Only the 1960s could have produced a film as radical, avant-garde and iconoclastic as Pitfall. Hiroshi Teshigahara made Pitfall against a backdrop of political upheaval in Japan during the 1960s. Many of the directors who formed part of the Japanese new wave were politically active during this time, showing their collective opposition against the signing of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan (1960). The treaty effectively sanctioned the expansion of US troops in Japan whilst extending America’s hegemonic economic reach. Both Teshigahara and writer Kobo Abe were part of the student protests that took place in Tokyo at the time. Such political dissent was inevitably reflected in the cinema of the Japanese new wave and whilst Pitfall was not as ideologically rigorous or transparent as the films of say Nagisa Oshima, the four picture collaboration between Teshigahara and Kobo Abe produced some of the most uniquely idiosyncratic imagery of the 60s. Pitfall also saw the first of numerous collaborations with music composer Toru Takemitsu. Described by Teshigahara as a ‘documentary fantasy’, Pitfall follows a coal miner and his son who is searching for work. When he is pointed into the direction of an old mining town, the miner (Hisashi Igawa) arrives with the promise of work but they discover the town is deserted except for a shopkeeper. Unexpectedly, the miner is killed by a mysterious stranger in a white suit who has been waiting for him. The miner’s son (Kazuo Miyahara) watches on helplessly as his father is stabbed to death. Before leaving, the killer pays the shopkeeper for her silence. What Teshigahara does next is both audacious and gusty – he revives his central character, yes the dead miner lying face down in a muddy river bed, as a ghost. The ghost of the miner who is in denial about having been brutally murdered wanders the mining town only to discover the people around him are also ghosts. In one hilarious moment, he is told by another ghost that if he died on an empty stomach then he will remain hungry for the rest of his life. The miner’s transformation into a ghost is a magnificently atmospheric idea executed with a wonderful feel for the desolate coal mining locations.
A murder investigation is opened by the police and a chain of events leads to a strange discovery – that the dead miner has a double Otsuka working in a nearby coal mine and who more importantly is involved in the coal mining trade union. In an attempt to cover up his tracks, the killer murders the shopkeeper. It becomes apparent that the original intention was to kill Otsuka and that an ideological conflict between the old and new coal pits offers an invaluable insight into Japanese labour relations. However, Teshigahara seems much more fascinated by his characters behaviour than scrutinising any kind of ideological theories in depth. In terms of political symbolism, the killer in his white suit, gloves and shoes could be interpreted as meditation on corporate power or is he somewhat more metaphysical – a figure of death? It’s exciting when you come across a work as original and challenging as Pitfall. Like a lot of the films made by the Japanese new wave from the 60s, Pitfall is a film way ahead of its time in terms of both form and content. It’s a film bursting full of ideas and energy – it’s also darkly funny. On a final note, some of the reviews I have come across have referred to Pitfall as a flawed film but I am getting kind of despondent about this way of labelling films – is it not simply the case that most of the great films are flawed in some way or another – that’s what makes them so fascinating to watch!
Masahiro Shinoda directed Pale Flower in 1964 for the prestigious Shochiku film studio. Shinoda’s remarkable film was part of the 1960s Japanese New Wave cinema and the film’s iconoclastic temperament led to it being banned. In 2003 Home Vision Entertainment released Pale Flower on DVD whilst this year Criterion issued their version on both DVD and Blu-ray. I’ve not come across Shinoda’s work before and my encounters with Japanese cinema have tended to favour popular auteurs. I’m beginning to realise the vastness of Japanese cinema in terms of output stands alone in many ways when compared to other film industries. Shinoda’s loose, elliptical approach and dynamic visual style bears close parallels with the work of Seijun Suzuki. Pale Flower would work superbly as a double bill alongside Suzuki’s demented Branded to Kill. In many ways, the initial narrative set up of Pale Flower in which a hardened Yakuza gangster Muraki (Ryo Ikebe) is released from prison, having killed another member of a gang, invokes the memory of American crime and noir films. It is a familiar convention – the gangster or criminal who is released from prison but realises he cannot fit into society anymore and slowly becomes more and more withdrawn. Whilst Shinoda adopts this narrative convention, he decides to choose an entirely different path altogether for his central male protagonist. On his release, Muraki seems more bored than alienated with the world around him. It is Muraki’s entanglement with a mysterious young woman Saeko that subverts such a narrative expectation because it becomes a mutually destructive relationship.
Symbolically, the woman’s addiction to drugs/gambling represents both the corruption of Japanese youth and the rise of a new kind of modernity whilst Muraki’s allegiance to a code is ideologically conducive of an old, fading Japanese culture. In many ways, Muraki is like the antiquated cowboy who looks out of place in the new society and for Muraki the retreat to the sanctity of the prison gives him seclusion from a world that has little meaning for him anymore. Visually, Shinoda’s film is stunning to look at and the striking monochrome cinematography gives the imagery a very clean yet noir like aesthetic. The performances by Ryo Ikebe and Mariko Kaga are compelling throughout. A film like Pale Flower was a direct manifestation of the changing sensibilities in Japanese cinema during the 1960s but unlike The French New Wave which challenged dominant mainstream conventions, from the outset The Japanese New Wave seemed more ideologically engaged. It was only much later that The French New Wave became much more of a political cinematic entity. Nevertheless, compared to Nagisa Oshima, Shinoda’s cinema was less political than his contemporaries and there is no denying that Pale Flower has been influential in the development of the Yakuzka gangster film in Japanese cinema. Director Masahiro Shinoda produced most of his best and most acclaimed films during the 1960s.
I’m not sure if it is the writer Haruki Murakami or director Tran Anh Hung responsible for the cinematic allusion to Chaplin’s 1936 masterpiece Modern Times in which the little Tramp inadvertently takes up the cause of the proletariat by picking up a flag which falls off the back of a vehicle. It probably isn’t deliberate on the part of both artists and in many ways the intransigence of Toru Watanabe in the sequence from Norwegian Wood offers a stark comparison to the animated pantomime of the little Tramp. Additionally, Toru’s distance from the political turmoil of the Sixties might suggest disaffection but in both instances they are two people who could easily be swept up in the throes of historical change and transform into agents of political change. What interests me about the two sequences which are separated by such a period of time is the way in which film makers today unconsciously recreate images from the memories of cinematic past, refashioning them without knowing into a ghostly present.
1). Modern Times (1936, Dir. Charlie Chaplin) – The Leader
2). Norwegian Wood (Dir. Tran Anh Hung, 2010) – The Beatnik