The Japanese film industry has been criticised in recent years for not supporting Japanese films overseas and for poor presentation of films to festivals and sales agents. There seems to be some substance to this but as far as archive prints are concerned there are usually prints available from various cultural agencies and it was good to see The Elegant Life of Mr Everyman as part of the Japanese Foundation Tour. The screening was at HOME in Manchester and was introduced by Jonathon Bunt from the University of Manchester. He promised us a good time with the film and some good laughs. He also pointed out that the director Okamoto Kihachi was part of the generation of filmmakers who experienced war service as young men and that this was perhaps an important influence on the film, as well as Okamoto’s approach to satirising the growing materialism of Japan in the early 1960s. The film did indeed provide what was promised. I admit that at this stage I knew nothing about Okamoto and it wasn’t until I’d done some research that I realised I actually owned DVDs of a couple of the director’s films.
Okamoto Kihachi is profiled on the Midnight Eye website. Born in 1924 he was conscripted and sent to fight in 1943 aged 19 and experienced the deaths of many of his fellow conscripts (he told an interviewer that young men born in 1924 suffered the highest rate of deaths from the fighting). His battlefield experiences surely informed his approach to action films, including several well-known chanbara or ‘samurai’ films with Mifune Toshiro (e.g. Samurai Assassin in 1964 and Sword of Doom in 1965) which were thought to have changed aspects of the genre, moving away from themes of ‘honour and heroism’ to focus on ‘death and misery’ (as Tom Mes puts it on Midnight Eye). The Elegant Life of Mr Everyman belongs to the part of Okamoto’s output that focused on experimental genre pieces – but it clearly has autobiographical touches too.
The film is an adaptation of a novel by Yamaguchi Hitomi (which may also be autobiographical). It tells the story of Eburi – an office-worker or ‘salaryman’ in an advertising company. ‘Eburi’ is an Anglo-Japanese pun which rhymes the Japanese name with the English concept of the ‘everyman’, making the character a good fit for a satirical narrative. (I’m indebted to the notes written by Tony Rayns for several insights like this.) Eburi’s main vice is to get (very) drunk one night a week in various bars. On one occasion he somehow allows himself to be persuaded by a young couple who are editors to write a piece for a magazine. He feels compelled to write the piece despite not having a subject. Finally, in desperation, he writes autobiographically about his experiences of marriage and being a father while coping with his own irresponsible father – an unscrupulous businessman who borrows money, spends it and then bankrupts himself on a regular basis, expecting Eburi to bail him out each time. Eburi is amazed when the magazine piece is successful and he is persuaded to write a second. This narrative structure allows Okamoto to present the events of Eburi’s life and then, when Eburi wins a literary prize, to regale his younger colleagues with more stories about his literary life. Here Okamoto deploys the full range of cinematic devices with stop motion animation and a form of drawn animation popular in Japanese advertising at the time (but more Western than the early styles of anime) as well as montage sequences, freeze frames, jump cuts and extended flashbacks to Eburi’s earlier experiences. (See the trailer below.)
There were several younger students of Japanese in the audience and I don’t know how many of the jokes and references they got. Okamoto was contracted to Toho and one of the directors for whom he worked in his early career was one of the most celebrated directors of the period, Naruse Mikio. So at one point he refers to a Naruse classic Late Chrysanthemums (1954) and then later to Steve McQueen and Yukio Mishima as celebrities. McQueen was only then in the early part of his career – but perhaps famous in Japan because of The Magnificent Seven? At one point Eburi’s 12 year-old son is watching a TV Western and Okamoto was a big Westerns fan himself. Mishima (1925-70) was a celebrated and controversial Japanese writer and provocateur. The script by Ide Toshiro is very well thought out. Eburi is supposed to have been born in 1926, the first year of the Showa era. This means that he is just old enough to have been conscripted in the final months of the war and he is shown as an incompetent infantryman in training in one of the flashbacks. In other scenes we see him trying to come to terms with the Americanisation of much of Japanese life during the Occupation and its aftermath and, with the advent of economic growth, the beginnings of the consumer society. At 36 it is already clear that he belongs to a different generation than his younger office colleagues. Several reviews describe Eburi as ‘middle-aged’ at 36 – which is probably accurate for an early 1960s attitude!
What makes this film particularly interesting for me is that it comes from the period when the Japanese New Wave was beginning to have an impact on the Japanese studios. Okamoto seems to have a singular take on what a film might be. The film also lines up alongside similarly satirical/absurdist films in other New Waves. One UK review I read suggested that Eburi is a figure like Tony Hancock. I can partly see that but my first thought was the satire shows on UK TV in the early 1960s and the writers that came from them such as Marty Feldman or other writers such as Charles Wood (The Knack 1966, How I Won the War 1967). Eburi’s story might be culturally Japanese but it definitely has universal features widely applicable in other film cultures of the 1960s. I’m very pleased to have seen it. I wish now I could find the Noh musical Oh, Bomb which Okamoto made in 1964 – or a subtitled version of his Western East Meets West (1995).
