Friday, 10 September 2021

Imamura: Vengeance is Mine

Vengeance is Mine (Directed by Imamura)
Vengeance Is Mine is an intricately woven depiction of a sociopath's 78-day killing spree, but it is also a strange and profoundly empathetic depiction of individualism and the infinitude of a species terrified of not being able to diagnose itself. Vengeance Is Mine is a sprawling 140-minute work that traverses Japan from top to bottom, moving between time and perspective.

Iwao Enokizu is a vague fictionalisation of real-life serial killer Akira Nishiguchi, played by the great Ken Ogata. When the film opens, Enokizu has been apprehended by authorities and has become a media star following months as Japan's most wanted man. While the film is purportedly narrated through flashbacks as Enokizu is probed by police, Imamura quickly disassociates his narrative from the framing tale, opting for a more freewheeling approach. The film follows Enokizu as he kills, relocates, and takes on new identities. Peripheral characters capture an unusual amount of Imamura's attention, as they are all bound together by the monotony of their lives. 

Ogata's charisma conceals Enokizu's sociopathy, his countenance revealing none of the thoughts that drive his character to murder. Enokizu performs his killings in the manner of a man running errands, hurried but uninvolved in the moment. As the film progresses Enokizu recalls his killings casually. The film explores every conventional explanation for Enokizu's violence, only to end up refusing to endorse any of them. Is he this way as a result of his aversion to conformity? Is he a victim of childhood trauma? A vaguely Freudian collateral damage of the fight between Christianity and Japanese culture. Perhaps, but Imsmura offers no single solution to this mystery.

Imamura Sho ̄hei once said to the poet Sugiyama Heiichi that he wanted to ‘make messy, really human, Japanese, unsettling films’. His obsessive and visually intricate explorations of what he has termed ‘the relationship of the lower part of the human body and the lower part of the social structure on which the reality of daily Japanese life supports itself’ (17) certainly propose a provocative association between the unreliable nature of ordinary cinematic representation and the insecurities behind conventional Japanese social organisation. This chapter will argue that the distinctively interwoven relationship between the visual and the social in Imamura’s cinema is especially evident in the case of one of his greatest commercial successes, Vengeance is Mine (Fukush ̄u suru wa ware ni ari, 1979 – hereafter Vengeance).

Vengeance, which came at an important turning point in the director’s career, may at first glance seem simply to be a retrospective investigative drama about a notorious Japanese serial killer during the 1960s, but the fluctuating geography of the film’s narration, as well as its unsettling non-chronological structure, point to a particular concern with temporal and spatial fluidity. This interest in the instability of visual and social surfaces, characterised also by the constantly shifting identity of the murderous protagonist, may be seen as a central component of the wider disturbing claims about Japanese national history and culture that Imamura engages with so compellingly in this key film of the 1970s.

Imamura himself has played a leading role in the shifting fortunes of the Japanese film industry from the beginning of his career as an assistant director to Ozu Yasujiro ̄ on such films as Tokyo Story (T ̄oky ̄o monogatari, 1953) up to, most recently, his work on the Japanese related segment of the international compilation film, 11’09’01 – September 11. After writing and directing several plays while at Waseda University in Tokyo, Imamura passed an examination to join Sho ̄chiku studios as an assistant in 1951. There, along with Ozu, he also collaborated with the likes of Kobayashi Masaki and Nomura Yoshitaro ̄. Imamura soon distanced himself from Ozu’s rigid screen direction and precise framing of actors preferring to work with the satirical comic director Kawashima Yu ̄zo ̄ with whom he moved to Nikkatsu in 1955. He later published a critical biography of his mentor, Sayonara dake ga jinsei-da [Life is But Farewell] (1969) – a title which resonates strikingly with the concerns of Vengeance.

