her own decisions: “When I die, I want to be who I am. I do not want God to help me to be a good woman. There is no God.” After her double mastectomy and with metastases in both lungs, she has to spend most of her time in hospital, but she refuses to be pitied. “She has tremendous willpower,” says one of the film’s characters. Moreover, she is depicted as perfectly lucid and only reluctantly accepts her newly-acquired fame (8), suspecting the journalist Ōtsuki (Hayama Ryōji), who has come all the way from Tokyo, of being more interested in her imminent death than in her poems. One early sequence in the film reveals how close happiness and tragedy can be. While the heroine is enjoying a few moments with her son who has come to visit her, she receives the news that a Tokyo-based magazine is interested in her poems. This jubilant sequence is interrupted by several shots of reflections in a mirror that show her hand feeling and examining her naked breasts. These are images which bode ill for the protagonist’s future.

A woman of her time
Despite her determination and courage, Fumiko is a woman of her time, torn between her wish for self-fulfilment and moral bondage. “I’m going to die. Poems don’t help. I lost my breasts. What can I write? I’m just a woman,” she states tearfully. She falls in love with Ōtsuki and, when she finally has to face death, this young journalist is the one whose tender feelings give her moments of happiness. Enjoying this last love in her life, she wonders whether she is a bad person. Internalization of moral standards leads to a self-destructive mood, for example in the sequence in which Fumiko takes a bath at Kinuko’s home. When Kinuko opens the door of the small room containing the bathtub, she almost jumps backwards, unable to hide her horror at the sight of her friend’s mutilated body. While Kinuko tries to compose herself, Fumiko explains why she had asked to use the bath in this room, where she had once seen Hori taking a bath. “I wanted to have a bath where your husband took his. Cancer is my punishment. I loved him.” Her almost hysterical confession reveals her inner torment rather than being an act of revenge on her friend.
The film contains numerous emotionally powerful sequences, some of which could even be called daring – for example the shot of Fumiko’s naked breasts being prepared for the operation. This is followed by images of surgical apparatus and transfusion tubes, the coldness of the technical instruments contrasting sharply with the warmth of human flesh. These shots hint at the transitoriness of life, also expressed in the first lines of one of Fumiko’s poems: “Like a weed floating in water / I am swaying in the ocean of life…”. This poem was written during a brief moment of inner peace when Fumiko, having left the hospital to avoid a first meeting with the journalist from Tokyo, enjoys sitting in the sun near a stream. A melancholic tune accompanies shots of nature which, however, like many others in the film, are not without an element of sadness. Before reaching the spot where she writes her poem, Fumiko walks along a tree-lined path. Framed in a general shot, she is only a tiny figure surrounded by dark trees, and this fragility of human existence is also evoked by the reflection in the mirror in the farewell sequence between Fumiko and Ōtsuki. The young man, about to leave and already at the door, turns once again towards Fumiko, who is holding a mirror that shows a reflection of her lover’s face. The image in the mirror – a kind of doppelganger motif – is a poignant expression of fragility and loss, and in the very next shot, the sign “No visitors” outside Fumiko’s room informs the viewer that she is close to death.

The aesthetics of imprisonment
The film starts with shots of the wide open spaces on Hokkaido but very quickly becomes dominated by fragmentation and visual closures as symbols of the heroine’s situation – imprisoned by her sex and her illness, her feeling of guilt and her body. Her imprisonment is supported by frequent shots of bars, for example in the sequence in which Fumiko watches Ōtsuki leave the hospital from behind the barred window of her room. The profound feeling of hopelessness is perfectly expressed in two sequences in which this same visual motif recurs. One night, Fumiko, as if in a trance, follows a group of nurses who are taking a patient who has died to the morgue. Gripping tightly the bars of the door leading to the morgue, she collapses. Enhanced in its effect by Tsukioka’s marvellous acting, this sequence also emphasizes how strongly Fumiko clings to life. At the end of the film, her two young children follow the nurses taking their dead mother to the morgue until the same barred door blocks their way. The camera frames the two small figures standing behind the black bars of the door with darkness surrounding them.
Frequent use of frames within frames is a further powerful cinematic device creating a feeling of imprisonment, for example in the bath sequence with Fumiko and Kinuko in which Fumiko is filmed through a glass panel in the door of the bathroom. Elaborate use of light and shade, fragmenting bodies, objects and space, contributes to the atmosphere of a menacing closure.
The Eternal Breasts ends with images in which once again despair and hope co-exist. Fumiko’s children and Ōtsuki throw flowers into Lake Tōya, a place that Fumiko would have loved to visit together with Hori but was prevented by her illness. The words “Children, accept my death. The only thing I bequeath to you!” appear on the shot of the lake. Fumiko’s acceptance of her fate is linked to an expression hope, with the images of the children and the water suggesting renewal and the idea that life will go on.

