Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Remembering Kei Kumai - on Kei Kumai and his forgotten masterpiece FUKAI KAWA

Kei Kumai (1. Juni 1930 - 23. May 2007)

by Rüdiger Tomczak

I remember the first interview I had with Kei Kumai. It was 1992 during the Berlin Filmfestival. It was also the begin of a friendship with a japanese film director. Whenever I made an interview with him he spent a lot of time for that ignoring the hectic atmosphere of a big filmfestival.

I have to think of the first film I saw by Kumai. It was Umi To Dokuyaku (The Sea and the Poison, 1987) during the Berlin Filmfestival 1987, a film about a war criminal trial in Japan after World War 2. I have seen all his film from up to this one, the earlier films are still for me to discover. The films by Kumai which impressed me most were his three adaptions from novels by Japanese writer Shusako Endo. Beside The Sea and the Poison there were Fukai Kawa (Deep River, 1995) and Ai Suru (To Love, 1997). Especially Fukai Kawa which I have seen during the Worldfilmfestival 1995 did n´t get out of my mind. The film takes place mostly in India in the holy city Benares and is a mosaic of different human fates. which are crossing each other. It is one of the japanese films in the 90s which remind me in its richness in the great time of Japanese cinema of the 30s and 50s.

I remember another interview I had with Kumai in the year 1995 during the Worldfilmfestival of Montreal with Korean Mi Jeong-Lee. During this interview Kumai told us that he had to work as an adolescent wit Korean Forced laborers at an airport where Kamikaze pilots were starting. As an adolescent he witnessed discrimination of non-japanese during that time. Kumai was too young for being responsible for the japanese terror but too sensitive to be able to forget the dark chapter of Japanese civilization. But he was old enough to get an idea about the dark sides of human beings during the war.

I remember my last encounter with Kei Kumai again during the Berlin Filmfestival this time in the year 2001. And again he was accompanied by his wife Akiko. 2001 he was awarded with the Golden Berlinale Camera for his Life Achievement. remember that he hugged me very strong. That touched me because it is a rare sign of sympathy for a Japanese man of his generation.

End of May 2007 my friend Claude R. Blouin informed me that he read in internet about the death of Kei Kumai. Kei Kumai passed away on May 23 2007 after a stroke. The first thing which came into my mind was the fact that I owe him indirectly some of my longtime friendships. Valerie Dhiver, a french woman I met first after a market screening of SEN NO RIKYU (The Death of the tea master Rikyu, 1989) during the Berlin Filmfestival 1990. Half a year later, Valerie worked for the production company of Kumais next film Shikibu Monogatari. During the Montreal Worldfilmfestival she met Claude R. Blouin and gave me his address one year later.
Another friendship with the Vietnam born Canadian Florence MC Nguyen began 1995 through a common enthusiasm for Kei Kumais film Fukai Kawa. Thinking about these three friends which I had never met without Kei Kumai is mixed in my memories with this mosaic of human relationships in Fukai Kawa.

I don´t know if it is a consolation that Kumais films are still alive.
I never wrote before an obituary about a director who meant something to me as a person. Always when a person precious to me passes away things come up to my mind I wanted to tell him.
These are the most helpless moments.
Kei Kumai has passed away and the shock of this cognition is just the begin and the mourning has just begun.

(from shomingeki No. 19, summer 2007)

From my Japan Diary, November 2009  (shomingeki No. 22, May 2010)
From the memory in my mythic image of Japan (Ozu) to a memory in a person I really met in life several times, the director Kei Kumai who passed away in May, 27, 2007.
I visited his widow Akiko Kumai in Mitaka, a suburb of Tokyo, who invited me for tea. Kei Kumai is buried in the place of his birth Nagano (two hours by train from Tokyo). In the living room of the Kumais there was a small memorial corner for Kei: a big portrait and the three awards most precious to him:
There was the Silver Bear he won 1987 in Berlin for Umi To Dokuyaku, the Silver Lion he won for Sen no Rikyu 1989 in Venice and the Golden Berlinale Camera he won 2001 for his life achievement. There was also a small place for incense. That was an unforgettable moment. I did n´t had the nerve to take any photographs.
After the tea I smoked a cigarette how I would have done it with Kei Kumai. I exchanged with Akiko Kumai some experience we made in India where Kei Kumai made his most beautiful film Fukai Kawa. He was invited to an indian filmfestival with his film. I remember my obituary from 2007 about him. Actually I just really took farewell on this very day, November 18, 2009.

Kei Kumai participated 6 times at the Berlin Filmfestival and his films won two times a Silver Bear and he got once a special prize for his life achievement. The Berlin Filmfestival after his dead did ´t even mention him and there was not the slightest try to honor him with a special homage. He was a big part of the Berlinale history but this festival have already forgotten him.
It is unforgivable.

 Fukai Kawa (Deep River), by Kei Kumai, Japan: 1995

  (provisorily translation from German, shomingeki No. 1, November 1995)

to Florence M.C Nguyen

The old buildings of the sacred city Benares and the titles as a foreseeing about the things, the film will tell about. These buildings, once constructed by human hands are beginning to decay into its elements.

A total shot of narrow country roads on which a bus full of Japanese tourist is driving. The landscape, the animals, which are very close to the streets and the bus. Like the camera, the bus is realizing parts of the world, like the objective, it offers only a fragment of the world. Before the story can begin, the camera searches in the bus the faces of the characters. At first, the voice-over from the Japanese Mitsuko Naruse. But than, the camera stops unexpectedly in front of an old mans face. With a few shots, this film moves from common to concrete parts of a film story. Just in the first shots, we realize this film will deal with several persons, who exist independant from each other, but whose stories can be connected with each other.

The first flashback, which turns from an observant perspective into a subjective one. The story of the widower Isobe: Scenes in a hospitals x-ray laboratory, in which we see pictures of the deadly sick wife of Isobe. At her bed, tenderly conversations between the aging couple, which seem at the same time helpless and moving. Than a view from the room out of the window to a tree, which sheets are moving softly in the wind. Strangely off-side from the story, an imagine of the things which are being.

Boiling water in a clapping tea kettle on an oven which wakes up him at night. Later, his wife tells him, that she dreamt exactly what has happen to him at night. The sequence, which deals about a supernatural situation is at the same time of analytic severity, obviously divided in shots. At his wives bed, she tells him about her believe in reincarnation. A cut - and we see Isobe with relatives and friends at the funeral. Later, when everybody has gone, a shot of the empty corridor shows the loneliness of the widow. All this gives already an idea about the fascination of Japanese cinema in its tension between the illusion of a fictive world and the disillusion through the transparence of the cinematographic movement as a sequel of shots, which appear sometimes like a still.

In the second flashback, Mitsuko is introduced, a young woman in her thirties. Mitsuko in a pink-colored T-shirt among other students. They are mocking themselves about the shy Christian student Otsu. Few moments later, they are sitting in a quite noble bar. They make bad jokes with Otsu, who hardly can bear alcohol. In the background, two musicians play music on a harp and a flute. Outside of the action, but as present as the involved persons. This, one of the most beautiful scenes of the film is a concrete reference to a cinema tradition, which preferred to count on loveable composed pictures instead of illusions.

For a short period, Otsu and Mitsuko become a couple. Later she rejects him and becomes for herself the most lonely character in the film. Lyon, a few years later: Mitsuko, now married with a rich businessman (in red clothes and different styled hair), phones from a hotel room with Otsu, who studies theology in France. A walk among walls, which look like an antique amphitheater, she in a blue jacket, he in a black priests rope. A traveling shot follows them discretely. The blue of Mitsukos jacket and the monotone movement are evoking a strange coldness and alienation. At their farewell, they depart in different directions. For moments, an universe of distance seems to be between them. Emptiness, loneliness, farewell to the unexpected. In the Lyon-chapter, there are appearing fragments of accidental sacred music, like short ideas of deliverance. The search for the person we love most may be the search for god.

  (written on a train Montréal-Québec, September, 5, 95) 

The bus drives through the night. The framing plot could transits into the main plot. The story of Mitsuko in India could begin. But the camera stops on the face of the old Kiguchi, a war veteran, who is recalling a friend, who died recently. This friend (played by Toshiro Mifune with the charismatic but now thinly face) has saved his live during wartime. His friends wife told Kiguchi, that his friend saved his live through eating the flesh of another came rad. Since that, he is tortured by painful feelings of guiltiness. A flashback into a flashback, black and white and silent. An almost starved soldier commits suicide with a grenade. A hard cut to a flower (colored) and the sound of the explosion we don't see. Instead of a speculative effect, Kumai reduces the movement to a picture. Sometimes it seems that FUKAI KAWA reminds us, that cinema is consisting of pictures and the cinematographic illusion is nothing else than a phenomenon of the machine and the human eye. The first half of the film is over, the bus reaches the sacred city Benares. An ocean of lights, people in the streets. Three persons on the search for spiritual truth or just for themselves, a tourist couple on the search for pictures with their camera. The imagine of the goddess Chamunda in the temple. Two indian musicians playing in the bus. In that frame, they have the same presence like the musicians from the beginning of the film. In one scene, Mitsuko is talking with the travel guide in a hotel bar. In the background, we see the bar keeper working with his drinks.

The reunion of Mitsuko and Otsu: Otsu, now in shabby clothes, but seemingly mentally more stable. Mitsuko (now with a short haircut) is divorced. The story of Mitsuko and Otsu could begin from new and is almost finished now. The widow sees his death wife during the river landscape at night. A double lightning, obviously as an effect of the cinematographic apparatus, which will soon be asked by the pure presence of the things. Mitsuko dressed in a blue sari, bathing in the Ganga. Kiguchi praying in the temple for the death friends soul. Sequences which are composing themselves to a ceremony, which is at the same time one of the religion and one of cinema.

  (written on a train Québec-Montréal, September, 8, 1995)

A tourist tries to take pictures from a hindu funeral ceremony. While the enraged hindus follow him, Otsu tries to get the photo camera for avoiding a massacre. The fall Otsus from steep stone stairs: A detail shot of his foot, which losses its stability. The movement, is slowed by slow motion followed by the sound of the fall, which we don't see any more, but which goes more under the skin than every speculative effect.

The day of departure: Japanese are waiting for the bus in the hotel lobby. In one shot we see on the left side the tourist couple. On the table, their is the film, which provoked Otsus accident ( and later his death). On the right side sits Mitsuko. She waits for news from the hospital. Her face is almost emotionless. Shots, which hardly inform about the persons mental situation. But in my imagination, they are getting a likely intensity like the famous strawberry cake-sequence in THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS.

Mitsuko and a Hindu, who recites a prayer, both driving in a boat on the river. Celebratory, he is putting the death Otsu´s ashes into the Ganga. Like the Zen-student Honkakubo at the end of SEN NO RIKYU, Mitsuko stays with empty hands. She has let go everything, but won something like believe. At the end, a small decorated candlelight is driving on the river at twilight time, moving far and faraway from the boat. The story is finished. The film story, created by humans hand dies and is given over to the elements. The deserted Ganga. My interpretation of that subject about love that finds only fulfillment in the death would be pessimistic. But the cinematographic spirituality of the Japanese Kei Kumai tells a very different story. The films end is like a giving back of men and things, which were lent for the film story. FUKAI KAWA connects traditions of Japanese realism and the reflections about its limits, references to classical Japanese cinema with its admiration for every single shot as a sovereign emancipated picture in the film, and the presentation of what the film narration is consist of. In FUKAI KAWA, Kei Kumais most beautiful film since SEN NO RIKYU (1989), we can make a lot of experiences about cinema and film making.

 Rüdiger Tomczak

 This film was shown 1995 at the Montreal Worldfilmfestival. Unfortunately, I haven't seen this film again since that time. I pray for a release on DVD with English subtitles.

see also a text on Kumai´s HIKARIGOKE.

1 comment: