Saturday, June 25, 2016

Max Ophüls (Great Auteur Directors 5)

The German-French director Max Ophüls (1902-1957, real name Maximilian Oppenheimer) was a wonderful stylist of the cinema who used his endlessly mobile camera to tell nostalgic stories of doomed love and sexual passion.

Ophüls was born in Saarbrücken as the son of a Jewish textile manufacturer. He took the pseudonym Ophüls during the early part of his theatrical career so that he wouldn't embarrass his father if he failed. He first worked in the 1920s as actor and then theater director, staging about 200 plays, and made his first film in 1931.

The most acclaimed of his early films is Liebelei (1933), as several of his films based on a play by the great Viennese author Arthur Schnitzler. That same year, however, he had to flee for the Nazis to France where in 1938 he received citizenship. In his first French period (1933-1940) he made more than ten feature films, mostly romantic films and comedies.

In 1940 he had to flee again, now to the United States, where he experienced the same difficulties as other European directors to fit into the commercialized culture of Hollywood. It would only be in 1947 that he made his first American film (thanks to the help of Preston Sturges), to be followed by three more in the next two years. Two of these films are concise noirs; the best one is based on a story by Stefan Zweig, Letter from an Unknown Woman.

In 1950 Ophüls returned to France where he blossomed again and made his greatest films, four immortal masterworks, until his untimely death from heart disease in 1957: La Ronde (1950), Le Plaisir (1952), The Earrings of Madame de... (1953) and Lola Montès (1955), his only film in color. In all, Ophüls made nearly 30 films.

His son, Marcel Ophüls, is a distinguished documentary-film maker.

Characteristic for Ophüls are the following elements:

1. Endlessly mobile camera
All his works feature brilliant long takes, distinctive smooth camera movements, complex crane and dolly sweeps, and tracking shots. In fact, Ophüls' flowing Baroque style of filming is like a Viennese waltz. In his own time, his style was sometimes criticized as "merely decorative," but now we see it has a clear thematic purpose, for example to record the contrast between the protagonists and their emotional problems and the hustle and bustle around them, where life goes on unfeeling. His opulent sets and glittering mirrors in the same way underline the unhappiness of his protagonists. In fact, Ophüls turned his camera into an extension of his characters, visualizing their interiority, adjusting every shot to their minds, desires and lives.

2. Films about women
Besides being the director of romantic regret, of the doomed love story, Ophüls is renowned for his sharply delineated female characters. Many of his films are narrated from the point of view of the female protagonist. In this sense, he made "women's films," but he far exceeded any stereotype of that genre, in fact he is working on the same level as Naruse Mikio and Mizoguchi Kenji.

The best films by Max Ophüls are:
  1. Liebelei (1933)
    The first characteristic film of the great director, based on a play by Arthur Schnitzler. A young lieutenant has an affair with a baroness but falls in love with a violinist's daughter (Magda Schneider, mother of Romy). Although he breaks with the baroness, her husband challenges him to a duel. He is killed and the girl commits suicide. Misplaced male honor leads to tragedy. Tinged with a forlorn mood unique to the director, this film is full of elements that we recognize as truly Ophülsian: settings like the opera house, the army barracks, the bachelor apartment; dances in cafés; a climactic duel, although, as in Madame de... and Letter from an Unknown Woman, we never see the actual killing; the theme of the choice between love and duty. And, at the heart of Liebelei is a woman, who is lured into the trap of fierce passion. This tender story of thwarted love also features several early examples of the director's magically gliding mobile camera. 
  2. Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)
    The second film Ophüls made in Hollywood, a bittersweet melodrama. The film already exudes the grace, beauty and sensitivity characteristic of the masterworks he would make in the 1950s in Europe. The story, set in a nostalgic Vienna from around 1900, is loosely based on a story by Stefan Zweig. It is a joke from beyond the grave: a dying woman (Joan Fontaine) sends a long letter to a concert pianist (Louis Jourdan) who is about to flee Vienna to avoid a duel (and as he reads her long letter, he is prevented from leaving...). She has been her whole life in love with him, but was unacknowledged. The pair has crossed paths over many years, although the crossings never lasted more than a few hours. Still the woman, who appears saintly, has born the maestro's illegitimate child. This film has entered the canon and shows that personal expression was possible in Hollywood (though difficult).
  3. Caught (1949)
    Caught is one of the two noir films Ophüls made in the U.S., a concise, tense and mean little film, a criticism of capitalism run wild. Leonora (Barbara Bel Geddes), a poor model, dreams of romance, pouring over fashion magazines with mink coats and waiting for her Prince Charming. Then she happens to meet cynical control-freak millionaire Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan) - based on Howard Hughes, it is rumored - who marries her as a kind of joke, just to spite his psychoanalyst and to show her he controls her destiny. As a result, Leonora finds herself another piece of opulence stuffed in Ryan's Long Island mansion. On top of that, her husband has a psychotic streak. She tries to run away twice, but each time returns. When she is pregnant, her husband increasingly treats her like one of his many possessions. Struggling slum pediatrician Larry Quinada (James Mason) finally saves her from her Long Island prison, as she has a miscarriage brought on by Ohlig's violence. The film's title "Caught" not only refers to the marriage trap Leonora walked into, but more broadly to the wrong ideas that entrapped her: the materialistic view that money could be the source of all happiness. 
  4. La Ronde (1950)
    Based on Arthur Schnitzler's notorious play about the vanity and fickleness of love in late 19th c. Vienna. La Ronde presents a series of vignettes between two lovers, with episodes featuring one lover from the previous segment coupled with a new character, a sort of daisy chain structure. Anton Walbrook gives the performance of his life as the master of ceremonies who connects the various episodes. Ophüls shared Schnitzler's vision of the ferociousness of sexual desire, which plays havoc with human beings. But the director shows understanding and forgiveness for the foibles of humankind. We are all weak, so let's smile about life, instead of setting strict rules for others. There is also a bittersweet note, as all romantic illusions of love are shown to be false. At the same time, it is a nostalgic film about European elegance that had been swept away by two terrible wars. The beautiful waltz melody was composed for this film by the last scion of the Strauss family, the at that time 80-year old Oscar Strauss. Ophüls has also assembled a great talented French cast: Simone Signoret, Simone Simon, Gérard Philippe and Danielle Darrieux. 
  5. Le Plaisir (1952)
    A triptych of stories drawn from the work of Maupassant and demonstrating that "pleasure" is not the same as "happiness." With Jean Gabin, Danielle Darrieux & Simone Simon. The first story ("The Mask") tells of a man who is so addicted to balls and women that he hides his aging face behind a mask - pleasure and youth. The opening sequence is an incredible tour de force of the camera, which follows the swirling beat of a 19th c. ball - typical for Max Ophüls in whose camera movements there is always a visual musicality. But the dancer collapses and is carried home, as the wild dance has become a Dance of Death. The third story ("The Model") is about a painter who falls in love with his model, then dumps her when he grows tired of the affair - the fatality of pleasure when it gives way to boredom. Desperate, she tries to commit suicide by jumping from a window and shatters her legs. But this sacrifice enables her to force the painter into marrying her... The second story, "The Maison Tellier," is the most elaborate, taking up about half of the film. It is about pleasure and purity: how Madame Tellier takes her "girls" (prostitutes) to the country for attending her niece's first communion. It starts with a virtuoso crane shot, inspecting the outside of a bordello and finally gliding into the Maison Tellier. The day trip in the countryside is beautifully filmed (Jean Gabin drives a cartload full of jolly whores, including Danielle Darrieux) and the church scene when all the prostitutes start to cry at the sight of the pure young girls is justly celebrated. We also are present at the ill-fated meeting between one of the prostitutes and the farmer. Ophüls looks with a gentle sense of humor at the proceedings. 
  6. The Earrings of Madame de... (1953)
    A frivolous woman is transformed by true love. We only get to hear the first name of the heroine of The Earrings of Madame de... - her last name is withheld with a wink. Louise has been indiscreet and as is the case with offenders whose names are withheld in the papers, Ophüls replaces her last name as it were with a few dots or a dash. This films contains some of the best long mobile camera movements Ophüls is famous for: such as the sweeping take when Louise enters the jeweler's shop and ascends via an open staircase to the second floor - not to speak about the incredible dancing scenes with their circling camera. Or, on a different note, the scene where Louise is on a forced trip to the Italian lakes and sits day after day writing letters to her lover, only to confess later to him that she lacked the courage to mail her letters - we see those letters, torn into shreds, dancing in the air, and then turning into the snow falling in the next scene. The story is ingeniously organized around the circulation of a pair of earrings, a present given to Louise by her husband. When she needs money, she sells them back to the jeweler, and then, without knowing this, her lover happens to buy them for her again... The Earrings of Madame De... sets out as a simple comedy of errors but goes on to plumb surprising depths. More than that, like all great directors, in the visual compass of film, Ophüls manages to make life's inexorable flow almost tangible which leaves us as viewers a bit sadder, a bit wiser.
  7. Lola Montès (1955)
    Ophüls' only film in color, the tragic story of Lola Montès (Martine Carol), a great adventurer ("the most scandalous woman in the world") who becomes the main attraction of a circus after being the mistress of such famous men as the pianist/composer Franz Liszt and King Ludwig of Bavaria (Anton Walbrook). Taking its cue from La Ronde, we again have a master of ceremonies (Peter Ustinov), who narrates Lola's sensational career as she revolves on a platform in a New Orleans circus. Later the aging courtesan will perform a dangerous trapeze act, and finally the customers will be allowed to kiss her hand after spending a dollar. Ophüls fully employs the devices of circularity and repetition that characterize his late films, as well as the flamboyant cinematic style he had mastered across a lifetime. This is arguably the director's greatest film, a tragic masterpiece that is a summing up of all he stood for. But it failed both critically and at the box-office, which may well have contributed to Ophüls' untimely death in 1957. 

