Wednesday, 14 October 2020

“You only passed through my flesh”: ‘Affair in the Snow’ (1968, dir. Yoshishige Yoshida)

In just four words, the English language title to this entry in Yoshida’s ‘anti-melodrama’ series captures both the scenario and what is perhaps the film's most characteristic feature—the oppressively frozen mountain landscapes in which much of its action takes place. That sense of a reduced narrative—characters in ‘elemental’ settings, playing out ‘elemental’ passions—might serve for advertising copy, but there’s a lot more going on here than the reductive essentialism such characterisations might imply. The paradoxical distancing by which Yoshida renders scenarios of passion—the ‘anti’ in ‘anti-melodrama’—is in play from the beginning, as a pre-credits sequence introduces us to Yuriko (Yoshida’s ever-present collaborator Mariko Okada), an employee at a beauty salon, the salon introduced in a defamiliarising overhead shot over which plays a disembodied voiceover relaying apparently disconnected pieces of gossip which loosely introduce us to the characters in elliptical overlays that immediately set things aslant. Post-credits, and a car stalls in the middle of a deserted road (the deserted settings another Yoshida trademark). The camera moves in—the passenger, Yuriko, is seeking to end her affair with the driver, Arika (Yukio Ninagawa), a teacher who drunkenly picked her up the previous year. Yuriko states that this was planned as their last trip, and constantly telling Arika that they need to break up. Refusing to take no for an answer, his attachment is as much based on hate as love: as they prepare to take a motorboat out into the middle of a lake, he considers murdering her, throwing her overboard, a threat—it’s never clear how seriously we’re meant to take it—only forestalled when she announces that she’s pregnant. Refusing to let him take her to the hospital in Muroran, she instead arranges to meet the only man she trusts, a former lover, Kazuo (Isao Kimura), now married and working in a supervisory capacity in a factory. The pregnancy turns out to be phantom; Akira, who’s followed her, is beset with jealousy, joining her in her hotel room as she reiterates the need to break up. The next morning, Yuriko waits at the train station, where she’s arranged to meet Kazuo; again, Akira follows her, and there follows a kind of parody of the classic melodrama departure scene, as she switches trains trying to avoid the lovers who follow her to each. Deciding to head for the mountain resort where she and Kazuo broke up several years before, the triangulation continues, as she reveals that the break was due to Kazuo’s impotence, a source, first for Akira’s laughter and scorn, then for a kind of transmuted jealousy, as he flees into the snow, followed by Yuriko and Kazuo, whose passion is rekindled by the chase. It’s never clear where Akira’s heading, and the dramatic meanders of this final section are deliberately halting, at once over the top and curiously flat: eventually, Akira commits suicide in a jealous rage and the traumatised lovers bear his body through a blizzard, the film ending on Okada’s anguished scream. Reduced to narrative summary, that scenario might very well sound like over-baked melodrama, but its enactment is something else again.

As far as I can tell from machine translation, the title literally renders as something more like ‘staggering of trees under ice’—that’s to say, drawing attention to the landscape, whether or not as pathetic fallacy, objective correlative, etc. That motion, or gesture, of staggering—the collapse under a real or apparent weight—usefully suggests the human motion of the lovers climbing and descending mountains in snow drift, and the blocked, halted or directionless movement by which they reach the film’s primary locations—Sapporo (Yuriko and Akiro’s hometown), Muroran (Kazuo’s new hometown, where Yuriko checks for pregnancy at the hospital) and the final snowy resort. In a film that travels between three locations, each stage of the journey is in some cases also a kind of ‘staggering’: the broken-down car on the road (by which we’re introduced to the Yuriko-Akira coupling); the near-slapstick changing of trains (the station scene which establishes the Yuriko-Akira-Kazuo triangulation); or the chase through the snow that occupies the film’s snowy climax. That climax takes place in a world of apparently deserted ski lodges, hotels empty of other guests, and tracts of empty snow that combine with Yoshida’s characteristic bleached-out black and white and carefully off-kilter shot compositions to displace the stripped-down triangulations of melodrama (here essentially limited to the three protagonists) onto empty and ‘inhuman’ landscapes (a technique which gets repeated in the midst of human habitation and history Yoshida’s next film, ‘Farewell to the Summer Light’). The film’s closing sections alternate between two visual registers: the close-up interior, associated with relational tension and erotic bonding—faces, shadows, body parts cut up into near-abstract compositions—and the long-shot exterior, miniaturised figures stumbling through snow on a seemingly pointless quest, as if the landscape can’t wait to erase any trace of their presence, these figures who don’t even cast a shadow.  If this is the existential confrontation where everything’s laid bare, where true feelings are revealed—Yuriko really loves Kazuo, the mask of physical passion with Akira has been a sham, they feel they’ve thrown their lives away, Akira’s only out for what he can get, what he considers a realm of ‘freedom’—we might reflect too that snow covers up what lies beneath it; its apparent, dazzling clarity as much another mask as tool of revelation. 

