Below, in chronological order, are the 100 greatest films that I have seen from Asian countries through 2008. I have included Ulrike Koch’s The Saltmen of Tibet (1997), a German documentary, because it is in the language of the host country and deals with Tibetans and Tibetan subject matter. Moreover, there is one film that I have seen once and I scarcely remember beyond how overwhelmed I was by it: from Japan, Tomotaka Tasaka’s A Pebble by the Wayside (1938). I have included it here, because it would be unfair not to, but my entry for this particular film is more or less an apology for not recalling it in greater detail. (For the record, another film by Tasaka, made the same year, Five Scouts, is even more highly regarded; but this one I haven’t seen at all.) Turkey is an example of a nation that is currently attempting to redefine itself and gain official entrance into the European community. However, most of us traditionally think of Turkey as part of Asia or of what used to be called Asia Minor, and Turkish films are included in this list.
There are two serious omissions. I have not seen Wu Nien-jen’s A Borrowed Life (Duo-Sang, 1994), from Taiwan, which Martin Scorsese has named one of the ten best films of the 1990s. All my efforts to secure a copy of this film have failed. Nor have I had an opportunity to see Mikio Naruse’s very highly regarded Floating Clouds (1955), so it also is missing here.
Some will also consider at least three more omissions as serious, but I regard Kurosawa’s Ran (1985) as being ridiculously overrated, while his earlier, wonderful Rashomon (1950) just didn’t quite make the cut, and the same is the case with Edward Yang’s Yi yi (2000), despite its complex social vision.
It may well be that the height of artistic achievement in cinema came with the black-and-white silent film, whose clarity, power and range of expressiveness greatly exceed that of subsequent films. (Color and sound and other technologies have been commercially motivated; artistically they haven’t benefitted cinema and, indeed, have narrowed the expressive capabilities of film.) Such films are easily represented in my other lists, but they aren’t easily represented here. Allied bombing wiped most Japanese silents off the face of the earth, while other cinemas have come into their own only later, when sound, at least, was pretty much the order of the day. In any case, as a result, this list, unlike the others, is skewered to more recent films—and ones in color, however remote the need for their being in color. In particular, some Iranian films have brandished the Persian adoration of rich colors, as in Persian crafts and carpets, rarely to the benefit of these films.
Of course, we must take films as we find them.
1. I WAS BORN, BUT . . . . Yasujiro Ozu’s great social comedy Otona no miru ehon—Umarete wa mita keredo was made during his (also, Chaplin’s) prolonged, defiantly silent period.
Promoted, Chichi Yoshii has just moved to a Tokyo suburb, near his boss, whom he immediately visits, to pay his respects, because that’s “the way to get ahead.” If only Yoshii could “read” images as well as Ozu can create them! For the film opens with a closeup of the moving truck’s wheel, stuck, spinning—an instance of the undercutting that the film lobs at Japan’s hierarchic social structure, the principal target. Yoshii applies this hierarchy from work at home; but it becomes clear that his (generally genial) rule of the family roost is also an attempt at compensation for the humiliations that he suffers at work. Meanwhile, his boys, ages 8 and 10, are bullied by peers, including the boss’s son, at their new school—until, that is, they become the reigning bullies themselves. Whose father is the best? They feel they’ve won this contest hands down—until they espy their father kowtowing to his boss. Exposed, Yoshii explains to his children the facts of socioeconomic life—like the mother in Blake’s poem “The Little Black Boy,” promoting a false lesson by endorsing the status quo.
This is shrewd, brilliant, sometimes hilarious stuff—and with such an eye, especially outdoors. In one stationery shot, with the low-hung camera tilted upwards, Yoshii performs morning exercises while two trains pass in either direction, the symbolical outcome: stasis—an ironical undercutting of Yoshii’s workday get-go. A traveling shot of the boys trailing their father on the path home expresses their awe of him and the security they feel in his presence.
Ozu remade this, with sound and color, as Ohayô (1959).
2. A STORY OF FLOATING WEEDS. One of Yasujiro Ozu’s last silent films is Ukigusa monogatari. “Weeds” refer to an itinerant troupe of stage performers currently lighting in a remote mountain village. The film opens with their “floating” in, and closes with their “floating” out, by train.
The group’s leader is Kihachi Ichikawa. He visits Otsune (Choko Iida, superb), the mother of his son, a postgraduate student, whom Otsune has raised alone. Much of Otsune’s life consists of waiting for Kihachi’s next infrequent arrival. The boy, Shinkichi, doesn’t know Kihachi is his father. As they fish together, father and son, shot from behind, cast their rods in near unison. But revelations and tensions during this visit will undo the harmonious image.
Everything in this humane, humanistic film yields to flux, instability, incompletion. Even the absence of sound seems to contribute to this thematic result.
Both arthritic, Otsune and Kihachi testify to aging—the passage of time. Kihachi is proud at how big his son has become since the last time he saw him. Planning on staying put for a year, presuming that his show will be, as usual, popular, Kihachi hopes to see a good deal of Shinkichi on this go-round. But the troupe also has lost its luster, or perhaps tastes have changed, and Kihachi will be leaving sooner than he thinks. So will Shinkichi. Irony compounds irony: the family that never was is about to dissolve, and Ozu’s comedy drifts into familial tragedy.
Wind-rippled banners outside; the ephemera of cigarette smoke indoors: Ozu orchestrates images of fluctuation, evanescence. We who do not travel for our livelihoods: we, too, are “floating weeds.” It is the impermanent nature of existence. It is what makes the heart ache even as we hold onto those we love.
Ozu remade the film in 1959.
3. AN INN IN TOKYO. Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo no yado is a silent film about a homeless family—Kihachi, an unemployed father, and his two small sons—at a time of national economic crisis. (His becomes an extended family when it unites with another homeless pair, a mother and her daughter.) Kihachi ends up a thief.
The film opens on the road, in the industrial outskirts of Tokyo, the Koto district, as Kihachi, accompanied by his children, tries to find factory work. His wife has abandoned them, probably because of the family’s poverty, and her dogging absence implies a kind of cosmic abandonment. With his meager resources, Kihachi must often choose between food and temporary shelter for himself and his children. Also, as Kihachi begs and begs for work, his morale is increasingly laid low. Moreover, tensions crop up between him and his sons, whose sense of entitlement to his taking care of them is frustrated by circumstances they minutely perceive but do not totally grasp. Ozu, then, shows us poverty in a depressed time and place and the resultant family dynamics.
As these circumstances press Kihachi toward crime, the film seems closer to Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959) than to the postwar neorealism of Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948), with which it is often compared. Still, Ozu’s film is most expressive in portraying Tokyo’s industrial hinterlands, a sunbaked wasteland with smoke-belching factories in the background. Gigantic spools lying on the ground, shorn of cables, encapsulate an expanse of land bereft of productivity. Their heightened, surreal tangibility, like the sights of factories that taunt Kihachi with the illusion of work possibilities, contrasts with a “family picnic” at which Kihachi and sons, pantomiming, pretend to treat their palates and fill their stomachs with imaginary food.
4. A PEBBLE BY THE WAYSIDE. About twenty years ago I saw Tomotaka Tasaka’s Robo no ishi, from the novel by Yamamoto Yuzo, at the Northwest Film Center in Portland, Oregon. I have had no opportunity since to revisit the film, and I regret not having memorialized the occasion of my single visit by writing a piece about the film. As a result, while I vividly recall my response to the film, I do not recall the film itself, except fleetingly.
