Review: Hirokazu Koreeda’s “Still Walking” (2008)

Still Walking Hiroshi Abe Yui Natsukawa Koreeda

It’s often thought that the best way to create a film — or any work of art, really — is really to write drama: to craft a conflict, first, and then deal with its natural outgrowths. In most cases, however, this is quite backwards, for true ‘adult’ drama begins not with the energies immanent to it, but to their architects: that is, people, and all the little details, the sums and parts, that help make such energies real. In this way, drama is not a thing that merely happens, but is demanded by the specifics of character, and feels almost inevitable. Few films have shown this better than Hirokazu Koreeda’s Still Walking, a work that begins and terminates with its characters, whose whims, personal beliefs, quirks, and mannerisms not only build their conflict, but come to justify it as well.

The film’s narrative follows a day in the Yokoyama family, a (subtly) needling clan not privy to the extent of their own destructiveness, and their shared mistakes. It opens with vistas of an anonymous town as a couple of guitars play (from Japan’s GONTITI) and domestic scenes unfold. These include food preparations — less for a meinichi, we’ll come to learn, than a bitter, self-serving ritual that simply recapitulates their own problems — small-talk between the aging mother, Toshiko (Kirin Kiki), and her daughter, You (Chinami Kataoka), that lulls that viewer into a sense of complacency that will soon be dispersed; and, most interesting of all, shots of Kyohei (Yoshio Harada), the film’s doctor and patriarch, seen in one of the film’s only tender moments as he laughs with a patient. Now, it may be impossible to tell just yet, but this is a clue that he’s not so much aloof as he is aloof from his own family, for reasons we’ll come to know and others never stated.

Kyohei’s role in this dynamic is evident early on, in one the film’s most arresting shots. One sees the parents’ son, Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), his wife, Yukari (Yui Natsukawa), Yukari’s son, Atsushi (Shohei Tanaka), You, and her husband, talking to one another as Kyohei enters, unseen by the viewer, but clearly there given the family’s sudden — perhaps even fearful — reaction. It is a great acting moment and one that encapsulates the talent of pretty much everyone involved, subtly taking cues from each other and responding to them. The group immediately moves to bow, yet Ryota merely looks on with an aloofness that Kyohei returns. This is not really spiteful, merely proof that the relationship is at its end, with the rest of the film focused not so much on how it unravels — for it’s already quite unraveled, in interactions we do not see but can guess at — but on new insights into the same basic conflicts that must have trended through their lives for much too long.

Thus, there are no massive revelations, no melodramatic secrets that are uncovered to help the viewer … Continue reading →

Woody Allen’s Women: How He Got Them, Kept Them, & Got Some More

Woody Allen's Women Diane Keaton Mia Farrow Mariel Hemingway Mia Sorvino Samantha Morton Scarlett Johansson Winona Ryder
Let us pretend, for a second, that Woody Allen’s worst feminist detractors are right. Let’s pretend that he’s written too many manipulative women, too many heart-breakers, and too many ditzes to ever be comfortably on ‘their’ side. What then? What does this say of Allen’s oeuvre as a whole, and Allen as the progenitor of such? And, more importantly, is there any evidence of these things to begin with?

Well, there is, partly because one can find almost anything in a complex film if one searches hard enough, and partly because — as Dan Schneider argues — there is an odd tinge of “loathing” underneath it all, wherein Woody Allen’s women fight, cheat, steal, or even lust after a man too old and too manipulative to ever be fair game. At times, this is even played off for comic effect, although the irony is, of course, that there is always someone (even if not Allen) imagining himself in such a position, and tries to be precisely that. Yet assertions without numbers are a hard sell, and have gotten many a critic into trouble with such ‘frills’ as evidence. So, how does one gauge how true the claims are? How does one even measure how good or bad a female Allen character really is? The latter is easily answered: with one’s eyes. Allen’s characters all have motivations and behaviors, for good or ill, and it is up to the viewer — and not a film book, or a theorist — to untangle them. As for the numbers? Let us merely take, for the sake of this thought-experiment, a tally of those who might be OK’d by a feminist reading, and those that will simply never be.

