Takamine Go, whose career is being celebrated this week in the Anthology Film Archives retrospective “Dream Show” (March 23-27), is the standard-bearer for Okinawa’s film industry, a phrase that was an oxymoron for much of the island’s 20th century life. Militarily and culturally, Okinawa was squeezed between Japan, its occupier through World War II, and the United States, which assumed control for 27 years after the war, then finally turned the island back to the Japanese in 1972. Okinawan cinema was stifled, and even today it has trouble getting noticed. As the Anthology schedule points out, although Okinawa has been in Japanese hands for over three decades, and although New York City hosted extraordinary lineup of Japanese films last year, not a single Okinawan movie played here.
“Dream Show,” an internationally toured lineup, won’t singlehandedly rectify this situation, but it’s a dandy start. Takamine Go’s films aren’t just aesthetically rich and politically significant, they’re beautiful, odd and, if you’re in the right frame of mind, entrancing. Don’t misunderstand: I’m not promising a roller coaster ride. By Hollywood standards, the films are quite slow (if you don’t automatically hate slow movies, feel free to substitute the euphemism “meditative”). But they’re not mere travelogues or ethnographic curiosities, and they’re anything but academic. They have a relaxed hyperawareness, a conceptual fluidity that might be described (pun intended) as Go-with-the-flow. The filmmaker says this half-baked quality is the movie version of “churadai,” an Okinawan word for “loafing around.”
The director’s characters are intimately connected to the land around them. Go expresses this by breaking up dialogue scenes with immense, static wide shots of Okinawan jungles, beaches or mountains, or moving through an urban alley or a mottled jungle and to locate characters whose conversation is already underway on the soundtrack. The landscape often seems to be as important as what’s happening in front of it. “Okinawan Dream Show” (March 25, 8 p.m.) is a collection of silent movies with live musical accompaniment showing Okinawa circa 1971-74, before, during and after the changeover from American to Japanese control. Avoiding obvious agitprop, the director instead tries to give us a personalized sense of what it meant to live in Okinawa during that era—the clothes, the cars, the daily rituals, some of which are expressed in very, very long takes, shot in Scorsese-like slight slow-motion to create a sense of time suspended. He also tries to capture something that perhaps can’t be captured, the psychic imprint of carnage left by the 1945 battle of Okinawa, which killed off a quarter of the island’s population. “Okinawan Chirudai” (March 22, 8 p.m.) formalizes the director’s dream-weaving ambitions by layering documentary images atop each other (a boy in the woods, tourists buying sea snakes at a market) and using a homemade optical printer to make them seem degraded and translucent. Even his 1985 breakthrough “Paradise View” (March 23, 8 p.m.)—his first narrative feature, following many years’ worth of experimental shorts—kicks off with a spectacular static wide shot of the hero digging through jagged rocks on the beach looking for sea salt. He’s just a speck against waves and sky.
Takamine Go’s films have a dry wit and a deadpan surreal tendency that may remind younger viewers of Hayao Miyazaki’s animated features. There is no such thing as a figure of speech. “Paradise View,” for instance, fixates on the notion that Okinawans are insects swarming in the shadow of two dominant powers, Japan and the United States, then humorously drives the point home through the hero’s choice of hobby: he raises ants and affixes teeny-tiny paper numbers to their backs with tweezers and glue. In Takamine’s most accessible and snappily-directed work, “Untamagiru,” (1989), the hero, a wannabe-Robin Hood named Giru (Kobayashi Kiouru, who also starred in “Paradise View”) who aids Okinawan guerillas fighting the U.S. military (including John Sayles as an Army officer), teaches himself to levitate; almost no one else in the movie finds this odd. When the object of Giru’s affections, his lance-throwing blind boss’ adopted daughter, is described as the transformed spirit of a jungle pig, it’s because that’s what she really is! (She’s gorgeous, though, and as horny as Giru; at one point, they literally share the same sex fantasy.)
Most of all, in every Takamine Go film there’s a hazy quality that marks the filmmaker as an unapologetic sensualist. To quote a U2 song, the director seems to be trying to throw his arms around the world. He adores the buzzing chemical texture of film stock, the play of light on Okinawan foliage and beaches, and most of all, the soft curves of women’s shoulders, breasts and hips. (“Untamagiru” stages an early bit of exposition during the leading lady’s sponge bath, just to show off her Claudia Cardinale-worthy bod.) The giddy fabulousness of Takamine’s films keeps you entranced even when his Okinawa-specific cultural references lose you. The man makes serious daydreams.