Monday, June 20, 2016

Ozu Yasujiro (Great Auteur Film Directors 4)

Ozu Yasujiro (1903-1963) has been called the "most Japanese" of Japan's film directors, but I believe such a designation can only lead to a misunderstanding of his art. After all, I can't say that Ozu is more Japanese than for example Mizoguchi Kenji, Naruse Mikio or Imamura Shohei.

The films Ozu made fall all in the category of home dramas (shoshimin eiga), which are of course Japanese in their details and sensibility, but (in his case) also universal in their meaning so that the whole world can enjoy them. And the very characteristic style Ozu forged during a lifetime of film making, is not so much "typically Japanese" as "typically Ozu" - also in Japan nobody else comes close to Ozu's style.

As in the case of other great directors, Ozu has been variously positioned both as a radical Modernist and as a conservative nationalist and even as a Zen poet (probably from the Western viewpoint that "simplicity is Zen") - but he transcends all these limiting qualifications.

What are the characteristics of Ozu's films?

1. The family as central subject ("home drama")
Ozu's forte was a detailed, sensitive portrayal of the daily lives of average people. His films fall in a genre that in Japanese is called shoshimin-eiga," "films about ordinary people" or "home drama," which includes the emergent middle class which also formed the public for these films.

Although set in a particular Japanese environment, and imbued with Japanese sentiments, these are problems human beings all over the world face in their lives: the struggle for self-definition, individual freedom, disappointed expectations, the impossibility of communication, separation and loss brought about by the inevitable passages of marriage and death.

Shoshimin-eiga was the brand of the Shochiku studio, which introduced it in the 1920s (inspired by American cinema of the 1910s and 1920s) and kept making such films after Ozu's death with director Yamada Yoji (on a very different level!). Other important shoshimin-eiga directors who were contemporaries of Ozu were for example Gosho Heinosuke, Shimazu Yasujiro, Shimizu Hiroshi and Naruse Mikio.

In their best prewar films these directors presented the family (mostly lower middle class and sometimes also blue collar) in a tense confrontation with society; after the war, this social criticism is lost and, like the whole of Japan, the families represented become more well off, rising to upper middle class.

Ironically, Ozu as Japan's iconic home drama director, never had a family himself - he never experienced college, office work or marital life.

2. Stoic acceptation of life's various stages
There is a secondary theme in Ozu's work, too, that of a "rite of passage:" life consists of several stages and we have to move on, even if that means leaving loved ones. Home drama is thus a genre about change - about the inevitability of life's changes, signified by birth, marriage and death, and of the tensions between generations, as well as the impact of modernity which threatens the stability of the home (in the Japanese case, the loss of authority of the father and consequent dissolution of the Meiji-period family system). Accepting life's changes is also a form of transcendence.

3. Distinctive "Ozu"-style
Ozu exerted total control over all aspects of every production. His films never are a haphazard presentation of Japanese customs, but through his superb cinematic technique they can be understood cross-culturally. Ozu's distinctive style was polished during his long career, and the following are the main features according to Japanese film critic Sato Tadao:
  • The low-angle shot. Ozu positioned his camera just above the floor or ground (the cameraman had to lie flat on his belly). This has been compared to the view the Japanese have when sitting on tatami mats, but is in fact lower than that - it is not a cultural matter but an idiosyncrasy of Ozu.
  • The stationary camera. Almost no crane shots or dolly shots.
  • The arrangement of characters. When two or more charachters appear in the same shot, they are often facing the same direction and assuming the same pose.
  • The avoidance of movement. Not only do Ozu's characters almost never show any aggression, their general movement is also restricted so that they almost never walk across a shot.
  • The full-face shot of the speaker. Profile shots of characters delivering a line are very rare, for when a characters speaks, Ozu normally brings the camera around so that he or she faces it almost head on. 
  • The stability of the size of camera shots. Ozu never took close-ups and never used telescopic or wide-angle lenses. 
  • Linking by means of cutting alone. Except in some early films, no dissolves, fade-ins or fade-outs.
  • Curtain shots. Ozu used to insert shots of inside or outside scenery between sequences. 
  • Tempo. Ozu matched tempo to the actual time it took characters to walk out of the room, go upstairs via a staircase, etc.
  • Choreographic acting directions. Ozu's characters are always calm and deliver their lines at a measured rate. It is as if Ozu wanted to make perfect still-life pictures on film.
To this list can be added: the elliptic story line (certain major events are elided, such as the marriage ceremony in Late Spring); Ozu's interest in the interaction of characters, not in plot, so the stories are consciously slight; the refusal with some exceptions to use non-diegetic music; and a studio-based style, Ozu usually avoids location shooting because there is too much contingency.

