Morino: Patron Anti-Saint of Misanthropists

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Photo credit: David Martínez

I was about half-way through Otsuichi’s Goth when I finally realized why this book was giving me a case of déjà vu—it was the basis of Gen Takahashi’s 2008 film of the same title, starring Rin Takanashi as the iconic black-clad girl, “Morino,” and Kanata Hongō as her equally sullen and only friend. In the case of the 2005 novel, which Haika Soru has republished with two of the author’s afterwords and a novelette titled Morino’s Souvenir Photo, Otsuichi creates an endlessly fascinating world of perpetual darkness. However, by “darkness” I do not mean melancholy, hopelessness, or even evil per se, but rather soullessness. Each one of Otsuichi’s characters, especially Morino and her unnamed male friend, are utterly without any warmth or emotion. As for whether or not Goth is truly Goth seems to be a matter of opinion. The author does admit to the dubiousness of the label in “Afterword 1.” Nonetheless, there is undeniably an eerieness to the universe contained within Goth that infects even the daylight, when society is supposed to be at its most normal. Morino embodies all that is not normal. The narrator of Chapter IV “Memory/Twins,” for example, says of Morino:

“It seems fair to call Morino Goth. She frequently expresses an intense interest in torture methods and execution devices, and a fascination with the dark side of humanity is a common characteristic among Goths.

“Morino rarely exchanges words with anyone else. She has nothing fundamentally in common with our healthy, overenergetic classmates. If classmates smile and speak to her, Morino will simply stare back at them, her blank expression never crumbling—and she’ll say, ‘Oh.’ Even if classmates wait for her to say something else, nothing will happen: Morino will react no further.”

Yet, Morino’s relentlessly dispassionate demeanor is irresistibly intriguing. Morino has a kind of black magic that attracts to her persons and situations that expose an array of damaged human beings that inhabit the world around her. Goth, more specifically, is an anthology of morbidity in which the author reveals through the eyes of Morino, and her friend, a secret society of psychopaths, whose disdain for humanity is not above torture and murder. At the same time, Morino and her friend are open and unashamed about their perverse interest in the lives of serial killers and the places where homicides were committed. Because of Otsuichi’s skills as a storyteller—complete with an eye for subtle but effective character development, as well as a compelling way of disclosing evidence and plot-twists—Morino’s enthrallment with the murderous domain of killers becomes our fascination. Consequently, we are led through stories, among others, about a man with a compulsion for severing people’s left hands, twin girls who enjoy pretending to be dead, and another man who buried his best friend alive in his backyard. As for Morino’s ineffable but dark charm, in the novelette at the back of Goth, Morino is at a site where a girl was murdered a few years earlier. While there alone she encounters a man with a camera with reasons of his own for being there. Morino asks the man to take her picture. The man complies with her request. Then, Morino asks another favor:

“‘While you’re here, could I ask you to take a few more?’ she said, and lied down on the roots of the tree. Her hair fanned out on the ground, and her coat opened up.

“‘What are you doing?’

“‘I’m being a corpse.’

“I waited a few seconds, but there was no further explanation. My imagination took over, and I finally understood. Morino wanted to pretend to be the girl killed seven years ago and have me take pictures of it?”

Goth is full of moments like this, in which abnormal behavior is regarded as normal, and even beautiful. My mind was riveted on the image I had of Morino’s long black hair fanning out across the tree’s roots. Like the man taking her picture, I wanted her to look this way forever.

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Photo credit: David Martínez

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‘Retribution’: Kiyoshi Kurosawa and the Karma of Crimes Committed and Forgotten

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Image credit: Kiyoshi Kurosawa

It’s commonplace, especially in movies, for serial killers to be characterized by the types of persons they target and the method with which they kill, creating a profile that’s complete with “signatures.” However, how does one make sense out of a series of murders, which indicate a serial killer, yet the evidence ultimately leads to different suspects? In Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s 2006 film Retribution, Detective Yoshioka Noboru (played by Yakusho Koji) is on the case of an unknown woman in red (Hazuki Riona) who was drowned in sea water. Moreover, other murders are committed in the same manner, as the killer has gone out of his or her way to drown their victims in salty water, leaving them face-down. Eventually, Detective Yoshioka and his partner, Miyaji Toru (played by Ihara Tsuyoshi), are led to a doctor (Nakamura Ikuji) who’s killed his son (Satô Takahiro) and an office worker (Okunuki Kaoru) who’s killed her boss (Nomura Hironobu). What Yoshioka is struck by is the latter individuals’ mutual explanation that they wanted to “wipe their lives clean.”

