Thursday, July 1, 2021

The Chambara Films of Akira Kurosawa: Rashomon

 



            The first film in my analysis of the Chambara films of Akira Kurosawa, is the nonlinear masterpiece Rashomon. One of the load bearing films in Kurosawa’s Filmography that contributed to his overall international success, Rashomon fundamentally changed the way films were conceived, shot, edited, while motivating generations of future filmmakers to attempt this style of filmmaking, some with more success than others.  Regardless of their success or failure, Rashomon is undeniably a creative masterwork and what many have believed to be one of the greatest films of all time. This essay is taking a slightly different approach by looking at the film through the prism of a post war Japan: its crisis of national identity amongst its people, and an analysis of gender and cultural norms that results in the fluidity and fallibility of personal experience; that is as Kurosawa points out, unreliable. 

 


PLOT

A peasant seeks shelter from the rain under a dilapidated Rashomon (Gate) between Kyoto and Nara in 11th century Japan. There, he meets a priest and a woodcutter, who begin to recount a chance encounter between a bandit, a Samurai, and his wife. As we hear different versions of what happened from all participants, the actual events get obfuscated. In the end, it is left up to the peasant (as the audience surrogate) to decide which single version or combination of the story is true, if there is truth at all. 

 


HISTORICAL CONTEXT

 

Kurosawa’s Rashomon is based upon the short story “In the Grove”, by Ryunosuke Akutagawa in 1922; adapted by himself and screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto. Kurosawa decided to do the film after the lukewarm reception to his anti-yellow journalism film Scandal, distributed by Sochiku pictures. At that time, Daiei Films approached him with another offer to direct. The pitch for Rashomon was accepted primarily due to its lower budget and assumed simplicity.  Yet, upon closer examination, the film is retrospective of a country going through an existential crisis after its major military defeat during World War II.

According to Akiko Hashimoto (2015), the historical and cultural trauma that Japan experienced through their defeat at the end of World War II, is often processed through popular culture[1]. This form of cultural trauma (manifested in three categories of heroes, villains, and perpetrators) presents defeat as a part of Japan’s national identity. The result of this is the lack of collective memory, and the meaning of being Japanese (Hashimoto 2015).  The framing of Rashomon as a triptych structure with intentional contradiction, is a representation of that trauma (Davidson 1987). The four different stories that we hear in the film, and their differences, can be compared to the experiences of various traumas people experience during the war, such as the different ‘Vantage Points’ during the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This left a collective social, political, and moral scar on the Japanese people that would haunt them for over half a century.

After the resounding defeat of World War II, there was both a sense of moral urgency and artistic ambition. Many of the films of the beginning of the post war period in Japan (including Kurosawa’s earlier work) “illuminated the confusion and despair of the period and offered narratives of personal heroism as a model for social recovery…to pursue a legacy of hope for a ruined nation.” (Prince 2012: 8). Rashomon wrestles with these ideas as it presents four vastly different and contradictory accounts of events; and then, has three men debate their veracity. The questions of “Who to believe?”, and “Who is at fault?” plays into how each character (and by extrapolation, the collective memory of Japan) decides what really happened, despite evidence.




Production

When he was hired, Director of Photography Kazuo Miyagawa was surprised that Kurosawa was short in his conversations with him; not really guiding the positions of the camera nor having discussions of the shot composition.  In an interview for the Criterion Collection Blu-ray, Miyagawa states that he took Kurosawa’s terseness, as a challenge; believing the director wanted him to demonstrate his cinematography skills.  This was the motivation behind the tracking shot of The Woodcutter through the forest. A shot which would go on to revolutionize filmmaking, in just one afternoon.  

If one is ignorant about the nuances of film production, the forest shot may seem simple. A man walks through the woods with an axe resting on his shoulder, the camera then cuts to a shot of the covered axe blade, and then a closeup on the face of the woodcutter. Basic. However, as the camera drops back behind him, we are treated to a dolly tracking shot that suddenly defies logic. Because the camera and the actor are moving in different directions at the same time, the audience cannot clearly tell when the Woodcutter is going left or right; abruptly being treated to sweeping camera angles without a single cut. The dolly track was set around this hilly landscape in a configuration that represents the infinity symbol. Additionally, not only is Miyagawa utilizing unconventional shots, (look at the shot of the woodcutter as he moves across the log) but he is also experimenting with shots that have never been conceived.

            Lighting         

Before this film, there was the cinematic rule that you could not shoot directly at the sun. The reason being the exposure of the film to the sun’s rays, would ultimately destroy it.  Miyagawa, seeking as much natural light as possible, figured out if you close the shutter after a certain time, you both save the film and get an amazing shot of the full sun in the sky. Additionally, shooting on location among actual trees, allowed Miyagawa and Kurosawa to construct shots using the shading of the trees. In one shot to highlight the face of the sleeping bandit, all Kurosawa did was to use a mirror to illuminate Toshiro Mifune’s face using the natural light through the trees. 




