Monday, January 20, 2014


Besides being an obvious tip of the hat to the highway scene in Tarkovsky’s Solaris, the beginning of Japon is one of the most simple yet effective opening scenes for me in a film in the last 10-15 years (I consider Japon to be one of the 50 best films of the last decade). It's made clear that we're seeing things from the perspective of someone whose trying to get away. If you notice, for those of you who have seen Japon, the scene starts off noisy & slightly chaotic but the further we drive away from the city, things become more hypnotic. Carlos Reygadas is taking us away from the chaos of the big city in an effort to find peace & quiet.
When I was younger I used to think the idea of going off to the countryside to be alone because of some existential crisis was the most cliché thing ever. But now that I’m a lil older, that honestly doesn't sound so bad. But the big difference between me and the nameless main character in Japon who goes off to be by himself, is that I honestly enjoy life and want to live (I just think less distractions, less people and less work is key to obtain the certain serenity I’m looking for in life). The mysterious main character's motivation for retreating off to the Mexican countryside in Japon is to die. But like the car race in Two-lane Blacktop, the nameless main character in Carlos Reygadas’ feature film debut doesn’t seem to be in a big rush to kill himself even though that’s the ultimate goal. He's taking life in one last time before ending it all.

Solaris isn’t the only Tarkovsky film that Japon references. There’s something about the cinematography & shots of nature (specifically the emphasis of the tree, which is one of the most symbolic elements in arthouse cinema next to butterflies, horses & burning houses) that evokes the spirit of Sacrifice. Both films represent “the end” to a certain extent. Japon is the story of a man wanting to end his life while the Sacrifice was Tarkovsky’s final film.

With Tarkovsky, I was seeing something made from reality itself, reality was transformed into a form of beauty, conveying so much feeling. I realized cinema could be as strong as music. It could even go further. You would be seeing real people doing real things, but all could be transfigured by the act of artistic creation. Since that moment, I decided I would like to make filmsCarlos Reygadas, 2013

"The Tree Of Life" in Sacrifice (Tarkovsky) & Japon (Reygadas)
The existential highway scenes in Solaris (Tarkovsky) & Japon
Japon also has a fairly strong connection to the barely seen 2009 Swedish film; The Anchorage – the minimalist/almost dialogue-less story of a middle-aged woman who lives alone out in the woods.
I can’t think of too many examples of my favorite filmmakers finding their voice and/or signature style on their first film. It took Claire Denis a few tries (personally I think she finally found herself somewhere between I Can’t Sleep & U.S. Go Home) but that’s not to say Chocolat & especially No Fear No Die weren’t great films. As Tears Go By doesn’t really define Wong Kar Wai, Ivan’s Childhood isn’t the best representation of Tarkovsky and Bresson’s first few films don’t show his signature style either. But Reygadas nailed it. Japon fits right in with the rest of Reygadas’ work. Actually, he's come full circle with his most recent film. Post Tenebras Lux is more connected to Japon than anything else he’s ever done – both films deal with men living in a form exile that are having a kind of existential/spiritual crisis. The difference between both films is that Post Tenebras Lux is a lot more beautiful & glossy whereas Japon is much more gritty right down to the film that was used (another similarity it shares with The Anchorage). When I watch Japon I feel like it was made in the mid-70’s as opposed to 2002. Reygadas has become more concerned with beauty over the years but Japon shows a kind of grittiness that he has yet to capture again. As you can see in my “Cinema Of Carlos Reygadas” entry, every single theme that he continues to explore in his work all started with his first feature – religious symbolism, spirituality, loneliness & existentialism among men, sex & sexuality and an alternative look at the country of Mexico.
In Japon, we follow our nameless main character; “The Man”/"El Hombre" – a painter who has suddenly become disillusioned with life and leaves everything behind in Mexico City to come out to rural Mexico in order to kill himself. Once he reaches the mexican countryside, he exists among the locals, contemplates life and rents a room from an elderly woman whom he eventually makes a "connection" with. 
Reygadas doesn’t dwell too much on the main character's past. If you liked how Abbas Kiaorstaimi handled the main character in Taste Of Cherry, then you’ll probably enjoy Japon very much.
At first it almost feels like Reygadas is intentionally playing with the most obvious of art house clichés; The depressed painter who wants to die. Carlos is one of my favorite current filmmakers but sometimes I understand why some people call him pretentious. After the beautiful opening sequence of Japon, we start the story off with the killing of an animal (more obvious symbolism that represents our main characters desire to die) and his use of grandiose classical music seems a little out of place at first too. I also recently discovered the reasoning behind the title of the film; Japon (Japan in Spanish). This Mexican film really has nothing to do with Japan but Carlos Reygadas associates the suicidal desire of the main character in his film with the culture of Japan…

Go out into the streets and ask people the first five words they relate to Japan. I am sure that 80% of them with choose words like; Harikiri – Carlos Reygadas, 2002

That’s a pretty ridiculous generalization if you ask me. I'm sure Reygadas didn't mean to insult the country of Japan with that statement (at least I hope not) but somehow the simple one word title fits the film so well. At it's core, Japon is an extremely contemplative film. It's complex and has many layers, but it's execution is simple and straightforward.

At the time of Japon’s release it would have been somewhat understandable if you dismissed it as typical art house based on Reygadas’ previous work. His early short film; Maxhumain felt less like an original work and more like a Bergman/French arthouse knock-off (equip with a climactic scene taking place on a beach of all places) and the constant comparison to Tarkovsky would have you believe the young Mexican director didn't really have a voice of his own. But that's not the case at all. There's a realism to Japon that you wouldn't normally associate with the type of art house it falls under. Besides the film's story and contemplative existential nature, Reygadas is also concerned with atmosphere & the beauty of nature that our main character is surrounded by. The use of non-professional actors makes this feel like a documentary at times. And given that Mexico is heavily immersed in Catholicism, the presence of guilt & suffering flows throughout Japon as well. It makes sense that a filmmaker like Scorsese would love Reygadas's work so much (he praised both; Japon & Silent Light when they first came out). The religious imagery is reminiscent of early/gritty Scorsese films like Mean Streets which also plays on Catholic guilt.
Reygadas’ view of Mexico in Japon is also a tad bit dreary at times as you can see from some of the images used throughout this review. But the vibe of the film also has a strange calming beauty to it (but remember, you’re reading something from the guy who found beauty in some of the imagery from Andrea Arnold’s overall disappointing & dreary Wuthering Heights).


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