Tokyo Olympiad (1965)

Japan

3*
Director:
Kon Ichikawa
Screenwriters:
Kon Ichikawa
Ishio Shirasaka
Shuntarō Tanikawa
Natto Wada
Director of Photography:
Kazuo Miyagawa

Running time: 170 minutes

Original title: 東京オリンピック
Transliterated title: Tōkyō orinpikku

Made in the years before cameras were strapped onto the backs of motorcycles to follow runners or cyclists in ways that make it seem like the viewer is literally taking part, Tokyo Olympiad is a mammoth film that tries to condense the sporting events of the famous 16 days of glory that are the Olympic Games into one viewing experience. Filmmaker Kon Ichikawa approaches his subjects, with its many disparate parts, in an equally incoherent fashion and the result is a work that, while it certainly gives a good idea of the 1964 Olympics, pales in comparison to more recent productions, and is at best a catalogue of events rather than a representation of them by one man with a specific vision.

When it comes to films made about the Olympic Games, Bud Greenspan’s  “16 Days of Glory” television films have set the standard for many years, and while he only focuses on a small part of each four-year celebration of the Olympic spirit, he does so through the eyes and experiences of a number of athletes with very attractive stories of perseverance and beating the odds. Ichikawa tries his hand at one such story, without ever getting close to his subject, before simply dropping him and moving on to the next event.

This lack of a human connection to the games is an important failure. Ichikawa shows many pictures of the spectators’ reactions to the events on the field or on the track, but the only person who ever speaks is the invisible commentator Ichirō Mikuni. It would be unfair to say Mikuni doesn’t bring human emotion to the account of events, but the fact he is the viewer’s only link is unsatisfactory and cannot substitute the real athletes and their stories.

Ichikawa begins his film with the opening ceremony and ends with the closing ceremony, while the first half is set almost entirely inside the athletics stadium and the second half is dedicated to all the other sports. He looks exclusively at the finals of every single sport practised at the games, with the exception of discus throw and judo, but where a sport is subdivided into many separate sections, for example wrestling or weightlifting, he only casts a very brief glance at one or two categories.

That is understandable, since it is impossible to bring together every single event and still make a film that would shine with excitement and rhythm. There are moments in Ichikawa’s film that are quite brilliantly depicted. Besides the details his camera picks up, from the athletes ducking to avoid the doves when they’re released during the opening ceremony to the freeze frame on the tense face of Soviet shot putter Irina Press at the moment before she launches the ball, or the ritual of fellow countryman Adolf Varanauskas who rolls around the ball against his neck in anticipation of the big throw.

Another freeze frame shows us the moment when 10,000 meter American runner Ben Larrieu is lapped and his faces tells a story of shock and disappointment. These are the kinds of characters who merit more attention, but Ichikawa limits the focus of the film to a far-off glance at the events and the participants as they behave on their big day.

The film has a multitude of shots dedicated to the raising of flags and the playing of national anthems, as is to be expected in such a film, but his artistic transformation of certain moments could have made a greater impact if he’d had the courage to pursue this approach more determinedly. During the 10,000 meter race, for example, the camera looks out onto the pack of athletes from far away, then pans away from them and follows an empty track before reaching them again.

Ichikawa sometimes focuses on specific athletes, like the physical and mental preparation of Japanese athlete Ikuko Yoda before her 80 meter hurdles race, or the runners who come in last in the big races – the Ceylonese Ranatunga Karunananda in the 10,000 meters and the Nepalese Bahacur Bhupendra in the marathon. They add a necessary human veneer to the greatness of the Olympics.

But beyond the all-too-rare moments of genius, like the opening of the gymnastics sequences, in which a female gymnast does a vault in a Muybridge-like image, the complete silence in the presentation of the hurdle race, save the crashing thud when the first hurdle is knocked over, and the silence of the open division wrestling final interrupted only by the breathing of the wrestlers, the film displays little artistic sensibility and rather opts for a dry recounting of the events as they occurred, without the human component. By and large, that human component, hinted at in examples above, in short mentions of the marathon runners’ professions, and in a very brief bit about a young Chadian with the interesting face, Ahmed Issa, who competes in the 800m and advances to the semifinals, is missing from the film and makes the production uninteresting from numerous points of view.

