Thirst for Love

Thirst for Love (Vintage Classics)Thirst for Love by Yukio Mishima
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This one is all about the ending. The preamble is ponderous, Mishima spending quite a long time establishing Etsuko's character and the strange obsessive and possessive tendencies she has. If feels like in the writing of the book Mishima learned how to build expectations and tension towards a climax. The finale is expertly teased – Etsuko setting up a confrontation with the gardener she lusts after and then stretching out the time towards it. We desperately want to know how the story resolves, and yet Mishima keeps pulling back and pulling back. The ending doesn't disappoint as well – there's a mutual incomprehensibility between Etsuko's sophisticated psychosexual hangups and the gardener's simple but brutal nature. This being Mishima, desire quickly turns to violence. Some readers may have preferred a longer denouement, but I quite like Mishima's tactic of leaving the reader in a state of shock and surprise.

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Warm Water Under A Red Bridge

Imamura's final film takes the fable-like quality of his late masterpiece The Eel and pushes it further – it's soppy and silly and a bit of a disappointment. We have another exile from the city – a laid-off salaryman trying and failing to find another job in Tokyo, whose wife and son have moved out to live with his parents-in-law. He has befriended a hobo philosopher who dies at the beginning of the film, but leaves behind a tale of treasure he's hidden in a village townhouse next to a river with a red bridge. Our hero goes after it, and finds renewal (and new love) in rural Japan.

Imamura's camera retains a documentary quality – with very long takes capturing the action at a distance. Conversations are held with a two-shot, and rarely cut to close-up. The naturalism is broken up by intrusive sound cues, and occasional really garish effects, making the film quite ugly to look at. Although there isn't a voiceover, the tone of the story resembles something like Amélie or The Royal Tenembaums – highly-stylised films that emphasise the make-believe world they are portraying (the immigrant student marathon runner and his demented trainer really do look like they've stumbled out of a Wes Anderson film). Imamura's film was released a year after those two, and it looks far worse.

There's no golden bhudda to be found, of course. The treasure is the women who live in the house, who gush unreal amounts of water when they orgasm. The film is refreshingly sex-positive – the philosopher keeps popping up in flashback to insist that debauchery is a fine goal to have in life, and that throughout history the wealthy have squeezed the lower classes so they have time to indulge in it. Saeko is unfortunate that her body betrays her strong sexual appetites so obviously – and the film hints at her sense of shame, although that's quickly overcome through the intervention of our good-natured hero. Ultimately the waterworks are a symbol of natural replenishment and health, and something to be celebrated. It's unfortunate that the film does so in such a crass and silly way – ending on a shot of the fountain made by the main characters copulating creating a awful-looking CGI rainbow.


Violence at Noon

Notable for the enormous number of cuts used in the film, which was startling at the time. Oshima may have wanted to suggest the fracturing of modern society with the technique, but given this has become how a lot of modern film looks nowadays (borrowing from innovations in advertising and music videos from the mid-1980s onwards) it just makes this 1960s artifact look sleek and dynamic. The opressiveness of rural poverty doesn't feel quite as grinding when sliced up into 20 shots a minute.

It's a tale of a violent rapist and serial killer and the two women that cover for him – they are in love with this monster and confused about what to do. Oshima begins the film in quite an uncomfortable way by implicating the viewer in the horrific actions of the criminal – his victim is sized up and then attacked largely from his point-of-view. Perhaps the suggestion is that we all have this capacity for sexual violence, Eisuke just can't control himself. At the end of the film he gives contradictory explanations for his behaviour, saying that the love of a beautiful woman might have caged these beastly impulses, and then going on to say he probably would have committed his crimes anyway.

Oshima is reluctant to explain away his behaviour as a product of poverty or neglect. In one of the most famous lines in the film, Eisuke sarcastically tells the teacher he has married that she taught him democracy. His behaviour isn't some holdover from the belligerent hypernationalism of the war years. Although his criminality emerges from the background of the failure of a collective farm, its clear that his capacity for violence and anti-social tendencies are there from the start. Oshima seems to be indicating that the ideals of humanity and love taught to children in schools are contradicted not just by conditions on the ground, but by human nature.

Eisuke's frustrated and murderous energy is contrasted by Genji – the depressive son of the head of the village, who vies with him for the affections of the two female characters. Genji despairs at the political responsibilities he is due to inherit. He is a good man put in an impossible situation, and resolves on suicide – whatever violent impulses he has are directed inwards. The relationship with his lover Shino begins as a commercial exchange (she borrows money to start a trout farm), but she is dutifully willing to join him in death. Eisuke's sexual jealousy inadvertently saves her life – he tries to rape her corpse, which revives her, but begins his descent into depravity.

Jealousy emerges as the dominant theme between the two female characters as well – Eisuke's wife Matsuko resents Shino's hold over Eisuke's sexual imagination. They are both dumbfounded by Eisuke's behaviour, and take too long to stop treating it as a private matter between themselves and give him up to the police. Women's misplaced sense of duty and devotion to men may be in Oshima's sights here. Outdated and oppressive gender norms end up perpetuating Eisuke's killing spree.