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Image credit: Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Retribution is more than a murder mystery. It’s also a ghost story. The woman in red is apparently haunting Yoshioka, but why? Is she a restless ghost who needs her killer found in order to find peace? Or is she after something else? Yoshioka’s confusion about why the woman in red is troubling him slowly metamorphoses into neurosis as clues about the murder, such as a missing coat button, start are pointing at him. Compelled by the murders, the woman in red (labeled “F-18” by the medical examiner, played by Muraki Jin), and his conscience, Yoshioka is on a personal quest to solve the deeper mystery behind the killing. Will finding her killer finally relieve Yoshioka of his tormenter or will he discover something far worse? Retribution is a gritty portrayal of what happens when otherwise ordinary people are afflicted with a despair that turns them into killers. It’s also a portrayal of what happens when the killer’s or killers’ reality becomes Yoshioka’s. Only when he remembers what he saw when he rode a ferry by a mysterious black building years ago will Yoshioka understand what’s happening to him and who he really is.

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Image credits: Kiyoshi Kurosawa

‘Chariots of Fire’: Hugh Hudson, Anglophilia and the Olympic Stage

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Image credit: Hugh Hudson

I’m not sure why Hugh Hudson’s 1981 film Chariots of Fire has meant so much to me, but it has. Curiously, I didn’t notice its initial release, even though I regularly went to the cinema virtually every weekend. However, it was because of my enthusiasm for film that I happened to be watching the Golden Globes during its January 1982 broadcast. On that night, as the nominees for the best foreign picture were announced, I heard the audience cheer as the now iconic scene on screen. A group of men, all dressed in the same white uniform, ran majestically in all their youth and vigor down the English seaside as a synthetic anthem played, evoking Olympian glory. I was immediately captivated by what I saw!

As soon as I could I went to see Chariots of Fire at the Montclair Plaza Theaters, which had expanded from a triplex to a multiplex that included a theater dedicated to foreign films. I loved the movie so much I wound up seeing it six times in a matter of a few short weeks. Moreover, I watched Ben Cross and Ian Charleson portray “Harold Abrahams” and “Eric Liddell” several more times on pay tv, as well as renting and eventually owning the movie on VHS, DVD, and Blu-Ray. I watched it again tonight.

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Image credit: Hugh Hudson

At this point in my life, Chariots of Fire has a lot of nostalgia value. It appeared at a time when I was striving to find an identity for myself, which was at time in one’s growth—16, going on 17—when finding the right identity is everything. With that in mind, Hudson’s image of 1920s England and its idyllic depiction of Oxford University was just what I needed. I was a burgeoning intellectual who was yearning for a more sophisticated sense of self, complete with the broadened horizons that were lacking in my so-called life. Chariots of Fire instantly became a part of my peculiar form of Anglophilia, which included watching British television dramas such as Testament of Youth, which starred Cheryl Campbell (who plays “Jennie Liddell” in Chariots), and The Flame Trees of Thika, starring Ben Cross. Then, of course, there was Brideshead Revisited, which itself became a unique obsession. Speaking of which, I shouldn’t neglect mention my discovery of Evelyn Waugh, Richard Adams, and W Somerset Maugham. Furthermore, it was also a time when, among other things, I was discovering music by Ultravox, Spandau Ballet, and Simple Minds.