In terms of politics, the film also completely avoids the interesting tension, visually and ideologically, of the USSR following the contingent of American athletes into the stadium, or of India and Pakistan’s meeting in the field hockey finals.

The land of the rising sun (the latter a symbol often repeated in the film), the first country in Asia to host the Olympic Games, staged a very competent Olympics that, going by this film, seems completely peaceful and devoid of the politics that would make the future games so rife with tension, but at the same time the peace limits our engagement with the film’s narrative as almost no characters are really examined. As a document of the games, the film is good, but Bud Greenspan’s human-oriented documentaries about the games are infinitely better.

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983)

Japan / United Kingdom

4*
Director: 
Nagisa Ôshima
Screenwriters: 
Nagisa Ôshima, Paul Mayersberg
Director of Photography:
Toichiro Narushima

Running time: 118 minutes

Original title:
戦場のメリークリスマス
Transliterated title:
Senjō no merīkurisumasu

War makes friendship among men stronger,” says Lt. Colonel Lawrence to Sergeant Hara of the Imperial Japanese Army. Of course it does. But Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence examines the consequences of such intimacy between soldiers a bit more closely than most other films, with the exception of Robert Altman’s masterful Streamers, which was released the same year. This “intimacy between soldiers” obviously implies some level of attraction, and the film’s very first scene makes it clear what the two camps, namely the British and the Japanese, make of such behaviour.

This film, by the Japanese director Nagisa Ôshima, is set during the Second World War on the island of Java, while it was under Japanese control. Allied troops, mostly British soldiers, are held captive by the Japanese forces, and while the scenes under the hot sun, among the palm trees, showing British soldiers listening to a Japanese captain who follows orders rather than reason, might look familiar, any comparison with Bridge on the River Kwai would be very superficial indeed. Ôshima’s film starts with a scene that immediately puts the Japanese and British views on homosexual attraction front and centre. When it is discovered that Kanemoto, a Korean soldier. has been committing “improper” acts with a Dutch soldier, the Japanese Sergeant Hara at first decides to execute Kanemoto, lest his shameful acts be made public. But moments before the sword falls, the commanding officer, Captain Yonoi, arrives on the scene to stop the overzealous Sergeant.

Yonoi seems to be a rather complicated individual. The filmmaker introduces him as a slightly effeminate character, approaching the would-be execution in a white robe and sandals; he also seems to be wearing eyeliner, but his fellow soldiers seem not to take any notice. He delays the execution and is called up to Batavia where he participates in a military trial for a captured British soldier called Celliers, played by David Bowie. At this point, during Celliers’s appearance in court, we get the most visible indication that Yonoi is fascinated – perhaps even enchanted – by the blond Brit: he can’t take his eyes off him.

While the charges against Celliers are read out loud, the viewer’s attention is rapt by the very slow zoom in, across the courtroom, on Yonoi’s face, staring at Celliers. When he is finally given the opportunity to speak, he comes to Celliers’s defence and proposes that the Brit be taken as a prisoner of war, rather than executed.

After Celliers arrives at the camp and Yonoi discovers that he used to serve with Lawrence, he questions the latter about him in a very innocent way that nonetheless reveals his interest to us and to Lawrence, who is very bemused by the captain’s almost childlike fascination and the fact that he doesn’t know how to interpret his own feelings. While Celliers notices Yonoi’s eyes on him and takes advantage of the special treatment he consequently receives from the Japanese commander, he is not interested in Yonoi, except as a means of redeeming himself. The viewer is made aware of the need for redemption during two significant incidents that occur as flashbacks – the first takes place years earlier when Celliers protects his younger brother by being beaten up in his place, and the second occurs years later when Celliers does not protect his brother when he is bullied at school.