Finally, there is the well-known disregard for eye-line matches, but that is not typical of only Ozu's style, we also find it in other major Japanese directors of the same period, especially Naruse. This is a cultural trait, as in Japan it is considered uncomfortable to look at length into someone's eyes during a conversation.

Ozu's life and career can be divided as follows:

1. From Nonsense Comedy to Social Realism (1927-1937)
Ozu Yasujiro (1903-1963) was born in downtown Tokyo, but educated in Matsuzaka in Mie Prefecture and in Nagoya. He was a fiercely independent character, who never submitted to authority (unless they wanted him to do what he already wanted to do) and who found various ingenious ways to skip school and the military. When his family returned to Tokyo in 1923, he joined the recently founded Shochiku studios against the opposition of his father. He became assistant director and was, among others, trained in "nonsense" comedies, often not more than strung together gags. His debut was in 1927 with a period drama, but from 1928 on he became a comedy director (inspired, among others, by Hollywood's Ernst Lubitsch). The black humor satire I Was Born, But... from 1932 is considered his first masterpiece. In this period, Ozu made 37 films, of which 17 have been preserved. Except the last two, all films are silent ones.

2. The War Years and their Aftermath (1941-1948)
Because of the disruption by the war (Ozu himself had been drafted from September 1937 to July 1939, and lived again from 1943 to the end of the war in occupied Singapore), in this period Ozu only makes four films, two during the war, and two in the Occupation period. Due to censorship during the war, one of his scripts had to be discarded, and the other films, especially There Was a Father (Chichi ariki) bear the marks of wartime in an emphasis on patriarchal social order. In contrast, the two first postwar films depict the scars left by the war: war orphans in The Record of a Tenement Gentleman (Nagaya shinshiroku) and the economical plight of women whose husbands take a long time to return after the war has ended (A Hen in the Wind / Kaze no naka no mendori).

3. The Great Mature Films (1949-1962)
In this period Ozu makes 13 films, about one per year. These are the great years of the collaboration with script writer Noda Kogo, as well as numerous great actors and actresses, educated in Japan's studio system. There are no really weak films in this period. From the first film in this period, Banshun, on, Ozu's subject is the loss of traditional family values, especially the care family members used to have for each other, and which used to be more important than personal gratification.

Although Tokyo Story from 1953 is now considered as one of the best films ever made in the world, Ozu as a director was late in breaking through outside Japan. During his life, his films were not even entered in international film festivals. Only when Tokyo Story was shown in New York in 1972, almost ten years after his death, it won the hearts of viewers. Instrumental in the breakthrough of Ozu was the unflagging advocacy by Donald Richie, whose detailed study on Ozu was published in 1974, finally convincing critics that this quiet filmmaker was one of cinema's finest artists.

Ozu died on his 60th birthday. His grave at Engakuji in Kamakura bears no name - just the character mu ("nothingness").

Here are Ozu's ten best films:

1. I Was Born, But... (Umarete wa mita kedo..., 1932)
The greatest film ever made about the hierarchies imposed by company life, which clash with other hierarchies. This was Ozu's 24th film, shot from November 1931 to early April 1932. Two small boys have to learn to live with the fact that their father (Saito Tatsuo) is not a great man, but simply a company employee ("salaryman"), who has to be obsequious to his boss (Sakamoto Takeshi). The worst moment comes when the boss gives a show for the neighborhood of a home movie he shot in which the father is shown clowning to please his superior. The boys ask why their father has to behave so silly, and why they can't beat up the boss' kid when they are stronger? In the end, of course, they have to learn something of the ways and compromises of the adult world. A serious comedy, funny and devastating at the same time, that teaches us to accept life as it is. Technically, in this film also Ozu's systematic low-angle frontality begins to appear.

2. The Only Son (Hitori musuko, 1936)
Ozu finally changes to sound in The Only Son, an example of Japanese "neo-realism" avant-la-date. This was Ozu's 36th film, shot from April to September 1936. A mother (Iida Choko) has slaved to send her son (Himori Shinichi) to college in Tokyo. After she has not heard anything from him for a long time, she unexpectedly visits him, using up all her savings. She finds him poor, a teacher at a night school, living in eye-sore suburbia, with wife and child (the existence of both also new to her!), and wholly disillusioned. The mother's hope that he would advance in his career has not been fulfilled. But he borrows money to entertain his mother and she returns to the countryside where she still pretends to her friends to be proud of him. A moving work about the disappointments of family life, and the essential loneliness of human beings. The first film in Ozu's fully established mature style. Interesting is the use of off-screen sound: when we are in the living room of the son's house, we constantly hear the clicking of the machinery of a nearby textile factory.

3. Late Spring (Banshun, 1949)
A masterpiece on the peaceful life of a middle-class family, in which the most ordinary things happen in a moving way. This film (Ozu's 42nd, shot from May to September 1949, and the first of his long collaboration with scriptwriter Noda Kogo) that laid the groundwork for all other twelve films from Ozu's mature period. A daughter (Hara Setsuko) lives with her widowed father (Ryu Chishu). He wants her to get married and have a life of her own, she wants to stay at home and look after her father - I suspect her attitude stems more from amae (indulging herself) than from oya-koko (filial piety). In the end, the father pushes her into marriage by falsely pretending he himself is also getting married again (something the daughter considers as repulsive). After she has married, he sits alone in the now empty house, feeling sad. Interesting is that the wedding ceremony - which in a Hollywood film would have formed the grand finale - is entirely left out. We even never get to see the bridegroom! Set in a quiet residential area of Kamakura, this film which came out four years after the end of WWII, and is imbued with an iconography of "Japaneseness" (Zen gardens, Noh Drama, the tea ceremony) made audiences feel that peace indeed had come to Japan and that the worst chaos of the postwar years was over. Seasons are important in Japan, so this film literally takes place in late spring, a season of quiet before the rainy season starts with its violent rains; similarly, the film describes the daughter's quiet content of unmarried life with her father before the start of the stormier existence of a late marriage. 

