The Fossil (化石, Masaki Kobayashi, 1975)

fossilThroughout Masaki Kobayashi’s relatively short career, his overriding concern was the place of the conscientious individual within a corrupt society. Perhaps most clearly seen in his magnum opus, The Human Condition, Kobayashi’s humanist ethos was one of rigid integrity in which society’s faults must be spoken and addressed in service of creating a better, fairer world. As might be expected, his often raw, angry social critiques were not always what studios were looking for, especially heading into the “difficult” 1970s which saw mainstream production houses turning on the sleaze to increase potential box office. Reluctantly, Kobayashi headed to TV on the condition he could retain some of his footage for a feature film. Adapted from the 1965 novel by Yasushi Inoue, The Fossil (化石, Kaseki) revisits many of Kobayashi’s recurrent themes only in a quieter, more contemplative way as an apparently successful man prepares to enter the final stages of his life, wondering if this is all there really is.

Itsuki (Shin Saburi), a selfmade man who hit it big in Japan’s post-war boom town by founding his own construction firm which currently employs over 1000 people, is about to catch a plane to Europe for a trip that’s pleasure disguised as business. As he leaves, his younger daughter informs him he may be about to become a grandfather for the second time after the birth of her niece, though she is worried and is not sure she wanted a child at this precise moment. Brushing aside her nervousness with an odd kind of fatherly warmth, Itsuki seems pleased and states that he hopes it’s a boy this time. Nevertheless he leaves abruptly to catch his plane. During the flight he begins to become depressed, reflecting that since his wife has died and both of his daughters have married and have (or are about to have) children of their own he is now totally alone. Never before has he faced a sensation of such complete existential loneliness, and his arrival in Paris proves far less invigorating than he had originally hoped.

Wandering around with his secretary, Funazu (Hisashi Igawa), who has accompanied him on this “business” trip, Itsuki catches sight of an elegant Japanese woman in a local park and is instantly captivated. Improbably spotting the same woman several times during his stay, Itsuki later discovers that she is the wife of a local dignitary though not universally liked in the Japanese ex-pat community. At this same work dinner where he discusses the merits of Madame Marcelin (Keiko Kishi), Itsuki experiences a severe pain in his abdomen which makes it difficult for him to stand. Feeling no better back at the hotel, Funazu arranges a doctor’s visit for him. The doctors seem to think he should head straight home which Itsuki is not prepared to do but when he masquerades as Funazu on the phone to get the full verdict, he finds out it’s most likely inoperable intestinal cancer and he may only have a year or so to live.

This unexpected – or, perhaps half sensed, news sends him into a numbing cycle of panic and confusion. At this point Itsuki begins his ongoing dialogue with the mysterious woman, arriving in the guise of Madame Marcelin only dressed in the traditional black kimono of mourning. Telling no one, Itsuki embarks on a contemplative journey in preparation for a union with his dark lady in waiting which takes him from the Romanesque churches of the picturesque French countryside back to Japan and the emptiness, or otherwise, of his settled, professionally successful life.

Like the hero of Kurosawa’s similarly themed Ikiru, Itsuki’s profound discovery is that his overwhelming need for personal validation through work has led him to neglect human relationships and may ultimately have been misplaced. On his return to Japan, Itsuki makes the extremely unusual decision to take a day off only to receive a phone call regarding an old friend and former colleague who, coincidentally, has aggressive cancer and has been asking to see him. Not wanting to mention his own illness, Itsuki parts with his friend feeling it may be for the last time but eventually returns for a deeper conversation in which he probes him for his views about his life so far and what he would do if he had, say, another year to live. His friend has come to the same conclusion, that his working life has largely been a waste of time. What he’d do differently he couldn’t rightly say, things are as they are, but if he had more time he’d want to do “good” in the world, make a positive change and live for something greater than himself.

Itsuki isn’t quite as taken with the idea of “goodness” as a life principle, though he does begin to re-examine himself and the way he has treated the people in his life from apologising to the stepmother he failed to bond with as a child to reconnecting with an old army buddy who maybe the closest thing he’s ever had to a “true friendship” – something which the mysterious woman reminded him he’d been missing for a very long time. Meeting Teppei again, Itsuki is introduced to his walls of fossilised coral and all of their millions of years of history frozen into one indivisible moment. Feeling both infinite and infinitesimal, Itsuki is reminded of his immediate post-war moment of survivor’s guilt in which he and his friend agreed that they’ve each been living on borrowed time ever since.

Given a sudden and unexpected chance of reprieve, Itsuki is even more confounded than before. Having made a friend of death, he may now have to learn to live again, even if his mysterious lady reminds him that she will always be with him, even if he can no longer see her. Though he’d wanted nothing more than to live to see the cherry blossoms in the company of the living Madame Marcelin whose vision it was that so captivated him, his old life is one he cannot return to and must be preserved in amber, frozen and perfect like Teppei’s fossilised coral.

