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New York Film Festival 2010: Elegant Elegies: The Films of Masahiro Shinoda

Nagisa Oshima in the ‘60s can be classed as a nihilist, his films angrily obliterating nearly everything in sight.

New York Film Festival 2010: Elegant Elegies: The Films of Masahiro Shinoda
Photo: Film Society of Lincoln Center

“[I am] not interested in the future or in utopian ideals. I would like to be able to take hold of the past and examine it from different angles.” —Masahiro Shinoda

“Modernization. Get with it.”—line from Shinoda’s film Killers on Parade

Masahiro Shinoda was born in 1931, the year Japan invaded China. His strongest childhood memory was of Emperor Tojo’s surrender to the Allied forces, and with it the announcement that the Emperor was not a god, but a man. “I felt that all the gods who had lived in Japan had become mortal,” he told a UC Berkeley interviewer, and the feeling of helpless disillusionment stayed with him. This early loss, he claimed, helped him feel for myriad groups. The Americans couldn’t grasp WWII’s impact on the Japanese, he told another interviewer, just as the Japanese couldn’t understand the pain of Chinese women who had been raped at Nanking.

I have only seen eight of Shinoda’s 30-plus features, 12 of which are showing in the New York Film Festival’s Masterworks retrospective, but the common theme running throughout them is sympathy for the oppressed. It doesn’t matter the group, nor the cultural setting, though indeed Shinoda was prone to making period films. He conveyed this open humanism with a precise formal control, masterful use of black-and-white CinemaScope and edits as clean as a paper-cutter’s chops, all of which still prove stunning.

He studied other mediums before film. Unlike past masters such as Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Yasujirô Ozu, whose pre-filmmaking backgrounds had been in visual art, Shinoda concentrated on literature and theatre (he was one of only three theater history students at his university). Like peer filmmakers Shôhei Imamura and Nagisa Oshima, Shinoda gained a great awareness of European culture, claiming to have learned as much from Shakespeare as he did from kabuki.

In his book Eros Plus Massacre, a study of the Japanese New Wave, David Desser argues that the Japanese filmmakers who emerged in the 1960s saw themselves as fundamentally different from their predecessors. Unlike previous Japanese filmmakers, who perceived themselves as craftsmen, these new filmmakers saw themselves as artists—a shift in thinking taking place among filmmakers worldwide. Consequently, they suffered through their early studio work, where they trained as assistant directors on forgettable comedies and family dramas. Shinoda felt particularly stifled at Shochiku, the studio that housed Ozu, whose motto, so he said, was “Bright and cheerful films.”

Their situation changed with the 1956 release of Kô Nakahira’s anthem for doomed youth Crazed Fruit. Its success encouraged the studios to produce movies about young people, and to enlist young filmmakers to make them. Shinoda got his chance with 1960’s One-Way Ticket for Love (not showing in the series), which Shochiku mandated he adapt from a Neil Sedaka song. The film bombed, but he got another chance later that year with Dry Lake (showing September 29), the story of a frustrated teenage punk, and a great film.

It came out the same year as Nagisa Oshima’s masterpieces Cruel Story of Youth and Night and Fog in Japan, and is worth comparison. Like Cruel Story of Youth, the film focuses on a couple; like Night and Fog, it unfolds in front of the backdrop of student protests against the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, a Cold War arrangement that basically substituted American occupiers for Japanese military forces. Both directors use intense single colors that provoke strong reactions; for example, in one Dry Lake scene the lovers make out in the shower in front of bright red tiles, leading us straight to sex. Yet while Oshima uses quick shock cuts in Cruel Story of Youth, jolting you all the way to the grave, Shinoda’s much smoother editing scheme sutures you into the drama; a girl reveals that her father’s killed himself, followed by a zoom-in to the man’s photo at the funeral. This difference in editing styles relates to the very different ways the filmmakers approach their characters.

