Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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« Tiger MaskColor Dream No. 246 »

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

09:31:18 pm , 1393 words, 2168 views     Categories: Avant-Garde, Movie

The long goodbye

Memory seems like a long goodbye. Someone or something is gone, but they live on in your memory, like a snippet of musty old faded Super 8 film repeating footage of some random moment of everyday life. It's totally mundane and meaningful only to you, but you never quite have the courage to turn it off. Watching Shinji Aoyama's Into the Alley (Roji e) today had the effect of getting me to think about memory and the impact of writing on memory in a more profound way than any film I can recall.

Alexander Sokurov's Dolce..., about Toshio Shimao, is the only other analogue that comes to mind. These two films, both of which date from 2000, are probably the two best films about a writer that I've seen. Or at least, the most personally meaningful, which is probably in large part due to the fact that subjects are two of my absolute favorite Japanese writers, and I have a pretty strong emotional attachment to their work. But more than that, both films are intensely personal and sensitive documents by a great filmmaker about a great novelist. They are 'personal' not just about the writer, but also about the filmmaker, and about the viewers watching the film who come to the film out of affection for the work of the writer in question, familiarity with whose work deepens the experience of watching the film.

Into the Alley is a very simple film. It's basically a peregrination around the southern region of Kishu, which was the setting for the entire body of novelist Kenji Nakagami's oeuvre. We follow a traveler with a simple static shot as he rides around or walks through the streets, stopping occasionally to read memorable passages from his various novels, in an attempt to retrace, physically and spiritually, some three decades on, the footsteps of the characters who populated Nakagami's epic series of novels about the poor inhabitants of the once slum-like alleyways of his birthplace.

I was tremendously moved by my viewing of the film, and undoubtedly much of that has to do with the fact that I knew the stories that were being read. Kenji Nakagami's characters, the tone of his writing, and the dark and mythical atmosphere of the world he depicted in his novels captured my imagination many years ago when I was discovering Japanese literature in the original. His writing was brutal, forceful, intense - almost too much to endure in such quantities at times - but also lyrical and unlike that of any other writer I'd read, and the epic story he weaved out of personal experience, with its almost shamanic channeling of the voice of the ancestors of his birthplace, created a space all its own in my memory. More than merely a novelist, Nakagami was like a historian and a myth-maker all rolled into one. With Nakagami I felt I had found a world-class writer, and not just a good Japanese writer.

Nakagami had declared that he wanted to become the "Japanese Faulkner", and his achievement is comparable. His early novels chronicle the incestuous travails of a fictional family living in the slum-like back-alleys of the Kumano region of the Kii Peninsula. His stories probe the dark underbelly of racism and poverty in Japan with a depth of poetic power unequaled by any other Japanese author I know.

I think at the most basic level, Into the Alley moved me the way it did because it was the first visual expression I'd seen that seemed to truly evoke Kenji Nakagami's novels. I've seen one film version, which was not bad, but something seemed off somehow. Literature can suffer in the transition to the screen because of the loss of the all-important element of the reader's imagination. This film's approach skirts that issue effectively by not trying to fool you into believing a simulacrum, to believe that the actors on the screen are the characters in his stories. It comes across as very honest and heartfelt with its simple approach. You sort of project yourself into the person on the screen, walking around the streets reading Nakagami's words. Eureka was already by far my favorite Japanese film of the last decade, and this heartfelt visual poem only increases my respect for Shinji Aoyama.

Beyond simply being delighted to see a serious film about one of my favorite writers, Kenji Nakagami's Kumano occupied a disproportionately large place in my psyche from my reading of his books, so there was something cathartic about being taken on a tour around the area and hearing his words read aloud there. His books are very specific in terms of setting, and they left me feeling as if I had an intimate knowledge of this particular locale better than any other in Japan. It didn't represent Japan to me, but rather the side of Japan that nobody wants you to hear about, which if anything made it feel even more valuable and meaningful. It felt as if I knew the place, its soil, its atmosphere, without even having been there. Watching the film was like setting foot on soil that seemed vaguely familiar somehow, like from some old memory.

What I think lends the film its strength as a film about a writer is the fact that it is one person's portrait of an author that meant a lot to him. It is not a biographical piece for the History channel. It is not an encyclopedia entry reciting a litany of facts at you. It is a calm, meditative record of a person on a pilgrimage to retrace the steps, and to relive the words, of a great writer, through the landscape he wrote about. Anyone who reads Nakagami's fiction comes away with a strong image of the landscape of Kishu. The significance of the act of creating this film, then, isn't merely that it retraces a famous person's footsteps. The landscape is closely linked to the theme of Nakagami's work. The true protagonist of Nakagami's work was the landscape itself, so the method adopted for this film transports us into the world of Kenji Nakagami's writing in a way that no dramatization of his fiction could. That seems to be what gives the film its power.

The film is interspersed with actual footage of the alleys of Kishu shot by Kenji Nakagami himself many years earlier, when in his last few years he revisited his old haunts in an attempt to locate the places he knew growing up, and to chronicle the vanishing remnants of the old world he knew so well. This is one of the elements that transports the film to its next level. Nakagami chronicled a way of life that was, for good or ill, doomed to disappear. The alleys he wrote about in his novels had, by the late 1980s, begun to be torn down and paved over to make way for shopping malls. As we walk around the area a decade later with the filmmakers, the process of the destruction of the alley or roji has advanced to such an extent that there is a perceptible rift between Nakagami's words and the streets we now see. In a quietly powerful moment, we overlook a coastal town from a nearby hill only to discover that a mountain range that once bisected the town has since been razed flat to make way for a flat sheet of suburbs.

Kenji Nakagami died in 1992 at the age of 46, barely 20 years after he first came to the attention of the literary world with his early short novel The Cape, penned while chucking luggage at Haneda and doing other odd jobs as a day-laborer. The alley was already becoming a memory by the time Kenji Nakagami returned to the site in the late 1980s, many years after having written his books about the alley, to shoot that video footage. By the time I discovered his work a few years later, Kenji Nakagami was a memory. Eight years later, as people continue to say their goodbyes to Nakagami, whose body of work still constitutes one of the most important and powerful of postwar Japanese literature, this film joins the chorus with one of the most compelling tributes I've seen to the man and his work. It's been eight years since then. I think I'll take Karekinada off the shelf for another read.

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