Japanese trailer (no subs):
One of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen recently, Crow’s Egg turns out to be a notable début for writer-director-cinematographer Manikandan. Based on the brief blurb in the Leeds Film Festival brochure, I’d thought this might be a children’s film or a kind of social realist drama. But it’s an interesting hybrid drawing upon several different models in order to present something new. At the film’s centre is a simple narrative idea that might come from neo-realism. Two young brothers live with their mother and grandmother in a slum on the outskirts of Chennai. Their father is in prison and the money that should pay for their schooling goes on fees for the incompetent lawyer who has so failed to even get him out on bail (we don’t know what the father has done). The boys contribute to the household income by collecting the coal that falls from the coal trains rattling into the city.
The boys play on a piece of spare land where they ‘harvest’ crows’ eggs from the trees to supplement their diet, hence their nicknames ‘Big’ and ‘Little Crow’s Egg’. When the land is re-developed and an outlet of a pizza chain is opened, the two boys have a new aim – to eat pizza like the people in the adverts on the TV screens (the family appears to be given two TV sets by the state government as part of some new scheme). A single pizza costs 30 times what the boys might earn in a day and so a quest to earn money by any means begins.
If this plot outline suggests a feelgood conventional Hollywood quest narrative, it’s certainly true that the film takes something from the success of Slumdog Millionaire – and it is important that the production was backed by Fox Star studios, the Indian subsidiary of 20th Century Fox, the distributor of Danny Boyle’s film. However, this isn’t an attempt to replicate Boyle and Dod Mantle’s frenetic style. Instead, Crow’s Egg sometimes draws on more realist depictions of slum life such as Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay as well as recent ‘Hindie’ (i.e. Hindi independent) films and aspects of popular Tamil cinema. The music score by G.V. Prakash Kumar and editing by Kishore Te combine in several montage sequences which accelerate the narrative – sometimes by using slow motion as well as conventional montage editing. A little digging reveals that this is the fifth Tamil film from Fox Star to receive a positive response and the relatively high profile of the film in India partly depends on its co-producer, Tamil superstar actor Dhanush.
I can’t quite remember the point in the film when I realised that the script was constructing a many-layered satire on contemporary India but I’d be happy to watch the film again to study how the narrative works. The commercialisation of Indian food habits, corruption in policing and local government, TV reporting, healthy eating, the rum shop and drunkenness, inequalities in income, housing policies and land control etc. are all woven into the central story, often in quite ingenious ways. The crucial scene is perhaps the one where the boys’ grandmother sends them to local stalls to buy the ingredients for a pizza topping (onions, peppers, chillies etc.) and proceeds to cook a dosa (a South Indian lentil and rice flour pancake) that resembles the pizza on an advertising flyer the boys have picked up. This little scene encapsulates everything that the satire strives to capture. It does make you wonder why the dosa – in my view the healthiest and tastiest food imaginable – isn’t as widespread as the globalised pizza.
Crow’s Egg has been around the festival circuit for a year or so now. Its appeal is partly down to the engaging performances of the two leads, Ramesh and Vignesh. The older couples sitting near me in the audience, clearly not cinephiles, applauded the film at the end and seemed to have a very good time. A distributor with a little patience and imagination ought to be able to make this film work on screens in Europe and North America as well as Asia. It doesn’t have the stars and arthouse flourishes of The Lunchbox but it’s just as entertaining.
Gemma Bovery faces similar problems to Tamara Drewe (UK 2010) but with the added twist that this is a French film – so a whole new range of assumptions and potential prejudices arise. Both films are adaptations of comic strips by Posy Simmonds which first appeared in the Guardian and then as ‘graphic novels’. Tamara Drewe is a modern take on Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd and the new film, as the eponymous title suggests, is a re-imagining of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. The story takes place in Normandy and the film is directed by Anne Fontaine from a script by Pascal Bonitzer (whose previous script was for Looking For Hortense 2012 – which he also directed).
The story demands a French setting but the other factor, which possibly escaped some UK reviewers, is that Tamara Drewe attracted bigger audiences in France than in the UK. A significant French audience segment is Anglophile and this overlaps with the audience for sophisticated social comedy. The plays of Alan Ayckbourn and the novels of Julian Barnes go down well in France. Posy Simmonds studied at the Sorbonne and her graphic novel (la bande dessinée) of Gemma Bovery also sold in France. French comedies lampoon the bourgeoisie and a director like Claude Chabrol found ways to be amusing while skewering the same middle classes in thrillers. Fabrice Luchini is one of the top comic actors in films like Bicycling with Molière, 2013 as well as François Ozon comedies such as Potiche, 2010 and In the House, 2012. No surprise then that he is cast in Gemma Bovery as the meddling observer, the Parisian publisher who retires to a village in Normandy to run his family’s bakery business. When he sees his new neighbours arriving from England and that the ravishing young woman is potentially a bored wife named ‘Gemma Bovery’ he is almost beside himself with joy.
