sexta-feira, 21 de maio de 2010

Transgression and Retribuiton: Yanagimachi Mitsuo's Fire Festival

(Himatsuri, 1985)
By Donald Richie

Fire Festival (Himatsuri, 1985) is a film about transgression and retribuiton, about nature revenging itself upon destructive modern man. At the same time, as its director Yanagimachi Mistuo has often stated, the film is not about ecology. This is not a paradox. Yanagimachi is observing life as it is, not as it ought to be. Mankind and the natural world are opposed because man must live off it and hence despoil it. Ecological concerns are feeble in the face of this fact. Saving the earth is possible only through eradication of an overweening mankind so therefore the central theme of Yanagimachi's film is the necessity of a personified nature killing the transgressive protagonist and his entire brood. (1)
Before making Fire Festival, Yanagimachi noted that his previous films were similarly about the opposition between person and environment. The unconstrained biker in God Speed You, Black Emperor (1976) pollutes wherever he is, the violent newspaper boy in A Nineteen Year Old's Map (Jukyusai no chizu, 1979) plans enormous destruction; and the junkie trucker in Farewell to the land (Saraba itoshiki daichi, 1982) shoots up in the desert he has made of the countryside. Though none of them slaughters his family (the trucker merely murders his wife) they are all pictured as possessed. In the absence of any further evidence, these protagonists could be seen as possessed merely in the sense of being psychologically disturbed. But in Fire Festival, Yanagimachi supplies the required evidence - the possession is literal in that the protagonist is taken over. After we have witnessed the appearence of nature as a deity in the film, we can no longer believe in mere psychological disturbance.
Yanagimachi has also argued that there are similar irrational elements which now seem to have been something on the order of the divine in his other films. (2) In God Speed You, Black Emperor there are supernatural scenes of the mother's new religion; in A Nineteen Year Old's Map there are long, preternatural sunrises and paranoid hallucinations; and in Farewell to the land there is the eclipse of the sun, the mysterious death of the little boys and their supposed resuscitation through the shaman. In making Fire Festival, however, Yanagimachi wanted to develop the relationship between nature and man further, and so he added deities making what he has called "a kind of triangle - man, nature and the gods".
Man's inadvertently thoughtless and transgressive way with nature is visible from the first sequence onwards. Trees are felled, birds are caught and animals are killed. The stillness of the mountains is invaded by the inane advertising jingles of an itinerant vending truck. This is presented without comment as an ordinary scene of industry, enterprise and development in contemporary Japan. While the lumbermen fail to question their activities, the protagonist himself remains aware. He and his fellow workers retain something of the fear their ancestors felt when tampering with the natural order. In the midst of their destruction they still perceive nature as a goddess and try superstitiously to placate her. When the young assistant profanes nature by using sacred laurel branches to make a bird trap, he is forced to face the mountain landscape, drop his trousers and expose himself to her because, as the protagonist, tells him, "she's a woman, she likes that kind of thing". He knows this because he is, as he jokingly boasts, especially intimate with her himself. "Only I", he says, "can make the goddess feel like a woman". For him a swim in her sacred lagoon must be performed naked. He jokes about his various rendezvous and his later feckless swim in her sanctuary may be seen as copulative.
If he knows her, however, she also knows him. He is no more transgressive than any other animal - the only threat is that there are now more humans than ever, and that they all have better power saws and more dynamite - but he is aware of his actions, and he boasts of them. It is hubris therefore that attracts jealous deities and in the horrific denouement of the film the goddess chooses him. He has embraced, used and taunted nature and now she embraces and crushes him in turn. He becomes what the director has identified as an ikenie (scapegoat): he who takes on himself the sins of all the others. In Japanese mythology, as in Greek, he who is chosen by the gods is destroyed.
