Kaiju Shakedown: Slow Japan
A guy walks through the snow. He keeps walking. One foot after another. He’s still walking. There he goes, heading up the mountain. Tromp, tromp, tromp. Walking through the snow. You go get a drink. You come back. Not much has changed. He’s still walking. Now he’s sitting down. The snow keeps falling. It covers him completely. You fall asleep. When you wake up, the credits are rolling.
You have been watching a Japanese movie.
A lot of people, if asked to reach for a single adjective to describe Japanese cinema, would go with “slow.” Directors like Takeshi Kitano, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Yasujiro Ozu, Shinji Aoyama, and Kiyoshi Kurosawa love to let scenes of people walking, sitting, staring, eating, and waiting unfold for minutes of screen time. Takeshi Kitano’s first film, Violent Cop (1989), was basically a supercut of shots of Kitano walking down city streets. All of these directors use slowness in different ways and for different effects, but recently slowness has become the trendiest of accessories in Japanese movies.
In international cinema circles, the war has long raged between advocates of CCC (contemporary contemplative cinema) who claim that directors like Béla Tarr and Hou Hsiao-hsien are forcing the audience to pay attention in new ways, and other critics who say they’re just boring the crap out of everyone. Jonathan Romney sang the praises of CCC avant la lettre in The Guardian back in 2000 calling it a “…very subjective cinema, a cinema that practically psychoanalyses you—and if you're lucky, cures you of your Hollywood-induced traumas.”
Throne of Blood
Then, a few years later, in Sight & Sound, Nick James shot back with: “…there are times, as you watch someone trudge up yet another woodland path, when you feel an implicit threat: admit you’re bored and you’re a philistine. Such films are passive-aggressive in that they demand great swathes of our precious time to achieve quite fleeting and slender aesthetic and political effects…”
However you feel about CCC, slow movies are Japanese cinema’s middle name. Back in the Fifties, Chinese directors complained that Japanese films were “too slow,” while Japanese directors said the same about Chinese films. The difference turned out to be more about plotting than actual running time: Chinese directors complained that Japanese movies were slow because they were single-mindedly focused on a single, slender plot. Japanese directors called Chinese movies slow because they were too stuffed with incident and subplot, while the main story moved forward inch by agonizing inch.
There’s a traditional tempo to Japanese art, jo-ha-kyu, originally applied to court music but most famously applied to Noh theater, meaning “slow, fast, end,” or “beginning, break, rapid,” or even, “introduction, scattering, rushing.” Bascially, things start slow, speed up, then end suddenly. It’s taken to an absurd extreme in comedian Hitoshi Matsumoto’s recent R100, which begins as a slice-of-life drama with lots of static shots of a salesman tromping around his neighborhood. Then he hires a team of dominatrixes to torment him in his daily life and for two-thirds of the film it’s a quietly absurd, but still slow-paced, light comedy. Suddenly, without warning, he accidentally kills one of the dominatrixes and in its last 20 minutes the movie becomes a wild 1960s Japanese action film full of assassins, gun battles, international vixens, and car chases. In this case, jo-ha-kyu stands for “slow, slightly faster, batshit crazy.” (You can catch it this month at the New York Asian Film Festival.)
Takashi Miike was challenging this traditional rhythm all the way back in 1999 with Dead or Alive whose opening five minutes crams an entire gang war into the cuisinart, sets it on “liquefy,” and unleashes a tornado of plummeting bodies, goggled assassins, giant lines of cocaine, supermarket shootouts, gyrating crotches, and fast-forward noodle-eating. But while Miike and Matsumoto may have desecrated the temple of slow, they haven’t destroyed it. In fact, it’s become something of a craze.
Despite the worldwide popularity of directors like Miike and Sono, international critics and film festival programmers reserve their biggest prizes for Japanese directors when they make their slowest movies, like Miike’s Hara-Kiri (11), his most turgid movie to date, which was his first film to be given a long-coveted competition slot at Cannes. And the only people on the planet who seem to enjoy Naomi Kawase’s sleep-inducers (The Mourning Forest, Hanezu, Shara) are the Cannes selection committee who have incuded every single one of them in the main competition. This year, her Still the Water premiered there, garnering critical praise that ranged from “Zen calm” and “healing gentleness” (The Guardian) to “soporific” (Variety).
