Thursday, 24 June 2010

[353] Micro Mart: Gaming Weekly Column

This week I have a contribution in Micro Mart. Basically it's me doing my best impression of Ryan Lambie, and covering the Gaming Weekly column, rounding up the various bits of news for PC gamers from E3.




I also make space to recommend Hydorah, which is a lovely, free indie shooter from Spanish developer Locomalito.

Micro Mart should be available wherever magazines are sold. I'm happy to once more have my work published with them - and I'm currently working on another piece that should be going in a future issue. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

[352] MCM Expo Report

Cross-posted from Den of Geek...

I am standing in a crowd of people. Like in an overcrowded train, my hands are firmly rooted in my pockets, and my eyes stare forward. Unlike a typical commute, however, this is due to the makeup of the crowd, consisting mostly of exposed, and underage, flesh, enveloped in the tenuous clothing of cosplay.

"Typical Expo," a voice moans to my rear, ostensibly passing judgement on the chaotic event organisation, since we are all wedged into space, queuing for registration for a world record attempt for the largest Nintendo DS party, but the chap, conveniently dressed as Professor Oak from Pokemon, couldn't have been more on-the-nose. For Expo offers a platform where the atypical is commonplace.




Later, I sit among gleeful DS-heads, scribbling kanji in networked Pictochat and trading farming tips on Harvest Moon, as a pimply white boy struts on stage, singing in Japanese to a pomp rock backing. A video screen plays pseudo-anime featuring his manga-fied alter ego Ben-chan. "Are there any fans of a certain blue hedgehog?" he asks, before launching into twee J-Pop sourced from Sega All-Stars Racing. The crowd goes half-wild.

Professor Oak reappears, plucked out of the audience and unmasked as Tonyo, a prolific 'Expo blogger' (who, by time of writing has uploaded 89 videos to YouTube as part of his coverage). He answers fiendish Pokemon trivia questions in order to win prizes for fellow fans. "Which Pokemon steals other Pokemon for its trainer?" "What was different about Misty's gang when they met up in 'Princess And The Togepi'?" He answers correctly. Guinness representatives cart their special issue clipboards around the stage area, and count each of the 586 gamers, before declaring it a genuine world record. Success.



On the other side of the Excel Centre's airport hangar-sized hall (which, from above, looks like an apocalypse-ready stockpile of plushies, manga, anime DVDs and endless crates of Pocky), the signing tables are rammed. Guests at the event include Battlestar Galactica and Caprica creator Ronald D. Moore, Fringe stars John Noble and Jasika Nicole, and Oliver! actors Mark Lester and Ron Moody.

In his Transformers ice hockey jersey, Kyle Hebert looks odd alongside these famous faces, but he turns up to an interview overwhelmed. The queue for his signing is one of the weekend's longest. And who is this man, generous in demeanour and broad in smile? Why, a voice actor, whose credits include English dubs for top tier anime such as Naruto, Bleach and Dragonball Z.

"When I first got here," he says, "I was relatively anonymous, walking around... and then a few people go, ‘Kyle, excuse me!' and take a picture. And then me, and Yuri [Lowenthal] and Tara [Platt] all do a panel together, and then suddenly... we got all these eyes on us on stage! And we're, like ‘...they know who we are now!'"

This amorphous 'they' is the teeming mass that makes up Expo's 41,000-strong attendance figures. A collection of awe-inspiring fans that seem equally naive and adept, bedecked in homemade costumes and carrying signs offering "FREE HUGS!!", making outsiders feel like they're on the wrong side of 16.



Over in the Comics Village, the Expo's most densely packed area for talent and diversity, punters jostle for sketches and stickers, while on stage, artists battle writers in back-to-back rounds of Pictionary and Taboo. Writers win. Topics and properties of note include: Avatar, Elephantmen, furries, and, of course, cosplay, which is a constant source of conversation. "It's like a strip club with the lights on," says artist Ben Templesmith, referring to a skin-coloured G-string worn by a passing female fan. "She had balls, basically - well, not physically."



A group of Team Fortress 2 characters face down a handful of GDI troops. Daleks, Gundams and Companion Cubes wander the floor, as Aliens and Predators strut between photo opportunities. Steampunk stalls sit next to a lifesize TARDIS, and Japanese drumming booms out, mingling with noise from both a Rock Band competition and a ring hosting live wrestling matches. Outside, a procession of youngsters in militaristic dress march down corridors, in reference to the anime Hetalia: Axis Powers, of course. It's sensory overload. It's far too much for any sane person to take in. It's a typical Expo.

Monday, 21 June 2010

[351] Please Give (2010) Review

Today I saw Toy Story 3, and thought it was fine. Certainly not a masterpiece, but fun. Of course, everyone is lauding it to high heaven. So yet again I feel out-of-step with the consensus. Another summer swallowing my words when people gush about a film I only half-liked.

Please Give is another flick garnering a lot of critical praise - and I just don't see it. It's good, intelligent, funny in places and features some terrific performances - but I don't see the complexity or unique touches that most are highlighting. Oh well, I'll be crying in the corner if you need me.




