Tuesday, April 3, 2012

MOVIE REVIEW: MADADAYO (1993) Directed by Akira Kurosawa


Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Written by Akira Kurosawa and Ishiro Honda 
Based on essays written by Hyakken Uchida
Music by Shinichiro Ikebe
Cinematography by Takao Saito and Shoji Ueda
Edited by Akira Kurosawa and Ishiro Honda

Tatsuo Matsumura as Professor Hyakken Uchida 
Kyoko Kagawa as Professor's Wife

Hyakken Uchida is a professor at a military academy in Japan, sometime in 1943. He retires from teaching to devote himself to writing and publishing. He moves into a large, comfortable house which is destroyed in an Allied firebombing campaign. Uchida and his wife survive, and move into the former servants' quarters outside another mansion destroyed in the bombings. Uchida and his wife are helped into their new home by the professor's fanatically loyal former students, young, middle-aged, and old. Uchida seems to inspire loyalty in those who pass through his classroom. He is, in a sense, a second, unheralded emperor of Japan, one who inspires loyalty via his decency, whimsical humor, and willingness to let others help him. He exhorts others to work hard for the things they care about deeply, and is kind to animals. He doesn't order anyone to fly planes into battleships. He doesn't dream of subjugating Asia for nationalistic glory. He is a sanctuary of kindness and good humor in a country that has gone straight to hell.

What is it exactly about Uchida that inspires such loyalty? Lots of people are kind to animals, and nice to their fellow human beings. Is it the quality of his writings? It's never explained what kind of things Uchida writes. None of Uchida's followers brings it up, and it wouldn't be unusual if they didn't actually read Uchida's writings. A lot of times the close friends of writers just don't read their work. Why? Too awkward. And would you want to reject a friend just because you didn't like their writing? That would seem kind of petty.

I think the secret to Uchida's appeal is his whimsical humor, his childlike nature, and his willingness to put himself at the mercy of his friends. There are times in the movie when Uchida comes off as more of a stand-up comedian, or a particularly kooky after dinner speaker than a heavy duty intellectual. The desolation of postwar Japan never seems to touch his spirit. He always has some off-kilter insight to offer apropos of absolutely nothing. People in grim circumstances need someone like this, either to venerate as a treasured friend, or to pummel into a gory pulp. Uchida is lucky to be surrounded by kindhearted people. I must confess, there were times when Uchida's quirkiness wore on my patience. I think that this is perhaps by design. It really doesn't matter if Uchida's humor is inane or profound. What matters is the devotion of those who surround Uchida. That's where the heart of this movie lies.

Uchida's followers decide that once every year they will have a "Not Yet Party," celebrating Uchida's continued existence. The word madadayo is a kind of customary cry meaning "Not yet!" that has its origins in a children's game of hide and go seek. The first Not Yet Party is a deeply goofy, drunken affair, that becomes a kind of impromptu musical number. It's a boys' club kind of thing, although in later years Uchida's wife, and the wives and daughters of Uchida's followers are also invited. These later parties are also a lot less raucous, reflecting Uchida and his inner circle's advancing age, and the increasing postwar prosperity and stability of the country as a whole. As the overall situation becomes less grim and desperate, the revelers feel less of a need to give themselves over to total abandon. The Not Yet Parties become a kind of form of humanistic ritual hero worship, with Uchida dispensing advice, in one instance, to a band of seven youngsters. I couldn't help but think, "Are these Kurosawa's Seven Samurai reborn?"