The Rashomon Effect (I)

   Upon its release and subsequent success, The film Rashomon created a storytelling trope that is indelibly called “The Rashomon Effect.”  This is the process where a narrative is told a variety of ways, usually from different character perspectives. The new retelling reveals more about the story, plot, or its characters. Each perspective, and its narrator, are ultimately found to be unreliable as the story unfolds and new information is given.  This trope is often coupled with nonlinear storytelling (Something that Kurosawa also pioneered) allowing for the maximum level of suspense and shock to be felt by the audience. By not telling your story from beginning to end, adds to the feelings of discombobulation that is already set by the erroneous recounting of events.  With this combination, the audience can not only distrust the characters, but also be suspect as to where that inaccuracy exists in the timeline of the story itself. Many films since have used this combination of narrative devices to enhance their storytelling, ultimately cultivating, and later solidifying Kurosawa’s legendary auteur status.

 

SOCIAL ANALYSIS

            Rashomon holds within it classical themes of knowledge production, the basics of criminology, and a familiar western depiction of masculinity that is, if not pro rape, certainly complicit in its practice. Upon closer examination, through a sociological lens, the unreliability of each narration is not only understandable, it’s expected. 



            The Rashomon Effect (II) 

Christian Davenport (2010) discusses how the film structure of Kurosawa’s Rashomon leads to “The Rashomon Effect” in the disciplines of Psychology and Criminology.  Davenport (2010) defines “The Rashomon Effect” as the term describing the unreliability of eyewitness accounts and or testimony when used as a accurate depiction of events.  In an Australian Supreme Court case, it was determined that individuals and groups tend to have a subjective interpretation of events that are often, intentionally, or not, motivated by self-interest.[2] In the film, Kurosawa rationalizes the unreliable narrator by giving the characters a variety of motivations, whether that be honor, reputation, chastity, or retention of masculinity.  All of which alter our perception and question the legitimacy and accuracy of events. This has been a part of the curriculum of many criminology courses in debunking the effectiveness of eyewitness testimony as an accurate depiction of events. Legally, this is hearsay and is refutable without corroborating evidence (Anderson 2016). The Rashomon effect is also suspect because of the way that knowledge is produced.

The Sociology of Knowledge

The Sociology of Knowledge which is interested in the processes in which Knowledge “is developed, transmitted and maintained in social situations” creates a distinct reality for particular individuals (Berger and Luckmann 1966:3).  What all of this means is that knowledge is organic (conditional based on context); living, as people live. Even what we know and don’t know is even subject to the right biological and chemical processes in our brains, that change slow or stop, based upon age and vitality.  Knowledge is a perception, and it is conditional, but that doesn’t make it any less powerful, or important.

 Basic Tenets (Seidman 2004: 82-85)

 

1)      Everyday life is fluid, a negotiated achievement by individuals through social interactions

2)      Through interactions, individuals create social worlds (“universes”) by use of language and adherence to a socially agreed upon set of symbols; thereby developing solidarity among people.

 

3)      That Social world constructs institutions that fulfills needs and provides a setting for the development of routines and behavioral patterns- which is often used to legitimate the social order, (The Criminal Justice System) Knowledge production (Education) and pacify the populace (Media, Religion). 

4)      The individual is then alienated and repressed, and controlled when the constructed, is understood as natural. This is usually completed through the generational social learning process of socialization. E.g. Digital Natives vs Digital Immigrants, Generational social mobility for whites

5)      Through this internalization, the social worlds that we create constantly try to dominate us. i.e. Frankenstein’s Monster  Ex: Bureaucracy, Capitalism, Militarization, Globalization, and Social Media. It often succeeds because by this point, we feel too small and insignificant to tackle such a problem. We believe it is beyond us.

 

 

Conceptual Path Model

                                                       +/-                                             +/-

Society as an Objective                                Socialization:                         Society as an Subjective

Reality is legitimated through                     The Process of                       Reality is legitimated

Systemization                                                 Social Learning                     Through Personal

                                                                                                                        Identity

While there are many theories on how knowledge is produced, the type of knowledge production that explains the events of Kurosawa’s Rashomon is the process of knowledge production supported by Michel Foucault.

For Foucault, power lies in social relationships. Power is a social construction based upon the interactions that we have with others.  Knowledge is then a biproduct of the power achieved through those interactions.  This means that our knowledge and the “Truths” that we hold on to, matter less than the reproduction of power within relationships.  According to Strathern (2000)[3], Foucault believed that knowledge was allowed to contain flaws, gaps, and contradictions so long as the interaction satisfied the power requirement.

 

 Schirato et al. (2012)[4] states that Foucault believed that authority and position of power determine the type of knowledge that is important. For example: being able to categorize and evaluate practices from an authoritative position (in this case from the legal magistrate listening to the stories) results in a form of “expert” knowledge being produced.  This knowledge validates the power relationship and becomes foundational to the general knowledge of a particular discipline or field, or in this case, the power of the Daimyo.