Japan’s ‘60s were characterized by radically antisocial filmmaking, as Oshima, Imamura, Yasuzo Masamura, Masaki Kobayashi, and others made movies arguing that society needed to be changed or else burned to the ground (Akira Kurosawa even got into the act, with the Molotov cocktails The Bad Sleep Well, Yojimbo, and High and Low). Oshima in the ‘60s can be classed as a nihilist, his films angrily obliterating nearly everything in sight; Shinoda’s politics, by contrast, feel closer to someone like Kobayashi’s, who makes a case for societal reform by focusing on good people suffering under the current structures. While Oshima paints the youth movement as folly (anticipating Bob Dylan’s comment, “The only way for the counterculture to succeed would be for every person on Earth to disappear”), Shinoda sympathizes with it; a brief early conversation defending Algerian resistance against the French prepares us for the young protest leader’s line, which the film takes seriously, that “Our only enemies are the U.S.- Japan Security Treaty and the bourgeoisie.” The hero then insults him.

Our man thinks that the protests can do no good, but Shinoda goes to great lengths to show that he’s wrong. The movie’s last scene sums it up about perfectly: The solidarity-minded youths swarm a cop car to try to release the hero from the law, and he chooses entrapment over being with them. In time the politics of Oshima’s films would come closer to Shinoda’s; Dry Lake’s sequence of the hero gluttonously munching a cake, intercut with newsreel-style footage of the protests, prefigures the way the leads pleasure themselves to death rather than join the protests outside in Oshima’s 1976 film In the Realm of the Senses.

Histories often pair Oshima and Shinoda, with Shinoda trailing; this current series even follows the festival’s complete Oshima retrospective two years ago. Certainly Oshima was one of the greatest masters of form the movies have had (Violence at Noon alone contains over 2,000 shots). But Shinoda, too, had extraordinary range, as evidenced by Killers on Parade (September 30), made the year after Dry Lake.

Killers on Parade (a.k.a. The Burning Sunset) is a cracked-out comic book-style satire about the Japanese obsession with violence, in which a man can say with a straight face that “Without jazz, I’d be killing more.” The jazz fiend is one hit man on the run from several others, a rogues’ gallery including a guy in a priest costume, a bulky footballer (pigskin included), and a black-and-white-suit-wearing gangster type who looks like a reject from Guys and Dolls. Alain Silver has claimed that “Shinoda is often less interested in a striking visualization for its figurative meaning than for its sharp sensory impact,” and while that statement’s extremely true of this movie, the film also often showcases meaning through form. Just look at the way that everybody wants in on the violence: One of the film’s craziest scenes shows a group of kids in black hoods encircling the hero in long shot, pointing toy guns, and shouting at him as joyfully as they might cry, “Trick-or-treat!” Yet an even greater, near-incidental moment comes when one of the goons reads a newspaper headline, “Englishman Dead of A-Bomb Disease.” The bit shoots an amazing number of targets: the media’s tendency to focus on violence, the way news functions as entertainment, and both the Japanese lust for Western culture and urge to escape its own past.

Shinoda argued for history repeating itself, though, in 1963’s Pale Flower (September 27), his ninth film (Japanese studios commonly had their directors make two to four films a year). The film is a yakuza, or gangster, drama, and Shinoda claims in an interview on the Pale Flower DVD that “the gang world is the only place where the Japanese ceremonial structure can be fully sustained.” The ceremonial hall the hero, a hood returning to Tokyo after three years away, visits each night is the gambling room, a space we watch for several minutes at film’s outset before a word of dialogue is spoken. That’s where he meets the title character, a woman escaping into gambling from the trauma of her stepfather raping her; like his peer Imamura in several films, Shinoda uses incest as a metaphor for society’s innate flaws.

These two people can’t cure each other, and often can’t reach other, even when they fill the same space. Shinoda knows exactly how and when to frame people on opposite sides of the shot. For reasons I don’t know (some critics have claimed the influence of Japanese scroll painting), the Japanese New Wave filmmakers as a group used black-and-white CinemaScope better than any other in film history (they were pretty good with color too; Kon Ichikawa’s An Actor’s Revenge came out the same year). Shinoda in particular locks into it: See the amazing canted angle shot of the woman talking to the man in a bar, their heads both obstructed by garish tchotchkes throughout the frame.

