Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Japan Cuts’ 13: A Woman and War

Convinced the anticipated American occupation will descend into an orgy of atrocities, a dissolute author and a jaded lover resolve to while away the final days of WWII in a state of abject hedonism.   They are right to be concerned about rape and murder, but it will be a returning Japanese veteran who will indulge his new found sadism in Junichi Inoue’s A Woman and War (trailer here), which screens tonight as part of the 2013 Japan Cuts: The New York Festival of Contemporary Japanese Cinema.

Sold into prostitution at an early age, the woman has always worked in close proximity to men and booze.  No longer able to obtain sake rations, she is forced to shutter her tavern.  On closing night, she pledges to shack-up with any customer man enough to step up.  Nomura accepts, more or less out of boredom.  Once talented writer-of-his-generation, he avoided military service by churning out propaganda tracts for the government.  He probably saved his life that way, but he now hates himself to the core of his being.

Meanwhile, Ohira has been discharged from the army, but his homecoming is not exactly happy.  Most of the old-timers loudly suspect his amputated arm was the result of a self-inflected wound.  He has not been able to resume traditional marital relations either.  It seems Ohira has been so warped by the Nanjing-like war crimes he committed in China he can now only perform when engaging in forms of deadly sexual assault.

Make no mistake, this can be a very hard film to watch.  Inoue explicitly establishes a “war = sex = death = the Emperor” equation, leaving no question as to the cruel nature of Ohira’s crimes.  This is not for the squeamish.  There will be only survivor of Ohira’s attack’s: Nomura’s lover.  However, she will search out her assailant, in hopes of repeating their past encounter.

Although it was produced in a state of pitched outrage against the imperial, war-mongering mindset, defending Woman and War against charges of misogyny would be a tricky business.  Clearly, Inoue argues you cannot leave Nanjing in Nanjing, but his depiction of his female protagonist is decidedly problematic.  It is not just the nature of her arousal.  She is also attracted to the death spectacle of war, like fireworks that kill.  Still, you cannot say Inoue isn’t provocative.

Noriko Eguchi deserves all the credit in the world just for accepting the lead role.  It is a quiet, reserved performance, but over time she reveals the layers of scar tissue surrounding her soul.  As the writer, Nagase Masatoshi seems to be basing his portrayal on equal parts Charles Bukowski and post-Paris Rick Blaine.  It sort of works in the moment, but it is hard to fix him in your mind after the screening.  However, Jun Murakami is so cold, clammy, and banally evil as Ohira, he will leave viewers feeling profoundly uneasy about the nature of humanity.

Inoue set out to make a bold statement with A Woman and War and he succeeds on that level.  The film acts as a defiant corrective to Japan’s growing revisionist movement.  It is not academic in its approach, nor does it water anything down, bearing close to comparison to the equally sexually charged Caterpillar, from Inoue’s late mentor, Kōji Wakamatsu.  

If ever there was a serious film for mature audiences, this would be it.  Yet, despite its ragged edges and in-your-face indulgences, audiences will know they have seen something bold when it is over. Recommended for those who appreciate fervent and feverish filmmaking, A Woman and War screens tonight (7/17) at the Japan Society as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.