 


                   The Samurai’s Wife, Rape Culture and Masculine Domination

 

Since its inception, the “Rashomon Effect” in its use to maintain the self interest of the speaker, has been complicated by the simultaneous use of gaslighting and “dog whistling; especially in cases of contradictory eyewitness statements between a cis-gendered man and woman, [5]when recounting the events of a sexual assault.  Like in many actual assaults, the film’s male perpetrator presents the events as consensual to maintain a positive sense of self.

            The use of The Rashomon effect in this way, and how it consistently dovetails into the gaslighting of all women, predicates the film itself; when the woodcutter, priest, and peasant all discount the depiction of events provided by the Samurai’s wife. They all consistently berate her testimony as “untrustworthy” and excuse it while also victim blaming her. Bourdieu (1998) mentions that “female being, [is] being perceived.” Specifically, this happens in the way that the female habitus (habitual behavior) is a product of other people’s perceptions. Therefore, women’s subjective representation of themselves, and events they are a party to, is built from the internalization of experiences and interactions with others. Now, this is partly just Cooley’s “Looking Glass self” which everyone is affected by regardless of gender identity. However, because one of the main tenets of gender socialization is girls and women being taught that their worth is tied to their relationships with other people (much more so than men), the public status and perception of women is not based on women themselves, but in the cultivation and maintenance of relationships they have with other people in their orbit. This is a form of symbolic violence that causes women to acquiesce to the patriarchy and overall Masculine Domination. The Samurai’s wife is not judged by her actions, but by the perception of her motivations by other men; most who did not witness the event.  This also becomes metatextual when considering that the depictions of the Samurai’s wife that show her at her most unhinged, is in the events as they are recounted by the other two men. This is gaslighting, a tactic that is commonly used by men attempting to deflect allegations of rape and sexual violence, by discrediting women through challenging their mental and emotional state.




            The Bandit and The Samurai, Chase Masculinity

Deflection, rationalization, and denial of rape and sexual violence is a common mechanism of self-preservation among male perpetrators. This is part of the cycle of toxic masculinity that informs their understanding of their (usually) cis gendered selves. They are locked into “chasing masculinity” as a form of validation.  Cis men have to “chase Masculinity due to its inherit fragility. Masculinity is something that is neither concrete or reinforced, therefore it needs to be reproduced and achieved in every situation (Walker 2020). Conversely, this also means that a variety of culturally specific behaviors can also strip someone of their masculinity. In Rashomon, it is the intersections of Masculinity and the Samurai Class norms that are required to be satisfied, which leads to the bandit and the Samurai’s stories becoming suspect.

Cross culturally, infidelity has always carried with it a double standard stigma split along gendered lines. Men are often assumed and, in some cases, expected to be unfaithful to their partner. Meanwhile, women’s infidelity is seen as abhorrent, and are therefore more likely to be punished for their perceived transgressions than men. This unequal dichotomy is present in the narrative of Rashomon when both the bandit and the Samurai reject the Samurai’s wife.  First, the rape of his wife does not cause any kind of compassion in the Samurai. He only sees his wife as an extension of his own pride and desires (Walker 2020). Thus, after the assault, the Samurai sees his wife as sullied, and therefore disposable. Similarly, the bandit, upon hearing the Samurai’s wife’s desire to leave and kill her husband, offers to murder her for the Samurai’s sake.

According to Alicia Walker (2020) the fragility of masculinity inevitably causes men to see women as the mechanism by which they can achieve their masculinity; that even the satisfaction of female desires and pleasure, eventually does not end up being about women at all. Rather, it becomes a tool for validating masculinity by praising men for their commitment to female pleasure.  Similarly, Rashomon’s duel between the Bandit and the Samurai is couched in the protection or avenging of the “woman’s” honor, when it is just about saving masculine reputations. This is elucidated when both men recount their duel. The length and complexity of the duel is directly proportional to the elevated sense of masculinity they each want to convey/display. The bandit boasts that the Samurai clashed swords with him 15 times, which he casually admits is the highest number of exchanges he has experienced in a duel before victory. Correspondingly, the Samurai’s tale is equally favorable to the bandit’s sword skills. As one of Walker’s (2020) respondents put it: “Men need their egos pumped up regularly. We are fragile creatures under all the bravado. (pp71-72). While this ego pumping is often expected to be exclusively done by men’s (assumed) female partner, male friendships often act in the same way. Men simultaneously attempt to expose the fragile masculinity of their peers, while also using women to strength their perception of masculinity among their male friends (Sanday 2007).

 


CONCLUSION

            Rashomon is an important touchtone. It is the film that introduced Kurosawa to international audiences and was so revolutionary in the way the film was shot, edited, acted, and presented, that it set the cinematic zeitgeist for generations to come.  While the film is both existential, and critically asks questions about how we process information and knowledge, going so far as to be used as a shorthand for the inconclusiveness of eyewitness accounts, it also perpetuates cultural norms regarding gender, sexual violence, and infidelity that are all too common, regardless of a person’s country of origin. This is one of Kurosawa’s shortest films, and in that tight run time he gives the audience a lot to contemplate. While not my favorite Kurosawa film, it remains an important work in his filmography, and within the chambara genre itself.    