Notes
(1) Nakajō Fumiko, whose real name was Noe Fumiko, was born on 25 November 1922 and died on 3 August 1954.

(2) The title of the book and the film could be translated as Let Breasts Be Eternal. The screenplay was written by Tanaka Sumie.

(3) In Japan, Nakajō, a writer of tanka poems (tanka: a genre of classical Japanese poetry), is considered one of the best-known female poets of the twentieth century alongside Yosano Akiko and Tawara Machi. See for further information about her life and work Kawamura Hatsue and Jane Reichhold, Breasts of Snow: Fumiko Nakajō – Her Tanka and Her Life, Tokyo, The Japan Times, 2004.

(4) Tanaka is best known in the West for her collaboration with Mizoguchi in films such as The Love of Sumako the Actress (Joyū Sumako no koi, 1947) and The Life of Oharu (Saikaku ichidai onna, 1952).

(5) The English title is reminiscent of Mizoguchi Kenji’s Women of the Night (Yaru no onnatachi, 1948), a film dealing with prostitution in post-war Japan in which Tanaka is cast in one of the leading roles.

(6) Puyi, who became Emperor of China at the age of two in 1906, was forced to abdicate six years later. In 1932, he was installed as Chief Executive of the Japanese puppet state Manchukuo. Two years later, he was crowned Emperor of Manchukuo, a title he held until Japan was defeated in 1945.

(7) The film is an adaptation of Kon Toko’s eponymous novel published in 1956. Very little is known about the private life and family of Sen no Rikyū (1522-1591), one of the important and highly influential tea masters from the city and seaport Sakai. Ogin is a mainly fictitious figure.

(8) Nakajō’s first book of poems, published when she was already very ill, immediately became a bestseller. However, as the film shows, press coverage of her focused on the fact that she was dying. See Kawamura and Reichhold, op. cit. for further details.

eternal breats

WEDDING RING

 

by Andrea Grunert

In this year that marks the centenary of Mifune Toshirō’s birth (he was born on 1 April 1920 and died on 24 December 1997), I am still surprised how much his versatility is overlooked. He is celebrated as an international star and as an icon inextricably linked to the figure of the samurai, as in the documentary Mifune: The Last Samurai (USA/Japan, Steven Okazaki, 2015), but this tends to obscure the great creativity with which he approached all his roles. It is true that Mifune was often typecast – as a samurai or as a senior army or navy officer. However, even in his most stereotypical roles, he succeeded in creating fleshed-out individuals, employing a great variety of expressive means to make them convincing and appealing. Mifune started his career in gendai geki (1) such as Ginrei no hate (Snow Trail, Taniguchi Senkichi, 1947) and Yoidore tenshi (Drunken Angel, Kurosawa Akira, 1948), in which he played the young rebel, captivating Japanese filmgoers with his unusually intense acting style (2). In the early years of his career he was sometimes cast in romantic roles – as the young and sexually inexperienced peasant who finds love quite by chance in the third episode of Naruse Mikio’s Ishinaka sensei gyōjōki (Conduct Report on Professor Ishinaka, 1950) or the bank employee in love with a married woman in Tsuma no kokoro (A Wife’s Heart, Naruse, 1956). Film critic Satō Tadao calls Mifune the “classic example of the tateyaku” (3), the strong male in kabuki theatre (4), and states: “Since his debut in 1947 he has appeared in approximately one hundred and twenty films. However, as far as I remember, he has only played three or four love scenes, in which he was so terribly miscast that they are a clear case of the exception proving the rule.” (5) I disagree with Satō’s claim. There is a clear romantic element in the character of some of the heroic swordfighters Mifune played in numerous jidai geki (6) in the 1950s and early 1960s (7). Both here and in those films in which he was cast as the young lover, he explores the many facets of his roles through his vivid and inventive acting style, heightened by his charisma and sex appeal. This is especially true for Kinoshita Keisuke’s Konyaku yubiwa (Wedding Ring aka Engagement Ring, 1950), a film in which Kinoshita deals with love and passion in a surprisingly light-hearted manner. The topic of unfulfilled love has rich potential for tragedy, but Kinoshita chose instead a mixture of melodrama and comedy. In this film, Mifune plays a doctor, Ema, who falls in love with Noriko, the wife of one of his patients. Tanaka Kinuyo is cast as Kuki Noriko and Uno Jūkichi as her husband Michio. Konyaku yubiwa gives Mifune the opportunity to display his youthful charm in the role of a kindly young man (8) and to show his talent for comedy and for emotional intensity.