There's a lot going on in the film, and a lot of it is ambiguous or contradictory. For me it doesn't have the brutal clarity of Oshima's earliest films Naked Youth and The Sun's Burial, which are scrappier affairs, less formally innovative and more thematically direct. Violence at Noon is richer and more mysterious, the two women have more opportunities to escape the violent man that in other Oshima films, and yet frustratingly they remain infatuated with him.



This sequel to In The Mood For Love is more up my alley. Tony Leung has a bit of a personality transplant and becomes a playboy, gambler and pulp novelist – indulging in all the vices he wouldn't allow himself as a dutiful but unhappily married man. Losing Maggie Cheung will do that to a fellow. Perhaps this past idealised but renounced love affair makes it impossible to commit anymore. Leung becomes even more of an observer, he's more distanced and cold towards the women he gets involved with. That aloofness is matched by Zhang Ziyi, but while the steamy affair she eventually succumbs to leads her to fall in love, Leung pushes her away. In a telling monetary metaphor, he's quite happy to buy affection, but he refuses to sell it.

Leung becomes a viewpoint character in what is a more distended and unfocused film – it's a bit more of a portmanteau like Chunking Express. Like that film, 2046 gives Faye Wong a happy ending running off with a young lover. The most bizarre addition to Wong Kar-Wai's repertoire is how that story filters through to a sci-fi novel Leung is writing, where his own feelings and reminiscences come to the fore. Leung is attracted to Faye, but recognises that it would be wrong to take advantage of this young idealist. Renunciation of love is what anchors Leung's personality – but he's sympathetic enough to give Faye Wong and Zhang Ziyi a way out of Hong Kong and an opportunity for a brighter future abroad.

The film doesn't add up to very much, and it seems to have changed quite a bit over a long period of development. It was originally meant to be shot in Shanghai, and wasn't supposed to be a sequel. The linking technique of a hotel room number was arrived at a bit randomly, and gradually the film started merging with In The Mood For Love. It could have turned into a mess (some might think it is a mess), but somehow in the edit Wong Kar-Wai manages to create a sense of momentum across the disparate plot strands. It might be my favourite thing he's done – Tony Leung has probably never been more handsome and charming, and Zhang Ziyi's passionate performance really gives the film a powerful punch.


The Matrix Resurrections

Very much enjoyed the cringe stuff at the beginning calling out the fact that this is yet another Hollywood cash-in sequel – especially the awful creative meetings raking over everything that made the first Matrix film such a beloved classic. It feels like Lana Watchowski poking fun at the plethora of exegesis her creation has spawned, as well as her price for going down the same rabbit-hole again.

There is also the implicit recognition that the first film relegated Trinity’s character to a cheerleader and romantic interest for Neo basically as soon as the awesome opening sequence ended. This new resurrected version is about Trinity’s own importance to the story – and how her love for Neo was so strong it could power the Matrix (and The Matrix) all on its own. The metaphor is a blunt one, but it’s nice to see her do the Superman thing for a change. And once again the business suits that imprison the minds of human beings are put in their place and forced to make room for the rebels and artists to liberate the world.


The Sound of the Mountain

The Sound of the MountainThe Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This has the feel of an Ozu film, not just in the plot concerning a grandfather’s (somewhat unseemly) attachment to his daughter-in-law, which contrasts to his disappointment with his own children, but also the way these domestic concerns are paralleled by frequent digressions on the natural world – how things bloom, reproduce and die.

An interest in the freedoms of young women is also prevalent – one character has a divorce, another an abortion, another decides to have a child out of wedlock. These events hurt and confuse the old-fashioned patriarch, who is bound up in a marriage to a woman he doesn’t particularly like because he was in love with her sister.

Unlike Ozu’s films (which had to get past the censors), the war lurks more ominously in the background. Its crimes still affect the young people in the story – the son refers darkly to the unknown children he may have fathered in foreign lands, as well as the men he may have killed with his machine gun. The most liberated of the female characters grieves for a lover she lost in the war. The main character does his best to look after this traumatised younger generation, even if he can’t always understand them. And in his increasing lapses in memory and intimations of death, Kawabata may be signalling the passing of an older and more innocent way of life.

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Inventing Japan: 1853-1964

Inventing Japan: 1853-1964 (Modern Library Chronicles)Inventing Japan: 1853-1964 by Ian Buruma
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A short and breezy history, intended as a starter course to whet the appetite for more substantial meals to come. Buruma is a liberal intellectual who is on the side of liberal intellectuals, and he seeks to explain why they failed to turn Japan away from the bloody excesses of the Second World War. The book’s final chapter takes the story forward to the millennium, but is still critical of the incomplete process of democratisation achieved in the postwar period. A breezy read, and useful particularly for providing context to those dipping their toes in 20th century Japanese film and literature (as I am).

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Empire of the Sun

Empire of the SunEmpire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This really does feel like the skeleton key that unlocks the rest of Ballard’s fiction. The retelling of Ballard’s childhood experiences of WW2 is harrowing, and fully captures his view that the trappings of civilisation is “set dressing” that war can easily sweep away. Moments of poetry burst through the grim detailed account of starvation, mistreatment and murder – creating the sense of a fever dream where the planes in the sky appear to be angelic or demonic forces influencing events on the ground. The focus is on Jim’s journey throughout, his extraordinary tenacity and the way it manifests in shifting attachment and detachment from events and the people around him.

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