Existent critical commentary in English—limited to a select few film blogs or review sites—tends to remark on the ‘coldness’ or ‘emotionless’ delivery of lines—which seems to me somewhat overstated, if we’re to judge the film by its outbursts of passionate declamation, impulsive physical gestures and the like. Nonetheless, the framing resolutely avoids indices of intimacy, both in terms of in-camera movement and the juxtapositions of montage, of editing and post-production. Thus, while the camera is generally static, several scenes notably deploy extensive hand-held camera motions, swirling around characters with a kind of roving curiosity that often moves away from the character delivering dialogue to focus on apparently inconsequential detail—an unmade bed, the corner of a room—with a kind of anxious inaccuracy that doesn’t heighten voyeuristic intimacy (the feeling that ‘we’, the camera cipher, are in the room with the characters) so much as reinforce difference and distance. When the camera’s not moving, Yoshida shoots faces to the side, from above, behind windows, in mirrors, cut off by the cropped angles of furniture, and the like; or otherwise isolates the figures in deserted streets, landscapes, indeterminate spaces (the logistical challenge of emptying out every location of those who normally people it must have been half the battle of the filmmaking in the first place). Meanwhile, the music, so often in melodrama the surface motor of emotion, here establishes a kind of distance. Yoshida’s most conventional, full colour, studio-produced melodrama, ‘'Akitsu Springs’ is characterised by the classically melodramatic over-abundance of a musical score in ‘Akitsu Springs’: Hikaru Hayashi’s orchestral soaring and thundering signalling the film’s topoi of desire through three specific themes associated with shared passion, thanatopic dread, and the pain of waiting), pushing them to a kind of absurd limit. Here, however, the ‘cool’, vaguely jazzy main theme by Sei Ikeno (stalwart composer for popular items like the Zatoichi series and the original Godzilla film) is hummable in a kind of Morricone-esque register that screams genre in a kind of generic (that’s to say, non-specific) manner that could equally serve for a spy film, a comedy, a heist movie, etc. Music doesn’t so much index the passions we see on screen as produce another layer of distance and concealment: that snowy carpet once again.

What, then, lies under that carpet? Yoshida later suggested that entire motivation for the film lies in this question of impotence: “The theme seemed very clear to me.  A woman loves an impotent man.  This kind of situation can easily happen, can’t it?  But can men – leaving aside the impotent one – can the other men, in general, admit it?  Can they forgive it?  For man it is unthinkable.  A platonic love is not impossible, but it’s not real love”. (Impotence is again a plot motor in his previous film, ‘Impasse’ and again in ‘Eros plus Massacre’.) What Yoshida’s comments suggest, though, is that the question is one of relations ‘between men’, of homosocial anxieties, the trade in women, and the spectre of biological reproduction as index of futurity, as mark of social standing. What would there be to ‘forgive’ about impotence? What is being sinned against here? What is the ‘real’ (or, for that matter, the ‘love’) in ‘real love’? If Yoshida’s vocabulary here suggests a kind of spiritual or at ideal register—the thinkable, the forgivable, the platonic, love, the real—by which we conventionally understand the physical, the film itself also serves to destabilise such elisions. The film sets up a series of parallels—spirit and flesh, ‘platonic’ and physical love, potence and impotence—constructed around male anxiety, jealousy and possessiveness. As Yoshida’s said of ‘Akitsu Springs’: “for me, with the burdens of my generation and my society, the historical responsibility of that period is on the men's side, not the women’s, so the male side must be responsible for everything bad that happens”. Above all, then, the film is concerned with the gendered nature of  social roles—Yuriko, having experienced the capital city, to which she fled after the ending of her affair with Kazuo, has returned to a Sapporo filmed more like a wintry village than a city; their retreat to the mountains a further distancing from, a playing out of more existential conflicts that are nonetheless shown to be completely tied in with the anxieties, power plays and violence of gendered social roles (after all, we’re only am atter of a few scenes into the film when the lovers admit to wanting to kill each other; Akira’s all set to murder Yuriko by throwing her into a lake before she informs him that she’s pregnant and he suddenly assumes a mask of tender concern. 

