Repetition All Over Again in Recent Japanese Film
door Aaron Gerow
Watching recent Japanese film sometimes makes me feel like “it’s déjà vu all over again,” to quote Yogi Berra, American baseball’s master of the misguided quotation. This is not to complain that recent works often bring us what we have already seen before, although it is true that formulaic filmmaking is alive and well in Japan, with tragic romances (Crying Out Love, in the Center of the World (Sekai no chushin de, ai o sakebu, 2004), Heavenly Forest (Tada kimi wo aishiteru, 2006)) and group success stories (Waterboys (2001), Swing Girls (2004), Linda Linda Linda (2005), Hula Girls (Hula garu, 2006)) being prominent, though not always low quality examples. Horror films are still being churned out, albeit mostly for the foreign market since many have failed in domestic theatres in the last few years. What I am rather noticing is the large number of films that make repetition and its related tropes—circularity, doubling, mirroring, etc.—a central element of their style and content.
This is not entirely new. A famous example from the 1960s is OSHIMA Nagisa’s Three Resurrected Drunkards (Kaette kita yopparai, 1968), which repeats a major section of the film shot for shot. There are 1980s works such as OSHII Mamoru’s Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer (1984) in which Lam’s dream world of youthful togetherness not only repeats a single day over and over again, it slowly eliminates the world outside that small community’s radius; or KANEKO Shusuke’s Summer Vacation 1999 (1999 - nen no natsu yasumi, 1988), which features three youths remaining at school during summer vacation only to be visited by a boy who keeps reappearing under different names after dying. From the 1990s, KAWASE Naomi’s White Moon (Shiroi tsuki, 1993) focused on the repetitious actions its young protagonist; KITANO Takeshi’s Boiling Point (3-4 x Jugatsu, 1990), Kids Return (1996), and Kikujiro (Kikujiro no natsu, 1999), all began and ended with similar scenes; and doppelgangers featured in the films of KUROSAWA Kiyoshi (Doppelganger (2003)) and TSUKAMOTO Shin’ya (Gemini (Soseiji, 1999)). In another example, IWAI Shunji’s Love Letter (1995) is replete with doublings and repetitions, as two FUJII Itsuki’s are matched by two identical women (the female Itsuki and Hiroko) as the plot partially centres on the repetition of a high fever on a snowy day. HIRAYAMA Hideyuki’s Turn (2001), even seems to repeat (unintentionally) the Bill Murray vehicle, Groundhog Day (1993), in having the central character redo the same day over and over again, albeit in a different manner.
Why this apparent obsession with repetition, circularity and doubling? One can argue it represents a historical shift in postwar Japanese film culture. The philosopher Nibuya Takashi, for instance, has termed 1980s Japan an era of repetition, one appearing through a culture-wide realization that change, which to him defined the 1970s, did not actually produce anything significantly new. The feeling was that no matter how much one tried to alter conditions, they essentially remained the same, and thus that change itself was mere repetition of the same. Accepting the fact that there is nothing new to create, which Fredric Jameson has cited as a foundation for postmodern pastiche, does not lead, according to Nibuya, to pessimism in the eighties, but rather to a feeling of release from the pressure to create change, a freedom, he adds, that is earned only at the price of submitting to the restrictions of repetition. Lam’s dream in Beautiful Dreamer is precisely the idealization of this freedom within repetition; to her, endlessly experiencing the comic antics of her community is nothing short of utopian. Although Oshii critically develops this dream to its logical conclusion, the loss of the entire world beyond a certain radius from the school, one can argue that a number of films, from Summer Vacation 1999 to OBAYASHI Nobuhiro’s films like Lonelyheart (Sabishinbo, 1985) celebrate repetition, albeit with a bittersweet colouring.
