Film Synopsis: The story of a young Japanese man, Eimei, and his attempts to lift his family from an all-encompassing misery (material, moral and existential) while fighting the urge to “fly away” from it all after hearing the story of a Korean man who died in an attempt to take to the skies and return to Korea with a man-made man-propelled air-plane; just like the wishful dream of that flying machine, both those lives shall crash and burn: one at the beginning of the movie, one at the end.
Interspersed within this story, we see dream sequences, family scenes, visual representations of the various characters’ state of mind, scenes of various “outliers” in the streets, experimental scenes (some in which the camera work could cause nausea) and bizarre musical numbers, to a ratio of 50% story to 50% other sequences, be them connected or not with the main plot and central characters. These dream scenes often explore the characters’ backstories.
Central to the story is the theme of “dispossession” when it comes to one’s identity: the main character wants to redeem his father, and it does look like it is talking about the broader Japanese society as being portrayed in this bizarre duet of the new generation and the one who had to go through the war. A sense of deranged lack of direction simmering under the skin and ready to rear its ugly face, moving the characters at times like marionettes whenever it takes control over them, is always in the background, and often times the audience is left dreading whenever this subterranean river will break free and come to the surface.
One scene when the traumas of the past, the anxiousness of the present, and the terror which fills the future seem to be at their peak, in conjunction with the editing and soundtrack, is during a scene where the character, led by the nose by the strange mentor figure of Mr. Omi, is in bed with a prostitute, and he cannot feel anything but distress and disgust at all which is going on within and without him in that moment, and what has happened to him in the past at the hand of his mother: all these emotions seem to project also into his views of the future, as he runs away without even caring to take his shoes, and, like in other scenes throughout the movie, there’s a sort of sarcastic humorous ending to what is a tragic scene which shows the vulnerability of the protagonist.
Undersold or Overhyped?
This is a movie which is easily undersold and yet can as well be over-hyped due to its uniqueness: the soundtrack, the editing, the writing, its vignettes-leaden flow, and messages; its “pastiche” nature lends itself to be its strength and weakness, its building blocks being also the wrecking-ball which can destroy a viewer’s enjoyment of this movie: many of the choices and strange images do enhance the experience, as they add to the individual characters’ mental state, or reveal parts of their past; while others fall flat or drag the story to a crawl due to how they add details to the “themes” (materialism, decadence, dissolution of values, restless youth with aimless desires of revenge or redemption and “self-ransom” from and against their failed fathers and these father’s faltering world) while being divorced from the small scale story of Eimei, the main “hero” whose quest is doomed to fail as a result of his frailty and his bad choices.
A story of exploiters, both aware of their ruses or not, and of the exploits of a confused, exploited, (self) abused youth…ideologies and society both failed him, but he keeps throwing himself in the endeavour to help his father, despite his apparent passivity; Eimei has also the contradictory dream of a flight from his home and his Country which goes against his desire to push his father into working again at a noodle stall which he bought from Mr. Omi.
Do you love Cinema?
Eimei has little agency or will, and is betrayed by the world around him and the people in it. He doesn’t do anything particularly wrong to deserve this either. Then at the end of the movie there is an interesting fourth wall breaking scene where Eimei gives a speech about how this is just a movie, and that he’s not in love with cinema…
Here is the little speech by Eimei at the end:
If you think about it, a film can only exist within the darkness of a cinema. The world of the film ends the moment the lights come on; it just disappears. […] Even the worlds of Polanski and Ōshima Nagisa and Antonioni, all of them disappears when you turn on the lights. Think you could show a film on the side of a building during daylight? […] I loved Humphrey Bogart. I loved Cinemascope, town shooting, love scenes… I loved Mr. Sukita, the cameraman; Mr. Terayama, the director; Mr. Usui, the assistant. The whole of that world, but I don’t love the cinema. Goodbye. Goodbye, cinema.
The director Shuji Terayama claims that the intention of his works is “to revolutionise real life without resorting to politics.” I take to it mean that he wants to change the world through his art rather than ordinary politics or perhaps he is advocating for a more individual, personal form of revolution.