 

REFERENCES

Anderson, Robert (2016). "The Rashomon Effect and Communication". Canadian Journal of Communication. 41 (2): 250–265. doi:10.22230/cjc.2016v41n2a3068. ISSN 0705-3657

Berger, Peter and Thomas Luckmann. (1966). The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge New York: Anchor Books

Bourdieu, Pierre (1998). Masculine Domination Stanford, CT Stanford University Press.

  Davenport, Christian (2010). "Rashomon Effect, Observation, and Data Generation". Media Bias, Perspective, and State Repression: The Black Panther Party. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. pp. 52–73, esp. 55. ISBN 9780521759700.

Davidson, James F. (1987) "Memory of Defeat in Japan: A Reappraisal of Rashomon" in Richie, Donald (ed.). New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, pp. 159–166.

Hashimoto, Akiko (2015). The Long Defeat: Cultural Trauma, Memory, and Identity in Japan. New York: Oxford University Press.

Prince, Stephen (2012). “The Rashomon Effect” in The Current New York: The Criterion Collection Retrieved on June 15 2021. Retrieved at: https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/195-the-rashomon-effect

Sanday, Peggy Reeves (2007). Fraternity Gang Rape New York: New York University Press.

Schirato, Tony, Geoff Danaher, and Jen Webb (2012).  Understanding Foucault: A Critical Introduction 2nd. Ed Thousand Oaks: Sage Publishing  

Seidman, Steven (2004). Contested Knowledge: Social Theory Today Malden Blackwell Publishing

Strathern, Paul (2000) Foucault in 90 Minutes Chicago: Ivan R. Dee.  

Walker, Alicia M. (2020). Chasing Masculinity: Men Validation and Infidelity Cham: Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan



[1]  I discuss this in my previous essay on The Sociology of Akira

[2] There is an irony here that in the United States we have the 5th amendment against self-incrimination in addition to the Rashomon Effect operating in such a way.

[3] Foucault in 90 Minutes by Paul Strathern

[4] Understanding Foucault: a Critical Introduction

[5] This is also constant between a dominant and marginalized group


Tuesday, June 1, 2021

The Chambara Films of Akira Kurosawa: An Introduction

 


INTRODUCTION

            The name Akira Kurosawa immediately invokes cinema. If the name is not familiar, his work often is. Chances are everyone has at least heard of one of his film titles, including: Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Ikiru, The Bad Sleep Well, Rashomon and High and Low, not only because these films are all masterpieces, but many of them have been remade into a variety of properties.  Additionally, he was the first to use certain filmmaking techniques and storytelling choices that have all become standard. There is no modern or post-modern film without the work of Akira Kurosawa. For that reason, Kurosawa, and his work, will be the next subject for this blog’s sociological analysis and review. However, given that Kurosawa made 30 films over his near 60-year career (which would take me two and a half years to complete at my current pace) it would take too long to complete. Instead, over the coming months I will be doing a deep dive into Kurosawa’s Jidaigeki Chambara films.

             Jidaigeki and Chambara films

            Jidaigeki loosely translates into English as “period piece”, what we might think of in western cinema as a “costume drama”. The Japanese conceive of a period in their history far earlier than the Victorian era often depicted in western “costume dramas”. In Japan, Jidaigekis usually take place during the Edo period of Japan that spans 1603-1868, as well as the Meiji period between 1868-1912. Chambara translated to mean “Sword Fight” is a sub-genre of the Jidaigeki films that focuses on the Samurai class and usually takes place in the Tokugawa period of 1600-1868; when the Samurai class was fading due to western influences. A lot of Samurai films center on the “Ronin” or masterless Samurai, who have been jobless and homeless since their retainer and lord (called a Daimyo) lost his land and status due to the socio-political changes in Japan. These “Roaming Ronins”, who still retained the status of Samurai, would farm out their martial skills to survive.

            Chambara films gained prominence in a post-World War II era. Allowing Japanese directors to reinforce the “spirit” of the Samurai into the culture, and as if modeling after reality, would often feature psychologically and physically scarred warriors (usually from previous battles or  wars) as their protagonists. Many of the post war Chambara films were darker in tone and significantly more violent. Given this particular effect/purpose, most of the Chambara films produced were between 1950-1980. While there are some outliers, few Chambara films are made today. Instead, “The Samurai Spirit” is imbued in modern genre pictures (Sci-fi, Fantasy, Crime Noir) and motivates the actors that have a lineage in the Samurai class.

 


BRIEF HISTORICAL CONTEXT

Kurosawa got his directing career off the ground with a job as an assistant director for PCL (Photo Chemical Laboratories) a company that would later become Toho Pictures in 1936. To get the job, he had submitted an essay in which applicants were asked to identify the fundamental deficiencies in Japanese film. To which Kurosawa answered that the flaws were fundamental, and that there was no way to fix them. This intrigued examiner and director Kajiro Yamamoto who became a mentor to the young Kurosawa. Yamamoto pushed Kurosawa to write for the screen. It was his belief that a good director was also a screenwriter; something that Kurosawa would do for the rest of his life.

