The Mutual Human Concern

The Mutual Human Concern

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata, Steve McQueen’s Hunger, Andrzej Wajda’s Katyn.


REGENT RELEASINGKyoko Koizumi as Megumi Sasaki in Tokyo Sonata

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata lurches from one scene to the next with the gait of Frankenstein’s monster–a style of locomotion that is not unexpected, considering that the writer-director made his name with horror films. To date, he has filled the screen with cybernetic zombies, rampaging jellyfish, amnesiac murderers under hypnotic control; and the off-balance rhythm in which he has told their stories has carried into this new film, even though it’s a comedy of desperation about a family of near-perfect middle-class drabness.

The paterfamilias (Teruyuki Kagawa) is a short, thick-chested salaryman with bulging eyes and a wide, glum mouth–a frog, you’d think, waddling about in a business suit–who loses his job in the film’s first scene. The wife and mother (Kyoko Koizumi) is a slender, pretty flower, stuck in a pot and left to wilt in a sunless house. The college-age son (Yu Koyanagi) wears his hair samurai-style and makes a point of returning home only when it suits him–affectations that can’t disguise his status as a day laborer who hands out leaflets on street corners. This leaves the younger son (Kai Inowaki) to be the rule-breaker in the family. A gawky grade-schooler, he rebels by taking piano lessons on the sly.

This isn’t the stuff of nightmares; but Kurosawa makes the scenes stagger even so, with edits that can go from a soft, shadowed, lingering close-up of the wife’s dreamy face to a garishly lit tracking shot of the husband crashing into a pile of garbage, and another, and another. “It lives!” Kurosawa might cry, looking upon the monster he’s galvanized: this unhappy but orderly family, which gradually becomes chaotic and even more unhappy.

Then, against all odds, the film concludes with three minutes of spun moonlight.

Smooth and fanciful, a little bit melancholy but a lot more hopeful, the surprise ending of Tokyo Sonata might come across as unbelievable if it weren’t for the utter plausibility of the preceding two hours of shocks and bumps, which don’t rely on the metaphors that are the stock in trade of horror movies but instead arouse disquiet (and mirth) from a recognizable here and now. The time- ly setting is a Japan in the grip of recession, where salarymen whose jobs have been outsourced wait silently in the stairwells of employment bureaus, only to be told, “It’s 100 percent impossible you’ll match your previous job.” All Kurosawa needs to punch up this situation is a touch of exaggeration: a doubling and tripling of the figure of the main salaryman (who keeps meeting other versions of himself) and an intensification of his sense of shame, to the point that he lies to his family. Rather than lose his domestic authority–the only kind he’s got left–he puts on a suit every day and tells them he’s going to work.

In his dumb, stolid way, he’s trying to maintain an outmoded way of life, which Kurosawa sums up, and perhaps sends up, in a “typically Japanese” conceit reminiscent of an Ozu film: a railway runs close by the family’s house. But it’s too late now for Ozu’s subtlety and discretion; Kurosawa’s trains rattle right past the window and light up the interior like a strobe. No wonder the rest of the family wants to break out of the traditional arrangement: the younger son by taking his covert piano lessons, the older son by enlisting in the US Army (another little exaggeration) and the wife by getting a driver’s license she knows she might never use. Her big secret is that she sneaks out to visit auto showrooms; her dream is a new convertible. Then calamity strikes, she finds herself behind the wheel, and the many roads that have been running through the film’s background suddenly come front and center.

Perhaps the happiest surprise in Tokyo Sonata is the way the film shifts at this point (with a grinding of gears) from being his story to being hers. The wife’s longing has been visible from the first lovely shot in the film, which finds her framed in the open doorway of her house, letting fresh air blow in along with a driving rain. She can’t yet cross that messy sill, or speak of wanting to do so. But she helps put her sons onto routes away from the house; and when her own opportunity to leave is finally forced upon her, she does not push it away, even though the man who brings it is insane. Her choice at this point is something else that seems strangely plausible, an effect that might be credited not just to Kurosawa but to a team that included a trio of women: screenwriter Sachiko Tanaka (working with Kurosawa and Max Mannix), cinematographer Akiko Ashizawa and producer Yukie Kito.

I feel as if they all contributed something of themselves to the shining moment late in the film when the wife wanders along a beach, alone, after her family has been blown apart. As the camera backs away, she slowly advances, a dark figure with an irregular gait. Her expression is at once blank and overcharged with emotion, as if she had witnessed horrors. Then, out of nowhere, light begins to wash over her, growing more and more bright until she bursts into a blaze of color.

Nothing supernatural has occurred; it’s just that dawn has broken. But for these few seconds, as Tokyo Sonata starts toward its happy ending, you get the uncanny feeling that the sun has risen inside her.

With the possible exception of Margaret Thatcher, who is present only as a voice on the soundtrack, no one is dehumanized in Steve McQueen’s Hunger. People are stripped naked, smeared with filth, cut, punched, kicked, bludgeoned, shot through the brain and, for the finale, reduced by starvation to little more than a membrane–and yet, astonishingly, the last ounce of dignity is never squeezed out of anyone.

