Japanese Cinema Triptych: 1960s

Think about what you were doing twenty years ago, in 1997. I myself was struggling with the professional and emotional aftermath of having left my PhD program midstream. I was a lot fitter and had far fewer gray hairs. I was living in San Francisco (back when a 2BR flat could be had for $1350), just starting my run at the life of an actor. I’m not totally sure about younger people, but if you happen to be anywhere near my age group–let’s say over 40–I’d wager that “twenty years ago” dwells for you in that paradoxical zone of feeling like it was just yesterday–at times so fresh and vivid that you say with astonishment to yourself, “Hey, wait a minute! I was just doing that!“–and yet feeling like it was all an eternity ago, too, when you were almost literally a different person.

Now, just imagine that your Twenty Years Ago was World War II in Japan. In that mental space of “it just happened–or did it ever happen?” you might likely recall millions of brothers, sons and fathers brought home, if at all, in compact cedar boxes of ash. If you had lived in an urban area, you might well prefer to forget the sight of endless city blocks burnt out by fire bombings or atomic bombs, where hundreds of thousands of civilians had been incinerated in the name of a lost cause. Twenty years on, you might struggle with the issue of national war guilt… or maybe you wouldn’t, depending on your point of view.

The military government of 1930s Japan–and a sizable slice of the populace, we may assume–had believed wholeheartedly that in trying to establish an economically sustainable empire centered on China, Japan was “just doing what (equally racially arrogant) European empires had done all over the world” in the decades and centuries leading up to World War I. In point of fact, however, by the time Japan started trying to do it, the Europeans and Americans would no longer countenance the kind of brutal domination that they themselves had perfected, perhaps especially not when practiced by a non-white, non-Christian nation.

Whether you chose to acknowledge your country’s responsibility for starting the War and furthermore committing monstrous atrocities such as the Rape of Nanking or not, as a Japanese person in the ’60s you would at the very least have to face the fact that the rest of the world felt you had been a “bad” country.

Meanwhile, twenty years after the War in Japan, all of these memories fraught with difficult choices would have to coexist with the shiny present and optimistic future of the Japanese “economic miracle,” to be crowned and blessed by the coming of the 1964 Olympic Games to Tokyo. It must have been exciting–or jarring. The middle-aged people walking the streets and managing the business of the country in those heady times were the self-same individuals who had defeated the British in Malaya, occupied China, and been prepared to die defending the Home Islands. One way or another, each person of that generation had to find a way to reconcile him or herself with their particular past, while their children would have to find a way to understand what their parents had done or not done… not so long ago.

If you are interested in an exploration of the psychological and philosophical currents that infused 1960s Japan–twenty years after the War–I want to recommend three acclaimed Japanese films for your viewing or–if I dare hope that you might actually take my advice and watch all three–for your bingeing pleasure. First, the 1962 classic Hara Kiri, the ingeniously structured story of a samurai fallen on hard times in the early 1600s, takes a searing look at Japan’s culture of martial values, which had been appropriated by the militaristic government of the 1930s in order to forge a citizenry that would fight tenaciously and die if need be for the emperor. Then we have 1964’s The Woman in the Dunes [Suna no onna], which epitomizes a sub-current of post-modernistic doubt about the past and about the true value of the staggering economic and technological “progress” that was coursing through many developed nations at that time. Finally, and perhaps surprisingly, to top off this triptych I want you to watch the halcyon From Up on Poppy Hill [Kokurikozaka kara], released in 2011 by Studio Ghibli, the creators of animated classics like My Neighbor Totoro [Tonari no totoro]. Though the movie Poppy Hill  was made roughly 50 years after the other two, its story takes place in 1963 and attempts to reconcile those same conflicting currents of doubt about the past with an optimistic view of the future. Taken together, these three films capture some of the Zeitgeist of 1960s Japan.

Given the potential emotional complexity of being Japanese twenty years after World War Two, it probably shouldn’t be too surprising that ironies abound in Hara Kiri. The story takes place in post-unification, early modern Japan. By winning the decisive Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, Tokugawa Ieyasu became the first shogun to succeed in drawing the whole country under one umbrella of firm governmental control, effectively ending a long era of fractured feudal alliances and devastating civil warfare. The most fundamental irony of Hara Kiri is that the 17th century was a time of peace and great prosperity in Japan–but not for all. Samurai who had been pledged in loyalty to warlords who ended up on the wrong side of the battles of unification found themselves without patrons when the fighting was all over. These “masterless samurai,” or rōnin, could receive no more agricultural income from the lost feudal holdings of their defeated overlords. Samurai families that had been at the officially designated apex of a formalized class system were now facing hunger and humiliation. To survive, they might have tried anything from hiring themselves out as mercenaries, to teaching Confucian classics to the children of wealthy merchants (officially the lowest of the four social classes), or even to making handicrafts to sell at a meager profit. Through the plight of just such a samurai family, Hara Kiri examines the intersection of justice and the much vaunted warrior code of honor.

In the fictional world of Hara Kiri there is a story going around that one desperate samurai, with no remaining hope of maintaining a decent existence, had gone to a well-to-do lord and requested the honor of using the lord’s courtyard to commit ritual suicide. As the rumors went, the lord was so impressed by this expression of the warrior’s “live-with-honor-or-don’t-live-at-all” ethos that he saved the life of the man by granting him a stipended position in his own house. When other down-and-out samurai hear the story, a spate of copy-cat suicide requests ensues–but since all local lords have now come to expect such ploys, they see these poor, beggaring rōnin as nothing more than last-ditch con artists, and the supplicants are mostly just forced to follow through with killing themselves. Ironically, the samurai who were pretending to commit suicide with honor so that they could survive–the exact opposite of what a samurai was supposed to do–were dying in abject dishonor.

