Saturday, December 04, 2010

Takemitsu at Film Forum: The Ceremony

Between the war crimes, radical politics, suspicious deaths, and extreme sexual dysfunction, it is hard to imagine a more toxic family than the Sakuradas. Often incorporating both Western and Eastern forms as well as electronic effects in an eerie minimalism, Toru Takemitsu was the perfect composer to score their downfall. His unsettling string figures underscore the rotten moral core of the fading Sakurada clan in Nagisa Oshima’s The Ceremony, which screens tomorrow as part of Film Forum’s two week retrospective of films scored by Takemitsu.

Masuo Sakurada is the man from Manchuria. At least, that is the literal translation of his name. However, considering his severe case of arrested development, his manhood seems somewhat open to question. It is hardly surprising, considering the baggage he is saddled with. While on a forced march in Manchuria, Sakurada and his mother were compelled to abandon his younger brother, even though they could still hear him, buried alive and desperately wailing for help. Years later, listening with his ear to the earth for his brother’s phantom cries remains one of Sakurada’s persistent personal rituals.

In contrast, Sakurada’s overbearing grandfather is only observes the stately rituals that ostensibly bind the family together: weddings and funerals. We come watch five such family functions in flashback as Sakurada and his cousin Ritsuko rush to the island retreat of a third cousin, Terumichi, whose cryptic telegram may well be his suicide note. Not simply cousins, both the introverted Masuo and the socially confident Terumichi shared a sexual attraction to both Ritsuko and her mother Setsuko. Mix in the cousins’ ambiguous parentage and then sit back and watch as the taboos shatter.

Despite the potentially lurid nature of its story, Ceremony maintains a tone of high tragedy, sort of like watching all of Shakespeare’s Freudian scenes spliced together into one play. There are plenty of wincing moments, but nothing tops the film’s centerpiece. In what must be the most painful wedding in cinematic history, Sakurada’s grandfather forces him to complete the ceremony alone after his would-be bride jilts him at the aisle. One has to see the film to fully understand just how bad it gets. In a truly tricky part, Kenzo Kawarasaki provokes both sympathy and contempt as Sakurada, often simultaneously.

Oshima, the New Wave rebel, had a talent for depicting sexually charged psychological implosions on-screen (as in Pleasures of the Flesh), but Ceremony’s bite is particularly potent. He was also had a strong visual sense for color film, above and beyond many of his contemporaries, whose best work was arguably in black and white. Indeed, that early 1970’s color which always somehow feels slightly off, perfectly fits the disturbing vibe of Ceremony and the sounds of Takemitsu’s characteristically disciplined discord. Altogether, it packs quite a punch. A fitting selection for the Takemitsu series, Ceremony screens Sunday night (12/5) at Film Forum.