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Image credit: Hugh Hudson

In the end, Hugh Hudson’s film about British Olympic hopefuls makes me feel good. I identify with the main characters, each of whom is marginal to English society—Abrahams, a Jew, and Liddell, a Scot—in a way that gave me insight into my own marginality to mainstream American society. Although my Anglophilia never took me to the UK, except for a few days in Wales and another people marginal to English society, what mattered more was the story and images. I have no idea of the film’s historical accuracies vis-à-vis the actual 1924 Olympics. Probably several liberties were taken for the sake of dramatic effect. Nevertheless, the film bears an emotional truth about gifted individuals struggling the find themselves at the same time they are dealing with the limits of those gifts. What the combination of that cinematography and Vangelis soundtrack made me realize is that it is one’s willingness to engage in that struggle, replete with the risk of failure, that is the difference between running the race only to win as opposed to running the race because you know you have to in order to find what’s at the end of the track.

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Image credit: Hugh Hudson

Stories for Boys: Terry Brooks and ‘The Sword of Shannara’

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Image credit: The Brothers Hildebrandt

I was a high school freshman when I first read Terry Brooks’ fantasy adventure, The Sword of Shannara, the first volume of an epic trilogy, which is widely regarded today as a classic in its genre. Brooks’s substantial tome was featured in the April 1977 inaugural issue of Heavy Metal Magazine, complete with an excerpt and a sampling of The Brothers Hildebrandt’s illustrations. The art work alone was enough to compel me to the nearest bookstore, the B Dalton Books at the Claremont Plaza, where I picked up a paperback copy for $2.50. During the halcyon days of the late 1970s the sum I paid for my book was a not insignificant portion of the few dollars I earned each week mowing lawns and other assorted chores on my street in Pomona, CA.

So many years later—I’m a longtime college professor now—as I reread the heroic tale of Flick and Shea Ohmsford and their quest for the mythic Sword of Shannara, I could remember vividly the many nights I ensconced myself in my room as I absorbed every word of this narrative, which read like historical fiction, but which was about a time and place that only exists in the annals of the imagination. Guided by a mysterious Druid, Allanon, who seems as menacing as he does wise, Elven brothers set out to find the sword before the Skull Bearer does, as the latter is intent on conquering the known world with a massive army driven by the forces of evil. Thus, Elves, Dwarves and Druids, led by Allanon and the Ohmsford brothers, are pitted against Gnomes and Trolls who are led by the Skull Bearer, a Druid who has taken to the dark side.

As a teenage boy, The Sword of Shannara provided me a means of escape from what I regarded as a dreary existence bereft of any adventure. Equally important was the fact that I was discovering a world of fantasy art and literature that few, if any, of my friends knew about, which made me feel special. Terry Brooks—and The Brothers Hildebrandt—made me want to become a spinner of incredible tales, replete with people, places, and previously unimagined creatures! Alas, as I grew and matured, I slowly discovered I had a different calling, which was facilitated by the realization that I didn’t have much talent for art and fiction. Be that as it may, my life as a scholar and teacher—quite fulfilling in their own way—has given me the eyes of experience through which I read again Brooks’s boyish adventure today. I say “boyish” for the simple reason that Flick and Shea are very young and impetuous, willing to follow a man, Allanon, whom they don’t know, into far away places where they might be killed. One not only has to be a boy to do something that foolish but also be a boy in order to find such a story entertaining. There’s only one female character in the entire book, by the way, who doesn’t appear until some three or four hundred pages. At the very least, then, one has to remember what it’s like to be a boy, ignorant about girls and impatient for excitement and to a world unseen before. At the end of the last chapter, despite all of my supposed worldliness, after all was said and one, I smiled and nodded my head with the gratification of rediscovered youth.

“Am I pretty?”: Shiraiki Kôji and the Legend of the Slit-Mouthed Woman

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Photo credit: David Martínez

The only thing more frightening than our worst nightmare coming true is when our collective nightmare, those deep fears we share with others, comes true. According to a Japanese urban legend, one such figure that terrified many was someone or something called “Kuchisake-onna” or “Slit-mouthed woman.” She was a woman done wrong who has returned as a vengeful ghost. She’s seeking the man who betrayed her, not to mention others like him. She’s also a stalker of children, characterized by her long disheveled hair and bloody, disfigured face. Her name and how she became an angry demon is a mystery, but she lurks in the shadows of an otherwise staid society.

