Wednesday, September 28, 2011

"Candide" by Voltaire (Best Novellas)

Candide, written in 1759 by Voltaire (1694-1778), is a picaresque novella written to refute the tenets of the German philosopher Leibniz, who claimed that mankind lives in "the best of all possible worlds (created by God)." Voltaire was an agnostic who loathed the abuse of power and hypocrisy of the Church and he didn't agree at all that "everything was (already) for the best."

In Candide he piles misfortune on misfortune and disaster on disaster to show how bad the world really is. Candide is a young man like a blank leaf, very naive, in love with Cunegonde - when they are separated, he travels around the world searching for her. During his perambulations, he gradually learns about life and becomes more mature.

The point of view of Leibniz is represented by Candide's teacher, the philosopher Pangloss ("easy tongue"), who comes to grief, first by catching syphilis, later by being hanged. Voltaire graphically shows us the cruelty and savagery of humans who steal, rape, murder, torture, enslave, and cheat. He also includes historical happenings such as the Seven Years' War and the 1755 Lisbon earthquake (and tsunami). He even shows us the ills of colonialism (rare for the mid-eighteenth century!), in the form of a black man in Surinam whose hand and leg have been chopped off by his Dutch masters because he tried to escape. "That is the real cost of sugar," he remarks wryly. We also visit El Dorado, a land of equality where gold and riches are considered as so much dust, and Voltaire demonstrates how impossible such a utopia is.

Candide moves at neck-breaking speed, condensing whole novels into its chapters. It is full of sharp wit and provides an insightful portrayal of the human condition. In the end, Candide marries Cunegonde and they live on a farm. There they "cultivate their garden," which is the best we can do, as it leaves no time for idle speculation and as it serve the practical purpose of really making things gradually better.

Voltaire did believe in the ineradicable good of personal and philosophical liberty. Two other themes in his thought are the importance of skepticism and of empirical science. He was a fierce opponent of priestly and monarchical authority and fought these by debunking their  “irrational superstitions.”

As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it, "Voltaire's legacy also cemented the alleged linkage that joined positivist science on the one hand with secularizing disenchantment and dechristianization on the other in the progressive modernization of the world. In this way, Voltaire should be seen as the initiator of a philosophical tradition that runs from him to Auguste Comte and Charles Darwin, and then on to Karl Popper and Richard Dawkins in the twentieth century."

Candide is an important element in that debunking of false authority - Leibniz stood at the side of authority, as he believed everything was already for the best. Voltaire on the other hand thought that social reform was necessary and that a lot of work ("cultivating our garden") was necessary in order to get a better society. He also was a child of the enlightenment in that he believed that rational thought can curtail evil.

Candide has had a significant influence on modern writers, especially on black humorists as Céline, Joseph Heller, John Barth, Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut. It has also influenced dystopian science-fiction works as Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and Yevgeny Zamyatin's We.

In 1956, Candide was premiered as an operetta with music by Leonard Bernstein.
Candide can be found on Gutenberg. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

"A Handful of Dust" by Evelyn Waugh (Book Review)

Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust (a quotation from The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot) shows us that our most prized possessions, but also our most intimate relations - wife, children - yes, even our whole society are no more than that: just a handful of dust. They can evaporate any moment, especially if we follow our absurd caprices.

The aristocratic Tony Last (yes, the "last" of the Mohicans, living at the end of our civilization) is devoted to his ugly neo-Gothic homestead Hetton, to his wife Brenda and his young son John Andrew. At the start of the novel, everything seems pure happiness. But Brenda is bored with life in the country and her predictable husband.

Then a self-interested social climber, John Beaver, invites himself to Hetton and although he is childish and vapid, Brenda starts an affair with him. Yearning for urban excitement she has Tony rent her a small apartment in London and pretending to be busy studying economics, spends her weeks jet-setting with John. This is Brenda's caprice and she is so inundated in her new life that she spends less and less time with her family. Then her young son John Andrew dies from a horse riding accident. When she gets the news that "John is dead," she first thinks it is her lover... then realizing it is her son, utters one short sentence: "Thank God." 

[Ellington park, the model for Hetton]

Brenda now decides she wants a divorce. These are the 1930s when divorce was not as easy as it is today. To save Brenda from a scandal, Tony agrees to take the blame and therefore has to spend a weekend in Brighton with a fake mistress - one of the most funny scenes in the book. But their agreement on the divorce falls apart when Brenda and her family insist on a monetary settlement so large that Tony would have to sell Hetton. That is the last thing he would ever do.

Now, on a caprice of his own, he leaves for South-America where he joins the expedition of a mad explorer, Dr Messinger, to find a lost city in the jungle. Everything goes wrong, Dr Messinger dies in a canoe accident and Tony falls seriously ill. He is miraculously saved by a Mr Todd ("Tod" is German for "death") who has lived for sixty years in the jungle. Todd refuses to let Tony go and - not being literate himself - has Tony read him aloud the novels of Dickens. That is how Tony will spend the rest of his life. Culture in the jungle, you may think, but it should be noted that Waugh disliked Dickens.

Brenda, in the meantime, is far from the rich divorcee that John Beaver had expected, so he leaves her in the lurch. Shortly after Tony is declared dead, she marries a mutual friend. At the end of the novel obscure relatives of Tony take over Hetton.

That is how lives go to seed when people are cold and selfish. The novel has also been interpreted as symbolical of the end of the British empire, an end due to society losing its moral bearings.

