The Room (部屋, Sion Sono, 1993)

The roomThough the later work of Sion Sono is often noted for its cinematic excess, his earlier career saw him embracing the art of minimalism. The Room (部屋, Heya) finds him in the realms of existentialist noir as a grumpy hitman whiles away his remaining time in the search for the perfect apartment guided only by a detached estate agent.

Sono begins the film with an uncomfortably long static camera shot of a warehouse area where nothing moves until a man suddenly turns a corner and sits down on a bench. We then cut to a rear shot of the same man who’s now sitting facing a harbour filled with boats coming and going as the sun bounces of the rippling sea. We don’t know very much about him but he’s dressed in the crumpled mac and fedora familiar to every fan of hardboiled fiction and walks with the steady invisibility of the typical genre anti-hero.

Before we head into the main “narrative” such as it is, Sono presents us with another uncomfortably long shot of the title card which takes the form of a street sign simply reading The Room, over which someone is whistling a traditional Japanese tune. Eventually we catch up with the hitman as he meets a young female estate agent identified only by the extremely long number she wears on the jacket of her official looking business suit. The hitman gruffly lists his poetical demands for his new home – must be quiet, have the gentle smell of spring flowers wafting through it, and above all it must have an open, unoverlooked view from a well lit window. The estate agent reacts with dispassionate efficiency, her gaze vacantly directed at the floor or around the rundown apartments which she recommends to her client. Together, the pair travel the city looking for the elusive “Room” though perhaps that isn’t quite what they’re seeking after all.

Sono shoots the entire film in grainy black and white and in academy ratio. He largely avoids dialogue in favour of visual storytelling though what dialogue there is is direct, if poetic, almost symbolic in terms of tone and delivery. The occasional intrusion of the jazzy score coupled with the deserted streets and stark black and white photography underlines the noir atmosphere though like the best hardboiled tales this is one filled emptiness led by a man seeking the end of the world, even if he doesn’t quite know it.

In fact, the relationship between our hitman and the passive figure of the estate agent can’t help but recall Lemmy Caution and the unemotional Natasha from Godard’s Alphaville – also set in an eerily cold city. If Sono is channelling Godard for much of the film, he also brings in a little of Tarkovsky as the hitman and estate agent make an oddly arduous train journey around the city looking for this magical space much like the explorers of the Zone in Stalker. Yet for all that there’s a touch of early Fassbinder too in Sono’s deliberately theatrical staging which attempts both to alienate and to engage at the same time.

The Room’s central conceit is its use of extremely long shots filled with minimal action or movement. In a 90 minute film, Sono has given us only 44 takes, lingering on empty streets and abandoned buildings long enough to test the patience of even the most forgiving viewer. Deliberately tedious, The Room won’t counter arguments of indulgence but its increasing minimalism eventually takes on a hypnotic quality, lending to its dreamlike, etherial atmosphere.

Here the city seems strange, a half formed place made up of half remembered images and crumbling buildings. Empty trains, scattered papers, and lonely bars are its mainstays yet it’s still somehow recognisable. Leaning more towards Sono’s poetic ambitions than the anarchism of his more aggressive work, The Room is a beautifully oblique exploration of the landscape of a tired mind as it prepares to meet the end of its journey.


Original trailer (no subtitles):

Ryuji (竜二, Toru Kawashima, 1983)

ryujiWhen you learn someone has died, suddenly everything they have ever done becomes tragic. No matter how old they were, this fact remains. Ryuji is a film which is always going to be overshadowed by the fact that its leading actor and screenwriter sadly passed away at the extremely young age of 33 from a terminal illness only days after the film’s release.  Well, in actuality, the film was only “released” in a very limited sense, perhaps no one really had the heart to go on with it. However, it left its mark on all who saw it and eventually became a cult hit and influential classic on VHS. On paper, its tale is conventional – an existential yakuza drama about a man torn between conflicting desires and his own nature but on film, it’s something else.

In fact, the film takes its time about setting its scene as Ryuji goes about his regular yakuza business of beatings and whoring but eventually things come to a crisis as he becomes a father and winds up in prison. His dutiful wife pulls some strings to get him out. However, when released, she explains that she only got the money from her father for a divorce as he wasn’t going to bail out a yakuza. After kicking up a fuss (literally) Ryuji realises his wife is just too good for a yakuza’s moll, so he sends her and their daughter back to his father-in-law. The fact is, Ryuji misses them. He’s tired. Of the life, of the violence, of the threat. He’s ready to try something more ordinary if it means he can go back to his wife and his child. Living honestly is hard too, though. Physically exhausting, and much less financially comfortable. Things are going well, for a time, before a familiar face from the past appears and the ghost of the old Ryuji begins to rise up again.

