Kichijiro and Xiaolou: The Hated Secondary Characters

This is written for my Japanese Film & Literature class in the summer of 2017.

The character Kichijiro from the novel Silence reminded me of the character Duan Xiaolou from the movie Farewell My Concubine. Similar to many other supporting characters, those two help push forward their stories along the main characters. However, unlike some secondary characters who stand by the main characters and conform to their doctrines, Kichijiro and Xiaolou show up the charm of the main characters by contrast. They are opportunists or realists (or both) who abandon their principles in emergencies and they hold views towards faith and life that are vastly distinct from those of the main characters. The role of these characters such as Kichijiro and Xiaolou is to further embellish the main characters by making the audiences think “She/he is so great. Not everybody could do what she/he [the main character] did. Just look at that wretch [supporting character] there!” Moreover, those characters usually provide different perspectives to the main themes of the stories.

In Silence for instance, what Christianity to Kichijiro is what rice to others. It is clear from the book that most peasants turned to Christianity in despair, as the last resort to comfort their slaved souls. Although not explicitly articulated, I believe Kichijiro was not different than the others in this regard. However, when rice was taxed away and he had to eat something else (let’s say frogs) to save his life, he would do so without too much hesitation. Is he a good Christian? I do not know. But apparently he likes being Christian. He is obsessed with the idea of confession. With his faith, he easily accepts that his sin could be forgiven. In this sense, Christianity to him is no more than a tool. He does not like carrying the weight of guilt and confession takes it off from him. That is why he begs to do it. This view is certainly very different from how Rodrigues saw his faith. He believed in God and his almighty. He believed it because it was the truth to him, not because it provided a simper solution.

In Farewell My Concubine, Xiaolou betrayed his profession — Beijing Opera — multiple times; he even betrayed Dieyi (the main character who grew up with Xiaolou and was his stage partner) as well as his wife under the pressure of Cultural Revolution. In fact, he told Dieyi straight out that Opera to him was just a job, a path to money and fame. Dieyi, who was whole-heartedly devoted to the art, was disappointed over and over.

There is no doubt that most people hate (or at least dislike) Kichijiro and Xiaolou. Nevertheless I really wonder how many of us could do better in their positions. Both stories happened in special periods of history when people suffered in living hells. How many people would survive the torment and maintain their decency like the main characters? Probably rather than despising people such as Kichijiro and Xiaolou who led an opportunistic but longer life, one should place more blame on those in power who made the world a hell in which people only sang for the strong but the deceased. After all, “can anyone say that the weak do not suffer more than the strong?”

Lastly, an interesting note is that this kind of secondary characters is more prevailing in stories with no strong villains. On the other hand, supporting roles in evil-vs-justice stories tend to be ones that stand by the main roles. Looking back to Silence, one might be tempted to think that Inoue-sama is the villain of the story. However direct description of him is very scarce and there seems to be more conflict between Rodriguez and Kichijiro. In Farewell My Concubine, the only villain is the instability of China at the time. In contrast, in superhero movies in which villains are strong, secondary roles are more often than not supportive. One potential explanation for this phenomenon is the necessity of drama in stories. Without a strong villain, the faith and determination of the main characters cannot be tested, thus their personalities cannot be developed. To compensate for this, a salient wretched secondary character would be a good choice.

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Resonance without Emotions: The Empty Can (Not Setsuko’s)

This is written for my Japanese Film & Literature class in the summer of 2017.

Both The Empty Can by Hayashi Kyoko and Grave of the Fireflies by Isao Takahata told a story about the WWII in Japan and how it scarred the life of civilians. However the two stories use very distinct ways to resonate with their audiences. The former not only features an empty can but also leaves the emotional aspect of the story empty, focusing on objective descriptions of the A-bomb event in Nagasaki, an technique that pushes the audience back to the spot and urges them to develop their own feelings towards the event. Whereas the latter’s method is more hands-on, directly feeding the audience both what happened and how they should be feeling. It is not surprising that people sympathize with Setsuko, the little girl in Grave of the Fireflies. More unexpectedly, Hayashi’s approach is also able to bring the audience with her and in this case reflect more on the event itself.

Admittedly, Grave of Fireflies has been very successful in what it intends to do; starting with one of the most famous and depressing scenes in anime, it has moved millions to tears since its first release in 1988. After all, who could hold their tears seeing a little girl with an empty candy can dying in a shelter? However, what do the audience feel seeing a little girl closing her eyes with her older brother crying to death by her side? They feel sad for the characters. They think the war was horrific and against humanity. As simple as that. There is no space for the audience to ponder or to imagine. All the emotions have been delicately laid out for them. And they just need to follow the plot and shed tears. It is sad and moving and all, but it is somebody’s story, not theirs.

Now what do they feel when they see “the figure of a girl [Kinuko] as child, standing in the ruins of her home, bending over to pick up the bones of her mother and father from beneath the white ash” appeared before them in the dim light? They might wonder if she cried for her parents, for the lost home, or for the future in which she had to walk alone. They might also wonder if she was afraid, lost, or even angry. The audience did not know as they were not told. It has been left to them to decide how she felt as how they would feel in her position. Leaving a blank space such as this forces the audience to fill it in themselves which can only be achieved by putting themselves into the story and the shoes of the characters. Different people of course might develop different feelings. Whatever they did feel, sorrow, anguish, or loss, they would all reach the same conclusion: the war was horrific and against humanity. However the process remains substantial: this time they reach the conclusion themselves, by going through “their emotions” and living through “their stories”.

Being students/teachers for so many years, we all know how important it is for people to come up with their own solution. This way, not only do they remember it better, they also understand it. More than anything else, leaving blanks in the right spaces is an art, the one in which The Empty Can surely does a good job.

Kenji Mizoguchi’s Adaptation of Sansho the Bailiff

This is written for my Japanese Film & Literature class in the summer of 2017.

Among the four (NOT THREE!!!) most celebrated directors in the golden age of Japanese cinema, Kenji Mizoguchi, known for his compassion and sympathy towards the servitude of humans, was born for the screen adaptation of the story by Mori Ogai. Unlike other masterpieces of Mizoguchi such as The Life of Oharu, The Street of Shame, and Sister of the Gion[1] whose main focuses are on the sufferings of women, Sansho the Bailiff is led by a male character, Zushio. Of course, Zushio only represents a whole class of slaved people who earned nil and saw no future.

Compared to the original work, the film made a couple of important changes. I would like to discuss two of them in this essay. First of all, the film eliminates the seemingly present supernatural power in the story and gives more details to the functioning of the political and bureaucratic system at the time, which makes the adaptation more realistic than the story. In the story, before she was separated from the two children, the mother emphasized the importance of the amulet (p8). Whereas in the film, there was no mentioning of the amulet at their separation. Indeed, the amulet played a much more important role in the story later than in the film, seemingly responsible for various dreamy and even supernatural events. While in the film, the amulet appeared far less often and was more a reminder of the father who, when passing the amulet to Zushio, spoke the repeatedly theme of the movie, “A man is not a human being without mercy. Even if you are hard on yourself, be merciful to others. Men are created equal. Everyone is entitle to their happiness.”[2] In the film, it is made clear that the father was exiled for standing by his values and being kind to his workers. As far as I remember, no specific explanation was provided about the father’s demotion (p25). Clearly the film tries to reduce the religious emphasis of the story and puts more attention in expressing the dissatisfaction against the political system at work. In addition, the film included a visit of the minister to Sansho. Sansho offered the former multiple forms of luxury (food, dance, and treasures) in exchange for support with which he later threatened Zushio when Zushio took his revenge. This form of exchange of favors or corruption if you like should be very familiar even to modern viewers and no doubt speaks loud to the theme of the movie.

The second major adaption made in the film concerns Zushio who was corrupted by the power of Sansho temporarily but eventually turned his head to light and his father’s words. In the story, Zushio remained at least innocent throughout and was never in collaboration with Sansho. Whether this difference adds more realistic vibes to the film is ambiguous in my opinions. One might say yes by arguing that collaborating with men in power is what humans do in most cases; coming out of the mud unspotted is just an idealistic fantacy. On the other hand, the transition of Zushio in the movie was too abrupt to be realistic in my eyes. When Zushio and Anju were picking tree branches to `bury’ a dying girl, they recalled the night they spent camping in the wild with mother and all of a sudden Zushio proposed an escape. Since Zushio was never compromised in the story, no transition was needed. Also the escaping scheme seems more thorough (mostly by Anju) in the story. Nevertheless, one might admit that the transition added a little drama to the film plot which is usually appreciated by the viewers.