Context and characters

The focus in Konyaku yubiwa is on the three main characters and the relationships between them. At a formal level, the elegant switches between close-ups and landscape photography indicate the link between the private and the public sphere and the symbolic relevance of personal experience as a social microcosm. Most of the action takes place in the seaside town of Ajirō, in the southern part of Atami (9), and at the Kukis’ mansion in this resort. The viewer is given a few glimpses of the bustling life in Tokyo, where the Kuki family owns a jeweller’s shop. There are impressions of everyday life such as the shots of passengers leaving a train at the station or on the crowded bus going to Ajirō. The many close-ups and medium close-ups of the main characters are a clear indication that the emphasis is on human beings. Their story and their feelings give insights into Japanese society recovering from wartime destruction. A number of shots evoke an idyll untouched by the violence of war – the coastline scenery with cherry trees in bloom, the park with plum trees, the picturesque inn, the beach in Ajirō. The Kukis live in an elegant mansion, implying business success. However, this idyll is undermined by hidden fears, sexual frustration, repressed desires and jealousy. Michio, suffering from tuberculosis (10), is weakened from his illness. His tanka poems reveal his pessimistic world view as does the sad expression on his face, captured by the camera in a number of close-ups. Obsessed by his inability to lead a normal married life, he is plagued by self-doubt, making him the epitome of the defeated Japanese male, helpless and emasculated. Male vigour and youthful strength are represented by the handsome and rugged Ema, who is bursting with energy. Mifune’s muscular body, showcased in the scenes in which Ema wears swimming trunks, contrasts with Michio’s emaciated face and obvious physical weakness.

Ema is not the only character with contagious vitality. Noriko is an active woman who runs the family business, something that the men in the Kuki family are unable (Michio) or unwilling (Michio’s father) to do. This is a rather unusual role for a Japanese woman, despite the fact that during the war women had to replace men in factories and do other typically male jobs and despite the efforts of the Occupation forces to strengthen the role of women in Japanese society, who for centuries had been suppressed in a rigid patriarchal system. (11) During the week, Noriko even lives alone in Tokyo in order to fulfil her duties at the Kukis’ large jeweller’s shop. It is on one of her trips back home that she and Ema first meet. In a crowded bus, Ema, standing next to the seated Noriko, catches a glimpse of her. But instead of her face, the camera focus is on the wedding ring (12) on her finger. The ring and Ema’s shoes are the two objects that repeatedly appear, symbolizing the development of the relationship between the doctor and Noriko. The ring marks Noriko as taboo for Ema, and this situation is at the core of the complicated relationships between the three protagonists and the film’s moral discourse. Close-ups of the ring figure in the sequence in which Noriko first touches Ema, though she does so only playfully, and on several other occasions when she has already decided against deepening her relationship with the doctor. However, there is a significant moment during a trip back to Tokyo when she has – accidentally, as she claims – left the ring at home, a ring which she treasures so much that, during the war, she had hidden it from the military when they were confiscating luxury items as contributions to the war effort. Facing hardship because of her love for Michio, she now finds herself on the threshold of adultery. Torn between love for Michio and the desire inflamed in her by Ema, she reveals her feelings to the doctor, saying that she no longer looks forward to the week-ends spent with her sick husband.