But Evelyn Waugh serves up his "message" with tons of humor in this comedy of manners and that is a good thing. Dark as the book is, it is also wildly funny - Tony's visit to a club of ill-repute, Brenda's efforts to hook him up with one of her girlfriends, or a lady called "Cockpurse" - Waugh is like Wodehouse but then on a literary higher level. Waugh also writes in a perfect style, precise and concise. In short, this is a great book.

Monday, September 26, 2011

"The Way We Live Now" by Anthony Trollope (Book review}

Anthony Trollope wrote The Way We Live Now in 1875 as a biting satire on his time. After a trip abroad, he saw England with new eyes and was struck by the central position money had come to occupy and the dishonesty and vice accompanying this phenomenon. The fantasy of easy money was twisting the lives of many people and in the novel becomes the butt of the satirist's whip.

In the process Trollope creates some of his most memorable characters: in the first place the sinister financier Melmotte, a colossal figure who dominates the novel - he plays the stock market and creates fortunes out of nothing, which also tend to evaporate into nothingness again (it is almost a satire of our own times!). His origins are as obscure as his financial dealings, but London's decadent and penniless aristocracy welcomes him with open arms.

Then we have Lady Carbury, a 43-year old coquette and scheming widow, who writes for money and bribes the newspapers to write positively about her work; her profligate son Felix, a spineless youth addicted to gambling and almost all other vices one can think of, whose only way out of ruin is to marry an heiress; Marie, Melmotte's daughter, who abused by her father, stands up for herself and develops into a stronger woman; and Mrs Hurtle, an indomitable American lady who in the past has shot a man and now has followed her renegade suitor to England to remind him of his marriage promise.

Less interesting are Trollope's "stock characters:" the young man who has sowed his wild oats and now has reformed himself (Paul Montague, the previous suitor of Mrs. Hurtle); the stubborn young woman who does not make the reasonable choice her environment expects of her but who follows her own heart (Hetta Carbury); and Roger Carbury, the square and boring head of the Carbury family, fruitlessly in love with his niece Hetta, and the mouthpiece for Trollope's tirades "against the way we live now."

The satire in this novel is so strong, that in its own time The Way We Live Now was one of Trollope's least popular works. It was considered as sour and sordid. Trollope had probably stepped on the long toes of his contemporaries. But since then, the novel has emerged as Trollope's masterpiece and the most admired of his works. It certainly has a delicious cast of characters and is an engrossing comedy of manners.

I have only one problem with this giant book: this, Trollope's longest novel at about 950 pages, is really about one-third too long. Trollope set out to fill two volumes of each 50 chapters and he kept to his plan. But... the story is in fact finished when we are about one-third in volume two. At that point, the downfall of Melmotte has become clear and the fates of the other characters bring no new surprises. As readers, we can see it all before us, and would have been satisfied with a quick finale. But Trollope still has to fill more than thirty chapters and plodding makes his way forward by repetition and by spinning out the story as much as he can.

Trollope had to satisfy his publisher with the planned number of chapters so that the novel could be marketed in two large volumes, which brought in more money than one volume. The Way We Live Now is a satire on the power of money - but by unnaturally stretching the story Trollope himself here sacrifices art on the altar of profit, showing that he, too, was a child of his times.

The Way We Live Now is available as Oxford World Classic and as Penguin. It can also be found free on Gutenberg. In 2001, the novel was made into a BBC mini-series with David Suchet as Melmotte (a great performance, repulsive and charismatic at the same time).

Saturday, September 24, 2011

"Psmith in the City" (1910) by Wodehouse (Book Review)

Psmith in the City is one of the earliest novels by English humorist P. G. Wodehouse (of Jeeves and Blandings Castle fame), first published in 1910. It tells the adventures of cricket-loving Mike Jackson and his immaculately-dressed, aristocratic friend Psmith (the "P" is not voiced - the “Psmith” name has been adopted "as there are too many Smiths").

Mike Jackson, cricketer, finds his dreams of studying and playing at Cambridge upset by his father's financial troubles, and must instead "go into commerce" by taking a job with the "New Asiatic Bank" in the London City. On arrival there, Mike finds his friend Psmith is also a new employee, and together they strive to make the best of their position, with heaps of black humor. The 9 to 5 life is a shock to both friends, but they are able to tweak the system with lots of "pottering" and escapes to long lunches.

It is a slight book that is still partly funny, especially the sections about office politics, how two bosses are made ineffectual, one by catering to his football hobby, the other by pestering him at his club. Psmith reveals himself as a schemer of deadly effectiveness, but also a "secret Socialist." The language is often surrealistic, many scenes are one wild farce -  the type of humor reminded me of Monty Python.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

An Autumn Afternoon (Sanma no Aji, 1962) by Ozu

An Autumn Afternoon (1962) was Ozu's last film and has been called his swansong, more elegiac than his other films. That is incorrect hindsight, as Ozu when he wrote and filmed An Autumn Afternoon, had no idea he would die in late 1963 and in fact started work an a new film.

The title may sound elegiac to us, but two things should be noted here:
1) Autumn is not a season with sad or dark connotations in Japan, on the contrary, it is a time of blue skies when the muggy heat of summer finally makes place for pleasant coolness. It is a season people become active again in sports and hiking and when the appetite returns.
2) The title of the film is literally "The Taste of Sanma," where "sanma" is a mackerel type fish (not mackerel itself, which is saba; sanma is usually translated as "Pacific saury"). This inexpensive fish is a delicacy in September and that is the season the film points to (Late Autumn, "Akibiyori,"  in the same way, is set under the sunny skies of October). In fact, there is (even) more eating and drinking in this "food film" than in other Ozu reels. We also see Ozu's own favorite dish, tonkatsu (deep-fried pork) pass by.