Tasaka’s black-and-white A Pebble by the Wayside impressed me as one of the most powerful evocations of childhood in cinema. The protagonist, Goichi Aikawa, is an impoverished rural boy who dreams of a better life. In one indelible passage, with Goichi at play, I recall Tasaka’s use of diaphanous superimposition to show the boy and—either in reality or dreaming thought: at this point, I’m not sure which—a passing train overhead. The train is achingly symbolic of the child’s desire to escape his surroundings and poverty; but the superimposition also suggests the weight of this dream of his, the difficulty of its realization. I also vaguely recall a young man, a writer, I believe, who leaves the village for the city. Whether this is a character the course of whose hopes parallels Goichi’s or, in fact, Goichi himself, grown up, my memory is too clouded to determine. It seems to me that failure envelops both characters—or the single character at two different times. While I associate the childhood passages with a spare, elemental visual style, I recall the city scenes as being visually intricate, busy and dense.
There isn’t even a synopsis of this film currently on the Internet. The closest thing to this is a synopsis of an animated cartoon version of the same story.
5. STORY OF THE LAST CHRYSANTHEMUM. Brilliantly acted by Shotaro Hanayagi as a Kabuki actor named Kikunosuke Onoe, Kenji Mizoguchi’s Zangiku monogatari, from the novel by Shôfû Muramatsu, is one of the best films ever about actors and acting. Matsutarô Kawaguchi and Yoshikata Yoda wrote the script.
Kikunosuke gradually becomes a successful actor, thanks in part to the encouragement and counsel of Otoku, the family servant who loves him. Otoku’s illness and death prevent their finally marrying.
Mizoguchi warmly conveys that theater and its illusions crystallize human vanities and yearnings, as well as the flux and frailty of life. Stage performances suggest the human spectacle we are part of. Such scenes are often introduced in long shot, that is, at a vast distance, with great quantities of dark shrouding the top and bottom of the frames, so that the stage, with its appearing and disappearing screens and costumed players, appears as an angled strip of light converging three harmonious views: that of the spectator in the film; that of the spectator of the film—us; that of some cosmic spectator, the calm godly eye for which all human endeavor is a spectacle to be taken in.
These transcendent scenes are consistent with the visual tenor of a film that continually seems to be unfolding in darkness, with scattered light or white objects illuminating patches in the frames. Here is a film of small, cramped quarters with one light per room, of backstage areas, of streets at night—a film cloaked by night. Miraculous black-and-white cinematography, by Shigeto Miki and Yozio Fuji, renders this darkness vast, mysterious, profound, yet without ominous overtones or shrill accents. The cumulative effect is of a labyrinthine exploration, as though an eye—ours; the camera’s; God’s—were discovering particles of human light in an illimitable dark eternity.
6. RECORD OF A TENEMENT GENTLEMAN. Yasujiro Ozu’s first postwar film, Nagaya shinshiroku, is as delightful as his comedy I Was Born, but . . . (see above) and twice as profound. Its makeshift family reflects Japan’s shaken institutions, and its setting—the lower-class section of downtown Tokyo—reflects Japan’s postwar economic hardship. What irony that the character who sets the plot into motion, Tashiro, is a fortune teller. Japan’s future is clouded and indeterminate.
Kohei, the small son of an itinerant carpenter, attaches himself to Tashiro, who brings him home to his tenement to the dismay of his actor-roommate. They decide that Tané, their widowed neighbor, should take the boy in for the night. Tané wants no part of Kohei, but he is left there and, so, she complies. Attempts to find the motherless boy’s father fail, and Kohei tries Tané’s patience with his recurrent bed-wetting. But the two slowly bond, and Kohei becomes for a while a cherished part of Tané’s life.
For a while; Ozu is cinema’s great poet of transience, impermanence. A key shot consists of discarded newspaper pages blown by wind across the ground. The image, poignant, refers to Japan’s postwar army of abandoned children. Can anything restore the nation’s fortunes? Perhaps; but Kohei’s young father shows up one day to claim his son, expressing charming gratitude.
Kohei and Tané: each wears a pudgy, sour face. Chouko Iida beautifully plays Tané. Thus Ozu’s great pre-war tragedienne, best known for maternal roles, now plays a reluctant surrogate mother or grandmother—and she is hilarious when expressing disapproval of the boy, deeply moving once her heart opens up to him, and devastating upon her loss of him.
The film ends by showing anonymous young boys in a park. Two share a cigarette: the obliteration of Japanese childhood.
7. SPRING IN A SMALL TOWN. Adjudged in 2005 to be “the greatest Chinese movie ever made,” Fei Mu’s blustery, black-and-white Xiao cheng zhi chun focuses on a “not normal” marriage that defines an historic space betwixt the Second World War, which in more ways than one has left China in rubble, and the Cultural Revolution up ahead.
Liyan, who is sickly, and Yuwen, his wife, sleep in separate rooms; Liyan’s teenaged sister sleeps elsewhere on the grounds. Yuwen is a dutiful though unloving partner. This Liyan cannot see because the vestiges of feudalism that are attached to him blind him to his wife’s silent anguish and misinterpret her dutifulness. But everyone’s consciousness is about to change as a result of Liyan’s best friend’s visit: Zhichen, now a medical doctor, turns out to be the boy that 16-year-old Yuwen loved ten years earlier, near the time of the Japanese invasion. A seemingly speedily rising moon in the nighttime sky is Fei’s symbol for a breakthrough in understanding that occurs in each of the main characters.
The early part of the film is inundated with Yuwen’s mundane voiceover (“I pushed away my own door and sat on my bed . . .”), for inside her head is more or less where she lives, not in the small town where, she laments, “nothing ever changes.” (Irony.) The substantial erasure of this stream-of-consciousness voiceover once Yuwen has Zhichen with whom to interact comes as a jolt; from it, we feel the shift in Yuwen’s mental and emotional life.
“I hope he dies!” at one point Yuwen says aloud to Zhichen about Liyan. She is properly aghast at this first-time notion. Individualism, once a refuge, has now become a source of decision-making and deeds.
The “decision” here is not to murder anyone.
8. LATE SPRING. Every girl should get married, and every father is doing the right thing by seeing to it that this happens—in letting his daughter go. This conventional wisdom, though, does not describe how Shukichi and Noriko Somiya, in Yasujiro Ozu’s Banshun, feel. Although no spring chicken (she is 27), Noriko has no interest in marriage and is as content remaining with her widowed father, a professor, as he is content in having her remain. But society takes a different view, and Masa, the professor’s sister, is especially meddlesome in her determination to get Noriko married. If her getting married is the way things ought to be, Shukichi comes up with a scheme to push Noriko out of the nest: he will pretend that he is about to get remarried. Noriko, whose smiles conceal disappointment, finally accepts a suitor’s proposal, and Shukichi ends up alone in his kitchen, peeling an apple. It drops to the floor. This, now, is the way life will be.
Based on a novel by Kazuro Hirotsu, Late Spring benefits from a brilliant script by Ozu and Kôgo Noda. Social comedy and familial tragedy brush across one another. Self-determination is hard to come by; disappointment results from the compromises one makes in the course of one’s life. At the same time, however, Ozu hasn’t made an adolescent film decrying how bad things are. His film is one of acceptance. Ozu’s resigned acceptance, which is philosophical, not defeatist, is borne of the contemplation that permeates his postwar films. As usual, Ozu is peerless at capturing another intersection: the rush of emotion; the passage of time.
And he has two perfect actors at his disposal, giving tremendously moving performances: Chishu Ryu as Shukichi, whose smiles conceal as much as his daughter’s, and Setsuko Hara as Noriko.
9. EARLY SUMMER. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #1.
10. IKIRU. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #48.
11. THE LIFE OF OHARU. The opening shot is among the most famous in Japanese cinema: in darkness, the camera follows a woman as she walks diagonally through the frame, the slow, protracted nature of her movement along the street a metaphor for the difficulty of her life’s journey.