One of the plotlines of Please Give, writer-director Nicole Holofcener's gentle drama about charity, family and New York life, resolves with a mother (Catherine Keener) buying her daughter (Sarah Steele) a $200 pair of jeans. This is played with tenderness, with the exchange of gratitude ringing out as the credits roll. Such a sense of the upper middle class economic bubble helps complicate Please Give's appeal, as it is, for the most part, an intelligent, witty musing on urban living.

Opening with a peppy montage of mammograms, the film initially focuses on Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), a medical assistant who seems slightly at odds with her colleagues and surroundings. She is awkward around her workmates, who all seem obsessed with watching Autumn encroach on upstate forests, but finds solace in caring for her elderly grandmother, Andra (Ann Morgan Guilbert). However, before long, the film opens up into more ensemble-based territory, as we are introduced to the old lady's neighbours, the aforementioned mother, Kate, and daughter, Abby, and the plump but charming father, Alex (Oliver Platt, who else?).

Kate and Alex run an antique furniture shop, which they stock with pieces bought from grieving families, essentially fleecing the recently deceased and profiting from tactical price gouging. It is pure capitalism, as is their purchase of their elderly neighbour's apartment, with the view to expanding their own little kingdom.

Please Give mostly flounders between the two poles of moneyed New York entertainment, half bearing the consumerism and opulence of
Sex And The City, and half mounting a neurotic broadside on its educated kooks as seen in the best of Woody Allen. Holofcener seems to pitch for both, offering something accessible, bright, yet intelligent and thought-provoking. At times, this ambition shines through, as the film indulges in intimate humour between the characters, or cheeky asides seek to bring out the absurd elements of city life.


Read the full review here.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

[350] Kore-eda Hirokazu Pt.5: 'Accepting Subjectivity, Fictionalising Reality'

Here is the final part of my long-form essay 'Colliding Truth and Fiction: Subjectivity and Emotion in the Films of Kore-eda Hirokazu'. Thank you for bearing with me. You can read the introductory chapter of this piece here, the first chapter, 'Documentary as Structure', here, and the second chapter, 'The Problem of Remembering', here, and the third chapter, 'Fiction With a Documentary Eye', here. You can look here for bibliographical information.


Conclusion: Accepting Subjectivity, Fictionalising Reality


Still Walking, in essence, seems to suggest that the depiction of an unobserved reality is only allowed in fictional filmmaking, and Kore-eda's practices do, in a certain way, confirm this. His documentaries have more in common with subjective accounts, detective stories, and Citizen Kane than with the emotional purity found in After Life or Still Walking. Indeed, Tony Rayns highlights the unreal aspects of his documentary narratives, especially Without Memory, when he says that 'little Sci-Fi is as strange or disturbing'. On the other hand, Kore-eda's fictional films play with what we consider to be imaginary, with After Life presenting our own interiority - memories, dreams - as emotionally true, yet in many ways fabricated.




Likewise, Still Walking, about which the director has said 'the emotions are autobiographical' (Erickson, 2009), presents a compelling approximation of real life that significantly rejects many of the formal strategies that fiction requires, attempting to mimic how we make meaning through reference, relation and resonance. In his films, in particular those that have been discussed in this piece, Kore-eda shows a great fascination with humanity, a desire to narrate interior experience instead of grand tales. However, in the process, he playfully tinkers with cinema's very definitions, and elaborates on the contradictions at the heart of the moving image. Nevertheless, even when working in a fictional landscape, he still pursues emotional purity, explaining in the After Life press notes that 'human emotions are the sparks that fly when "truth" and "fiction" collide' ('After Life Press Kit').

To Kore-eda, fiction seems to be a necessary part of humanity, crafting our identity from embellished memories, and maintaining our relationships through a mixture of lies and buried conflict. Therefore, how best to represent such life on screen, than with an acceptance of these characteristics? This has, in a sense, been clear to Kore-eda since, during the production of However..., he started by writing a book on the same topic as the film, and discovered that, stylistically, ethically and emotionally, the boundary between truth and fabrication is hazy indeed. He reminisced:

'Some writers insist on marking quotations as quotation, while others write non-fiction as though you were present at the scene. So it seems to me that there is non-fiction that reads like a novel and fiction that looks like non-fiction. In any case, writing the book made me think that fiction and non-fiction are in the end both fiction after all. Of course, I intended to write non-fiction... but in the end my account also contains the story that I wanted to tell. So now I'm wondering just what is the "I" that is using documentary material to tell the story that I want to tell.' (Gerow and Tanaka, 1999)



Thank you for reading, click here to start at the beginning. Bibliographical information is over here.

Friday, 18 June 2010

[349] Kore-eda Hirokazu Pt.4: Still Walking: 'Fiction With a Documentary Eye'

Here is the fourth part of my long-form essay 'Colliding Truth and Fiction: Subjectivity and Emotion in the Films of Kore-eda Hirokazu', which I am posting up this week. It is about his film Still Walking, which is one of my favourites of this year. You can read the introductory chapter of this piece here, the first chapter, 'Documentary as Structure', here, and the second chapter, 'The Problem of Remembering', here. You can look here for bibliographical information.