Hula Girls (2006)
The late 1990s saw a number of strategies for contesting this culture of repetition. In a previous article, I have argued that the trope of repetition in recent horror films, embodied in works such as Tomie (1999) and the Ring series, has offered a potential critique of this kind of articulation of the postmodern in Japan, a postmodern that has, through a reassuring repetition, created a narcissistic elision of the other. The elided other returns with a vengeance in horror cinema, strategically reversing the role of repetition to reveal the differences (the A=not A) obfuscated in narcissistic identity. Mirrors and mirror like devices in Tomie and Ring 2 (Ringu 2, 1999), for instance, remind us of the similarity between heroine and monster, but they also demonize narcissism itself, foregrounding the underside to that reflective celebration of the same. But with too many horror films sticking closely to the demonization of the other central to the genre (Uzumaki (2000) is a good example), they allow us to scream out—again and again in a structure of repetition—while never fully coming to terms with the self’s own perception of the other as a threat.
One also saw alternatives in non-horror cinema. As I have argued elsewhere, many directors after 1990 utilized a long shot, long take style to both avoid imposing interpretations on the other, while also prompting a mode of viewing that approaches the image and its subjects on their own terms without predigested explanations. In this stylistics, as practiced for instance by OGATA Akira (The Milkwoman (Itsuka dokusho suru hi, 2005)) or ICHIKAWA Jun (Tony Takitani (2005)), the repetitions of daily routine function as a problematic background against which the spectator must notice the subtle changes that mark the loneliness repetition conceals. Repetition, in effect, foregrounds the slight, but real transformations that belie such a reiteration of the same. With Tony Takitani, that routine matches the artificiality of consumer fetishism (the endless need to buy), but it is in the impossibility of repetition—of being able to substitute a lost loved one with someone who looks the same—that the reality of emptiness comes though. Such films, then, oppose repetition with various degrees of realism.
I wonder, however, whether some recent films are beginning to mark the limits of such strategies of or against repetition, instead becoming more pessimistic. Much of this centres around the problem of history. Repetition is frequently an issue of time, and MIIKE Takashi’s Big Bang Love, Juvenile A (46 Oku nen no koi, 2006) and AOYAMA Shinji’s Crickets (Korogi, 2006) both cite a cyclical time that seems to transcend history. The Japanese title of Miike’s work (literally “4.6 Billion Year Love”) underlines the celestial underpinning of a work featuring the sun and a rocket, but it is the introduction of ritual at the beginning (the ceremony of becoming a man), coupled with repetitions of actions located in an artificial, abstract mise-en-scène, that tend to push this narrative of the love of two incarcerated murderers out of historical time and into the realm of myth. Aoyama’s film features a blind old man (who visits a summer home with his young, sighted lover) whose existence is also celestial (being tied to the moon), while also grounded in a repetition (of eating, feeling, etc.) that is almost pre-human in its vulgarity. The film’s conclusion, where the blind man, whom we thought had died, returns a year later just like the revolving seasons, seems to also push him into the realm of myth.
This cyclicality, however, does not necessarily align with what could be considered a traditional Japanese conception of seasonal, cyclical time. Such a conception can be found, for example, in the transcendental point of view of the god Suzaku embedded in Kawase Naomi’s 1997 film of the same name, but Miike and Aoyama cite cyclical time only with feelings of regret or irony. Aoyama was one of the prime theorists of 1990s Japanese cinema, seeking out means for summoning the ghostly traces of the real in a world swallowed up by images. He focused in particular on what he called “jikkan,” a term that literally means “the feeling of reality,” but which in Aoyama’s theorization, becomes an in-between strategy of gaps and fissures similar to Roland Barthes’s “third meaning.” “I want to call jikkan,” he writes, “that fragment of reality that one confronts, that ‘something’ similar to an unknown other, an indifferent other that you can only say is there when subjectivity has been removed.”  Emphasizing singularity—the opposite of repetition—was one of the ways of evoking this “other” unburdened by a subject’s perspective; one trope of that was the Polaroid camera—the camera without a negative used for reproduction—which appeared in Helpless Two Punks (Chinpira, 1996) and Eureka (Yuriika, 2000). The Polaroid again appears in Crickets, but this time capturing a person who later disappears from the image. Perhaps this is a ghost, the spirit of history (of Christian persecution related in the film) or of jikkan, which Aoyama himself says, “exists as a kind of indistinct and troublesome ‘ghost’ (yurei),”  or perhaps it is just a lie (as may be the case with the Christian history). Aoyama now seems more playful but also more unsure of his position towards repetition.