Fire Festival is set in Nigishima, a village of some 15,000 inhabitants located in Kumano on the Wakayama coast of southwest Japan. It is a place where the forested mountains descend directly to the sea. It is early autumn and the woodmen are at work, among them Tatsuo (Kitaoji Kin'ya), a man in his early forties, and his side-kick, the 19-year-old Ryota (Nakamoto Ryota). Relations between the woodmen and fishermen, always uneasy, are now strained even further when someone dumps 100 liters of fuel oil into the waters of the fish hatchery. The villagers believe that this is an act of opposition to a planned public marine park, a development that will bring money into the community. Tatsuo is regarded with suspicion because he alone has refused to sell his land to the development agency. There is no proof, however, and so with suspicion remaining, nothing is done.
When Tatsuo takes his fishermen friend Toshio (Yasuoka Rikiya) with him to shoot monkeys, there is local criticism since fishermen do not consort with lumberjacks. When Tatsuo borrows Toshio's boat, there are even louder complaints. The reason for borrowing the boat is that Tatsuo's former girlfriend, Kimiko (Taichi Kiwako), has returned to help run her sister's bar and to renew her affair with him. In the closed small town there is nowhere else they can meet without causing comment. Another reason, however, is that Tatsuo can also take Ryota along to keep watch.
Once more, someone fouls the hatchery and two empty oil barrels are found near Tatsuo's house. Disregarding the suspicion, he again borrows Toshio's boat and proceeds to the cove near the goddess's sanctuary and the hatchery. There he disregards the taboo and takes a swim. In the meantime, the most active of the land speculators, Yamakawa (Miki Norihei), visits Tatsuo's home and hints that selling would be a good idea since the other villagers are beginning to suspect him of dumping the oil into the hatchery.
Still, no one takes any action. Lumbering goes on until, one day, there is a storm, and the woodcutters head for home, all except for Tatsuo. He remains and there he meets the deity, the mountain goddess. He has had moments of awareness before, but now the encounter changes him. During the annual himatsuri that follows shortly, he suddenly turns violent and has to be restrained after some young men light their touches before the arrival of the sacred flame from the deity's shrine. Tatsuo's outrage indicates that he is now her creature.
At home, he and his family - mother, sisters, wife and two children - are observing the 17th anniversary of his father's death. Tatsuo loads his rifle and one by one, kills them all. He shows the bodies of his dead sons to the sea and then smears himself with their blood, just as he has done before with a captured dove. Finally, he props his rifle against his chest and for the last time presses the trigger. Shortly, there is yet another oil spill in the hatchery.
Yanagimachi has recognized that the film confuses people for some reason. He argues that audiences expect some cathartic moment after the murders, but that is not the kind of film he wanted to make. Instead, he has made an explicitly religious film that contains an enormous, even frightening neutrality. As he has said: "I think nature is like blotting paper. You, a human put a mark on it and the mark spreads, sinks in and disappears. Our human feelings too, they are so small and nature is enormous. We live only for seventy-some years, but nature goes on forever. To nature we mean nothing at all". This is because nature - the third leg of the triangle - is god.
One of the reasons that Fire Festival may confuse is that, despite Yanagimachi's disclaimer, it really does seem at first to be about ecology. Trees are destroyed, the seacoast is "developed", small birds are killed, monkeys are shot, boar are baited and fish are poisoned. These are all acts that mirror a concern for the world now that man is predominant. If this were all the film was about, however, it would remain an ineffectual plea for people to be more thoughtfull. What transpires is that ecological concerns are merely a way of introducing the film's central theme. Writer and director go on to demonstrate why things are not otherwise; why lack of ecological concern is merely a symptom of something deeper. The disease itself, if that is what it is, resides in a complete natural incompatibility between man and nature.
The viewer's confusion is partially created by the ecological scenario not being played out to its fully conclusion. Instead, the goddess, nature invisibly personified, enters and takes over in a way our rational age does not permit. The appearence of a deity in an otherwise realistic film is confusing because our rational assumptions do not permit such an occurrence. Indeed, modern audiences can accept such an appearence only in religious films where the emergence of such a figure as Jesus Christ is assumed, or in horror films which explicitly deal with the evil gods of the underworld. In either case, these appearences are standardized and expected, and are not in themselves presented realistically. When such a miracle exists within a realistic film there is bafflement. One remembers the critical consternation that greeted the return of the dead in Carl-Theodor Dreyer's Ordet (Denmark, 1954). After everything has been carefully presented as quotidian, the viewer is suddenly asked to believe the impossible.