Still Walking: 'Fiction With a Documentary Eye'




After exploring the complication of comprehending filmed reality in Without Memory, and showing the boundary between fiction and documentary in After Life, Kore-eda has pursued a distinctly naturalistic aesthetic in the last decade, in dramas such as Nobody Knows and Still Walking. While these two films share a kinship with After Life's location-shot realism, they both move away from that film's high concept, essayistic premise, towards a cinema that is much more implicit in its themes and style.

Still Walking is presented with an observational approach, using almost solely static shots, and featuring a longer than average length of take, with, according to David Bordwell, 375 shots over the course of its 111 minutes (2008). This stylistic choice is interwoven with the content, as it explores the interior spaces of home and family. However, there is a conscious attempt in Kore-eda's work as both writer and director to create an approximation of real life, using the experience gained from his non-fictional work and his more overtly stylised fiction films to craft an aesthetic that is not explicitly factual, yet is engrossingly real: 'fiction, filmed with a documentary eye' (Campbell, 2005).

Kore-eda shapes his drama around a family gathering that occurs over the period of a day, where three generations are found under one roof. The older generation, the mother and father, play host to their son and daughter, and their respective families, on what is over time revealed to be the anniversary of their first child's death. What progresses over the film's runtime is a narrative with a lax structure, that is distinctly different to the three-act paradigm that is to be found in conventional, Hollywood filmmaking. This mode of drama and storytelling is described by writer David Mamet as a succession of conflicts and goals in the following sports analogy:

'What do we wish for in the perfect game? Do we wish for Our Team to take the field and thrash the opposition from the First Moment, rolling up a walkover score at the final gun? No. We wish for a closely fought match that contains many satisfying reversals, but which can be seen, retroactively, to have always tended toward a satisfying and inevitable conclusion.' (1998: 8-9)

The events that are considered essential ingredients by Mamet are mostly absent from Kore-eda's films, and this is especially the case with Still Walking. The narrative is structured around the family meals, and conversations between the ensemble cast that flows with a subtle pacing. Instead of emphasising dramatic action, the film achieves an organic feel of development. Unlike the overtly narrated documentaries, or even the roving, handheld gaze of After Life, Still Walking - in both direction and story - strives for a seamless, natural progression. The camera is not a character, it is a porthole into the family's life, and the viewer looks for meaning in a sedimentary fashion. It is interesting to note that, in pursuing this, Kore-eda is harmonising, albeit in a fictional mode, with some of the ideas of American documentary, especially the Direct Cinema movement, which took as its aim

'...capturing reality as it happened... relying on the spontaneous observation of a subject in action. Then letting the story tell itself, find its own form. And afterward, not pulling the continuity all together with a voice of doom narration.' (Junker, 1969)

Of course, Still Walking is fiction; its action and context have been planned and sculpted by Kore-eda and his crew. However, the film consistently works within this style, and it is best exhibited in its opening scenes, where the situation and characters are introduced to the audience.





The first shots of Still Walking are close-ups of the hands of the mother (Toshiko, Kirin Kiki) and daughter (Chinami, You), as they prepare food in the kitchen. Immediately, the viewer is confronted with the film's emphasis on domestic action as opposed to dramatic action. The specific progression of the scene is that of chopping, dicing and peeling, while their dialogue is a subtle mixture of gossip and exposition, carrying a great deal of the film's introductory content as they talk. The mother part sermonises, part rambles about food ('radishes are genius'), while the daughter idly reveals that she won't take any of the advice, as her husband will eat anything. This sequence has a subtle, evocative sort of characterisation, tying the two generations together through their meal preparation, and in the process revealing the daughter's very different approach to home making. Like Sekine from Without Memory, the viewer - here without the crutch of expectations of plot or genre - builds up an awareness of the context by association with the characters, and with the drama that plays out before them.





This opening scene also introduces the family's patriarch, a retired doctor (Kyohei, Yoshio Harada). He appears unannounced and out of shot, with the sound of footsteps on the staircase creating a sense of space within the location. After a short, off-centre shot, obliquely framed by a doorway, that glimpses the father scuttling towards the front door, Chinami asks him if he could buy some milk while on his walk. The fact that he doesn't respond, verbally or physically, also reveals character, which is elaborated by the pair of women in another close two-shot ('He doesn't want the neighbours to see him with a shopping bag... Even at his age, he wants to be called "Doctor"'). This use of camera angle, silence, and mild revelation helps to create the family dynamic - the boisterous daughter, the chatty mother and the distant father. It lays the foundations for what develops into the major strands of the film's plot, which is based around observing this family, with its foibles, trauma and mild dysfunctions on display.





