Private SNAFU

I’d never seen these military training films before. YouTube’s got quite a few.

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Fires on the Plain

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Years ago I read an absorbing, horrifyingly moving novel called Fires on the Plain by Shohei Ooka. It was a look at WWII in the Pacific showing aspects of war that left me stunned. When I saw the DVD in my library, I had to check it out.

Directed by Kon Ichikawa, who switched careers from graphic arts to film, Fires on the Plain was a powerful, timeless look at war, particularly World War II in the the Philippines. The main character is Tamura, who’s got TB, and returns to his unit after the hospital sent him away. They’re only taking patients with food and curable diseases at the hospital. Back with his comrades, who don’t want another mouth to feed, his superior shouts at him, gives him a few yams and a grenade. His orders are to return to the hospital and convince them to take him. If that doesn’t work, and it’s unlikely that it will, Tamura is to use the grenade to kill himself.

Like the other soldiers, his clothes are beyond tatters, his shoes are falling apart and he has little to eat. He knows his orders are impossible. So he leaves and wanders. He’s not sure where to go, and he doesn’t have any valor or philosophy or loved one’s to live for, but he’ll evade the fires the Americans (or is it the locals) set off before they attack. His desire to live is as thin as a razor’s edge, but he’ll trudge on. Along the way he meets a Filipino brother and sister in a deserted village. He winds up shooting the girl. Her brother runs off and in the distance black smoke rises from fires. It’s best for Tamura to make a run for it.

Tamura continues to flee. Along the way he meets fellow soldiers, all soldiers for an army that’s all but lost. There’s no food, no plans, no leadership, and no trust of each other. The only person Tamura can trust, sort of, is Yasuda who said he was going to surrender, but towards the end of the film is still psychologically tethered to a mean, unpredictable older soldier who’s probably lying when he says he can’t walk and he has no weapons. This trio stays together, but not only does Yasuda sleep with one eye open, he sleeps in a hiding place far from the old man.

The film is filled with beautiful and poignant scenes. One I’ll never forget is when it’s pouring rain and Tamura is with a group of soldiers planning to go to a city where the Americans are to surrender. When they come to a soldier lying dead in a puddle, another soldier whose shoes are full of holes, removes his shoes and takes the dead man’s. Then Tamura reaches the corpse with the shoes beside it. He picks up the discarded shoes and looks through them. Eighty percent of the soles are gone. They’re useless. So are the shoes Tamura’s own pair, which he removes and proceeds barefoot. Later when Tamura encounters another corpse. As soon as he establishes the man is dead, the takes his shoes.

The film has no ideology or message. It simply shows the affects of a particular war, which is unique in some ways and not in others. The soldiers know they’re losing and they trudge along. They keep going without having the least idea why. The lack of morale or trite reason to live, makes the characters all the more heroic in a very modern sense.

The hardship the characters experience was hard to watch and I had to take several breaks. I think I saw the film over three days. Still I’m glad I did. I’ll definitely look for more Ichikawa films.

If you’re interested, I found the film with English subtitles on YouTube.

Stray Dog

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The first noir crime film in Japan, in Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (1949) rookie detective, Murakami, gets his pistol stolen while he’s riding a crowded bus. Humiliated, Murakami (Mifune) takes responsibility for his carelessness and begs his boss to fire him. The pragmatic boss brushes his request away and pairs the rookie with a veteran detective (Shimura) named Sato. The two set out to track down the pistol.

Plagued by guilt, Mifune is obsessed with finding his pistol and disguises himself to search the black markets of aprés-guerre Tokyo. We see the squalor and darkness of these markets (which aren’t quite as bad as the poverty in Dos’ka den). These scenes are beautifully and masterfully shot to show this underworld full of hustlers, prostitutes, bums and drunks.