Hirayama Shihei (Ryu Chishu) is a widower, living with his daughter Michiko (Iwashita Shima) and a younger son. Michiko is a sassy modern type, who rather sharply tells father and brother that there will be no dinner when they come home late. A long way from the demure Hara Setsuko in the late 40s and 50s - Ozu does reflect the changes in society.

The eldest son, Koichi (Sada Keiji), is married to Akiko (Okada Mariko). They live in their own flat (in a danchi, an apartment complex, of which many were built starting in the sixties), struggling to make both ends meet as the young couple are heavily into consumer goods - presently they want both a refrigerator and golf sticks, and papa is always good for a loan. Akiko, too, is an outspoken modern woman, Okada Mariko plays the same character as in Akibiyori. She keeps her husband on a tight leash, also financially. This last Ozu film is really very funny.

Hirayama is auditor at a chemical company (I guess that would have to be in Kawasaki, the industrial center between Tokyo and Yokohama). He has two drinking friends, Kawai (Nakamura Nobuo) and Professor Horie (Kita Ryuji), - the last one is just remarried to a young woman who could be his daughter, inducing jokes about certain proto-Viagra pills he supposedly is taking - and we see the inside of lots of bars in this film.

The "Mama-san" (Kishida Kyoko, the heroine from Suna no Onna) of one favorite watering hole resembles Hirayama's deceased wife. Hirayama has been the commandant of a ship in the war, so she plays on his nostalgia by having him listen to the "Warship March" (a piece that later became a perennial favorite in pachinko halls). But now, in 1962, Hirayama's joking conclusion is that it is good Japan lost the war: the country after all is peaceful and prosperous.

Hirayama and his two friends at a certain moment invite their former teacher "The Gourd" (Tono Eijiro, famous from his role as Mito Komon in period film) to a dinner and then bring him home where they meet his daughter Tomoko (Sugimura Haruko), who has turned into an embittered old maid. Hirayama wants to spare his own daughter this fate and as Michiko is already 24 (women should marry before turning 25, was the traditional philosophy in Japan), starts looking around for a husband for her. Both father and daughter conceal their real feelings about this marriage.

Michiko likes a co-worker of her father, but he is already engaged - she has waited too long. So an omiai (arranged marriage) is set up with a for us, as viewers, anonymous person - we don't even see him in the film - the final image of Michiko is in her colorful wedding kimono with the traditional tsunokakushi headgear.

After the ceremony, Hirayama again goes drinking (the Mama-san sees his morning dress and asks if he has been to a funeral. "Something like that," he answers) and comes home a bit tipsy. He feels his age and the loneliness that goes with it. Marrying off his daughter is like loosing the war again: so perhaps some good will come of this, too.

Other remarks:
- Ozu liked both whiskey (Scotch) and sake. When he retired for a session with screen writer Noda Kogo to an inn (or later his mountain house in Tateshina) to write a new scenario, he would line up the empty bottles and at the end count "a script of how many bottles it was."
-  In modern Japan, housewives usually keep the family purse, as we see in the example of Michiko. The husband gets an allowance from her.
- Socializing after work with coworkers or friends is common in Japan. As houses are too small and often located in inconvenient suburbs, this takes place in restaurants, coffee shops and bars in Tokyo and other cities. Eating out is very common in Japan. In the film, "The Gourd" and his daughter run a cheap noodle shop.
- The proprietor of a bar (the "mama-san") would usually be someone who first worked as a hostess herself, and saved enough money to start her own establishment (or, more probable, is sponsored by a well-off male friend, a former customer).
- "Women should marry before turning 25:" women of 25 and older were in the past in Japan inelegantly (and politically incorrectly) called "stale Christmas cake," as if they were "leftovers" that nobody wanted anymore.
- Friends don't have to stand on ceremony, so when Hirayama is out drinking with his buddies, everyone pours his own sake. But when they invite their former teacher, they politely pour for him (oshaku).
- Koichi has bought golf sticks, but golf courses are expensive and far out of Tokyo, so we see him practicing his swing at a driving range Japanese-style: hitting the balls into a huge net on a roof top or other restricted space. Such nets are often visible in the urban landscape.
- In the discussion with the teacher, a dish called "hamo" comes up, "pike conger," which is typical of Kyoto and Western Japan (this type of eel has countless small bones, so a special knife and preparation technique are necessary). The teacher apparently has never heard of "hamo" and keeps thinking the conversation is about "ham" (in Japanese called "hamu").

Monday, September 12, 2011

"The Awful Truth" (1937) (Film review)

Unfounded suspicions lead a wealthy married couple from Manhattan (Cary Grant as Jerry Warriner and Irene Dunne as Lucy Warriner) to begin divorce proceedings. After that, they both start undermining each other's attempts to find new romance, Jerry to a haughty socialite, Lucy to an oil-rich bumpkin from Oklahoma. The point is: they still love each other and we all know how that will end. This screwball comedy was directed by Leo McCarey, who received an Oscar.

Funny elements in The Awful Truth are Jerry's visitation rights with their fox terrier and Lucy's impersonation of Jerry's low-life "sister" to scandalize the family of his prospective bride.

This comedy is still watchable, but not more than that, I felt, and after recently seeing again several Ozu films, I now know why. In these Hollywood productions, everything is plot. Actions and events speed the film along, but there is no time for character development. There is even no time to get to like any of the characters. They all left me cold and therefore, in the end, the story as well. The whole thing is very mechanical, and devoid of human feeling. At the same time, ideologically, it is a rather obvious propaganda piece for monogamy. Think what Ozu would have made of this premise...

