Sunday, April 6, 2014


In my movie lifetime, just about every young-girl-awakens-to-romance moment has gone something like this.

Point: be (or long for) a male model who drives a red Porsche 944.

Japan's first movie-kiss occurred on screens in late 1946, in Yasushi Sasaki's Twenty-Year-Old Youth (Hatachi no seishun). Post-surrender reforms imposed on Japan by Douglas MacArthur's "Supreme Commander of Allied Powers" (SCAP) were less economic and systemic in effect, than they were stylistic and emotional. Real power remained basically where it'd been before the Japanese military went insane. (An insanity ignited by the 1930s economic war waged on Japan by white Western forces.) SCAP instead went after the underpinnings of culture both popular and traditional, and blew them, after a period of time, apart: zaibatsu still ran the country; everything else changed. Most dramatically, the role of women. A gradual shift from a culture of tradition to one of youth. Dress. What was acceptable in fiction, journalism, and music. Popular dancing. Ideas of romance and marriage. And sex.

Not long after the release of Twenty-Year-Old Youth, Mikio Naruse became the first prestigious movie director to show the (attempted) physical act of love on screen, and it is a moment of terror. From the point-of-view of 2014 and a world of general human and cultural decomposition, the corporate devouring of myth and consequence ~ and Rin Sakuragi ~ Naruse's Spring Awakens (Haru no mezame) is very hard to believe. Did this world really exist? Watching the movie feels like touching the pre-historic. This isn't Imperial Rome or Renaissance France. My daughter's grandparents lived this world when they were Saya-chan's age. . .

Three pretty high school students genuinely (and believably) know nothing about sex, or how babies are born. (In a movie filled with many small miracles of gesture and nuance, this is the large one.) Two years after the destruction of the country, where is the Year Zero barbarism? (See Mizoguchi's Women of the Night.) Three boys are their friends: an artist, a writer, and a doctor's son. The boys and girls are surrounded by their own confusions: the maid in Kumiko's household must be dismissed for having a black-marketeer boyfriend; Koji's adored older sister is getting married; a "dirty picture" is found in one schoolgirl's desk, causing the ransacking of all the girls' desks. And Akiko must leave school because of a pregnancy, a pregnancy we are are led to believe will soon be terminated.

The boys and girls (and we) are also faced with intense and continuing sensuality: the explosion of spring and summer, as if nature is holding the small town as one holds a bee between the palms of the hands, when it is benumbed; Kyoko and Kumiko lying close together on the hillgrass, one girl in kimono, the other in western clothes; Kumiko thinking about where babies come from and Naruse fading on her upturned swinging bare feet; the physical at the girls' school; the boys-and-girls Sunday picnic; Hanae and Kyoko hiking up their skirts -- again one girl in kimomo, the other not -- in the river as they play with a family of ducks and as they try to avoid rocks playfully tossed at them by the boys.

The scene where Noshiro (the artist) forcefully kisses Kumiko, because it came from such a famous director, instantly became legend. Yet the following sequence, during a lightning-and-thunder storm, is the film's greatest. Kyoko and her friend Hanae's older brother are in love. She is terrified of thunder, the sound of falling bombs. Has any other movie sequence better captured a young girl's sexual torment and longing? What would've happened if Hanae had not returned home? And Hanae -- who also loves Koji, who only has eyes for Kumiko -- senses what she may have interrupted. . . .

Five-thousand miles away that same year, another great director had a similar idea, sort of.

(Is there any doubt from these two sequences who "won" the war?)

Yet the sadness of the film. (The relationships between Kumiko and her little sister, and Koji and his older sister, are especially moving.) My favorite moment: Kumiko and the doctor's son have loved each other since childhood. At one point Koji's soon-to-be-married sister gives him a memory album for him to keep. One photo is of herself, and Kumiko and Koji as children.

Later, on the morning of the sister's wedding, Koji and Kumiko walk together, discussing nothing in particular, and at the end of their walk, as both feel the other's growing attachment, Koji kicks a stone ahead. Watch the cut.

Another spring, another wedding, two years later. Another shot embodying the love for a girl-as-she-was, this time from a father about to lose her.

The same deep sadness from Ozu and Naruse (and many other places), as if the pain of what has happened and what was happening to Japan was too overwhelming to be numbed by even the most beautiful and most human of dreams.

Naruse's Spring Awakens (1947).