Consider then the climax of Fire Festival: the meeting with the goddess. Deep in the once sacred forests of Kumano the foresters are feeling the trees again with their power saws, hurrying because a storm is coming. As the wind rises and the rain begins, they run for shelter with the exception of Tatsuo who stays behind, as if he knows what is comming. Drenched by the rain, torn by the wind and deserted by his young friend, he embraces one of the great trees. There is a sudden calm. The rain instantly stops, the wind abruptly ceases and the sun immediately appears. There is a silence and the sense of a great presence. Tatsuo knows who it is. It is the goddess, nature herself. He had earlier claimed she could not resist him - he had swum in her forbidden lagoon - and now she chooses him. When he tries to run away, a tree falls in his path - a sign that the way is forbidden. He says only: "I understand". The wind resumes, turns into a gale and he makes his way to the stream where, as though knowing what is required, he drinks. At once the great wind stops. The goddess has received her promise, his libation. The combination of the rain machines, kleig lights, airplane motors, Nakagami Kenji's script, Tamura Masaki's photography, Takemitsu's Toru's score, actors and Yanagimachi Mitsuo's direction create a transcendent sequence - the goddess has appeared, invisible but indubitable. We are now prepared for her retribution.
If we think of Robert Bresson, Yanagimachi's favorite director and the one from whom he has learned the most, it becomes more apparent what he is doing. God Speed You, Black Emperor, with its opaque, empty shots, might be a continuation of Bresson's Au Hasard, Balthasar (France, 1966). Watching the truck driver with his spoon and his needle in Farewell to the Land is to remember Fontaine in A Man Escaped (France, 1956). When we witness the easy, meaningless drowning of the little boys in the same film we recall the equally casual death of the girl in Mouchette (France, 1967). In the blood-drenched climax of Fire Festival we see the equally "meaningless" slaughter of the family at the end of L'Argent (France, 1983). With his wide-open, staring and unmoved lens, Yanagimachi is indeed close to the French director, but he also has a stylistic debt to the Japanese director Mizoguchi Kenji. In interviews, Yanagimachi has often ackonwledged an admiration for Mizoguchi's detached, almost documentary eye and general refusal to use close-ups. Through his own sense of detachment Yanagimachi can lead us to perceive the gratuitous collusions and unremarked connections that make up life. Like both Bresson and Mizoguchi, he shows us that humans are part of something much larger than the society they construct. In other words, he shows them as part of nature itself. The wandering mother and her children are part of the field of flowering weeds in Mizoguchi's Sansho the Ballif (Sansho Dayu, 1954) and the enchanted potter and lovesick ghost are a part of the lawn and the lake in Ugetsu (Ugetsu Monogatari, 1953). In Yanagimachi's films, man is still linked, but he is also baffled and alienated. The drugged truck-driver in Farewell to the Land stares at the rice fields and we, in turn, look at them - rippling, alive, vibrant. "In a way", Yanagimachi has said, "he discovers the beauty of nature through drugs, a beauty he has not noticed before. He wants to become part of nature, to melt into it as it were. This is very a Japanese concept, but I don't think it is possible to merge with nature. Society and nature are quite the opposite of each other".