Japanese film: Early Summer (1951) by Ozu

As David Bordwell has pointed out, Early Summer (Bakushu) is an early experiment in the ensemble film - a group of characters connected in some way, instead of a single protagonist. Ozu observes the lives of 19 characters (plus a twentieth one who is not shown but very important to the film), an extended family and their friends and colleagues at work, and their interactions rather than the (nonexistent) plot drive the film forward.

The family consists in the first place of the Mamiyas, father Koichi (Ryu Chishu), mother Fumiko (Miyake Kuniko) and their two young boys - as in I Was Born, But... They live in Kamakura; father is a doctor in a hospital in Tokyo. With them lives the sister of Koichi, Noriko (Hara Setsuko), who works in Tokyo as a secretary. She is a modern young woman, and her income also helps support the family.

Also living together with these characters are the aged parents of Koichi and Noriko, Shukichi (Sugai Ichiro) and Shige (Higashiyama Chieko). They will eventually retire to the ancestral home in the area of "Yamato" (Asuka, south of Nara), but for now they are enjoying life with their children and grandchildren. A visitor in the first part of the film is "old uncle" (Kodo Kokuten), who has come to visit the family from Yamato.

There are several neighbors taking part in the story, the most important one is a subordinate of Koichi, doctor Yabe Kenkichi (Nihonyanagi Hiroshi) who is a widower living with his mother (Sugimura Haruko) and his little daughter. Another often appearing character is Noriko's Tokyo friend Aya (Awashima Chikage).

The first 40 minutes of the film just show these and other characters and their simple interactions. There is an excursion to the Great Buddha in Kamakura, Boy's Day (May 5) is celebrated with a children's party, the parents leisurely visit a park. The second part starts when the family suddenly realizes that Noriko already is 28 and that it is time for her to marry, so they all start pushing her. At the end of the second part she takes her own marriage decision and the final section of the film shows how that works out on the various other characters. An epilogue shows the parents and uncle in Yamato.

Noriko is the kind of modern young woman who often appears in other films of the period of the American Occupation of Japan (1945-1952), as such types were promoted by the American censorship to introduce democracy. But where other films can be preachy and almost propagandistic (Aoi Sanmyaku by Imai is such an example), Ozu, on a much higher level of artistry, just shows what it means to be a modern, professional woman.

Noriko enjoys her life and her work and has no wish to marry. With her humor she is a bright spot in the house. She likes going out with her friends, although a division has become visible between the unmarried and married ones. With her friend Aya, Noriko preaches the advantages of being a single young woman. Just when the family starts pressing her about marriage, she receives an interesting proposal for an arranged marriage (omiai) via her boss. But the interested ones are Koichi and other family members, not Noriko.

Just at that time the boys have run away after a quarrel and Noriko has been looking for them with the help of their neighbor, Yabe. Yabe has received a proposal to move for a few years to a hospital in Akita, in northern Japan. When Noriko later visits Yabe's mother, the mother suddenly presses her to marry Yabe, as it will be difficult for him to live in Akita alone with his small daughter. Unexpectedly, Noriko immediately accepts and therefore shocks her family members, who were hoping she would make a superior match with a company director, instead of marrying a doctor of a provincial hospital - and on top of that, a widower with a child. By the way, nobody asks what Yabe's wishes are and he seems rather non-committal.

Noriko is a modern woman, for she has made her own decision and rebelled against the wishes of her family. In Japan it was (and is) customary to at least consult the family about such ponderous matters as a marriage partner, but Noriko takes her decision alone. But as modern as she is in the decision making process, in the choice of her partner she is very conservative: the boy from next door, who works for her brother. As she herself agrees, this is a safe choice. She feels at ease with Yabe, and that is all. She is not in love with him, but as she is being pushed to marry, she prefers someone she at least feels comfortable with. So this no modern "love match," as her friend Aya teases her, and she will not have a modern home with Coca Cola bottles lined up in the fridge.

Another reason for selecting Yabe has to do with the absent twentieth protagonist of the film, Shoji, the brother of Noriko and Koichi who was sent to the front in the war and has never returned. His body has also never been found. Yabe was a friend of this brother and that may explain Noriko's feeling of closeness to him. The presence (or rather, absence) of Shoji hangs like shroud over the film.

The parents of course also miss their son with pain in their hearts. In the epilogue, when they have returned to Yamato (Noriko's marriage and departure for Akita has led to the break-up of the extended family), they sit looking at the early summer fields of barley, through which a marriage procession winds it way. They think of Noriko, but also of Shoji, who is symbolized by such an ear of barley. (The literal title of the film is "The Barley Harvest Season.")