To this end, the house becomes an integral player in the drama. It is is a lived-in space, a three dimensional stage that, through meticulous production design and use of the camera, maintains a sense of reality. Throughout the film, Kore-eda mounts the camera from different angles, probing the space of the house for additional meaning and perspective. The room of the house that is given the most attention is, perhaps fittingly for a domestic drama, the kitchen. After the initial close-ups, the kitchen is shown later in the film in deep focus shots, often busy with activity, especially once Chinami's hyper-active family start terrorising the house, digging through the refrigerator for snacks and gulping down iced tea. Such long takes are also given to moments where the composed nature of the scene seems disrupted, with one repeated example being the wandering of Kyohei in the foreground and background of two shots, which not only emphasises the camera's observational gaze, but adds to the character's peripheral relationship with the kitchen's activity. Indeed, like with the tactful exposition, these shots seem designed to give an objective view of the action, taking away the overt aesthetics of cinematography in favour of immersing the audience in the scene.

However, as this isn't truly dramatic action in a Hollywood mould, Kore-eda creates a character-driven drama that places its conflict at arm's length. As Bordwell comments, Kore-eda 'lets us get to know and like his characters... [building] up his plot more through motifs than dramatic action' (1998). This continues the Proustian threads from Kore-eda's earlier films, where meaning, memory and subtext were carried by artefacts from characters' lives. In Still Walking, he diversifies this concept, spreading such emotional and thematic content throughout the house. Indeed, the house itself - which is half a domestic space, and half a, now useless, practice room for the retired doctor - carries memory for each family member, and also represents the stratified, passive-aggressive conflict between the mother and father characters.





Other objects carry this meaning, some containing memory - a crape myrtle tree planted in the garden, the popping of corn tempura, or a record that the mother uses as a twisted reminder of her husband's infidelity - and some containing visions of the future, such as a broken tile or a handrail in the bathroom reinforcing the inevitability of ageing and death. Indeed, the narrative focus on these motifs is similar to the storytelling side-step in After Life, where the film's interest is not on how the characters died, but on their memories. Here, focus seems to be on creating a believable depiction of life, including its 'sights, sounds... and even smells', but also the process of finding traces of meaning in everyday objects (Campbell, 2005). Kore-eda himself, in an interview with Reverse Shot, acknowledged this stylistic intention, and how it relates to the film's aesthetics and lack of overt narrative structure:

'I wanted to portray an everyday situation. There are no events, nothing changes, no characters have growth or sea changes. Why that’s not boring to watch is because in that one very ordinary day you can see the after effects of things that have happened in the past, and you can also see precursors of things that will happen in the future. And I think that’s what everyday life is.' (Reichert, 2009)

Here, Kore-eda seems to be suggesting that the reality of 'everyday life' is an aesthetic that can be separated from absolute, factual truth, in the name of something more evocative and emotional. This results in Still Walking: a film that, unlike his previous films Distance and Nobody Knows, which took inspiration from real events, has no link with factual occurrences. Yet, undeniably, it is a film that attains a powerful veracity, with its documentary eye presenting a truth that resounds through its fiction.


Next is my concluding section, 'Accepting Subjectivity, Fictionalising Reality'. Thank you for reading.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

[348] Kore-eda Hirokazu Pt.3: The Problem of Remembering in Without Memory and After Life

Here is the third part of my long-form essay 'Colliding Truth and Fiction: Subjectivity and Emotion in the Films of Kore-eda Hirokazu', which I am posting up this week. You can read the introductory chapter here, and the first chapter, 'Documentary as Structure', here. You can look here for bibliographical information.



The Problem of Remembering in Without Memory and After Life


With August Without Him, Kore-eda seemed to acknowledge that the objective filmmaking of However... was inherently flawed, and exposed his own voice as a filmmaker in order to present a transparent form of documentary. His subsequent film, Without Memory, and second feature film, After Life, would further develop the director's discourse of fiction and reality, with both assessing the relationship between cinema, memory and truth.




Without Memory takes as its subject Sekine Hiroshi, a care worker who, after a botched operation, loses his episodic memory, effectively rendering him incapable to distinctly recollect events since 1992. Once again using intimate footage that had been collecting over an extended shoot, Kore-eda uses close-ups, interviews, and observational footage in order to present the man's life in a moving, tender light. However, what is quite apparent, after the overt storytelling structures of the two previous documentaries, is that Without Memory has a less distinct trajectory to its narration, progressing through footage in a chronological order, from April 1994 to July 1996. Crucially, however, the subject's lack of memory brings new resonance to many of Kore-eda's motifs and strategies, especially that regarding subjectivity and reality, as is related in the short, pre-title card narration: 'As we live our lives, memories of experiences painful and pleasant accumulate in our brains. These memories are fundamental to our individual identities'.

While memory - namely Kore-eda's - was used as a foundation for August Without Him, Sekine's illness poses a challenge to that film's assertion of reality being contained in a recollected event caught on film. Much of Without Memory is dedicated to Sekine's relationship to the physical objects and emotionally-charged personal possessions that, given his condition, contain no meaning for him. There are cutaways to household images, photographs, and ornaments crafted by the children, implicitly evoking an amassed personal history from which Sekine is divorced. Objects of record, such as his wife's diary, a scrapbook put together by his son, or the questionnaire that Sekine himself fills out every day, take on an air of poignancy; they are not, in this case, insightful artefacts. To adapt to Sekine's condition, Kore-eda suggests that the family borrow a video camera, and document their own life for the father's further reference, to act as a replacement for his lost memory. In doing this, the director unearths two developments, that tie in well to his key themes.