Then along comes another tattered–yet somehow undeniably stately–samurai, played by Tatsuya Nakadai, making the same request of a lord who had already received such men and scornfully made them carry out their death vows. I don’t want to reveal anything more about the thrilling plot, but what follows from the visit of Nakadai’s majestic samurai ingeniously shows how topsy-turvy justice had become, ultimately exposing the facade of the samurai code of honor as a sham.

If your Twenty Years Ago were the Japanese Pacific War, how might this film strike you? One unsettling message might be that the government’s official “code of honor” had merely been a cynical, empty promise used to goad the youth of the nation to its death on distant battlefields and in kamikaze attacks. If that was the intent of the film, it could be seen as a ’60s warning against ever returning to such martial values. But I can imagine another possible takeaway for a Japanese public: to the extent that Hara Kiri, a story about how warriors lived and died, still features truly honorable men, a citizen of 1960s Japan who had lost a loved one to the War could possibly take comfort in the belief that their fallen warrior had been the good kind, not the “bad” kind. Either way, Hara Kiri and other classic samurai films of that era must have helped the Japanese public process some of the intensely conflicting emotions that arose from having been seen as “the bad guys” in a terrible, cruel, lost war.

If Hara Kiri chewed on matters of honor and justice in the wake of a national tragedy, The Woman in the Dunes seems to ask whether there is any meaning at all to be found in the modern world. If your Twenty Years Ago was World War Two, no matter where you lived on earth, you would know that tens of millions had died in the name of making the world a better place–but what would it all mean if life on earth was in fact no better? What if tyranny, poverty, war and even genocide still hung over the planet, even after all that sacrifice? What if technological development (“progress”) was undeniably improving the human condition but also threatening it with utter destruction? What if nationalism–that intense motivator of chauvinistic drumbeating, flowers in “happy” gun barrels on their way to the front, and the triple planetary catastrophe of imperialism and two world wars–was actually a man-made evil rather than the deepest truth of human belonging? What if Friedrich Nietzsche, who challenged traditional morals as mere social control mechanisms, was right, and God really was “dead”? Or what if, as the absurdist Jean Paul Sartre proposed, there was no overarching universal order, no “mysterious ways” of God, but only random occurrence for our lonely little lives to play out in? What if, in short, all familiar reference points had by the 1960s been shaken with uncertainty and doubt to the point of toppling over completely? How would that state of being feel?

In a word, it would feel like alienation–the state of being in which those aspects of life that ought to feel not just familiar but viscerally integral to one’s identity come to feel instead foreign, external, alien–and that is the terrain that The Woman in the Dunes so beautifully conjures, both literally and metaphorically.

As the film opens, we see an unremarkable looking man making his way alone through a mostly formless landscape of dunes. Camera angles have us blinded by the sun, restricted to myopic, horizon-less frames of reference, or dizzied by close-ups of shifting sand, so that we cannot always tell what we are even looking at. It is both beautiful and unnerving. The man is an entomologist, a teacher on a solitary holiday, hoping in his modest way to discover a new variety of insect so that he can get his name in a field journal and thereby secure his existence to posterity. What happens instead shows us a world turned on its head, in which the meanings of love, community, ambition, and freedom all lose focus. Comfortable conditions of existence that once seemed obviously preferable start to look not so different from what had originally seemed nightmarish. Futility comes to seem the norm rather than the exception.

If your Twenty Years Ago had been the most devastating war in history; if your present was an era in which the youth of the world were shaking society to its core by protesting the traditional ways of the patriarchy; and if your future held a confusing admixture of hope for progress and fear of nuclear annihilation, then the shifting world portrayed in The Woman in the Dunes might have resonated with you and these darker sides of the ’60s worldview.  If there is any infinitesimal glimmer of a shred of hope in The Woman in the Dunes, it could be the idea that under any circumstances two human beings might come to actually care about each other–but it remains a dim hope.

That moment of ’60s art-film hopelessness is where, like it or not, a film like From Up on Poppy Hill can come to the rescue. The plot revolves around a teenage love story complicated by a tangled past. The central conflict in Poppy Hill is between those in 1963 in Japan who would forget their troubled history entirely and move on, never to look back, and those who prefer not to “throw out the baby with the bath water,” not only in order to keep what is good but also to find closure. Purposely looking backward turns out to be the only hope for the young would-be lovers in the story. If you don’t love Poppy Hill (and not all critics did), it’s probably because you think it’s nostalgic and somewhat maudlin. If you do like it (and I and many critics do), it’s probably because you actually appreciate the themes raised by the nostalgia and think the story is charming, both thematically and visually. From Up on Poppy Hill seems to understand the questions raised by its angst-ridden ancestors from the ’60s, and it answers them with reassurances that there is good in the past and that love does promise hope for the future. To some, that answer will seem too easy — but aren’t the other options pretty bleak? Indeed, the less meaning we can find out there in the universe, the more meaning we may have to seek in the simple connectedness of our human-to-human relationships. Those micro-connections may be the best starting point for solving our macro-problems.

Each in its own way, these three films are outgrowths of the Japanese journey from the 1940s to the 1960s, yet they resonate again today. When I consider the Twenty Years Ago that I am a part of, I ask myself: Are we reexamining our past with sometimes uncomfortable results? Do we feel alienated from or betrayed by long-accepted truths about our code of behavior? Is the direction our technology is taking amazing in some ways, but deeply unsettling in others? Is the promise of our future bright, or in doubt? I invite you to watch these three worthwhile Japanese films and then consider these questions for yourself. Enjoy. (?)

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