Other remarks:
- Arranged marriages were the custom in this period, even among "Westernized" Japanese. The prospective marriage partners would be introduced to each other by a CV and a photo; when these were satisfactory, a meeting would follow with both families present, usually in an upscale restaurant or hotel.
- Secretly digging into the background of the prospective partners was also common. Koichi is checking the background of the man proposed by Noriko's boss, and the family hears that a private detective has been around in the neighborhood asking questions about Noriko.
- Yabe's mother gives a nice example of indirect communication: when she is angry at Yabe for accepting the proposal to go to Akita (really the boondocks at that time), she sits silent with stiff shoulders, but refuses to speak.
- The children's party in the film is Boy's Day on May 5, and not a birthday party. We also see the carp streamers (koinobori) that are hung on a tall pole outside the house for this festival: two large ones for the parents and smaller ones for the boys in the family.
- In the 1950s social pressure on both men and women to marry was very strong. Today, the Japanese marry later and later, or not at all.
- Yamato, the area (not the name of a village!) to which the parents return, is famous as the place where the first court that governed the nation was established in the 5th c. It is also a poetic name for Japan, with nationalistic overtones, and here may symbolize a return to old values. The hill in the last shot could be Mt Miwa, a sacred mountain near present Sakurai.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Japanese film: I was born, but... (Umarete wa mitakedo, 1932) by Ozu

Yasujiro Ozu’s Umarete wa mitakedo... (I Was Born, But…, 1932) is a moving comedy that is the first great film Ozu made, still in the silent era. While many of Ozu's early films are shomingeki, stories about "blue collar workers," this one treats us to a "home drama" type view of the middle class and life as a "salaryman." It is on a par with Ozu's post-war movies.

It is a film about hierarchy. A family composed of a father (Saito Tatsuo), mother (Yoshikawa Mitsuko) and two sons aged eight and ten (Sugawara Hideo and Aoki Tomio) moves to a suburb of Tokyo and is shown settling in during the first five days in their new neighborhood. This was a normal move for such families in the 1930s, when the suburbs of Tokyo were developed at a furious pace by railway conglomerates as Tokyu, Odakyu, Keio, etc. Today these suburbs are tightly packed with houses, but in 1930 there were still many empty fields were the children could play.

The one hierarchy the sons know is that of physical strength. This is enveloped in lots of myths, such as the idea that the eating of bird's eggs makes one stronger, or a weird game where the boys give their friends the sign of the evil eye on which they have to fall down and only may get up again when the boys make a Catholic cross. The boys have to fight their way into the hierarchy of the local boys and defeat the local bully. They finally do this with the help of the delivery boy from the sake shop. He helps them because their mother buys beer from the shop, and that is the first intimation that social relations are more important than pure strength.

The other hierarchy is the normal social hierarchy, where power is held based on income and position rather than on muscles or other merit. The father lives close to his boss and every morning greets him by bowing politely in the hope of getting ahead. The boys wonder: isn't their father stronger than the boss? They themselves can easily beat up the empty-headed son of the boss, who is of their age but walks around in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit. Why must their father behave so slavishly? The climax comes when the boys are allowed to join a showing of home films in the house of the boss and see their father clowning for his pompous and bullying superior. The father even bows for the boss's son! A classic confrontation between the innocence of childhood and the hypocrisy of the world, one could say. While this film in particular criticizes the social rigidity of Japanese society, hierarchies in themselves are a thing of all societies.

The boys create a scene at home and refuse to eat. The father explains that this is the way the world is (although the father realizes the life he leads is a sorry one) and the next morning the boys eat rice balls together with their father and peace is restored. The family warmth makes it possible for the boys to accept what they and their father must be. But innocence has been lost. A film about children has become a film about grown-ups, a bright little comedy has become darker and more serious. The defeat of the boys is as inevitable, as is the continuance of social hierarchy.

A third hierarchy the film addresses is that of the family. One could also say (as Joan Mellen has done in The Waves at Genji's Door, New York, 1976) "that the Japanese family functions to socialize the young into acceptance of the status quo." The boys challenge parental authority as they see little value in studying hard at school when the outcome of that toil will be that - like their father - they become subservient to bosses with less talent than oneself. By losing respect for their father, the boys upset the equilibrium of the family. Although the father knows in his heart that they are right, it is his duty as "traditional patriarch" to instruct them in the acquiescence to authority that society expects. There is no place in Japanese society for the rebel or dissenter, certainly not in the 1930s.

Some remarks:
- The two men helping with the removal in the beginning of the film are staff members from the office of the father. In Japan it was (and still is in many cases) normal that subordinates help with the removals of superiors, sacrificing their free Sunday. This is another case of hierarchy. Later, we hear them remark that the father (their boss) is a very shrewd man because he moves house to a location close to the big boss so that he can better pay attention to him.
- Ozu clearly takes a negative view of school and the office. Both are shown as boring places of group discipline by a shot of the boys marching in military style at school, followed by one of the employees who are similarly disciplined and regimented. In the authoritarian-structured society of pre-War Japan everybody must behave identically.
- Ozu himself was a school drop-out and never worked in an office. In both the school room and office we see people yawning. Even the boss is not working, he sits playing with his personal film camera (this must have been an expensive toy in the 1930s!). In such a rigid society, small rebellions are as natural as when the boys show their father forged school results.
- At ages 8 and 10, the boys are still indulged as young Japanese children are - in the few short years before full conformity will be exacted. That is why they still can openly criticize their father and call him a "nobody."
- The father commutes by train - we see the small, tram-like cars riding through the suburbs. His boss, however, is collected at home by a car with driver. In large Japanese companies, all persons of the level of director and higher have such shiny black chauffeur-driven cars at their disposal. But although Japan is clearly hierarchical, it also knows restraint, i.e. we never see the extravaganzas (also not as regards the salary) of American corporate directors.
- Ozu did however not "disapprove" of hierarchy. He knew that hierarchy is part and parcel of human society and that changing social systems will only change the persons in the hierarchy, not remove it as such. As in his later films, also here people bow to the inevitable - which may be a very Japanese world view. They are the casualties of things as they are (and we, all of us, are similar casualties), as Donald Richie expresses it in his book about Ozu (Ozu, Berkeley, 1974).