In many ways, Ryuji is caught in a confused cycle of frustration. He’s a violent man, a yakuza, but one who’s becoming bored with the constant threat and violence inherent in his world. He misses his wife and daughter but he doesn’t know of a path that leads back to them. Eventually he starts walking, unsure of where he’s headed and once he’s home he feels at peace, at last. However, such peace is not meant to last, the past will not let you rest. Old friends turn up one after the other, your decision to help them or not will carry more weight than you first realise. After these cracks appear, the old Ryuji, filled with rage and violence, bubbles to the surface. In the end, you can’t evade your nature, you’re either one thing or something else and however much you long to be the other thing, it can’t be done.

Shoji Kaneko was a talented stage actor who was looking for a cinematic epitaph. He wrote the script, played the leading role and brought the production together. He temporarily joined a real gang to learn just what it’s like to be a yakuza and brought some of his existential despair to his on screen persona. Ryuji is a hard man and a bruiser yet often tender with his wife and cute little girl (played by Kaneko’s real life daughter in another moment of filmic symmetry). He has to decide which side of himself is the one he values most and the film’s final scene is one of the most heartbreakingly moving in all of cinema. The sound disappears entirely, sentiment is conveyed by look alone and a man makes an irrevocable decision that is instantly understood even the absence of words.

If it be not now, yet it will come – the readiness is all. There is actually very little death in Ryuji considering it’s a yakuza picture (if an unconventional one) but the spectre of endings is hovering all around. Knowing what it’s impossible not to know, it’s hard not to read that ever present threat of eclipse into every scene. Ryuji’s decision is a permanent one, taken once it defines everything. Kaneko was also a father with a young daughter facing the end of his life, also weak but tender. Graceful yet robust, Ryuji’s story is one of a man who couldn’t reconcile the two sides of himself into something whole and so sacrificed the things he wanted most. Beautifully made and perfectly realised, Ryuji is a film that should have been more widely appreciated and now, perhaps, will finally be accorded the respect it deserves.


 

Down By Law

It’s a sad and beautiful world.

Jim Jarmusch’s 1986 buddy/prison/road/existentialist fairytale may prove too slow for some but those who can wait it out are richly rewarded. Three men end up in prison, two through misfortune and the other through general ineptitude. They form an unlikely friendship, luckily one of the men knows a way out of the prison and their strange journey begins. That’s about all I can tell you the rest you’d just have to see for yourself…

Masahiro Shinoda’s Pale Flower (Kawaita Hana) Criterion Collection Blu Ray

Masahiro Shinoda’s 1964 film Pale Flower (Kawaita Hana) is a total break from the romanticised yakuza films that had been common prior to its release. Heavily influenced both by American Film Noir and by the French New Wave, Shinoda’s gangster underworld is dark and empty. There maybe pretty girls and oh so shiny fast cars but these yakuza spend their off time in bowling alleys and in other ordinary daily pursuits not so different from your average salaryman. As the film begins we meet recently released Muraki (Ryo Ikebe) who is traveling back to Tokyo having completed a three year sentence for committing a murder ordered by his gang boss. We hear him reflect less than fondly on his crime, but at the same time wonder why he’s been punished for ‘slaughtering one of these stupid animals’ which crowd around him, seemingly barely alive. On arrival he pays a visit a to an old girl friend who seems to be much more fond of him than he is of her. Then he goes gambling and sees the young, beautiful but perhaps just as empty as he is, Saeko (Mariko Kaga). Presumably from a wealthy background, Saeko spends her nights gambling vast sums of money, little caring if she wins or loses, living only for the brief thrill of chance. Together Mariko and Saeko wander aimlessly through night time Tokyo desperately trying to find some kind of meaning to this chaos but pushing each other ever further down into a spiral of thrill and transgression.

Shinoda’s direction and Masao Kosugi’s photography are really fantastic here. The Noirish light and shadows perfectly depict this murky, uncertain and claustrophobic world the protagonists are constrained by and totally establish this mood of alienation which is so central to the film. This is further assisted by the wonderful score provided by Toru Takemitsu. Relying heavily on dissonance and incorporating exaggerated or found sounds – tap dancing over the sound of the cards for example, the score brilliantly brings out the underlying menace of this environment. Indeed, the sound design is one of the most distinctive attributes of this film and is extraordinarily important in establishing the mood. The final set piece accompanied by a section from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is absolutely pitch perfect and has obviously become hugely influential.

This new blu ray release from the Criterion Collection is absolutely stunning, the picture quality and clarity are excellent. The contrast in the black and white photography is beautiful to behold. The remastered lossless sound is also richly delivered, with no problems of audibility. This fascinating film is a must for any fan of Japanese Cinema, Film Noir or New Wave. Highly recommended.