Slow = Respect is a lesson learned by 2013’s Ask This of Rikyu (13), a very serious movie about Rikyu, one of the masters of the tea ceremony, who was ordered to commit suicide after some political complications. It starts with a shot of two characters sitting next to each other that runs almost a minute and a half before either of them utters a line. Full of endless shots of hands thoughtfully caressing ceramics, it’s studded with pseudo profundities as when the tea master shows up an hour late for an audience with his lord. “You’re late!” a court official cries. “Or perhaps,” the tea master smirks, “I’m early.”
WTF does that even mean?
Every line of dialogue in this movie sounds like a self-important Zen koan rolling off the conveyor belt with a plop. But while Ask This of Rikyu is practically a demolition derby compared to most CCC, it steals plenty of tricks from the genre, using its long takes, slow camera movement, and sparse dialogue to signify that it has serious intentions without actually engaging seriously with anything.
In a country where 75% of people polled said that Japanese TV was “boring” you’d think that directors would be looking to unearth excitement rather than play into stereotypes about Serious Japanese Cinema. Instead you have Yoji Yamada directing a two-hour-and-15-minute remake of Ozu’s Tokyo Story. It’s a weird kind of groupthink that causes even perfectly charming comedies like The Story of Yonosuke to run a bloated two hours and 45 minutes.
What’s going on here? Some light is shed on the matter by Yuya Ishii's The Great Passage (13), (also playing at the NYAFF) an actual good movie with an all-star cast that was nominated for 26 film awards and won seven of them—a massive achievement for a movie about a dictionary. Starting in 1995, we follow the progress of The Great Passage, a new and more modern Japanese dictionary, that takes 15 years to compile. Its main character is Majime (Ryuhei Matsuda), a shy introvert who is shanghaied onto the dictionary team and discovers that words allow him to break out of his shell and communicate with the woman he loves (Aoi Miyazaki).
Never sentimental, it’s one of the only movies I’ve ever seen that elicits tears and applause for a scene of copy editing, and it uses an audience-friendly version of CCC—long takes, minimal dialogue, sparse camera movement, long running time—to imbue its gentle comedy with a warm authenticity. But, like Ask This of Rikyu, something’s rotten in Denmark.
There is the argument that maybe Japanese cinema just moves to a different rhythm. Composer Karlheinz Stockhausen celebrated slowness in Japanese culture in his 1974 essay “Ceremonial Japan,” writing:
“Where timing is concerned, the European is absolutely mediocre. Which means he has settled down somewhere in the middle of his range of potential tempi. It is a very narrow range, compared with the extremely fast reactions that a Japanese [person] might have at a certain moment, and to the extremely slow reaction that he might show on another occasion. He has a poor middle range compared to the European.”
The Great Passage
But maybe this once-challenging posture towards audience attention spans has become a calcified pose. To figure out The Great Passage’s attitude towards slowness, it helps to look at its attitude towards women. The women of The Great Passage are there to take care of their hard working men. In this world, women knit and cook, while men proofread, create books, and pull all-nighters in service to a cause greater than themselves. For the women, the cause greater than themselves is their men. When Majime proposes to his girlfriend he doesn’t ask her to marry him, instead he says: “Please continue to look after me.”
This is presented as a kind of cozy conservative nostalgia for a world where everyone knew their place, and it tips the viewer off to the fact that The Great Passage is utilizing slowness in the service of nostalgia. Here, slowness is portrayed not for any inherent quality, but because the filmmakers are nostalgic for a bygone world that they feel is best evoked by going veeeerrryyyy slooooowly.
Japanese directors like Takashi Miike, Sion Sono, Yoshihiro Nishimura, and even Go Shibata, the great lost arthouse director of the 2000’s, demonstrate a hunger for life, an appetite for engagement, a tolerance for the mess and spontaneity of the modern world that differentiates them from the men and women making these slow films that have appropriated the values of CCC and repackaged them in audience (and film festival programmer) friendly formats. Japan’s current crop of slow directors appear to be retreating from the messiness of modernity into the protected playground of the past—a decision no different than Hollywood’s choice to remake every single movie ever released in the Eighties. Both industries, Japan’s and America’s, are terrified of the future, and so they reward clinging to tradition, as they praise an abandonment of the new, and seek refuge in the narcotic embrace of nostalgia.