The wedding ring is a symbol and a constant reminder of conjugal fidelity; and Ema’s shoes also play an important role in the relationship that develops between Ema and Noriko. In the first sequence of the film, Noriko smiles when she notices Ema’s old white sneakers, shown in close-up. When they meet in Tokyo, she offers him elegant leather shoes, finding them more appropriate for a doctor. When they meet again, she is surprised to discover that he still wears his sneakers, which he explains by saying that they are more comfortable. Following a further meeting with Noriko, who is clearly flirting with him, the confused Ema, struggling with his emotions, is heading for the station, the sneakers shown in close-up. The next shot is another close-up, now of Ema wearing the new shoes and walking in the opposite direction, towards the Kukis’ mansion. This acceptance of the gift suggests his acceptance of his feelings and hints at the possibility of adultery.

The two objects not only have dramatic and symbolic meaning but also serve to avoid excessive sentimentality and function as effective and economic narration. With its clever blend of melodrama and humour, Kinoshita’s film reveals a wide range of feelings and great human complexity. The first deliberate physical contact between Noriko and Ema is when she runs after him, bringing him the notebook with her husband’s tanka poems – really just a pretext to talk to the doctor again before he leaves for Atami. Taken aback by Noriko saying: “Your hands are so strong,” Ema replies with a big smile: “No, these are gentle hands.” Noriko playfully taps his hand, which he pulls away quickly, looking bewildered. A close-up of Ema’s face reveals his inner turmoil when he continues walking toward the trains station. However, after this scene the doctor starts to wear the new leather shoes. Noriko’s sexual desire is fully revealed in the scene in which she stares at Ema’s jacket, drenched with sweat. She touches her face with her hands as if in agony and then hides it behind them before plunging it into the garment and breathing in deeply the smell of Ema’s body. Ema’s confusion about his feelings for Noriko reaches a peak during their last meeting, when the young man, a look of despair on his face, asks Noriko if he can cry in her lap. His jacket is a symbol and a substitute for his body; but despite their attraction to each other, Noriko’s and Ema’s mutual desire will not lead to fulfilment. In the moments of intimacy  – in the train, at the beach, in the park, in the inn – they reveal their feelings for each other but also their concern for Michio and, in Noriko’s case, her love for him. Desire is always accompanied by feelings of guilt, which are expressed not only verbally but also in the acting. “I can hear my heart beating very fast,” says Ema after swimming in the sea, pointing out that he has not had an opportunity to go swimming for a while and is therefore a bit “rusty”. Addressing these words to Noriko with a bright smile, they may suggest a deeper meaning. Noriko, hardly able to suppress her desire, seems to take this remark as an invitation and touches his naked shoulder. Then follows a cut to Ema’s face in close-up, looking embarrassed. Noriko, seemingly hurt by his reaction, takes a few steps back. Looking at each other, their faces have an expression of both desire and shame.

Contradictory feelings

Ema acts as a catalyst, helping the couple to overcome the crisis in their married life. Noriko, feeling she is desired by a man, is blossoming again (13) and Michio awakens from his lethargy and self-pity. The first encounter between Noriko and Ema in the bus is interspersed by shots of cherry trees in bloom – a symbol of rebirth. This encounter is depicted in an almost comical manner – Ema, having lost his balance in the bus, stumbles and falls into her lap (14). The simple, jaunty tune which accompanies the bus trip contributes to the buoyant rhythm of this sequence, prefiguring the awakening of their feelings for each other. Throughout the film, these feelings are communicated superbly by the two actors. Mifune’s sense of timing, so much admired by Kurosawa (15), and his juvenile nonchalance are the most obvious features, and they make a perfect contribution to the dramatic as well as to the comic moments in the film. When they first meet in the jeweller’s shop, Ema pokes his tongue out at Noriko – a clear indication  that they have already became closer (a little later in the same sequence the dialogue confirms this impression). In another sequence at the shop, Ema expresses his concern for Michio, blaming himself for wishing him dead. His face twisted with grief and his gestures – his hands running through his hair and scratching his legs – reflect his inner torment. His facial expressions and gestures are both natural and appropriate, matching the character’s youthful attitude.