The way the film uses space contributes to its poignancy. He and she have an enormous amount of space to move around in, suggesting freedom, yet the sharp editing and tightly structured compositions entrap them. It’s when he can kill again that the camera proceeds with smoothly tracking, only to suddenly flatten into constricted close-ups of both of them once the deed is done. Violence may be a release, but the release is temporary. Shinoda’s lovers can’t escape the systems in which they’re placed—the story’s narrative, nor the physical frame. The house always wins.

The film’s gambling scenes scared censors, who deemed the film immoral (funny, considering the movie also features sexual assault, murder, and a man chopping off his own thumb). Shochiku tried to shelve the movie, then detach the studio from it, leading Shinoda work exclusively with his own independent production company. Now he could truly direct the films he wanted to, and he did so with a vengeance. His next movie, 1964’s The Assassin (September 28 and October 7), proved so confusing that the critic Donald Richie has advised viewers to know the plot before going in.

The tale is told against another revolutionary backdrop, this one in 1860, one hundred years before the student protests (Tom Mes, in the most recent Film Comment: “What interests Shinoda is not so much the history that Japan forgot but the patterns of behavior that are repeated throughout that history into the present”). American fighters had attacked Japan and made it open up to the West; Japan’s Premier had been assassinated by a ronin for shaming a feudal lord. The film’s main character, the assassin, tries to carry out a mission to prevent civil war. But his devotion to the emperor may be outdated: Another character tells him, “Why don’t you commit seppuku. The samurai’s way no longer exists.”

Again Shinoda shoots in ‘Scope, and again he juxtaposes the huge scale of the frame with the tightly ordered space within it. Yet he suggests his characters’ lack of freedom even more overtly than in Pale Flower by not just trapping them within the frame, but freezing them. In one scene the camera zooms in on a woman while she’s being raped, and a freeze frame of her anguished face proceeds while her tortured squeals fill the soundtrack; in another the camera freezes as a man has to stab his best friend, first on the victim and then on the teeth-clenching murderer. The freeze frames lend a second-guessing quality to all the other scenes where people are moving, as though telling us that the characters’ hopes—and lives—will end eventually. A group of imperialists celebrates upon hearing of the Premier’s death, their celebration framed tightly within a doorway; Shinoda then edits out of their party, and with one smooth transition it’s literally wiped away.

Samurai Spy (October 5 and 6), from 1965, also takes place during internecine conflict, only this time the hero isn’t choosing between the Emperor and the Shogunate but between warring clans in the early 1600s. The lead is an action hero who always feels pursued by unknown forces; the film’s key line, conveyed in a sharp cut to his profile, is “Nothing is certain these days.” The film is in black-and-white ‘Scope again, and, as before, Shinoda finds striking ways to show people enclosed within a system, this time through slow motion (highlight: a man falling off a bridge in slow-mo).

Yet the script can’t compare with the imagery. Shinoda claimed that he wanted to make a Cold War allegory exploring Japan’s dilemma between siding with Russia and siding with the U.S., with his protagonist a strong hero who could “cut through the fog” of ambiguous heroes and villains. The problem with this choice is that his films are often most interesting when those roles are ambiguous; one could persuasively argue that the protagonists of Dry Lake, Pale Flower, and The Assassin are all contemptible, which not only complicates the viewer’s sympathy for them, but broadens and enriches the viewer’s capacity to sympathize, period. By contrast, here the hero is forever speaking great truths about war, which the film does little to challenge: “Why divide everyone into friend and enemy? We’ve war to thank for that way of thinking.” The result is a socially conscious action movie, and as the hero lets fly with ninja stars, we return to Alain Silver’s rap on Shinoda. These are striking images with little thematic value.

The most sympathetic figures in Samurai Spy, funnily, aren’t women or children, but the feudal lords that many wrongly blame for causing the conflict. Shinoda returned to attacking the masters in 1966’s Punishment Island (September 26 and September 29), among his most ahistorical films and one of his most unsettling. The opening credits roll over a freeze frame of one man tossing another off a cliff. The dead man’s son returns to the island years later to avenge his father’s death; we learn that the island lord killed the father because the man was an anarchist, Shinoda again pitting freedom against a harsh, restrictive, very violent law and order.