One strengthens the director's intention of creating a transparent documentary film, with Sekine slowly, over time, growing to recognise the faces and names of the crew. At an integral point in the film, Sekine turns the borrowed camera on the filmmakers; this is accompanied by an immediate cut to Sekine's point of view, effectively taking the viewer behind the scenes. It is surprising, even with Kore-eda's self-reflexive narration, to see the workings of the film so openly, and to show the intimate space of the family's household in a different light, cluttered with apparatus and crew members. The second, more affecting development occurs when Sekine views the video recordings, and he does not recognise himself or the situation. This is communicated in a particularly touching sequence, where the man is filmed watching scenes of his family on television, where he says, out of shot:

'When I see myself in pictures or in videos, I just can't recognise that person as me. I have no impression of having been there. It's like I'm watching a film made about someone other than me. I think 'maybe someone who looks like me is playing at being me' ... It doesn't feel real.'

Sekine's words seem to be an indictment of filming reality, and presenting it as truth, suggesting that without emotional connection, reference or resonance, the medium of cinema carries an innate fictional element. This is tied to Sekine's sense of identity, that he cannot recognise himself due to his lack of memory, but the implications of such an insight, that the marriage of the fictional properties of cinema and memory can create a sort of personal, pure truth, is carried over by Kore-eda to his next project, After Life. Set in a purgatory-like state of limbo, in which the deceased spirits are asked to choose a cherished event from their lives to accompany them in death, the film makes no narrative claims to reality, yet achieves a documentary-like emotional truth.




This is first seen in a sequence towards the beginning of the film, where a succession of that week's new spirits are interviewed about their lives and their potential memories. In preparation for the film, and this section in particular, Kore-eda conducted interviews with reportedly 500 ordinary people, out of whom were picked ten non-actors that appear in the film, relating their own life experiences (Rayns, 1999a). The scenes are filmed from an angle, mimicing the off-centre gaze of a documentary, and progresses along more anecdotal lines, rather than fleshing out a distinct narrative. Instead, it becomes an aspect of reality inserted within a fictional story, with the non-actors sharing screen space with professionals that are reciting scripted sequences. Such an approach calls attention to the power of the image, and how the audience responds to it: the use of characters recollecting events in their lives causes the viewer to do the same, and Kore-eda takes this engrossed state of reflection, and develops a hierarchy of image as the film progresses, each corresponding to a distinct kind of truth.




A twist comes when an old man (Taketoshi Naito) is aided in his selection process by being provided with video tapes of his life. These tapes are filmed with a grainy, but static camera, and are introduced with the statement that they 'won't match your memories exactly', suggesting the incongruity between memory and objective reality (and also a potential comment on the contrived nature of objective documentary). However, a second development shifts the focus towards cinema as a medium. After choosing their memory, the characters are invited to supervise a filming of that memory, using an aesthetic that places evocation over exact recreation. These micro-productions are created on a small budget, and are filmed on a dingy soundstage somewhere on the complex. One particular memory sequence sees a man wishing to remember piloting a Cessna, which is recreated with cotton clouds, painted backdrops, and a hastily modified plane of a different model. Nevertheless, the man is convinced, saying 'it's just like I'm really flying' as he stares out of the cockpit's window. While Kore-eda is obviously playing with the nature of the memory here, there is also a distinct appraisal of the poignancy of the fictionalised, evocative image. It is not objectively real, but it stirs an emotional truth within the subject. Likewise, a lingering shot later in the film, as the spirits are treated to a special screening of each memory, acts as a mirror to our own experience as viewers, finding resonance with the characters projected before our eyes, despite their fictional context.





While these films both feel along the edges of what film can portray as truth, seen through the prism of memory and fiction, they also ask direct questions of the viewers, as to what they believe to be credible, as to whether there is an objective reality and, if there is, whether it would be something useful or desirable. Earlier, Kore-eda was quoted speaking against false objectivity in documentary filmmaking, but it seems that an awareness of subjectivity can also enrich fictional film. Film style can be divorced from its content, as the hand-held camerawork and squalid location of After Life creates a wholly naturalist aesthetic. However, its content can strive for an emotional truth within its fiction, providing a representation of real life that exists beyond plot constraints. Following After Life, Kore-eda would pursue this naturalistic, fictional cinema, with Still Walking achieving an approach to character that can be traced to Without Memory's closing statement, that Sekine's identity is not lost, but instead resides 'in the people who know him'.




Next, a chapter on Still Walking, titled 'Fiction With a Documentary Eye'. Thank you for reading.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

[347] Kore-eda Hirokazu Pt.2: Documentary as Structure: However and August Without Him

Here is the second chapter of my long-form essay 'Colliding Truth and Fiction: Subjectivity and Emotion in the Films of Kore-eda Hirokazu', which I am posting up this week. You can read the introductory chapter here, and you can look here for bibliographical information.