Allen’s early films are none-too-fertile ground for such an analysis since they are, without question, more gag-driven than character dependent. Yet even here, one sees Allen’s desire to invert Hollywood tropes, and even play rough with gender stereotypes. Many of these women, for instance, simply reject Woody’s advances, or otherwise poke fun at him. Nancy (Louise Lasser) from Bananas wants nothing to do with a rote, passionless ‘weakling’ like Fielding Mellish; Louise (Janet Margolin) from Take the Money and Run is almost beyond analysis, given how steadfast she is, and without reason; and the Diane Keaton/Allen ‘troika’ of SleeperPlay It Again, Sam, and Love and Death has the male lead chasing her, and often losing her. Sure, one sees Boris (Love and Death) already bed a woman well beyond his means, but one also sees some interesting inversions in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex*, especially the last sketch, wherein the woman is the aggressor, and a priest represents male “Catholic guilt”, to balance out some of the less flattering depictions of women. One cannot, at any rate, get what’s necessary here — at least not for our purposes.

Allen’s first glimpse ‘proper’ into the female psyche was Annie Hall, a film that was supposedly mess … Continue reading →

“Neon Genesis Evangelion” And Its Place In Animation

Neon Genesis Evangelion Screenshots Misato Shinji Tokyo

“To render it in my own terms, the ‘idealistic age’ is the period when grand narrative functioned alone while the ‘fictional age’ is the period when grand narrative functioned only as a fake.” – Hiroki Azuma, Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals

“…it also appears that the culture of imagination, a longtime province of Japan’s male youth, is reaching a certain end point. It is as though imagination is no longer expanding toward an aspirational time and place but is instead fixed in the here and now, capable of only expanding internally and heralding a kind of era of obsessiveness.” – Izumi Tsuji, “Why Study Train Otaku? A Social History Of Imagination”

“It is said that the camera cannot lie, but rarely do we allow it to do anything else, since the camera sees what you point it at: the camera sees what you want it to see.” – James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work

 

Introduction:

One Theory Of Anime

In the spirit of this essay’s central posit — or one of them, anyway — I’ve started out with 3 divergent, even duplicitous epigraphs. Prior to going any further, I suggest you re-read them, carefully, as 2 of 3 are, word by word, in whole or in part, total bullshit: red herrings that always seem to slink their way into conversations on the arts that they really have no place in, thus crowding out what’s relevant, and what needs discussion. The other quote, by contrast, brilliantly suggests why a work of art can be so polarizing, even as that work is an objective ‘thing’ with properties immanent to it, and does not simply change with the percipient’s whims. I won’t tell you which one’s which — not yet, at least — for the best answer is somewhere in the art, itself, which you and I will try to see anew.

Yes, Neon Genesis Evangelion is a polarizing work. Although essentially a ‘teen’ or young adult anime, it’s been derided by critics for its ending (“cheating,” “meaningless,” “stupid,” mere “veneer”), its faux Christian symbolism, the way it seems to obviate its own narrative spine midway through the series, as well as director Hideaki Anno’s decision to leave a number of rote questions more or less unanswered. I did not, therefore, approach this work with any real expectations. It was, after all, too popular with the ‘pop’ crowd, too loved by the notoriously dense philosopher-types as a work of art (red flag!), and too badly hammered by those who seemed to know what they were talking about. As for me? I was a cinephile who, years ago, was about to enter into my very first anime, and, given all that I’d known of otaku culture, expected dull writing straining to be ‘deep,’ immature characters, plot-driven (as opposed to narrative-driven) stories, and video game-level fluff admixed — I do not know why — into something that was, for lack of a better word, interesting.

I will detail the reasons for my curiosity later, … Continue reading →

On The Art Of Francis Bacon

In many ways, the art of Francis Bacon was merely the technical side of a far deeper movement, probably in development ever since the first human beings decide to ‘create’ something — anything, really — and wondered of their own compulsion. This is the idea (from the 1800s onward) that art is not there to simply ‘look good,’ or to edify didactically, or to praise God, reject God, be social, be political, or any other singular thing that would get so often demanded of it. Instead, the idea was that art is here to communicate, which is really the most expansive definition of all, incorporating many of the old, bias-ridden requirements all the while forging wholly new ones. Van Gogh was already doing this in his landscapes, given, as they were, to colors and techniques that were less beautiful than evocative; Walt Whitman was busy opening up poetry in the same direction, being full of seemingly ‘rough’ declaratives that must have sounded quite alarming to classically-trained ears; and Pablo Picasso hyper-developed the idea well into the 20th century, to the point that it became abused by AbEx painters who’d confuse ‘communication’ with literally an infinity (as opposed to a multiplicity) of meanings. Yet if Picasso’s a little too tough for beginners to always get, the art of Francis Bacon is still here, sans much of the depth that can otherwise occlude Piccaso’s meanings. This is not so much a knock on either, as it is an admission of the fact that, great or not, not every truly great painter is instructive; and, of course, not ever instructive artist will be great.