Aprés-guerre is a term Murakami and Sato discuss at length as Sato notices the difference between the pre-WWII generation and the aprés-guerre generation. A WWII veteran, Murakami expresses his sympathy and understanding for the culprit whom he imagines is a product of a rough society. Yusa, the thief, also is a veteran so Murakami identifies with him and knows how the war damaged the soldiers.

However, Sato tells him that thinking is generational and won’t help a cop do his work. If a cop’s philosophy views a criminal as being without choice or responsibility, the officer just won’t be able to work as he should, Sato asserts. Sato reminds Murakami that he’s chosen law and order, while Yusa’s chosen exploitation and crime. There is a difference, a big one.

As time passes, the missing gun is used in robberies and a murder. Murakami knows the pistol had all seven bullets and the plot becomes a race to get to the gun. In this race, the heroes’ search takes us through Japanese society from local watering holes, to a packed baseball field, to a burlesque hall, to a filthy shanty and to Sato’s simple, loving home. Along the way we’re treated to Sato’s wise practice.  It’s fascinating to see him deal with each subject, be it a showgirl or a pickpocket, with just the right approach. His understanding of people makes chasing and shootouts unnecessary.

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I learned about Stray Dog from the commentary feature with the Drunken Angel DVD. Mifune and Shimura starred in Drunken Angel. Here they both play completely different characters. Mifune moves from angry gangster to exemplary rookie cop and Shimura shifts from righteous drunk doctor to wise, veteran cop. Another pivotal performance was given by Keiko Awaji, who plays a showgirl, an uncooperative witness. In the extra features, Awaji explains how she didn’t want to be in this or any film. She wanted a career in operettas, but she got talked into this role. She was terribly pouty and unpleasant about the filming process and this difficult attitude made her performance work. Go figure.

I never intended to get into Japanese films as much as I have. I now have been so impressed with the stellar performances that it’s clear that it’s high time I learn the names of these actors.

Here’s a compilation of Mifune’s performances:

Dodes’ka Den

Kurosawa’s 1970 Dodesu ka-den (どです か でん) was his first color film and the first film he released in five years after going though a rough experience directing a film for 20th Century Fox, a studio that didn’t trust him and spread rumors about him having had a nervous break down. To prove his detractors wrong, Kurosawa brought a collection of short stories to life on film.

Set in a post-war slum, Dodesu ka-den follows a group of beautiful or actually mainly grubby losers, most of whom aren’t regulars at the public bath. The story begins with a boy we’d now consider on the autism spectrum. He begins his day praying with his mother who’s distraught by his behavior. Every day, this boy, who lives out the fantasy that he’s a trolley driver by pantomiming every action of one. The actor’s skill would give Marcel Marceau a run for his money. The boy meticulously follows the rules of trolley service and scolds anyone who’s accidentally sitting on his “tracks.” Of course, he’s the prime target of taunting neighborhood boys.

There’s a group of half a dozen housewives who spend their days overseeing the comings and goings of everyone in the surrounding shanties. They gossip about the two women who’re married to men seemingly competing to be the town drunk and who casually swap their husbands from night to night. These women are little better than their husbands in terms of temperance or temperament.

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Another woman has five children and another on the way. Each child has a different father. She’s selfish and doesn’t care for anyone else. The scene when her current “husband” comforts the kids who’re crying because their pals have told them that each one has a different father and that this good-natured guy is not their “real” dad, was a highlight.

The scenes with the homeless dreamer who has his son beg for food and helps the young boy keep his spirits up by sharing his imagined view of the glorious house they’ll one day have with a English gate, a Scottish living room, and a swimming pool, were poignant and touching.

One of my favorite characters was an engraver who was the one sensible person in the neighborhood. He quietly made the right decision or said the right thing whenever someone was on the brink.

The film doesn’t have a typical story structure where people are facing a defined problem and its resolved by the end. Most of the characters had bleak existences that would make a Dickens character look privileged. Yet the film does offer respect and hope. Sometimes that hope was the charactes’s greatest flaw.