This is the opposition that Yanagimachi's opaque and disturbing neutrality is suggesting. It is an opposition not between the individual and society, but bewteen society (and thus also the individual) and nature: the world as it is, the world we have not remade, the world as the gods made it. Traditionally, Japan is supposed to have kept its closeness to this natural world. Even now, when Japan has leveled its mountains, cut down its forests, dammed its rivers and cemented its coastline, one still hears that there is a kind of symbolic closeness between nature and the Japanese. Gardens and flower arranging are then mentioned, but people are unmindful of the fact that these too are intrusions into the natural order. (3)
The natural order is the only order in Yanagimachi's film. The gods are all shinto gods. Shinto is the original, pre-Buddhist, animistic religion of Japan where a large rock or tree or waterfall may be a deity. It was a pantheistic form of pure nature worship long before being perverted into the state religion during the Second World War. Its myriad gods are still considered present and are respected in many shrines throughout the country. With Shinto there is an ancient opposition between those who live by the produce of the forest and those who live by the produce of the sea. This duality is one of the aspects of the plot of the late Nakagami Kenji's story that Yanagimachi based the film upon. Indeed, the original title of the film was to have been A Festival of Forests and Sea, but the producers thought it made the feature sound too anthropological and changed it, despite leaving numerous indications of their original intent in the script. "He's from the mountains, he doesn't know the sea"; "Mountain folk don't know what the sea is like"; and Tatsuo's angry words when he rejects the developer's agent, saying that he will have "no shitty marine park - as though anything good could come from the sea".

(Himatsuri, 1985)

By this near removal of major theme, the film was made to misleadingly emphasize the role of the Wakayama himatsuri which had originally been seen as only a small part of the overall picture. Many films are compromised by their producers. It is after all their money and they feel it is their right, or even their duty, to suggest or insist on changes. The prevalence of such supervision is attested by the large number of "director's cut" re-releases once the continuing popularity of an older film is seen to justify such an expensive procedure. In Japan such interference is quite normal. Filmmaking is even more of a communal effort there than it is in the West and an urge to agree along with a reluctance to counter authority is customary. Historically, it was only those directors who had proved their box-office prowess, such as Mizoguchi, Ozu Yasujiro, Kinoshita Keisuke, and a few others, who were not interfered with and were allowed to make the films they wanted.
Yanagimachi had no such clout. Further, the making of Fire Festival was complicated by the fact that the film's debut producer Parco - an affiliate of the large department store chain Seibu - remained unsure of how to both produce and market its own product. The released film was not the version originally envisioned by writter and director. The original was going to be more frank and transgressive and situated on more than one level that included a sociological dimension. It was going to break a long-standing taboo and concern itself with the question of the perceived pariah group currently referred to under the euphemism of burakumin. For centuries these people (in no other way different from the majority of Japanese) have been set apart and discriminated against, even though there have been laws (the first over a century ago) passed against such prejudice.
Traditionally burakumin groups have been ostracized, forbidden to intermarry with the general population, and restricted to the lowest forms of labor. Among the reasons sometimes given for the creation of such a class has been the fact that members previously performed such despised duties as those of executioners, torturers and handlers of the dead. It is now thought more likely, however that such occupations were all that was available to such an artificially created social group. That this group was considered necessary at all is believed to have been caused by Japan's decision to isolate itself politically from the rest of the world so that there were no neighbors to demonize. In other words, the self-justifying "other" had to come from within. Nowadays, "members" are encouraged to "pass" so that the whole vexed question will not come up. The localities in which these are found have had their names changed so that burakimin origins cannot be traced. Nonetheless, even now directories are privately published with new names linked to old so that wary concerns may consult them and avoid hiring anyone from this stigmatized class. Though it has been officially announced that the caste does not exist, prejudice against it still continues.
Nakagami Kenji (who also wrote the script for A Nineteen Year Old's Map) was a famous member of this proscribed caste who fought against stigmatization to become one of Japan's finest and most serious writers. He naturally concerned himself with the experience of this stigma and the script of Fire Festival (based on a newspaper account of such a family murder) was to have been no different from his other works. Though any direct references were soon removed from the script there is still enough evidence in the film, such as the presence of dog-training, social rivalries, village prejudice and the part of the Kumano coast known as the home to burakumin communities, to suggest that the character of Tatsuo is a member of Japan's pariah minority. He thus knows all about being a figure against whom the majority can maintain its own favorable image through contrast to his despised class. Tatsuo refuses to go along with village plans to make a profitable marine park, he will not sell his property, and he is the one who is accused of poisoning the fish. He is perceived as transgressive long before the goddess actually chooses him as her personal trangressor.