This moment, early on the film, is probably the most dramatic illustration of the possessive and instrumentalising tendencies within erotic love attendant on Akira’s character. This startling threat in turns leads to an allusion to an incident Yuriko and Akira together in a guilt that’s only exacerbated, rather than resolved, by physical ‘intimacy’. Though this apparently significant plot point is never returned to, it’s implied that Arika was involved in a drunken hit-and-run accident, Yuriko encouraging him not to turn himself into the police, adding further to his cocktail of guilt, suppressed violence and anxiety, to be transplanted into the myth of male ‘potence’, sexual prowess, and possession of a feminised lover. As such, this contextually bizarre allusion to the narrative schemes of film noir reverses noir’s structure of gendered blame—the man led astray into acts of violence, which he physically performs but for which the woman is blamed. If you loved me, you wouldn’t make love to me so violently, Yuriko asserts. Yes, it’s true, I hate you, he replies, launching into the murderous verbal fantasy in which he throws her off a boat in the middle of an icy lake. At the film’s end, such violence will be turned inwards, Arika throwing himself off a cliff as a last gesture of power over the departing Yuriko. Thus, if, on the one side, Akira’s possessiveness has to do with biological potentiality—‘potence’—as a means of possessing a gendered other, it also has to do with the opposite: with the power to wield life and death, the thanatopic exercises of gendered power through murderous rage.

Both for Akira and, it transpires, for Kazuo, the ability to ‘act’ on sexual desire—‘potence’—becomes a kind of addiction: Kazuo, suddenly ‘potent’ in a drunken encounter with a sex worker, becomes, in his words, ‘addicted’ to sexual encounters, before settling down with a wife whose miscarriage and subsequent depression are added only as footnotes. Kazuo’s initation into the rites of male ‘potency’—the role of the patriarch able to produce future offspring—is not so much an entry into intimate/erotic fulfilment, but into a social role. Yet this role  doesn’t assuage the burden of guilt and frustration supposed to result from ‘impotence’ or sexual inadequacy; instead, it simply transfers it onto a female recipient who can be re-idealised through a physical relationship with Yuriko that’s in some ways as idealised as that of the ‘platonic’ previous affair. His rekindling of the affair with Yuriko thus fills the conventional, if socially proscribed role of the extra-marital affair as a refuge for patriarchal frustration and idealised dreams of romance (as in ‘Akitsu Springs’). At the same time, such dramas are not limited to the conventional roles of marriage and family life: neither Akira nor Yuriko are bound by the marriage contract, yet there’s just as much jealousy, possessiveness and dependence (almost exclusively on Akira’s part) as in a legally binding union.

Both in and outside martial relations, these anxieties—questions of biological reproduction—are not unconnected to questions of labour and economic production. Yuriko works in a feminised role that associates gender with physical appearance—the beauty salon; Akira, the professor (schoolteacher rather than university academic, it would seem, though as far as I can tell it’s never stated or seen directly), situated within an intellectual realm, connecting to generational training, in a kind of central yet sideways relation to economic productivity; Kazuo, the factory supervisor, with the direct realm of economic production. Aside from brief shots, these spheres of labour are virtually absent from what we see on screen, implied only in snatches of dialogue. When we do glimpse a workplace, it’s rendered in a manner that occludes the labour within it: thus, the tracking shot of the salon in the pre-credits sequence, or the factory as a kind of starkly abstracted backdrop to Kazuo’s and Yuriko’s first meeting, then, in a later telephone conversation, as a crowded, masculine space of hubbub and activity. 

In a sense, these professional roles represent the reverse of their erotic roles: that is, as Akira narrates them and as they might be understood in the conventional heteropatriarchal schema Yoshida outlines as “men, in general”—Akira as potent, physical, possessive, Kazuo as impotent, longing, resigned (and in some ways feminised). Thus, it’s Akira—desirous of associating himself within the realm of the potent, assertive, physical—whose profession is that of the mind—and it’s Kazuo, professionally located in the realm of the productive, whose ‘impotence’ and lower class position occasion both Akira’s scorn and his unease. While Kazuo asserts that, following the traumatic ending of his affair with Yuriko, he’s found his place in a newly-discovered ‘potency’, a marriage, and a social role amidst the scene of labour, in response to Akira’s cynical questioning of his commitment to this environment, he merely shrugs off the question as one for another time.

That shrug is likewise enacted in the film’s very form. Sociality’s introduced in the opening shot, already at a remove—a group of women walking, backs to the camera, along the street: when one of them stops, as if having being hailed from or by the gaze, the camera moves forward, a kind of shudder into place for the bare-bones narrative, which much of the time features on two or three of the triangulated protagonists. Mid-way through the film, we get a kind of parody of the train farewell scene familiar from the melodrama in Hollywood and elsewhere: Okada getting on and off trains to escape her suitors (who she’s nonetheless arranged to come to the platform). Train stations are of interest for Yoshida for their spacing between arrival and departure, dead ends or new starts, all to a rigid external schedule (think the closing of ‘Heroic Purgatory’, or the similar parody of the train departure scene in ‘Akitsu Springs’). What’s of interest here is that, within this otherwise deserted station, we first hear, then see a group of workers—at first shot from such a distance that they appear more like mechanical apparatus than human bodies—hitting the side of a train with sledgehammers to free the coal frozen inside it. As Yoshida notes, this telling detail was the result of happy accident.

