The plot, as with many a time travel story, breaks apart the more you prod at it. But the conceit of two teenagers switching bodies is employed well. Shinkai has said that some of the town vs country stuff explored in the film comes from his own experience of growing up. More important for me, however, is the way inhabiting another person's life becomes a metaphor for falling in love. Because being in a relationship is sort of like that. You gain access to memories of things you didn't experience at first hand. You learn about a childhood different from your own, with a new family and set of friends. You also get to know someone else's body in intimate detail (a source of some of the film's funniest moments). And by becoming comfortable in each other's skins, the two characters find that they cannot live happily without each other.
This is eked out a bit in the final part of the film, where Shinkai contrives to separate his heroes, and have them morosely wander around Tokyo searching for their other halves. But it serves to highlight how draining the loss of such a person might be, and it leads to a very satisfying finale.
It's a happy ending, in other words – the opposite of what happens to Javier Bardem in Golden Balls, who fails to complete his tower and ends up an unhappy cuckold. Rather than castigate self-defeating machismo, The Tit and the Moon celebrates the state of being lovesick. It's at its most charming when exploring the fascinatingly weird marriage between the dancer Estrellita and a Frenchman mostly referred to as 'The Frog'. Estrellita is turned on by tears and feet, and plays weird sexual games with her husband where she eats a stale baguette that he sticks between his thighs. The Frog is impotent, but the marriage survives by the arrangement of a ménage à trois, and he (unlike Bardem) ends up a happy cuckold.
The yearning for the love of women appears to be the overriding theme – the film has its own peculiar cosmology where the patriarchal sun is superseded by the matriarchal moon. Nonetheless, the erotic focus of the film – Estrellita – is a rather passive figure, remaining devoted to her husband despite his neediness and volatility. The film opens with the image of her as a toybox ballerina, echoing her husband's claim to want to put her in a box and hide her away (he's true to his word and locks her up at one point). And although the film suggests that fulfillment lies with the renunciation of such jealousy, Estrellita is still little more than an idol to be fought over. Her fate is not enviable, even if she appears satisfied with it.
Kurylenko's own painful memory is of the tip of her ring finger being sliced off in an accident at a bottling factory – perhaps a symbol for the way entry into the workforce mangles the traditional role of women as wives and mothers. If that's the case, she nonetheless settles for becoming an object in the house of a controlling patriarch. Her employer seduces her, and gives her a pair of red shoes that become a symbol of her subjection to him. At the end of the film, she takes them off in contravention of his wishes, but chooses to give her ring finger to him as a 'specimen'. She slips off one ring, but surrenders a much more intimate part of herself, and joins his nunnery-cum-harem.
The film is made cheaply, and it shows, but Bertrand injects a certain style into it, using frames within frames and adding surreal flourishes like Kurylenko's dream of swinging on a enormous crane. A particularly nice set-piece is the dropping of the Majong set – an entire philosophy shattered then put back together again. The mood is helped enormously by a very effective score from Beth Gibbons (of Portishead fame), which is by turns sweet and sinister. Staying true to Ogawa's fiction, the film leaves motivations opaque and the ending unexplained. But piecing together its confluence of symbols is a diverting way to spend 100 minutes.
So why don't we take each version in turn. First the bandit Tajōmaru, who confesses to killing the samurai and seducing his wife. Tajōmaru is a free spirit, aroused by the winds, swinging his sword in the same way he swings his dick (the film is not subtle about drawing the parallel). His story is one of derring do, and he casts out this attitude onto the other characters. In his universe, the wife is a wilful defender of her interests – she tries to fight him off, and lays down the gauntlet of the duel. The samurai fights honourably, but both him and the wife are defeated by Tajōmaru's superior prowess. He remains unbeaten, and is laid low by a freak accident of nature.
The wife presents herself as a victim of Tajōmaru's depredations and her husband's coldness. She does not set up a duel between the two men – Tajōmaru simply leaves. She is so dutiful that she frees her husband and begs to be killed so she does not have to live with the shame of her rape. When he refuses in disgust, she loses her mind, and kills him almost by accident. She then tries, and fails, to kill herself. Throughout, she shows herself to be feeble, weak-minded, and a failure – perhaps hoping the appearance of a docile and repentant femininity will garner the sympathy of the court.
The samurai's story is delivered through a medium (which is ridiculous, although the film just about manages to overcome this – mainly because the actress is rather unsettling in the role, and because of the eerie effects put on her voiceover). The samurai is betrayed by an unfaithful wife, who asks Tajōmaru to kill him and free her from an unhappy marriage. The bandit is disgusted, and instead frees the samurai – both are bound together in condemnation of womankind. In the end, the samurai is brave enough to kill himself, even though he is plunged into hell for the misdeeds of others.
The impartial observer of these events, the woodcutter, undercuts the male bravado of the previous tales. Tajōmaru falls in love with the wife, who scorns and mocks him and her husband for being too weak to win her with their swords. She sets up the duel, which is pusillanimous and shambolic. There is no glory in the encounter – in the end the woodcutter sneaks out to steal the valuable dagger that has been left behind. Male virility and heroism turns out to be so much pathetic boasting.
It is interesting that the three each confess to being the agent of the death – the bandit out of pride, and the couple as a way of showing themselves to be more noble than the other. The marriage – which looked so perfect when we first see it, proves to be built on mutual resentments, which Tajōmaru's assault brings to the fore.
Whether this is enough to tip us into an apocalypse is arguable. Rashomon is a burnt-out husk of a place, ravaged by war, famine, banditry and natural disasters. The dregs of humanity seek shelter under the barrage of natural and moral evils. Kurosawa's interest in the lack of moral certainty, and the inability for human beings to agree on the truth, suggests a preoccupation with the crumbling of national solidarity in post-war Japan. But again, this is less interesting than the interplay of jealousy, resentment, vanity, desire and violence that structures the incident at the centre of the story. It is those psychological revelations that make the film a great piece of work.
The template for Hsiao-Hsien's The Assassin, which came out to universal acclaim at the start of this year. Again, the plot is so well known (based on a novel which is like the Chinese The Lord of the Rings) that its explication is felt unnecessary. Again, the martial arts are almost incidental. I think there can only be about 15 minutes of actual fighting in the 90 minute running time. There is ample room for the director's concerns, and flashy style, to predominate.
My sense is that Wong Kar-Wai always ends up preferring to spend his hours examining romantic renunciation. Love in Ashes of Time blooms only in an environment of betrayal. Marriages are cages our heroes yearn to escape from. They never do, which is how Wong builds up the dramatic weight in his films. Instead, we are left holding onto memories – often painful, and constantly fading. That, I assume, is what the film's title refers to.
I'm extrapolating from In The Mood For Love, which I found frustrating. Ashes of Time worked better for me, perhaps because its contrivances are entirely on the surface, and you don't feel like you're being manipulated. The film is elliptical about its plot, but entirely upfront about its themes. The characters tell you, in long soliloquies and monologues.
I guessed that In The Mood For Love left the possibility open for the two suffering lovers to consummate their affair – Maggie Cheung's son being the result. Interestingly, Ashes of Time repeats this motif almost exactly – Cheung (again!) also has a son, whose father may be our protagonist, rather than the man Cheung married. Her reflections as she watches her son out of the window is the most beautiful part of the film (incidentally, it's the only bit shot in a studio).
There is a sense here that a new generation will abandon the stifled, clandestine romantic lives of the past. But Wong appears fixated on them. Happy marriages, like that of the shoeless swordsman, are a joke. They involve compromise. Real love is about not giving in, and being alone – pining nobly for a beloved who is either far away, or dead.