One of Bacon’s most famous paintings is Study After Velazquez’s Portrait Of Pope Innocent X (1953), part of the so-called ‘Screaming Popes’ series (of which there are close to 50 paintings). It takes Diego Velazquez’s portrait of the arch-conservative Pope — in fact, one of the most famous portraits in history, replete with light refracting off of his chest, the determined look, the curious stifling the almost small-‘A’ abstract backdrop — and gives it an entirely new context. In it, the figure is being closed in (by the outer portion of a skeletal chair?) with Innocent’s once-refracting chest moved about a foot down, all the way to the waist, so that mere coloration has the effect of making this personage seem disembodied. On top, Innocent’s calm — simmering, in Velazquez — is changed into a scream, with the rain-like colors either intensifying or recapitulating its effect.

Art Of Francis Bacon Study Velazquez Portrait Pope Innocent X

No, it’s not a great painting, for like most of Francis Bacon’s art, it points to little but its own self. Yet one must take note of what it does well. There is, for instance, the way it plays with its own influences, for Bacon did not arbitrarily choose Diego Velazquez as his model: he saw (or thought he saw) what might have been underneath Innocent X’s glance, and deduced from this a number of routes that it might go. To … Continue reading →

Film Review Of Lee Chang-dong’s “Secret Sunshine” (2007)

Having re-watched 2007’s much-lauded Secret Sunshine, one can’t help but draw comparisons between Korea’s Lee Chang-dong and Japan’s Hirokazu Koreeda, not only in their style — realistic, character-driven dramas on a variety of themes — but also in the disconnect between their most-loved films (at least back at home) and their best, as well as the respective flaws of each director. For, in many ways, the lackluster Green Fish (1997) is to Korea what After Life (1998) is to Japan: films that rightly heralded 2 new talents, even though the evidence typically proffered for such was wrong, coming, as it had, too early in their careers, when they were still developing their sense for art. Yes, the two would go on to craft better films, but just as interesting as the films, themselves, is this on-screen evidence: evidence that might get things wrong, but shows all the little paths a director could have taken, instead, thus crystallizing the art a lesser film might otherwise occlude.

And so, Lee Chang-dong’s excellent Secret Sunshine — a film far superior to Green Fish — has a number of representative moments: moments that show a director both at his height and not, moments that, in the midst of really fine execution, nonetheless point to something better that is waiting for uncovering. Rather than hunt for examples, however, I’ll just start at the film’s end, which is usually where these tendencies come and so often get mis-managed. Lee Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon) has just returned from a mental health hospital, and decides to go get a haircut. Pale — Pollyanna, even — something’s clearly not ‘all there,’ despite her release. She is, as we’ve come to expect, accompanied by the film’s perpetual loser, Kim Jong-chan (Song Kang-ho), a wannabe lover who takes Shin-ae’s moods, spurnings, and general abusiveness with glee in the hopes that ‘somehow, somewhere’ the two can be an item.

As per Jong-chan’s luck, however, he takes her to a salon manned by the offspring of her child’s murderer. She nervously approaches Shin-ae, begins the haircut, and Shin-ae — despite a large portion of her hair now being lopped off — runs out into her own backyard. Jong-chan arrives soon after, smiling at her (as if there’s anything funny), and offers to hold up a mirror she has found to cut her own hair. He’s smiling, still, as she sits there with the scissors, looking at herself (we see glimmers of her face in the mirror), trying to complete the task, and the viewer is immediately struck by the import of these last few minutes. Here is Shin-ae, clearly NOT alright, and given to the same life-patterns the film only hints at — unhappy relationships, self-loathing, an inner void — that she is repeating yet again, albeit with a quickly-narrowing way out. Jong-chan, too, will continue to ‘be there’ for her, to give her money, rides, and unwanted attention, for just as Shin-ae’s path has been cleared, so has Jong-chan’s: neither, … Continue reading →