Documentary as Structure: However... and August Without Him


In his landmark scriptwriting book Adventures in the Screentrade, William Goldman (who penned such Hollywood successes as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the Presidents Men) stated that screenplays, and by extension films, are defined by their 'structure'. He elaborates:

'Yes, nifty dialog helps one hell of a lot; sure, it's nice if you can bring your characters to life. But you can have terrific characters spouting just swell talk to each other, and if the structure is unsound, forget it.' (1985: 195)

Of course, Goldman is discussing mainstream Hollywood films, but such a sentiment is highly relevant to Kore-eda's early documentary film work, as he showed a great awareness of using narrative structure to order the factual proceedings, in some cases showing great influence from fictional modes of expression.

The 48 minute television documentary However..., was Kore-eda's first film made in collaboration with the independent production company TV Man Union, and was screened on Fuji TV as part of their late night NONFIX factual strand. While the film's central focus is that of Japanese social policy and welfare, and issues surrounding the government's response to the Minimata disease, the narrative structure introduces many strategies and techniques more familiar to fictional cinema. After researching Japan's welfare system, Kore-eda picked two people to be the film's protagonists, Harashima Nobuko and Yamanouchi Toyonori. Both had committed suicide, the former after having her benefit payments revoked, and the latter amidst controversy around his position as the Planning and Co-ordination Chief at the Environment Agency.




With this two-pronged narrative structure in place, Kore-eda is able to create a documentary narrative that has tension, turning the general investigation of the film into 'a detective story' (Erickson, 2009). This is communicated in the film's over-arching style, which is a mixture of still shots, interviews and stock footage from television news archives. Likewise, a lack of music, and the use of a measured, dry voice-over, gives the film a veneer of composure, moving away from the potentially sensationalist content, and instead focusing on the tragedy of its two stories. At the start, this effect is achieved by posing a number of questions, paired with solemn images of Yamanouchi: 'Why did an elite bureaucrat, slated for promotion, choose death? Was there a suicide note?'. The suicide note is used as a key object in the narrative, and is just one of a number of such objects that are flagged up as clues, or artefacts of meaning, in the two life stories.




Before her death, Harashima recorded a testimony, an indictment of the welfare system that revealed the trials she had to endure. Even though the tape is not played until halfway through the film (with corresponding reaction shots from welfare officials), it is held up as a narrative hook, a part of the mystery, with the voice-over asking, 'what did she say in the recording?', inviting the audience to speculate, and create an emotional connection with the character.




While However... sources most of its content through interviews, notably with Yamanouchi's grieving widow, the film displays more interest in these two protagonists, neither of whom, being deceased, can be interviewed. Instead, they are given voices through the suicide note, the testimony or, crucially, Yamanouchi's poetry. At the beginning, there is a still shot of a pile of notebooks and manuscripts, placed like the testimony tape on a black background, that seems out of place next to the news footage and clippings. The voice-over reveals 'he wrote poetry, novels, and articles on welfare', before stating the intention 'I'd like to follow his 53 year life through his writings'. Indeed, when the film reaches its conclusion without finding a distinct reason for the Chief's suicide, it turns towards the interior world of his own poetry, in particular the poem 'However', which provides a symbolic grain of philosophical truth that reveals a man facing up to his own lack of authority, and recognises a less idealistic, and more pragmatic era in Japanese society.




Similar strategies are at play in August Without Him, although the overall style of the film is very different. August Without Him is a character-driven documentary about Hirata Yutaka, the first openly gay AIDS sufferer in Japan. Filmed over a series of months, the footage of Hirata is less about his public life as an outspoken figure on the lecture circuit, and more of an intimate piece showing his personal descent into illness and death. Like its predecessor, much attention is given to his interior life as a writer, displayed in his poems, articles and a book published during his decline. However, as opposed to being a starkly observational film, Kore-eda instead exposes the machinations of filmmaking, as it is just as concerned with the director's own developing relationship with his subject. This is stylistically presented through long, handheld sequences where Kore-eda would visit Hirata (sometimes without the crew), in which the subject would often address the director freely, thereby bringing the filmmaker into the cast of the drama.




Such subjectivity is also foregrounded in a more overt way in the film's narrative structure. August Without Him features a frame narrative, in which Kore-eda, in August 1994, reminisces about his relationship with Hirata, who had died two months previously. This progresses in a chapter-like structure, ever returning to the narration in August:

'August 1st 1994. Today I found some baby chrysanthemums in a flower shop. He always loved baby chrysanthemums ... August 6th 1994. Today I visited the office of AIDS Support Chiba, the organisation that he belonged to, the telephone that they were using was a special phone, with the number 5 marked for him to be able to dial, even after he had lost his sight. He always loved talking on the phone.'

This voice over has more in common with a diary than the relatively objective, dry narration in However..., although this structure is used to similar effects. The use of flashbacks creates a compelling way to order the events, and recalls films such as Citizen Kane, in how it ties together two lines of chronology separated by death. In fact, the use of motifs that house emotion and jog the narrator's memory recalls Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu), where the taste of Madeleine cake can signify a complex web of recollection. Indeed, while this is an odd way to structure such intimate footage, it does provide a certain distance and subjectivity that helps to keep the film from seeming exploitative, or nakedly morbid.

