Friday, September 19, 2008

REVIEW: The Ceremony - Nagisa Oshima (1971)

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

I don't have the closest relationship with my extended family. Suffice to say that a history of feuds, complications and misunderstandings makes a call from a distant cousin or uncle a rare occurrence, but I still see my family from time to time, basically at weddings and funerals. During those heightened moments we all get dressed up and mostly act on our best behaviour, but it's afterwards, during receptions and dinners that the real business of catch up takes place. The gaps of months and often years are filled in and with everyone having a few drinks things can often proceed in funny, touching, and very human ways. Director Nagisa Oshima put it perfectly in his film "The Ceremony", "After the ceremonies there's always something interesting you can't afford to miss," and it's through these weddings and funerals that Oshima frames the lives of the Sakurada family, specifically baseball player son Masuo (Kenzo Kawarazaki), from just after WW2 up until the year of the films release, 1971; but instead of honestly depicting the complicated life of a family Oshima once again uses the characters and scenes to school us in his deadly serious theories on politics, society and cinema.

The film opens as Masuo and his cousin Ritsuko (Atsuko Kaku) make urgent plans to travel all the way down to an island off the coast of Kyushu to see if someone named Terumichi has committed suicide. Oshima doesn't give us any indication of who this Terumichi is except Masuo stating in his everpresent voiceover narration that if Terumichi hadn't been in his and Ritsuko's life that he would be a different person now. From here Oshima relies on flashbacks to fill in the gaps.

We first go back to 1947 as a seven year-old Masuo and his mother finally arrive back at the Sakurada estate in Japan after having fled the formerly Imperial-ruled Manchuria, but there's no warm welcome greeting them. The patriarch of the Sakurada clan, Kazuomi (Kei Sato) grills Masuo's mother as to whether the Russians or Koreans used her as a whore. Conversely Masuo's Uncle Isamu (Hosei Komatsu), a staunch Communist, only wants to hear that the Russian soldiers treated them wonderfully. Masuo doesn't know where to turn, but he stumbles through the formalities of his father's meinichi, or death anniversary and it's here that he meets not only his aunt Satsuko (Akiko Koyama) and his cousin Ritsuko, but also the enigmatic Terumichi who turns out to be another of his cousins. It's with his newfound kin that he shares a baseball game that will be his one cherished memory of his childhood, but he will also share the tragic secret of why he makes a habit of pressing his ear to the ground and listening (one I won't reveal here).

The story then bounces from present to past as Oshima follows Masuo and Ristuko on their trek to find out what exactly has happened to Terumichi and a number of important Sakuradan ceremonies: Masuo's mother's funeral in 1952 and Uncle Isamu's wedding in 1956, both of which are presented joylessly by Oshima and his cast. Maybe it's everything that happens "after the ceremonies" that puts a damper on things, like Terumichi losing his virginity to his aunt Satsuko, or the tiresome Marxist or sexual songs that are sung at Isamu's wedding, or even better the suicide (or murder) or Satsuko in '56. Of all these ceremonies the most memorable is Masuo's wedding that takes place without a bride. She says she has suddenly come down with appendicitis, but we quickly suspect that she's abandoned her gloomy groom at the altar. In order not to be embarrassed in front of the guests Grandfather Kazoumi demands the ceremony go on without her. What follows is a brilliant, funny and vicious skewering of Japan's obsession with saving face. In fact if Oshima had centered on this one ceremony, well, this would be a much different review, but he didn't.

"The Ceremony" is a real hard wooden chair of a film. Uncomfortable to watch with its stiffly seated and often alien looking cast I got the feeling that I was being forced to sit in a classroom as Oshima paced in front of his blackboard spouting his manifestos on everything from the failure of the Japanese Left to the suffocating life of the Japanese family structure and of course sex as a revolutionary act. It was this willful intellectualism that you'd expect more from an earnest, upper class college boy than a legendary director that ended up leaving me cold. If you're interested in the Japanese family check out Juzo Itami's "The Funeral" or the films of Yasujiro Ozu, but if intellectual acrobatics are what you're into then you might want to give "The Ceremony" a try.

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