[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]
Maybe, against all available evidence, there really does exist a viable culture of young film heads here in Vancouver. But I doubt it. Subtract El Topo, Siddhartha, Zachariah, the Brothers Marx—big draws like that—and what’ve you got left? An empty auditorium, that’s what. When University of British Columbia’s Cinema 16 schedules a Bogie series, it sells out, sure; what else is new? But suggest, as I did a couple of years ago to Cinema 16’s student coordinator, that future series include work by Oshima and you learn that Boy, recently screened, was not well liked, was in fact disliked: for its (sic!) “sentimentality.”
It was borne in upon me once more last week at Simon Fraser U., the university at the other end of town, that that same Nagisa Oshima, whatever film buff clout he may have elsewhere, is not exactly a name to conjure with on the Vancouver university circuit. SFU’s Geography Department showed Oshima’s The Ceremony (1971) as part of its amazing weekly “Technocratic Society” film series (free, open to the public); and in all that vast amphitheatre of seats with hinged writing surfaces one might have seen: me … and the projectionist … and three students.
Waiting for the showing to begin, I opened a copy of the student newspaper and came on a long, disheartened letter-to-the-editor saying that despite extensive publicity, campus film series this semester have unspooled to virtually empty houses. Where, the author of the letter pleaded, oh where are all the members of that famous “film generation” we’ve been reading and hearing about? Where were they, for example, when Kurosawa was doing his stuff last month in AQ 9001? Now, if you can’t pull today’s student in from the library, or the beer joint, for a Kurosawa, I suppose there’s no sense expecting to find a crowd of ’em at a difficult Oshima flick.
And he can be difficult. When the lights came up on The Ceremony, the student two rows behind me rose, put on his coat, and said only: “Freaky.” As a first response, it’s not surprising. The movie’s ostensible hero, Masuo Sakurada, walks through the wakes and weddings of the Sakurada clan—the ceremonies that tie the film together—wearing a perpetually pained expression behind which festers (flowers?) the memory of burying his little brother alive in Manchuria. It seems to be the key to his character.
In the movie’s first ceremony, 14-year-old Masuo, freshly repatriated from Manchuria, sits in the big room used by the Sakuradas for special occasions and tries to make sense of the wild crossfire of jokes, accusations, and innuendo that passes between the ranks of family members kneeling on their mats along either wall. It is 1947, and the first anniversary, as it turns out, of Masuo’s father’s suicide, provoked by the Emperor’s renunciation of divinity. And as the saga of the family Sakurada develops, broad hints are thrown out that: a) Masuo’s mother has slept with her Manchurian captors; b) Masuo’s father has slept with Aunt Setsuko, a sympathetic woman for whom the boy soon conceives a grand passion; and c) Masuo’s grandfather Kazuomi Sakurada, the tyrannical patriarch of the clan, has slept with both Masuo’s mother and Setsuko … and with a slew of other wives and mistresses of his sons, too—thereby engendering a gaggle of his very own grandchildren. Incest City.
Puzzling intimations of this almost comically inbred network intrude upon the memorial ceremony in 1947. But what is most jarring to the newcomer on the scene is a purely formal discrepancy. Here are the two ranks of family members, arrayed on their mats on either side of the Scope screen, with an acre of quiet space between them; and at the serene apex of the triangle, near the top of the frame, is the shrine and, kneeling before it, the family’s ramrod-straight patriarch. But threatening to burst this quintessentially Japanese pattern of ceremoniousness is a series of the most extraordinarily outspoken volleys of bawdry, jeering, insult, dirty-linen-flapping, and scurrility this side of a Chabrol dinner table scene. It’s confusing as hell for little Masuo, who’s got practically a full-time psychic job already just trying to deal with that Manchuria memory. But there’s more. There’s his immediate, strong attraction to sexy Aunt Setsuko, and there’s also, it seems, a trace of repressed homosexuality mixed into the sorrows of young Masuo.
The perturbed boy is offered a cup of sake. He drinks it and falls over unconscious. “It was my first cup of sake,” the mature Masuo’s voiceover tells us now. But what made him pass out, he adds, was more likely the sheer physical proximity of his strapping 15-year-old cousin Terumichi, another of Grandfather Sakurada’s by-blows and a newfound friend and idol.
Poor pained Masuo! Aunt Setsuko has expressed admiration for his prowess at baseball (he makes it to the All-Japan High School Baseball Tournament), and he moons after her; but it’s manly young Terumichi whom Setsuko actually initiates, five years later, into sex. The initiation takes place in the big ceremonial room where the body of Masuo’s mother is laid out pending the next family ceremony while Masuo, unseen and frustrated, looks on. Five more years pass, the family gathers for another ceremonial occasion, the wedding of a Communist uncle, and, again this big Terumichi cat slips between the sheets with a Masuo love-object before that paragon of ineffectuality can even begin to get his ass in gear. The missed opportunity this time is Ritsuko, another cousin—well, actually, probably, she’s his sister, you see….
It’s all a bit too steamy and intense for comfort, dangerously close to self-parody; and yet, it grips. Throughout, there’s this pervasive sense of something rotten in Denmark. It’s not just that he’s a prime candidate for the neurotic personality of our time, this Masuo, he’s “Masuo.” Literal translation: “man of Manchuria.” And the baby brother business, a personal horror and yet, somehow, some sort of talisman—very strange. The film’s guilt-ridden enough to be urban-Jewish-psychiatric, but in this milieu it’s war-guilt … Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere guilt … industrial-dynasty guilt … ideology-guilt. Increasingly, the incest and illegitimacy themes lose their Jacobean (or soap-opera) aura and take on a metaphorical cast.