There is a scene that we shot very early in the morning in Muroran station in Hokkaido. […] I arrived with my crew before my actors. It was dead winter, very cold. A cargo train was already in the station, filled with coal, and it was so cold that the coal was frozen in the coal compartment and they couldn't take it out. Seventy or 80 workers were hitting the wagon with huge hammers so that the coal would loosen up and they could take it out. So we started frantically making shots of them doing this, and when Okada and the actors arrived I asked them to wait while we shot it. Then the train that we borrowed came in, and we started shooting the scene with the three actors. We could still hear the sound of the workers hammering at the wagon. After we finished the scene, the actors told me that hearing these sounds all the time affected their performances. That was a case of incorporating something accidental into a scene.

Using this moment to illustrate a point about the incorporation of accident within otherwise very tightly scripted scenarios, Yoshida’s anecdote also suggests the arbitrariness of the division between the erotic dramas of ‘private life’ and the forces of production and the social—felt here as a kind of sonic intrusion onto a classic melodramatic scene that should be filled with—say—Sirkian strings or the tear duct manipulations of the Demy—Legrand team. This intrusion of the realm of labour, of the social stands out in this film precisely as an anomaly; as ‘anti-melodrama’, Yoshida’s concern with the way that social repression, neurosis and anxiety inflects and infects intimate relationships is conveyed precisely through removing traces of social context for a bare-bones scenario in which characters say exactly what they mean—to the extent that they can sound like philosophical ciphers—so that this is not a Sirkian (or Ozu-esque) drama of repression, but of passions that are, if anything, less manifest than those repressed in the classic melodramas of the 1950s. That’s to say, this is not a realm of freedom, but a measure of the extent to which social alienation and the performance of normative roles—particularly within the context of a radical societal shift following the ending of the war—replay both inside and outside conventional heterosexual arrangement.  In that sense, though these films have none of the ‘content’ of radical politics that would characterise Yoshida’s more famous trilogy of radicalism at the turn of the decade, politics—or questions that, despite occurring outside the ostensible realm of politics (laws, activism, extra-legal guerrilla activity) are inextricably political questions.

In the encounter between Yuriko and Kazuo, the couple’s attempt to re-enact a past moment of love nostalgically remembered and long passed by, the film echoes ‘Akitsu Springs’, with which it also shares that film’s critique of the patriarchal framings of such desire. Yet, if Yoshida argues of ‘Akitsu Springs’ that the “mutual sharing of a memory is impossible”—here, some sort of rapprochement seems to be reached between Yuriko and Kazuo based, not on failed re-enactment but on a newly mature understanding contrasting to Akira’s possessiveness, his violence, his guilt and existential nihilism. Yet Akira, in a sense, has the last word. In the film’s climax, Akira, realising he cannot possess Yuriko, the bond of patriarchal ‘potence’ broken, enacts his own oblivion as a final gesture of binding power—promise me that, if I throw myself off this ledge, you’ll split up, he orders, before throwing himself off anyway when they ignore him—and becomes the literal corpse they drag through the snow. The final scene thus finds the couple once more ‘staggering’, this time not under a metaphorical but a literal weight as they carry Akira’s corpse through the snow, the film ending abruptly with another Mariko Okada scream that recalls the moment of death in ‘Akitsu Springs’. 

The film thus doesn’t really seem to imagine a future for Yuriko and Kazuo—the suspension in time that characterises the vain repetitions of ‘Akitsu Springs’, recapitulations that ultimately lead only to death, here lacks even the performative passions (suicide pacts, the ends of global conflicts) we find the former film, instead caught in a kind of nether-world between the deferral of a break-up and the stuttering beginning of a new start. I was never yours, “you only passed through my flesh”, Yuriko informs Arika in a final gesture of rejection. The choice between the platonic/impotent and erotic/potent is one that’s ultimately posed by Arika—that’s to say, the terms are set by a heteropatriarchal view, by a binary and dualistic thinking which reifies biological capacity as a kind of base overlaid and intermingled with the superstructure of erotic or romantic love. Might Yuriko and Kazuo’s encounter find a way through these questions of platonic idealisation (love as spiritual) and physical degradation (love as physical)? That closing scream suggests not. In 'Farewell to the Summer Light', these questions of futurity and the recapturing of the past are posed in more explicitly historical terms, as a formative generational trauma—that of Hiroshima and Nagaski—begins to name itself. In ‘Affair in the Snow’, we’re left with a perpetually stalling car, the perpetually changing trains, the frozen coal hammered out of the carriage by the relentless rhythm of multiple hammers: a carpet of frozen brightness, an end title, a death, a scream that resolves nothing.

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