Nakagami and Yanagimachi also introduced another transgressive theme into their script by choosing to emphasize the homoeroticism of Tatsuo and the young Ryota. The older man is very much the phallic man. He fingers himself, displays a pretended erection, and lives up to his name, Tatsuo. The word means "son of the dragon", but tatsu almost means "stand-up", and his used to refer to erections. While the name is a common one, its use in these particular circumstances is meaningful. The attraction between Tatsuo and Ryota is kept on the homosocial level where most men keep it, but here are also indications of something deeper. Tatsuo takes Ryota along when he takes Kimiko out to make love to her. He is to be a lookout - in more senses than one. He is to observe the older man in action. And both of them are aware of this.
There are several scenes where Ryota stares at a half-naked Tatsuo and the older man is romanticized in slow motion as if from Ryota's point of view. There is also much sexual reference: "Ryota's wiped his cock on the funny papers" and "Tatsuo's built like a horse". Later, during the storm in the forest, Tatsuo embraces Ryota. This is explained by the youth complaining of being cold, but the implication is that Tatsuo wants his young companion there when the goddess "makes love to him". Throughout there are many references to a common homosociality. There is much jocular affection, arms around shoulders and playful messing around. Woman are routinely disparaged. Tatsuo believes it is manly to make a woman stand up while being taken, and later brags about it: "Hey, Ryota, just done it standing up". All women are like the goddess. They like male members, love to look at them and this is interpreted as somehow disreputable. An even more explicit sequence was cut from the film before release. Tatsuo and Ryota make a trip to the larger town of Shingu where Kimiko has opened up her own place - a "snack-bar" - with available girls. The girls make the advances expected of their profession, but Tatsuo recoils and when Ryota shows interest he is taken away.
Parco's new film branch was not going to confront two such taboo subjects as the burakumin on the one hand and homosexuality on the other. Even while the film was in the planning stage there were cautious attempts at interference. As the filming progressed ( at one time it broke down for over a month) these attempts grew stronger and more frequent. Nakagami left the project before the film was finished, in anger it is said and Yanagimachi had to patch the script together as best he could. He fought for as many of the forbidden references as possible but any systematic display was denied him. There is no doubt that the Fire Festival we now see is not the picture that the writer and director originally planned. Yet, in a way, the producer's interference actually strenghtned the power the released film now displays. These themes - burakumin prejudice, homosexuality - are now unemphasized, but also unexplained. Their oblique appearence complicates and enriches the viewer's experience. By being there, but by often being invisible like the goddess herself, they heighten expectation and thus prepare the ground for retribution. As Yanagimachi says, they "act as agents in the film, as x's in the equation". This is true, and the equation says that violation equals chastisement. At the same time the simplicity of such an equation is rendered less obvious by what is left out. By not allowing the director to explain, the producers gave him the power to suggest. The strenght of Fire Festival lies in its ability to demand that we deduce, make conjectures and infer what it implies. This imprecision makes for mystery and its incomprehensibility suggests that such violation will always be with us.
The final sequence of the film shows that the sanctuary has again been polluted. But Tatsuo is dead. A hand releases the dogs. We see someone in the mountains looking down on the despoiled hatchery. His back is toward us but he has Tatsuo's dogs with him. The rising sun shimmers on the oily water. Critics have found this conclusion particularly impenetrable. Yet, as Yanagimachi argues: "We never see Ryota's face, we can only surmise that it is he who is taking the dead man's place. Yet, who else could it be? The sun is coming up (we shot that scene at five in the morning) and the dogs are praying (we tranquilized them) and there is someone with his back to the camera and he has again polluted the waters of the bay. For some reason, this confuses people. I suppose they expect some cathartic moment after the murders, but that is not the kind of film I was making." The director was clearly making a film in which the need for a scapegoat, the ikenie, continues. It is a film in which the loved one becomes the beloved and all the problems it deals with are seen as permanent. Did Tatsuo have a hand or was it Ryota's from the first? He is certainly not a very good boy. Early on the film, we see him kick a wounded dog and he also knocks down an old man and takes Tatsuo's rifle and threatens him. Is the film a political allegory about Japan's own lost innocence? Such questions can be asked only if one believes that the film is, on the one hand, a kind of murder mystery and, on the other, a film with and agenda all of its own.