More so than Shinoda’s other early films, Island not only focuses on violence’s psychological effects, but lets violence play out in extended fashion that showcases its effects on the body. Over and over, men beat each other with whips or crutches or even live eels, a close handheld camera chasing both assailant and victim, and the color photography contrasts gushing welts, blood, and bruises with bright green grass. As in many of his other films, Shinoda cuts out the soundtrack at especially violent moments, encouraging the viewer to pay greater attention to the brutality. Island goes further than nearly any other film I can think of (Straw Dogs is the only other title that comes to mind) in showcasing the extent to which people can physically brutalize each other, without once seeming exploitative, so that any closure the work achieves feels token at best. I should quickly add that I’ve only seen the film once, on DVD, and that seeing it on screen would definitely change the viewing experience (my hunch is that it would make the experience much worse). Yet, with that said, I still feel comfortable claiming that the film doesn’t reward close analysis like Pale Flower and The Assassin do; furthermore, that’s not the point.

Shinoda ended his first decade of filmmaking with 1969’s Double Suicide (September 26 and October 5), a film that both disturbs and shakes in total effect and simultaneously rewards shot-by-shot unpacking. The director’s films work best when the images comment on the action in addition to presenting it; when he simply shoots off fireworks, as he does for large stretches of Killers on Parade and Samurai Spy, the results are much less compelling. Double Suicide is my favorite Shinoda film because it comments on itself more thoroughly than not just any other Shinoda I’ve seen, but than almost every other film I’ve seen.

The movie opens with kuroko—puppeteers dressed all in black and hooded—preparing to perform the kabuki play that the film is based on, and with Shinoda’s voice on the telephone instructing an assistant. “Miss Tomaka, how’s the script going?” he asks, to which she says, “The suicide part is difficult.” He explains the ending to her—a sprint from society through a graveyard, culminating in the title action—and says that he wants “a sort of fetishism of space.” Less than four minutes, and he’s already given the movie away personally. Then a puppet suddenly transforms with a cut into the leading actor.

The plot details a married paper dealer’s passion for a courtesan, and how their inability to live together leads to what Claire Johnston, in the film’s Criterion DVD essay, calls “the ultimate protest against social structures.” The film unfolds in a black-and-white box with amazing senses of geometry and architecture, walls turned at strong angles to each other and graveyards with gravestones that all have different-level heads, many layers of action unfolding choreographed block by block. Much of this occurs in long takes, mimicking the film’s theatrical origins; the film contains around 240 shots total, as opposed to the more than 140 shots within the first 10 minutes of Pale Flower. Shinoda constantly reminds us that we’re watching a performance, even stopping the action at times so that characters can address viewers.

It would be a misnomer to call this approach Brechtian, since Brecht actually took many of his ideas from Japanese theater, but the effect of the heightened artificiality is the same here as it is in Brecht’s plays. To become more aware of the art is also to become more aware of ourselves as viewers, and to pay greater attention to the external social issues that the work raises as a result. The most obvious way that this happens in Double Suicide is through the constant onscreen presence of the kuroko, who Johnston rightly argues stand in for the audience, witnessing the pain of the drama without being able to change it.

Yet this distancing—which, by daring us to care about the action, actually deepens our emotional investment in it—is achieved through the leading characters as well. Shima Iwashita (Shinoda’s wife) plays both the wife and the mistress, suggesting that both the traditional ideals of giri (duty) and ninjo (passion) can be found in the same woman. The social roles that both types have are thus expanded, in addition to their dramatic roles (the film is one of many confirming Shinoda as a great feminist filmmaker). The man’s ability to be with both versions expands the social possibilities for him as well; the warning to him, “Duty binds us all, not women alone” contrasts sharply with the image of him thrusting his head between his mistress’s legs. Once the space starts closing in on the characters (the man knocks over a wall, only to see another wall rotate into its place), we feel the social constriction increase significantly as well. By the time that the couple dies, Shinoda has taken away room for anyone else to be with them, including the viewer; our last glimpse of them is not at eye level, but looking down on their corpses from above. The film pushes its social injustice so forcefully that the only response is to want to push back.