Madadayo is not primarily about World War II, or Imperial Japan's disastrous efforts to rule Asia, but the war is there, and then it is over, and those who survived the bombings must get on with their lives. Uchida and his wife and friends and supporters could have all  been incinerated by the bombs. They are spared by blind chance, and they decide to make the best of their remaining years on the planet, forming a community built on kindness and celebration that functions as a near-absurd floating utopia in the postwar desolation. If at times Uchida and his followers seem to be drinking too much, singing too loud, and partying into the AM, well, all these antics are a kind of spell of protection to block out the grim ruins of war that threaten to swallow up all life and joy. People are no doubt starving to death all over the country, there are probably lots of children dying of  malnutrition, disease, radiation poisoning, and thirst. In a certain sense, Uchida and his followers' revels are deeply perverse. But what else should they do? Roll over and die? Commit ritual suicide? These are people who were never eaten up with hard-line nationalistic fervor to begin with; rather, they are people who are grateful to be alive. They need to celebrate a decent man like Uchida perhaps more than the old professor needs such veneration himself. And so they create something like a nation, or an anti-nation maybe, built out of mutual love and respect. This nation (or anti-nation) is not meant to endure for a thousand years. It raises no armies, collects no taxes, doesn't coerce its members into swearing loyalty unto seven lifetimes, none of that. It will have its time, the remaining lifespan of Uchida, and then it will die, gracefully, and maybe those that survive will remember it, or maybe they won't. Maybe some of those who live on will take its example to heart, and try to recreate some version of it in the future. Or not.

This was Akira Kurosawa's last movie. I get the feeling that he wanted to go out on a high note with this one, offer his audience hope and joy, but there's despair simmering beneath all the fun. Kurosawa made movies which command respect in large part because they were unflinching in how they confronted corruption, evil, war, mass destruction, and the sometimes crazed and desperate human will to survive. In Seven Samurai, the title characters wage a brutal war for a bowl of rice a day, and are left out in the cold when all is said and done. The Bad Sleep Well depicted a world where scheming business criminals wantonly murder whistleblowers and flaunt the law. High and Low was a kidnap thriller where the cops turn out to be just as ruthless as the sad, delusional kidnapper, maybe more so. The cops are perfectly sane, and yet choose to do something deeply cruel (and illegal) in the name of justice. Yojimbo gleefully depicts the gang war annihilation of an entire town filled with corrupt and stupid people instigated by a clever ronin more or less because he had nothing better to do. Ran, a samurai version of King Lear, is an exercise in stark, ritualistic cruelty, depicting in a highly stylized manner the destruction of Hidetora, a stubborn and foolish ruler, at the hands of his own family members, and by the hands of the enemies he had accumulated over a lifetime of scheming conquest. In Ran, there are scenes of mass carnage staged as painterly landscapes. The rivers of blood are just splashes of paint. The chorus of dying screams of men, women, and children falling to the blade and the rifle brigade just another movement in the symphony. Kagemusha is more sadism: a fading warlord is replaced by a guy who happens to look just like him. This new guy is destroyed by the inches, until he's just one among thousands of artfully arranged bodies in a gloriously deranged battlefield portrait. Throne of Blood reincarnated Macbeth as a kill crazy samurai who meets an end worthy of Tony Montana, after devoting himself to a life of permanent war in pursuit of absolute power.

But hope, decency, mercy, and compassion were also woven into Kurosawa's films. Ikiru showed how an ineffectual bureaucrat dying of cancer musters himself to achieve one worthwhile thing in a lifetime of waste. Dersu Uzala depicts a friendship between two men that endures some of the harshest weather that nature can throw at them. Stray Dog depicts a policeman who battles evil and murderous rage with his personal devotion to duty. Red Beard explores how an indifferent, pampered young doctor learns to care for the sickly poor. One Wonderful Sunday was a demonstration in how fantasy and young love can blot out the desolation of a former war zone riddled with crime, hunger, disease, and poverty.

I think that Madadayo follows the more hopeful currents throughout Kurosawa's work. It's interesting how it echoes the ideas of fantasy, love, and play that were expressed in the 1947 film One Wonderful Sunday, which was also a film with a grim backdrop of postwar devastation. Ran and Kagemusha were films that played almost like fantasias of destruction and sadism with wild color palettes, gorgeous costumes, elaborate set designs, and a kind of austere theatricality about the acting. After those movies he made Dreams which was pure fantasy structured as a series of bizarre episodes offering surreal meditations on nuclear war, old myths and folk tales, and the human will to survive desperate situations. And then he did Rhapsody in August , which was a drama exploring themes of reconciliation and forgiveness set in the real world, and then he did Madadayo which is set in the real world, yet reflects a kind of fantasy about how an old man might want to exit his long life. Or maybe the movie reflects the fantasies of those who venerated Uchida, and their desire for a certain kind of leader--that second emperor I mentioned earlier.

