Kaiju Shakedown: Story of Sorrow and Sadness
The biggest development in cinema this week? An advertisement for a movie that itself is an advertisement for Samsung, Harley-Davidson, Audi, and its own $150 million line of merchandise. We live in a world where communication is faster than at any point in human history, whether it’s television, radio, telephones, or the Internet, the omnipresent Cthuloid Elder God before which all other forms of communication tremble as they’re assimilated. But as communication becomes easier, faster, bigger, and more, what is it that we’re communicating?
Commercial cinema has predictably chosen not to bite the hand that feeds it, so it’s simultaneously inspiring and also kind of embarrassing to see a movie like Seijun Suzuki’s Story of Sorrow and Sadness. Rarely has a mainstream commercial release been as rabid in its attack, and as thoughtful in its critique, of our dystopian mediascape. And it should embarrass current commercial filmmakers that one of the few movies to have something intelligent to say about today’s mediascape was made almost 40 years ago. By a 54 year old director. About golf.
By 1977, Seijun Suzuki, the wild man of Japanese cinema, was on the ropes. After delivering almost 40 increasingly idiosyncratic movies for Nikkatsu Studios, he terminally alienated them with Branded To Kill (67), which they assumed was going to be a serious hit-man movie but Suzuki treated as a playful absurdist flick to fill a sudden hole in their release schedule. The studio president hated the movie and had Suzuki fired. The director sued and eventually won his case in 1971. But the damage was already done, and he was blacklisted. The only place he could get work was in television.
In 1977, Shochiku decided to give him another shot at directing movies with Story of Sorrow and Sadness, figuring that Suzuki couldn’t possibly get in any trouble with the story of a female golfer’s rise to fame. Wrong. The only movie the great director made in the Seventies (bracketed by Branded to Kill in 1967 and Zigeunerweisen in 1980) Story of Sorrow and Sadness contains an entire decade’s worth of rage, absurdity, perversion, and wiggy fight-the-power surrealism as it examines the way advertising corrodes women’s souls like acid, turning them into blank-eyed zombies.
Written by sports manga icon Ikki Kajiwara, creator of Ashita no Joe, Story of Sorrow and Sadness begins where all movies about underdog athletes must: in the offices of a corporate sponsor. In this case, it’s the editors of a big sports magazine who are sick and tired of Eastern European gymnast Chiporose dominating their covers. Can’t they find a Japanese athlete to partner with swimsuit manufacturer Bonne Chance to win some competitions and boost their advertising sales? The editor calls a manager, Mr. Miyabe, on his shower phone but Mr. Miyabe doesn’t know anyone who fits the bill. But when told it’s for a $30 million contract (of which Mr. Miyabe stands to make $3 million) the shagadelic agent suddenly remembers that he might . . . just . . . know . . . someone.
Enter model/amateur golfer, Reiko (Yoko Shiraki). She’s got a bit of talent, but mostly she looks good swinging a nine iron in her bikini. Miyabe molds Reiko into a golf machine in an “Eye of the Tiger” montage that sees her making 1600 shots a day, golfing in wind, rain, and total darkness, golfing until her hands bleed. The day of the big tournament comes and, jacked up on self-actualization mantras (“I can make the ball go anywhere I want it to go!” “Hit the ball with your mind!”), Reiko not only wins the game but captures the hearts of Japanese housewives everywhere with two “fainting spells” carefully calculated to occur at moments of peak drama.
After some sweaty post-game sex with the rumpled Miyabe, Reiko is presented with a contract. “From now on you can earn billions for the company,” Miyabe warns her. “At the expense of your freedom.” Reiko flashes a toothpaste commercial smile and signs on the dotted line. Rarely has a Faustian bargain required so little thought.
Management is pleased. “The woman is very competent,” they purr. “She can appear on TV.” Reiko lands a talk show, and soon she’s installed in a posh house in a silent suburb, entombed like a pharaoh with a full complement of fabulous Seventies furniture, wall-to-wall carpets, and an indoor putting green. And then she dies inside. We are now 29 minutes into the movie, and Suzuki’s interest has just kicked into gear.