The first time we see Masuo’s charismatic cousin Terumichi is at the 1947 ceremony. He comes running into the room and playfully sprays people with disinfectant. To our astonishment, he works his way up to that embodiment of authority, Grandfather Sakurada, who laughs and waves him away. Terumichi is clearly his fair-haired boy. The last glimpse we have of Terumichi is as a naked corpse. In an ironically traditional gesture, the heir to family wealth and power has disemboweled himself declaring in a suicide note that he hopes thus to bring the Sakurada succession to a grinding halt.
Historical/political significance wouldn’t suffice either, though, not by itself, to redeem the melodramatic excesses of The Ceremony. Too great an awareness of Oshima’s intentions here, in fact, may well increase resistance to the film. Is every carefully provided date of a Sakurada family ceremony a meaningful one in Japanese history? That seems a bit schematic. Does every incestuous mating of the increasingly influential industrialist, Grandfather Sakurada, correspond to some vital juncture in Japanese territorial expansionism? or in the growth of the zaibatsu? or what? So much allegory! Take it too literally and it’s hard not to share Vincent Canby’s whimsical uncertainty over whether the seduction of a particular nephew in The Ceremony “is really a love scene or the collapse of trade unionism.”
No, it’s the powerful, subtle acting, the look and sound of what’s happening onscreen, that make Oshima’s film so memorable and such a prime candidate for a second viewing.
At one of the ceremonies, a wedding, family members take turns singing. What they sing, and how they sing it—or the way they demur at singing—expresses volumes. While one drunken uncle reels around regaling guests with a folk song, a solo violin starts up behind him on the soundtrack in a dry, racked, atonal style, and pursues its own obsessive way as the scene fades.
A crazy, culminating black poetry takes over the long scene of Masuo’s “wedding.” We’re in a big plastic, vulgarly decorated hotel ballroom, a long way from the Sakurada house’s austere ceremony room. The guests include influential politicos and businessmen by now. They wear coats, ties, dress cuffs, and they sit like Westerners at the groups of tables which fill the ballroom. At the long head table, on a dais, a speaker surveys this sea of Fontainebleau-moderne and with a straight face lauds Masuo’s bride as “a Japanese girl, pure, untainted by postwar foreign influences.”
But the bride is a no-show. She has appendicitis, it’s rumored; or has simply fled; or something. The businessmen nonetheless dutifully applaud her “appearance” at the head table, and the hapless Masuo, his pained expression looking for once utterly appropriate, obligingly goes through the motions of a charade enforced by his grandfather—important personages, after all, have been invited to the ceremony—escorting “her” (empty air) on his arm, to and from the head table.
His violently unhappy cousin Tadashi, son of a war criminal, turns up at the ceremony in a policeman’s uniform. From the sidelines, Tadashi suddenly begins reading a revolutionary manifesto; he’s immediately hustled off by the black line of tux-clad waiters we’ve noticed standing like retainers against one pastel wall, the sole remnant of that formal design which characterized earlier ceremonies.
Later in the day we learn that Tadashi has (allegedly) been run over by a bus. At Tadashi’s wake, the evening of his own “wedding,” Masuo finally begins to lose control. Grandfather Sakurada comes in to cool him out, and the distraught Bridegroom falls on the tyrant crying that he ought to fill in for the missing bride. Abetted by Terumichi, he holds the old man down and mimes sexual dominance, shouting assurances throughout, with Fool-like insistence, of his undying love for this “pure Japanese girl.”
The Ceremony begins with a telegram from Terumichi, announcing his forthcoming suicide on his island retreat, and it ends with the discovery of his body in a beach house emptied of all possessions, and of the note explaining his motive. But an extraordinary coda follows.
Ritsuko, the cousin of whom Masuo has grown—hopelessly, of course, and in his fashion—enamored, binds her hands and ankles with delicate white cloths, using motions as graceful and economical as if she were flower-arranging or practicing origami. Then she swallows a poison pill and lies down alongside the bloodstained Terumichi. Masuo runs out of the house and onto the beach. A wide-angle lens heightens the pinched anguish of his face, the angularity of his movements. He stands on the beach, crying, whirls, throws his arms up and turns in agony like a Martha Graham dancer … and imperceptibly, shockingly, that motion dissolves into a baseball windup and pitch. On this beach he relives an earlier, happier memory (or dream) involving the two women he loves and a young Masuo outstanding at sports. Now the memory continues as pure dream. The baseball rolls away down the beach, disappears. Masuo searches for it. Enormous in extreme closeup, it reappears at his feet. He bends to pick it up … and this motion segues into still another. Fullgrown, Masuo puts one ear to the sand, his bottom sticking up like a little boy’s, and then lowers himself into a listening position.
A slight smile plays on his face, as it did in 1947 when he romped outside the Sakurada house with his newly discovered cousins and suddenly went into the posture as if it were a game; the fetal position begins to form, as it did a few days ago during Grandfather’s wake, when he rehearsed the old tormenting story to a sympathetic Ritsuko, breathing hard in a curious mélange of agony and erotically tinged excitement. A baby brother, still breathing under the ground in Manchuria. Encapsulation. Freezeframe.
Direction: Nagisa Oshima. Screenplay: Oshima, Tsutomo Tamura, Mamoru Sasaki. Cinematography: Toichiro Narushima. Music: Toru Takemitsu.
The Players: Kenzo Kawatazaki, Atsuo Nakamura, Akiko Koyama, Kei Sato, Atsoku Kaku, Kiyoshi Tsuchiya, Hosei Komatsu, Fumio Watanabe.
Copyright © 1975 Ken Eisler