A hero demands followers. Or is it the followers who demand a hero?

Madadayo isn't a bad way to end a career. But I wonder what Kurosawa would've done after this had he lived a little longer. Madadayo suggests that Uchida and his followers believe they can deny death simply by declaring "Not yet!" but that's a fantasy. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I wish that fantasy were true, and that Kurosawa just had to say "Not yet!" and he could've gone on making movie after movie . . . whatever. Just some flaky musings of a guy who is never satisfied. The fan from hell. It's better that I have no control over life and death.

Madadayo trailer:


Powaqqatsi: Life in Transformation

Directed by Godfrey Reggio
Cinematography by Graham Berry, Leonidas Zourdoumis
Music by Philip Glass
Written by Godfrey Reggio, Ken Richards
Film Editing by Iris Cahn, Miroslav Janek, Alton Walpole
Executive Producers Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Menahem Golan, Yoram Globus

Powaqqatsi is the thematic and stylistic sequel to Koyaanisqatsi. Both are documentaries without any sort of conventional narration, whether voice over or subtitles or inter-titles, dialogue, interviews, charts, graphs, quantitative statistical data, and both are bereft of any sort of obvious advocacy or messaging. Rather, there is Philip Glass's ominously sublime music which gives a kind of otherworldly voice to the imagery, combined with some sound effects, and the montage effect of joining footage shot in locations around the world. Glass's score is kind of like the script, and the overall montage effect of each movie is a kind of magic which unites humans all over the globe into a grand mythic narrative. Watching these movies is like watching an attempt to convey a global narrative of technology's impact on human civilizations and cultures from the point of view of a divine or semi-divine voyeuristic entity. Or maybe that point-of-view entity is some sort of nascent global consciousness struggling to be born from the sum total of human intelligence, memory, and fantasy, combined with and amplified by a burgeoning worldwide computer network that is, itself, evolving towards some kind of sentience. Koyaanisqatsi offered a strong thematic through-line of technology's displacement of nature, almost Luddite in its suspicion of the sinister grandeur of high-tech human societies. Powaqqatsi is more subtle. The suspicion and skepticism of technology's impact and hunger for resources is still present, but this time it is the human cost which is foregrounded. The shining skyscrapers, mass production factory lines, integrated circuit cities, and weapons of mass destruction which were foregrounded in Koyaanisqatsi are relegated to the background, glimpsed askance, known by their signs and sigils, and the human wreckage their existence necessitates. Powaqqatsi is not quite the headlong plunge of Koyaanisqatsi, but it does offer an unforgettable series of meditations on human beings in action, struggling to survive in a hostile world, with only their muscles, lungs, hands, feet, hearts, and minds to keep them alive against the automated giants stalking the planet.

It's difficult to really describe, objectively, what goes on in Powaqqatsi, since it is not an objective or linear narrative experience. The movie is constructed in a way that confounds the usual flow of time, and collapses spatial distances into simultaneous moments. Human beings from different hemispheres, time frames, cultures, and languages are united via the magic of montage and music. The technological deities, idols, and mausoleums of Koyaanisqatsi are here fractionally manifested as bursts of malevolent flame; dreamy neon lights; schizoid media collages merging Me Generation fantasies of beauty, armored militarism, and delusions of unlimited knowledge and power flowing from telescreens and computer monitors into fashionable new narratives; and the ruins of bombed-out apartment blocs where homeless children squat and starve.

