films from japan
“There are signs that force us to conceive lost time, that is, the passage of time, the annihilation of what was, the alteration of beings. It is a revelation to see again those who were familiar to us, for their faces, no longer a habit, bear in a pure state the signs and effects of time, which has modified this feature, elongated, blurred, or crushed that one.”
Deleuze was writing about Proust, but his words regarding the “search for lost time” spring to mind when watching License to Live (Ningen Gōkaku, 1998), a story about a 24-year-old who has just awoken from a 10-year-long coma. The first shot shows a group of doctors and nurses rushing down a corridor with an unconscious man on a hospital bed. In the next shot, we see Yutaka wake. Although the man is probably not meant to be Yutaka, we can nonetheless see him as a visual representation of Yutaka’s own admittance to the hospital, with the expanse of ten years passing in the barely perceptible action of a single cut. So begins a film that consistently problematises our notion of time as its protagonist struggles to build an identity from the few scraps of the past that he can access.
Yutaka is taken in by Fujimori, the man who owns his family’s old ranch and played by Kōji Yakusho, who imbibes his character with a quiet but forceful presence. When Yutaka’s father visits his son, he greets him from the threshold of a room, framed by the doorway and the outside light. The distance between them is physical, but it resonates, especially when the father amiably turns away and goes to speak with Fujimori. This simple act spatially conveys to us the father’s lack of desire to approach and re-engage with his son. He soon leaves the ranch, and his goodbye is not only characterised by physical distance but also lighting: Yutaka is in the foreground, a brightly lit subject, his father is in the background, in darkness, leaning against the wall as though he is a stain on it, or a shadow. The camera endows his character with flatness, a lack of life: as far as Yutaka’s story is concerned, this man is a ghost. So begins the first of a string of rejections that Yutaka is to undergo, all the more painful because they are not malign – he is simply a stranger now, a life with no grounding. There is a wall between him and the rest of the world, and that wall is pure time, ten years disconnected from the flows that his friends and family have experienced.
Time is both spatialised through the film’s elegant mise-en-scène, and revealed as its own image through carefully positioned cuts. For example, we see Yutaka and Fujimori standing side by side, then cut to the pair in a different setting, only this time Fujimori is physically dragging a reluctant Yutaka along, and then a second cut shows the couple sitting side by side on a train. These jump cuts flit through time, giving us an impression of Yutaka’s resistance and Fujimori’s forceful guidance, rather than explaining their relationship using narrative techniques. Cuts like these deny the continuity we expect from linear time, they fragment events to reveal a decentred perspective of time. What’s more, the abrupt switches between heightened emotions and passivity range from humorous to hilarious – this is film-making that’s as playful as it is contemplative.
In fact, I would go as far as to label License to Live as an existential comedy rather than a drama, although that seems to undermine the tragic element of Yutaka’s struggle that resonates throughout. Consider our protagonist’s pony. After finding the escaped animal, Yutaka decides to rebuild the ranch of his past, and does so with Fujimori’s help. We see a few bemused onlookers staring at this isolated youth with his pony, wondering what he can be trying to achieve. When Yutaka convinces some men to visit the corral for a pony-ride, one of them flatly states, “That’s not a pony.” The comic timing is brilliant, but even as I laughed I felt awe at the feeling behind this simple statement. Whether it’s a horse or a pony in reality doesn’t matter, because Yutaka is building an empire of signs: the pony is virtual, like the ranch itself, they are constructed signs that allow their creator to repeat the past anew. The earnestness with which Yutaka tries to forge a new identity based on the little he has is at times overwhelmingly tragic, as we know that things can never be the same as before. In this sense, lost time cannot be regained.
The task is one that we can identify with – for who doesn’t have a sense of a core self that is the product of one’s past experiences? Yutaka isn’t driven by nostalgia, but rather a need to establish himself as a subject. As such, his struggles with the past are in fact oriented towards the future. We see this best in his encounter with the girl on the scooter, who is barely in the film, but tells Yutaka, “I’m going to sing in New York.” We later see Yutaka travelling on his own scooter, visually linking him to the girl. A beautiful moment which perhaps sums up the entire film is when Fujimori finds the postcard of New York that the scooter girl has given Yutaka. The camera shows us a close-up of the postcard, and then when Fujimori turns it over, we see it is blank – there is no message or memory, no sentimental or nostalgic purpose behind the postcard: it is a surface, a sign that points towards a future, an image that unlocks a desire to transform oneself into something new: New York as an arrow forwards.
Finally, I have to mention the character of Murota, played by Ren Ōsugi, something of a regular in films by Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Like the scooter girl he is hardly present, but makes an incredibly strong impression which is as much to do with his acting ability as it is with his role: he plays the car-driver who hit Yutaka and put him in his coma ten years ago. “You’re not the only one who lost ten years,” he says. Murota is clearly traumatised by the violent event, and insists that he too has lost time. “I want to forget.” Unlike Yutaka, Murota desperately wants to distance himself from the past, but his trauma forces it to persist: time congeals, to the point that violence must repeat itself in a harrowing sequence involving fire and a chainsaw. Kurosawa is known as a master of the horror film, and a few touches of his instantly recognisable horror style creep into License to Live. Like in Kurosawa’s film Pulse (Kairo, 2001), the abyss of loneliness and disconnection from society that is open to all of us is cinematographically expressed as a source of chilling, self-negating horror that plagues Yutaka at various moments in the film.
One of Deleuze’s key points in his discussion of Proust is that philosophy makes a fundamental mistake: it presumes that a search for truth is a benevolent, rational process that man actively chooses to become a part of. Instead, Deleuze argues, violence forces us into a search for truth. This violence can be the violence of thought assaulting us unexpectedly, or the violence of a sensation or an event that affects us. It can be love. Yutaka certainly doesn’t choose to go on a journey of self-discovery, and his reluctance to do anything to fix his life is apparent. But even as the violence of the car accident forces him into an ungrounded subjectivity, Fujimori’s violently assertive influence forces Yutaka to start rebuilding his world, gathering up the pieces of his past until he can shape them into something new, something pointing towards a future. Hopeful and heartbreaking, this film is largely about learning to survive the everyday.