Sunday, June 14, 2009

Absurdist Cinema

You have to wonder whether Hiroyuki Tanaka, better known as “Sabu”, was really the right director to bring Kakiji Kobayashi’s 1929 left-wing novel Kanikosen (Crab Canning Ship) back to the screen. The film version, to be released this month (June) is almost totally devoid of any serious political content. Sabu turns this proletarian novel into a black comedy - communism as camp.

Asked about this Sabu, responds in the best if-you-want-to-send-a-message-try-Western-Union- Hollywood style, telling a sneak preview audience that “first and foremost, movies have to be entertaining. I could have done a faithful adaptation, but it wouldn’t have spoken to the issues facing young people today,” he said.

Certainly, the new version of Kanikosen is entertaining, in parts, in a macabre kind of way. One of them is the scene where the canning factory crew tries to commit suicide en masse, which ends up as a comedy of errors. I haven’t been able to get my hands on the 1953 film version or an English translation of the novel, but I’d certainly bet that the scene sprung out of Sabu’s and his writer’s fertile imaginations.

So one could pose the question another way: Not whether Sabu is the best director for the material, but whether the story is the best material for Sabu. He is, after all, much better known for youthful chase movies and films starring punk rockers. Why would he even want to make a movie about a mutiny aboard a crab canning ship in the cold waters of the Sea of Okhotsk? The answer comes from a small inner voice that whispers: “because it was a best-seller, dummy.”

The original novel was suppressed and forgotten until a few years ago, when a few devoted fans began to push for the novel’s revival. In 2008 it turned into an improbable best-seller. By May the publisher, Shinchosha, had printed 200,000 copies; by the end of the year some 600,000 copies had made their way to the book stores. Several manga editions have been published and a documentary of novelist Kobayashi prepared and broadcast.

This phenomenon has been linked to the hard economic times and what many in the media see as a revival of the Japanese Communist Party. It might more accurately be seen an example of the Japanese media’s unsurpassable ability to promote virtually anything when it collectively decides to hone on to a topic.

The Japanese Communist Party has had some nice things to say about the new movie in its publications, although one has to wonder why. There is relatively little revolutionary content. True, the protagonist Asakawa (Hidetoshi Nishijima), wearing a strangely un-nautical full-length gray coat, goes around with a stick whacking workers from time to time, but little real sense oppression or exploitation comes through.

One assumes that the party would have been happier with propaganda value of the 1953 film version by director So Yamamura. This version draws heavily on the social realism manifested by the great Soviet directors such as Sergei Eisenstein’s famous story of the mutiny aboard the Battleship Potemkin.

The 1953 version was a product of Japanese cinema’s golden period of the 1950s. Although it won an award for cinematography, it has been much overshadowed by the other great films of the period such as Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, released that same year, and Akiro Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, released the following year.

But it is a long distance from the period of the late 1920s when the novel was written and even to the hard- scrabble years just after the war. This is an entirely new era, a time of anime, manga and video games. It may be that Sabu is pitch perfect in his understanding of the times and his audience, while being tone deaf to the material he is working with.

The young in Japan have been in a long and steady retreat from politics. Their activism peaked in the 1970s with demonstrations over the renewal of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty and the opposition to the building of Narita Airport. The new Japanese proletariat is made up of the floating population of temporary workers known as freetas.

Yet, it hard to see how this movie would reawaken the political conscientiousness of the under-30s set as opposed to simply allowing them to enjoy its undeniable entertainment values. From a Marxist point of view the freetas are poor revolutionary material, too atomized and too wrapped up in their own troubles to develop proper class conscientiousness.

Although Sabu has ambitions to distribute Kanikosen internationally and he is a regular on the international film festival circuit, middle-aged gaijins like me are not exactly his target audience. Still, I would have preferred a more richly detailed period film set in the 1920s and 1930s.
This was a pregnant time for Japan, as the liberal spirit known as Taisho democracy was being snuffed out by the advance of militarism and fascism just as Kobayashi’s life was snuffed out in 1933 at the hands of the secret police. It is a period not well represented in Japanese film or any other media.

Such a film need not be just limited to the one novel. Kobayashi’s life and work provides much material, including his last novel, The Life of a Party Member, published after his death. It is set in a factory that has been ordered to switch to the production of gas masks to serve Japanese troops fighting on the mainland of China. Japanese cinema used to excel in such historical presentations, sometimes derisively referred to as “Samurai epics”. But it is not necessary that every samurai epic be about samurais.


Post a Comment

<< Home