4. Early Summer (Bakushu, 1951, lit. "Wheat Harvest Season")
The 44th film, shot from June to September 1951 at the Shochiku Ofuna studio, Ozu's homebase. Chronicles three generations of the Kamakura-based Mamiya family, which is seeking a promising match for the eldest daughter, Noriko (Hara Setsuko). But Noriko has firm ideas about how and to whom she will give herself and surprises her family when she abruptly opts for a childhood friend, a poor doctor going to be posted in far-off northern Japan. Noriko fulfills her family's wishes, but also tears them (willfully?) apart by her perverse choice. For after she moves away, the extended family lacks her contribution to the household income and has to split up. The grandparents have to leave and move to the countryside of Nara - they are resigned to their own lonely fate. Although the story superficially resembles Banshun, and Hara Setsuko plays the lead in both films, this is a completely different film, with a much darker atmosphere. Noriko's brother Shoji, who was killed in the war, is something of an unseen presence. At the end of the film the grandparents view a field of wheat - the innumerable ears of wheat are like the souls of dead soldiers, waiting to transmigrate to new life. 

5. Tokyo Story (Tokyo monogatari, 1953)
The 46th film, shot from July to October 1953. An elderly couple (Ryu Chishu, Higashiyama Chieko) from Onomichi in western Japan visits their preoccupied children in Tokyo (the son has a busy medical clinic, the daughter a hairdressing salon), but they are clearly a burden and packed off to Atami. Like the mother in The Only Son, the parents are not satisfied with their children's life in Tokyo. But there is no dramatic tension, as the parents' attitude is one of resignation and tolerance. Back home, the mother dies, and now it is the turn of the children to visit the town where they were born. The only child genuinely affectionate is the widowed daughter-in-law (Hara Setsuko); she is also the only one who understands the feelings of the widowed father. She offers to stay with him now that he is alone, but he refuses - he accepts life as it comes. 

6. Equinox Flower (Higanbana, 1958)
Equinox Flower is Ozu's 49th film (shot from May to August 1958) and his first color film. A daughter (Arima Taeko) wants to make her own choice of marriage partner; the despotic father (Saburi Shin) opposes, but the mother sympathizes and the father is finally won over. The film shows how later in his career Ozu became increasingly sympathetic with the younger generation. Also, with its satire, pure comedy and deep irony, this is a much lighter work than Ozu's previous films, which tended to become a bit darker. The film contains one of the best later roles by Tanaka Kinuyo, while also typical Japanese kimono beauty Yamamoto Fujiko makes an appearance. By the way, Ozu choose the more subdued Agfa color film (in contrast to the popular Eastman color film) - probably, he also liked the red color of Agfa. 

7. Floating Weeds (Ukikusa, 1959)
The 51st film, shot from September to November 1959, and made for the Daiei studio, with actors from Daiei. A remake of Ozu's 1934 silent film A Story of Floating Weeds, a film about the head of a traveling theater group who in a small village meets a former mistress and the - now grown-up - son who was the result of the casual affair of long ago. The title refers to ukikusa or duckweed, and thus metaphorically to the aimlessness of life's journey. The traveling entertainers are on the one hand homeless but on the other hand at home everywhere, as they move from theater to theater across the country. What they play is taishu kabuki, a kind of third-rate kabuki that is specific to modern Japan, an assemblage of song spectacle and samurai melodrama, along with comedy and dance routines, combined into a vaudeville-like sequence of acts. It was performed in rural theaters and small variety halls in urban entertainment districts. Taishu kabuki was especially popular in the 1930s when the original film was shot, but when Ozu made the present film it was disappearing, so the film is doubly nostalgic. This is also a story about the disintegration of parental authority, as the son refuses to accept the "floating weed" traveling actor as his father - especially when the father forbids the son to have a member of his troupe as his girlfriend and even slaps him. With Nakamura Ganjiro and Kyo Machiko as the theatrical couple, Sugimura Haruko as the former mistress, and Wakao Ayako as the girlfriend. Set in a port town in Wakayama instead the mountain location of the older version. Beautifully photographed by Daiei cameraman Miyagawa Kazuo. 

8. Late Autumn (Akibiyori, 1960)
Ozu's 52nd film, shot from July to November 1960. Made again in the Ofuna studio, with an uptown Tokyo setting. Shows a mother-daughter instead of a father-daughter relationship as in Late Spring, but the story is similar. Three middle-aged men try to help the widow of a late friend to marry off her daughter. The daughter is less than happy at the proposals, mainly because of her reluctance to leave her mother alone. Hara Setsuko now plays the mother, Tsukasa Yoko the daughter (both borrowed from Toho by Shochiku). "Akibiyori" literally means "a clear autumn day," in Japan more an "Indian summer" than the dark and stormy impression that the term "late autumn" makes on my Northwest European sensibility. This film is a variation on the story of Late Spring, but the distinctive feature is the importance of the characters that appear around the central figures of mother and daughter (company directors, university teachers, and their families). The record of their friendship is interwoven with the plot of their late friend's daughter's marriage. This is a very stylish color film, with as main tones white and blue. 

9. The End of Summer (Kohayagawa-ke no aki, 1961)
Ozu's 53rd film, shot from June to September 1961. As compensation for "borrowing" two Toho stars in his previous film, Ozu made this film for Toho affiliate Takarazuka Eiga. Nakamura Ganjiro delightfully plays the broad-minded patriarch of the Kohayagawa family, which runs a sake brewery in Kyoto's Fushimi ward. His family shockingly discovers that at his advanced age he is visiting a mistress from his youth. They become concerned about his health and money spending. Interwoven with this is a story about the daughter's marriage. Ozu makes the most of the delicious role played by Nakamura Ganjiro. Hara Setsuko, Aratama Michiyo and Tsukasa Yoko play his daughter-in-law and daughters. The ending of the film is rather dark: the patriarch has died and while smoke rises from the chimney of the crematory, ravens fly in the sky and a farmer washes radishes in the river; the daughters sit on the dyke and talk about transience without emotion. Title lit. "The Autumn of the Kohayagawa Family." 

10. An Autumn Afternoon (Sanma no aji, 1962)
The 54th and last film by Ozu Yasujiro, shot from August to November 1962, and again set in uptown Tokyo. A widower (Ryu Chishu) arranges the marriage of his daughter (Iwashita Shima) and is left with the realization that he is growing old. The greatest performance of Ryu Chishu's career, bringing out the loneliness of old age. The marriage story is again mixed with the friendship of some middle-aged men as in Late Autumn. But new elements are also introduced, such as the married son's contemporary life in a modern flat, and the former middle-school teacher's misery. The father also visits a cheap bar where the proprietress reminds him of his late wife. Note that the daughter is unable to marry the man of her choice, but goes ahead with a marriage proposal brought forward by her boss. This is for financial reasons, because she has to support the brother who lives in an apartment. It can be seen as a final statement about the failure of the father (and brother) to fulfill their responsibilities towards the family. A film with a rather bitter taste. Luminous color photography by Atsuta Yuharu. 

