(Spoilers for Punpun and Gonensei)
The scariest movie I have ever watched in my life is probably Still Walking by Hirokazu Koreeda. Ten thousand Lovecraftian tales of cosmic horror could not stand up to it. Its fundamental picture of humanity is so terrifying precisely because of its strong emotional core and hyper-focus onto what really constitutes our day to day relationships.
On the other hand, it’s also a film that contains things like kids running around and playing while adults talk about their daily life.
The bleakest movie I have ever watched probably has to be a tie between The Insect Woman by Shohei Imamura and Killing of a Chinese Bookie by John Cassavetes. Both hold deep understanding that suffering and darkness is essentially a mute and ridiculous aspect of life – and it is neither to be romanticized in the Gothic sense nor aggrandized in the Misery porn sense. The true crux of the matter comes from the fact that suffering, being a biological staple, enforces necessity onto the human spirit, and returns it to its base apathy. Thus, the main characters in both films don’t really moan about their own suffering – they continue through with cold pragmatism that this is what life has thrust upon them.
The Insect Woman alone easily triumphs all of the other films and works out there that depict subject matter like rape, the suffering of poverty, prostitution, patriarchal systems etc… with such embarrassing melodrama. This is because Imamura also has no qualms about displaying his own subject in the worst possible light – the heroine is a schemer, opportunist, and all-around bitter human being. Still, in a trick that only the most powerful artists can pull off, he manages to catalyze genuine emotion towards her in certain scenes, such that you actually find yourself resonating on the same wavelength to such a creature. It leaves you wondering how such a sterile and cold directorial technique could actually create such deep feelings.
The greatest sin of a work of art is to be self-serious. Critic Alex Sheremet characterizes this as a ‘push-pull’ factor that is necessary in all great works. You can choose to sketch out the scene as you want it, but you also have to know when to pull back into something more detached, ironic, or sublime. Take note that ‘irony’ here is not in the cheap sense of merely undermining – but providing a different view of the scenario through laughter, while still keeping the basic character and emotional components. Which is something that passes over the heads of so many people who split a false dichotomy between ‘sincerity/irony’ and sanctifies one or the other – as if doing that thing is enough, rather than doing it right.
Now, with a bit of detachment, I can also pinpoint a few problems with say – something like Oyasumi Punpun – which is usually touted as a good example of how to do the misery factor correctly. Admirers, like myself, would probably say that it strikes a good balance between genuinely sincere sentiments (e.g. the talk that Punpun’s uncle and a cab driver has about life in chapter 49), depression, and irony. Getting in touch with quite a number of other works, though, would place that view under greater scrutiny.
One of the great things that Punpun has going for it is how the art complements the feelings, while simultaneously drawing away from them. Depicting the characters as cartoon penguins will definitely place the emotions in a more detached light, but then allowing for expressionistic brushstrokes will allow one to push for emotional resonance when needed (like how Punpun’s angst is always drawn out with crazy fervor and dark lines). That schism is a technique wholly special to the comics medium, where the artist has tight control over every aspect of the work.
So, when you have a scene as ridiculously melodramatic as Punpun’s uncle having this talk with the cab driver who can say such blatant sentimentalities as “I’m just an old fool so I could be wrong but I think that what people who’ve committed crimes needs isn’t punishment but rather the knowledge of the pain of being forgiven” – and then you have this extremely melodramatic image of his cartoon penguin form standing on a pier with the sun rising (which is like one of the most generic metaphors in the world) – the art actually allows for your mind to process that scene as what it is rather than just face it in complete disbelief.
But that’s the problem with Inio Asano overall. He only goes ‘out’ with his art, but he rams the ‘in’ a thousandfold with the structure of his narratives. His character arcs will frequently overload on the angst before drifting away into a melodramatic conclusion. Even the ironic moments are attached to either plain non-sequiturs or merely positing a single idea like ‘the world is ridiculous seen through the eyes of a child’ or ‘society is mad and therefore weirdo cults capture the most truth’. This problem isn’t special to Punpun. In fact most of his works have it. Even as he gets better at execution – the structure is still more or less in such kinds of character arcs.
One of the best methods that Asano used in Punpun, though, although people would disagree and argue that that is the part that becomes heavy-handed (conveniently ignoring that majority of the manga is rife with melodrama), is during the finale when it’s just Punpun and Aiko walking around lost to each other. It sets up a grounding to all of the exuberance that came before hand. It tells you that this is finally the moment where reality comes to the forefront.