The Slit-mouthed woman is also a part of the Japanese ghost film tradition, which includes Kuchisake-onna and a host of other wandering, despondent, and angry spirits who inhabit the disquieting twilight that exists between dream and reality. In Shiraiki’s 2007 film Carved: Slit-Mouth Woman, the ethereal manifestation of this legend is terrorizing a suburban community, under whose façade of normality is hidden a number of secrets that hold the key to Kuchisake-onna’s true identity. As children are abducted, their teachers, Yamashita Kyôko (Satô Eriko) and Matsuzaki Noboru (Katô Haruhiko), are on a desperate search to find their missing pupils. However, what they find on their urgent quest is more than just evidence of kidnapping. Because of Matsuzaki’s own secrets, he and his partner ultimately understand the source of the Slit-mouth woman’s rage.

I enjoyed watching Shiraiki’s interpretation of an otherwise familiar legend. At one level, the movie is formulaic in the way that all genre films depend on commonplace elements. In which case, the movie is never scary, though there are tense moments involving the Slit-mouth woman’s treatment of children. Indeed, it’s precisely Kuchisake-onna’s relation to children that makes this story interesting. Rather than portraying her as simply another scorned woman, Shiraiki turns his protagonist into the embodiment of the kind of dark secret of abuse that too often remains behind closed doors, out of sight of anyone who can help.

The Bamboo Ronin: Kobayashi Masaki’s ‘Harakiri’

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Photo credit: David Martínez

Kobayashi’s 1962 period piece is one of the most visually eloquent stories ever put on film. Much more than a samurai movie, this black-and-white masterpiece simultaneously evokes a 17th century Japan steeped in courtly traditions and a timeless story about loyalty and vengeance. However, in spite of the privileging of aristocratic or, more specifically, bushido values, it’s not the high-ranking officials of the House of Iyi who embody its most cherished principles, but instead the middle-aged ronin Tsugumo Hanshiro (Nakadai Tatsuya) and his son-in-law Chijiiwa Motome (Ishihama Akira). Indeed, it’s due to the dire straits in which they find themselves that first Chijiiwa, then Tsugumo, have gone to the Iyi court for help.

Ostensibly, Tsugumo has approached the House of Iyi to request that they allow him the honor of committing ritual suicide in their courtyard. Tsugumo’s reasons stem from the pitiful life he has been forced to lead in the aftermath of losing his master at another house in Hiroshima. Supposedly, in the aftermath of the wars that had once defined his life, Tsugumo’s life has now completely lost its sense of purpose, not to mention honor. Consequently, reduced to destitution, he has come to the House of Iyi. The man handling Tsugumo’s request, Saito Kageyu (Mikuni Rentaro) is suspicious of Tsugumo’s motives. Saito thinks that the uninvited guest before him is only after “a few coins,” which is apparently a ploy that other ronin in Edo have been using to exploit various houses in the area. With this in mind, Saito regales Tsugumo with a story of another ronin from Hiroshima who recently came to them under similar circumstances, asking to commit Harakiri. With each segment of his story, Saito challenges Tsugumo’s resolves, which Tsugumo responds to without wavering—he is here to die.

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Photo credit: David Martínez

What Saito doesn’t know, as he’s recounting the story of “the Bamboo Ronin,” is that Tsugumo and Chijiiwa are related in a way that will ignite an upheaval in the House of Iyi. Tsugumo, as he listens to Saito, is playing a game of Go with the House of Iyi. He’s there because he’s lost everything, his daughter Miho (Iwashita Shima), her husband, and their infant son, Kingo, Tsugumo’s only grandchild. However, will Tsugumo commit seppuku, disemboweling himself, in a way that befits a samurai or does he have other plans—ones that are no less heroic according to the bushido code? Every scene of Kobayashi’s Harakiri is perfectly framed and the cinematography is absolutely beautiful. In turn, the acting is flawless and effective, compelling the viewer into a stunningly unromantic portrayal of Edo Era Japan, filled with post-war hardship, which is overseen by the selfish, unethical people who lead society with empty platitudes about honor.

