Friday, 10 September 2010

限りなく透明に近いブルー [1976]

Title: Almost Transparent Blue
Author: Ryū Murakami
Publisher: Kodansha International, Ltd.

Ryū Murakami (not to be confused with nor thought to be related to Haruki) is a Japanese author and director, perhaps most famous for writing the novel The Audition (1997), which was later adapted by Takashi Miike in his 1999 film of the same name. He also wrote the original novel and screenplay for Hideaki Anno's Love & Pop (1996) and has directed a handful of films adapted from his own novels, including Tokyo Decadence (1992). Almost Transparent Blue was Murakami's first ever published novel and it shows his daring, experimental writing style, alongside all the other traits that led him to be known as the enfant terrible of Japanese post-war literature.

Almost Transparent Blue follows the life of Ryū, a heavy drug-user living in a nondescript Japanese town in the seventies. The novel primarily focusses on the lives of Ryū and his close circle of friends that includes other junkies, prostitutes, sluts and thugs as well as their interaction and sex-parties with American men from the local air force base. Amidst all of the drug-induced haze, the protagonist and his friends break into music festivals, lie around listening to The Doors' records, shoot up on heroin and go to gang-bangs. Putting it like that makes it sound like it is a pure sensory onslaught from start to finish, but it isn't; in fact, it is the complete opposite. The novel is paced fairly slowly and often matches the states that the characters are in. This means there are some long passages where all narrative falls away and the world outside becomes a reflection of Ryū's inner thought processes and equally there are some sections which seem to have been captured in ultra-vivid, colour-enhanced spectroscopy, such as the scene in which Ryū and his friends are at a music festival on pills.

Murakami's writing style is very distinctly Japanese; often focussing very intensely on small happenings that occur around Ryū and frequently go under the radar of the others around him. Ryū finds great beauty in things like the kaleidoscopic colours of the innards of a moth that he squishes to death, the scent of a rotting melon, watching rain outside the window and other things that he encounters in varying states of sobriety. In one particularly beautiful scene, Ryū speaks of a world inside his mind that serves as a sanctuary for him when he feels overwhelmed by the world. In the scene he speaks at length about a town that he has fabricated and all of the buildings and people there. As he is telling Lily (another main character) this, they decide to go out on a drive, both of them completely out of their heads on a cocktail of drugs. The drive culminates in one of the most beautiful scenes of the novel as Lily and he leave the car and walk out into the rain and Ryū begins to hallucinate and think deeply about his own life through the lens of the town in his mind which is devoid of an airport, meaning that no one there can ever leave.

It has been speculated that Almost Transparent Blue is a partially, if not completely, autobiographical novel; the central character of Ryū potentially being the author himself. It has been said that Murakami had a somewhat wild youth and the book supports this idea, the protagonist being 19 years old (if I remember correctly). Although the names may or may not have been changed, a final letter at the end of the book seem to suggest that the events in the book are indeed based on real life. Due to the author and main character of the book sharing the same name, it is unclear at the end whether Ryū's letter to Lily is from the character or the author. The implication is certainly that it's an open letter from the author to the woman that he once loved. However, it is still unclear whether Murakami simply slipped the letter in at the end to add another layer of realism to the novel.

I think it's more than fair to say that plot isn't what drives Almost Transparent Blue, but rather it is Ryū and his own existential exploration through substance use which pushes the novel forwards. The disjointed nature of the book also contributes to this feeling that it is all taking place within Ryū's mind; many memories remain unfinished, with only a few small details noted down from each moment. In this way, I felt that the novel was also an exercise of memory, focussing solely on the past and the process of extracting memories from events that occurred long ago. Through this process, things are lost and gained, with many important events simply forgotten and lost beneath layers of the mundane, and some seemingly insignificant reveries captured vividly like a photograph in time.

Although the actual edition of the book widely available in the UK is of quite bad quality, and by this I mean poorly constructed and with poor artwork, I found the translation pretty good. If you could get hold of the first edition translated version of the novel then that would probably be preferable to you, but I haven't seen any floating around. As a side note, Murakami also directed a film of the novel in 1979, but I haven't seen it and I can imagine that it's probably quite hard to come by as it was a low budget release.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

リリイ・シュシュのすべて [2001]

Film: All About Lily Chou-Chou
Director: Shunji Iwai
Starring: Hayato Ichihara, Shûgo Oshinari, Ayumi Ito.

All About Lily Chou-Chou is a film about youth, pop culture and coming-of-age in the digital era, handled masterfully by seasoned director Shunji Iwai. Contrary to what the title suggests, the film's focus is on the life of an ordinary teenage boy named Yûichi Hasumi (Ichihara) and his experiences both at school, with his peers and with his family. Although it is highly possible to interpret the message of the film in a plethora of different ways, I feel very strongly that the film is about the harsh realities that teenage years bring, and the desperate search for some sort of salvation or sanctuary from the chaos and filth that is present in modern society.

Although the elusive Lily Chou-Chou never assumes an acting role in the film, her presence is all-encompassing, and seems to guide the film through the life of Yûichi. Lily Chou-Chou is supposedly inspired by Chinese superstar 王非 (Faye Wong) and her overwhelming popularity throughout Asia and the world. Lily's music is melancholy and her voice (performed by singer Salyu) is bleak and longing, setting the tone for much of the film, in which Yûichi falls ever deeper and is all but consumed by the dirt of the city. Iwai's depiction of Lily Chou-Chou begins fairly nonchalantly, showing Yûichi's interest in the singer's music as more out of boredom than desire. However, as the action progresses and Yûichi becomes increasingly disenfranchised by school, his abusive friends and his seemingly ambivalent (or, more likely still, unaware) family, Lily becomes a central part to his life. Amidst all of the chaotic happenings of Tokyo and his ever-shifting social standing, she remains a constant in his life; she is forever sorrowful and eternally empathetic towards Yûichi and the troubles that plague his existence. This interpretation is most likely due to my own experiences as a young teenager, in which I spent all of my days listening to music, feeling like all of the singers understood me and spoke innumerable worldly truths. Just as I did, Yûichi imposes what he truly desires onto Lily Chou-Chou, using her as his own constant in life and in doing so transforming her from a mere pop artist earning money for the multi-million-pound record industry into a metaphysical concept; something born of his own imagination.

As a coming-of-age film set in Japan, there are many elements of the film which are perhaps best understood by the people of that culture, such as the scenes exploring the seedy world of Enjo-kōsai as well as the group's trip to Okinawa. Fortunately, Iwai always manages to ground these alien (to people from other cultures) concepts to very human situations which can be related to on varying levels by people the world over. While the film retains a certain Japanese vibe to it, typified by its pacing and slow shots, All About Lily Chou-Chou never recedes into a mono-cultural exploration of youth, and retains a universality that focuses on isolation, but uses Japanese culture and society as a metaphor for its thematic exploration.

In the world of the film, Lily's popularity suggests a world in which melancholy is an accepted norm, and a part of popular culture. Iwai subtly suggests through the land that he creates that culture has been somehow accelerated and exaggerated and that its people have been consumed by a great sadness. In this sense, Iwai is also incredibly self-aware of the irony of the film's premise and uses Yûichi's world to comment on Japan's (and in a greater sense, the world's) social climate, in which communication technology has succeeded in atomising the population. These themes are beautifully visually represented by the rice fields near Yûichi's house in which he spends hours listening to the music of Lily Chou-Chou; it is at once his escape and the only time in which he feels a closeness with another person.

Technology plays a large role in All About Lily Chou-Chou. Fragments of forum posts lay scattered throughout the scenes, showing the mutually exclusive relationship between the modern world and the technology herein. From the first moment of the first scene, messages from Lily's forum float across the screen, stressing both the importance of her music to so many and the unification that is often between those unsatisfied with the world and the life they have been given.

While many coming-of-age films have a habit of glossing over many of the grittiest, scummiest details of growing up, All About Lily Chou-Chou is unflinching in its approach. In fact it is at times so brutal that it crosses over into the realm of exaggeration. Fortunately, however, it never loses or compromises its peaceful, contemplative rhythm. Because of this, All About Lily Chou-Chou should be seen as a great achievement and a virtually objective success. It is a visually stunning film which refuses to be set-back by its relatively low budget and is deserving of its status as a cult favourite. Both crew and cast are to be applauded for their acute understanding and vivid depiction of adolescence in the digital age. I enjoyed it immensely and I'm certain you will too.