“Rites of Passage: The Films of Shinji Somai”
April 28–May 13, 2023
The Japanese director Sōmai Shinji—finally the subject of a first North American retrospective at New York’s Japan Society—made thirteen films before he died in 2001, at 53, of lung cancer. All of these films contain, and most are structured around, long takes of a sustained clarity, beauty, wildness, and depth of expression unparalleled in the history of cinema. Innumerable filmmakers—from Akerman and Astruc to Hou and Hamaguchi, Welles and Wyler—have found strange riches in the long take. None of them have explored it as thoroughly as Sōmai, have pushed it so relentlessly, ecstatically far, in such diverse, unexpected directions, and to such a profound understanding of its nature.
Sōmai’s long takes can be very long. They can also be short, if longer than classical découpage would allow. The camera can move or it can stay still, be dollied or handheld. They can slow time, pull it taut as a fishing line, or they can cross decades with the ease of a stone skipping over water. One of their most consistent qualities is a touching, human inelegance. An early shot in 1983’s The Catch begins as a backward-tracking, handheld close-up of a young woman’s face, pans to her boyfriend as he walks alongside her, pulls back into a medium as they cross a bridge, then swings off that trajectory into seemingly mid-air and reframes them in profile, before teetering up into the sky and a wide that covers not only the now separated couple, but a bus’ progress down two streets. The always-wobbling, on-foot cameraman has, somewhere along his tangled path, perched on a crane.
These shots’ richness comes not from what they show, or from how they show it, but from the complexity of the interaction between the two. The camera is in constant tension with its subject, and the subject is made vibrantly aware of its freedom—to express, to hide, to play, to confront, to surprise, to resist. Sōmai’s frequent AD Enokido Koji has speculated that the director first adopted the long take as a way to maintain the concentration of the teenaged leads of his first two films, The Terrible Couple (1980) and Sailor Suit and Machine Gun (1981)—but that soon he became just as interested in how it captured changes in performance and physicality over time. A Sōmai shot is full of choreography, planning, and meticulous mise-en-scène, but he goes to great lengths to ensure that his actors are never rendered passive automatons. He trusts them as few directors do, gives them problems to solve, games to play, terrain to navigate, and their solutions are always surprising: to us, to Sōmai, to themselves. They involve the space and each other in unpredictable and unrepeatable ways, and the camera is forced to engage with them such that it becomes just one more unprivileged participant among many, that are all working together in a gradual, patient unfolding of not just character or plot, but shared physical and emotional realities, and a radical, manifold intersubjectivity.
The gestures in these films are often athletic ones that explore and elaborate space: lunges, dashes, jumps, kicks, throws, slaps, dances, punches, tackles, dives. In Luminous Woman (1987), the hayseed hitting Tokyo for the first time climbs out of a moving car onto its roof, to see the skyscrapers better. In P. P. Rider (1983), the convergence of three yakuza, four teenagers, and a schoolteacher in a canal brimming with floating lumber yields more slipping, splashing, shouting, and shooting slapstick than Mack Sennett could have dreamt of across a dozen reels. But they can also be small and harrowingly introspective. Near the start of Typhoon Club (1985), Michiko repeatedly stretches on her tiptoes in a close-up framed by a window, so that we can only vaguely guess at why she’s bobbing so strangely. Then, much later, her schoolmate Rie repeats the gesture in a wide, where this almost imperceptible rising and falling seems to afford her equilibrium in the midst of a city drowning in confusion.
These gestures are simultaneously a movement outward, testing the contours of an impossibly complex and ever-shifting world, and a movement inward, probing their own unknowable emotions, minds, spirits. Sōmai’s characters are jumping out of their skins. They are possessed—in the sense of a soul exceeding the body, spilling out from it. As in Bresson, Rivette, Ozu, Godard, and Rossellini’s, this is a cinema where spirit and the material world are inextricably bound up in one another, in which movement speaks and words have an autonomous, illogical weight.
Sōmai’s dialogue can be quotidian or poetic, often oscillating between these modes. The actors’ athletic gestures find aural equivalents in shouts across distances, mad repetitions of single phrases, and clapping choruses of folk song. Sound design modulates and responds to these vocalizations in much the same way the camera has to the actors’ movements, and the sublime faults of the image are mirrored by a post-synchronization both painfully obvious and enviably free. Sōmai’s soundtracks are often as daring in their discontinuity as his shots are in their continuity. His soundscapes can cut in and out of dialogue, abandon the scene on camera and move into a contiguous space, exaggerate ambience and foley into drones or conspicuously remove them. At its heights, as in P. P. Rider, this collagist approach is more akin to one of Otomo Yoshihide’s musique-concrète cut-ups of samples, noise, and free jazz than anything else in narrative film.1
At the same time, Sōmai’s films are of an impressive scale, made just about any way you could in Japan in the eighties and early nineties. After a few years of apprenticeship as an assistant director to Terayama Shūji, Sone Chūsei, and Kumashiro Tatsumi,2 Sōmai debuted with a pair of vehicles for idol singers, The Terrible Couple and Sailor Suit and Machine Gun. These were followed by major-studio dramas (The Catch, 1985’s Lost Chapter of Snow: Passion) and a softcore “Roman Porno” with a distinctly Antonionian flavor (1985’s Love Hotel). Sōmai also shot independent films, made possible with the combined alchemy of festival prizes, the last gasps of the hallowed Art Theatre Guild production company, and his co-founding (alongside Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Kazuhiko Hasegawa, among others) of an important but relatively short-lived spiritual successor, the Director’s Company (Typhoon Club, Luminous Woman, 1990’s Tokyo Heaven). Japan Society’s “Rites of Passage: The Films of Shinji Somai” offers an incomplete but superb sampling of eight films from 1981 to 1990; two in imported 35mm prints, two in new restorations, and Sailor Suit in multiple versions. Among these, my personal favorites include the incomparable P. P. Rider, apogee of Sōmai’s long takes, and tuna-fishing yarn The Catch. However, each film has its own marvels, and will find its own partisans.
Sōmai is often described as a youth filmmaker, a specialist in teenagers and adolescents, disillusionment and rebellion. This reputation likely attached to him early, and against his wishes. His first films were produced and initially conceived by a record label, with the album sales of pop-idol starlets their top priority. Sōmai more than successfully made this unpromising material his own, in part by not conforming to commonly held (and commercially lucrative) conceptions of what a teenager is. In fact, distinctions between youth and adulthood, between unsullied, Edenic childhood and reasoned or corrupt maturity, simply do not exist in his films. Boundaries are only enforced by hypocrites, and the contamination of one by another is constant and inevitable. The age of Sōmai’s people is irrelevant. They are all running, jumping, fucking, swimming, dancing, crawling, tumbling to keep up with the world’s mutability—very alive, and hurtling toward death.
- Otome would contribute a relatively restrained score to Sōmai’s final film, Kaza-hana (2000).
- Kumashiro is another master of the long take, sadly unrecognized here, and the most significant influence on Sōmai’s style.