Oharu, a seventeenth-century prostitute, is old: fifty. In a temple, perhaps she reminisces; as likely, the long flashback belongs instead to the authors of the script, Yoshikata Yoda and Kenji Mizoguchi, the latter of whom also directed. Oharu, a merchant’s daughter, may have seemed destined for a better life. While serving at the Imperial Palace in Kyoto when she was young, she fell in love beneath her class, prompting her and her parents’ exile and the beheading of her lover. (Indelible: the flash of reflected sunlight from the executioner’s sword.) Over the years, many things happened, including her becoming a courtesan to pay off her father’s debts, a brief marriage that ended when her husband was killed by thieves, and the rejection of her attempt to enter a convent when she was blamed for a sexual predator’s use of her. Mizoguchi isn’t taking aim at fate, but, rather, at the paucity of choices available to women in a world where their lives are dominated and determined by men. Mizoguchi regarded this theme of such importance that he returned to it again and again.
Here, he gave it exceptionally powerful form. Saikaku Ichidai Onna—[novelist Ihara] Saikaku’s Life of a Woman—finds Mizoguchi at his most patient and precise; modern reflections deftly shimmer from his portrait of feudal Japan. In one passage, a puppet show features a female puppet in the artist’s hand—a man manipulating a “woman” for the sake of male enjoyment, while geishas also watch.
Kinuyo Tanaka is brilliant as Oharu.
12. THE CITIZEN. Although films from “Bollywood” are quite the fashion, nearly all outstanding films from India have been Bengali, not Hindi. Writer-director Ritwik Ghatak is the first great postwar Indian filmmaker. Nagarik is his first feature. Made when he was in his twenties, it was released in 1977, the year after his death. Satyajit Ray regarded Ghatak as “more Bengali” than himself.
The tragedy that is the foundation of Nagarik is the 1947 partition of Bengal (following the independence of India) that created countless refugees who flooded Calcutta, including Ghatak. The film opens with stunning irony: a freely roaming camera that captures trees and river, goes underneath a spectacularly intricate bridge, and finds rows of tall buildings: an encapsulation of the endless possibilities that the city offers. An overhead shot of a nicely dressed young man in the street, in conjunction with this sense of possibility, marks him for success. But we discover that Ramu has made another attempt at getting a job in borrowed clothes. Jobs are scarce, and his slum-dwelling family withers in poverty in cramped quarters, their lives at the mercy of the money they need and talk about. For now, Ramu is certain he will be successful. In time, the family’s hopes evaporate.
Ghatak, a Marxist, has made a strong, evocative film that focuses on closeups of the faces of the family members and haunting long shots, often with a single soul at least troubled, even defeated, in the frame. In a magnificent shot, a woman sits in front of a mirror. We see her and her reflection. Her eyes are closed. When financial stress consumes existence, there is scant existence; and, additionally, if you are separated from your homeland, there is scarce identity. It is like looking into a mirror with your eyes closed.
13. TOKYO STORY. See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #11.
14. UGETSU MONOGATARI. See 100 Greatest Films List, entry #50.
15. SANSHO, THE BAILIFF. “Without mercy, a man is like a wild beast. . . . Men are created equal.” With these words to his young son, an 11th-century provincial governor who has contested the feudal order flees. En route to joining him in exile, his wife, Tamaki (Kinuyo Tanaka, superb), and their two children, Zushio and Anju, are kidnapped. Tamaki is sold to a brothel; meanwhile, her son and daughter are sold as slaves to Sansho, a brutal tax collector who balks at how unsuited to hard labor their small size makes them. Ten years hence, Anju helps her brother to escape so that he can search out their mother; to avoid punishment, she drowns herself. Zushio is appointed governor of the same province that his late father once governed. He abolishes slavery there and brings Sansho to justice. Freed slaves riot, and Zushio begins again to search for his mother, who has been branded, crippled and blinded, all to curb her repeated attempts to make her way to freedom.
Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sanshô dayû is cinema’s most powerful portrait of slavery, a slave uprising, and the will to freedom. It contrasts human cruelty and nobility, oppression and compassion. Mizoguchi and black-and-white cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa have also made their film heart-piercingly beautiful: a natural reminder, nearly everywhere, of the equality to which, and the mercy for which, all of us have been born. The scene of Anju’s suicide is unspeakably lovely; the sea into which she gracefully walks appears to enfold her as a mother might a child in need of comfort. Mizoguchi never made a more moving film.
It is the highly analytical nature of this riches-to-rags slave chronicle, however, that most decisively spares it the sentimental outcome of most other films that follow characters through travails throughout the years.
16. SEVEN SAMURAI. Akira Kurosawa’s Shichinin no samurai is a powerful fable about the defense of a poor farming village in the sixteenth century. Dozens of bandits are poised to attack. The village leader suggests finding “hungry samurai” for whom payment in food is sufficient. Weary of fighting, Kambei Shimada (Takashi Shimura, magnificent) nonetheless consents to the task, recruiting six others, one of whom, brash, vulgar, boastful Kikuchiyo (Toshirô Mifune, turbulent, hilarious, heart-piercing—his greatest role), isn’t really of the samurai caste, but, a farmer’s son, provides a bridge connecting the simple farmers to the hired killers protecting them.
This film is elemental, intensely physical, and existential, with soaking rains, whipping winds, farmers in the fields harvesting barley, and a final ferocious confrontation between bandits and samurai. Too, there is one of the most gorgeous passages imaginable: amidst blossoms, the meeting of a boy, the youngest samurai, and the young daughter of a farmer. And one of the saddest: a prostitute’s retreat into a flaming hut, to avoid facing her samurai-husband—the collateral cost of his protecting others rather than protecting his wife.
Robust, dynamic, Seven Samurai projects a harsh black-and-white world in which feudal wars have undermined order, inspiring criminals to prey on the vulnerable. Indeed, most everything conspires to threaten the survival of farmers. Someone says, “It is luckier to be a dog than a farmer.” But it is far less fortunate to be a samurai. At the end of the film, only three of the seven are left standing. They face the graves of their four comrades, in each mound the warrior’s sword as a marker—Kurosawa’s glorious hommage to John Ford’s The Lost Patrol (1934). One remarks: “Again we are defeated. It is the farmers who have won. Not us.”
Bravery, honorable commitment, success—these say otherwise.
17. CHIKAMATSU MONOGATARI. Seventeenth-century Kyoto; Japan’s feudal moral code demands that two adulterous lovers, bound back-to-back, be driven by horseback through the clamorous street to the place of their double crucifixion. Ishun, a successful scroll-maker, is among the curious; but he is a philandering hypocrite. Osan, his decades-younger wife by financial arrangement, is wrongly suspected of marital infidelity with Mohei, Ishun’s prize worker. The pair flee, intent on committing double suicide; but when Mohei confesses his love, Osan is given cause to live. They are caught, however, betrayed by Osan’s “disgraced” family. Bound back-to-back, Osan and Mohei are driven through the street. This time, the camera is closer up; the abstract idea of the punitive code has been transformed into human reality. There’s no need this time to show the crucifixions. We ourselves supply that image from what we saw earlier.
Based on a puppet play by Chikamatsu Monzaemon, Kenji Mizoguchi’s intense, delicate love story and condemnation of social bigotry and the role money plays in determining people’s fates is an exquisitely wrought film ranging from Kyoto’s industrious bustle to the serenity of Lake Biwa, where, contemplating their doom, the fugitives already branded as lovers discover their love. There is no peace either behind or ahead of them; but in that moment, seemingly still while slowly moving across the misty lake, there is the otherworldly contentment of their feelings for one another. What we “see” is the interiority of their love.
On land, in rural hiding, Mohei recalls himself as a boy dreaming of his own future success in the city of Kyoto. Thus in the present he goes back to a past from which he looked ahead. The complexity of the psychological coordinates of time suggests the exhaustion of time—and the fates of the crucified lovers.