Presented with such a problematical feature film, Parco lost what courage it still mantained and released Fire Festival precipitously, doing nothing simultaneously to promote it. Yanagimachi would probably not subscribe to the idea that the tampering actually increased the film's mystery, and hence its power, but he did believe that given a chance an audience would have accepted what he and Nakagami had to say. There was, however, little publicity and no major critic in the Japanese press took the film up. Since the film itself contained no concessions to easy comprehension, it died at the box-office. Abroad, its worth was recognized to some extent as it won a prize at the 1985 Locarno Film Festical, but this did little to recoup Parco's losses.
After the failure of Fire Festival, Parco's production company folded. Nakagami subsequently took Ryota with him to the United States. He had originally discovered the young man working on a road gang near Shinshu and introduced him to Yanagimachi who decided to cast him in the role under the same name. Ryota's highly credible performance is the very promising work of a first time amateur and Nakagami, it is said, had plans for him. In New York, the two men, neither of whom could speak English, approached the famous Actor's Theatre and attempted to enroll the young actor. Whatever then occurred, there was a quarrel and Nakagami, it is claimed, deserted the youngster and returned alone to Japan. At last this is the story that was told in Tokyo. Finally, already ill, Nakagami died.
Yanagimachi's film was accounted to a failure and in Tokyo, as in Hollywood, a financial failure means no more work. The Locarno prize had, however impressed Warner Brothers, and the director was shortly approached to direct Shadow of China (Japan/US, 1990) (4). Since this film also failed to make money, Yanagimachi's chances to continue directing became even fewer. Finding funding, he made one more feature film, About Love, Tokyo (Ai ni Tsuite, Tokyo, 1992). Again it has a transgressive theme: the fate of a young Chinese who comes to Tokyo to find work. It was brillitanlty realized but, unmarketed, it similarly failed to make profit. Though shown at a foreign festival - Berlin - it also failed to win any prizes. After that, with the exception of the television documentary, The Wandering Pedlars (Tabisuru pao-jiang-hu, 1995), shot in Taiwan, Yanagimachi directed nothing at all in the intervening ten years. (He finally returned to the international film scene in 2005 with Who's Camus Anyway? (Kamyu nante shiranai). Among the principals of Fire Festival, Ryota alone enjoyed a happy ending. Somehow finding his way back to Japan from New York, he is now a contented husband and a happy father working in the municipal office of a small community on the outskirts of Tokyo.
Despite all these travails, the power of Fire Festival has allowed the film to live on the minds of those who have experienced it. It is occasionally revived in art cinemas abroad though it remains unseen in Japan. Its power is such that it is impossible to forget once seen. Not only does it reach beyond appearances to suggest a further reality, it also displays a seriousness of intent rare in any national cinema.

There have been other interpretations of this film. For example the jacket of the KINO VHS edition of the film states: "At once nature's mystic voice and its amorous despoiler, Tatsuo embodies the spiritual link to nature that the community must sacrifice in order to prosper."
(2) All quotations from Yanagimachi are taken from an undated private interview with the author.
(3) It has been suggested by some critics that Fire Festival is therefore an allegory. Tatsuo is Japan, still aware of nature but no longer respectful. Nature has a way of dealing with such presumption. Usually it is earthquakes or typhoons, but here it is the somewhat novel method of spiritual posession. Such a reading is certainly possible but it limits the power of the film. Yanagimachi is not concerned with intelectual constructions but with structuted emotions.
(4)If the director had thought the department store was intrusive, he found the Hollywood studio impossible. It also had its problems. Yanagimachi spoke no english, yet he was directing an English language film. The film's star, Chinese actress Gong Li, knew no English either and had to memorize what were to her meaningless lines. The director was constantly fighthing consequent script changes and in addition, it is said, he found the lead actor, John Lone, difficult to work with.

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