Reconfiguring History II

Terror and Tragedy

Timothy Iles, Department of Pacific and Asian Studies, University of Victoria [About | Email]

Volume 8, Issue 3 (Film review 3 in 2008). First published in ejcjs on 5 December 2008.

Kanaria (2004), and Distance (2001)
Kanaria (Canary, 2004, Dir. Shiota Akihiko)
Distance (2001, Dir. Koreeda Hirokazu)

The events of March, 1995 on the Tokyo subway system gave an especial punctuation to Japan's period of economic growth and stability known as the Bubble Years. Despite earlier scandals and signs of a cooling economy having caused cracks to appear in the façade of a prosperous, unstoppable Japan, Japanese society as a whole had been able to carry on with an air of blithe disregard for increasing amounts of outsourcing, downsizing, and the corresponding layoffs and growth in homeless 'blue tent cities'. The sarin gas attack perpetrated by the religious cult, Aum Shinrikyō, however, demonstrated incontrovertibly to both Japan and the world as a whole that much of contemporary Japanese society was falling off the rails. Japan, one of the safest industrialised nations, suddenly confronted the reality of a made-in-Japan tragedy of proportions inconceivable since the end of the post-war American Occupation in 1952 and the return of relative wealth and security throughout the 1960s. Adding even more to the shock was the revelation that many members of Aum had been well-educated, successful, and indeed a type of 'social elite': university students, lawyers, medical researchers, scientists, the very sorts of people seen by many as in preparation to be the leading architects of Japan’s future recovery. That so many of Aum's followers could hope to find answers in what emerged as the disturbing practices of the cult shook Japan's faith in itself as few events had since the Shōwa Emperor revealed himself to be a human being—and a relatively frail one, at that—in ending the Pacific War.

Attempts to reconcile economic prosperity with spiritual crisis followed Aum's tragic insistence on Japanese fallibility, and still continue to do so. These attempts took many forms and came in many media. Not surprisingly, they came in Japanese arts, as well—Murakami Haruki, for example, released a series of interviews with Aum members in the journal Bungei shunju, later publishing the work in two volumes as Andaaguraundo (Underground, 1997-98, Kodansha). Film, too, has seen attempts to understand the conditions which made Aum possible.

One such moving, allegorical study is Kanaria (Canary, 2005, Shiota Akihiko), telling the story of children removed from a dangerous cult, 'Nirvana', focussing on the escape from Child Welfare Services of one particularly rebellious 12 year old boy, Iwase Koichi (Ishida Hoshi), as he makes his way from Kyoto to Tokyo to retrieve his eight-year old sister from the grandfather who had refused to claim him. Along the way he meets a runaway, Niina Yuki (Tanimura Mitsuki), a self-obsessed, amoral though unusually perceptive pre-teen girl who complains with callous abandon about how much trouble the crematorium attendants had had in burning the bones of both her mother and grandmother when they passed away a few months apart. The two form an uneasy friendship on this road trip of dubious self-liberation, causing each other to confront the irrationality of their own beliefs and lives, but equally, causing each other to grow and appreciate others in ways they had never previously considered.

This is not an easy film, nor one which places the 'blame' for Iwase's condition at the feet of the cult from which he had been taken—even as, through flashbacks, it takes us into the cult to show us the processes of indoctrination through which Koichi, his mother, and his sister had passed. Rather, it examines with a sharply critical eye the social realities of Japan from the perspective of these two damaged children—canaries in the coal mine of the post-Aum world—to find neither support nor safety but instead exploitative and predatory adults intent upon the fulfilment of their own selfish desires through encouraging Yuki's flirtations with child prostitution. Compassion always comes at a price in this world, and love is always indelibly tinged with violence—this is true in Yuki's home, where her father had regularly beaten her, and it's true on the road with Saki (Ryō) and Kozue (Tsugumi), the lesbian couple whom the children meet along the way, who alternate between striking and caressing each other. The film doesn't excuse the children, though, even as it creates sympathy for them as they gradually challenge each other to care openly and honestly for themselves. Rather, it sets a challenge, in turn, and an expectation up to which it asks the children to live.

Visually the film is striking for the empty world of decay it creates—shots of junk yards, empty schools, abandoned cars, and even vast stretches of empty rice fields abound, creating a feeling of almost post-apocalyptic ruin in what should be a vibrant and secure country. The cinematography brings us into intimate connection with the young characters, while demonstrating the alienating distance that separates them from the world around them. This is especially true in one brilliant passage—the morning after the children have met Saki and Kozue, while driving away from the campground in which they have slept, Kozue and Saki quarrel, until Kozue leaves the car, telling Saki she never wants to see her again. Yuki is upset and goes to bring Kozue back, while Saki and Koichi remain. This is a very simple scene but powerful and full of symbolic intensity for the absolutely inspired use of setting—the entire exchange takes place inside the car, completely lost in a blinding white fog. Here the setting creates a nice microcosmic encapsulation of the film's basic premise—cut off from the world around, with only themselves upon which to rely, these characters must discover a way to communicate meaningfully and compassionately without killing each other in the process, as indeed must all of modern society learn to accept itself in the fog which cuts it off from a clear view of its future.