18. GOJIRA. Ishirô Honda’s Gojira belongs to kaijû, the Japanese genre of “big monster movies.” (The 1956 Godzilla is a slashed, English-dubbed version of the original, with an American reporter inserted to provide easy navigation amidst an unfamiliar culture.) Its 150-foot long reptile, with scorching radioactive breath, refers to the horror unleashed by the U.S. explosion of atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki nearly a decade earlier. It has, we are told, “absorbed an enormous amount of atomic radiation.”
Rising from its watery depths, Gojira is identified with oily black night, in which it majestically cloaks itself. It eerily, unfathomably emerges from Japan’s collective consciousness. Its initial appearance is accompanied by a blinding blast of light, echoing Hiroshima. Soon afterward, it is also identified with torrential rain from above and upheaving sea below. Gojira suggests, at once, primordial Nature and Nature’s interruption—unearthly silence, interrupted by bellows, moans and groans. It is elementally riotous, somehow both water and fire. It turns Tokyo, which it attacks, “into a sea of flames.” Returning to the sea to regather its strength for a second attack, it leaves in its wake what looks like a bombed-out landscape: the outcrop of war. Hospitals are again filled with the burnt, the contaminated, the dying.
Although a radiologist pleads that Gojira must be captured and studied for its survival of such high doses of radiation, the nation is mobilized to down the beast, for instance, by a coast-long electrified fence and missiles launched from airplanes. Nothing seems to work; and Gojira’s long assault on Tokyo, set to a measured pace, gives us time to contemplate the depth of its horror and not merely react to it. Here is one of cinema’s great waking nightmares, profoundly realized by Honda and his principal collaborator, black-and-white cinematographer Masao Tamai.
19. PATHER PANCHALI. A record of the life of an impoverished family living in the Indian jungle, Song of the Little Road combines 1930s Indian literary realism, the influence of Italian cinema’s neorealismo, and a commitment to the poetry of childhood as a filter through which to wring the poignancy of adult as well as much younger lives. From the 1934 novel by Bibhutibhusan Bandopadhaya, Satyajit Ray thus began cinema’s most celebrated and heart-walloping trilogy involving continuing characters.
Ray had studied graphic art under Nobel Prize-winning Bengali author Rabindranath Tagore at Calcutta University and had apprenticed to Jean Renoir during the filming of the latter’s beauteous The River (1951). He also was Bengali—a fact that excluded him from official honor in India.
The family members are little Apu, his older sister, Durga, to whom he is devoted, as she is to him, despite their many childish quarrels, their mother, Sarbojaya (Karuna Banerjee, magnificent), whose daily routine of housework accompanies endless fretting wrapped inside a proud demeanor, the children’s father, Har[har], a clerk and sometime priest who dreams of becoming a writer but who is too shy to ask his employer for back pay, and Indir[tharkun] (Chunibala Devi, brilliant), the frail, elderly aunt beloved by all—except Sarbojaya, who treats her like an unwelcome in-law.
The family dynamic is complex. For instance, Sarbojaya blames Indir for Durga’s continual theft of fruit from the landowner’s orchard: cherished gifts that make Auntie’s starved, withered face light up. She fails to consider her own bitterness about the family’s loss of the orchard—bitterness that she visits upon her spouse, who gave the orchard away to the landowner to pay (what the landowner at least claimed were) debts that Hari’s late brother owed him.
No film more beautifully evokes playful childhood’s suspended state. Or transience.
20. TALES OF THE TAIRA CLAN. Shin heike monogatari, like his earlier, uninteresting 47 Ronin (1941), also done on an epic scale, contains the most violent material with which Kenji Mizoguchi had to contend since his postwar conversion to Buddhism.
Text summarizes the history involved. “In the tenth and eleventh centuries, the Fujiwara clan ruled Japan, but by the twelfth century its influence had begun to wane. Two imperial courts contended for power: the official one; the Cloister Court, headed by the emperior who had abdicated, which ruled behind the scenes. As temples, equipped with their own armies, sought to establish the primacy of their own power, both courts depended on samurai—paid warriors the use of whom exhausted them as a class. The Cloister Court employed samurai of the Taira clan.” Thus “were sown the seeds of military government” that “dominated Japan for 700 years.”
The opening crane shot, descending onto a crowded, contentious market replete with political debate regarding the two courts, homes in on Japan’s past. Like most great art about the past, Mizoguchi’s films reflect on the present, that is, the burden of the past that the present totes. Shin heike monogatari suggests that the Japanese people—an extension of the samurai that once represented their interests—remain at the mercy of national politics.
Mizoguchi’s final masterpiece owes something to Sergei M. Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible (1944-46) in its exploration of ruling court intrigue. Mizoguchi, though, is most interested in how individuals cope with the moral dilemmas that confront them. At the film’s core is a twist of historical reality, as the heir to rule of the Taira clan discovers he may be, in fact, the son of either the ruling emperor or a monk. Mizoguchi is plumbing the ambiguous, uncertain waters of Japan’s postwar identity.
21. THE BURMESE HARP. See 100 Greatest Films List, entry #23.
22. TOKYO TWILIGHT. See 100 Greatest Films, entry #55.
23. THRONE OF BLOOD. See 100 Greatest Films List, entry #56.
24. APARAJITO. The middle part of the Apu Trilogy begun with Pather Panchali (see above), Satyajit Ray’s The Unvanquished is a transitional work in which two different actors play Apu, one as a ten-year-old, the other as an adolescent. The family has relocated to Banaras, where pilgrims bathe in the Ganges, and Harihar, Apu’s father, officiates as one of countless priests. Self-exile from his ancestral home following the death of his daughter signals Hari’s defeat; he is farther than ever from his dream of becoming a writer, and his clock is set to borrowed time. Hari’s death is marked by a rush of poetry: a burst of birds filling the sky. The fact that Apu at the time is bringing holy water from the Ganges to his dying father suggests the possibility that the course of Apu’s life will be no better.
The financial struggles of the widowed Sarbojaya and her son, now drawn even closer by the deaths of daughter/sister Durga and their husband/father, ensue. Apu’s paternal grandfather tries training the boy for the priesthood; is Apu’s fate, then, set in stone? Perhaps not; Apu opts instead to go to school in Calcutta. Like his father, he has fallen in love with books. A scholarship helps, and Sarbojaya pays additional expenses by making sacrifices. Apu is drawn into life at the school and eventually must choose between attending his dying mother at home and taking final exams.
Aparajito is brilliant on the subject of the seductive force of education. However, its emotional centerpiece is the heart-rending situation of Sarbojaya, whose separation from her cherished son while he is very far away contributes to her fatal illness. This heartache is in addition to the new gulf of learning between them. Karuna Banerjee’s tremendous performance as Sarbojaya is almost intolerably moving.
25. EQUINOX FLOWER. Yasujiro Ozu’s first film in color again mines generational difference and conflict. At a wedding reception, businessman Wataru Hirayama notes the shift from arranged marriages to love matches. He approves, but at the same time Wataru deeply loves Kiyoko, his wife, who is present; how can he completely turn his back on the old ways that gave him a marriage that has been the principal blessing of his life, including its fruit, his daughters? Moreover, hasn’t postwar culture also wobbled his sense of authority, hence, being? When a friend confides that his daughter is now living with a man without benefit of marriage, Wataru’s confidence in the present is further eroded. He thus arranges a marriage for his elder daughter, Setsuko. Stubbornly, Wataru rejects the suitor of her choice, Masahiko Taniguchi, her co-worker, after the boy respectfully asks him for Setsuko’s hand in marriage. Father and daughter become estranged as a result, and Kiyoko presses for their reconciliation.