What Imamura saw as Kawashima’s deep aversion to authority and hypocrisy is certainly visible in his early work such as Stolen Desire (Nusumareta yokujo ̄, 1958) – his debut film – and Pigs and Battleships (Buta to gunkan, 1961). With The Insect Woman (Nippon konchu ̄ ki, 1963) the director also began to elaborate on his favoured depiction of the vital and tenacious ‘Imamura woman’ embodied in Vengeance by Kiyokawa Nijiko who plays the mother of the innkeeper, Asano Haru (Ogawa Mayumi). Imamura’s interest in unearthing the more irrational elements repressed in conventional modern-day Japan has been a dominant theme in his subsequent filmography. It has also led to an ongoing investigation of the relationship between documentary and fictional film practice that is strongly visible in Vengeance along with a keen interest in the observational ethics underlying the ethnographic impulse. His radical investigative film, A Man Vanishes (Ningen jo ̄hatsu, 1967), for example, explicitly drew attention to the artifice behind the conventions of Japanese social representation, and the revealing literal translation of his 1966 film, Jinruigaku nyu ̄mon, known in English as The Pornographers, is ‘An Introduction to Anthropology’. As Imamura himself says, ‘In my work people take centre stage . . . There are no shots which do not contain human action . . . I want to capture the smallest action, the finest nuance, the most intimate psychological expression because filmmakers must concern themselves with more than facades’.

Vengeance represented Imamura’s return to the dramatic form at a time when his own career was in flux. During much of the 1970s, Imamura had renounced fiction altogether, partly as a result of the financial losses suffered by Nikkatsu after The Profound Desire of the Gods (Kamigami no fukai yokubo ̄, 1968) and partly from his professed frustration with working with actors, a turn towards television documentary production and his involvement in the foundation of the Yokohama Academy of Broadcasting and Film in 1975. (Now called the Japan Academy of Visual Arts and based in Kawasaki, the school’s graduates include Miike Takashi.) Although other directors such as Fukasaku Kinji had originally wanted to tackle the property, Vengeance eventually led to the reunion between Imamura and Sho ̄chiku. The studio was by now, of course, much changed in comparison to the more structured production regime of the 1950s.

The film was based on the best-selling prize-winning novel by Saki Ryu ̄zo ̄ that fictionalised the real-life story of the serial killer Nishiguchi Akira which had gripped Japan during the latter part of 1963. Born, unusually, into a Catholic family in the hot spring resort of Beppu in Northern Kyu ̄shu ̄, Nishiguchi had killed an employee of Japan’s nationalised tobacco company and his driver in October that year, then stolen money and travelled as far north as Hokkaido ̄ in disguise while often swindling further funds. He subsequently killed a mother and daughter in an inn in Hamamatsu before murdering an elderly lawyer in Tokyo. The killer was finally apprehended, but only after his face had featured on more than half a million ‘wanted posters’ around the nation. He was hanged in 1970.

Saki had converted Nishiguchi’s name to Enokizu Iwao. Although his book had been written after careful research using classified police files, Imamura went further and uncovered new documentary elements worthy of dramatic development. In a manner typical of much of his practice, he also worked in an intensive collaborative fashion during the gestation of the final shooting script. Ikehata Shunsaku was employed as an assistant to the main scriptwriter, Baba Masaru, and all three worked on an initial temporal structure before Baba and Ikehata wrote the first draft, followed by a second written only by Imamura, a third set of further revisions between Baba and Imamura and then a definitive fourth version devised solely by the director.

This high degree of preparation relates to the fact that Imamura rarely changes his scripts during rehearsals and shooting. By this stage, he prefers to concentrate instead on the visuals, especially in relation to the direction of actors and the construction of spatial relations within the screen frame. Individual scenes are therefore first closely plotted with his cast. This is usually an arduous process. Ken Ogata, who plays Enokizu in Vengeance, recalls, for instance, that ‘in the course of producing a scene [in the film], and to further pursue the latent power required to make the scene all the more strongly appealing, every actor and staff [member was] required to be physically and mentally tough, stubborn and [perseverant]’. According to Imamura’s long-standing colleague Kitamura Kazuo, who plays the former husband of Asano Haru (Ogawa Mayumi) in the film, the director also spends a lot of time getting the measure of the specific district in which he shoots. The acute sense of place in Vengeance is certainly vital to the film’s distinctive emotional timbre as well as its obvious concern with the representation of regional and national identity. In another example of his collaborative method, Imamura then works closely on image construction with his Director of Photography – on Vengeance he devised the framings with his long-standing cinematographer Himeda Shinsaku – before filming using a high shooting ratio. This relates to the extended period usually required by Imamura for editing, something especially important in this film in particular given its intricate mosaic of different, but also inter-related, temporalities and locations.