Big Bang Love, Juvenile A (2006)
Miike complicates his world of cyclic time with choices, undermining repetition through dualism. Not only is there the choice between the pyramid (heaven) and the rocket (the universe) central to the question of time (eternity versus death), but Miike often cuts without warning between Kazuki with or without tattoos (connecting him respectively to ritual or historical time). Kazuki’s opting for death could be seen as a rejection of the former and thus of the “4.6 billion year love” that ironically the film never sees consummated. One thing that burdens Kazuki is precisely the ghost of history—in this case, the spectre of the warden’s wife whom he killed some years before—one that appears more certain than Aoyama’s “ghost.” When one aligns that ghost with the warden’s essential rejection of the penal reform system—to him, prisoners will either endlessly repeat their crimes or someday, on their own, without explanation, decide to act differently—Kazuki’s death becomes the only example in the film of ending repetition and paying off the burden of history.
Big Bang Love, Juvenile A, however, begins with a film clapper, something that, like the prologue of Miike’s Dead or Alive (DOA Deddo oa araibu – hanzaisha, 1999), threatens to turn all of the subsequent images into being “merely” a film, and Kazuki’s death into an unsolved mystery. Kitano Takeshi’s Takeshis’ (2005) does something similar, first by beginning and ending with scenes from a movie in the movie, and second by having what comes in between be the product of doppelganger actors imagining movie-like stories of each other. But by actually starting the film with World War II, and an American GI towering over a wounded Japanese soldier played by Takeshi, Kitano threatens to locate the source of this endless cycle of fictions imagining fictions in the postwar emasculation of Japan by the United States (echoing a common right wing complaint about postwar culture), while also being pessimistic about any solution. Miike, in contrast, places the responsibility for this situation first in the crimes of his heroes and second in a state apparatus of wardens and police detectives (one of whom, after all, starts the film with the clapper) that shapes the circular rooms, spiral staircases, mirrored desks, and fake one-way mirrors that trap the heroes.
It seems inevitable that we must at least partially relate struggles over repetition in recent film to the return of nationalism in Japan, itself now centered on such rituals as repeating a visit to the Yasukuni war shrine and reiterating mythifications of modern history. While there are certainly plenty of filmmakers who resist such a trend, I wonder if the trope of repetition in the most recent work does not evince a certain despair over the seemingly overwhelming and unquestioned rise of popular nationalism in recent years and what that entails for conceptions of time, history and responsibility. Such despair can translate into aestheticized narratives of dualistic choice (Miike) or into a cynical “anything goes” mentality (Kitano).
The coming years will tell us whether Japanese cinema repeats the same trend or finds a solution to this seemingly endless cycle. But I do feel Kurosawa Kiyoshi is worth another look at least for his questions in this regard. Focusing in Loft (Rofuto, 2006) on both crimes of repetition (a writer’s plagiarism) and on a crime that is repeated (the anthropologist and the editor seemingly committing the same murder), Kurosawa renders everyone guilty, thus turning the return of the ghost (of the young writer, of the mummy) into a historical reckoning or a coming to terms. Yet, by tiptoeing on the edge of absurdity, refusing to clarify the generic borders of his own film, Kurosawa is forcing us to tread the lines between his doubles and doppelgangers, making us live in repetition without the comfort of either wallowing in it or rejecting it. There is much to despair in Loft, but Kurosawa at least offers us the possibility of rethinking repetition from both the inside and out, like his lovers shown from different sides of a clouded window, or from different perspectives, like the two views he sometimes shows us of the same action, cutting between the main camera and another attached only a few inches away. This is repetition but with discontinuity, opening up fissures and spaces that can help us think whether or not this is truly “déjà vu all over again,” or whether Japan, by not forgetting the ghost of history, can avoid repeating it.
Aaron Gerow is an assistant professor in Film Studies and East Asian Languages and Literatures at Yale University. He has published numerous articles on Japanese cinema, including film reviews for the Daily Yomiuri, and has a book coming out on TAKESHI Kitano.