Higanbana refuses to reduce its material to a study of hypocrisy; each character, including Wataru, is presented fully, as someone coping with contradictory, deep feelings. Unlike Akira Kurosawa in even his greatest film, Ikiru (see above), Ozu refuses to clobber one generation with another.
Perhaps the elegiac film achieves its most exquisite poignancy in the passage in a park. Amidst beauteous Nature (Ozu’s cinematographer, Yuuharu Atsuta, contributes phenomenally throughout, even in interiors), the Hirayamas reminisce. Kiyoko speaks of wartime; she hated the war, but now, looking back, recalls how much closer people felt when the possibility existed that Allied bombing would cause them to die together. Higanbana is the rare film to analyze nostalgia rather than exploit it.
Higanbana is brilliantly acted: Shin Saburi as Wataru; Kinuyo Tanaka, Kiyoko; Ineko Arima, Setsuko; Keiji Sada, Masahiko; Chishu Ryu, Wataru’s friend, Shukichi.
26. ENJO. Based on Yukio Mishima’s 1956 novel Kinkakuji (The Temple of the Golden Pavilion), Enjo (a.k.a. Conflagration and Flame of Torment) unfolds as the unimpeded flashback of a stuttering boy, Goichi Mizoguchi, who has been apprehended by police for burning down Kyoto’s 14th-century Soenji Temple, where he had apprenticed to the head priest, Tayama, after the death of his father, a provincial monk who revered the building. Tayama had seemed to the boy as pure as the temple itself; after a series of disillusionments regarding the temple either directly or symbolically (although the structure had eluded Allied bombing, U.S. occupiers defiled it by using it as an ad hoc brothel; the Japanese themselves commercialized it later on), Goichi learns that his mentor has a mistress and commits his irrevocable criminal act. If the temple proved too pure an ideal to exist in so tarnished a world, neither can the latter sustain his own youthful idealism. Goichi commits suicide.
Something is rotten in the state of Japan; Goichi’s arson assaults the betrayal of Japanese fathers and traditions. The boy bears his father’s mark: the stutter, according to Goichi’s narration in the book, that “placed an obstacle between [him] and the outside world.” His father’s death, then, has strengthened, not diluted, the filial bond. But his feelings are even more complex than this suggests, for the beauty of the temple makes Goichi feel that his own existence “was a thing estranged from beauty” (Mishima). Japan’s betrayed past—its betrayed fathers—now taunts the youth, also contributing to his destruction of the Buddhist temple.
In the film, the temple isn’t much to look at; this underscores its subjective beauty for Goichi. The whole drama is a thing of his mind. Ichikawa’s austere, precise, analytical images are among the most beautiful in cinema.
27. AJAANTRIK. A dilapidated Chevrolet jalopy obsesses Bimal. The taxi driver has named it Raggadal. This work vehicle barely works, continually breaks down, requiring Bimal’s constant mechanical attention and the reordering of expensive parts when Bimal’s boss would prefer that the nearly forty-year-old car be put out to pasture. Because of Raggadal, Bimal is the village laughingstock. When a passenger complains that Raggadal “croaks,” he and his companion get tossed out.
Raggadal does croak—and groan, and make all sorts of metallic sounds that are first comically and later pitifully exaggerated on the soundtrack. Bimal is continually talking to it, as though Raggadal were a cherished pet. Raggadal may be a symbol of technology that the times have passed by, a symbol therefore of the transience of successive technologies, but it is Bimal’s lonely means of accessing some point in the lives of his fleeting passengers and an anxious attempt at a bulwark against his own transience.
Ritwik Ghatak’s Bengali film Ajaantrik (a.k.a. The Unmechanical and Pathetic Fallacy), in black and white both stark and fluent, begins as a raucous comedy and slides into tragedy as we become increasingly aware of Bimal’s unhinging soul. Comical obstinacy yields to the delusion that the past can be held onto.
Ghatak employs an artillery of visual techniques to accompany his stream of sound effects. Raggadal’s headlights seem droopy eyes. In one shot the interior of the cab goes rapidly in and out of focus to suggest Raggadal’s labored breath! In a winding shot giving Raggadal and Bimal’s point of view on mountainous road, the same shot slides into objectivity when Raggadal itself, with Bimal, ends up coming toward the camera—a shattering glimpse of Bimal’s dissociation.
Raggadal ends up scrap, with Bimal ambiguously smiling; on the ground, a toddler—the future—toots Raggadal’s horn.
28. THE WORLD OF APU. See 100 Greatest Films List, entry #58.
29. FIRES ON THE PLAIN. No film has distilled more hauntingly the sadness of war than Kon Ichikawa’s Burmese Harp (see above). With Nobi, Ichikawa turned instead to war’s savagery and cruelty.
It begins with a slap in the face—in closeup. The face belongs to Private Tamura, in the Philippines in 1945—the Imperial Army’s raggedy last gasp. His squad leader is the one disciplining Tamura. The young consumptive was prematurely released from hospital; he should have stayed there five days instead of three, because who can be cured of tuberculosis in just three days? Moreover, food rations for five days had been sent along to the hospital for him. He is told to try to be readmitted; if that attempt fails, the squad leader continues, Tamura must fulfill his patriotic duty by blowing himself up with a hand grenade. He is no use to the platoon since he is constantly falling down on the job—at the moment, digging ditches.
Nobi becomes Tamura’s odyssey—one punctuated by mysterious sightings of distant fires on the plain. The hospital is blown up, but Tamura survives to endure a series of incidents that encapsulate war’s barbarism and the base impulses, such as selfishness, that it releases from humanity’s Pandora’s box. Patriotism, nationalism: these prove to be the bunk.
Eventually Tamura joins up with two soldiers who, without his realizing it, are cannibalizing human flesh. He dines with them. The two kill each other. When Tamura tries surrendering, an American kills him. Wilfred Owen wrote of “the Pity of war”; Nobi addresses the horror of it.
The fires on the plain are the illusion that war is productive or ennobling. Even Tamura, who had hoped to retain dignity and decency, is mauled by it. He dies for nought, with human meat in his belly.
30. NIGHT AND FOG IN JAPAN. See 100 Greatest Films List, entry #16.
31. DEVI. Formerly an assistant on Renoir’s beauteous The River (1951), Bengal filmmaker Satyajit Ray achieved his most concentrated result with The Goddess, which charts a soul’s disintegration. Subrata Mitra is Ray’s peerless black-and-white cinematographer.
While Umaprasad, her husband, is away at school, Doyamoyee is destroyed when, believing she is the incarnation of Kali, the Great Mother, her father-in-law institutes a cult of worship around her. The girl, traditional, herself comes to believe she is no longer human, as processions of ailing individuals prevail upon her for blessings, and cures for themselves and loved ones. Tugged in opposite directions in a generational clash of males between father and son, Doyamoyee dissolves into madness.
Devi unfolds in dark, sensuous, dreamlike images that suggest the corruption of family relations by various forms of jealousy, including the father’s against his becoming-higher-educated son, and by the past’s legacy of religious superstitiousness, with its sublimation of eroticism. The boy away at university is the righteous hero—in his own eyes, at least. But he is oblivious to the contribution he is making to his wife’s destruction by his insistence on India’s future at the expense of its past. Unwittingly, Umaprasad sacrifices Doyamoyee to his “enlightened” stand. There are, in fact, no heroes or villains here; the situation is tragic, as India’s past and future struggle without success to find common ground. Ray’s powerful fable explores, then, different kinds of human blindness and pride; even Doyamoyee is ambivalent about the crippling designation—that of a goddess, after all—that is cruelly imposed on her. Doyamoyee loses sight of herself. In a shot of stunning irony, we ourselves lose sight of her in deep darkness as she loses contact with the last thread of her own identity.