A particularly satirical scene stands out in which Japanese workers sing a homoerotic ode to action films starring Takakura Ken, one of the most popular actors in Japan at that time and a symbol of manhood. This scene is mocking the contrast between the emasculated reality of Japanese working class men, such as Eimei’s father, and the masculine escapist heroic fantasies of the fiction the people consumed in their spare time.
Throughout the film you can see quotes from radical authors written on walls, on the ground, taking up the whole screen. It may be hard to believe for some but Japan used to be a hotbed of left-wing radical student politics in the 1960s.
Eimei, the main protagonist and main narrating voice of the story: young, idealistic and naive, he seems to represent the “dispossessed” youth of Japan in the decades after World War II. He has long term goals, but his emotional nature and past traumas hinder his growth and his interactions with the rest of the people around him; in the end, his attempt at relieving his father from a life of degeneracy and abandonment turns out to be a delusion and leads to a final betrayal and his being cast aside by all characters and ending up in jail.
Masaharu, the father, an unemployed lecher who lives off of his son, an obsequious loser, and a war criminal according to his son. He used to be a boxer. It is implied that the war might have made him who he is. On one occasion he does show a bit of kindness to his daughter but nothing more.
Setsu, Eimei’s sister, introduced by Eimei as a “slut who hates men.”
Tome, Eimei’s selfish and lonely grandmother who lies for attention. Perhaps representing the abandoned elderly of Japan.
Mr. Omi, the scruples-less football coach who justifies his lack of morals with a shallow form of radical ideology. The point of his character, I think, is that to show that to get ahead in this era you need to be a deceitful and self-serving scumbag.
Editing: Alternates between dream-scenes and reality; the movie has an experimental vibe, and its deeply steeped post-1960s students strike tone is often felt in the scenes in the streets and in its bitter disillusioned view of book-smart “intellectuals,” and art as a direct approach to invoke change in the common person.
This unique approach to themes and storytelling is both the strong point and main weakness of the movie due to its weird and often weary editing and pacing: slow silent scenes may descend in a cacophony of sounds and images overlapping, and often times the central story of Eimei’s attempts at redemption are lost in a slew of vignettes, strange musical pieces and dissonant punk psychedelic rock lingering onto visually cryptic yet powerful images which may bring one to question if there is a deeper meaning to all that is shown on screen and to which extent it is our own personal views and experiences allowing us to “read into” these images (almost like if the “material” of the movie is malleable enough to take any shape our brain wishes to push it into).
A unique “solution” is used by director Terayama to implicitly make us understand when a scene is set in the grounded real world of the fiction, the movie itself, and when instead the images flashing before our eyes are fantasies, dreams or moments of social exploration: green scenes denote the ‘family moments’ widening our understanding of the household in which Eimei grew and lives in, a magenta/purple overlaying colour is what denotes everything which is in the minds of the characters (be them dream or vivid images of their minds), the main story is shown in colours, and moments when the main character speaks directly to the audience are in black and white. Scenes in the streets usually have a more vivid colour palette, almost as if the contrast is heightened for those scenes.
This gives a unique intuitiveness to the flow and changes in how the story is told and what is shown to us, and even if some scene transitions are rather jarring, it weirdly flows well despite the strong whiplash that can hit due to the editing or the soundscape changes which often happen all of the sudden in the movie.
Soundtrack: August 1970. The soundtrack has been described as punk. It fits the angsty and nihilistic message of the story. Many tracks rely on a very psychedelic keyboard use which gives a unique vibe to the scenes where there’s no narration but only images or vignettes.
Influences on Evangelion: The scene in the last episode of Neon Genesis Evangelion where Shinji sits in a dark chair is said to be influenced by the first and the last scenes of this film. Other influences from Shuji Terayama include the use of monochromatic colours and on-screen text that covers the city. The epilogue where the protagonist breaks the fourth wall at the end of the film is set on a theatre stage, which makes sense since this movie was originally a stage-play, the last episode of Evangelion is also set in a theatre stage.
This article was co-authored by me and ChiasmoRoss. It was mostly Chiasmo tho.