Powaqqatsi focuses on human bodies in motion, struggling en masse to carry sacks full of mud out of some pit, or moving in vast crowds through city streets and open air marketplaces. Humans are shown using knives and other blades to cut fruit and harvest grain. Humans use their legs to walk, or to pedal bikes, or to operate the gas and brake pedals of automobiles. Humans are seen uniting to push a malfunctioning flatbed truck over muddy ground. Humans dance as part of ecstatic religious rituals, or as part of funereal rites, or just for fun. Humans ritually battle each other with sticks in stylized poses, and this is, I suppose, a relief from the mass destruction of missiles, bombs, and napalm from the previous film. Humans of various faiths, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, and others are seen praying as individuals, and in communities. Human children stare into the camera as it pans across their faces, many of them hardly able to keep from smiling and laughing, while others look bone-tired, old before their time. And elderly humans also stare into the camera, some looking distraught, bearing the pain of a lifetime, while others seem out of their minds, distant, and still others look pleased as can be, no longer afraid, no longer full of any kind of desire or acquisitiveness.

There is one little boy who puts up his fists, though, and I can't say if he's just playing, or if he is instinctively sensing the presence of the Enemy: an exploitative, technocratic, corporate predator state looking to suck his village, his country, dry, and cast it aside. Stay tough, kid.

Human power to produce agriculture and low-tech and no-tech civilization and culture is gradually sapped by and superseded by super industrial technology. Human cultures without access to high technology become virtual slave labor for power interests from distant lands, or they are simply left in the dust. Many people are in no position to even fully comprehend the seismic changes that technology works upon humanity, although this is not always the case. Other cultures work hard to adapt, and there is the image of a young child enraptured by the neon lights of Hong Kong staring out the rear window of a moving car.

Some of the images which appear late in the movie involve collages of people moving en masse through electronically regulated crosswalks combined with poor mothers and children sitting with no possessions upon concrete. Visually, it comes across as a family abandoned by high-tech society, lost in a spectral sea of marching legs. Some families are left behind as the rest of the world marches on to an unknowable future. There is something mournful about all this, and it is hard not to sense some anger and frustration, as well. Many beautiful things are made possible with technology, including the Qatsi movies. And yet there is a momentum to high-tech change which is ruthless and must be examined, even if the damage has already been done. Powaqqatsi is, in some sense, a kind of memorial to lives lost in the process of transformation, as one kind of civilization supplants another, a new kind of Nature supplants the old one, and begins to take on a kind of life of its own.

Powaqqatsi trailer:


Koyaannisqatsi: Life Out of Balance

Directed and Produced by Godfrey Reggio
Music by Philip Glass
Musical Director/Additional Music Composed by Michael Hoenig
Cinematography by Ron Fricke
Editing by Alton Walpole and Ron Fricke 
Written by Godfrey Reggio, Ron Fricke, Michael Hoenig, Alton Walpole
Associate Producers Francis Ford Coppola, Mel Lawrence, Roger McNew, T. Michael Powers, Lawrence Taub, Alton Walpole

Koyaannisqatsi is a documentary that offers only beautiful music and stunning imagery to communicate a complex view of nature and technology engaging in a grand and terrifying dialectic. Nature is violently displaced by human machines of war, resource extraction, mass production, and mass housing. One is left with the impression, initially, of the earth being punished, subverted, and subdued. But something more subtle and pervasive is going on here, something like a usurpation of nature, but always keep in mind that humans and their productions evolved out of nature. What we are seeing here is the creation of a new kind of nature, one that is based in technology rather than biology. Or maybe it's a mixture of technology and biology. Maybe technology, in this instance, is just "biology by other means."