Vengeance can thus, in fact, be seen as a carefully designed production despite Imamura’s professed predilection for ‘messy’ cinema. It begins with a forlorn high-angle long shot of a police cavalcade driving through the mountains in the sleet. A sequence of yellow lights indicates the progression of the cars across the empty wintry terrain and the camera pans slowly to the right to keep them in view. This isolation of a single colour element – it is frequently yellow – is a recurring aspect of the overall design of the film’s mise-en-scène. We cut dramatically to a low-angle close-up at a bend in the road which takes in just the headlights and radiator grilles of the passing vehicles before cutting again to a full-frame windscreen shot taken from outside the car which, we soon learn, contains Enokizu and the police officers who have arrested him. This is not yet obvious, however, and the fact that the camera gazes through the glass for some time heightens a sense of the scrutiny of a secondary visual surface within the texture of the film that is demonstrably resistant to clear explanation.

In just three stages, therefore, Imamura and his collaborators have established a particular regime of looking which will be emblematic of the film as a whole. Yann Lardeau has argued that the blurring of documentary and fictional film practice in Imamura’s work can best be characterised ‘not by the cinematographic material that is utilized, but by the quality of the look’. What does this look consist of here? First, there is a sense of detachment which is evoked by the issue of reduced vision. Second, there is a play between distance and proximity and then, finally, especially when we actually move inside the car, there is an inter-relationship of internal and external fields of observation. It is this shift between either hikisoto (from the outside) or hikiuchi (from the inside) that Imamura has suggested to Donald Richie is a key characteristic of his general cinematic principles. ‘A lot of the decision depends upon the way the set is made, but a lot of it is psychological as well’, he says. ‘I always have to think of who is seeing this, who is doing the viewing. And putting the camera outside and letting it peer in gives a kind of intimacy that no other shot can’.

– Excerpt from Unsettled Visions Imamura Sho ̄hei’s Vengeance is Mine (1979) Alastair Phillips Japanese Cinema: Texts and Contexts.

Tuesday, 7 September 2021

Akira Kurosawa: On Screenwriting

Red Beard (Directed by Akira Kurosawa)
In October 1990, Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez visited Tokyo during the shooting of Akira Kurosawa’s penultimate feature, Rhapsody in August. García Márquez, who spent some years in Bogota as a film critic before penning landmark novels such as One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera, spoke with Kurosawa for several hours on a number of subjects. In the following extract Kurosawa discusses how he approaches the task of writing a script:

Gabriel García Márquez: I don’t want this conversation between friends to seem like a press interview, but I just have this great curiosity to know a great many other things about you and your work. To begin with, I am interested to know how you write your scripts. First, because I am myself a scriptwriter. And second, because you have made stupendous adaptations of great literary works, and I have many doubts about the adaptations that have been made or could be made of mine.

Akira Kurosawa: When I conceive an original idea that I wish to turn into a script, I lock myself up in a hotel with paper and pencil. At that point I have a general idea of the plot, and I know more or less how it is going to end. If I don’t know what scene to begin with, I follow the stream of the ideas that spring up naturally.

García Márquez: Is the first thing that comes to your mind an idea or an image?

Kurosawa: I can’t explain it very well, but I think it all begins with several scattered images. By contrast, I know that scriptwriters here in Japan first create an overall view of the script, organizing it by scenes, and after systematizing the plot they begin to write. But I don’t think that is the right way to do it, since we are not God.

García Márquez: Has your method also been that intuitive when you have adapted Shakespeare or Gorky or Dostoevsky?

Kurosawa: Directors who make films halfway may not realize that it is very difficult to convey literary images to the audience through cinematic images. For instance, in adapting a detective novel in which a body was found next to the railroad tracks, a young director insisted that a certain spot corresponded perfectly with the one in the book. ‘You are wrong,’ I said. ‘The problem is that you have already read the novel and you know that a body was found next to the tracks. But for the people who have not read it there is nothing special about the place.’ That young director was captivated by the magical power of literature without realizing that cinematic images must be expressed in a different way.