- Ozu liked I Was Born, But… so much that he remade it as Good Morning (Ohayo) in 1959.

"A Night at the Opera" (1935) (Film review)

Business promoter Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho Marx with his trademark glued-on mustache, thick eyebrows and fat cigar) is hired by dignified dowager and would-be socialite Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont, Groucho's perennial nemesis, who remains typically unruffled by the many insults he hurls at her) to help her enter high society. He convinces her to invest in an opera production, whose self-important manager Gottlieb (Sig Ruman) engages an arrogant tenor Lassparri (Walter Woolf King) as his star singer. But the leading soprano, hotty brunette Rosa (Kitty Carlisle) is in love with the young, talented singer Ricardo (Allan Jones). With the help of two wacky friends (Italian piano player and con man Chico Marx, and harp-player plus mute girl-chaser Harpo Marx) she tries to give him his big break. Groucho, Chico, and Harpo think up a zany plot to turn Ricardo into a star at the expense of Lassparri and enable the young lovers to stay together.

A Night at the Opera was the most successful film of the Marx Brothers at the box office, made after the absurdist anti-war Duck Soup had failed to catch public interest. The love interest was added at the instigation of MGM to catch more female viewers and there is more of a story than in their previous films thanks to a well-developed screenplay. Production values are high (director was Sam Wood) with several inserted musical numbers - of course Chico and Harpo have their piano and harp routines as well. To be sure the gags and jokes would work, the film was first market-tested in the vaudeville circuit.

Are the Marx Brothers still funny? In the main, yes. Of course some of the routines are dated and tired, but there was enough to keep me interested: the tearing up of a contract by taking out clause after clause ("The Party of the first part" etc.), the scene where a ton of people are being stuffed into Groucho's small cabin room, the sequence where the furniture is switched between two rooms to elude a private detective, or Harpo swinging like Tarzan on stage fly ropes high up in the opera house. This was the iconic scene I remembered the film by from seeing it long ago.

Made during the Great Depression and poking anarchic fun at authorities, this film is a sure antidote against any form of depression!



Savory pancake


[Okonomiyaki in Hiroshima style]

Okonomiyaki is a savory pancake on which you can select a number of ingredients “as you like,” – the meaning of “okonomi.” The pancake is made from thick batter consisting of flour, finely cut cabbage, grated yam, eggs and dashi or water to which ingredients are added that give character to the pancake: beef, pork, squid, octopus, shrimp, oysters, etc.

The okonomiyaki is baked on both sides on a iron plate. Metal spatulas are used for turning the okonomiyaki around and to cut it in pieces when it is ready. Before that, it is coated with a thick, sweet sauce and topped with green seaweed flakes (aonori) and bonito flakes (katsuobushi) – due to the heat, those flakes seem to dance on the pancake! Nowadays, also mayonnaise is added.

Okonomiyaki is eaten everywhere in Japan. There are several local varieties. The usual one served all over the country is the one in Osaka style, where all ingredients are mixed together. This one really resembles a pancake. The second popular style is from Hiroshima, where the ingredients are not mixed with the batter, but stacked in layers and where also three to four times as much cabbage is used. Fried noodles are also often added.

In Okonomiyaki-restaurants you usually sit at a table with an iron plate so that you can prepare your own pancake – happily, the restaurant staff also helps out because the right timing is not so easy!

Japanese Food Dictionary

Saturday, September 10, 2011

"The Asphalt Jungle" (1950) (Film review)

Based on enthusiastic reviews, for example on the Film Noir of the Week website, I was expecting much from The Asphalt Jungle. But I regret to say that there was nothing especially wonderful about this John Huston film - it is watchable, but not more than that.

In the first place, I would not call this a film noir - although there are varying definitions of this genre, I would expect 1) irreversible doom brought about by the own mistakes or plain stupidity of the protagonist, and 2) a vamp who catches him in her web. Neither is present in The Asphalt Jungle which is a rather ordinary crime story about a heist gone wrong.

 "Doc" Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), a "crime brain" just out of prison, has a plan for a burglary to steal jewels worth a million dollars. He recruits safe cracker Louis (Anthony Caruso), driver Gus (James Whitmore), financial backer Emmerich (Louis Calhern), and strong-arm man Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden). At first the plan goes like clockwork, but little accidents accumulate and although they get away with the loot, one of them is shot and the police is on their heels.

The moralistic last part of the film shows rather mechanically how they all get their deserves. Such moralism of course has no place in a real film noir. There is one bad cop (he looks viler than the criminals) and the film stresses that such cops are exceptions, the public can really trust the police force. You instinctively feel that is pure propaganda and that Huston is preaching for the authorities. This was 1950, the black period of McCarthyism and Huston may have felt he had rooted too much for the criminals, who come off very sympathetic.

The only light in the darkness is the quality of the acting - Sam Jaffe as a meek professor type, Sterling Hayden as a strongman bursting with anger and Louis Calhern as a gentlemanly uncle-type who behind his affable exterior is as mean as they get. He even has a "niece" set up in her own small apartment, Marylin Monroe in her first small role, who happens to be no family and could be his granddaughter.

One more elderly gentlemen interested in young women is "Doc" Riedenschneider, perhaps because of his long years in prison. A nice touch is that the cops arrest him when he unnecessarily delays his escape to watch a girl dance to jukebox music in a roadside cafe.