Kurosawa’s directing career and trajectory was greatly hindered by Japan’s involvement in World War II. The censorship board rejected his first major studio film, Sanshiro Sugata. They considered the work to be too “western” (A criticism that would be consistent throughout Kurosawa’s career). The film was permanently stalled until famed director Yasujiro Ozu, threw his artistic reputation and clout behind the film.  The meteoric success of Sugata, and the structure of the studio system contract, forced Kurosawa to make an unintended sequel which is regarded as the worst film in his career.  While several of his films became successful during this period, Kurosawa did not “become Kurosawa” until well into the post war period of Japan, when he first began his collaboration with the Cinematic force of nature Tashiro Mifune and the steady and consistent power of Takashi Shimura.



The collaboration between Takashi Shimura, Akira Kurosawa and Tashiro Mifune is a cinematic Triumvirate that is unparalleled. All three working together a total of 13 times over their respective careers (and additionally with Kurosawa separately), Kurosawa’s work and Chambara films in general, would not be what they are, without the work of these two men. Shimura and Mifune star (or are featured) in 7 out of the 8 Kurosawa Samurai films I will be covering in this series. One essay, in discussing the two actor’s collaboration, compared Shimura and Mifune, to DeNiro and Pacino in their approach, screen presence and captivation. Additionally, both lent their talents to other films in the genre. The image of Tashiro Mifune in Samurai garb,  became the basis for how a traditional Samurai should look in the medium.[1]     There is no modern Chambara films without these three men. Their commitment to the craft of the genre can never be understated. 

One of the many reasons Akira Kurosawa became such a famed director, was for his western influences. It was his thinking that Japanese cinema at the time was fundamentally flawed that got him his first job. But over the course of his career, Kurosawa began to show these western foundations. Directors like Fritz Lang and John Ford, to Writers like Shakespeare and Dostoevsky, all became apparent influences in Kurosawa’s work. Yet, because Kurosawa was coming into film when Japanese cinema was waning, His style became the foundation of a lot of Japanese Cinema moving forward.[2]

Kurosawa not only revolutionized Japanese Cinema, but his name became synonymous with Japanese Cinema in the west. Starting with Rashomon, most of his films had a wide release and therefore a wide influence, especially in the United states during the 1970’s.  The directors coming out of US film schools in the late 1960’s- 1970’s, “borrowed” heavily from Kurosawa, Scorsese, Milius, Spielberg, Coppola and especially George Lucas, cite Kurosawa as a major influence on their work[3]. This influence was so strong that these directors worked together to not only get Kurosawa a lifetime achievement Oscar, but they also helped to both produce and distribute some of his later films including: Kagemusha, Dreams and Ran.

 


SEEDS OF SOCIAL ANALYSIS

            Because Kurosawa’s Chambara films are usually taking place at the tail end of the Edo Period, he is consistently dealing with issues of class dynamics; often juxtaposing the status of the Samurai class, with many of his characters being both penniless and homeless. He may localize this by telling the story through the two lowest status characters, as he does in The Hidden Fortress, or challenge the status stereotypes between peasants and samurai in Seven Samurai, or the retention of honor in the face of poverty in the Sanjiro duology.  Kurosawa has a lot to say when it comes to poverty, social class and how those things play out in a feudal society but reflect the social issues of the time.

A lot of the other thematic elements Kurosawa plays with are those found in western literature. Specifically for this series, Kurosawa’s Shakespearian Chambara adaptations are important. Thus, the thematic elements in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and King Lear, are shown through a Japanese cultural prism with Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood and Ran respectively.

Unlike Miyazaki, the focus of the previous series, Kurosawa does not have a strong track record when it comes to inclusive cinema. Many of his roles for women are under written and stereotypically one dimensional. He does not discuss social issues involving race, gender, or disability. As I will discuss, part of this is the historical context in which he was living and the socio-political environment in which he was working, and part of it was his own enculturated ideas about gender. 

 




CONCLUSION

            Kurosawa is a master filmmaker and one of the 5 greatest directors in history, that without him, cinema would not be the same. His process, themes and understanding of the power and importance of cinema, have allowed film to continue after his death. All of Kurosawa’s work is spectacular, and everyone should watch all 30 of his films at some point. But I am of the opinion that, excluding Ikiru, which is devastatingly powerful on its own, his Samurai films are my favorite, and the films that are most digestible to a western audience, as many of them mirror the actual genre of the Western itself.

Personally, I have always been fascinated with Japanese culture, especially the Samurai class. Kurosawa’s Chambara films are a big part of why and how that interest became so important to my identity.  To be able to break Kurosawa’s work down including my favorite film of all time sociologically, using sociological theories and ideas, is the quintessential reason I continue to write these reviews. It is my hope, that through this series, I will add a sociological dimension to the criticism of Kurosawa, and I get some readers interested in going back and (Re) discovering the greatness that is, Akira Kurosawa.



[1] I still think it looks weird to see Mifune in modern garb. When I watch him in The Bad Sleep well or even Stray Dog I am like, “This is odd.”