There are several other noticeable adaptations in the film. For instance, the mother did not open her eyes when she united with Zushio which again is consistent with the more realistic rhythm of the film. One difference that really puzzles me is the further weakening of Anju’s role which just does not seem like Mizoguchi’s style. Although rumor has that[3] despite international recognition, Mizoguchi did not like the film at all himself as the studio put a lot of demands and influences in its making.

Footnotes:
[1]Admittedly Ugestu is probably the most famous work of Kenji Mizoguchi internationally. Nevertheless I am not a huge fan of it thus omitted it in the text.
[2]As translated in the version of The Criterion Japanese Collection Vol. 2 by Criterion Collection/Janus Films.
[3]I cannot locate the source. It might be the book I read Mizoguchi and Japan by Mark Le Fanu but I am not sure.

Aguri and Koren: Lost In Transition

This is written for my Japanese Film & Literature class in the summer of 2017.

The female characters in The Peony Garden by Nagai Kafu and Aguri by Tanizaki Jun’ichiro are portrayed very differently yet one can find some interesting similarities underneath. Both of them were puzzled by their desires, what they wanted in large and small aspects of life.

The story of The Peony Garden was told in the perspective of the male character. Nonetheless, Koren, the female character and a geisha, stood in the center of the story and contributed to more than half of the dialogues. In contrast, Aguri, also a geisha, received very little direct description. Her image was completely presented through Okada’s dreams and thoughts, surreal and twisted. At the end of the story, Aguri finally spited out two lines to show her obliviousness. “I don’t really know what I’d like. What do you think?” she asked Okada’s opinions for clothes. “Mmm. Not bad.” she answered after Okada offered a suggestion. In a few lines, a timid and indecisive girl who only whispered and always avoided eye contacts jumped to us. A handsome geisha, adored by men yet was so dependent and lost, was to be wrapped in Western clothes but still lived in the traditional Japanese conformity. She was never taught to voice her opinions. As a geisha, she was only taught to observe and to understand. She was used to masking her emotions with white powder and pleasing by all means. Thus she had no opinions of her own. In fifteen years, Aguri would become Koren. She would have lived with some customer just because she was offered. Then she would find that life with water bills dull and would go back to the extravagant, lively, and crowded life of a famous geisha. Later, she would consider the possibility of marriage just because that was what everybody else was doing.

Neither Koren nor Aguri knew what they wanted or desired. Koren considered getting married because there seemed to be nothing fun and everybody got married some time. Aguri was probably too young to consider her next phase in life. Dressed by Okada’s obsession, she showed no preferences even towards the simplest aspect of life. Of course this was very sad for not only women but the whole society in general. On the other hand, this was inevitable during the transition from a destitute time to a generally abundant one. The prosperity of economics at the end of Meiji and the beginning of Taisho periods freed the society and its people from worries over necessities and encouraged them to pursue niceties that poured in with Western cultures and fashion. Before people were not used to thinking about anything else but the next bills; they did not have time or energy to seek purposes of life. Then they are suddenly endowed with more choices and possibilities, nonetheless they did not know what or even how to desire. Few ever needed a map as there was only one path in life. Now they were thrown at thousands of thousands crossroads. Naturally they were lost. Like many others of that time period, Aguri and Koren could not find their directions.

Despite the focus on females, one has no reason to suspect that the phenomenon was gender-specific. Though it might manifest more significantly in women who were confined largely to households or fields and experiencing a more drastic change in status. In fact the phenomenon was not even time-specific. Transitions and reevaluation of traditional values almost always lead to “lost generations”. More typical are post-war (WWII) generations across the globe. For instance, in Japan during the mid-1950s, rich but bored kids formed a subculture coined sun tribe and featured in the interesting motion picture, Crazed Fruit by Ko Nakahira.