I saw Clint Eastwood’s film, Flags of our Fathers (2006), which depicts the victorious invasion of Iwo Jima by US troops during WWII, in the theater last year. I just now got around to watching his companion film, Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), showing the same invasion from the point of view of the defeated Japanese soldiers. These films, along with some Japanese films I have been watching recently, got me thinking about the deep psychological scars that must have been created in the Japanese people following the loss of WWII.
The career of Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu spanned from the 1920’s to the 1960’s. I have watched a number of his post-WWII films that are packaged as DVDs under the marketing label “late Ozu”. They are about as psychologically bleak as one can imagine — The only other director who comes immediately to my mind as being able to match this level of bleakness is the contemporary British film director Mike Leigh. The films of both directors share many features.
In both, the landscape plays a major role in setting the mood. For Ozu, landscape is typically an urban environment with ugly railway trestles and telephone poles and wires filling the background of virtually every outdoor scene. For Leigh, the landscape is typically defined by high-rise tenement projects, or lower class suburban neighborhoods, where the streets and sidewalks are often littered with trash. There is an almost palpable sense of barrenness, coldness, and loneliness in the environments created by both directors.
Many of the characters in both sets of films seem to be drifting through life without much sense of emotional purpose, and lack the ability to care deeply about what the future holds. Instead there is a sense of passive acceptance of whatever happens, good or bad. A kind of “learned helplessness” that can be characterized as, What is the point of expending emotional or physical energy in railing against circumstances or events that are seemingly completely beyond ones control?
Both sets of films are highly sentimental, a characteristic that I generally dislike in films, but which in these cases I find myself willing to “buy into and go along for the ride”. I think the reason for this is that the sentimentality does not seem artificially contrived by improbable circumstances (e.g. the death bed scene that brings about reconciliation between two characters who did not like each other much up until that point in the film, etc.) The sentimentality employed in the films of these directors evokes a sense of sadness and sympathy for characters who (consistently from beginning of the film to the end) appear to be afflicted with what the philosopher Kierkegaard called “The Sickness unto death”.
One thing both the Japanese and British cultures share in common is that they once ruled empires, but those grand days are now in the past. This loss of empire occurred slowly over a period of a couple centuries or more for the British, but happened quite abruptly at the end of WWII for the Japanese. Furthermore, the Japanese have the added unique factor of having experienced the sudden destruction of two major cities by atomic bombs. Nevertheless, I wonder if there may be commonalities in living in a post-empire period that accounts for some of the similarities in psyche depicted in these films from the two countries.
I was reading recently (I think it was the New Yorker or the Atlantic) about the growing social problem of suicides in young adults in Japan. There are websites or other forms of social communications where young people will post notices along the lines: Anyone who wants to commit suicide should show up at such and such place and time and we can all do it together. In the article there was an interview with a Japanese citizen, who said basically, What do you expect in a culture like ours where children ride on the subways surrounded by adults who are openly reading magazines containing hardcore pornography with absolutely no sense of shame or even impropriety? I do not know if this depiction of life in modern urban Japan is accurate or not, but it deeply saddens me to think it might be true, and even if not, the fact that young adults are driven to organizing group suicides is alarming in the same sense as seeing canaries dying in a coal mine.
So if you feel like your life is just too happy to be true, and you hardly have time to spend all that money you saved from the Bush tax cuts, and your gas-guzzling SUV is just sooo much fun to drive up and down the freeway to the shopping mall, and you feel the testosterone pumping through your system a little stronger every day as you relish the future of the country we are going to leave for our children and grandchildren as soon as we finish off Iraq, move on to Iran, and then on to build the biggest, baddest empire that ever tried to impose its (wonderful) system of government onto the rest of the world, I have an assignment for you: Go the the video store and check out every video you can find of Leigh and Ono, come home and have a marathon session watching them. You might experience at least a slight change in long-term perspective, and even if not, they are first rate films to watch!