To the degree that you focus on the film’s contextual information, such as its excerpts from Thatcher’s speeches, the meaning of these events will seem political. That’s because Hunger is about Northern Ireland’s Maze prison in 1981 and the men of the Provisional IRA who were held in it: their demands, their protests, their strategies. But to the degree that you focus on the film as a sensory re-creation–“re-enactment” is too weak a word for Hunger–it will seem like an experiment in extremity. McQueen grinds existence down to its minimum, the better to assay the human essence that remains.

Even the jailers have their emotions. Although Hunger eventually settles its attention on Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), the republican prisoner who led the 1981 hunger strike in the Maze and died of it, the film devotes its opening to the sufferings of a guard. At first you see only his hands, swollen and scraped, as he soaks them in a bathroom sink. By the time the man, Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham), comes into full view at the breakfast table, you see that he’s exhausted at the start of the day. Even when Lohan gets to his place of business and dons a uniform with the rest of his shift, McQueen’s images emphasize the weight of isolation that hangs on this man like his bruised fists. A long shot, patiently held, reveals him standing in his shirt sleeves against a courtyard wall, all by himself, as he takes a cigarette break amid a snow flurry.

Lohan is alone, but he’s not singular. You can later see his weariness in another guard, who laboriously makes his way down a cellblock corridor, cleaning up the piss that prisoners have poured onto the floor. Later still, in the most brutal scene, you see something like Lohan’s suppressed turmoil surface in the face of a riot cop, who stands apart from the rest of his mayhem-dealing squad and weeps.

Whether any riot cop has behaved this way, I don’t know. But I’m sure that when McQueen imagined this moment, he was after something more vital than all-purpose pity, and more honest than a sentimental evenhandedness toward captors and captives. He was showing, in one terrible image, how will and purpose can struggle against constraint in a man who’s relatively free. For most of the film, in many terrible images, McQueen shows that same struggle in men who have only the freedom to refuse.

They can huddle naked under blankets rather than wear prison uniforms, and paint the walls of their cells with shit rather than accept baths. These are the limited options that McQueen introduces through the eyes of Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan), a defiant but clearly terrified young republican, who steps into his first cell in the Maze and discovers a kind of fecal Lascaux cave, where a forked creature with matted hair and beard crouches in the corner. This turns out to be Gerry Campbell (Liam McMahon), a more experienced republican; and you get to spend some time with him, as you did with the guard, before McQueen at last drags Bobby Sands into the picture, to have his compulsory bath and a collision with Lohan’s aching fists.

Once Sands is present, as embodied in a terrifyingly committed and physically dangerous performance by Fassbender, McQueen can lead Hunger to its emotional and intellectual core: a debate between Sands and a visiting republican priest (Liam Cunningham) about the plan to make the ultimate refusal, of food and life. Of course it’s a political matter; the sharp-witted, contentious dialogue (written by Enda Walsh) leaves no doubt of that. But the way that McQueen suddenly pares down his image-making, to allow you to concentrate on the words, also intensifies that other element of Hunger, its insistence that mutual human concern is irreducible. The gut-wrenching tracking shots stop. So does the previous succession of mostly wordless, meticulously framed close-ups and wide-angle views, with their vortex-like rhythm. All you see, for something like twenty minutes, is a single, steady shot of two men sitting opposite each other at a table, their figures in shadow but the contour lines of their bodies traced by sunlight filtering in from behind. They cannot agree, but for the longest time they do not separate.

You may wonder why you should give your time to the obsessively painful experience of Hunger, which in many ways, as an art project, resembles the wall paintings in the Maze. The answer, I think, comes in the final section of the film, after Sands has entered the hunger strike. He no longer has anything to do but wait, and McQueen no longer has any violence to spring on you. The ordeal has paradoxically become placid and antiseptic; the very worst of the keepers behaves gently. Sands now has something outward to lose–but, as you see, he chooses to keep what’s inside.

* * *

Theater schedules, like magazine deadlines, can be unforgiving. Before I had a chance to publish anything about Andrzej Wajda’s Katyn, it had already concluded its premiere run at New York’s Film Forum. But other engagements may follow around the country, and even a late, brief notice of a Wajda film matters more than a timely one about almost anyone else’s movie. So, with your indulgence:

For much of its length, Katyn is not so much concerned with a historic massacre–the murder of thousands of Polish officers by the Red Army in 1940–as it is with the uses to which this slaughter was put. First came the creation of a propaganda film by the Nazis, to show the barbarism of their enemy; and then a very similar film by the victorious Soviets, to demonstrate fascist barbarity and cover up their crime. As Wajda dramatizes this change, the epic sweep of his wartime scenes gives way to a series of more intimate postwar episodes, in which various survivors try to tell the truth and are destroyed for it.

Throughout most of his long life, Wajda himself was unable to speak this truth in public. It’s broken free of him now, in a film that’s grand, sorrowful, masterful, moving and (in the end) resolute about bringing reality close to the touch.

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