Late Spring

A highlight of Ozu's post-war work, and rather more didactic than the late films I'm familiar with. There is apparently a lively discourse over the extent to which Ozu is critical of the painfully arranged marriage the film ends on. Noriko is in the late spring of life – 27 and unmarried, happily living with her widowed father in a state of arrested development. Eventually her father puts his foot down and explains to her the necessity of leaving home and starting her own family. Ozu will abandon such lecturing in future, but here his thinking is very plainly spelled out. Noriko's situation is unnatural. Her devotion to her father, while honourable, is also self-serving. She is comfortable and content, but her duty is to work at creating her own happiness with a husband. Noriko assents and admits that she has been selfish.

I don't think Ozu ultimately wishes to question the demands that tradition places on people. They are a source of pain that must be endured. The father is left bereft by his daughter's marriage – there will be no one to look after him in his old age. Likewise Noriko must try to build a relationship with a man she barely knows. These are wrenching transitions, but the naturalistic title of the film implies that they are inevitable parts of the cycle of life, and must be borne with fortitude and determination. Happiness requires work. You can't just coast on the achievements of your parents.

The film is humane enough to linger on the melancholy and bitter emotions created by the necessity of marriage. The famous scenes – at the Noh play, the empty vase – are showcases for Noriko's jealousy and shame. The interesting thing about Late Spring is that future films will valourise the Noriko character's attachments as signs of overbearing loyalty rather than selfishness. Ozu keeps returning to the archetype of the dutiful daughter and her slightly warped attachment to the old ways (where remarriage is unaccountably a filthy thing to do), but he will become more tender in his portrayal of her.

Noriko's vivacious best friend is a sign of things to come – a less conservative film-maker would have made her the hero. She has taken advantage of the freedoms after the war to divorce the pig of a man she married, and is making her own money as a stenographer. Noriko is attracted to the independence of not having a husband, but unlike her friend she buys this by looking after her doddery father who she can wrap around her little finger. Tellingly, even her entirely modan gaaru best friend insists that Noriko should get a husband already. It's a part of growing up and becoming your own person, even if it's still couched in the traditions of marriage and male authority.

The film established Ozu's famous late style. A rigidly, almost obsessively, static camera – which doesn't move even when the characters are on bikes. The low angles which position the audience as reverent observers of the quotidian interactions of middle-class families. The ambiguous pillow-shots, which sometimes serve to establish a setting, sometimes as moments of reflection, or in the famous example of the vase, to show time passing between Noriko's change of mood. The film opens on the image of a train station – perhaps a symbolic suggestion of the journey out of the family home Noriko must undertake. It ends on footage of waves on the beach – an image grounding the action of the film in the timeless movements of nature. It's a masterpiece, but Ozu's themes are still rather close to the surface. He will become subtler and more ambiguous as he continued to revisit these stories in the films that followed.


Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux sans Visage)

Released in the same year as Psycho and in its own way just as influential on the horror genre. Part of the power of the film lies in it not having an explicit explanation for the motivations of the characters. Unlike in Hitchcock's film, here the police fail to uncover the mystery, and there is no debrief where the psychosis is explained, providing comfort and closure to the audience.

Instead we have to rely on the skill of the actors to unravel their inner worlds. The Frankensteinian Dr. Génessier is animated by pride in his medical skill, which extends to the inability to admit or accept responsibility for the car crash that disfigured his daughter. Instead he keeps trying to erase the record and reverse the damage he has wrought. But all that does is deepen the trauma he has inflicted.

The more frightening character is his secretary Louise, who provides the doctor with a source of new faces by seducing students in Paris. She is played with the fervour of a cult follower – wild eyes and a manic rictus grin as she goes about her murderous business. She is grateful to the doctor for her own plastic surgery on her face, but he has co-opted that gratitude and turned her into his very own Igor figure – totally dependent and subservient to his whims and projects.

Christine is the child who is the victim of these experiments. The name is ironic – she’s the opposite of a Christ figure in that people end up dying for her so that she can live and be transformed. It's implied that she endures her surgeries in the hope that her beauty can be restored and she can be reunited with her fiancé, although for much of the film she is also depressed to the brink of suicide at the forlorn prospect of such an eventuality. At the end of the film she accepts that these dreams of love and the protections of the patriarchy are impossible, and she revolts. In the final moments she releases herself from parental and marital authority and emerges into the world.

It's an empowering as well as a disturbing note for the film to end on, and I suspect Alex Garland's Ex Machina takes inspiration from it. In both films, young women have been physically and psychically shaped by domineering, arrogant inventors, and are able to turn the tables on their creators and escape their remote castle laboratories. Franju uses rather obvious imagery of doves being freed from their cages to underline the point, but it's still a haunting and poetic moment, and it has had a long cinematic afterlife.