[2] Jump cuts, tracking shots, the dissolve, the wipe, wide shots with long lenses, The shooting of action, slow motion to depict speed, gathering of the team montage, cutting on motion, The lone wolf protagonist

[3] Star Wars: a New Hope is basically Hidden Fortress


Saturday, May 1, 2021

The Films of Hayao Miyazaki: The Wind Rises

 



                The eleventh film in my continuing analysis of The Films of Hayao Miyazaki is the World War II animated Biopic The Wind Rises. Critically understood as Miyazaki’s Magnum Opus, Miyazaki’s latest film to date, was laborious in its production, stirred up controversy, and is the most metatextual of any of Miyazaki’s previous work. Central to this introspection is the thematic question of struggle between creativity and practicality, and where the value of process and product lie; in its expression, or its ability to be used?  More somber and bleak than any of his other work, The Wind Rises in its production, context and themes is the most emotionally resonating film Miyazaki, and Ghibli in general, have ever produced.

 


PLOT

            After a shared dream with legendary Italian plane designer Giovanni Caproni when he was a boy, Jiro Horikoshi, vows to become an aeronautic engineer, striving to “make something beautiful.” Reaching adulthood during World War II, Jiro becomes one of Japan’s greatest engineers; eventually developing the famous Zero model aircraft. Through his “ten years in the Sun”, Jiro struggles with the practical applications of his creative outlet in a time of war: only finding solace in the environmentally kismet relationship that develops between himself and Nahoko, a Young painter with Tuberculosis.  After a number of tragic losses, Jiro, reflecting on his life, questions whether any of it: successes, happiness, failures, and a complicated legacy, was ever worth it.

 

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

 

            The historical context needed to understand The Wind Rises is twofold. Because this is a biographical picture (loose though it is) there needs to be an understanding of the context of production (in 2013) juxtaposed with the context of that which it is depicting (1927-1944). Understanding the film on these levels, clarifies the unjust criticism of those that think this film is Pro-war; and elucidates on the complicated history Miyazaki has with World War II in general.   

 


Production

The beginning of production on The Wind Rises marks the 6th “unretirement” of Hayao Miyazaki.  Originally deciding to come back to create a sequel to Ponyo, Miyazaki was encouraged by Producer Suzuki to adapt his Manga about Jiro Horikoshi, as a way to challenge children with ideas and concepts they have yet to understand, or be familiar with.

 Miyazaki’s Manga was a “self-confessed” hobby as an aerophile. He was uncertain as to the films feature length potential as most of the Manga was focused on the historical development of Japanese aerospace in the early 20th century. However, once Miyazaki decided to use the book The Wind has Risen by Tatsuo Hori to help fill in the interpersonal relationships of his depiction of Jiro, (this is where the character Nahoko and her suffering from Tuberculosis are added), Miyazaki felt that he had a story worthy of a feature.

The production began in 2010, and much of it is captured in the fantastic documentary The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness  by Mami Sunada.  The film is an inside look at the daily activities/practices of Miyazaki, and his staff while working on the production of The Wind Rises and Takahata’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.  The emotional crux of the film, that influences the animation Miyazaki uses in depicting Japan during World War II, comes in the form of a letter a stranger writes to Miyazaki, recounting meeting Miyazaki’s father during the evacuation of civilians after the US Nuclear bombing of Japan. The stranger had been evacuated to Miyazaki’s house when Miyazaki’s family were evacuated elsewhere. There, the stranger met Miyazaki’s father and was given candy by the patriarch; along with some kind words.  This letter resonates with Hayao Miyazaki so much that he can barely respond, as it recontextualizes his own relationship with his father and his ongoing relationship with his son.  It is this amount of significance that Miyazaki channels when he both talks about the importance of planes,[1] and the value of Jiro and Nahoko’s relationship.  

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness and its companion documentary completed in 2016, Hayao Miyazaki: The Never Ending Man,  chronicles Miyazaki’s journey in completing The Wind Rises and beyond. Most of what captures the audience is the process of such a genius like Miyazaki. Because he is such a perfectionist, making a film can be at times exhilarating or agonizing. There is an image, an idea that Miyazaki has in his own head, and by his own admission, has never seen these images fully realized. After the Production of ‘Wind’ he even turned to CGI to see if it had the ability to bring his ideas to full realization…they did not. While it did not lead to an embrace of CGI, it did revitalize Miyazaki enough to decide to come out of retirement, again, to give us the film that is now in production: How do you Live?




Documentaries’ Aside

            For the good of humanity there needs to be a documentary film crew, commissioned by the Japanese Government, to follow Miyazaki around to record the pearls of wisdom that he randomly gives out, and as an example about how one should comport their life.[2] Miyazaki lives in a modest home, with the ability to walk to work every day. He has a ritualized routine and begins his workday at 11am and works till 9pm. He has scheduled breaks for walks and meals and only takes one day off a week; Sundays, when he cleans up the local river. Through these documentaries we learn that Miyazaki lives the themes that he spouts in all of his work. He keeps up on current events; scrap booking the changes to his city during the Financial crisis of 2008 and the Fukoshima Nuclear plant disaster. Yet, he remains introspective, pondering if what he does as a filmmaker is worthwhile and can make a difference in the face of such social issues. Still, he persists in his determination to transform whatever is in his head, into a clear and unobstructed reality.

