Death Note

Again, can't resist piling in despite having only read the first three volumes. I think the most important thing to keep a hold of when reading Death Note is how silly the whole thing is. It may be easy to forget amidst the tendrils of subterfuge and second-guessing between the two whizz kids chasing at each others tails. The detailed accounts of gambits, motives and second-guesses seem impressive, until you take a step back and see how ridiculous the thought of a teenager directing a manhunt against a supernatural terrorist really is.

The seriousness with which Death Note takes its zany concept is off-putting, not least because the Sherlock Holmes-like detective games direct attention away from what can be quite an interesting morality tale. Kira summarily executes criminals to create a new world order in which evil is eliminated. The idea of a straight-A student being a delusional psychopath must surely nod to the shock of the sarin attacks on the Tokyo underground in 1995, perpetrated by a cult composed of educated and successful members of Japanese society. Kira is our avatar in the book – the reader is being asked what they would do if they could kill people anonymously. To do so, it has to present the murderer neutrally, and his victims as fodder.

There is a risk here of losing a grip on why what Kira does is wrong. Kira's adversary L occasionally alludes to ideas of human rights and the case against what Kira is up to. But the ethical argument gets sidelined in the game of cat and mouse which takes up the majority of the narrative space in the volumes. Perhaps I'm wrong to get worked up about this – surely it will be clear to most people why we have checks and balances when dealing with lawbreakers, rather than sending them all to the gallows. But if the book is suggesting that some Japanese really do think like Kira, it has a duty to set out why that attitude is wrong-headed. The way Death Note handles its ending will be decisive in this regard.



Having watched through the four films with Monica Vitti, Blow-Up feels like the most straightforward Antonioni film I've seen. It helps that the structure is very simple – a day (and a bit) in the life of a successful fashion photographer – and that it leans on a murder mystery plot. This being Antonioni, the plot only occasionally intrudes on more abstract concerns. But unlike the drift of his other films, I found myself quite gripped by the goings on here. David Hemmings in the lead role may have something to do with it as well.

We don't find out what the conspiracy is. Vanessa Redgrave stumbles in and out of the film almost at random, and revealing nothing. Instead the incident at the park is a tentpole on which to hang various reflections on 60s London. Antonioni is rather sniffy about the rank materialism of the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll generation. His protagonist Thomas is more interested in the gritty existence of the downtrodden – choosing photographs of old men in doss houses for his book, rather than the silly fashion stuff he's known for. But he's compromised as well, as that famous scene with Verushka demonstrates. His may want his camera to be the window into his soul, but more often it's just another cock.

My spiritual film guide David Thomson describes Antonioni as an "anxious unbeliever". It's true that the empty space and untethered morality in his films suggest the stresses of existentialism. Thomas is searching for the transcendent in art and in life – that one little element that would make the whole make sense (in the words of his painter friend). The death and disappearance in the park provide him with the miracle he needs. I suspect there may be an echo here of Jesus's empty tomb – a brush with faith which Thomas wanders away from.

Instead we end with him alone in the middle of the park, after momentarily being tempted to join an act by a bunch of revelling mimes. The transcendent is replaced with a collective imagining by artists, who seem to be enjoying themselves. Thomas used to be part of that gang, but that last shot sees him isolated from their youthful romps as well. My guess is Antonioni can't let go of his hankering for eternal truths. He finds the postmodern age, where people make their own truths, beguiling, but ultimately dispiriting.


Attack on Titan

How much of Japan's recent history feeds into its popular fiction? I'm just a stupid westerner, but I can't resist drawing the inferences. The interview with the creator of Attack on Titan at the back of the first volume paints a portrait of a harmless otaku weirdo (with a body hair fetish...), but I suspect there's a bit of mystification going on, because the hook for the series nods to a whole bunch of stuff that must weigh heavily on the Japanese psyche. I suspect the creator is all too aware of it.

First of all, isn't the walled human settlement surrounded by alien hostile beings a clear reference to the fortress mentality fostered by Japan's sakoku period? The feeling of exceptionalism, of an apartness from a scary and foreign world, a discomfort with the outside, persists to this day. And Erin's desire to escape that suffocating cultural atmosphere must be felt by many young Japanese right now.

Then there's the titans themselves, who supply the disaster movie action in the book, and are a blatant update of the Godzilla metaphor for nuclear weapons. The remnants of humanity are faced with a force they are simply unable to counter. They live constantly under the shadow of apocalypse – again, something the Japanese must feel all too keenly after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Who are these titans? Where do they come from? Are they a cipher for dastardly American oppressors, or a more general concern with preserving the ecology of the planet from human, all too human mutations? Answers must lie in future volumes – I'm a creature of impulse and am writing this having just read number 1. The book itself is terrifically horrible – death and disaster awaiting at every turn. I found it in a children's library and have grave doubts about the wisdom of shelving it there. Alongside The Hunger Games, it slips into the trend of supremely bleak teen fiction facing into the endtimes and trying desperately to cling on to values of decency and humanity as the onslaught approaches.