LINKS! LINKS! LINKS!
… Korean actress Sung Hyun-Ah has been charged with prostitution and may have to pay a 2 million won fine (about $1,900). The star of Kim Ki-duk’s Time (06) and Hong Sang-soo’s Woman Is the Future of Man (04) was accused of meeting three times with a businessman at a hotel for sex, for which he paid $50,000. This single charge is the result of a year-long investigation into an alleged prostitution ring involving Korean actresses that encompassed almost 30 performers. Sung, whose past includes a conviction for using ecstasy in 2002 and an authorized book of nude photos, is believed to be challenging the charge and a final verdict is expected on August 8.
… The blockbuster Wong Jing gambling movie, From Vegas to Macau, was a huge hit at the Hong Kong and Mainland box office (and is currently playing the New York Asian Film Festival) so it’s no surprise that Wong is shooting a sequel this summer. Joining the cast from part one, which includes Chow Yun-fat, Nic Tse, and Chapman To, will be HK powerhouse actors Nick Cheung and Carina Lau.
… Speaking of Carina Lau, her husband, Tony Leung Chiu-wai is rumored to be starring in the new Wong Kar Wai movie that was just announced.
… The highest-grossing Korean film ever released in the United States is, much to the embarrassment of everyone in the world, D-War, comedian Shim Hyung-Rae’s atrocious special-effects extravaganza about Korean dragons attacking modern day Los Angeles only to be driven back by Jason Behr and Robert Forster. The sequel has just received a $10 million investment from the Vista Cay Hotel Group and is supposed to be set in 1969 against the backdrop of the U.S./USSR space race. Given what an amazing job Shim Hyung-Rae has done of making movies set in America’s past, no one can fail to be completely unexcited by the prospect of his latest movie delving once again into U.S. history.
… The sequel to Donnie Yen and Wilson Yip’s SPL is shooting now, and it’s a headache. Donnie Yen and Wilson Yip avoided this sequel and that’s starting to look like a smart idea. Wu Jing, who played the bad guy in SPL, reactivated an old leg injury and had to get crutches, Soi Cheang (who is currently the director) suffered the unexpected death of his older brother, which delayed the production, and there have been numerous other delays for an infinity of other reasons. Nevertheless, most people are willing to be patient since the movie stars Thailand’s Tony Jaa, Hong Kong’s Francis Ng, Sammo Hung, Andy On, and Simon Yam. Great ass-kicking comes to those who wait.
… It’s “a wanton act of terror!” It’s an “attack on our top leadership!” It’s an “act of war!” And it will require a “resolute and merciless response!” What is this thing that threatens to shake the fate of nations? Seth Rogen and James Franco’s new movie about assassinating North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, The Interview. Looks like the good comrade is Hollywood’s newest marketing genius!
…Then again, maybe it’s all just a bunch of Western hype.
… One of Hong Kong’s great directors, Chor Yuen, is now 79 years old and suffering from mild dementia. It’s nothing to worry about, and his doctor says that stimulating his mind and taking some basic medications will do a lot to improve his quality of life. His wife of 47 years, Nan Hong, has decided to spend more time at home to help him remember to take his meds and assist him as his short-term memory goes and his temper occasionally flares up from frustration. Chor Yuen is one of Shaw Brother’s great wuxia directors of the Seventies and Eighties, forging his own style of wuxia movie (based mostly on Gu Long’s novels) that put the emphasis on dark, tangled mysteries taking place in the martial world, full of secret identities, 180-degree plot turns, exotic weaponry, and a general tone of baroque gothic splendour. If you want to get a taste for what he can do, his movie The Magic Blade is screening at the New York Asian Film Festival this month. It’s one of his best, and you can see in it the seeds for decades of Hong Kong flying swordsman films.