Yesterday being Culture Day in Japan – a day off – I got together with a friend for the afternoon and went to see the latest in big Japanese movies, Spring Snow, directed by Yukisada Isao, based on the novelist Yukio Mishima's book of the same name.
The story is an archetypal love story based on the relationship between Kiyoaki Matsugae (played by the popular actor Satoshi Tsumabuki) the son of a nouveaux riche aristocrat, and Satoko Ayakura (played by the also very popular Naoko Takeuchi) the daughter of a ‘real’ aristocrat. In a very small dry nutshell: the incredibly arrogant, childish Kiyoaki toys with the beautiful Satoko’s affections; she gives up on him and gets engaged to someone else; this spurs Kiyoaki to confess his love for her; they meet clandestinely and she gets pregnant; the families are shamed; she is forced to abort the child and enters a nunnery; Kiyoaki, intent on seeing her one more time goes to the nunnery, is refused by her, and dies soon afterwards of a fever caught from waiting for her in the rain.
The good bits. As a movie it is exquisitely beautiful. The camera is slow, slow, slow, with a tantalizing balance between loving perusal of beauty and detail and suspenseful tardiness in revealing what is still off screen. The scenes are perfectly framed and the virtue of simplicity is given its ultimate artistic expression. The acting is excellent. To someone not familiar with Japan, Japanese acting can often seem contrived and wooden, and there may indeed be scenes in Spring Snow which could be seen as such. However, to the Western eye polite behavior in Japanese seems itself often quite contrived and wooden, so the acting of such behavior can (unfairly) seem so by default.
The bad bits. Beautiful as the film is, it is ‘biscuit tin lid’ beautiful at the expense of the emotional grit that underlies Mishima’s original story. The sex and violence are there, but are not felt as acutely as they might if the director had been more mindful of the passions being suppressed and unleashed than of the visual ‘varnish'. Also, one gets rather tired of seeing the protagonist’s poker faced pout. Satoshi Tsumabuki is a handsome young actor, but the movie is as much a showcase of his looks as it is a rendition of the Mishima novel. It could be argued that the character’s arrogance, self-centeredness and immaturity is being faithfully reflected in this amount of lingering, indulgent exposure, but by halfway through I was more inclined to want to slap his precious, sullen face than marvel at its smoldering beauty. Finally, the theme tune played before the movie and during the credits, "Be My Last" by Hikaru Utada is an appalling repetitive piece of tripe sung in Utada’s awful trademark maudlin breathiness. As a thick gooey slice of the worst of Japanese pop culture it shows considerable insensitivity to the ‘art student’ nature of the film. The film lets itself down in a similar way with its trashy‘howdy folks!’ English subtitle: ‘Snowy Love Fallin’ in Spring’– again, trying to bridge the gap between highbrow and top ten pop but simply ending up sounding contradictory.
Summary: if you want a long, slow dose of exquisite cinematic beauty, see this film. If you want to be stimulated by Yukio Mishima’s imagination with a story to mull over, read the book.
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Friday, November 04, 2005
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