 No venerable expert talking heads, no portentous voice overs, no editorial cartoons, and a minimum of on-screen text. Watching this movie, one will not walk away with a sense that one should vote for a particular politician or convert to a specific ideology or religion, although there are passages of it which flirt with being Luddite, which comes, I think, from a profound skepticism of the Utopian dreams and cynical schemes which seem to be so intertwined with high-technological societies. There is also an awareness of the exorbitant cost that high tech First World societies extract from the developing world, where many people live in crushing poverty, and do not necessarily understand what the overall aims and goals of the invasive First World fully entail.  And, perhaps, maybe the First World technocrats don't really understand what drives them on, either. Technological progress has an eerie way of erasing what has gone before, and those of us who have grown up in such societies have no memory of what things were like before the advent of globalization, TV, the internet, etc. Koyaannisqatsi seems to suggest that technology is merging with nature to produce a third thing that is somehow both more and less than either thing alone. More, in that some benefit greatly from the new synthesis; less, in that many will suffer and lose their lives and livelihoods to bring about that new synthesis. The movie offers no easy morals or advice. It is more of a portrait of things as they are, reality itself, in all its cruelty and grandeur. If there is a message here, maybe it's something like, "Brace yourself!" or "Ready or not, here it comes! It's already here!"

Koyaannisqatsi's method is pure montage, perfectly synchronized with Philip Glass's alternately majestic and mechanistic music score. Glass's music provides a kind of "machine soul" to many of the terrifying apparatus on display, and then there are other times when the score seems to be invoking a "soul of desolation" to give voice to the massive waste and folly of humanity's violence towards the environment. This is a spiritual movie, but not a dogmatic one. It is spiritual in that it seeks to create new spirits through music, images, and montage that gives voices to the inanimate things which surround us, and to some extent dictate our lives. Glass and director Godfrey Reggio do not hide their terror and skepticism at the new techno-behemoth stalking the planet, and offer up a kind of requiem in picture and sound for the old world now gone.

There are no leading characters in the usual sense, just stunning footage of natural landscapes in the opening sequences, which eventually gives way to mining operations, engineered floods, dams, and terrifying displays of atom bombs, Soviet tanks, and American fighter craft. These displays of destructive power give way to haunting footage of abandoned apartment buildings, desolate housing projects, shining skyscrapers which look eerily like science fictional mausoleums erected no doubt by the Eloi, and then picks up again with a majestic, and darkly comedic sequence which depicts the integration of frenetic human social and  mass production activity into something like a worldaround computer circuit. I suspect the Wachowskis must've had this movie in mind when they made The Matrix some years later. Humanity is clearly depicted as being at war with nature.

But are we destroying the planet, or are we just making it over in our own image? Koyaanisqatsi itself is a product of high technology, a movie, whose purpose seems to be to give the audience a global perspective in such a way that would've been hard to come by in 1983, the year of its original release. No World Wide Web, no Google Earth, no capacity for billions of people around the globe to produce high volumes of televisual content for their own amusement via YouTube, just a darkened theatre to create just the right kind of worshipful mood to pay homage to the glowing screen. Well, all right, I guess there were books and nature programs on TV back in 1983, but I couldn't help but think that Koyaannisqatsi must've been a qualitatively different viewing experience for its first audiences.

All throughout the movie there are images of humans wandering the streets of large cities, herded along by WALK/DON'T WALK signs, and occasionally stopping to stare into the camera. Everyone looks lost. There's a shot of a man alone in some kind of automated facility, tending machines which don't need tending. I can't quite say why, but I want to say that this man isn't lost. He has found his place. Good for him . . . this is definitely one of those movies that invites you to create your own narratives, intimate and grand, as it carries you along to its stunning finale.

The opening sequence begins with the launch of a magnificent rocket of some kind, taking off, I guess, for outer space. There is a rather cruel payoff to this opening scene, at the very end, which gives the movie an effective shape, lends it a quality of myth, of legend. I'm thinking of Icarus here.

But there is also an inquiry into the nature of physical production, of engineering and construction projects on a vast scale. It must be said that dams, tanks, fighter jets, nuclear bombs, and large scale strip-mining operations involve vast numbers of people, and large quantities of equipment, guided by hard quantitative skills involving advanced mathematics, engineering, physics, management, and a lot of other things above my head. If Koyaannisqatsi has within it deep skepticism at our aborning high-tech civilization, then it is also about a system, a beast, which is both inspiring and terrifying to behold.