Tossed About By Life: Natsuo Kirino’s ‘Real World’

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Photo credit: David Martínez

What drives a person to kill? Furthermore, what compels our fascination with killers? In the eight chapters of Real World, the author of Out and Grotesque delves into the disturbed psyche of “Worm,” an ordinary boy, an underachiever who resents his parents, particularly his mother, whom he grows to loathe. Does the reader ever learn Worm’s real name? I honestly don’t recall, mostly because the character that Kirino creates thoroughly embodies his subterranean, not to mention inhuman, persona. Equally intriguing are the four high school girls, one of whom, Toshi, lives next door to Worm, while the other three are classmates and good friends with Toshi. Each girl takes an interest in Worm, complete with a morbid attraction with what he did to his mother.

Because the story of Worm’s crime and his pathetic flight from the consequences is told from the perspectives of the five main characters, it may seem obvious to compare Real World to Rashomon, Akira Kurosawa’s legendary period piece crime drama, however, the comparison is apropos. Similar to Kurosawa’s 1950 film, Kirino’s 2003 novel—which was published in English in 2008—relies on the subjective experience of each female character (Toshi, Yuzan, Kirarin, Terauchi) and their relationship with Worm (and a host of secondary characters) to develop a nonlinear portrayal of a juvenile killer, the way in which his pathos and inarticulate anger draws four discontented teenage girls into his self-destructive path, and the society in which they all dwell.

Kirino’s real world is one in which underneath an otherwise sedate and well-mannered existence, a rage driven by suffocating convention—a convention unable to accommodate those who fall outside of the boundaries of so-called normality—is often churning, waiting to explode in a volcanic display of existential violence. Worm is on the run from a real world that the others are also trying to flee from, so with the foolhardiness and impetuousness that frequently accompanies youthful ideas of rebellion and adventure, Toshi, Yuzan, and most tragically for Kirarin and Terauchi, let themselves become Worm’s accomplices. Real World is a page-turner, which vividly invokes a Japan in which the instinct to kill is irrepressible, as not even the most orderly society can completely suppress the inner-turmoil that comes with feeling like you don’t belong, replete with the loneliness and despair that comes with feeling like life is just tossing you about.

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A Brief History of Stephen Hawking: Errol Morris’ Poetic Portrait of a Scientific Mind

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Photo credit: David Martínez

Because Stephen Hawking’s stature as a revered scientist and intellectual has long since turned into an apotheosis, in which Hawking’s name is set beside the immortals of scientific inquiry, namely Galileo, Newton, and Einstein, it’s hard to believe that Errol Morris’ documentary treatment of the legendary cosmologist, A Brief History of Time, has been out for twenty-four years.

Released in 1991, A Brief History of Time appeared after the enthralling, not to mention controversial, The Thin Blue Line (1988), which I watched numerous times. A police officer is gunned down during a traffic stop, a man is convicted, and unanswered questions remain years after Randall Adams has been sent to prison. What made Morris’ noir documentary so mesmerizing was the way in which his subjects told their stories in their own words, narratives that were interspersed with images of the actual sites and evidence, complemented with reenactments and a hypnotic soundtrack composed by Philip Glass.

Morris somehow transfers this aesthetic from his film about a crime story to his film about Hawking and the origins of the universe. However, what Morris created is not based on the popular science book that Hawking published in 1988 to worldwide acclaim, but rather Morris’ A Brief History of Time is about the man behind the ideas that have changed our view of the universe. More specifically, through Morris’ lens Hawking is seen as an ordinary person, whose genius is mixed with a host of character flaws, which Hawking overcomes as he finds his passion for cosmology, a dedication to overcoming a debilitating disease, and the desire that only true love can ignite. All of which is complicated by the testimony of an array of Hawking’s extended family, friends, colleagues, and students—not to mention another beguiling Philip Glass soundtrack.

The Face of A Killer: Bong Joon-ho’s ‘Memories of Murder’

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Photo credit: David Martínez

Known mostly for his giant monster movie The Host (2006) and the action-scifi epic Snowpiercer (2013), Joon-ho Bong initially earned a reputation as a master of well-crafted and complex crime dramas, which focus on unique characters living otherwise ordinary lives, who find themselves abruptly enmeshed in the heinous lives of others. My first experience with Bong’s work was with Mother (2009), which is about a woman, an acupuncturist and herbalist, who takes on the daunting task of trying to clear her mentally handicapped son of a murder charge. Because I was immensely impressed with Bong’s storytelling skills and the great care with which he develops his characters—who are never rich, powerful, or glamorous (quite the contrary)—I didn’t hesitate to watch his earlier film Memories of Murder (2003).