To keep himself afloat during his lawsuit with Nikkatsu, Suzuki worked in television, making short narratives and commercials. Judging by Story of Sorrow and Sadness, he found the latter line of work to be appalling. Reiko has traded her humanity for cash. She owns a TV she doesn’t watch, a kitchen she doesn’t cook in, and expensive bottles of imported liquor she doesn’t drink. Her life consists of robotically driving herself from her empty house to the sterile TV studio, rotating through pre-programmed subroutines with names like “Sexually Attractive” and “Welcoming Smile.” Every man wants to want to screw her, but Reiko’s target audience is women, mostly housewives who are also trapped in their own isolated housing units in uninhabited suburbs.
Women are sent the contradictory message that they should envy but also worship Reiko by male executives who spend the movie lounging on sofas, seated around boardroom tables, or lying in bed. Dialogue has been replaced by marketing slogans (“Let’s learn how to express charm in your eyes tomorrow,” an acting coach tells Reiko), and the only human contact on display is through advertising. When Reiko meets her neighbors it’s over the phone, or signing autographs for them in her studio audience.
Up until this point, the film is a Danielle Steel rags-to-riches story set in the world of pro golf filtered through a Thorazine haze, but then someone screws up. Advertising harnesses the human need for fantasy to the empty engine of capitalism, with companies creating dreams that promise consumers less loneliness and more fulfillment, while actually offering nothing more nurturing than a blender. It’s an empty, one-sided relationship, and crisis comes when someone mistakes the one-way monologue of celebrity for the two-way offer of contact.
Mrs. Senboh is Reiko’s neighbor, a housewife whose face is lit Kryptonite green like a demon from hell. After introducing herself as Reiko’s fan and getting rebuffed, she waits until Reiko is driving drunk one night and throws herself in front of her luxury sedan, breaking her leg. Then comes the blackmail: if Reiko doesn’t want Mrs. Senboh to go to the police, she’ll do whatever she wants. And what does Mrs. Senboh want?
“I’m lonely,” she sobs. “I want friends, Reiko.”
Mrs. Senboh’s crime isn’t that she’s a sadist. It’s that she doesn’t understand the transaction of celebrity, and that frustration drives her to chop off Reiko’s hair, to invite herself onto Reiko’s talk show and destroy it, to turn Reiko into a prostitute and, in a queasy-making climax, to hold a book-club meeting in Reiko’s sterile luxury home that degenerates into a drunken orgy that sees Reiko stripped naked and beaten by middle-class housewives who hate her for her beautiful appliances.
Full of mismatched shots, off-kilter editing, staging right out of a Robert Wilson opera, sudden zooms that race from wide shots to leering close-ups, Suzuki’s film feels like a wildlife documentary charting the slow degradation of the human soul isolated in suburbia and fed a steady diet of advertising. More accurately, it charts the slow degradation of women’s souls. This is a women’s picture in the classic Hollywood mold, showing how females are pacified, neutered, corralled like cattle, and fed television like a drug.
As viewers get ready to worship at the altar of the new season of Mad Men, it’s interesting to note that its creator, Matthew Weiner, cannily focuses on the manufacturers of advertising but not its consumers. And when Mad Men does venture out into the suburbs to show the housewives, like Betty Draper, penned up like veal cattle in their perfect homes and tranquilized by TV, fans scream like stuck pigs, outraged at how tacky and gross and boring the people are who consume Don Draper and Peggy Olson’s plastic dreams. In a way, they sound a lot like the men in Story of Sorrow and Sadness, for whom women might as well be another species. They can’t talk to them, they can’t control them; all they can do is despise and destroy them. As the sports magazine editor shrugs later in the film, “Women are abnormal.”
And for him, it doesn’t go any deeper than that.
LINKS! LINKS! LINKS!
… Tony Rayns writes about Seijun Suzuki’s career falling apart at Nikkatsu and the court case with Branded to Kill that validated Suzuki’s outrage, but sunk his career prospects.
… Midnight Eye has a great interview with Seijun Suzuki from back in 2001. Amazingly enough, the man is still alive and, despite being in poor health, the last I heard he was still planning to direct one more movie.
