Thursday, October 4, 2007

10/4: Ballad of Orin

I'm mainly familiar with Masahiro Shinoda from a few of his 1960s contributions to the Japanese New Wave, films which took off from genre premises (samurai, gangsters) and deconstructed them. With those earlier films in mind, Ballad of Orin (literal translation Melody in Gray) from 1977 initially seemed to be a big surprise. This is a much quieter, more evenly paced film than Shinoda's wild, elliptical samurai tales like Samurai Spy. This evenness is present in both the story, which is slow and emotionally understated despite its tragic themes, and the visuals, which are largely static and flat. The story follows Orin (Shima Iwashita), a blind woman who as a young girl became a goze, or itinerant entertainer, one of the few options available for a blind woman in Japan at this time (one of the others, far less appealing, was a prostitute). Orin's life is largely miserable, and the story makes it clear that her misery is a result of traditionalist attitudes, which keep her bound by religion, sexual mores, and a paternal oppressiveness that grants few rights to women. The film is a potent depiction of the Catch 22 of this kind of society, in which women are fiercely punished for society's view of them rather than for any crimes they actually committed. Orin forever remains locked in this paradox, fully believing in her own imagined sins and crimes, never grasping that her society is punishing her merely for the twin "crimes" of being a woman and crippled.

Her life is presented by Shinoda in an interwoven tapestry of flashbacks and contemporary scenes, set in the early 20th Century during Japan's war with Russia. However, the timeframe is not initially apparent, except in very oblique ways like the glimpse of a train station; in all other respects, for at least the first hour, this is a truly timeless tale, located possibly in any era of Japan's history. It's only as the film goes along that Shinoda allows more and more of the modern era to intrude upon Orin's story — and intrude is the right word. Although the oppressiveness of traditional values are presented as the root cause of Orin's misfortunes, the film never presents modernity as a correcting influence or solution. Rather, for Shinoda the modern world seems to be primarily a new form of oppression, a new and different cruelty, and for Orin, accustomed by now to the everyday cruelties she grew up with, this change is not welcome. Modernity enters the film in the form of soldiers, parading through the streets and sent off to war in Siberia, and a steam engine roaring into town, obliterating the sound of the sea that Orin remembers from her youth. But most conspicuously, modernity enters the film in the form of the second half's unexpected murder investigation, in which the police are tracking the man (Yoshio Harada) who has become her guide and protector. The entrance of the character of the detective into the film, with his Western-style gray suit and fedora, is a shocking break of the film's elegiac visual style and open spaces. He seems like he has stepped out of another film altogether, an American noir, and he brings with him the shadowy interiors and stark style of such films — in one memorable scene, his shadow precedes him, thrown long and foreboding upon a wall before he enters the room.

Shinoda takes full advantage of the 4:3 aspect ratio here, creating striking images which have the weight and finality of stasis and stability. For a film about a blind woman, this is a sensually rich film, as though to balance the darkness of Orin's world he has populated it with sensory beauty. Especially early on, he frequently punctuates scenes with disconnected shots of the surroundings — clothes arranged on a shelf, a bubbling brook outside, bright red flowers lying amid the snow. The editing shares something of the elliptical style of Shinoda's earlier films, though it is less frenetic, less abrupt. His use of sound is interesting, too, as he will frequently cut away before a scene is quite over, but will leave the sound running into the next, silent, scene. This is frequently done in between drastic changes of scene, or shifts in time from past to present, so the effect is to establish a continuity and fluidity between all the events of Orin's life. Her life in all its details is as one, a product of the society she lives in, and events across large spans of time or place are linked in ways not apparent on the surface.

This is a complex and powerful film, stunning in its steady accumulation of imagery and the tragic commentary of its narrative. Shinoda handles this potentially didactic material with remarkable delicacy, never allowing it to become a heavy-handed "message" film. Its messages are always contained organically by the story, and by the character of Orin, who's played with wonderful range and quiet intensity by Iwashita (Shinoda's wife, incidentally). Her performance encompasses strength, despair, sensuality, loneliness, and mystery, and she's a wonderfully sensitive actress for depicting the emotional subtleties of this tale. And the film's critique of society's treatment of women is quite radical, especially in its refusal to frame the oppression in the usual traditional vs. modern terms. Shinoda clearly understands societal oppression in a much deeper sense, and is able to draw out a nuanced depiction of the mechanics of this oppression at work on a daily level. This is a truly masterful film, filled with multiple layers and multiple meanings; its placid surface is deceiving. It's a feminist critique, a powerful anti-war outcry, and a simply beautiful and poignant film. This is not to be missed, and it's quite possible to see it in all its glory and visual splendor on the wonderful Japanese DVD, with English subtitles.


erik hogstrom said...

I just finished watching Shinoda's "Ibun Sarutobi Sasuke (Samurai Spy)" for about the fifth time.
Every time I watch this film, my estimation of it and Shinoda grows.
Each frame is an art piece. Shinoda and cinematographer Masai Kosugi shift from overhead shot to extreme closeup to artfully framed composition, without detracting from the (admittedly challengingly complex plot). It might be the best-directed film I have ever seen.
Keep up the good work, your blog looks outstanding!

Erzulie said...

wardePerfect description and analysis of one of my all time favorite films. Thank you.