Set in the Gyunggi province of South Korea, the movie follows Detectives Doo-man Park (Song Kang-ho) and Yong-koo Cho (Kim Roi-ha) on their endeavors at identifying the killer of two young women in their rural community. The local detectives are soon joined by Detective Tae-yoon Seo (Kim Sang-kyung), who is introduced to his two new partners as coming in “from Seoul” and as “volunteering” to help them with finding a suspect. The ensuing suspense can be interpreted in a number of ways. First, as a noir murder mystery in the tradition of Seven (1995) and L.A. Confidential (1997), whose narratives are driven by gruesome murders and the hard-boiled detectives who pursue the killers day and night. Second, Memories of Murder is about the difficult lives of rural Koreans during a time of great social unrest and political oppression. 1986, when the murders occur, is also when a democracy movement emerged in South Korea against its authoritarian president Chun Doo Hwan. Consequently, a third way of viewing Bong’s movie is through the lens of mid-1980s South Korean politics, during which police forces like the one in Memories of Murder are hampered by a lack of resources. For example, after presumably figuring out the killer’s modus operandi (he targets women in red he finds on rainy nights, in addition to requesting that a sentimental ballad, “Sad Letter,” be played on a local radio station), the police sergeant Shin Dong-chul (Song Jae-ho) puts in a call for “two garrisons of men” the minute “Sad Letter” begins playing on the radio. It’s raining and all the detectives on the case are fearful of another murder happening imminently. Unfortunately, Sergeant Shin’s efforts are thwarted when he’s told that all available resources are committed to suppressing a student protest.

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Image credit: Bong Joon-ho

As I watched this movie for the second time recently I was pleasantly reminded of how affective the humor is in how Bong develops his story. The levity, however, isn’t limited to instances of a bungling police force, but also to showing the characters’ humanity. There’s humor because the police are in over their heads, because the characters need the medicine of laughter to get through the day, and to exhibit the inherent foolishness of how South Korean society, particularly in rural areas, is being governed. Complementing this humor, though, is the dreary and exasperating reality that no one, especially women and girls, is safe in this community. This is made obvious when the killer changes his m.o. and murders a school girl, complete with uniform and backpack, on a rainless night.

Without giving away the ending, in spite of how much has been written about it on the web, I can point out that much has been debated about the movie’s final scene. It seems to mean something different to each person watching the little girl at the end speak with now former Detective Park. Regardless of movie-making customs, American above all, for revealing the killer, along with his (sometimes her) motives for preying on others, not all crimes are solved. In the case of Bong’s movie, while one can simply say that his story is a reflection on real life events—some claim the film is inspired by a serial killer who was active in the Hwaseong area during the late 80s—it’s also an evocation of the evil that lurks within any society. More specifically, the unidentified killer in Bong’s utterly compelling film affirms the distressing fact that such a person could be anyone (I wondered, in fact, if the killer was one of the policemen working the case, such as Detective Cho). Lastly, insofar as Memories of Murder is a reflection of a tumultuous time in South Korean history, it’s fair to say that the real killer in Bong’s story is South Korean society itself, one that’s wrought with generations of historical trauma, which was exacerbated by a military dictatorship that saw its own people as the enemy.

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Photo credit: David Martínez

The Woman Who Lost Her Name: Ryu Murakami’s ‘Audition’

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Photo credit: David Martínez

Although I’ve seen Takashi Miike’s 1999 film adaptation of Audition numerous times, it was only recently that I read Ryu Murakami’s equally memorable 1997 novel. With Miike’s images burnt into memory, it was difficult at first to not see the movie unfold as I read the narrative. However, I kept asking myself, What if I were encountering this story for the first time, never having seen the film? What occurred to me straightaway was the elegiac quality of the portrayal of Aoyama and his son Shige, which is off-set by the facetiousness of the premise, specifically holding an audition—under the pretense of casting a movie—in order to find a widowed father a new wife. I describe the premise as facetious for the simple reason that it sounds like the set-up for a romantic comedy.