Shifting away from the objective narration of However..., Kore-eda here touches on a style that comes to define both August Without Him and his subsequent documentary, Without Memory, where the filmmaker is a distinct player in the narrative, and the film itself is just as much about the process of capturing reality, as it is about the topic at hand. This would help to explain the title, August Without Him, as a reflection of the filmmaker's own time spent mourning over a particularly moving subject. Even though Hirata's story ends with a quote from his writing, speaking of regretting not visiting his father more, the film fades out to Kore-eda's final comments, about his own grief, concluding that, 'along with such small regrets, August passes, without him'. Speaking about this development, Kore-eda said:

'I think the idea that you can eliminate your subjectivity and so achieve a kind of objectivity or impartiality is a myth, a fantasy. Though there are still some people who believe it, I suppose. They are quite happy to say that if you eliminate your subjectivity you can portray something objectively. Well, I think it's pretty much impossible.' (Gerow and Tanaka, 1999)

Kore-eda here describes a documentary filmmaker's equivalent of Observer's Paradox, that adds an edge of formal commentary to his work. Both However... and August Without Him are documentary films that strive to find personal stories in controversial Japanese social issues, using the subjects own expression (a testimony, a poem, a book) as a key to their interior life. However, the latter film realises that such insight, without acknowledging the hand of the filmmaker, is contrived. Therefore, in August Without Him, the director calls on narrative strategies more common in fictional works, not in order to shape a compelling narrative (as with However...), but in order to present the reality of the events more clearly.


Monday, 14 June 2010

[346] Kore-eda Hirokazu Pt.1: Colliding Truth and Fiction

This week, I am going to be posting my latest MA essay, submitted for a module on Japanese Cinema. This essay is about director Kore-eda Hirokazu, and his investigation of reality and memory in his documentary and fictional work. As this is a 5000 word essay, I will be publishing it by chapter. Below is the introduction. Tune in later this week for other sections. Bibliographical information can be found here.


Colliding Truth and Fiction: Subjectivity and Emotion in the Films of Kore-eda Hirokazu




One of the debates at the forefront of most creative arts communities is that of the boundary between the real and the imaginary. With the progress of technology - the invention of the camera, the perfection of digital manipulation, the development of better processes with which to fool the consumer - artists and creators are given the tools with which to explore and tamper with the properties of both fictional and factual modes of expression.

Cinema, it seems, has this notion hard-wired into its make-up, as the marriage of photography, movement, colour and sound can give the impression of reality, no matter how staged or composed the resulting length of film is. Fiction can be presented with the emotional impact of real life, just as much as observed events can be dressed up with compelling style. This gives rise to particular filmmakers that experiment with the form's properties on both sides of this spectrum, creating fictional dramas that, through the aesthetics of naturalism or realism, approximate a kind of truth, or by crafting documentary films that foreground either its veracity or subjectivity.

Kore-eda Hirokazu is one of many directors that have worked in both fictional and documentary filmmaking, but he has found particular success and notability in his treatment of both reality and fiction. Starting out as a documentary filmmaker for television, he created films such as However... (Shikashi - Fukushi kirisute no jidainni, 1991), August Without Him (Kare No Ina Hachigatsu Ga, 1994) and Without Memory (1996), which each display a certain creative approach to the form, revealing to the viewer some of the boundaries of filmed reality, exhibited in the use of narrative structure, the image's relation to truth, the development of character, and the position of the narrator-director himself in the process of presenting factual storytelling.

Likewise, once Kore-eda shifted towards fictional filmmaking with Maborosi (Maboroshi no hikari, 1995), he was greeted with praise from the international critical community. However, after displaying monumental aesthetic power in his debut feature, which garnered awards on the festival circuit (most notably a Golden Osella for the director in Venice), Kore-eda pursued in his later films a more explicitly experimental relationship with both staged and emotional truth.




After Life (Wandafuru raifu, 1998) playfully mixes up a heightened fantasy setting (that of a beaurocratic limbo between life and death) with staunchedly naturalistic techniques (location shooting, natural lighting) and a documentary-like twist, blurring the boundary between memory, fiction, and cinema itself. Further works in the director's ouvre would develop this fascination with a filmic reality in less overt ways, with Distance (2001), Nobody Knows (Dare mo shiranai, 2004) and Still Walking (Aruitemo, aruitemo, 2008) being rooted in a more gentle, organic sort of naturalism that, through anti-Hollywood approaches to character and narrative, seem to unfold before the viewers' eyes with a beguiling sincerity.

This essay will explore, drawing examples from a number of his films, how Kore-eda represents truth (be it emotional or objective) in both his documentary and fictional work, and how these films drawn out his interest in memory, character, and the tenets of filmmaking. In particular, focus will be placed on the three aforementioned documentaries, After Life and Still Walking, to show how these issues are central to the approach, and key to the appeal, of the director's cinema.


Saturday, 12 June 2010

[345] Women Without Men (2009) Review

Here's another review for Film4.com!