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Photo credit: David Martínez

Deuteronomy: The Life and Death of Pierre Rivière, Murderer

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Photo credit: David Martínez

When Pierre Rivière was questioned about why he killed his mother, sister, and younger brother, the twenty-year-old accused explained to the examining judge, Exupère Legrain, that it was God who told him to do it. However, when confronted with the proposition that if he truly believed in God he should know that “God never orders a crime,” Rivière rebutted with the assertion, “God ordered Moses to slay the adorers of the golden calf, sparing neither friends nor father nor sons.” When asked how he learned such things, Rivière claimed, “I read them in Deuteronomy,” in addition to the Book of Numbers. “Neither monster nor martyr,” as one of the medical authorities would say, Pierre Rivière is a case study of how insanity and the rule of law collided in the 1830s French judicial system, as reexamined by Michel Foucault, Jean-Pierre Peter, Jeanne Favret, Patricia Moulin, Blandine Barret-Kriegel, Philippe Riot, Robert Castel, and Alexandre Fontana.

For many readers, I, Pierre Rivière, having slaughtered my mother, my sister and my brother (Editions Gallimard, 1973; Pantheon Books, 1975) is something that one soon discovers after reading Foucault’s more celebrated works, namely The Order of Things, Madness and Civilization, and Discipline and Punish. However, if you’re like me, you may take a longtime—in my case, a very longtime—before getting around to actually reading I, Pierre Rivière. This may happen, not because of the inherently repulsive nature of the crime, but rather because there’s very little of Foucault in the text. Once the reader delves into the dossier and a cantonal judge gives his report of the arraignment of Rivière, the absence of Foucault matters less and the drama of this 19th century mass murder matters more.  Appearing just before Discipline and Punish (Editions Gallimard, 1975; Pantheon Books, 1978), I, Pierre Rivière appeals to one’s intellect like Umberto Eco’s medieval crime saga The Name of the Rose (1980) or Daniel Vigne’s tale of stolen identity The Return of Martin Guerre (1982).

At the center of I, Pierre Rivière is the testimony that Rivière composed in his own hand, in which his motivation for killing his mother and siblings had nothing to do with God, which he admits was just a ploy, and more to do with freeing his father from what he regarded as a life of endless torment at the hands of his mother. The siblings, in turn, were killed because they sided with a woman that Rivière thought of as  wholly loathsome. At the same time, while Rivière willingly admits his crime, even wanting the ultimate penalty, there is a question of his sanity at the time he committed these murders. Although Rivière never pleads for mercy, least of all because he’s mentally sick, multiple witnesses portray Rivière as intellectually and socially deficient, a condition going back to childhood. He’s remembered as having a “furtive” expression and engaging in a variety of “bizarre” behaviors, most notably the torture of frogs and birds under the pretense of reenacting “Christ’s passion.” Yet, he reads a great deal, especially religious and philosophical texts, all the while maintaining an encyclopedic recollection of the tribulations through which his mother put his father. Indeed, the summary of the mother’s martial offenses make up the bulk of Rivière’s written deposition.

While Rivière’s narration of his mother’s reproachable behavior is longwinded and a bit repetitive, the account of his justification of his attitude toward his mother, his plans for liberating his father from her, the suddenness of the triple slayings, and the events leading to his arrest are utterly compelling in their truthfulness, not to mention being a remarkable example of the cold rationality of a deeply disturbed and traumatized mind.

The court transcripts are also quite captivating as they reveal a society caught between medieval notions of evil and Enlightenment ideas about abnormal behavior. In the end, what Foucault and his collaborators uncover in their analyses is the way in which the law, which is meant to punish crimes and protect the social order, often conflicts with the behavioral sciences, which increasingly claims to understand the origin of madness and criminality. It is a dilemma, of course, with which we are still struggling today.