            It is amazing that Miyazaki has not had to sacrifice his control and creativity for his level of success. His rejection of the typical corporate structure and cultural mindset should be the model by which others should be judged. Early on, when Ghibli as a studio was just getting started, he sat down with his animators and basically stated that we are a studio that strives to break even; to not necessarily make a profit. Miyazaki made it clear that the typical Japanese “Salary Man” corporate ladder structure, would not be in place at Ghibli. He ended the conversation by saying that “If you are seeking lifetime salaried employment this is not the place for you. Corporations are nothing but conduits for money.” Instead, the ‘Miyazakian’ Approach can be clearly summed up in a sign that Miyazaki has around the Studio. It reads:

Quit if:

1.      You have No ideas

2.      You always Rely on Others

3.      Shirk Responsibility

4.      Lack Enthusiasm

This is what it means to be Miyazaki


 


Release and Controversies’

Upon the film’s release in the United States on February 21st 2004, there were several reviews that saw the film as “pro-war”. These reviews display an unnuanced and limited understanding of the film. To the authors of these reviews, the simple focus of the film on the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the designer and creator of a plane that was used in the war, is in their minds, tantamount to being supportive of the Japanese Government’s decisions to use those planes for war. In a very oblique way, they may have a point. If the plane didn’t exist, it could obviously not be used. But that does not mean that it would have prevented the war, or the atrocities that were committed during it. Secondly, this idea is directly addressed in the film in the dream conversations that Jiro has with Caproni.  The choice Jiro, and by extension, Miyazaki, make is to not stifle creativity, art, and technological progress out of fear of problematic practical applications (more on this in Social Analysis).  Finally, this criticism of the film negates the letter that Miyazaki and a number of animators wrote and signed to then PM Shinzo Abe; who at the time was attempting to repatriate Japan through a change to article 9 of the Japanese Constitution that vies for international peace. A change to this article of the constitution, would allow them to grant more powers to Japan’s Defense Forces[3] to protect themselves and provide aid to allies.[4] Yet, regardless of this letter (which branded Miyazaki a traitor by the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan) Miyazaki admits to having a complicated relationship with Japan during World War II; cherishing the advancements and creative technologies that came out of that period, while as a pacifist, abhorring what those things were used for.[5]

The Wind Rises was nominated for several awards including: Writing  at the Animation awards, and a nomination for "Best Animated Feature" at the Academy Awards.[6] Joe Hisashi, the film’s composer, was also honored with the Japan Academy Prize in the category of Best Music Score. The criminally low amount of awards this film received is due to the combination of US awards being a group masturbatory process, within a culture of only recognizing international talent (outside the US) once, as a legacy gift.

 


SOCIAL ANAYLSIS   

            The Wind Rises is unique in its social analysis in that the majority of Miyazaki films, being predominantly populated with magic and fantasy creatures, is mostly metaphorical. With the fantastical elements regulated to dream sequences, this is the Miyazaki film that is grounded in reality. Therefore, the symbolism of what the characters mean in this Miyazaki film, intersects with a real-life social analysis of Japan during World War II.  Thus, we could easily talk about issues of imperialism, economic collapse, Government control and oppression and the way Bureaucracies can perpetuate all of it. These corruptible interlocking systems, lead to atrocities for both wartime coalitions (Axis and Allies) beyond the “usual violence of war”; such as the sexual slavery in Japan during world war II (labeled ‘comfort women ‘) as well as the US Japanese internment.

However, since I am not a Military analyst or a war historian, and in part that these ideas have already been mulled over and written about incessantly, I have decided instead, to focus on the central question that Miyazaki poses in this film: What is the relationship between the creation of something, and how that thing is used.  These are ideas that many scholars of popular culture wrestle with. Usually, it is asking the question: “Should we be able to separate the actions and behaviors of the Artist, from the art that they produce.”. From Michael Jackson, the productions of Harvey Weinstein, Woody Allen, Charlie Rose, Don Imus, Louis C.K. and Joss Whedon,[7] many of the creators of pop culture that we cherish have turned out to be trash human beings. So, what is our next course of action? Do we boycott? This may be easier if you do not have an emotional attachment to the product (especially through Nostalgia). Yet, we rarely ask the question in reverse, as Miyazaki does; what happens when the product is used and embraced in socio political ways that its creator did not intend[8].

