Saturday 29 October 2016

Kiki Fung writes on her wonderful selection of Japanese restorations and revivals screening at the Brisbane Asia-Pacific Film Festival

Transcending the Inevitable: Japanese Screen Legends and Their Works with Masters

"Teaism...inculcates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity, the romanticism of the social order. It is essentially a worship of the imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life."

Kakuzo Okakura’s beautiful definition of Teaism at the beginning of The Book of Tea calls to mind the sensibilities of the actresses we honour in this program.

Setsuko Hara in Ozu's Late Spring
These were actresses of subtlety, possessing delicate qualities, but also strength. More importantly, they were the muses who each inspired and collaborated with a reputable master; each director-actress duo inspired exceptional qualities in each other. This retrospective highlights Setsuko Hara’s (1920 – 2015) elegant collaborations with Yasujiro Ozu that defined her onscreen presence; Hideko Takamine (1924 -2010) in her most emotionally complex and conflicting roles with Mikio Naruse; and Kinuyo Tanaka (1909 – 1977) in her sexually subversive roles with Kenji Mizoguchi. In contrast, the retrospective also includes their collaborations with other directors such as Akira Kurosawa and Keisuke Kinoshita.

Hailed as the 'Eternal Virgin' of Japanese cinema, Hara’s reserved and agreeable manner masked deeper, internalised feelings; for her, passive acceptance became a form of resistance. Alternately, Takamine — in her determined and somewhat nihilist characters — epitomised quiet defiance, always responding to life’s ridicule with an ambivalent shrug or sneer. Tanaka probably offered the most comprehensive of performances in a wide range of roles; committing blood and soul, she was the one who had the ability to absolve.  

Hideko Takamine
Remarkably, all these masters of post-war Japanese cinema sympathised with and felt compassion towards women. While Ozu’s films were largely based around a Zen meditation of the inevitable, Naruse and Mizoguchi are more obvious in their preoccupation with feminine narratives, and in identifying with women’s plights.  

More broadly, collectively these films comprise an Eastern, or more specifically Japanese, form of existentialism. While Ozu, Naruse and Mizoguchi did not deliberately set out to say something about existentialism in making these films, we can see their characters attempting to express their will and identity, throughout their journeys coming to accept what has been thrust upon them and ultimately attaining an enlightened understanding of life and self. Though all of these films feature women as central characters, these are not situations exclusive to women — most of their dilemmas are universally understood and felt.

Mikio Naruse’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is perhaps the prime example: Takamine’s ascent each evening, simultaneously donning her bar hostess’s persona, represents the quintessentially modern rendition of Sisyphus. From Late Spring onwards, all of Hara’s roles in Ozu’s films portrayed a quiet resistance against social obligation and expectation; their last film together, The End of Summer, saw this resistance transcend into a content acceptance of an ever-changing world. In her most recognised work with Mizoguchi, The Life of Oharu, Tanaka endures a convoluted journey to find and define love and herself, culminating with a choice to include all in her generosity and compassion.

Kinuyo Tanaka in Mizoguchi's Life of Oharu
Happiness is transient; life, with its struggles and compromises, endures. Cinema, as does any form of art, transcends memory and thought, transforming experience into something larger than life. Through cinema we can acknowledge and comprehend meaning in the everyday: good or bad, all experiences have a place in a collective memory that, however transient, is undeniably grand and irreplaceable. As reminded through these precious stories, we need not be undone by the imperfect or the inevitable. Rather, passing through life’s trials, we can find new revelations and transcend the everyday.

Special thanks to The Japan Foundation, Shochiku, Toho, Kadokawa Corporation and the Hong Kong International Film Festival for making this program possible.

35mm prints courtesy of The Japan Foundation.
DCPs courtesy of Shochiku and Hong Kong International Film Festival.

Kiki Fung
Head Programmer

Talk with Kiki Fung and Chris Fujiwara
Sunday 27 Nov, 3.30pm, Centro Cinema 3


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