Soumitra Chatterjee gives a tremendous performance as Umaprasad.
32. LATE AUTUMN. Yasujiro Ozu’s Akibiyori is a lovely, humane, mostly comedic meditation on family matters, human existence and acceptance. It resembles Ozu’s Late Spring (see above), but with a twist. Now it isn’t a widower who courts greater loneliness by seeing a daughter through to her wedding, but a widow. While in Late Spring the professor feigns his upcoming marriage in order to release his daughter from a sense of obligation, in Late Autumn two friends of the widow’s spouse concoct a rumor of the teacher’s upcoming marriage toward the same end. Either parent chooses to remain solitary as a means of keeping faith with the past and embracing the natural course of life. “That’s the way life is”—a summation of the Ozu spirit—is a recurrent line of dialogue in this film.
Ayako becomes enraged when she believes that her mother, Akika (heavenly Setsuko Hara), is planning to marry—a threat to the friendship that has deepened their bond since the death of husband and father. Misunderstandings, however, are corrected. Ayako marries. But the film ends sadly, with Akika alone in the apartment she shared with her daughter. Moreover, the marital match scarcely resolves itself into an image of bliss. The couple’s dour pose for a wedding photograph suggests Akika’s loving sacrifice for what will prove her daughter’s unhappy union.
“Life is simple,” someone says in the film; “It’s people that make it complicated”—by their feelings. Ozu’s is a cinema of transience, of stable life fluctuating, sometimes evaporating, in mortal breezes. Throughout, Ozu inserts shots of people walking—for instance, glimpses through alleyways. The haunting evanescence of such moments is extended through match-editing consecutive ambulatory movements of different characters, either from indoors to out (or vice versa) or from one indoor spot to another. Life passing by.
33. WHEN A WOMAN ASCENDS THE STAIRS. Keiko is hostess at a Tokyo bar. Mikio Naruse’s film opens with her, but only as a voiceover accompanying shots of commercial streets: “On late autumn afternoons, bars near the Ginza [district] are like girls without makeup.” Inside Bar Carton, Keiko’s arrival is expected. She phones to say she will be late. Again, she is present only as a voice—and this time, a voice we don’t hear. The next cut reverses the scene of the just-ended telephone conversation. We are with Keiko in her flat, and the sequence of shots implies that bar and home each extends the other. Two men are present: bar owner and business manager. The owner blames the business shortfall on Keiko’s unwillingness to “go all-out.” Translation: Keiko doesn’t make herself sexually available to bar patrons, who therefore take their business elsewhere. Irony: before she materializes in order to be berated (rendered speechless, as it were), Keiko is merely a voice, underscoring how little voice she has in her own life.
Periodically Keiko’s disembodied voice interrupts, expressing her own world-weariness or providing an objective overview of the lives of women and girls who work in bars: “Around midnight, Tokyo’s 16,000 bar women go home. The best go home by car. Second-rate ones, by streetcar. The worst go home with customers.”
Repeatedly we watch Keiko’s feet as they ascend stairs. “After it gets dark,” she says, “I have to climb the stairs [to the bar], and that’s what I hate. But once I’m up, I can take whatever happens.”
Keiko’s attempts to find someone to marry fail. Meanwhile, her efforts to secure funding to buy a local bar also fail. All she can do is negotiate the hard, limited choices available to her. All she can do is ascend the stairs.
34. THE CLOUD-CAPPED STAR. The first shot is of an enormous tree, the leafy crown of which is asymmetrical. The shot is held and held. A male voice is heard singing. A girl pops into the foreground of the frame. Across the river, a train chugs. The girl smiles, disappears. The camera moves, placing the singer into the frame’s foreground. In a number of ways, this bravura opening suggests separation and out-of-jointness. Thus begins Meghe Dhaka Tara, Ritwik Ghatak’s turbulent, melancholy film about the misfortunes of a Bengal family from East Pakistan in a refugee village outside Calcutta. Ghatak himself fled to Calcutta as a result of the 1947 partition of Bengal. His film studies the effects of such an event on uprooted lives. It is a tragic anthem for all the world’s displaced, dispossessed.
The protagonist is Neeta (Supriya Choudhury, wonderful), whose family, once middle-class, now struggles in poverty. A student, she sacrifices her education and postpones marriage in order to support parents and siblings after injury forces her father out of work. Rather than appreciating her efforts on their behalf, her family exhausts her emotionally and financially, and when her health fails—she is tubercular—her father tosses her out into a raging storm. Ghatak’s film is indeed full of echoes of Shakespeare’s Lear.
Perhaps The Cloud-Capped Sky could use a little more discipline; it is oversized, overripe. There may be a few too many trenchant closeups. But there are also beautifully layered compositions, to which foreground, background and the space in between contribute intricately and evocatively; and the film’s main arguments, that being wrenched from one’s homeland may loosen one’s grip on one’s humanity and that the family, as institution, may be insufficiently strong to shore up the weakening of these ties, compel. The film is half-baked, half-brilliant.
35. ALONE ON THE PACIFIC. May 12, 1962: Kenichi Horie, 23, in the dead of night steals out of Nishinomiya Harbor in a small sailing craft. Ninety-four days later, the social dropout and perpetual worry for his parents reaches his destination: San Francisco. Back in Osaka, his father publicly apologizes for his son’s individualism and pesky independence.
Working from wife Natto Wada’s brilliant, intricate script, an adaptation of Horie’s account, Kon Ichikawa has created a massively moving masterpiece, a hymn to the human spirit. Ichikawa’s film is also highly analytical, especially in its fluent interweaving of Horie’s experience at sea, which is interrupted by flashbacks prior to his departure from home, and his voiceover. What we see as the present is the recent past; what we hear as an echo of this past is, actually, closer to Horie’s present. Different tenses, time frames: Ichikawa is exploring the unfettered, integrative nature of the human mind. “I wonder if I’ll ever reach America”: one must be alert as to what Horie visibly says, as here, and what he discloses in recollective voiceover. Horie continually speaks aloud to assuage his loneliness.
“You know what it’s like, Dad, pushing and shoving your way through life, trying to survive”: a flashback shows the reconstituted conversation in which Kenichi says this. Kenichi’s adventure, which a number of times nearly kills him, shows the boy honoring tradition and the past—in effect, his father—even as he seems to be rebelling against them. For instance, Kenichi’s making it to America symbolically reverses Japan’s defeat in the Second World War; when he crosses a spot where twenty years earlier the Japanese navy suffered losses, Kenichi offers a silent prayer. At different junctures, we see (a decade after the U.S. occupation) America’s continuing pernicious grip on Japan.
36. THE HOUSE IS BLACK. Khâneh siyâh ast has become legendary for four reasons: its qualities as a film; its role in defining the spirit of modern Iranian cinema; its being the first film by an Iranian woman; its being the one film by Forough Farrokhzad, perhaps Iran’s greatest woman poet, who died in a road accident, in 1967, at age 32.
Farrokhzad’s film documents lepers in their quarantined existence on an island. Its images of these individuals, including closeups, make us look squarely at an aspect of reality we might otherwise be inclined to shun. The opening image is of a woman, one of whose eyes is horribly deformed, looking into a mirror as the camera approaches until the reflected image is immense. This gradual movement helps adjust our sight to the “vision of pain.”
In a sense, Farrokhzad has incorporated our impulse to look away into the film by enjoining her images to a recitation of one of her poems (in addition to more conventional voiceover narration). The poem’s beauty acts as a buffer for the harsh images. But the poem accomplishes more besides. Expressing a yearning for freedom, it gives the lepers a collective voice while also reintegrating their perceived ugliness in the world of beauty that we all share and from which they have been materially removed. Farrokhzad’s use of her poem helps restore these souls to what we can recognize as the human condition.