García Márquez: Can you remember any image from real life that you consider impossible to express on film?

Kurosawa: Yes. That of a mining town named Ilidachi, where I worked as an assistant director when I was very young. The director had declared at first glance that the atmosphere was magnificent and strange, and that’s the reason we filmed it. But the images showed only a run-of-the-mill town, for they were missing something that was known to us: that the working conditions in (the town) are very dangerous, and that the women and children of the miners live in eternal fear for their safety. When one looks at the village one confuses the landscape with that feeling, and one perceives it as stranger than it actually is. But the camera does not see it with the same eyes.

García Márquez: The truth is that I know very few novelists who have been satisfied with the adaptation of their books for the screen. What experience have you had with your adaptations?

Kurosawa: Allow me, first, a question: Did you see my film Red Beard?

García Márquez: I have seen it six times in 20 years and I talked about it to my children almost every day until they were able to see it. So not only is it the one among your films best liked by my family and me, but also one of my favorites in the whole history of cinema.

Kurosawa: Red Beard constitutes a point of reference in my evolution. All of my films which precede it are different from the succeeding ones. It was the end of one stage and the beginning of another.

García Márquez: That is obvious. Furthermore, within the same film there are two scenes that are extreme in relation to the totality of your work, and they are both unforgettable; one is the praying mantis episode, and the other is the karate fight in the hospital courtyard.

Kurosawa: Yes, but what I wanted to tell you is that the author of the book, Shuguro Yamamoto, had always opposed having his novels made into films. He made an exception with Red Beard because I persisted with merciless obstinacy until I succeeded. Yet, when he had finished viewing the film he turned to look at me and said: ‘Well it’s more interesting than my novel.’

García Márquez: Why did he like it so much, I wonder?

Kurosawa: Because he had a clear awareness of the inherent characteristics of cinema. The only thing he requested of me was that I be very careful with the protagonist, a complete failure of a woman, as he saw her. But the curious thing is that the idea of a failed woman was not explicit in his novel.

García Márquez: Perhaps he thought it was. It is something that often happens to us novelists.

Kurosawa: So it is. In fact, upon seeing the films based on their books, some writers say: ‘That part of my novel is well portrayed.’ But they are actually referring to something that was added by the director. I understand what they are saying, because they may see clearly expressed on the screen, by sheer intuition on the part of the director, something they had meant to write but had not been able to.

García Márquez: It is a known fact: ‘Poets are mixers of poisons.’ But, to come back to your current film, will the typhoon be the most difficult thing to film?

Kurosawa: No. The most difficult thing was to work with the animals. Water serpents, rose-eating ants. Domesticated snakes are too accustomed to people, they don’t flee instinctively, and they behave like eels. The solution was to capture a huge wild snake, which kept trying with all its might to escape and was truly frightening. So it played its role very well. As for the ants, it was a question of getting them to climb up a rosebush in single file until they reached a rose. They were reluctant for a long time, until we made a trail of honey on the stem, and the ants climbed up. Actually, we had many difficulties, but it was worth it, because I learned a great deal about them.

García Márquez: Yes, so I’ve noticed. But what kind of film is this that is as likely to have problems with ants as with typhoons? What is the plot?

Kurosawa: It is very difficult to summarize in a few words.

García Márquez: Does somebody kill somebody?

Kurosawa: No. It’s simply about an old woman from Nagasaki who survived the atomic bomb and whose grandchildren went to visit her last summer. I have not filmed shockingly realistic scenes which would prove to be unbearable and yet would not explain in and of themselves the horror of the drama. What I would like to convey is the type of wounds the atomic bomb left in the heart of our people, and how they gradually began to heal. I remember the day of the bombing clearly, and even now I still can’t believe that it could have happened in the real world. But the worst part is that the Japanese have already cast it into oblivion.

– Extract from: García Márquez / Kurosawa (via
Full article here