What unfolds in the books twelve chapters, however, is anything but comic. As Murakami hints as the audition plan is made, Aoyama “had no way of knowing the unspeakable horrors that awaited him.” Even before the auditions begin, Aoyama becomes immediately enchanted with Yamasaki Asami, twenty-four, whose résumé spoke of a broken dream of becoming a ballerina. Aoyama’s infatuation is reinforced upon seeing Asami in person at her audition, which compels him to start a relationship with her under the false reason of discussing her future as an actress. What becomes apparent early on is that Aoyama’s fascination with Asami is turning into a love-blind obsession. So much so that he’s deaf to the doubts that his friend Yoshikawa has about this young woman, who he sees as casting a spell over Aoyama.

What’s most impressive about Murakami’s portrayal of the demons that are created through childhood abuse is the way in which Yamasaki Asami’s character is carefully revealed through subtle expressions, both in word and body, as she lures Aoyama deeper into the labyrinth of emotional turmoil that dwells beneath her calm and obviously beautiful façade. “She’s like smoke,” observes Kai, a former geisha and owner of the East Nakano restaurant where Aoyama has just had a date with his enchantress, “you think you’re seeing her clearly enough, but when you reach for her there’s nothing there.”

At one level Audition is a horror-suspense story and many readers will turn to its pages for the shock value, especially its well-known and infamous torture scene. At another level the book is about the misguided quest of a forty-two year old widow for love and companionship. At the same time the concept of the audition and its consequence for its protagonist is a searing critique of male attitudes toward women in Japanese society. In the latter context, Asami is not so much a “monster” as she is a victim, a survivor of emotional and physical assault, whose calm and elegant demeanor belie a life of inner-torment and unhealed psychological wounds, which have shaped her relationship with men, including the unsuspecting Aoyama. In the end, it goes without saying that there are significant differences between the Ryu Murakami’s book and Takashi Miike’s film, which I won’t go through the trouble of outlining here for the simple reason that the reader should enjoy these, some of which are surprising, for him- or herself. Having said that, I will say this much, when the reader gets to the torture scene, it’s nothing like the one in the movie version, yet I can assure you that it’s no less memorable than the one enacted by Eihi Shiina. When Asami says “Can’t move, can you?” it will still send a shiver down your spine.

“I Will Never Forgive Any Of You”: Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s ‘Penance’

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Photo credit: David Martínez

Penance (2012) is a five-part miniseries about the murder of Emili Adachi, who’s lured to the school gymnasium by an unidentified man, while Emili’s four playmates watch from afar as their young friend is led to her death. Asako Adachi, Emili’s mother, played with subtle mastery by Kyoko Kuizumi (Tokyo Sonata, 2008), is inconsolable as her daughter’s murder remains unsolved months later, in spite of the four girls who saw the killer’s face. Under the pretense of Emili’s birthday, the four reluctant witnesses are invited to Asako’s home, where they are confronted with Kyoko’s grief and anger, condemning each of the four girls to a life of paying penance for allowing her daughter’s murderer to get away with his unforgiveable crime.

Ostensibly, what ensues from Kyoko’s moral indictment of the four girls’ complicity in Emili’s death, is how each girl endures the psychological burden of betraying their slaughtered classmate and her mother. More specifically, each of the first four episodes focuses on how Sae Kikuchi (played by Yu Aoi), Maki Shinohara (played by Eiko Koike), Akiko Takano (played by Sakura Ando), and Yuka Ogawa (played by Chizuru Ikewaki) have lived with their guilt fifteen years later. All of them have been traumatized and have lived with the consequences of this trauma until it has infected every part of their being. However, it would be unfair to say that Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s story is based on a simplistic cause-and-effect notion of karma. On the contrary, what unfolds in the four narratives—the fifth is reserved for Emili’s mother—is a complex story, and character analysis, of how Japanese women survive, yet are ravished, by a society that values order and decorum above all else, even if it means coercing people, such as Emili’s playmates, into silence about the abuse, agony, violence and distress they witness and undergo in their own lives.

I have been watching Kurosawa’s work for several years now and have always admired the thoughtful and stylish way in which he tells his stories, especially in Cure (1997) and Pulse (2001). More so in Penance than in any of his previous works does Kurosawa display his admiration for the works of Alfred Hitchcock and Yasujiro Ozu. By this I mean Kurosawa has developed his own unique combination of showing sympathy for the lives of ordinary people while turning his fascination with the dark side of their personalities into a compelling sense of drama and the horror of realizing that the real monsters we need to fear are ones that dwell within human nature.

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Photo credit: David Martínez