Ema is depicted as a sympathetic young man who not only arouses feelings in Noriko but is very much respected by both Michio and his father. His sneakers and clothes of rather poor quality contrast with the wealth of the Kuki family, and close-ups of his face reveal how much he is impressed by the huge mansion in which his patient lives and by the Kukis’ large and elegant jeweller’s shop. They represent the kind of wealth that is completely unfamiliar to him. At one point he criticizes Michio’s self-pity, calling him superficial because he has never known poverty. However, there is a strong bond between the two men, both of whom served in the war. Ema, who confesses that he is in love for the first time, may be inexperienced in matters of love, but he is a caring person who takes his responsibilities as a doctor very seriously and has a profound desire to cure people.

A happy ending

In the second-last sequence Noriko joins Ema at an inn. The meeting takes place in a small room where dinner is served for the couple. The sequence is dramatically and visually complex, built upon facial and body expressions as well as gazes. Ema accepts Noriko’s decision to stay with her husband, but reveals his own feelings in a highly emotional manner. The focus is on Ema whose intense facial expressions, gestures and movements (16) are emphasized by camera positions and editing, to show how much he is torn between passion and duty. Both actors deliver fine and very nuanced performances in this long sequence, combining strong emotions with more light-hearted moments. One example is when the couple enjoys beers and talks about Michio’s future and his cure in the mountains.

The protagonists return to their traditional roles in society, in accordance with the moral conventions that the film clearly advocates. What has happened to Ema and Noriko was only “a passing fever”. It is not simply that Ema wears his sneakers again. Their return to traditional roles is further emphasized by the fact that Noriko abandons her western-style clothes and wears a kimono in the last part of the film. She has also decided to give up her life as a businesswoman and accompany her husband to a sanatorium in the mountains. Both Michio and Ema have a traditional view of women as faithful wives, and during the very emotional dialogue in the park, it is Ema who speaks with the voice of reason (“We need to cool our hearts”) and asks Noriko to stop crying as others are already staring at them. However, traditional Japanese masculinity has undergone some changes. Ema as well as Michio are depicted as men who admire Noriko for her vitality and treat her with great respect, an attitude more in line with western romantic concepts of love than with Japanese patriarchal traditions (17). The guilt-ridden Michio shows great understanding for his wife, and despite his increasing jealousy, he encourages her to join Ema at the beach. However, it is Noriko who plays the active part in her relationship with the young doctor, emphasized by the expensive looking shoes she offers him. Ema is depicted as an inexperienced young man, troubled by feelings previously unknown to him. Noriko assures her husband that nothing improper has happened between her and the doctor, who “is a nice man with pure intentions”. Without challenging moral conventions, Kinoshita reveals through emotionally intense moments, all marvellously supported by his cast, the conflicts that can arise from adhering to such conventions. In Konyaku yubiwa, the conflicts are resolved, and Kinoshita’s film has a happy ending not only for Noriko and Michio, for whom there is great hope of being cured, but for Ema as well who has a new patient to take care of – the young female bus conductor shown at the beginning of the film – and sees his two friends off in a joyful mood.

Notes

1 Films and tales set in the contemporary world.

2 See Andrea Grunert “Mifune Toshirō: A Star with a Thousand Faces”, https://shomingekionline.org, 31 March 2020.

3 Tadao Satō, Currents in Japanese Cinema, New York, Kodansha International 1987, p. 19.

4 The term tateyaku means literally “standing role”. It refers to the role of the heroic male in kabuki theatre.

5 Satō, ibid., p. 19.

6 The term can be roughly translated as “period film”.

7 Mifune played heroes with romantic qualities in several historical films such as Miyamoto Musashi (Samurai, Inagaki Hiroshi, 1954) and its two sequels (1955 and 1956), Yagyū bugeichō (The Yagyu Secret Scrolls, Inagaki Hiroshi, 1957), Nippon tanjō (The Three Treasures, Inagaki Hiroshi, 1959), Yagyū bugeichō – sōryū hiken (The Yagyu Secret Scrolls – Ninjutsu, Inagaki Hiroshi, 1958) and Ōsaka-jō monogatari (Daredevil in the Castle, Inagaki Hiroshi, 1961).

8 This sympathetic character matches Mifune’s image as projected in numerous fan magazines such as Kinda Eiga and Eiga Fan throughout the 1950s.