About Ozu: Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema by David Bordwell (Princeton UP); Ozu: His Life and Films by Donald Richie (California UP); Currents in Japanese Cinema by Sato Tadao (Kodansha).
References: The Rough Guide to Film (Penguin Group, 2007); Have You Seen...? by David Thomson (Penguin Books, 2008). IMDB, The Criterion Collection, Slant Magazine, Senses of Cinema, Bright Lights Film Journal
Japanese Film Index

Friday, June 17, 2016

Luis Bunuel (Great Auteur Film Directors 3)

Luis Buñuel is one of the most inventive film makers of the 20th century, a mild Surrealist who looked with wisdom and acceptance at the foibles of mankind. He saw that we are hypocrites who say one thing and do another, but in his view that doesn't make us evil. It is only human, part of the way we are. Buñuel's films have the power to shock, inspire, and reinvent our world.

Luis Buñuel (1900-1983) started his career in the late twenties as an avant-garde enfant terrible, spent the thirties fighting Fascism in his native country, fled to the U.S. after Franco's victory and - not welcome in the U.S. with his "red" background - in the mid-forties ended up in Mexico as a director of commercial films. As these were quite successful, he was allowed to make some serious auteur films as well, enabling him to move back to Europe in the early sixties and there make his greatest films as "old master" of Surrealism.

Buñuel was born in a small town in Spain, which, as he often remarked, was culturally still stuck in the Middle Ages. He studied philosophy in Madrid and became friends with Salvador Dali, Frederico Garcia Lorca and other Spanish intellectuals. At the age of 25, Buñuel went to Paris, where he studied film with Jean Epstein and joined the Surrealist movement.

After that, Buñuel's working life can be divided as follows:

1. The Early Films (1928-1932)
In 1928, Buñuel wrote and shot the surrealist short film An Andalusian Dog with Salvador Dali, in only two weeks. Thanks to its opening sequence, of an eye being sliced by a razor, this became the most famous short film ever made. Two years later, Buñuel directed his first feature, L'Age d'Or, a scathing attack on the Church and hypocrisy, and this, too, became a succès de scandale. His third film was a fake documentary Las Hurdes (''Land Without Bread''), an account of Spanish villagers locked in poverty and ignorance, his last movie until 1946.

2. Film-less Interlude (1934-1946)
In his film-less interim, Buñuel dubbed American movies in Paris and aided the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War. After the Fascists' victory, he fled in exile to New York, where he edited documentaries for the Museum of Modern Art.

3. Mexico (1946-1964)
Buñuel moved to Mexico in 1946 (where the film industry was at a high point) and began grinding out pot-boilers that proved so popular he was free to direct an occasional serious movie, starting with the 1950 street-gang drama Los Olvidados. I believe the years in Mexico were certainly not a lost period for Buñuel: after all, he had only experience directing two short films; in Mexico he finally learned the craft of film director. And he made some truly good films here, which are still underrated in his total oeuvre: Los olvidados ("The Young and the Damned," 1950); El ("This Strange Passion," 1953); The Criminal Life of Archibaldo Cruz (Ensayo de un crimen, 1955); Nazarín (1958); The Exterminating Angel (El ángel exterminador, 1962); and Simon of the Desert (Simón del desierto, 1965).

4. The Late Masterful Films (1963-1977)
There were eight of these; the first, Viridiana (1961), was made in Spain (and soon forbidden there for its anti-clericalism), the others from Diary of a Chambermaid (Le Journal d’une femme de chambre, 1963) and Belle de Jour (1967) until his last film That Obscure Object of Desire (Cet obscur objet du désir, 1977) were produced in France. All of these later films were written by Jean-Claude Carriere, who shared Buñuel's conviction that hypocrisy was the most entertaining target. Backed by French producer Serge Silberman, these late films are also the best, as Buñuel was free to indulge his fancies, without having to worry about commercial or narrative requirements.

Buñuel's style is characterized by three elements:

1. Surrealism
Buñuel was an official member of the Surrealist movement (until he became a Communist in 1932). Early in his career he made the two most authentic surrealist films ever produced, and also his later films are famous for their surreal imagery, such as scenes in which chickens appear in nightmares, women grow beards, and aspiring saints are desired by lascivious women. Even in the many movies he made for hire in his Mexican period, he usually added some of his trademark disturbing images.

2. The Hypocrisy of the Church & Bourgeois Society
His whole career, Buñuel mocked the Roman Catholic Church in particular and organized religion in general for its hypocrisy. The atheistic humanist Buñuel fought a lifelong rebellion against the Catholic Church that had shaped life in his Spanish home village of Calenda with a heavy hand. In L'Âge d'Or, for example, one of the protagonists of the Sade's 120 days of Sodom is portrayed as Jesus; Viridiana culminates in a dinner party that parodies Da Vinci's The Last Supper; and in La Voie Lactée two men travel the pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela and meet examples  of various Catholic heresies along the way. The Exterminating Angel is a scathing attack on bourgeois values, as are many other films, for example The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

3. Sexual Fetishes & Thwarted Desire
To Buñuel, sex was "something we take seriously when it involves ourselves and ribald or funny when it involves others," as Roger Ebert phrased it. What is more funny than someone saddled with a fetish that is absurd and not respectable? Or someone who is consumed by desire but can find no satisfaction? In the early L'Âge d'Or and in his last film, Cet obscur objet du désir, and many films in-between, we encounter human beings who crave to fulfill a strong passion, but are unable to do so: the couple in L'Âge d'Or wanting to make love; the servant boy in Tristana, with whom Tristana toys cruelly as he is fascinated by her disability; Mathieu's mad love for the young Conchita, who keeps teasing him, in Cet obscur objet du désir; and, on a non-sexual note, the group of upper class citizens who crave to have dinner together in Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie, etc. Foot fetishes appear frequently in Buñuel's films, from the kissing of the toes of a statue in L'Age d'Or to the foot washing in El or the old man who loves Céléstine's boots in Diary of a Chamber Maid.

