Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 5
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Tokyo Triptych: “Tokyo-Ga,” “Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo,” and “Sans Soleil”

Japan has always had a rich cinematic history. It has produced some of the all time greatest and most influential directors, including the international cinema giants Kenji Mizoguchi, Akira Kurosawa, and Yasujiro Ozu, and some of the all time great films as well, like “Sansho the Bailiff”, “Seven Samurai,” and “Late Spring”. And then of course there is the exciting Japanese New Wave, with Imamura and Oshima and all of the great films that have come out since then. I could go on and on about how great Japanese films are forever. But there are also a number of great films about Japan. Three of those films are Chris Marker’s 1983 film “Sans Soleil,” Wim Wenders’ 1985 film “Tokyo-Ga”, and Jessica Oreck’s 2012 film “Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo”. The films focus on different things, but share a sense of reverent fascination for Japanese culture, and each offers a personal and unique outsider perspective.

I’ll start by discussing “Sans Soleil,” because it is sort of the outlier of the bunch. The film does not focus entirely on Japan, but is a sort of travelogue of letters from a fictional cameraman, Sandor Krasna (a surrogate for Chris Marker), read over the film by his friend as narration. The footage was all shot without audio equipment, so the sound and music in the movie is all extra-diagetic. It’s a strange construction for a film which is essentially non-fiction, although the meaning of that word is slippery. The images of the film are drawn from Krasna’s (read: Marker’s) travels to Japan, Africa and various other exotic locales, along with some stock footage interspersed from elsewhere. The unifying theme of the film is memory, and it is a very thoughtful piece of work, one of my favorite films of all.

The sections dealing with Japan make up the bulk of the film, and they are pretty magnificent. Marker’s camera feels like a child seeing the world for the first time, whether he is visiting a cat cemetery, watching a parade, or going to a weird animal sex museum. Marker has a humanist touch, and despite his position as a tourist, he never feels like he is exploiting his subjects. At one point, Marker visits Hayao Yamaneko, a Japanese video artist who takes old images and footage and using some sort of computer stuff colorizes the images to make them look kind of like infrared footage, but more colorized. I’m not sure exactly how to describe the technique, but it creates some really haunting images, and illustrates the central conceit of the film; that memory is an act of creation, and that our interactions with the past are never direct.

Japan serves as a great backdrop for these themes, especially with its rich and complicated history, although Japan is not really the focus of the film in the same way as these other two. Still, I think “Sans Soleil” is the most complete and perfect film out of all of them, and it’s the best documentary (or essay film) I’ve ever seen.

Wim Wenders’s “Tokyo-Ga” is in the same spirit of “Sans Soleil,” but more focused on Japan. The impetus for the film is Wenders going on a personal journey to Japan to search for the essence of truth he finds in the films of Yasujiro Ozu. Clips of Ozu’s films begin and end the movie, and Wenders has immense reverence for his films. So while “Sans Soleil’s” unifying theme was memory, “Tokyo-Ga’s” is Ozu. The film is pleasantly meandering and tangential, with Herzog-esque voiceover narration by Wenders, but it always comes back to Ozu. Wenders’ attempts to rediscover the essence of Japan depicted in Ozu’s films at times calls to mind “San Soleil’s” questions of memory and subjectivity. Chris Marker even makes an appearance in Wenders’ film, at the “La Jetee” inspired bar in Tokyo, another Marker film which deals with similar themes.

Wenders also interviews various people who worked with Ozu, most notably Ozu’s cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta and actor Chishu Ryu. I was shocked to learn that Chishu Ryu was still alive 30 years after his turn as an elderly father figure in Ozu films like “Late Spring” and “Tokyo Story”, but apparently he was actually only in his 40s and wore old-man make-up. The interviews with these insiders are fascinating, but I found the film most interesting when it didn’t focus on Ozu, which luckily is a lot of it. Wenders’ camera is curious and inquisitive, and captures some great shots of subways, trains, pachinko parlors, and rain-drenched Tokyo streets at night. The ambient electronic soundtrack has a cool retro sound, and the synthesis of music and image gives the film an ethereal atmosphere, as though the viewer is sleepwalking through a Tokyo of dreams. At one point, Wenders wonders, “Perhaps I was searching for something which no longer existed.” And perhaps he was, but his search is fascinating to watch.

Jessica Oreck’s “Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo” is kind of a spiritual successor to “Tokyo-Ga,” except instead of Ozu, its focus is bugs. Beetles, specifically. They are apparently a phenomenon in Japan, and there is a booming business of selling the beetles as pets. The film explores both sides of this, following some bug-catchers on trips through the forest and also the consumers who purchase the bugs in little glass boxes. There are also video games, statues, toys, and all kinds of other stuff devoted to beetles. It is a fascinating aspect of Japanese culture which I never knew about, and the movie comprehensively explores it.

But as with “Tokyo-Ga,” the film’s main subject isn’t necessarily its focus. The film is even more impressionistic than Wenders’, and Oreck takes the visuals to the next level. It’s a very good looking movie, and the rapid editing style and fluid camerawork put me in a trance. The music is great too, a throwback electronic score that sounds a lot like “Tokyo-Ga.” And it’s really no surprise that Oreck’s film is so similar to Wenders’, she cites it as one of the biggest inspirations for the project. It also has a similar philosophical bent, with voice-over and interviews which delve into questions beyond just bugs, exploring Japan’s relationship with nature and its own history. Above all, it’s another dream-like journey into a fascinating culture, and “Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo” makes a nice companion piece with “Tokyo-Ga.” “Sans Soleil” may be the outlier because it doesn’t focus on Japan quite as much, but it’s still a fascinating film.

All three films are triumphs of the documentary form; they are informational, thoughtful, beautiful, and atmospheric, and discover universality through personal exploration. All of them focus on Japan to some extent, but each approaches it from a different perspective. Watched together, they give an impression of Japan as a rich cinematic landscape, one which will not soon be forgotten.

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