Friday, September 9, 2011

"The Apartment" (1960) by Billy Wilder (Film review)

In The Apartment, insurance clerk C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is doing something akin to Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face: he rides the elevator to success by making his New York apartment available to his bosses when they want to be unfaithful to their wives (and that is on an almost daily basis). The pathetic Baxter even provides drinks and snacks and stands waiting outside in the cold until the rendez-vous is finished. The film takes place during the end of the year with its holidays and wrings some calculated sympathy from the public for doubly lonely guy Baxter. But at work he advances from the noisy common office to a nice private room. His neighbor Dr. Dreyfuss hears every evening passionate sounds from Baxter's apartment and asks him to eventually donate his body to science - this guy looks so ordinary!

This set-up goes wrong when big boss Mr Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) lets his eye fall on the girl Baxter himself fancies: elevator girl Miss Kubelik (Shirley Maclaine). Like Baxter, she is into job prostitution hoping to become Mrs Sheldrake one day (which is a rather foolish thought - she should have taken her cue from Stanwyck in the above mentioned Baby Face!). She is also vulnerable for when she discovers that Sheldrake has lied to her about this, she tries to commit suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills - in Baxter's apartment. Sheldrake flies and Baxter has to save her with the help of the doctor next door and nurse her back to health. Baxter cooks spaghetti for her and this gives Lemmon the chance for a famous scene in which he strains the pasta with his tennis racket.

This is not a simplistic romantic comedy, but a tough film that shows us the wrongs of society without moralizing. "Bud" Baxter and Fran Kubelik don't immediately fall for each other. They are too realistic for that, both their future prospects depend on the way they have been living so far. So after the attempted suicide Miss Kubelik even gives the boss a second chance and Baxter goes on enjoying his new office.

When they finally decide to join their fates together, and Baxter gives Sheldrake the big finger, it feels like a let-down. It certainly is a break in the internal consistency of the film. How can they give up everything they have suffered for so far? Does Baxter really want to loose his comfortable job and become a lowly clerk again in another company - if he can find a new job?

The film was directed by Billy Wilder and has his trademark witty dialogues; both Lemmon and Maclaine were starters at the time (although Lemmon just came from his first success, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) and give committed performances. Baxter is a mean weasel, the type of pathetic boss flatterer one in real life would avoid like the pest (also as boss), but Jack Lemmon almost makes us forget the nastiness of his role.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Japanese film: Late Autumn (Akibiyori, 1960) by Ozu Yasujiro

"Akibiyori" is always translated as "Late Autumn," but more correct would be ”a clear autumn day," one of those Indian summer days in Japan with perfectly blue high skies and pleasantly cool temperatures. The film is a comedy of manners about the sunny side of the autumn of life.

The center of the film is Hara Setsuko, who appears in many Ozu films. She plays Akiko, a young widow, who at forty still looks just as beautiful as her twenty year old daughter Ayako (Tsukasa Yoko). As in Late Spring, of which this is in a certain sense a remake, Ayako has had opportunities to marry, but she prefers to stay at home with her mother, who would otherwise be lonely. When three friends of the deceased father (one of them is Saburi Shin as businessman Mamiya Soichi) introduce marriage possibilities from their network, Akiko supports these as she doesn't want her daughter to sacrifice herself. When Ayako still prevaricates, the friends decide that the only solution is to have Akiko remarry first. They themselves have since their youth been in love with Akiko, so that should pose no problem... except that Ayako gets angry with her mother when she hears a rumor about the remarriage plan (of which Akiko is perfectly innocent). In the end things go as they must: Ayako marries a promising young man, a subordinate of Mr Mamiya, and Akiko stays behind, alone.

It should be mentioned that the successful suitor of Ayako is played by Sada Keiji. Okada Mariko has an interesting role as Ayako's friend, Yukiko. She is a lively, sprightly personality, and a "modern Japanese" of the early sixties - she even sticks out her tongue! Yukiko also has an interesting role in the plot, as she "punishes" the three middle-aged friends for the trick they played on Ayako and Akiko by enticing them to a sushi bar (the one owned by her father, but she doesn't tell them) and then makes them order and pay for expensive omakese courses (chief's selection) and lots of sake.

This was Ozu's third film in color and one of his last. The colors are mostly blues, suitable for the cool autumn day. The film's locations are the houses of the characters, especially Akiko; various restaurants and bars; and the office of Mr Mamiya - it is a private office but apparently in a large corporation in Tokyo and friends and relatives just drop in, something which would be unthinkable in later times!). We often see the three middle-aged friends like small boys making their mischievous plans together. There is also a trip to Ikaho hot springs, where the reconciliation between mother and daughter takes place.

Akibiyori is an elegiac, but also a humorous film. Ozu wanted to make people feel the innate sadness of life, without resorting to (melo)drama or appealing to the emotions. He has marvelously succeeded in this film.

Some remarks:
- Ozu's films are great resources for students of Japanese: the dialogues have not aged and are still living Japanese, moreover they are spoken slowly and clearly.
- Ozu has often been called "quintessentially Japanese", for example in his general restraint, or technically his low camera angles. But in reality "Ozu is Ozu"  - for example, other Japanese films from the same period can be unrestrained tearjerkers; and if Ozu's camera angles were so very Japanese, why is he the only one to employ them?
- On the other hand, the characters he shows us are realistic, everyday Japanese. His films could be used as illustrations for intercultural understanding (for example, non-verbality or indirect communication). Although Japan has changed the last 50 years, and is much more culturally mixed now, Ozu's films show some of the original, pure types.
- 1960, the year this film was made, was characterized by social unrest in Japan, such a large demonstrations against a new security treaty with the U.S. and an on TV murder of a socialist politician by an ultra-rightist. But indeed, for most Japanese life went on normally, as it does in Akibiyori.
- Rather than "home dramas," I would call Ozu's films "comedies of manners," as the novels of Jane Austen are called. The post-war films use one of life's major rituals, "marriage," as a plot device (in so far as there is any plot!) to show the progress of time and the changes in the lives of the protagonists.
- Hara Setsuko made more than 100 films between 1935 and 1962. She worked with Naruse, Kurosawa and Inagaki, but perhaps her best films were made with Ozu (6 in all). She retired suddenly after the death of Ozu and has since been living quietly in Kamakura. In her films, she is always smiling, but also has a very distinguished manner.
- Ozu never married and lived for his art until his death at age 60 in 1962. He is buried in a temple in Kamakura and his gravestone carries the Chinese character for MU, "Nothingness."