Buñuel died in Mexico City in 1983, after having finished his autobiography, Mon Dernier Soupir (My Last Sigh).
  1. L'Age d'or (The Golden Age, 1930)
    Although the earlier Un Chien Andalou starts with a famous sequence in which an eyeball is sliced open in merciless close-up (a scene that still has people fainting), it is only 15 minutes long and therefore L'Age d'Or is Bunuel's first proper feature film. It has also more plot: a man and a woman are passionately in love, but their attempts to consummate that passion are constantly thwarted by the Church and bourgeois society. The feelings of the continually interrupted lovers find an outlet in Bunuelesque fetishism when the woman finally seeks satisfaction by sucking the marble toes of a statue - sex is both terrifying and hilarious. At the premiere in Paris in 1930, the film caused a riot as the outraged audience trashed the theater. Until the early 1980s, the film was banned in many countries.
  2. Los Olvidados (1950)
    Film about juvenile delinquents in the slums of Mexico City, which won Best Director at Cannes, putting Buñuel, who was slaving away making trite films in Mexico, on the map again after his 1930 film L'Age d'Or. Los Olvidados is a tough, unsentimental statement. After all, then and now, it is a fact that poverty, combined with broken families and lack of education, leads to crime. Of course, people also have a choice, although many are stuck so deep in the mud that they have no opportunity to realize that. But even if they do, like the young Pedro, the protagonist of this film, and try to better their life against all odds, the environment can cynically block those chances. Pedro tries to extricate himself from the influence of escaped teen prisoner "El Jaibo," but that is impossible as the older boy blackmails him and even shrewdly shifts the blame for his own crimes on Pedro. Another characteristic of Los Olvidados is, that nobody is "good." At the start of the film, the boys beat up a blind musician and destroy his instruments, so the viewer feels sympathy for the man, but that same musician then shows what a pervert he is by groping a young girl. Although the film superficially resembles the at that time popular Italian Neorealist films, by showing that the poor are capable of evil and are players in the same corrupt societal games, Buñuel has in fact parodied Neorealism with its sentimental view of the poor as goodhearted. He has also included his characteristic surrealist sequences, for example a rooster staring down a blind man. Los Olvidados was a major influence on Truffaut's The 400 Blows, and although less known than his later work, is one of the masterworks of Luis Buñuel.
  3. El (This Strange Passion) (1953)
    A brutal and absurd glimpse at one man's runaway paranoia. It starts on a Bunuelesque fetishistic high-note: while a priest washes and kisses the feet of altar boys in a church ritual, Don Francisco follows the trail of feet with his eyes and comes to rest on the shapely legs of Gloria - like a hunter finding his prey. The rich bachelor Francisco then courts Gloria until she agrees to marry him. He proves a dedicated husband - or rather too dedicated, for already during the honeymoon his passion starts to exhibit the disturbing traits of a jealous maniac. His paranoia escalates until one night he stealthily approaches her with the intent to "sew her up." He also denies her all contact with the outside world. Gloria stays with her mad husband, at least until it really becomes too much, thinking he is suffering more than she is (after all, the Church is responsible for having made him into a pervert) - and anyway, nobody, even her own mother, believes her complaints...  A masterpiece of psychosexuality. To Buñuel's great satisfaction, psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan would screen the film for his students to demonstrate paranoia.
  4. Viridiana (1961)
    Don Jaime (Fernando Rey) invites his niece, Viridiana (Silvia Pinal), to stay with him before she takes her vows as a nun, but the old lecher then attempts to use her for his necrophiliac desires - he wants to have sex with her in the clothes of his deceased wife. When his desires are thwarted and the Don next commits suicide, Viridiana inherits the estate. A true Christian, she sees her new wealth as a great opportunity to practice charity and invites all beggars and outcasts of the area to come, be fed by her and live in her house. Of course they repay her with ingratitude, cruelty and greed. The film ends with a big dinner party, where the poor enjoy a wild feast during Viridiana's absence, imitating Da Vinci's The Last Supper, a parody enacted to the ethereal strains of Handel's Messiah. As the film also contains the above mentioned necrophilia and mockery of Christian charity, the Vatican denounced the film as blasphemy and it was immediately forbidden in Spain - despite winning the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. A delicious, darkly humorous story about different kinds of corruption. 
  5. The Exterminating Angel (El ángel exterminador, 1962)
    While in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, made ten years later, a group of upper middle class friends is repeatedly unable to have dinner together, here a group of socialites have enjoyed a lavish dinner, but are then unable to leave the mansion where the party took place. An unseen force keeps them inexplicably inside, as in an extravagant prison, and they have to spend the night together in the living room. The group futilely tries to figure out ways of escape. The film's absurd situations and surreal images attack ritualistic habits and bourgeois culture. The vast, magnificent salon gradually descends into sordid squalor. A black comedy filled with anti-bourgeois and anti-clerical sentiments, but also a dreamlike story where the surrealism of Buñuel is manifested in all its fantastic wealth. And it is of course more than just class criticism of the bourgeoisie: the film is in fact symbolic of the powerlessness of the human race as a whole.
  6. Diary of a Chambermaid ("Le journal d'une femme de chambre") (1964)
    Buñuel based this film on Mirbeau's fin-de-siecle, satirical novel, but changed the story into a strong anti-fascist statement, by updating the setting from the late 19th century to the 1930s. Céléstine (Jeanne Moreau) becomes a chambermaid in the country estate of the Monteil family. She soon discovers that indulgence in the sexual frustrations/obsessions of her male employers may help advance her social and financial status. The lecherous head of the household not only hunts game but also women (he has impregnated the previous chambermaid), and his miserly frigid wife indulges her pent-up frustrations by tormenting her chambermaids. The grandfather is a shoe fetishist who dies embracing one of Célestine's boots. There is also the mystery of the murder of a young girl, of which the suspicion falls on the brutish gamekeeper and handyman of the family, Joseph, who is also a fervent Fascist. Nouvelle Vague icon Jeanne Moreau as Célestine gives a great performance: she is impeccably stylish and composedly serene, as well as wholly inscrutable - her face is a true enigma. Although more straightforward and lacking the surrealistic teases of Bunuel's later films, the director takes care to include his usual pokes at erotic repression and religious oppression, and satirize the strange ways of the bourgeoisie who live behind a facade of respectability while secretly indulging their lower instincts.
  7. Belle de Jour (1967) 
    Belle de Jour is Catherine Deneuve at her classic best: beautiful, elegant, ice-cold - and lustful. She plays an upper-class Parisian housewife, Séverine. Frigid towards her husband, she secretly entertains kinky bondage fantasies... To make these more concrete, she starts secretly spending her idle afternoons working in a boutique bordello. That, by the way, is also what the film title refers to: "Belle de Jour" is a "day-lily" that blooms only during the day, but the same French term can also refer to a prostitute whose trade is conducted during the daytime. So while remaining chaste in her marriage, in the afternoons Séverine satisfies the weird fetishes of the men that visit her high-class brothel. Her clients include a fat industrialist, a professor who dresses in role playing costumes and then abuses her, and a duke who likes to enact a mourning scene in a coffin. But she also meets a mean-looking, young gangster whose cruelty and ugliness rather please her - but when he falls in love with her and starts stalking her, things go horribly wrong... As is usually the case with Buñuel, this surreal, erotic tale forms a gentle criticism of the mores of decaying upper-class society. Deneuve is the ideal actress for this intricate study of female psychology. Despite that the character she plays revels in debauched desires, she retains a cool, inscrutable dignity, clad as she is in the chicest Yves Saint Laurent finery. This is the best and most iconic film Buñuel ever made. It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1967.
  8. Tristana (1970)
    A wonderful but perverse film about power over others. Tristana (Catherine Deneuve) is a young woman, who when her mother dies, is entrusted to the care of her elderly uncle Don Lope (Fernando Rey) who lives in the beautiful city of Toledo. The innocent and naive Tristana, wholly in the power of her lecherous uncle, soon ends up in his bed. In the daytime, she is a virtual prisoner in his house. Still, she manages to meet a handsome young painter and elope with him. Two years later, ill, she unexpectedly returns to her uncle's house. But now - although she looses a leg to her illness - she turns the tables on the aging Don and forces him to marry her, after which Tristana mainly uses her position as mistress of the house to humiliate Don Lope. Eventually, winner takes all it seems - but in the process, Tristana has lost her soul and she has become as jaded as Don Lope was. As is usual, this Bunuel film is full of explicit Freudian images. Every scene is packed with visual interest. It also provides an interesting picture of catholic Spain and the hypocrisy rampant in such an ultra-conservative society as well as the marginal position of women in it - of course seen through the anti-clerical and anti-bourgeois eyes of the film maker. But above all, the most wonderful thing in the film is the transformation Catherine Deneuve undergoes from uptight virgin with her hair in braids to the bitchy and mean one-legged woman at the end. A most difficult role that is performed in a fascinating way. 
  9. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie ("Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie," 1972)
    Vintage Buñuel. A great comedy about a group of six upper middle class friends - very bourgeois - (Fernando Rey, Delphine Seyrig, Stephanie Audran, etc.) who repeatedly try to have a meal together but who find their plans each time interrupted and crossed by bizarre events. Dinner is the central social ritual of the middle classes, a way of displaying wealth and good manners - but here turned on its head. The participants never get what they want, they can never fulfill their desire for a good meal in a nice, sociable and cultivated environment. It doesn't help that the cast is suave and beautiful, superbly dressed in a suitably old-fashioned style. At the same time, the various interruptions reveal the secrets that lurk beneath the surface of the decaying European bourgeoisie: adultery, drug dealing, cheating, military coups, perversion and sheer boredom. The "discreet charm" of the title of course refers to their polite handling of their sense of futility and dismay - although gradually panic takes over. The film also contains some of the best Surrealist dream sequences Buñuel ever shot. In fact, reality and illusion soon blur into one, with delicious comic results. And we have the director's usual barb aimed at the Church in the person of a bishop whose fetish is to dress up as a gardener and work as a servant in the gardens of the wealthy.
  10. That Obscure Object of Desire ("Cet obscur objet du desir") (1977)
  11. Another film about thwarted desire, this time of a sexual nature. The elderly gentleman Mathieu (Fernando Rey) is madly in love with the young Conchita. Although she willfully attracts him, the next moment she tends to push him back even harder. As if she is two different persons, something Buñuel has underlined by having Conchita in the “attracting mode” played by the Spanish dancer Angelina Molina and in the “push-back mode” by French actress Carole Bouquet. 
  12. Conchita doesn't want Mathieu to have power over her; and Mathieu doesn't want her to have power over him, so he doesn't offer marriage. Their relationship is stuck in the same unholy groove, except that it escalates. Mathieu tries to kiss her, but she flees; he helps her poor mother financially, but Conchita doesn't want to be bought; he tries to make love to her, but discovers she is wearing a chastity belt; he follows her to Spain where she is dancing in a cafe, only to find out she is stripping for tourists; and after he buys her a house she locks him out and under his eyes embraces a young man. But each time she coyly comes back and smooths his ruffled feathers with her charms...
  13. This is the 30th and last film made by Luis Buñuel, and it has been called a summing-up of his work: respectable (or even pompous) middle class characters plagued by strong and sometimes peculiar erotic desires, and therefore revealed as ultimately weak and funny.
References: The Rough Guide to Film (Penguin Group, 2007); Have You Seen...? by David Thomson (Penguin Books, 2008). IMDB, The Criterion Collection, Slant Magazine, Roger EbertSenses of Cinema, Bright Lights Film Journal