Posy Simmonds set out in all her Guardian comic strips to gently critique the typical liberal Guardian-reading classes and in the process to pit them against grasping Thatcherite characters with their greed and lack of humanity – and often their cultural ignorance. This political subtext and the class analysis is partly why the two films struggle with UK audiences, some of whom might see themselves as the butt of the jokes. The aim of Gemma Bovery is to explore the impact of the English middle classes on French provincial life and in turn to imagine how a modern-day Madame Bovary might behave – and most of all, how she might feel about her own behaviour. Emma Bovary was an arriviste – a young woman from a farming family who married an older man, a doctor, for security and the respectable life and then bored by her new life, set out on a trail of adultery and indulgence. In the 21st century women’s horizons have widened and ‘shame’ doesn’t operate in quite the same way. As Gemma, Ms Arterton is ravishing. She seems more fun and generally more attractive than my fading memories of the comic strip. I think that a focus on costume design might be interesting and I do feel that Anne Fontaine has created another intriguing female character following her version of Coco Chanel with Audrey Tautou. The local haute bourgeoisie and the other ‘local’ English characters are truly hideous but I did feel for Jason Flemyng as ‘M. Bovary’ – an unenviable role.
I enjoyed the film but I wish my memories of the novel were more reliable. I got a lot of the jokes but I daresay I missed a few because I’d forgotten elements of the story. Gemma Arterton learned to speak French for the role and now she is listed as the lead in a new French film, currently in pre-production, Orpheline. That would mean that she would become a slightly surprising addition to the growing list of female actors who have embraced French filmmaking. Why so few men making the same move, I wonder?
The UK trailer:
Peter Watkins’ first feature followed two brilliant drama documentaries made for the BBC: Culloden (1964) and The War Game (1965). The latter so convincingly showed the consequences of nuclear war, and Britain’s ridiculously inadequate preparations for it, that it was banned and was only broadcast on Channel 4 (if memory serves) in the 1990s. He’d clearly not lost any of his anti-Establishment fire in Privilege, a dystopian world (‘in the near future’) where government and businesses manipulate pop music to control the masses. Paul Jones, of Manfred Mann, plays a suitably catatonic, or is it ’60s’ ‘cool’ indifference, pop star whose show consists in him being chained and beaten by the police. This stimulates manic ‘Beatlemania’ style screaming from young women. Fashion icon of the time, Jean Shrimpton, plays his ‘love interest’ who might redeem him from his alienation (if such a thing can be done). Add to the mix the Church getting involved in a quasi-fascist rally at the National Stadium and it’s clear Watkins is not holding back in his critique of late 1960s Britain. Predictably the film was rubbished, as are most works of art aimed at a mass audience that challenge Establishment values, and Rank pulled it from distribution. This Bright Lights article gives excellent detail on the film’s reception.
As to the film itself . . . Whilst I admire Watkins’ determination to challenge the status quo I think his conflation of pop music with ‘mindless entertainment’ is as reactionary as the Establishment targets he takes on. At the start of the film the vapid close-ups of women in tears suggest they are being dehumanised by their adulation of a pop star. Whereas, in the early sixties at least, embracing pop music was an, if not radical, oppositional position to take. Primarily it was an embracing of youth culture as reaction against their parent’s generation. Of course, by the mid-sixties this had been thoroughly commodified though music has managed to go through a variety of anti-Establishment reactions since – Punk, Acid House, Grime – it has always been recouped for the dominant ideology. Such is the logic of capitalism.
I was struck, haven’t recently visited Krakow, Vienna and Prague, how youngsters in the UK seem, more than their Eastern European counterparts at least, to be fashion conscious in a conformist way. On a recent visit to Liverpool (though I did spend some time in the prime shopping area Liverpool 1 so it was a self-selective sample) I was gobsmacked by the uniformity of look (‘C’m on Liverpool! Rebel!’). Maybe Watkins had a point . . .
Privilege, another of the BFI’s superb ‘flipside’ series, is certainly worth a look. Although it’s not a dramadoc, Watkins uses the same faux documentary voiceover (himself) as in his previous two works. Whilst this was effective on television, its rather intermittent usage, and lack of a particularly realist visual style, works against the immersive effect of film (particularly in cinema). It doesn’t appear to be a Brechtian device, to alienate the viewer from what they’re watching so and engage their thought, as the film would have worked better if it had engaged the emotions more directly. It is difficult to care for Jones’ Steven Shorter who seems to be as alien as David Bowie’s in The Man Who Fell To Earth (UK, 1976). Privilege is an interesting contribution to Britain’s science fiction cinema (notwithstanding Durgnat’s attempt to deny the genre’s qualities – mentioned in the Bright Lights article) and a sidelong glance at the Swinging Sixties, though nowhere near as potent as films like Performance (UK, 1970) and Deep End.