Celliers’s eventual attempt at redemption demonstrates great cunning on the parts of both Celliers and the director, for it clearly links a number of different events into a solid final moment of courage. Celliers realises that, if violence is not an effective tactic of resistance, the opposite might just be worth trying out, and in the process he not only stands up against his oppressors, but he frees himself from the shackles of the past. The scene is short, simple, and stripped to its bare essentials, yet surprisingly complex, given the resolution of two issues effected in a single leap.

Yonoi shows great promise for dramatic intrigue in the first half, which moves along rapidly once the captain lays his eyes on Celliers in court, and it is very interesting to read the looks of the other Japanese soldiers, who fear that their captain has been bewitched by an evil spirit – the only explanation for the sudden change in his behaviour. However, the second half does not deliver on the promise of the first half, but rather shifts the focus to the title character, John Lawrence, who serves as mediator between the Japanese and British language and culture, and Sergeant Hara, whose initial eagerness to kill changes over time and reveals a more human character than we might have expected.

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence takes on an interesting subject, but while David Bowie’s character, Jack Celliers, is carefully drawn, I did not find the same kind of depth in either John Lawrence or Hara, though this does not mute their likeability in any way. Nagisa Ôshima focuses on the human dramas of four men, and while the two groupings do not provoke the same level of emotion, the characters are all very firmly established and carry the film squarely (and firmly) on their shoulders.

Tokyo Story (1953)

Japan
4.5*

Director:
Yasujiro Ozu
Screenwriters: 
Kōgo Noda, Yasujiro Ozu
Director of Photography:
Atsuta Yuharu

Running time: 130 minutes

Original Title:
東京物語
Transliterated title:

Tōkyō Monogatari

In the films of Yasujiro Ozu, people go about their business in an orderly fashion, and when the main characters are a geriatric couple from the countryside who go to Tokyo to see how their children are getting on, they really do take their time.  Most of the time, they sit around the house, chatting or doing needlework, but if you looked closely, you’d see that they would rather be doing something else. And it is this subtle point that ultimately makes the film pack a powerful punch.

Widely considered to be one of the best films ever made, Tokyo Story is much more accessible than one would expect, despite the prevailing opinion that his films are slow and that his technique – his so-called “tatami” shots are taken from the position of someone seated on a small straw mat, and the camera is almost always static – might be alien to a Western viewer.

Tokyo Story impresses itself upon the viewer because the story, presented in a very straightforward manner (one could argue the camera’s distance and immobility give a sense of objectivity), seems to be very simple, when in fact the multitude of emotions is only gauged upon close examination of the film. Very little seems to happen, but our response to the events onscreen, and in particular the rather odious behaviour of the children (and grandchildren), would no doubt elicit strong reactions from most viewers.

The film is about an elderly couple, Shukichi and Tomi Hirayama, from the rural town of Onomichi, who goes to visit two of their children and their families in Tokyo. This is before the days of the bullet train, and the 600 km (370 miles) journey takes them almost a full day. But they are excited to see their children (and their grandchildren), whom they haven’t seen in a very long time, and explore the big city.

Even before their arrival, we can see tension at the home of their eldest son, Koichi, whose wife, Fumiko, is having trouble disciplining Minoru, her rebellious young boy, who has a temper tantrum whenever he doesn’t get his way. His reaction to his mother prepares the viewer to some extent for the relationship between his grandparents, for whom he shows the same kind of disdain, and their children.

Shukichi and Tomi have four children: Besides Koichi, they also have a daughter in Tokyo, called Shiage (a hairdresser who cares only about herself), a son in Osaka and a daughter who is about to leave home. Koichi and Shiage are both married to spouses who seem much more willing to care for and help out their in-laws than the couple’s own children. It also transpires that they had another son, Shoji, but he was killed during the war. However, Shoji’s widow, Noriko (played by Setsuko Hara), treats them like real family.