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Hyakunin Isshu (One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each): Poem 19 (Lady Ise)

Hyakunin Isshu, Poem 19

mijikaki ashi no
fushi no ma mo
awade kono yo o
sugushiteyo to ya


are you telling me
to go through life
without meeting even as brief
as the space between joints
on the reeds at Naniwa Inlet?

Lady Ise (875-938)

[Sumiyoshi Shrine, Osaka (Photo Ad Blankestijn)]

The hopeless situation of the poetess who can not meet her lover even for the briefest time.

The first three lines in Japanese (which have ended up at the end of the poem in my translation) are an introduction (jokotoba). "Naniwa" is the traditional name for the Osaka area; "-gata" (like in Niigata) is an inlet in which the beach is revealed at low tide. "Ashi" (or yoshi) is the common reed (Phragmites australis); it often figures in Japanese classical poetry for its slimness or beauty when seen reflected in water, and the reeds in the inlets of Naniwa Bay were especially favored among poets. Reed also has very short segments between its nodes, and that idea is used here to suggest the briefest of moments. "Yo" is "this life," but also the word for a segment of a reed, and therefore a case of word association (engo) with ashi and fushi.

[Heron and Reed, by Suzuki Harunobu (Photo Wikipedia)]

This poem was written by Lady Ise (also called "Ise no miyasudokoro," c. 875 - c. 938), who was born as the daughter of Fujiwara no Tsugukage. In the Heian-period aristocratic ladies did not use their personal name (we don't even know the real name of Murasaki Shikibu, the author of the Genji), but were known under nicknames often based on the position of a male family member. In this case, Ise's father had been provincial governor of Ise (Ise no kami), and that determined her name.

Lady Ise was a court lady (like Murasaki Shikibu), and also a poet famous for her passionate love poems. Her collected poems are set up in a novelistic way, and show us her love affairs with the brothers Fujiwara no Nakahira and Tokihira, and after that Emperor Uda, with whom she had a son. Lady Ise is one of the Thirty-Six Poetic Immortals and has 22 poems in the Kokinshu alone; in total, 170 poems have been ascribed to her.

[Lady Ise, Satakebon Sanjurokkasen (Photo Wikipedia)]

In the Ise-shu, her collected poetry, the present poem is given under the heading "Around autumn, when he had spoken cruelly," leading us to guess that the "he" must be an unfeeling lover. In the Kokinshu it is placed in the group of poems on "forbidden love," (i.e. love for a married person or someone of a very different rank), making it - as Mostow says - into "a private complaint about being unable to reveal one's love." 