Tonally European, perhaps taking inspiration from Death in Venice, and bringing in a Christianising moral viewpoint pitting the values of honest hard work against genuine human feeling, The Fossil is the story of a man realising he has been sentenced to death, as we all have, and makes his peace with it only to learn that perhaps his sentence will be suspended. Yet for a time death was his friend and her absence is a void which cannot be filled. This life, this new life so unexpectedly delivered, must be lived and lived to the full. Itsuki, who had prepared himself to die must now learn to live and to do so in a way which fulfils his own soul. Originally filmed as a 13 part TV series now reduced to three hours and twenty minutes, The Fossil’s only consolation to its medium is in its 4:3 frame which Kobayashi’s unobtrusive style fully embraces with its ominous distance shots, slow zooms and eerie pans backed up by Toru Takemitsu’s sombre score. Kobayashi, who’d given us a career dedicated to railing against the injustices of the system, suddenly gives us the ultimate rebellion – against death itself as a man who’d prepared himself to die must judge the way he’s lived on his own terms, and, finding himself wanting, learn to live in a way which better fits his personal integrity.


 

Hush! (ハッシュ!, Ryosuke Hashiguchi, 2001)

hushThe family drama is a mainstay of Japanese cinema, true, but, it’s a far wider genre than might be assumed. The rays fracture out from Ozu through to The Family Game and Crazy Family which sought to ask a few questions about where the idea of “family” was headed in a society of rapidly increasing materialism. Ryosuke Hashiguchi comes at the idea from a different angle in 2001’s Hush! (ハッシュ!) as he once again takes the perspective of the gay community and asks if the “traditional family” is about to change – what could, or should, survive if the old, rigid ideas can be remade into something lasting created out of love and acceptance rather than obligation?

As the film begins, Naoya (Kazuya Takahashi) wakes up to find his one night stand already fully dressed and heading out the door, awkwardly, without even stopping to say goodbye. Eventually he hooks up with the kindly Katsuhiro (Seiichi Tanabe) and the two quickly become fairly serious but then a damaged woman, Asako (Reiko Kataoka), enters their lives hoping to use Katsuhiro as a sperm donor, forcing the men to reassess a number of important desires and beliefs, putting strain on their still fledgling relationship. If that weren’t enough drama, a girl at Katsuhiro’s place of work has also developed a crush on him and is prepared to take her unreturned love to some extremely dark places.

The first level of mini stresses Naoya and Katsuhiro have to contend with is their conflicting (if complementary) personalities and attitudes to their sexuality. Naoya is an easy going type with a job at a pet grooming salon. He’s a fully out gay man and a frequenter of city’s gay scene. Katsuhiro, by contrast, is much more mild mannered and innately kind. He works at a scientific research station and is more or less closeted – that is, he doesn’t particularly go out of his way to hide his sexuality from his work mates and family but he doesn’t volunteer the information either. This attitude seems to bother Naoya at various points but being the easy going type he’s apt to let it go most of the time.

However, when Katsuhiro reveals Asako’s offer, Naoya is actively against it. His idea of gay life suggests that relationships are generally short, he prefers the relative freedom of his life as an essentially “single” man rather a husband shackled to a family. Katsuhiro on the other hand perhaps would have liked children, or to be a father figure to someone else’s. Though Naoya has previously expressed boredom and disillusionment with his life spent in clubs and gay bars, he’s still resistant to the idea of settling down, or at least to the belief that a single relationship really can stay the course.

All three of the central characters have, in a sense, been let down by the “traditional” family. Naoya’s father left when he was small, leaving him with a single mother which is something that wasn’t so common when he was a child resulting in a fair amount of social stigma from other people in the community. These days his brassy mother knows about his sexuality and seems OK with it (aside from getting the random idea that Naoya will be wanting a pair of breasts at some point). Katsuhiro’s father was an alcoholic who died when he was just a small boy, his relationship with his brother and his family seems good but he’s afraid to reveal his sexuality to them for fear of disapproval. His brother had an arranged marriage, which doesn’t seem to have worked out so well at least from the sister-in-law’s perspective. Asako has also had a troubled life looking for affection in all the wrong places, feeling that if she had not been neglected as a child perhaps she’d have been a steadier adult. Naoya was running away from the idea of family ties, but Katsuhiro and Asako are actively seeking to repair the ones which never grew into the kind of roots one needs to anchor onself in a society entirely built around familial bonds.

After receiving some surprising medical news, Asako perversely decides that her own salvation lies in becoming a mother. She’s had enough of casual relationships and decided to go a different route so when she spots the kind look Katshiro gives a small child at a restaurant, she decides he must be the one to father her baby. Asako knew that Naoya and Katsuhiro were a couple, but that works out pretty well for her plan so she approaches him and makes her left field offer right off the bat. It will take some figuring out but this literal third way is a neat solution to a series of problems and, being completely new, is safe from the pettiness and misery often found within the traditional family unit. Contrasted with the bitterness displayed by Katsuhiro’s sister-in-law, the unusual arrangement of these three would be parents and their unborn child(ren) is one filled with love, forgiveness and mutual support rather than cold obligation or a simple fulfilment of societal expectations.

Once again Hashiguchi proves himself adept at creating a series of complex, flawed human beings who are nevertheless relatable and often endearing. Hashiguchi’s films tend to run long but he also ensures that even his supporting characters are well enough drawn to maintain interest in the many subplots from Naoya’s abrasive gay bar buddy to Katsuhiro’s unhinged stalker. An interesting sideways look at the state of the modern family, Hush! seems to advocate that just shutting up and going with the flow is not the answer but there are quieter solutions to be found if everyone is willing to listen to the silence.


Original trailer (no subtitles)