Mark Le Fanu
The militant and chauvinist spirit that asserted itself increasingly in Japan from the 1920s onwards, at some stage in the 1930s converting itself into fully-fledged fascism, must inevitably, one would think, have made its mark on the arts especially on a public art form like cinema. Doubtless a fair number of crude propaganda films were made and circulated in that epoch, but either they have not survived, or else (what amounts to the same thing) they are still invisibly lodged in the archives. For paradoxical as it may sound, the thirties were a golden age for Japanese film. The great early masterpieces of Ozu, Naruse and Gosho that began to come out at this time were far from being militant spiritually: a good case could be made for claiming that they are among the most "humanist" films ever made. Their subject matter is the comedy of petit-bourgeois life, and like the slightly later films of Italian neo-realism (Bicycle Thieves for example) they cast a particularly tender eye on the behaviour of children; in the best instances, the gaze itself is childlike, you could say.
In Bean Cake, which won the main prize for Best Short at last yearís Cannes Film Festival, the young American director David Greenspan sets out to recapture that particular cinematic innocence, and he does so in an original way. Without going to Japan (downtown LA and Pasadena serve as locations), he has made a Japanese movie, complete with an all-Japanese cast: a homage to Ozu. Not exactly a pastiche (because pastiche implies irony and distance), more a sort of friendly appropriation. The object seems to have been to produce with minute exactitude "the sort of film that Ozu might have made" so that, coming across it unprepared, one could almost mistake it (within its limited terms of course: it is only 10 minutes long) for a lost or forgotten work of the master.
The story centres round a boyís first day at a new school. He comes from out of town, as a transfer student, and his mother hasnít yet had a chance to kit him out with the standard school uniform. So there he is, somewhat gawky in his kimono, timorous and tongue-tied, but made to feel at home by a kind girl, O-Yoshi, who asks him to sit at the desk next to hers. Ozuís films are famously timeless, but logically we must here be in the 1930s (rather than, for example, the 1950s, to which the filmís visual style otherwise refers us) because there is talk of the Emperor and what the school owes to that august personage. Indeed, reference to the Emperor is the twist or the conceit which the film hinges on. "Most important in this world is our duty to serve the Emperor," intones the male teacher to the class in front of him, proceeding to ask young Taro whom he fears is not listening what is most important for him. "Bean cakes," replies the child innocently. Not the answer that was expected or needed. The teacher canít resist a bit of ideological bullying. "Do you like bean cakes more than this school?" he pursues. Followed by: "Do you like bean cakes more than your parents? Do you like bean cakes more than the EMPEROR?" The boy doesnít reply to these last two provocations, and as a result gets sent out of the class for the rest of the day. A minor scandal: his poor mother will have to be informed of Taroís stubbornness, to her shame.
Emperor-worship, as opposed to mere emperor respect, was a fundamental aspect of Japanese fascism that even today is hard for a Westerner to get a handle on. Debates continue to rage as to how culpable the Emperor (in private life a mild enough person with an unexceptionable interest in zoology and botany) actually was in dragging his country towards ruin. There are those who claim he was far from being a mere figurehead; and others who gallantly defend him. Whatever the historical and personal truth of the matter, there can be little dispute that for a number of years official homage to the Emperor, across all classes of society, was a sacred duty, rigorously enforceable: not to go along with it would have been perceived as a sort of bold public blasphemy.
So Bean Cake, after all, couldnít really have been made by Ozu: at least, not in the 1930s; and for different but related reasons, not in the 1950s or 1960s either. Its implicit criticism of Emperor-worship is in the strict sense of the term anachronistic. Even if Ozu felt the importunacy of the political demand, itís something he couldnít have expressed outright. An outside observer (the writer of this piece for example) is left to ponder whether this "matters" artistically. Maybe the anachronism is deliberate: postmodernist even the point being that this is the kind of statement that Ozu might have made or should have made in some utopian other life where neither state censorship not self-censorship prevail. Meanwhile, the spirit of the piece belongs to Ozu, and that is surely what matters for most people. Bean Cake is, after all, a rather sweet film. Like all the most successful shorts, its simplicity in a way defies commentary; there is almost nothing that can be said about it by a third party commentator that isnít in itself said better by the movie. "Uchida Taro, do you like bean cakes better than me?" asks the charming O-Yoshi in the filmís final scene, to which (since there is no-one around to observe the pair) there can be no answer except the boyís humorously shy look of protest. So the emperor is snubbed but delicately. A suggestive complicity is set up between the two children that is a matter of looks and hesitancies rather than of direct statement. Short films, by their nature, are "conceptual" works of art, premised on a single idea, efficiently, lucidly explicated. There isnít room in them, as there is in longer feature films, for wayward or terrifying explorations of the human soul. "What you see is what you get," as the cliché has it. Yet in the best instances, that transparency (which in essence is a kind of wit) turns out to be genuine and moving.
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