Selections from the Penguin Book of Japanese Verse

Kobayashi Issa

The world of dew is
A world of dew... and yet,
And yet...


A world of dew:
Yet within the dewdrops –

Priest Saigyō

On Mount Yoshino
I shall change my route
From last year's broken-branch trail,
And in parts yet unseen
Seek the cherry-flowers.


At the roadside
Where a clear stream bubbles
In the shade of the willows,
'Just for a while', I said,
And still have not gone.


In the beautiful woman,
Somewhere or other
The wife finds flaws.


After he's scolded
His wife too much,
He cooks the rice.


A horse farts:
Four or five suffer
On the ferry-boat.


The morning after she's gone
He's very busy
Just finding everything.


The prostitute, too,
When the game is slow
Changes her name.


Judging from the pictures,
Hell looks the more
Interesting place.


Glaring glumly at the sky,
Pecking at their packed lunch
At home.


When her daughter
Tightens her belly-band,
Mother's tension slackens.

Yosano Akiko

You never touch
This soft skin
Surging with hot blood.
Are you not bored,
Expounding the Way?


Spring is short:
Why ever should it
Be thought immortal?
I grope for
My full breasts with my hands.


No camellia
Nor plum for me,
No flower that is white.
Peach blossom has a colour
That does not ask my sins.

Translated by Geoffrey Bownas and Anthony Thwaite


Hour of the Wolf

A conscious follow-up to Persona, and much bolder in its willingness to shatter narrative conventions. Max Von Sydow plays a painter who's visions hound him to death. There's a bunch of autobiography here, and it's close to the surface. At a disturbing dinner party with some aristocrats, Von Sydow declares that any monomania rearing up as a result of his success gets chased away by the fundamental purposelessness of his vocation, of art. I'm sure Bergman is speaking for himself here. There is also an obsession with a past affair with a married woman which dominates the dream sequence in the last quarter of the film (Bergman had a fair few and was married six times). Finally Von Sydow brings up an incident in his brutal upbringing by a strict, abusive father, which feels lifted straight from Bergman's own memories.

But the heart of the film is the effect this schizophrenia has on his wife – through a near miraculous depth of sympathy she starts to see his ghosts. But she is 'whole', while he is irreparably broken. And it is these 'whole' people that reveal the story to us. Bergman's visualisation of the rich subconscious fantasies of a tortured artist are cinematic tricks, and he's insistent on this point. Liv Ullmann is interviewed by him, and the sounds of the film crew are layered over the beginning titles that tell us the providence of the story we are about to watch. We are very nearly always aware that this is a film we're watching – that there is a connection between the ghosts the characters see and the actors reacting to them on the screen. They are made of the same stuff.

Von Sydow is hardly a sympathetic character. The most disturbing fever dream in the film is him murdering a boy who teases him while he's fishing. A younger self taunts his trials and failures, a ghost of better might-have-beens, and Von Sydow crushes him under his fists. His marriage is sweet, but always haunted by the awareness that Ullmann ultimately bores and cloys him. She doesn't obsess him in the way his previous lovers do. The 'hour of the wolf' refers to the time of the night most likely for people to die or be born. Von Sydow is so terrified of his apparitions that he has to keep himself awake through it. But there's also a suggestion that he can't quite accept the yawning fact of his own inevitable death, or that his wife is pregnant and that he'll have to start taking responsibility for people other than himself. Sydow is still the child locked up in the cupboard by his father, tormented by phantoms of his own imagining. His tragedy is that he cannot grow up and gain mastery over his demons.
"...it was the combination of their own desire to defeat popery, and the legitimacy that Parliament possessed to impose the necessary taxes, that proved decisive [to British victory over France in the Seven Years War (1757-63)]. With compliant taxpayers and a comparatively accountable political system, the government was able to raise huge public loans, both in real terms and relative to the British population. A ratio of military expenditure to income that no developed state today would dare even contemplate produced a navy so powerful that it eventually allowed the British to dominate global commerce and acquire the greatest empire ever seen. Trade and colonies, in turn, generated resources vital for sustaining government spending and nourishing urban and manufacturing growth. By the 1670s the British were the most prosperous people in the world, and their unflinching war on popery was helping to create many of the economic and social preconditions for the industrial revolution." - David Scott, Leviathan: The Rise of Britain as a World Power


Crimson Peak

Del Toro's interview with Sight & Sound suggested that Crimson Peak was his follow-up to Pan's Labyrinth. He wrote the script years ago, but sat on it until he could get the budget to physically build the house the story is set in. Having now seen it, I'm getting worried that Pan's Labyrinth may have been a fluke. I've been known to describe his 2008 film as nothing less than a masterpiece – not only for its finely balanced parallel narrative, but the way it uses it to deconstruct the religious impulse, and to outline a new, anti-authoritarian, (lapsed) Catholic theology.