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Japanese film: Mr Thank-you (Arigato-san, 1936) by Shimizu Hiroshi

"Arigato-san" means "Mr. Thank You" and refers to the protagonist of this film who is a very polite bus driver on the rough roads of the scenic Izu Peninsula. He is played by the handsome, smiling Uehara Ken. The film was made in 1936 and follows a bus with its passengers. It is a true road movie, a film that is in constant motion - we see the bus speeding along, overtaking pedestrians, we see the scenery from the bus and we see the passengers and the driver and listen to their conversations.

It is beautiful to see the actual scenery and villages of that time, almost as in a documentary, although I must say people were very poor as well - Japan was in a deep recession. The film was based on a story by famous author Kawabata Yasunari and contains references to his story "The Dancer of Izu," that is set along the same road.

There is not much of a plot, except one red thread, a mother (Futaba Kaoru) who is so hard-up that she has to sell her seventeen year old daughter (Tsukiji Mayumi) into prostitution. This is not told us up front, but becomes gradually clear. She is taking her by bus to the station where the daughter will take the train to Tokyo, a city "full of badgers and foxes." Many daughters from the poor peninsula have made this journey and none has ever returned home, we learn from the conversation of other passengers. But we also see some tender feelings being born between the still unmarried driver and the girl, so perhaps there is hope...

Other passengers include a modern woman (Kuwano Michiko), who smokes cigarettes and drinks liquor, so she probably works as a hostess in a bar in Tokyo. She openly flirts with the driver and puts down everyone she dislikes, such as a self-important loan salesman with a huge mustache (the man is very proud of this appendage and there is a comic scene when another passenger boards with exactly the same mustache).

But the heart of the film is the driver, who chats friendly with the locals, delivers messages for them and is helpful to everyone. He is a sign of steadiness in the turbulent economic times. He had saved money to buy a second-hand bus himself, but now he uses it to help the mother and keep the seventeen year old girl out of prostitution (at the suggestion of the outspoken woman). This is not shown or explicitly mentioned, but in the final shots we see how the next day the girl and her mother return home by the same bus. Presumably, the bus driver will marry the young woman.

Arigato-san was made by Shimizu Hiroshi (1903-66), a friend and colleague of Ozu Yasujiro at the Shochiku studios. This light but uplifting film has become available thanks to the Criterion Collection.

Friday, September 2, 2011

"Baby Face" (1933) (Film review)

Baby Face is a great Barbara Stanwyck vehicle. It was made at the end of the Pre-Code years and shocked censors, who forced the studio to cut out fragments and change the ending. Fortunately, the original uncut version has surfaced in recent years.

The film surprises by its openness and bluntness, a very refreshing change from the political correctness that usually plagues American film. Stanwyck is hard-as-nails Lily Powers, whose father runs an illegal whiskey joint in filthy Erie, Pennsylvania. He pimps his daughter to the more well-to-do customers, but she is no sissy and if their hands wander too far she hits them with the bottle on the head. When the father dies in an accident with the whiskey still, she sheds no tears but takes the train to New York - no, she doesn't have the money for the trip but she is nice to the railway inspector.

Upon arrival she selects one of the tallest office buildings in the city and literally starts to sleep her way to the top - beginning with the personnel manager. Five men later (whom she sheds like old clothes) she arrives at the bank's elderly vice-president (she calls him "Baby Face"), who becomes her sugar-daddy and sets her up in a luxurious apartment.

Her ruthlessness is fun to see: in order to force things, she embraces her man on purpose when his fiancee is about to enter! One of the men she has thrown away really has a crunch on her and gets so mad that he shoots the vice-president before killing himself. No problem for Lily, who arranges with the Board to be sent to the Paris branch. The new bank president Courtland Trenholm (George Brent) is something of a playboy and she shrewdly ensnares him in her nets when he comes to the City of Light. She even pushes him to propose marriage...

But we are in the 30s, another time of financial upheaval: the bank goes unexpectedly under and Trenholm is arrested. He asks for Lily's not inconsiderable savings to get back on his feet again, but she refuses... at least initially... then she realizes he is what she wants after all, and she rushes to him with her suitcase with jewels.

Barbara Stanwyck shines in this subtle and compact comedy. She never looses her cool, even when bodies are falling around her, and she always thinks faster than the guys. She is seductive with a hard edge and gets every man she wants. Men are there to be manipulated, they are the steps on her ladder to success. Until the sentimental ending (but that's just the last five minutes) she has no tender feelings for anyone.

The film is very well crafted. Hardly a kiss is shown on screen, everything is done with innuendo, but the effect is infinitely more sexy than watching sweating bodies.
Be sure to see the uncut version of this film, brought out as Vol. 1 of the Forbidden Hollywood Collection of Warner Bros.