The performances which Shiota brings forth from the leads, Ishida and Tanimura, are nothing short of phenomenal—the two play their characters with skill and nuance, infusing them with ambiguity and a world-weary innocence that is heartbreaking to watch. The supporting cast, especially the cult members, are excellent, creating frighteningly believable 'hollow people' who can function only as the minions of a faceless 'Master' who guides them to actions transparently criminal. The portrait here is of a world devoid of hope: disturbing, atrocious, and yet overwhelmingly real. And yet there is hope, ultimately, coming from the only place possible: the determination of these young children to 'go on living,' as they profess in the film’s final line—go on living to create the world denied them by the broken society of deceitful and incapable adults who have betrayed them through neglect.

Another attempt to understand Aum comes from Koreeda Hirokazu, a poet of the cinema capable of capturing one of the most natural 'looks' in contemporary film, and director of such lyrical masterpieces as Maboroshi no hikari (Maboroshi, 1995) and Dare mo shiranai (Nobody Knows, 2004). Distance (2001) continues his evolution as a master filmmaker, demonstrating again his confident use of handheld cameras, simple lighting, improvised dialogue, and ambient sound to bring the spectator directly inside a story of seeking, confusion, and irresolution. This work, like Kanaria, begins with a description of the aftermath of a cult attack—in this case, the release three years previously of a 'genetically-engineered virus' into the water supply of Tokyo by the 'Ark of Truth' religious group, an event which killed 128 and left 8,000 injured. As the film begins, memorial services are being prepared, while victims' groups urge the government to exert greater sanctions on the cult, the members of which have again begun to proselityze. We meet four apparently unrelated characters: Atsushi (Arata), whose elderly father has been hospitalised; Masaru (Iseya Yusuke), a carefree-youth; Kiyoka (Natsukawa Yui), a schoolteacher living alone in her tiny apartment; and Minoru (Terajima Susumu), a businessman with a wife and 18-month old daughter. We soon discover these four are related to former cult members, and meet each year for the memorial of the attack. This year, having driven together into the wilderness to the cult's former compound, an isolated cabin in the woods, they pray, eat their lunch together, and prepare to return to their homes, only to find that their car has been stolen. While wondering what to do, a former cult member, Sakata (Asano Tadanobu), comes to where he had parked his motorcycle on the desolate mountain road; it, too, has been stolen. The five decide to spend the night at the former compound, the encroaching darkness making the hours-long walk back to the nearest town impossible. What follows is a night of remembrances, related in flashback, of the ways in which their friends, husbands, or family members had been affected by their activities in the Ark of Truth cult, and a night of questions, as the four friends—and one surviving cult member—try to understand why things had happened the way they did.

Distance and isolation operate effectively in this film, too, as they had in Kanaria, to highlight the alienation of the friends from the cult, but also from the greater society around them. Trapped in the cabin in the woods the five must confront very 'separate realities'—the phrase the cult members had used to describe the differences between them and the non-cult world—and from these personal, private remembrances, construct a comprehensible narrative of what has brought them to this moment in their own histories. And history, too, is important here, for as Atsushi's cult-member sister, Yūko (Ryō) tells him, she's living at a moment in history at which one time is about to end, and another begin. The answers the four friends receive to their questions of Sakata are nonetheless surprisingly mundane. When Minoru asks whether there had been a comfortable, 'family-like' feeling amongst them, Sakata replies, 'Well, yes, sort of.' It is this lack of consistent profundity, lack of sustained and sustaining self-comprehension on the part of the cult members—as revealed through the various flashbacks—that makes them so very normal, so very human, and it is these qualities which make the cult's actions so much the more terrifying. Normal, well-educated, perfectly sane people, average and real—one may meet them anywhere, at any time—the film says—had been capable of participating in a horrific event, willingly, with the belief that they were right to do so. In this the cinematography is a complicit component in lending a sense of naturalness and normalcy to the cult members and their friends and family—the simple lighting and handheld camerawork present the story as a documentary, as if unmediated by directorial intervention, free from manipulation and sincerely interested in understanding. Understanding, however, is the one thing that never comes—sympathy, perhaps, and frustration, regret, and yearning, but understanding remains elusive. Distance remains between the four and their memories, between themselves, too, and their futures.

These films are delicate and yet brave—allegorical yet precise—and capture both the disturbance and the resilience of a nation shaken from the inside. Both films point to the possibility, and indeed the necessity, of finding a direction, of reconstructing something better. It is no coincidence that the safe-house for recovering cult members in Kanaria is a recycling facility. From the detritus and abandoned artifacts of a decaying society, something positive can be salvaged. Nearly fifteen years after Aum, these films insist, through sincerity and struggle, something is ready to be reclaimed.

About the Author

Timothy Iles is Assistant Professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, where he teaches Japanese culture, cinema, and language. He has an MA from the University of British Columbia in Modern Japanese Literature, and a PhD from the University of Toronto, also in Modern Japanese Literature. He has taught courses on Japanese literature, theatre, culture, and cinema in Canada and the United States, and has published articles on those subjects. He is also author of Abe Kobo: an Exploration of his Prose, Drama, and Theatre (Fuccecio: European Press Academic Publishers, 2000).

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