9 Atami is a resort famous for its hot springs.

10 See William Johnston, The Modern Epidemic: A History of Tuberculosis in Japan, Cambridge, Mass., The Council of East Asian Studies/Harvard University Press, 1997. It was not until the newly developed antibiotic streptomycin became available in Japan in 1948 that tuberculosis could be cured. (Cf. Johnston, ibid., p. 287)

11 For more information on gender roles in early post-war Japan see Naoko Shibusawa America’s Geisha Ally: Reimagining the Japanese Enemy, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2006.

12 The diamond ring shown in frequent close-ups is Noriko’s engagement ring she wears on the outside of her wedding ring. However, in order to avoid any confusion about Noriko’s status as a married woman, I refer to it as “wedding ring”.

13 Michio comments on the fact that Noriko seems more beautiful than ever and he also observes that she no longer wears the same clothes most of the time and pays more attention to her appearance.

14 The comic moment in the bus when Ema is thrown into Noriko’s lap has its melodramatic counterpart at the inn when the desperate Ema asks Noriko if he can “cry in her lap”.

15 Akira Kurosawa, Something Like an Autobiography, New York, Vintage, 1983, p. 161.

16 For instance, while Noriko is kneeling in front of the dinner table, Ema leaves the table to sit down first at the windowsill and then on a chair at some distance from Noriko.

17 Mark McLelland points out that the attitudes in Japanese culture with regard to sex and gender that existed in the ‚opening‘ of Japan to the West remained unchanged for almost a hundred years. “Also odd [for the Japanese] was the extreme deference that Western men paid to their ‚ladies‘, at least in public. Although in the Confucian system men of lower status were able to show respect to high-status women without compromising their masculinity, the Western practice of ‚ladies first‘ in which men deferred to women in general seemed a peculiar idea, one that was still able to amaze Japanese people even in the early days of the American Occupation that was to take place almost a century later.” (McLelland, Love, Sex, and Democracy in Japan During the Occupation, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, p. 14)

Once Upon a Dream-01

by Andrea Grunert

To Takahashi Tetsuya

The Lichtblick Cinema in Berlin was the location for a screening of films by the Japanese filmmaker Shichiri Kei. Once Upon a Dream (2007/2016, 80 min.), Necktie (2019, 15 min.) and Music as Film (2014, performance version with reality voice-over and remix) were shown on 3 March 2020 with the director himself present. My interest in his films was aroused a few years ago by the cinematographer Takahashi Tetsuya, one of Shichiri’s faithful collaborators. Unable to travel to Tokyo, the screening in Berlin was for me the first opportunity to finally discover a small sample of his work. I do not live in Berlin, but I seized the opportunity to attend the presentation of three films by Shichiri Kei, and my decision to do so turned out to be the best I could have taken.
Shichiri does not like genre categorizations and indeed, his films combine multiple elements, making a classification difficult. However, Once Upon a Dream and Music as Film in particular go beyond the conventional storytelling that most filmgoers are used to. Shichiri creates complex works relying on association and dissociation. The experimental character of his films requires considerable attention from us viewers, an attention which is, however, rewarded by deeply felt emotions, in the best case leading to understanding and insights. I have been in very high spirits since the evening at the Lichtblick Cinema, as if under the (very positive) spell of the films, and they continue to provoke new questions. Questions about the medium itself, about representation and perception and about the very essence of the images which continue to haunt us in a world that is flooded with images and sounds and in which digitalization offers new creative possibilities but also sets many traps. Shichiri’s work questions anew the very nature of the relationship between image and reality.

Once Upon a Dream

Once Upon a Dream is inspired by a manga in which the characters were represented. In Shichiri’s film, human bodies are almost totally absent. There are just a few shots in which actors are framed, and where they are framed, their bodies are fragmented or stylized. A young woman is filmed from behind, and in a series of more general shots, the woman appears in a view of a landscape as a miniature figure in a wide empty space. Or, we see parts of the human body such as hands. It is the human voice, detached from the body, which is at the very core of Once Upon a Dream, a film reminiscent of films by Marguerite Duras, a writer and filmmaker Shichiri is indebted to as he told me in a short improvised interviewii. However, in Shichiri’s work it is the voice that makes human presence strongly felt.
Once Upon a Dream is a cult film in Japan, where it receives annual revivals. On the 10th anniversary of the first screening, it was remastered in surround sound. The voice-over is not a commentary but an interior monologue, a stream of thoughts, memories, impressions. There are also dialogues between a man and a woman. And there is an inner confrontation with scary voices which haunt the woman and to which she refers in her monologues and in the dialogues. We listen to the sounds of the nature – the chirping of birds – or to a train passing by. In some sequences, the surrounding sounds of the natural or the urban environment are faded out, whereas the voice-over continues. Long stretches of landscape shots or street views are accompanied by music. Sometimes, a second soundtrack is audible in the background while we can still hear the voice-over. This complex approach to sound is mirrored by a similarly complex treatment of image: dissolution, fragmentation, subtle contrasts between light and shade. The blackness of the first shot is transformed by the light of a sunrise, with the branches of trees appearing as dark silhouettes set against the pale blue of the sky. The image of the tree emerges before our eyes while we listen to music and to the sound of a passing train – a reminder of the urban world, which is then revealed after a sudden cry by a female voice puts an abrupt end to idyllic feelings. The interior shots of a small flat – bedroom, tiny bathroom – suggest the everyday life of a woman, who is framed from behind while smoking a cigarette. The sounds and images of the most banal objects – a toilet, for example – are frequently used throughout the film. Spaces of daily life – the flat, empty streets, various rooms in a school in which the woman and the man work – are framed by the camera while the voices evoke memories, fears, dreams. The images of material objects collide with thoughts about love and work, insanity and death, revealing Shichiri’s interest in the subconscious. Our brain is not focused on a single object or space that is captured by the camera. Instead, thoughts and the spoken text drift away from the immediate environment, as if on a different track. Through dissociation of image and sound, new imaginary spaces are filled in us, the viewers, by our minds and emotions. There are also moments of light relief, such as the shots of the ashtray with the picture of a black cat and “le chat” (French for “the cat”) on it. This picture of a cat is an almost comic reference to the cat which lives in the woman’s flat and which appears frequently in the film and can even be seen in a photograph next to the toilet.

Once Upon a Dream is also a work on perception. Hands, the topic of the interior monologue and/or dialogue, are shown in close-up, revealing the way we perceive ourselves and our environment. Shichiri recalled during our short interview that he was reflecting here on human vision. Our field of vision is limited and our perception fragmented, which is one of the reasons why he avoids a representation of the human body in this film. However, Once Upon a Dream is not an abstract construct. Voices and images create strong feelings. The absent-present characters behind the voices express feelings which point to a descent into madness, for example the woman’s fear of waking up. Love, fear, madness, death are the topics of the spoken text, and they are conveyed by the emotions evoked by sound and image. Shichiri told me that his approach to reality is via the fantastic, and Once Upon a Dream shows that he does not need special effects to demonstrate that reality is a complex entanglement of images and sound, everyday impressions and poetry, material reality and the subconscious, the visible and the invisible.

Necktie

Necktie

In Once Upon a Dream the boundaries between reality and dream are blurred. Dream establishes a link between this film and Necktie, in which dream is an essential part of the narrative. This short film combines the search for a missing woman with the exploration of identity and desire. The search leads a man and a woman through the streets of Tokyo into a district which does not figure on any map, and the film becomes a journey into the subconscious. A young woman offers a necktie to a stranger whom she meets in a café, asking him to look for a friend of hers who has gone missing and who obsessively stole the ties of random drunk strangers. The physical object “tie” literally creates a tie between them, influencing the man’s behaviour and self-image. The theme of the film Necktie had a number of sources, as Shichiri explained to me. He did research on the origins of the garment in 17th century France, was inspired by the importance it had for Oscar Wilde, and was further motivated by an anecdote told to him by Takahashi Tetsuya concerning a love story in which ties played a crucial role. During the Thirty Years’ War, the knotted handkerchiefs worn by Croatian mercenaries aroused the interest of young Louis XIV. These cravats were presents given to the soldiers by their wives or lovers as protection, and they also served as a means to identify the dead on the battlefield. In these sources, ties have a dramatic function or are related to identity, and Shichiri explores both aspects in his short film, which is infused with mystery.