An elastic documentary, The House Is Black pretends no objectivity, nor is everything we see unmediated reality. Like Robert J. Flaherty (Nanook of the North, 1922), Farrokhzad contrives and scripts scenes; her camera extends her sensibility, thoughts and feelings rather than becoming a mechanical recording device. Her film pulsates with humanity. The House Is Black, but Farrokhzad lets a little light in.
37. CHARULATA. Bhupati Dutta’s publication of a political newspaper in the late nineteenth century limits the attention he pays to Charulata, his lonely wife, in Satyajit Ray’s film based on Rabindranath Tagore’s 1901 novel Nashtanir (The Broken Nest). In their wealthy mansion, a caged bird projects how Charu feels. Charu fills her time with unrewarding activities such as embroidery; we see her hands at such work—an image of alienation—as the opening credits roll.
In a way, Charulata—the film of which Ray himself was most proud—recasts his tragic Devi (see above) as social satire, creating in this instance an undreamy and claustrophobic result. (One glorious shot outdoors, in homage to Jean Renoir’s 1936 Une partie de campagne, underscores by contrast the sense of confinement that Ray imposes on the rest of the film: Charu, uncharacteristically smiling while swinging on a swing, the apparatus of the swing nowhere visible, the resultant image one of joyous, if brief, freedom and motion.) Charu in this film, unlike Doyamoyee in Devi, is painfully aware of the male domination being leveled against her; but her recourse, a fixation on Amal, her cousin by marriage who encourages her interest in the arts, compounds her crisis rather than emancipating her. Will Charu’s marriage survive her deeper connection to her husband’s younger, handsome relation?
While Devi is a powerful fable, Charulata comes closer to a detailed realism; while Devi, the greater work, can stand on its own, Charulata gains strength and conviction when viewed as the earlier film’s companion-piece. Both marvelously address the individual need for gender equality. With Mahanagar (1963), which addresses a social need for this as well, a loose trilogy thus emerges.
Charulata’s finest performance comes from the brilliant star of The World of Apu and Devi: Soumitra Chatterjee, who plays Amal.
38. KAIDAN. An early twentieth-century Japanese folklorist of Irish and Greek descent, Lafcadio Hearn wrote the “strange tales” that Masaki Kobayashi’s Kaidan samples. This tense, spooky, stylized, painterly quartet of ghost stories transports us to another world in order to return us to human nature.
In “The Black Hair,” a samurai abandons his devoted wife and marries a governor’s daughter for the sake of career advancement, eventually abandoning her for his first wife, citing his thoughtless youth. But, as in Ugetsu (see above), the reunion is illusory, and the man here is punished for continuing selfishness; for doesn’t this motivate his abandonment of his second wife also? To underscore the point, the segment ends in a freeze-frame of his horrified face as he fails to exit a world of caustic memory and avenging ghosts.
“Woman of the Snow” features a supernatural snowstorm—trees dance in its thrashing winds—and culminates in the abandonment of a woodcutter by his wife over a broken pledge he made to a spirit in the storm. “Hoichi, the Earless” includes a ferocious battle at sea under a blood-orange sky and horrific revenge by ghosts of its warriors exacted against a blind musician for favoring pride over his sacred obligations to art and to the past. “In a Cup of Tea,” about a man who sees a stranger’s reflection in his cup of tea, is introduced by voiceover narration speculating on why some tales are left incomplete. After the cup falls to the floor, claiming being “wounded,” the stranger mysteriously appears in front of the man, de-materializes. The same thing happens to the aborted story! The author has vanished, too, leaving it to others to complete it so that he doesn’t disappoint. For us, the man has replaced the stranger at the bottom of the cup.
39. GOLDEN RIVER. With Subarnarekha, Ritwik Ghatak completed the trilogy he had begun with Meghe Dhaka Tara (see above) and Komal Ghandhar (1961) about the human upheavals, strife and all-out war, famine and dire poverty created as a result of the 1947 Partition of India, the arbitrary line that the British drew on a map as its farewell colonialist act, dividing India into a secular state and Islamic Pakistan. Ghatak’s saga over many years focuses on a family of Bengali refugees from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) trying to establish new roots.
It is a work structured by coincidences; but its melodramatic material everywhere gains resonance by references to Partition. The film opens, for instance, with a lower-caste mother pleading for her little son’s admission into school, only to be told that the line dividing school districts cannot be crossed. Suddenly regional conflict ignites and the woman is snatched away, leaving Abhiram orphaned; the child is adopted by Ishwar Chakraborty, whose little daughter, Seeta, Abhiram grows up to love. (Seeta commits suicide when her brother solicits her as a prostitute.) Meanwhile, the Subarnarekha River flows near the refugee colony on the outskirts of Calcutta—the beautiful illusion that division can be peaceably adapted to. (“Subarnarekha” literally means “golden line.”) The surrounding dull, daunting rocks taunt the illusion.
As with Meghe Dhaka Tara, Ghatak has fashioned a piece of powerful yearning—the desire of people to lead settled lives. An upwardly tilted shot suggests that sparsely adorned branches of a tree are reaching hopefully with all their fragile might into the heavens: a piercing image. “All year I’ve been yearning to come home,” Abhiram, who has been away at school, tells Seeta at the edge of a forest. Without realizing it, the boy is giving voice to the hearts of a shattered people.
40. THE PORNOGRAPHERS: INTRODUCTION TO ANTHROPOLOGY. “Subu” Ogata is an illegal artist, a skinflickmeister making two films a day, who reasons he is making a valuable social contribution. (Discussions amongst Subu and collaborators, such as his cutter, convey their absolute seriousness about their work.) He lives with Haru, who, believing her dead husband, reincarnated as a carp, disapproves, is herself ambivalent about their relationship. Subu finds himself increasingly attracted to Haru’s daughter, Keiko, whose surrogate father he has been since she was little, and whose flirtatiousness summons all Subu’s powers of resistance. Meanwhile, Subu must hide from the law and the mob.
Shohei Imamura’s wickedly funny black comedy Jinruigaku nyumon: Erogotshi yori satirizes both sides of the coin of sexual impulses: the government, for denying their existence in attempting to sanitize art; Subu, for yielding to them, at home and at work. It also addresses the human capacity for self-examination that results in transforming existential life into an object of study featuring “meaningful” symbols (camera; carp). Imamura additionally weighs humanity’s voyeuristic preoccupation, which helps explain all these matters as well as cinema itself.
It is structured as a film about a film (the interior one being Ogata’s personal story), an early image showing a window within the screen populated by those viewing the film; they could be looking at us. (Subsequent images feature another window, populated by someone else, inside the frame.) Thus Imamura adapts realism for his purposes. Elsewhere, images are surreal dreams punctuated by freeze frames. They mine Ogata’s history, psyche.
Ogata has his priorities, and all hell breaks out when he spends Haru’s savings to save money by setting up his own film processing laboratory. To quote Seiko: “Everything is about money.”
Except for some floor-level shots, one would never guess that Imamura’s mentor was Yasujiro Ozu!
41. DEATH BY HANGING. Nagisa Oshima’s Koshikei is the blackest black comedy. A Korean boy, hanged for raping and killing Japanese girls, survives his execution, throwing the Japanese legal system into mortification. The restricted oxygen to his brain has rendered R—the name by which the boy is known—amnesiac, and he is “reeducated,” to make him civilized, acceptable, “Japanese,” and ready for another execution. However, the process reveals how well R eludes Japanese stereotypes of Koreans and how easily the Japanese elude their own exalted self-image. Thus the film’s objective first movement, by patiently observing the procedure of capital punishment both in rehearsal and execution, indicts state murder for its inhumanity, while the wilder second movement indicts Japanese society for arrogance, self-delusion, and ethnic and racial bigotry.