Noriko makes an indelible impression on the viewer. She is kindhearted, makes time to show the elderly couple around, always has a smile on her face and joins them at the drop of a hat. Of course, this happy-go-lucky exterior masks some deep-rooted heartache, and by the time the film addresses these emotions, she has already crept into our hearts.

By contrast, the four remaining children, with the exception of Kyoko, the youngest daughter, all behave rather despicably, and I can imagine that the film would be a challenge for most parents, who would prefer to think that their children would make time for them if they had to and not spend the bare minimum on them when they come for a visit.  Shukichi and Tomi grin and bear their children’s alienating behaviour, and while Shukichi, in a very touching moment, admits his surprise at how much his children have changed (and not in a good way), he also tries to be pragmatic about the changes and says that parents should learn that their children don’t always live up to the expectations they had for them.

The film is incredibly moving, despite its very simple visuals and a camera that moves only twice in the entire film: once at the train station, when Shukichi and Tomi are moving along the platform and about to board the train, and once a few moments earlier, when they make the decision to spend their last evening in Tokyo separately. Although we don’t learn much about the two main characters, beyond the smiles on their faces we do realise that they are much sharper than they seem at first. Certain moments, like Tomi’s recognition that her son and his family live far from the station, meaning they don’t live in a very good district, conveys a certain veiled concern on her part that reveals her care for her children.

And ultimately that is why her children’s ignorance of their parents’ love for them is so discomfiting and makes this quiet film so perceptive and powerful.

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)

Japan/USA
4.5*

Director:
Paul Schrader
Screenwriters: 
Paul Schrader
Leonard Schrader
Chieko Schrader
Director of Photography: 
John Bailey

Running time: 115 minutes

An extraordinary film about an artist’s desire for political change brought about by his art. The multidimensional way in which the tale presented to us is vibrant but by no means attempts to give a complete picture of the man.

The story is played out in three distinct parts that are woven together throughout the film: present (1970), in colour; past (pre-1970) in black and white; imaginary, in very bright colours. Of course, it is no coincidence that the present and the imaginary are both shown in colour, and by the time the film reaches its climax, the pure expression of Mishima’s ideal that art and action somehow be fused is visualised magnificently onscreen, accompanied by the music of Philip Glass, without whom this film would not have had the same energy.

The film is based on the real-life individual, Yukio Mishima, a writer, director, actor and admirer of the samurai traditions. The content of his own novels forms the backdrops for the episodes in the film. These episodes – the four chapters of the film’s title – are labelled as “Beauty”, “Art”, “Action” and “Harmony of Pen and Sword”.

The different novels on which the film draws, and whose visual representations in the film are nothing short of breathtaking, are The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kyoko’s House and Runaway Horses. Naturally, the omission of such a novel in the final part of the film implies that the episode itself, directed by Mishima, is another kind of novel, although he seems to achieve in real life what had eluded him in his fiction: the fusion of words and action.

Director Paul Schrader’s treatment of Mishima’s sexuality does not aim for sensationalism; on the contrary, it provides one of many points of coherence between the different story lines, and the story lines do sometimes overlap, in the manner of the opening credits sequence of Stephen Daldry’s The Hours (whose soundtrack was also composed by Philip Glass).

While director Paul Schrader took great pains to portray this Japanese story with Japanese actors, performing in Japanese, he opted for an English voice-over because he felt the amount of subtitles would otherwise be unbearable for the viewer. Perhaps this is true, but his solution to the problem – an American voice-over whose speaker pretends to be Mishima – damages the film’s otherwise impeccable handling of the material.

The music, as much a contributing factor as Schrader’s direction, enthuses the viewer even when the thread of the present – and its inevitable conclusion (seppuku, or harakiri: suicide by disembowelment) – might have provoked a very different reaction. And in those closing moments, when the different stories finally culminate, the viewer will recognise that Schrader has a masterful grip on the material and that the transcendent power his main character speaks of during the film is powerfully evoked.