Imagine if Argento's Suspiria was a comedy in the style of Evil Dead 2, except even sillier. And then throw every garish cinematic trick you can think of into the mix to make something already pretty absurd look even more so. The filmmakers took inspiration from the fears and anxieties of pre-teen girls to create their horror set-pieces, and get very close to having the final product look like it was made by children.

They just about avoid it – at least some of the arch techniques are thematically or symbolically significant. A good example is the long scene at the beginning which introduces Angel's father and the initial conflict of the story, which is that he's getting remarried and Angel's cherished memories of her dead mother are demeaned by the sudden emergence of a step-mother. The entire exchange is shot through glass panels which break apart the idyllic background (which, appropriately, looks extremely fake). The point of all this artifice is to make everything we see impossible to take seriously.

That must be the purpose of the film, if it has one. The sanctity of the family, the authority of teachers, the sacrifice of war, the fantasy of knights riding to the rescue – all of it comes in for merciless mockery. The film ends on the idea that 'the story of love must be told many times over' so that it can live on in eternity, but this is delivered in voiceover by the wicked witch who eats young girls in order to live forever and avenge herself on the man who abandoned her. The story of love turns out to be a cruel satire. The girls all have names like Angel, Melody and Sweet, and they all get gobbled up alongside the ideals they represent.


Lips of Blood

What must be quite a personal film for Rollin. The hero has forgotten much of his childhood apart from the vision of a castle and a girl, and he goes on a quest to discover where this fragment of memory comes from. Such gothic images recur in Rollin films, but disappointingly there is little here that tries to delve into why they hold such a fascination for him. Instead, there's a sense that the hero's controlling mother is a barrier towards romantic (and Romantic) fulfillment – she at one point arranges her son to be kidnapped so that an evil doctor can administer shock therapy to rid him of his delusions.

The hero slips through the cluches of the secret vampire hunting society his mother is a part of, and is reunited with his long lost love at the end of the film. It appears to be a 'careful what you wish for' scenario, in that embracing these nightmare visions means rejecting the everyday world, your family, and life itself. But the film suggests that the couple aren't just transformed into bloodthirsty monsters. Rather they are stepping into a fairytale world. In climbing aboard their shared coffin and setting out to sea, the hero talks about living on an island of sand and luring rich sailors to their shores, as if they are becoming creatures of myth and legend. It's a retreat into childhood adventure rather than death. It's alluring rather than frightening, but then again Rollin has always been on the side of the vampires.


A Snake of June

Tsukamoto acts as the voyeur and stalker in this 77-minute bizarre erotic thriller – where he torments a young woman in a loveless marriage until she is able to act out her sexual fantasies. The first half of the film seems to explore the crushing weight polite society imposes on people's private desires. Everything in the film is mediated by the camera, which reveals the characters' darkest secrets and forces them into the light. Tsukamoto is literally pointing it at the audience and implicating us in his voyeurism.

The other side of that is that people don't just want to watch, they want to be seen. Rinko's fantasies revolve around being exposed and compromised, and the climax of the film (teased at the beginning) is when her inhibitions fall away in front of a camera with a giant flash. The suggestion may be that this desire is born out of frustration – her husband (in a humorous bit of sublimation) is more interested in scrubbing drains than addressing her sexual needs.

The film ultimately ends happily – the stalker confronts the husband with his wife's antics and berates him for not looking after her properly. It appears that Tsukamoto's character wants to replace him and take Rinko for himself, but the film becomes extremely surreal at this point and perhaps this love triangle is all in the husband's head. The final moments of the film has Tsukamoto calmly taking his portrait and then disappearing – his work in bringing the couple together complete.

The film is monochrome and tinted blue, apparently as a visual contrast to the pink film genre it is ostensibly operating in. It is constantly raining (the title refers to the rainy season and may be a ribald joke), and the pathetic fallacy is difficult to read. The rain is both cold and smothering, but also a symbol of the torrid passions swirling within the characters. The random shots of a snail the film keeps returing to may be a similar juxtaposition of something slow and cumbersome that is also sordid and sticky. The film unifies these contrasts – and suggests that the medium is an avenue by which to better understand ourselves, and each other.



The proposition of the game is "what if Sauron won?", but it takes inspiraton from real-world tyrants, gangsters and manipulators as much as fictional ones. The player will most likely end up working for the bad guys – either an elite force of racists who exterminate everyone they conquer, or a horde of unruly terrorists who conscript the people they defeat in shockingly brutal ways. Either of those paths would test the moral limits of the player. They will be instructed to do terrible things, and must decide whether the ends (peace and order) justify the means (conquest and submission to a tyrant).

I shied away from those moral compromises, choosing to betray both sides and seize power myself. This doesn't make you a good person either – in fact, it involves quite a lot more killing than if you just pick one side and fight the other. The dead bodies pile up much higher in the quest to make your name and build up enough renown to be able to challenge the political elites of the world – demigods called Archons whose reputations give them magical abilities.