Problematically, though, that moment goes on for too long. It has the same tone to the part in the Killing of a Chinese Bookie where Cosmo is sent running through a dark and cold world trying to find the mansion of the bookie so that he can perform his assassination – but the Punpun version goes on for a ridiculous amount of chapters and still suffers from incredible angst, while the Cassavetes version is detached and allows for the atmosphere to unfold – even having a moment where Cosmo takes refuge in a restaurant and allows the temporary banality of the waitresses and customers to outline, deeper, his internal state. If Asano had cut down on that arc to about maybe half or even a quarter of its length, and excised the most overbearing parts, it would have been closer to a better counterpoint (which, I’m guessing, was what he tried to do).
Overall, even though I like him personally, I still have to place Inio Asano as a trailblazer – one who’d come up with a whole variety of new possibilities before they’d be put into greater use by later explorers of the medium. He shows how these techniques can be placed into proper structures, although he himself is not as good as coming up with the structures themselves. His worlds feel wide, hearty, and emotional, on first glance, but there’s something that prevents penetration.
What took me to this conclusion, though, was coming in contact with Kio Shimoku’s Yonensei + Gonensei. It only lasts 37 chapters long, yet it condenses enough psychological meat in that short span to the point where Asano’s pace feels sluggish in comparison. True, it’s a bitterly cynical take on University Life and suffers from its own excesses and dreary monologues at certain points in time – and the art is merely functional without being anything grand – but how it resolves its character arcs places it far above many things that Asano has.
A quick outline of the plot: the manga charts the declining relationship between Shima Akio and Soma Yoshino as they navigate through university life. Much of this comes from the fact that Akio is a perpetual slacker while Yoshino is a pragmatic overachiever set on becoming a top attorney. Much of the flak the manga has received probably comes from the sadistic bait-and-switch that Kio pulled. He ended Yonensei on a calm and bittersweet note, implying that the couple had progressed to a comfortable level, but decided to push the drama and conflict all the way in Gonensei.
Yet, even when he pushed the drama in the second series, it was completely fair and fell in line with the character personalities. Gonensei starts off with Akio finding out that he lacked the points to graduate, and has to continue on into a 5th year at university – while Yoshino not only graduated, but managed to find a top tier job at a law firm, and is set on taking her bar exam. This means that the couple basically has to start a long-distance relationship, and that’s where all the trouble happens.
A problem might be that sometimes the characters sound too self-analytical – sometimes bringing up tropes and romance genre trappings and then saying that ‘it’s not like things would go like that’ or something. Possibly it’s a result of this being Kio’s early works, that he has to eschew his inspirations openly rather than mesh them together in a more invisible form. I definitely suffer from the same problems at my current stage of writing. Furthermore, he likes to milk the most dramatic scenes for all their worth – with the major point of conflict in Gonensei being this long post-coital conversation where both characters go into long tirades of self-analysis. This kind of writing in soliloquy places it closer to stuff like Chekhov and Dostoyevsky. Woody Allen, on the other hand, is significantly better at hiding these sorts of analytics or putting it in a more believable light.
But, speaking of Woody Allen, Kio Shimoku’s greatest trick is the creation of Akio as a character. He’s our primary viewpoint even though Yoshino is also a focal character. We see the world primarily through his eyes, and even get to look at scenes where he’ll walk into video stores and ruminate about the intricacies of porn – that kind of self-effacing humor. We also get to see his loneliness and suffering in full extent. This places the heft of the empathy onto him, but, it’s all a trick. Frequently, other characters will drop hints that he aggrandizes his suffering to play the victim, while seeking to maintain his loafing lifestyle. In other words, he’s rather unreliable and self-delusional. Allen did the same trick with his humorous characters in films like Annie Hall and Manhattan – he made them empathetic although secretly they were the bearers of their own troubles.
This understanding is what really places Gonensei a far cry above other examples of misery and infidelity-angst works out there. It doesn’t always push ‘in’. It goes ‘out’ as well. Also Yoshino is manipulative and egotistical, Akio can’t see his own flaws and is quite willing to merely cruise around with life. The only reason why they change by the end is because they come into contact with characters who have even worse personalities than them. Yoshino almost gets stabbed by a jealous wife, while Akio gets played around with by a seductress.
It’s quite telling of the differences in tone when you compare the infidelity arcs of Oyasumi Punpun and Gonensei. In Oyasumi Punpun, as I outlined above, Punpun’s Uncle’s bout of infidelity ends with a sentimental conversation with a cab driver who tells him to live life meaningfully, while his wife, in her angst, decides to seduce Punpun. It’s all played out as extremely overdone.
