Monday, November 8, 2010


Among those who know the work of director Yoshishige (Kiju) Yoshida, Farewell to the Summer Light is a divisive film. Some viewers rank it among his greatest films, while some consider it one of his worst. I can see how it might annoy people. Filmed in Europe, it's not about Europe. Conspicuously dated "1968" at the end, it has nothing to say about the upheavals of that year.

Mariko Okada and Tadashi Yokouchi: Are they game pieces on a map of fate, or is Europe (and Rome specifically, below) their personal game board?

The continent forms a pretty backdrop for an on-off affair between Makoto, a visiting Japanese scholar (Tadashi Yokouchi) and Naoko, an expatriate Japanese purchaser for an import-export firm (Mariko Okada, aka Mrs. Yoshida). Naoko is in Europe but not of it, married not to a European but to another expatriate, an American who, in one of the film's few humorous touches, harangues Makoto on existentialism and the culture of the copy. Naoko says it's an honor for her husband to address Makoto thus.

Okada and Helene Soubielle: A Japanese playing the part of a fake European and a European serving Yoshida as a fake American.

The scene adds another level of alienation for American viewers: the American, Robert, and his sister are played by French actors. Paul Beauvais had previously acted in Jean-Luc Godard's Petit Soldat while Farewell was Helene Soubielle's second film role in a short career. Yoshida dubs them into stilted English (Okada and Yokouchi presumably speak their own English lines, phonetically or otherwise), but his Japanese audience is going to read the subtitles on the right side of the screen, while an American viewer gets hit with a simultaneous alternate rendering of the English dialogue via the subtitles on the bottom of the screen translating the Japanese dialogue. In any event, the "Americans" are cyphers. I was expecting the sister to attempt an affair with Makoto, but it never happens. The visiting scholar is wrapped up in several levels of preoccupation, and that's the actual subject of the film.

Makoto is interested in finding the cathedral that inspired the first Christian church built in Nagasaki by Portuguese missionaries. On a deeper level, he's in Europe looking for some revelation about Japan, or about himself. Naoko is a Nagasaki native herself, but lost her mother and brother in the 1945 atom bombing. She's lived in self-imposed exile from Japan for years, unable to accept the scarred, altered country as her home. As lovers and traveling companions, Naoko and Makoto look to each other as representations of Japan, of Nagasaki, or simply "home." Makoto criticizes Naoko's apparent rootlessness and urges her to return to Japan. Finally, he identifies her with the cathedral of his quest. However, she points him toward the actual, historical cathedral, but claims that it is "hers" in some profound way because it reminds her of Nagasaki before the bomb. Europe, it seems, is where people go to create personal landscapes of meaning -- which is arguably what Yoshida did for this film.

Working in color for the first time in five years, since Escape From Japan, Yoshida swings for the seats with almost every shot of Farewell. Landscape and architecture provide ample temptation for self-consciously artful compositions all over the continent. Here Yoshida bids to be recognized as the most "European" Japanese director the way Akira Kurosawa is often deemed the most "American." He indulges in Antonioni-style displays of signage and finds a similar paradoxical beauty in rampant commercialism. He indulges further in Godard-style fantasy, following a mondo-esque visit to a bullfight with a vision of Naoko killing herself with a toreador's sword in the middle of the ring, with Makoto the only spectator.

Ai no corrida?

In the battle of style against subject, style would seem to have won in a Napoleonic rout -- except that there is substance here. Naoko and Makoto's neglect of the reality of Europe and their failed attempt to construct a shared realm of meaning there or anywhere is a tale worth telling, and it could just as well be told with American or African or Chinese actors -- or Europeans. Alienation is Yoshida's subject, and his conclusion is the opposite of Donne's and Hemingway's. In Farewell, every man and woman is an island; Naoko expressly identifies herself with a coastal castle that is separated from shore by the night tide. It isn't exactly an inspiring or uplifting thesis, but on the other hand you have some of the most dazzling camera compositions of the Sixties, and they do express something profound, whether we like it or not.

No comments: