Spotlight on Japan: Eijanaika

 

 

Shohei Imamura’s Eijanaika was a genuine surprise on many levels for me. First of all, I knew nothing about the film – other than the fact that Imamura directed it. Secondly, Imamura is primarily known as one of the Japanese New Wave directors and as such he commonly explores bold subjects with brutality and cold honesty. While Eijanaika does tackle with a bold subject its approach is hardly disturbing. Instead it is injected with an enthusiastic joy for life even if it treats you badly. As usual, Imamura is concerned about the social aspects of every single story and in Eijanaika his ambition is probably greater than ever.

Here’s the mandatory plot synopsis that I wasn’t able to include in the review smoothly: After being forced to live in the US for 6 years, Genji returns to Japan to look for his wife, Ine, only to find himself imprisoned because the Japanese believe he is a Christian now. Soon enough, he escapes from the prison with a new friend with whom he engages on a wild adventure that leads them to cause riots and political problems. In short, a lot of things happen in this 150-minute film afterwards.

The title, Eijanaika, can be translated in many ways, but in the film’s context it literally means “why not?”. It becomes a catchphrase for an accidentally born counter-cultural movement which summarizes most of the ambitious thematics near the end of the film. It feels like Eijanaika tries to be too many things at once. USA’s (or rather, the west’s) influence on Japan is explored in detail, the social and economic problems of pre-Meiji era Japan always loom in the background and the never-ending criticism of tradition are all there. As a result, the screenplay is awfully clunky – but not without its redeeming factors.

Even though the film is tonally different from what Imamura made before it he hasn’t abandoned all of his old methods. Despite happy-go-lucky attitude there are moments when the film is charged with an erotic or violent undertone. However they are few in this cheerful story that runs forward at an insane pace. Due to the insanely convoluted plot and Imamura’s huge ambition the film’s pacing is fast. It is so fast that there is sometimes no time to properly introduce some of the key characters and I spent a lot of time wondering who was who. And it doesn’t help much that there are new characters constantly appearing.

Despite this rather severe-sounding flaw, Eijanaika’s screenplay manages to be very entertaining and intellectual. The grim humor is executed with nigh perfection and the social criticism comes across even though some parts of the story don’t make sense during the first view. Luckily, this chaos never ruins the main characters and especially the relationship between Genji and Ine truly flourishes as it is successful as the center of the film’s emotional AND comical aspects. Their path is full of obstacles and laughs and is only resolved right at the very end of the film – and the result is something you will not see coming yet it makes perfect sense.

The tone of the film is complex. It’s an intriguing combination of laughs, dark humor and tragedy. Because of that the screenplay is hard to shoot and Imamura is wise to shoot everything from a distance. The point of view is not as distant and static as in Hou’s minimalistic films, but there is always an obvious gap between the events and the audience. This way Imamura is able to make the colorful script work properly, but it also provides a few problems. While the (relatively) long takes work well it is hard, at first, to recognise who is who since there is no time for proper close-ups and the costumes aren’t always unique enough. There are also few oddly lit scenes that are nearly incomprehensible. Sometimes this is obviously intentional since the dark shots are understandable in the scene’s context, but sometimes they are mere blunders. Luckily they are few and mostly during the first 30 minutes.

Eijanaika is a victim of overambition. The pacing makes it a bit too challenging, but it couldn’t be helped with the excessive amount of things that Imamura wanted to cover in the film. Despite that it’s a vivid, cheerful experience that will stick with you for a while.

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About Oz
A Finnish film buff who has taken a huge interest in language and Japanese cinema. Can be contacted via email (johlauri@hotmail.com), Twitter (@OzymandiasJL) and a Private Message on EvaGeeks (Oz).

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