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Yanagimachi's concern is between society and nature




Toronto, Canada.

Sep. 7-16.


THIS YEAR'S SPOTLIGHT DIRECTOR at the Toronto Festival of Festivals was Mitsuo Yanagimachi, a 46-year-old Japanese filmmaker who for the last fifteen years has been making neutral, non-judgmental films highly reminiscent of the austere style of Robert Bresson and the social concerns of Kenji Mizoguchi. As Donald Ritchie, the curator of this particular program, has written, Yanagimachi's films are concerned not with the conflict between the individual and society but that between society and nature. His films all concentrate on situations where this balance has been upset. Yanagimachi has made only five films in his career, one of which is a documentary about disaffected youth in a motorcycle gang, yet even such a short number of films provides a measure of the maturation of Yanagimachi's talents and style since the mid 1970s.

His first film, Buraku Empororu (God Speed You! Black Emperor), is in many ways his least successful film. It was shot between the autumn of 1974 and the summer of 1975. It is a documentary shot on grainy black-and-white 16 mm film, and it is about the exploits of a Tokyo motorcycle gang. Ostensibly, Yanagimachi employs many tools of cinema verit'e: no narration, no script, no commentary or judgments, just handheld footage of events along with synchronized sound. Unfortunately, the technical production values are so poor -- the lighting is much too dim to allow objects to be seen with any clarity, and the whirring of the camera often overwhelms whatever dialogue the microphone manages to record -- that the viewer spends more time trying to figure out what is being shown rather than pondering why it is being shown. Nevertheless, early signs of Yanagimachi's trademark themes are already apparent in this debut film.

Yanagimachi's first feature film, Jukyusai no Chizu (The Nineteen-Year-Old's Map), made in 1979, is also not a commanding success, but again his distinctive concerns are apparent. It's about a young man who makes a map of a neighborhood in which he delivers newspapers. He keeps a dossier on each family, recording their habits and rating how much he likes or dislikes them. One family, for example, gets an X because their dog barks all the time. Another man gets an X because he refuses to pay his bill.

What turns all this scary is that the young man declares "I'm a right-winger!" and starts ruthlessly calling in bomb threats on these families. He psychologically abuses the crippled mistress of his roommate until she is driven to the brink of suicide. Rather than coming up with pat explanations for such anti-social behavior, Yanagimachi only describes the actions and lets the viewer decide why these things are happening. Questions of personal responsibility versus societal influences are completely left to the viewer to sort out.

Saraba Itoshiki Daichi (Farewell to the Land), Yanagimachi's next film, was completed three years later and took up the question of what happens when the balance of an extended family in rural Japan is upset. The main character blames himself for the deaths of his two sons in a boating accident and leaves his wife and parents behind. He takes on a mistress, to the shame of his family, and he pops stimulants to keep up with his work schedule as a truck driver. Growing increasingly irritable and irrational, he goes through various conflicts with his brother, his colleagues, his boss, and his wife. The film ends in an act of violence for which no explanation is given.

In stark contrast to what one might expect, this is not a film about a wayward individual breaking up a family. Instead, the balance being destroyed is the rural family's harmony with nature -- the "farewell to the land" to which the film's title refers. Yanagimachi does have a message to convey, but his individual shots represent nothing more than the literal images that they depict. Rather, the order and sequence in which Yanagimachi's images unfold reveal patterns and dualities. The film is filled with shots that describe the new Japan of dump trucks and bulldozers and combines harvesting grain on farms. Alongside these images are shots of a full moon, an eclipse of the sun, and beautiful waves in lush fields of rice. The mythical beauty of rural life stands contrasted with the hectic new Japan built on technology. It is this milieu in which Yanagimachi places his characters and inside which the conflicts of the story take place.

Characteristically, however, Yanagimachi refuses to condemn or praise what he sees. As Donald Ritchie has written, "Everything is shown but nothing is explained." The audience has to pick up where Yanagimachi leaves off.

In his 1984 film, Hi Matsuri (Fire Festival), perhaps his most mature and successful film, Yanagimachi adds the notion of divinity to his exploration of the tensions between society and nature. The film tells the story of a lumberman who cuts trees and traps animals in the majestic and beautiful sacred forests of Kumano. Despite his willingness to defile ancient lands, the man believes that there is a mountain goddess with whom he has a special and favored relationship.

In the film's most dramatic moment, the lumberman appeals to his goddess when he is caught in the midst of a fierce rainstorm. As he presses his upraised hands against the bark of a large tree, there is a sudden lull in the rainstorm. The sun appears, and the wind stops blowing. All is unnaturally still. Yanagimachi does not tell us that the goddess has appeared; everything that has come before this moment leads viewers, and the lumberman, to that conclusion. The man answers this presence with "I understand" -- but as a polluter of nature, he is perhaps the one who least understands the wishes of the mountain goddess. That he understands nothing becomes apparent when a horrifying sacrificial offering concludes the film.

In another fascinating comment, Yanagimachi contrasts the majestic beauty of the mountains of Kumano -- mountains so beautiful and unspoiled that they seem to incarnate nature itself -- with the presence of an advertising truck that plays a silly television jingle from a loudspeaker. As Ritchie points out in his introductory essay, "This silly little song is ludicrous in the face of such beauty." And indeed it is. Yanagimachi's comment on the inherent conflict between society and nature -- and divinity, in this case -- couldn't be clearer. Yet once again, the images themselves are neutral and mean nothing more than themselves. Context and sequence are everything in Yanagimachi's films.


As this retrospective makes clear, Mitsuo Yanagimachi is one of the handful of Japanese film directors who is exploring his society with an open and unwavering eye. His refusal to "prettify" or condemn what he sees obviously bears similarities to the approach of cinema verit'e documentary filmmakers -- as is the case in cinema verit'e filmmaking in general, Yanagimachi's editing is the essence of his art. With the exception of Buraku Empororu, none of Yanagimachi's films can be considered formal documentaries. It is nevertheless accurate to characterize Yanagimachi as a narrative filmmaker who criss-crosses the landscape of his society, photographing and portraying what he sees.

Because he has control over what he chooses to recreate in his films, however, Yanagimachi has flexibility that is denied the strict cinema verit'e filmmaker. In this sense, one can conclude that Yanagimachi is not so much a documentator but a commentator on the society in which he lives. As such, he occupies a unique role among the internationally-known filmmakers working today. His total output over fifteen years has been relatively small, but each film -- with the possible exception of his newest film, Shadow of China, which apparently was not that well-received in Toronto -- has served to refine his skills, themes, and interests. It is perhaps most fitting, now that the themes that unify his works are more apparent than ever, that international audiences have finally become aware of his accomplishments through this timely retrospective.