I suspect Shinoda wanted Silence (September 30), made two years later, to have the same effect, but while Double Suicide’s formal audacity dazzles, Silence’s formal monotony dulls. The film, like the Shusaku Endo novel it’s based on, concerns a small group of Portuguese Jesuit missionaries who came to Japan in the 1500s to convert the locals to Christianity; by the time the story starts, though, the tables have turned, and now the missionaries are being hunted by the local government and forced to convert to Buddhism. Shinoda adds religious persecution to his repertoire following political and sexual persecution, with the group’s tall, thin, bearded leader (the film offers a few Christ references if you need them) suffering the most.

The book’s subject is a wonderful fit for Shinoda, but unfortunately its style isn’t. In this work and others (including the amazing novel The Samurai), Endo writes in a bare style that allows the reader to fill in the world of the text themselves; Silence’s first line is simply “News reached the Church in Rome.” This sparseness contributes greatly to Endo’s ultimate message, for by calling upon readers to use their imaginations, he’s suggesting how mind and spirit can overcome physical hardship. By writing most of the book as Padre Ferreiro’s report to the Vatican, furthermore, Endo directly places the reader into a practice scenario.

Shinoda shoots in color and in a standard rather than a widescreen ratio, with plain, stripped-down visuals presumably substituting for plain, stripped-down prose. He adheres to the general cinematic rule of showing the protagonist in action rather than making the camera his eyes, meaning that the film becomes a third-person narrative rather than the book’s first-person voice. The director keeps the camera on his characters’ facial expressions, employing heavy music with new developments. All these shifts reverse the effect of the book, as a work wherein we imagine everything adapts into a work wherein we see everything. That nothing is left to the imagination means that the film is too literal to work as a story about faith, and so the scenes of Padre Ferreiro being tortured merely feel like cheap horror, with a few of the Japanese actors even made up to look grotesque. It’s a strange coincidence that over a decade later Oshima would also make a film in which brutal Japanese leaders torture a European Christ figure, but Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence allows the viewer mental space to process the action, and preserves an air of mystery about its characters that Shinoda seems determined to ditch.

Shinoda’s first dozen years of filmmaking, though, provided a rewarding, often astonishing, stylistically varied body of work that maintained consistent themes. He continued making films for 32 years after Silence, retiring after 2003’s WWII epic Spy Sorge—not showing in the series, and by every report I’ve read, a disaster. Though I’m eager to watch the later work, in a way I’m also scared to. In hindsight his early career seems to have been building up to Double Suicide: the moment in Dry Lake where a youth outlines his plans for revolution, then turns to the camera and asks, “Are you interested?”; the freeze frame of the young man running from Punishment Island, suggesting the impossibility of escape even while he’s escaping; the self-mutilations that several Shinoda characters perform for the sake of honor, and that other characters laugh at; the The Assassin moment, simultaneously high-style and social commentary, where a group of ronin covered in shadow enlist as one in an army, and then, their social functions restored, regain bright, visible faces.

He seems to have been moving toward a metatext that simultaneously worked as fiction, the best way to hold an audience captive enough to compel them to listen to a message, and discovered Double Suicide’s overt theatricality as a way to involve both himself and the audience in the drama. Simply put, he nailed it. It’s telling that, two years after seemingly exhausting a film’s self-referential possibilities, he made a film in Silence that contains little to no self-awareness at all.

Still, even if his films before and after ’69 don’t measure up, they’re worth viewing; I’d class Dry Lake, Pale Flower, and The Assassin as essential, and Killers on Parade and Punishment Island as damn good. One more link Shinoda shares with Oshima is that you don’t want to look away from their movies, lest you miss a frame. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Certified Copy, and Poetry are wonderful Main Slate films, but you’ll get other cracks at those. Walk a block down from Alice Tully to Walter Reade and do yourself a favor. Catch Shinoda’s wonders while you can.

The New York Film Festival runs from September 24—October 10.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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