Drunken Angel

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Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel has nothing to do with Christmas. It’s an engaging film that grabbed me with characters I didn’t expect to see in a film, Japanese or otherwise.

Have you ever seen a film where a doctor call his patients idiots? Or one where you saw the patient and punch and toss a doctor out of a bar on his hinny?

Me neither.

Till I saw Drunken Angel that is. Set in post-WWII Japan, Drunken Angel presents a Tokyo neighborhood on the edge of a smelly, dirty swamp. The city’s polluted and the society’s sick and poisoned. It’s a city where everyone shops at the black market as that’s the only store with any desirable goods. Kurosawa wants to show a society that’s gone to pot.

His hero is a doctor who’s openly alcoholic and drinks diluted medical alcohol as the real stuff’s hard to come by. Despite his drinking, the doctor is a wise, caring man, surrounded by exasperating fools. A gangster comes to his office complaining that a nail poked into his hand. When the doctor extracts it, he sees the nail is actually a bullet. During this encounter, the doctor notices that the gangster probably has tuberculosis, but the young man rebuffs his advice to get an X-ray.

The gangster runs a nightclub and fights getting the healthcare he needs every step of the way. The doctor yells at him, pesters him, and throws bottles at him. The gangster just doesn’t get it. Finally, he goes to a high class doctor and gets his X-Ray done, but does nothing about it.

If this wasn’t exasperating enough to a doctor who really cares, Miyo, his nurse, who’s usually a sensible, calming influence, starts thinking maybe, just maybe, she should go over to the jail to see the no-good older gangster whom she was involved with (I can hardly call this brute who gave her VD and then deserted her a “lover”). The older gangster just cares about money and power. He sends his thugs out to get chase her down, but the doctor protects her.

I watched this absorbing film twice. The characters, though rough and very flawed, were original and vibrant. Drunken Angel shows Japan, broken, polluted and corrupted, after the war. It’s a side I hadn’t seen and a critique of a society that’s lost its morality and except for one character its ability to tell the truth.

The Criterion Collection DVD has an illuminating commentary by Donald Richie. Listen to that if you can.

Earrings of Madame de . . .

Directed by Max Ophuls, Earrings of Madame de . . . is a film dripping in style. The earrings have a magical power, power to return to a married couple that grow apart and power to represent a range of emotions.

The beautiful Countess Louisa is married to an older general. While she’s hidden her debts from him and thus decides to sell a pair of earrings he gave her, their marriage isn’t bad. They are distant from each other, but he seems to understand her and marriage. In their social circle, I don’t believe anyone has an ideal marriage between soulmates. Here we see a marriage where there’s a lot of freedom. The general seems icy, but he does care about Louisa.

After she sells her earrings and reports them missing at the opera, the jeweler informs her husband and he buys them back. He then proceeds to give them to a lover as a farewell gift. When the lover must sell them to cover a gambling debt, you wonder just when they’ll return to Paris and to the countess.

Louisa soon meets an Italian diplomat named Donati. Their relationship goes from cordial to flirtatious to romantic obsession. As you’d expect, Donati has bought the earrings and gives them to Louisa, who’s already made a spectacle of herself when like Anna Karennina collapses when Donati falls from a horse during a hunt. People have been talking, but the sophisticated General brushes aside such possible indignities. He’s above such trifles.

However, things begin to fall apart when Louisa thinks she can fool her husband into thinking she’s found the earrings in her drawer.

The film is a masterpiece of cinematography and style. I constantly reevaluated what I thought of Louisa, the General and Donati. I had sympathy for each at various points. The film’s mastery is that they’re all likable and all in the wrong. Because of their social standing and their inability to sympathize much with each other or put aside social façades, the ending was inevitable. Louisa’s fate was due in large part to her distance from reality and her own lies.

It’s an intriguing and stunning film, but it’s also easy to remain aloof from the aloof characters.

I started to listen to the commentary that’s available on the Criterion Collection DVD, but the pedantic theories got old fast.