What happens in Gonensei is that Yoshino tries to get into an affair with a man who constantly keeps her at distance. Due to her failures, she gets into a bit of self-angst, and suffers from biological repercussions at her job due to stress. She receives some advice from a doctor, and merely goes back to having to deal with it – at least until the shocking knife encounter occurs which completely breaks all that apart. Interspersed between this is scenes of Akio getting seduced, which will lead up to the start of his own growth and self-awareness.
Now, you’d consider the knife attack as a plot device to be quite excessive as well, but this exact moment, I feel, is probably one of the best turns within the story itself. During the moment when Yoshino gets attacked with a knife, her mind immediately draws back to a conversation she was having with Akio about the application of the Law to real life – and how, as mere written or verbal devices, have little influence on a situation directed by passion. Not only does it place a mere standard infidelity trope into a new light, but it also outlines a couple of the primary themes of the story, all in a single chapter – how society is really reflected in the passions of its individuals, how Yoshino personally has to retain her sense of order amidst the recklessness of her passions, and how much communication, over deceit, is the underlying method to solve all this. This call to emotional integrity amidst our passions is what creates that sense of calm optimism in the final chapter, where the couple, after falling backwards for so much of the way, finally manage to move slightly forward and are more comfortable with their failings.
The story, as a whole, is probably too excessive in some portions to definitively be marked as great – and Kio would go all the way to the flipside later with his comedy series Genshiken. Even then, at 37 chapters of dense characterization linked up to greater themes of society, there’s a clear rift between Gonensei and Inio Asano’s works overall.
The point of all this, though, is that the power of a work always lies the emotional core outlined by structure and characters – no matter whether the work itself is miserable or optimistic. It’s also outlined in the way that the creator can step away from the work itself to create strong counterpoints which can provide a detached or sublime view of whole.
Most importantly – it does not matter what stylistic techniques are used to but how they are used. The realistic art juxtaposed against the cartoonic figures in Punpun is an ‘out’. The detached analysis of characters in Gonensei or (to a better extent) The Insect Woman is an ‘out’. Romeo Tanaka placing together quick emotional, psychological and poetic turns amidst overblown comedy scenes is an ‘out’. The ironic style of Vonnegut and Kundera is an ‘out’. The improvised and mumbling characters of Cassavetes is an ‘out’. The ridiculous fanciful turns in Mahler symphonies are ‘outs’. The caricatured characters and cold cinematography of Kubrick Films are ‘outs’. The moments of startling natural ferocity in the middle of Kurosawa films are also ‘outs’.
A problem with Literature, which only has a linear text dimension, is that it’s harder to create disjuncts in the text without breaking the structure. Image and Music add an extra dimension in film. That is the problem with much attempts at experimentation with styles – only being able to outline an intellectual play without really getting to any core – then falling back on ‘theory’ when questioned. There is a difference between actual chaos, and a sly depiction of chaos which is actually well-controlled behind the scenes. A difference between Picasso, who used chaos in specific ways to depict a variety of human emotional states, no matter whether crude (Guernica) or gentle (Green Leaves and Bust), or even a mixture of both (Girl Before a Mirror) – with many other abstract painters out there.
True experimentation, in other words, is exceedingly rare, while people who are frequently ‘experimental’ carry the same style everywhere. Herman Hesse’s Siddartha – a work that is able to depict so vivid and general a mode of human existence in such a short amount of time even though it’s main character is merely a philosophical mouthpiece with a thin personality, is an experimental achievement far above many other works.
Thus, true ‘misery lit’, a depiction that allows us to see its constituents straight in the face rather than wallow in the mere ‘aesthetics’ of it – is just as rare. It’s hard, after all. Quite frequently you’d want to write a work where you want to seriously depict misery – simply because it’s such an important aspect to you when you yourself are within it. With all the crying hearts in the world, very little people can see the mute and dumb aspect of it. Other times, like with Asano, we’d want to give it too quick a reprieve through a sentimental counterpoint, so that we can get a sense of that alleviation passed through the characters. An optimism that is just as bad a tendency because it rarely stakes out the matter in a precise fashion – although it may warm the hearts of those involved.
To grapple with such a thing requires absolute control. Not to say, though, that one must relinquish emotions – but that emotions can still be applied in a smart manner. A balance of everything involved, and nothing out of place, and you’ll be able to see it for what it truly is.