Implicit throughout is the brilliant theme that will later inform Oshima’s Empire of Passion (see below): that “modern justice” is, in fact, an unwitting repackaging of ancient “justice”—a means by which modern society projects its enormous burden of guilt onto select individuals: a process sufficiently unsatisfying that it needs to be performed again and again. R’s survival of the state’s attempt to put an end to him reflects society’s failure to face and subdue traumas gnawing at its collective unconsciousness. R’s poise despite becoming the system’s pawn provides an ironical index of the chaos of the Japanese character, even as it strives to affect a composed self-image. R blindfolded, facing the noose, erases his distinction as non-Japanese; he becomes an instrument by which Oshima studies the people he knows best. Japanese humanity would seem to depend on how R is treated; but, blindfolded themselves, in their case by the self-image rattling inside their collective head, Japanese officials refuse to consider their own behavior and bent. To quote Nietzsche: “We are all murderers.”
42. DAYS AND NIGHTS IN THE FOREST. Conjuring an atmosphere both Shakespearean and Chekhovian, and borrowing Antonioni’s signature theme of alienation, Satyajit Ray achieved a complex, poignant result with Aranyer Din Ratri—like Ray’s Kanchenjungha (1962), a “holiday film.”
Four young, unmarried men from Calcutta spend the weekend at a wooded resort in Bihar, in the Bengali countryside. They bring their arrogance with them, disdaining the locals, except for two young women, members of a cultured household: sisters-in-law, one of them widowed. A fish-out-of-water comedy thus deepens into something else: an urgent opportunity for the boys, amidst their cranky leisure, to come out of their complacency and respond to the two girls and to unspoilt Nature in the beauteous surroundings, and transcend their usual rat race of urban careerism, gender and class bigotry, and monkey-mimicked Western ways. Perhaps they do not entirely miss the boat, that is, the forest. However, their whirlwind intrusion far more profoundly affects at least one of the young women.
Ray’s apprenticeship to Jean Renoir is richly evident here; Une partie de campagne seems an especial influence. Like Renoir, Ray portrays Nature as a moral force one can either resist or submit to; unlike the men, their pair of picnic partners already seem to have taken Nature into their lives, perhaps along with their joint loss (brother, spouse), but, as likely, steadily, gradually. The sparkling forest in Aranyer Din Ratri exudes the mystery that would elude the Mirabar caves fifteen years hence in David Lean’s A Passage to India.
The mystery is something the men, in their disparate lives, may yet respond to. Or suppress.
This ravishingly beautiful black-and-white film is quietly momentous about love—few films are so driven by erotic undertows—and about the ways we open up to others and the ways we stay shut.
43.DÔDESUKADEN. Shugoro Yamamoto’s The Town Without Seasons includes the stories upon which Akira Kurosawa drew for Dôdesukaden, one of his most trenchant and haunting achievements. The film, Kurosawa’s first in color, is set in a Tokyo slum. The title is a word that Yamamoto coined; it is the sound of the imaginary streetcar that a feeble-minded boy, Rokkuchan, repeats over and over as he trots and shuffles along, circumventing piles of garbage, going through the motions throughout the area of being the car’s conductor. Thus Rokkuchan copes with both his limitations, mental and socioeconomic, in the same way: by imagining himself beyond them. This makes life bearable; at least he can pretend—and believe—that he is a productive worker, and in a respectable position. Otherwise, all that sustains him and his careworn mother, with whom he lives, are their Buddhist prayers—another version of his trolley-chant!
An antecedent to this film is Kurosawa’s The Lower Depths (1957), from Gorky’s play. Dôdesukaden also weaves a tapestry of assorted impoverished human lives. Imagination ameliorates the trauma of poverty for Rokkuchan but falls against hard limits for others. The imaginary dream-house that a beggar builds for his son, with the boy’s own input, cannot protect the child from painful illness and death. Ocho’s single lapse of infidelity, more an imaginative leap out of the poverty with which she identifies her marriage than out of the marriage itself, becomes unforgiveable to Hei; he also is striking out at her as a way of striking out at his status and struggles. He is consumed with anger; she, with guilt—and her trek when, tossed out by Hei, she wanders off amidst a bleak landscape signals imagination’s suicidal end.
The final shot is heart-piercing: pictures of trolleys adorning the walls of Rokkuchan’s hut. Hopes, dreams, delusions.
44. DISTANT THUNDER. The “forgotten holocaust”: the Bengal Famine (1943-44), engineered by British prime minister Winston Churchill—Britain ruled India at the time—and abetted by Hindu trader-profiteers, that exacted the lives of 3.5 million Bengalis to help keep World War II British soldiers clothed and fed. The price of rice soared beyond the means of rural people to feed themselves and their families; British imports to India were slashed as exports from India increased. Satyajit Ray’s tremendous Ashani Sanket commemorates the tragedy.
Gangacharan Chakravarti (Soumitra Chatterjee, superbly charting a selfish soul’s gradual shame, humbling and enlarged humanity) has moved with wife Ananga to Natungaon in Bengal and, a Brahmin, has taken charge of the rural village because of his higher caste and education. He becomes priest, doctor, teacher, and opportunist, extracting payments when he and Ananga are already much better off than their neighbors. Meanwhile, the rice shortage takes hold, eventually reducing residents to privation and the sway of their basest instincts. It is another front of the war. (The Famine accounted for 90% of British fatalities in the Second World War.)
The film’s phenomenal opening: Grass; sky; trees—pristine Nature, suffused with melancholy. The closeup of a hand in the river: Ananga, bathing. A formation of war planes flies overhead, its drone drowning out the chirps of birds. The planes “look like a flock of cranes.” The intrusion of war; the illusion of war’s distance and normality.
A leper or, possibly, burn victim offers Chutki rice in exchange for sex. She chooses life.
The first village corpse—an untouchable. In closeup, Gangacharan’s hand holds her wrist, to check her pulse.
That celebrated closing shot: an old man and his seven dependants approaching the Chakravartis, to be taken in; the camera pulls back, revealing all the starving Bengalis they represent.
45. A RIVER CALLED TITASH. “As the poet Lalan says, ‘When the water turns to air,/ The fish will dissolve in the wind.’”
From India and Bangladesh comes Ritwik Ghatak’s Titash Ekti Nadir Naam.
Causality in this instance generating a stunning symbolical equivalence, the drying river accounts for the fate of the fishermen and their families in a 1930s East Bengal village. Moreover, the barren landscape and dissolving community resonate with prophetic symbolism: the elimination of a whole culture as a result of the 1947 Partition.
Ghatak’s River opens with Nature’s lament—rain dropping into the river—and images of barrenness and uselessness: boats, for instance, empty, abandoned. A father consoles his little daughter over this desertion of “the spark of life”—no small matter, since, otherwise, the area’s relative productivity would have been part of his legacy to her. Environmental devastation strikes at the heart of human life.
Some overwrought melodrama (including kidnapping, escape, madness, murder, suicide, beatings, outbursts of temper) drives Ghatak’s narrative, based on Advaita Malo Barman’s novel. The story, which covers many years, is complicated. A rare joyous moment occurs when a man bursts from the frame after his father gives permission for him to send his son to school, creating the possibility that the boy will have a better life than both father and grandfather.
But the powerful black-and-white poetry that Ghatak and cinematographer Baby Islam achieve becomes the soul of a film whose detailed study of tribal customs lends additional interest. Indeed, this eclectic work combines documentary realism, evocative imagery, and experimental flights of fancy.
The film culminates in the river’s drying and the eruption of violence. Ghatak quotes Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930)—only here, in place of a radiant sunflower, barren branches accompany the girl. Voluminous parched land. A lone child plays.
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