Friday, July 31, 2009

REVIEW: The New God

新しい神様 (Atarashii kamisama)

Released: 1999

Yutaka Tsuchiya

Karin Amamiya
Yutaka Tsuchiya
Hidehito Itoh

Umitaro Tanaka

Running time: 100 min.

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

42-year-old filmmaker Yutaka Tsuchiya is probably the best known member of the socially-minded Tokyo-based film collective Video Act! Founded in 1998 to "to support the spread and distribution of independent videos" and to take part in "video activism in Japan". With a catalogue of 150 films, mostly documentaries, with titles like "The Concessions Hiding behind the Army Dispatch", "Here comes the anti-subversive activities law!" and "We do decide!" it's easy to see how serious the members of Video Act! take their work in promoting leftist politics in the country. It's definitely admirable, but documentaries about the privatization of Japanese rail lines, forced Korean labour during WW2, and the long lasting effects of mercury poisoning in Minamata, while definitely informative, don't come across as the most stimulating way to spend 90-minutes. Leave it to Tsuchiya , though, to make an engrossing and revealing documentary about a subject that most people would find, if not repellent, then highly unsympathetic.

When we first see the then 24-year-old Karin Amamiya, the subject of Tsuchiya's 1999 documentary "The New God", she's standing dressed in a black suit reading from a prepared statement about how much she grew up hating herself and how that hatred extended to her view of her own country. Thankfully the ultra-right wing Nationalist movement came into her life and saved her, or did it? She ends her reading saying that she is looking for answers and that maybe after this film's 100-minute run time we will have them for her. Cut to Amamiya as lead singer of the right-wing punk band The Revolutionary Truth, a kalashnikov hanging on a strap around her waist howling "Pearl Harbour was our only choice. Our race was corrupted from the day we lost the war!" while band leader Hidehito Itoh beats on his bass to her left, and the Hinomaru, the flag of Japan looms behind them. The total effect of this stage show hits us with the equal disturbing power of a group of jack-booted young skinheads spouting anti-Semitic bile in front of a giant swastika. No, "The New God" isn't an easy film, but a fascinating cinematic portrait awaits those brave enough to get past the fascistic window dressing.

It seems that Tsuchiya, a decidedly left wing filmmaker with serious reservations about everything that the members of The Revolutionary Truth hold dear (Japan's Imperial history, pro-militarism, anti-foreign sentiments), is the first to see past the rhetoric and the political diatribes, and there are plenty of those from both Amamiya and Itoh. Amamiya even goes so far as to hook up with Takaya Shiomi, one of the founders of Japan's Red Army Faction, for a trip to Pyongyang so she can walk in the footsteps of the Faction members who hijacked a Japan Airlines flight in the spring of 1970 and flew it to North Korea. It might be a strange choice for a devout follower of the Emperor to join forces with godless Communists, but as Shiomi explains when you are facing the Americans and the capitalists "an enemy's enemy is your friend". What's best is that Tsuchiya give Amamiya a video camera to capture her trip.

It is on this trip, though, that Amamiya begins to doubt her allegiance to Nationalism. Her "comrades" who espouse a love for Japan appear to her as mean-spirited and intentionally argumentative intellectuals. It's at this same time that she begins to question her place in the political margins of Japan that we begin to see what Tsuchiya must have seen lurking under Amamiya's fierce surface. Underneath the screaming punk rock front woman and ardent Nationalist we discover an intelligent, utterly charming, and innocent young woman - one that skips through Pyonyang like a schoolgirl on a class field trip, who pats her blushing cheeks after a few glasses of beer and who despite her onstage antics covers her mouth when she laughs as generations of Japanese women did before her. It's this Amamiya, the one who admits that her romance with Nationalism began because she felt bullied and out of step with the world, the Amamiya who crafts beautiful dolls and devours the works of Shuji Terayama, that Tsuchiya slowly introduces us to.

As "The New God" progresses it's easy to see what's going on. A punk rock political documentary is transformed into a love story, albeit one that is never flashy or syrupy. Likewise Amamiya's gradual pulling away from hard line Nationalism doesn't occur during any momentary epiphany, in fact we wonder about where her politics lay by the end of the film. It's this ambiguity that make "The New God" such a fascinating film and such a success both for Amamiya on screen and for the audience witnessing her transformation.

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