That is the key metaphor in Tyranny, and one of the strengths of the game. Magical powers are products of knowledge (fiercely controlled by the distant autocrat who directs the Archons – the unknowable Kyros) but also the way you are perceived in the world. Your reputation – both positive and negative – with different companions and factions (and even certain items you are using) will give you new powers. This has big implications mechanically – you can't just sit on the fence and try to get everyone to like you. Instead, the game rewards you for choosing a side. To unlock the most powerful abilities you should aim to have a lot of favour with one faction, and correspondingly a lot of wrath with another. Likewise, although you may want your companions to like you, getting them to fear you as well will mean a wider menu of combo abilities. At the end of both reputation scales is where the bonuses lie. 

This was a roleplaying challenge for me, as I usually play a goody two shoes in RPGs and try not to offend anyone. Tyranny is very upfront about the necessity of not doing this – you are told you have to pick a side, and if you hesitate in the interests of keeping everyone happy you actually lose favour with everyone. Nonetheless, it's the mechanical incentives the game provides which hammer the point home and bring the metaphor to life. Power is literally about what others think of you and can be gained through favour or wrath, loyalty or fear. And in order to build those things up and become an Archon, you have to make enemies.

Kyros's power is also the source of their magic, and vice versa – but it's on a different scale to the Archons they command. Kyros can pronounce commandments called "edicts", which like the twelve plagues of Egypt fundamentally change the character of the landscape. This ability to project power is what allows them (the gender is unknown) to rule from a distance. As the game develops you see the limits of this – on the edges of the empire opportunities arise for its servants to acquire the kind of power and renown that can pose a threat to the emperor. The player character can break edicts, and eventually make them as well. While Kyros's origins remain a mystery in the game, the implication is that they mirror your own. Your investigations into the magical underpinnings of the world give you the power to shape it, and an empire much like Kyros's may become part of your destiny.

The world of Tyranny is rich with detail and novelty. It has a classical rather than medieval flavour – where most weapons are bronze rather than iron and demigods walk among men. The lore can be a bit overwhelming, with many new terms and concepts to learn, but the basics are intuitively explained, and most of the depths are accessed through conversations, which the player can skip if they are uninterested in learning more. You get the sense that the narrative designers really enjoyed pursuing the implications of what a world under Kyros would be like, and you can spend a lot of the otherwise short running time tumbling down those rabbit holes.

Tyranny's biggest flaw is its combat system, and given that you do a lot of fighting it's a significant one. There isn't a lot of tactical crunch, where the strengths and abilities of an enemy require you to change your approach and navigate debuffs and counters. Instead, you end up doing the same thing over and over again – the same buffs, the same opening gambits, the same positioning. Unlike Baldur's Gate, where encounters require a lot of prep but can be over very quickly, in Tyranny fights take a while and end up just being about setting up a chokepoint with your tank and managing the cooldowns of your mages and ranged characters.

The boss fights are where it gets more interesting, particularly when they disrupt the chokepoints you set up. For example, the Voices of Nerat can teleport around and can summon help to attack from the opposite end of the arena. This requires you to constantly shift position to keep your fighters in front of your mages, adding a bit of challenge and variety. Fighting the elemental bosses is enjoyable in a similar way. They also summon help, which they absorb to heal themselves. So rather than focus fire on the boss to take it down before they unleash the next wave of summons, you wear down the boss by dealing with the summons first.

The game's systems are actually pretty complicated. There are many different types of damage (piercing, crushing, arcane) and ways of avoiding it (dodge, parry, armour), so it's really quite strange that the combat ends up being rather monotonous (to the point where this reviewer reduced the difficulty and just let the AI sort it all out). Other systems, like base-management, crafting and inventory, benefit from being stripped back. An interesting innovation is the way dialogue can impact on combat. You can use your knowledge or physical presence to intimidate enemies and change the make-up of encounters. This robs the player of the ability to set up ambushes – the game forces you to talk to people before you attack them. But at least that dialogue has a tactical as well as a narrative significance.

The game was envisioned to be much longer and was edited down, making its ending quite abrupt. You don't get to defeat Kyros, you merely make them flinch – casting an edict of your own and forcing their armies to retreat. Nevertheless, the game really sells how significant this is. No one has been able to do this before you, and the feeling of empowerment is similar to the ending of Baldur's Gate, where you're vying with gods and demons. Baldur's Gate is ultimately a better series in terms of gameplay. Tyranny is more of a flawed masterpiece like Planescape: Torment, where the joy is in the writing, world-building and role-playing choices rather than the play itself. The difference is that Torment explores evil on a micro-scale, and is all about how to atone for it. Tyranny takes that game's villain, the practical incarnation of the player character, and shows what would result on a macro-scale if they were unleashed on the word. It's an accomplished look at the building blocks of political authority, and the ways we make our compromises with it.