Miyazaki directly addresses the above question in Jiro’s dream conversations with Caproni.  As they wax poetic about the existence of the pyramids, lack of transference in their work and letting their creation speak for itself.   In the end however, even though Miyazaki has Caproni clearly state that planes should not be used for war or to make money, he settles on planes being beautiful, cursed dreams; that even though they were a major industrial feat of engineering, they inevitably, given the systems that we live within, will be pragmatically folded into society. At the time, this meant that anything that was worth putting money into, would be those things that would help the war effort. Thus, Jiro’s plane became a machine of death. Jiro illudes to this as a failure at the end of the film, saying: “It all fell apart in the end, none of them came home.” Caproni ominously responds: “They had nothing to come home to.” Given Japan’s utter defeat and occupation after the war. One of the final shots of the film is of Jiro walking among the wreckage of his creation, obliterated by their use in war.

The imagery described above, clearly places Miyazaki’s pacifist belief in the context of the futility of war; that it warps and mutates something beautiful and brilliant into a diseased shadow self of the original.  While, as I stated earlier, even this obvious declaration was lost on a few reviewers at the time, Miyazaki addressed and was clear about his messaging and intentions. Whereas other creators of pop culture with heavy socio-political subject matter, deflect having a definitive answer. 

The problem with creators fueling the ambiguity of their work, especially when it is being used for a socio-political purpose (intentionally or not), is that it comes off as a shield against criticism.  By maintaining the ambiguity of the messaging, it allows the content to have broader appeal, and therefore be more profitable. Thereby, any clarity provided by the creators may hurt the content’s appeal, interest and ultimately its bottom line. Additionally, the more precise a creator is in their messaging, the more they are going to have to defend their position and be questioned about the political nature of their work[9].

It should be mentioned that the reaction to Pop Culture is often politicized. Because Pop Culture is soft power, the consumption of pop culture can inform our understanding of the world. However, “The door swings both ways.”[10] and we also interpret popular culture based upon our political social beliefs. This is confirmation bias within content. We see messaging that reaffirms our own ideas, desires, and beliefs. Because of this, if someone is being too vague or loose with their messaging (see the above link) they may be criticized as being too glib or flippant with the subject matter; because those who understand the soft power of pop culture, and more acutely, understand the complexities of the subject a piece of pop culture may be touching upon (however heavy) is careless, without context. Again, this is an attempted deflection through an appeal to pop culture as being mindless entertainment, or “turn your brain off fun.”; ignoring that these pedagogies of pop culture consumption are shallow, and not universal across populations.

Rather than run from the political and potentially polarizing embrace of meaning and messaging for the purpose of profit or protection; more creators need to stand behind their work and their message like Miyazaki. Once we have a general acceptance of this practice there is a clarity that comes with it. Creators will feel more inclined to speak out against the unexpected, or undesired use, or inaccurate interpretation of their work; while clearly presenting the material to the public for what it is. That way, people can make an informed decision about which pieces of pop culture they want to consume.  This isn’t the most capitalist friendly solution; and perhaps it shouldn’t be, given that capitalism is a part of the problem.

 


CONCLUSION

During the time of release of The Wind Rises, Disney still held the distribution rights for all of the Ghibli catalog. Therefore, they were the ones to first release the blu-ray in 2014. On this single disc there were poultry special features, scanned 2 k resolution and mono audio tracks. It seemed that the “bells and whistles” that Disney brought out in their Distribution and push for Spirited Away, were nowhere to be seen for this release.[11] Whereas, the 2020 release of The Wind Rises by Gkids (a Japanese animation studio, comprised of Ghibli Alum) has a greater number of special features (including an episode of the documentary Hayao Miyazaki: Ten Years with the Master), more storyboards, Behind the scenes content, crisper image transfer and cleaner audio track than the Disney release.

            Miyazaki is an animation genius, and The Wind Rises is his greatest and most personal work.  In the majority of Miyazaki’s films, he has reinforced social thematic elements that are important to him: environmentalism, humanism, equality and pacifism. Yet, it is only in his latest work to date,[12] has Miyazaki tackled the question that plagues all creators: Does their work have value, and was it worth it to create? Given that I have spent time and energy over the course of two and ½ years to explain the greatness and sociological relevance of Miyazaki and his work; I as a scholar and fan, believe his work to be worth it. So should you.  It is a better alternative to anything Disney has ever produced.     



[2] This was not my own idea. This was first brought to my attention during the filmography retrospective of Miyazaki’s work on the Blank Check podcast episode on these documentaries by host David Sims, critic for the Atlantic  

[3] A similar article (Article 96) was passed in 2014 to Amend the constitution

[4] As of this writing, ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons are prohibited

[5] Oppenheimer quote

[6] IT LOST TO FUCKING ‘FROZEN’!

[7] This one hurt me.

[8] Red Pill Movement, Journey’s song used at Trump rallies, The origin of “Proud Boys”, Roadhouse as a police teaching tool, Princess Leia’s image, Various court cases where pop culture is used during argumentation

[9] To be fair, this is a damned if you do, damned if you don’t, situation. If you are vague in its messaging, creator’s will be tried to be pinned down. Once they are pinned down, they will be criticized for their position  

[10] Ghostbusters (1984)

[11] Disney may also have been annoyed that Miyazaki snubbed the Oscars for Spirited away as an act of protest the Iraq war; when they have produced a lot of content that was in support of the war.

[12] How do you Live? is scheduled for release in 2023