Music as Film

The key-figure in the third film is Salome. The voices revolve around the figures of a mother, a daughter and an absent father, whose identities remain as unclear as their relationship to each other. The relationship is as dreamlike as that between the man and the woman behind the voices in Once Upon a Dream and the relationship between the characters who appear in Necktie. “Cinema made from sound” is a project on which Shichiri has been working since 2014. At the Lichtblick Cinema, the composer Adachi Tomomi performed the live act that accompanies parts of the film.
One of the key questions Shichiri asks in this film is: How are images transformed under the impact of changing music and sound? On the soundtrack, a number of voices recite and sing, and during a live performance, a variety of sounds created by the human voice and by electronic devices are added to this soundtrack of recorded music, sounds and voices. Two stories are narrated separately but simultaneously, one in sound, the other in images. The recorded voices relate the story of Salome as interpreted by Shichiri, and images of landscapes and objects intersect with text. The written words of this text refer to the history of the cinema and its evolution towards the digital era. Shichiri told me that he started thinking about changes to the image as a result of digitalization, which for him represents the greatest change in film history. He compares the digital image with aliens taking on human form in films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (USA, Donald Siegel, 1956), the digital image looking like the real thing but differing from the original in significant details. It is a fake image, shallow and devoid of essence.
To approach this topic and the questions it raises, Shichiri goes back to the very beginning of filmmaking, showing in a fascinating way that film was never silent, that there was always musical accompaniment or surrounding noises. He does not need to explain this in words, and instead demonstrates it by means of a polymorphic soundtrack and sound environment and the association of images with written text. Here again, he makes use of dissociative as well as associative elements. Image and sound seem separated but are also closely connected, as if allowing the viewer to “listen to the image” (a phrase that Marguerite Duras used). Shichiri explained that the idea of connecting the Salome motif with reflections on the infancy of the cinema was born when he learned about Oscar Wilde’s play Salome, premiered in Paris in 1896, a few months after the first film screening by Louis and Auguste Lumière.
In our conversation, Shichiri emphasized that Salome is a prominent figure in 19th century literature and art, inspiring Heinrich Heine and Oscar Wilde as well as painters such as the French symbolist Gustave Moreau, whose painting “Salome” (1876) was the inspiration for Wilde’s play. According to Shichiri, the figure of Salome is closely connected with the birth of the cinema, and this connection is illustrated in the film not only by historical facts but also by allusions. One of these is expressed by the idea of the cut, and there are several references to cuts. In one sequence a male head is displayed on a concrete block near the sea. During the screening, I could not help associating this image of Jokanaan’s head with the process of editing, or “Schnitt” (cut) in German. And Shichiri told me that he had indeed been toying with that idea. Editing is a very cinematic device which is omnipresent in the elaborate fragmentation operating at all levels in Shichiri’s films, and it extends well beyond the usual editing of the photographic and sound material to include sounds from the space in which the film is shown. Music as Film brings together the dramatic story of Salome, who seeks to possess Jokanaan with a different form of possession, which is discussed at a theoretical level and addresses the question of when music first came to film – a man (film) seeking to possess a woman (music). The ancient story of Salome, her desire, and the violence of the biblical tale confronts the written text on-screen referring to the emergence of cinema. The water – the ocean – is a reminder of birth and the womb. Shots of the roaring sea filmed from a cavern have an archaic quality and evoke the strange encounter between the ancient Salome story, which provided a topic for the arts – literature and painting – at the end of the 19th century, and the modern age with the emergence of the cinema, inventions such as the car, and the birth of psychoanalysis. And as we know, psychoanalysis relies on many images familiar from mythological sources and has given them new perspectives. Moreover, the symbol of waves on the surface of the sea reminds us that both sound and light are also waves, waves which are fundamental to cinema.
Music as Film presents a number of different layers of time which meet each other, fuse into each other or resist each other. Shichiri tells stories of creation in which film becomes the starting point to explore cinema and reality, image and sound. What we see – and the text points to this – are images. Shichiri’s work offers a concentrated, but necessary reflection on images and sound which requires intense sensitive and intellectual engagement but without ever forcing us, and we can nevertheless take pleasure in the harmonies and disharmonies of which all three films are made.

Shichiri Kei-Portrait

i)I would like to thank Professor Shibutani Tetsuya for his kind support. He not only suggested that I should present Shichiri Kei with a variety of questions but was also kind enough to act as translator.

ii)The interview which Shichiri Kei kindly agreed to give me took place on 4 March 2020 in Berlin and provided some important clues for this article, for which I am very grateful.