The drive of Women Without Men, the debut feature film from US-resident Iranian video artist Shirin Neshat, is communicated in its opening sequence. Screams of civil discord mingle with distant religious chants, as a lone woman in black stands against the cloud-cracked sky. Perched atop a building, she observes society but is passive in its development. She jumps, as the film cuts to a slow-motion, elegiac close-up, and she muses in voice over: "Now I'll have silence: silence, and nothing."

Neshat's film, written and directed in collaboration with Shoja Azari, and taking cues from the novel, banned in Iran, by fellow exile Shahrnush Parsipur, explores just what freedoms women can create for themselves in that male-dominated, religious society. For the film's four female protagonists, liberty is found in death or, more fittingly, escape, as their separate lives intersect around a lush, Eden-like orchard. Set apart from the bustle of the city, these women are allowed to bloom and blossom. Fakhri, a middle-aged lady who divorces her military husband and buys the fabled hideaway, indulges in her love of culture and music; Faezeh, a victim of rape, discards her veil and grows comfortable with her own body, as her dark hair is allowed to fall loosely over her bare shoulders.


Read the full article here.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

[344] Call of Duty: Black Ops, Preview and Interview

Solid proof that I cannot speak about Call of Duty with anything resembling a straight face - as if you needed anything more concrete.



Newsflash: Latest Call Of Duty to feature explosions, shooty-bangs and gruff males shouting codewords and epithets while saving the world.

Moving on from their WW2 comfort zone, Treyarch (forever painted as the other CoD developer) has set its sights on the Cold War for Call Of Duty: Black Ops, which seeks to deliver the series' patented form of intense FPS gameplay while spanning the globe with covert missions and secret conflicts.

We recently had our eardrums breached and cleared by a short presentation in London, coming not long after the release of the debut trailer, and in anticipation of yet more scoops to come at the E3 games convention in June.

Short, but sensually exhausting clips from two missions, 'WMD' and 'Slaughterhouse', were shown, both taking place in 1968, but featuring different characters and distinct settings. The former begins as the player controls a pilot of a SR71 intelligence plane, pulling back on the left stick to reach the upper atmosphere, and twiddling knobs and dials to call up a state-of-the-art (for 50 years ago) recon display.

Then the action cuts to ground level, as you lead an assault on a Soviet weapons manufacturing facility, which amounts to rappelling down buildings, crashing through windows in slow motion, sniping Reds with explosive crossbow darts and, eventually, leaping off a cliff face after all those big bangs let loose an avalanche. All in a day's work.

And Slaughterhouse is no picnic, either, as your transport chopper is shot down just as you're disembarking, sending you flying through the window of a bombed-out building in the middle of Hue City, Vietnam. You soon find out that the level's title is fitting, as bullets fly and, at one point, you pick up a radio so you can order targeted aerial raids from passing whirlybirds.

We were a little bruised after, but, despite the ringing in our ears, we were still able to nod enthusiastically as we chatted to Mark Lamia (Studio Head, Treyarch) and Josh Olin (Community Manager, Treyarch) along with a few other shell-shocked journos.

A lot of the game's specifics are still being kept under wraps (we'd be disposed of if we were told too much, ), but we were able to touch on the game's change in setting, and the research that the team have put into creating Black Ops.


Read the full article here.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

[343] Sight & Sound, July 2010

My stint at Sight & Sound magazine may now be over, but there is still a trace of my presence there, especially in the new issue, which is out now.





I have a credit! Actual proof of the bouts of fact-checking, image gathering, transcribing, and other bits of work that I did in the office over the last month-and-a-bit. In the issue there are also two image caption puns that I suggested - which is a dangerous sort of encouragement, if you ask me.

It was fun - and an honour - to work for them, and, even though I am now back to the uncertainty of freelance life, the experience should help me in the long run. And I have written a review for the next issue, which is damn exciting.

Next, to write a 5000 word report on Sight & Sound's online strategy.



Monday, 7 June 2010

[342] 'What's your favourite piece of cosplay...?', MCM micro-cast

Cosplayers, we salute you.




I'm still due to write up my piece on last weekend's MCM Expo, but in the meantime, here is a tasty morsel that is far more interesting. Towards the end of Sunday, I prowled through the Comics Village, AKG mike in hand, asking all and sundry the question 'what was your favourite piece of cosplay of the Expo?'.

As bizarre, awe-inspiring, resourceful cosplay is one of the MCM's main draws, the responses were quite varied - sometimes tittersome, sometimes overcome with respect for those hardcore fans that brave dehydration to sport their mad costumes.

Since the Wild Tyme podcast is currently experiencing something of a sophomore slump, I have edited the snippets together, slapped on a soundtrack and decided to put it up for your listening pleasure. Call it a pseudo-cast!




LISTEN HERE (right click to save as)


A gracious thank you to the comic creators that participated. They are, in order of appearance:


And credit must go to both Triplefox ('Good Day', 'Credits') and Khades ('Tracker Dreams Part 1'), for use of their music in this podcast, under Creative Commons licences. The pseudo-cast itself is released under an attribution, non-commercial, no-derivative works licence. More info here.




Thanks for listening!