Such outpourings tend to garner raised eyebrows, and now I'll probably be a little less confident in my effusions. Because Crimson Peak is lightweight by comparison, and for Del Toro to say it's his crowning achievement feels like a terrible misjudgment of his own work. The film is built around a heavily telegraphed contrast between the past and the future, England and America, the Romantic and the Enlightened. Although Del Toro is at pains to provide some explanation for the gross behaviour of his villains, they are still (perhaps unfairly) associated with one side of that divide.

There may be an element of autobiography going on here – Del Toro escaping from dilapidated, corrupt and superstitious Mexico to make films in sunny Los Angeles. England in the film is dark and dirty, while New York is polished and purposefully bathed in bright golden hues. But the larger theme is surely about how family shapes the fate of children. Both of Mia Wasikowska's parents love and protect her (even after death), while Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain have been raised, and horrifically warped, by abusive devils. And this is wrapped up in the idea that ghosts are echoes and manifestations of trauma which need to be walked away from. The Americans just about manage to do so at the end of the film.

Despite its literary pretensions (Del Toro goes on about the influence of Jane Eyre and Great Expectations), Crimson Peak feels to me like a gnarly and scary version of Tim Burton's Dark Shadows – which is very arch, but similarly indulgent. I found the latter rather enjoyable, not least because it doesn't take itself very seriously. The comparison is a reminder that although Del Toro is lauded as an intelligent writer as well as a fine craftsman, he may end up in the same cul-de-sac Burton is languishing in, if he's not careful.


Tattoo (Irezumi)

A rather melodramatic adaptation of the Junchiro Tanizaki novella by Yasuo Masumura, who adds plenty of ostentatious fights and writhing deaths. But as with Blind Beast, Masumura is adept at chronicling the subtle shifts in his characters' descent into nihilism and depravity. Otsuya starts of as a willful young girl eloping with her father's apprentice Shinsuke. She cares for him, and he is besotted with her, but their relationship is pushed past breaking point as they get swallowed up by the underworld. Shinsuke becomes a killer, and Otsuya a whore, largely by circumstance, but the more courageous Otsuya is better able to capitalise on her predicament. She starts to use the enthralled Shinsuke to enact her revenge on those who betrayed and exploited her, but she gradually loses interest in him as the body count rises and the prospect of becoming a concubine to a well-connected samurai opens up.

This descent is encapsulated by the tattoo Otsuya is forcibly given at the behest of her pimp Tokubei, a jorō spider with a woman's head that feeds on blood. As part of her initiation, Tokubei shows Otsuya a painting of a geisha standing on top of a pile of corpses – a visual imprinting of the role she will assume. The tattoo is a symbol of her monstrosity, yes, but it is one forced on her by the men who kidnap and prostitute her. The tattoo artist speaks about the way his soul has escaped and been grafted onto Otsuya, so that her murders feel like his. To some degree they are, in that Otsuya is a product of her environment, and that environment is made by criminal men. Perhaps the artist speaks for the director of the film as well, and the writers who conceived and adapted the story. Otsuya is their creation as well, and they are by turns attracted to and then horrified by her, to the point where they deprive her of her life. But they are guilty as well – after killing Otsuya, the tattoo artist plunges the knife into his own chest.


The Shining

One of the funniest bits in Vivian Kubrick's making of documentary is the footage of Jack Nicholson riling himself up for the "Here's Johnny!" scene: manically jumping outside the bathroom door, swinging the axe around, chanting "fucking fuck, die, pussy, die!" Subtext becoming text in between takes...

Because what is Jack Torrence if not a pygmy of a man, a failed writer who feels ashamed to work dead-end jobs? Nervy and insecure, he bullies his wife and takes her for granted. There is an internalised rage at his own impotence that only gets worse as his failure to create, or to exert control over his environment, becomes more and more evident. While his wife manages the household and raises their son, he does nothing but gnaw at his own pathetic existence.

There are subtle overlays to this resentment. Jack is induced to reassert control over his family by a posh Englishman. Patriarchy is associated with bourgeois standards of respectability: the husband gains his authority by being employed, his wife and children in turn must be utterly obedient to what he says. Sex and drink outside the family home are further rewards of this status, although Jack has an almost childlike awe and fear of the female body.

A hidden racism is also unearthed. His son forms a connection with a black man who becomes an alternative source of comfort and protection. Such mixing must be ended, say the haughty poshos. This unacknowledged racism also comes through in the fact that the hotel is built over an Indian burial ground. A horror cliche, perhaps, but it does nod to the genocide that accompanied the creation of the United States. The final shot is of Jack becoming one of those sinister poshos in a 1920s photograph of a ball in the hotel, 10 years after the original inhabitants were forcibly (and violently) shoved off the land it was built on. Intersecting forces of class, sex and race underlie Jack's descent into madness.

I'm minded to ascribe most of these nuances to Stephen King rather than Stanley Kubrick, who I have a low opinion of after the tedium of 2001. This is a far better avenue for his fixation on swooping through beautiful sets with wide-angle lenses. The inherently alienating effect this creates is a good match for the chilling distance between Jack and his family. Makes me think David Thomson is probably right to say The Shining is Kubrick's one great film.