[Kokinshu 1049]
References: Pictures of the Heart, The Hyakunin Isshu in Word and Image by Joshua S. Mostow (University of Hawai'i Press, 1996); Traditional Japanese Poetry, An Anthology, by Steven D. Carter (Stanford University Press, 1991); Hyakunin Isshu by Inoue Muneo, etc. (Shinchosha, 1990); Genshoku Hyakunin Isshu by Suzuki Hideo, etc. (Buneido, 1997); Ogura Hyakunin Isshu at Japanese Text Initiative (University of Virginia Library Etext Center); Hyakunin Isshu wo aruku by Shimaoka Shin (Kofusha Shuppan); Hyakunin Isshu, Ocho waka kara chusei waka e by Inoue Muneo (Chikuma Shoin, 2004); Basho's Haiku (2 vols) by Toshiharu Oseko (Maruzen, 1990); The Ise Stories by Joshua S. Mostow and Royall Tyler (University of Hawai'i Press, 2010); Kokin Wakashu, The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry by Helen Craig McCullough (Stanford University Press, 1985); Kokinshu, A Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern by Laurel Rasplica Rodd and Mary Catherine Henkenius (University of Tokyo Press, 1984); Kokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1994); Shinkokin Wakashu (Shogakkan, 1995); Taketori Monogatari-Ise Monogatari-Yamato Monogatari-Heichu Monogatari (Shogakkan, 1994). 

Monday, June 6, 2016

Thinking about Ikkyu in Ikkyuji (Kyoto)

Ikkyuji is one those ever rarer Kyoto temples that is still quiet and unspoiled by mass tourism. It is situated in southern Kyoto, at the border with Osaka and Nara, near the Kizu River in what is now Kyotanabe, far off the beaten tourist path. Although Kyotanabe has grown into a big town, especially around the station, and the rice fields which - as I remember from two decades ago - used to lead to Ikkyuji have now been plastered over with housing, the temple stands way back at the side of the hills, far from any noise. After arriving, I just sit on the veranda, watching the garden and the green hills behind it, and allow the serenity to take hold of me. There are only few other visitors, one or two at a time, who walk past or also sit down quietly for a while.

 [Ikkyuji - the garden]

And sitting there on the veranda of the Hojo from 1650, with its Kano school fusuma paintings, looking at the raked gravel and plantings of the sun-filled classical Zen garden, with the tiled roof of Ikkyu's mortuary building as "borrowed scenery," I think about the man after whom the temple has been named: the Zen priest, poet and calligrapher Ikkyu (1394-1481), whose name "One Rest" points at the shortness of human life.

Who was Ikkyu?

Although he followed a solid program of meditation and study with several strict masters in his youth, Ikkyu (reputedly the out-of-wedlock son of Emperor Gokomatsu - thanks to this imperial connection, Ikkyu was twice invited to give a Zen lecture in the palace) is in the first place remembered as an eccentric, as a "mad priest." And indeed, when he lived in Sakai, in the 1420s, he frequently spent time in wine shops and brothels, as we can also read in his poetry. But the "madness" of Ikkyu has been much exaggerated, especially in the Edo period when supposed anecdotes from his life became the subject of Kodan story tellers. This was all fantasy, including the stories about Ikkyu as a mischievous acolyte - many of these fictional stories have mistakenly been repeated in popular biographies, also in English, as if they were the sober truth.

[Two images of Ikkyu: as mischievous acolyte (above) and as serious priest]

In fact, Ikkyu was a serious poet, whose Chinese poems in the jueju form are like a sort of koans. In contrast to contemporary priests, who also wrote in Chinese but on secular themes, and who used Chinese poetry as a tool for social intercourse, Ikkyu wrote passionately religious poetry, focusing on the philosophical and soteriological problem of non-duality, a religious conundrum to which he gave an intensely personal expression.

Ikkyu's Chinese poems are in fact the main reliable source of information about his life. His major literary work is the Kyounshu or "Crazy Cloud Anthology," a posthumous collection of 1,060 poems in Chinese (most of the other writings attributed to him are spurious). While the Ikkyu of fiction is a carefree fellow, exceptionally clever and witty as a child, and as a grown-up priest a sake-drinking, love-making and prank-playing Zen prelate, in his poetry Ikkyu appears as very learned and erudite, and instead of just abandoning himself to pleasure, he explores all the philosophical and metaphysical levels of love. Far from being carefree, he appears as a man who knew sorrow and the darker depths of the soul.

[Ikkyuji -path inside the temple]

But although very different from the Ikkyu of popular fable, even in his poetry Ikkyu appears as an eccentric, as someone unlike his contemporaries. This is something we should see against the background of his time. In the Muromachi period, Rinzai Zen was at the zenith of its power and wealth. Monasteries acted as pawn-brokers and sake brewers, and were also active in foreign trade. This had lead to the inevitable corruption and spiritual vacuity. Seals of Enlightenment were sold to the highest bidder. Incensed by the decadence of the religious structure that surrounded him, Ikkyu became a monk who wrote anti-clerical poetry and indignantly criticized the hypocritical behavior of his fellow priests. Many monks had secret wives or went to brothels, and on the sly indulged in sake or fish. In that light, Ikkyu's preoccupation with these matters was not so much an eccentric aberration as an attempt to reconcile everyday reality with his own religious views. Ikkyu was both a fundamentalist and an iconoclast.

That he was not just an eccentric is also shown by the fact that he attracted the interest of various contemporary literary and artistic figures, such as the Noh playwright Konparu Zenchiku and the renga masters Sogi and Socho.

By the way, since Japan gave up the study of Chinese language and culture in the Meiji-period and de facto started only considering literature written in Japanese as Japanese literature, Ikkyu unfortunately has almost been forgotten as a literary master, and funny, fictional anecdotes have taken the place that rightfully belongs to his literature written in Chinese.

[Ikkyuji - main building]

That Ikkyu was not a man who just played around is demonstrated by his love for the blind singer Mori, whom he met in 1471 and who lived with him until his death. From the poems he dedicated to her speaks a genuine, deep love - they also had a daughter. (Perhaps Zen Buddhism should have gone the way of the Pure Land School, where from this time on, priests were allowed to marry and raise a family.)

Ikkyu spent the last years of his life in a hermitage called Shoun'an, present-day Ikkyuji, which he had set up already in 1456. Since 1474, Ikkyu was abbot of Daitokuji, the particular Zen temple whose priests he had often severity criticized for their worldly behavior. But Daitokuji had fallen on bad times as it had been destroyed in the Onin War (1467-77) and Ikkyu was called upon to help restore it - he had close contacts with the wealthy and powerful merchants of Sakai, a port town south of present-day Osaka where he had lived for many years, and managed to get their financial support. Ikkyu probably choose this location for his hermitage because it was halfway between Kyoto and Sakai, and it could be reached by boat from Sakai over the Kizu River. Moreover, it was far from war-ridden Kyoto and the worldliness of its temples.

In Ikkyuji, one of the last serene temples in Kyoto, the spirit of Ikkyu lives on.
For visiting details in English, see the temple's website. Ikkyuji is a 25 min walk from JR Kyotanabe St (30 min from Kintetsu Shintanabe St). As the route passes over a narrow and busy road with dangerous traffic, a 5-min taxi is advised.
My information about Ikkyu is based on Ikkyu and the Crazy Cloud Anthology: A Zen Poet of Medieval Japan (Unesco Collection of Representative Works, 1987) by Sonja Arntzen, a seminal study unfortunately long out of print.