… Seijun Suzuki’s brand of underground, avant-pop cinema is alive and kicking in Japan, which seems to have an unstoppable underground movie scene that puts independent cinema in places like Hong Kong and Korea to shame. One of its latest eruptions is The End of the World and the Cat’s Disappearance, a low budget sci-fi film by Daisuke Nishijima, the manga artist responsible for Dien Bien Phu. Taking place in a post-plague near future, Mark Schilling raves about this dissection of Internet celebrity in the Japan Times (which also has a trailer).
… Also raving is Takeshi Kitano, probably Japan’s best-known living director, actor, and television personality. After claiming that the Japanese Academy Awards are fixed, with the major studios (Shochiku, Nikkatsu, Toho, and Toei) passing awards around to each other like finger food at a cocktail party, a film scholar decided to crunch the numbers. Since the Japanese Academy is stuffed with voting members who also happen to be employees of the big studios, it’s not surprising that he discovered a 36 percent discrepancy between the movies that receive Best Picture nominations and the movies that are chosen as the top five of the year by Kinema Junpo, the country’s most well-respected and prestigious independently-published film magazine. Is this a problem? It is if you don’t work for one of the big studios.
… Speaking of big movies, animated Japanese film, Stand by Me Doraemon, has become the top-grossing Japanese movie ever released in Hong Kong, taking only seven days to beat The Ring’s two-month box office gross. One of the reasons for its popularity is that the prints screened were the Cantonese dub featuring the final voice performance by beloved voice actor, Lam Pou-chuen, aka Uncle Chuen, who passed away in January of this year at 63 years old.
… Uncle Chuen was a well-known voice actor for television station, TVB, and as he goes, so too does TVB’s biggest (and kind of only) competitor, ATV. After a management battle between two top shareholders of the broadcast television station, the head of Want Want China Holdings, and Wong Ching, a Mainland real estate mogul, Wong seized the advantage and tried to transform ATV into “the CNN of Asia.” This effort was slightly undermined by bungles such as ATV falsely reporting the death of China’s president, Jiang Zemin, in 2011, which led to fines for the station, and the canceling of Newsline this January, ATV’s debate show that ran for 30 years, making it Hong Kong’s longest-running television program. Unable to pay salaries, with 10 percent of its staff quitting, ATV’s prime-time viewership currently hovers around one percent of the market (TVB is around 20%) and when its license comes up for renewal this November, all internal government indications are that it will not be granted. The wild card? Chief Executive CY Leung who some think fears that ATV failing on his watch will leave egg on his face after he refused to grant a television broadcast license to new competitor, the cash-flush Hong Kong TV last year. Since CY Leung seems to specialize in bad decisions, there’s no guarantee he’s going to let ATV go dark.
Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge
… One thing that’s also not going dark is Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (or, as fans call it, DDLJ) the 1995 Bollywood romance starring Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol that’s been running in a Mumbai cinema non-stop for 20 years. The management recently announced that they would be ending the film’s run, only to meet with massive protests from fans. So, after stopping screenings for two days, DDLJ is back on the big screen, singing and dancing without a pause, like it’s been doing for 1,009 weeks so far.
… Over in China, officials are meeting this week to see about relaxing censorship laws, or at least better defining them so that they’re based more on clear regulations and less on the whims of individual censors. But Chinese filmmakers are resilient, and they always find ways to get movies about even the touchiest of topics to viewers. In the wake of data showing that 90 percent of Chinese cities fail to meet government air quality standards, a CCTV reporter has gone rogue and, this month, released her own 104-minute movie, Under the Dome, about air pollution in China. Available free on streaming platforms, the movie names names and points fingers, and it’s proving wildly popular, garnering 200 million views and counting. While censors have pulled some articles talking about the film, they have yet to target the film itself. On a smaller scale, there are directors like Sam Voutas, whose Red Light Revolution (10), was about an unemployed cab driver who took advantage of legal gray areas to open a sex toyshop. The director himself took advantage of the fact that film censorship didn’t apply to movies released online only and his independent flick, which never could have gotten a theatrical release, garnered millions of online views and played film festivals around the world. He’s currently raising money on Kickstarter for a new movie, The King of Peking, about another touchy subject: piracy. This time, it’s a movie projectionist who has fallen on hard times and who realizes that the only way to make his child support payments is to start pirating films. The Kickstarter page has some sweet info on it about film piracy in China, which is something of a mini-industry.