Drive (2011)

He is a man, who is idle, uneducated, lonely and knows he bears a cross.Shin Hasegawa

The air is diffused with slightly burned smell of melted cheese and cellulose – the fluorescent sign, “Nino’s Pizzeria”, illuminates the cool dry night. The driver parks his car silently in front of the place. He pulls out a SPFX mask, a shabby plain-looking face made for movie stunt job. Let’s wait and see, until Nino comes out. Let’s wait and see. Pretty soon, he would come out, carrying smell of alcohol, rotten stomach and saliva around him. He would come out of that front door. The printing shop next to Nino’s has the same front door, so does the shoe repair, and the eyewear retail, too. But this one is different. Not because Nino put checker-board patterns on it. Silly-looking thing, Nino thinks the patterns would block the view from outside. No, the eyes buried in the SPFX mask can see him through it. Millions of strip-mall restaurants and nail-salons across the country have the same front doors, but this one is different. Because, pretty soon, Nino will come out through that door, and go straight to hell.

Since last year’s release, I wanted to see Nicolas Winding Refn’s DRIVE. After reading its synopsis, I was fascinated. Because it’s a genre movie. Not that L.A. noir thing. It’s one of the oldest genre in cinema, the outsider-tries-to-save-another-outsider’s-wife-and-kid-from-a-bunch-of-thugs genre. And Japanese cinema had been obsessed with this genre since 1920s, and a major prototype being KUTSUKAKE TOKIJIRO, a Jidaigeki film directed by Yoshiro Tsuji in 1929.

Tokijiro, a wandering gambler and outlaw, finds himself under the umbrella of the local gang, Sukegoro. Sukegoro orders Tokijiro to kill Sanzo, another gambler. When Tokijiro finds out Sukegoro is actually scheming to kidnap and rape Sanzo’s wife, he decided not to kill Sanzo, defying the rules of the underworld. Sanzo is fatally wounded by Sukegoro’s thugs and, in his last breath, he asks Tokijito to look after his wife and a kid…..

Kutukake Tokijiro (1929)

Based on the original novel by Shin Hasegawa, this story has been made into films nine times. The genre is called “Matatabi-mono (股旅物)” and Japanese loved this theme. Matatabi is an outlaw, who secretly longs for fantasy of a family but is too unfit to be accepted. He has to drift from one place to another, from one underworld to another, only to be smeared with ever-strong smell of blood. Many variations on this theme can be found in numerous Jidaigeki, Yakuza and other outlaw movies. Now you understand why SHANE (1953) had been the ultimate western for a long time in Japan. It’s practically Matatabi-mono genre with a clean plot line and a quiet handsome leading man. Interestingly, Shin Hasegawa himself was influenced by earlier Hollywood films, especially those of William S.Hart westerns. It is a long tradition of movie narrative.

I was fascinated by the synopsis of DRIVE, because I wanted to see if this genre is still possible, in 2011.

Then? It’s definitely a perfect genre product of celluloid Los Angeles. Some say the movie is very much indebted to David Lynch’s films. The others say Michael Mann’s 80’s thrillers. It may have to do with visual feel of post-modern Los Angeles. Its dreamy freeways, rootless downtown buildings, deserted intersections, smells of NOx and carbonaceous particulates in the air, tastes of MSG-loaded Chinese food and full of fluorescent light in the night resonate with make-believe of this kind. Blood seeps into dry asphalt, leaving nothing but opaque stains. Intense California sun never allows a shadow of sentimentality. I may say, Shane came back to 2011 Los Angeles, trading his gun-slinging skills to driving. Or Tokijiro with an attitude, a different hair, driving 2011 Ford Mustang instead of carrying a blood-sucking sword. And during the two hours of driving through this Los Angeles, I believed every frame of this fairly tale. And that’s a good sign of a genre movie.

DRIVE (2011)
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Written by Hossein Amini, based on the novel by James Sallis
Cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel
Starring : Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston

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Musashino, the Landscape That Never Was (Part 3)

Lady of Musashino, The Murayama Reservoir


In THE LADY OF MUSASHINO, Mizoguchi features various images of water. When Tsutomu and Michiko take a long idle stroll in the area for the first time, clear water running in the canal introduces us to the world of Musashino. Later, a trip to the large reservoir (the Murayama Reservoir) definitely changes the fates of their lives. Transition from quiet water of the reservoir to violent, turbulent storm eloquently speaks the evolving emotions of the protagonists. These images remind us that the Musashino is abundant with natural water resources, as the mountainous area far north supplies the massive amount of underground water throughout the year. Consequently, the area has become the lifeline of the Greater Tokyo since late 19th century.

One of the truly foreign notions to Japanese minds today is that water, especially drinking water, is scarce natural resource to most of the world population. You experience drought very rarely in Japan. We have an expression, “waste (something) as if you are using water”, meaning mindless wasteful usage of something. You can actually drink tap water anywhere in Japan and don’t get sick. In many rural areas, tap water tastes better than bottled water sold in stores. This abundance of clean water supply is definitely the result of centuries of irrigation development.

In Musashino, a series of water irrigation projects was undertaken throughout Tokugawa, Meiji, Taisho to Showa era. During Tokugawa Era, the irrigation projects in Edo (Tokyo) began. First, it was a network of the wells in the central Edo, then the Kanda Josui (the Kanda drinking water supply) was built in early 17th century. Next the Tamagawa Josui (the Tamagawa drinking water supply, completed in 1653) was the ambitious project to build canals and lay wooden pipes and paths from Musashino to the central Edo. These sophisticated irrigation projects were the high point of pre-industrial Japanese civil engineering. After the Meiji era, the debate of need for modern irrigation system heated up, especially in light of epidemic and sanitary issues. One of the most modern water irrigation system is the Murayama Reservoir, the man-made lake in Musashino.

The trip to the Murayama Reservoir in THE LADY OF MUSASHINO is certainly the allegory to origin of life. It is more about autonomic functions human built by themselves to incubate the larger society. Modern industrial invasion was already underway even before the postwar boom.


The Murayama Reservoir today


On the other hand, water in TOTORO is mainly about agriculture, and life in agricultural community. In fact, TOTORO is deliberately free of the images of invasion of modern industrial elements into this landscape. I believe Miyazaki was trying to create the space of fantasy in TOTORO, devoid of modern industrial symbols as much as possible. This is rather unusual for him, since his works are usually filled with images of modern machinery (especially of the aviation machines). It might have to do with the era when the film was produced. The year 1988 was the pinnacle of the Bubble Economy, the days of glitters and gold. It was the time when the real state in Tokyo was priced beyond imagination, 70% increase annually. TOTORO was the antitheses by Miyazaki to such a God-forsaken mentality of the time.

City versus Country
THE LADY OF MUSASHINO is concerned about the decadent nature of a city, specifically expressed as Tsutomu’s promiscuous activities in Tokyo. Almost every vice depicted in THE LADY OF MUSASHINO has its roots in downtown Tokyo. This contrast is reminiscent of the similar dichotomy in F. W. Murnau’s SUNRISE, in which the woman from the City seduces the simple farmer of the Country. I am inclined to wonder if Mizoguchi had SUNRISE in his mind during the shooting of THE LADY OF MUSASHINO. The scene of the ‘secret’ meeting at the marsh appears to be Mizoguchi’s recreation of, or homage to the famous scene in SUNRISE. In Murnau’s late silent masterpiece, each character belongs to the world of his/her own. The farmer belongs to the Country, even though he is lured into the world of the City. The woman of the City never leaves the City, even when she is staying in the farming village. In Mizoguchi’s case, the simple dichotomy dissolves into more liquid state of storytelling. Tsutomu is a sort of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the nature-loving naive young man in the Country and the sex crazed maniac in the City. In that sense, he himself represents the Greater Tokyo, the City destined to become the most modernized city in the world, repressing the pre-industrial landscape in the process.

Then again, TOTORO has almost no hint of urban atmosphere, as if it does not exist in its hemisphere. Again, this must be Miyazaki’s refusal to let drab concretes and metals contaminating his favorite landscape, incurred by the modernization. You may wonder this landscape in TOTORO is the one Tsutomu was searching for in Mizoguchi’s film. Then, the final words by Michiko in the Mizoguchi’s film is very suggestive – the Musashino Tustomu is looking for does not exist anymore. Musashino is changing, the land is developed, scenery is transformed, the community is no longer what it used to be and people are flooding into the region. And you must accept it. In another words, the landscape in TOTORO is the complete fabrication of, or cleansed version of the world of Musashino, which did not exist.

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