Shitoyakana Kedamono / Elegant Beast (1962)
Elegant Beast contains a barrage of ideas about all kinds of things. Its men swindle and its women use their bodies. The shenanigans of the characters are entertaining, their frankness is refreshing, and their hypocrisy when double-crossed funny. Without the viewer even really noticing it also happens to cover cultural identity, generational conflict, gender and economics, and morality.
Elegant Beast was made in 1962. World War Two finished in 1945. Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been completely destroyed. Okinawa turned into a graveyard. On top of this devastation came the American occupation which lasted until 1952, and serious economic hardships. If you watch the film and forget this background it makes the motives of the parents in it particularly opaque. Are they supporting all this grifting just because they are bad people? During times of hardship and suffering there are many ways to respond. After decades of propaganda that had tied Japan together ideologically and that had spoken of the greatness of Japan and the evil of America came the double blow of defeat and occupation. Everything was thrown in the air.
When the children begin to mock the parents in Elegant Beast the father explodes:
Do you want to go back to the way we used to live? Living on gruel in that shack? No way. I never want that life. That’s no way for people to live. A dog or even a cat lives better than that. We could never live like that again. The poverty. The poverty sank into our bones. It soiled us right to the core of our bodies.
It is a moment of stark silence in the film, and clearly highlighted as a moment of significance.
Shame and honour; purity and dirtiness. These are better ways to think of the moral landscape in Japan. Better than thinking about sin, certainly. The idea that the father alludes to in his speech seems to be that their experience of poverty has made them dirty, and although this family might seem shameless it is only because we are seeing behind the scenes. Whenever they are with outsiders they maintain the idea that they are decent people, and stand on their honour when this is questioned.
Bubbling under all this is a combined delight and contempt for the new Japan of 1962. Very early on in the film a jazz singer comes to the family’s apartment: Paburisuta Pinosaku. He is absurd. Cartoonishly aping what he thinks is western.
So absurd is he that the father compliments his Japanese believing that he must be a foreigner. Even though this has a lot of potential to be offensive, and smack of conservative, nationalistic ideas about “true Japaness-ness”, people like Paburisuta Pinosaku exist to this day in Japan – often as B-grade celebrities on TV game shows – and are frankly ridiculous.
Which is all part of the phenomenon that causes anxiety today: how do cultures remain intact in a globalised world? Can they? Should they? Japan had to begin responding to this question a lot earlier than the West because of the occupation years. Indigenous cultures in colonised countries have been living with it for centuries. Only now is it the turn of some of the colonisers who respond to rising immigration with nationalism and calls for ethno-states.
When we first arrived in Japan we found it funny that there were things like Italian restaurants there, although it didn’t take us long to realise that it was no “funnier” than there being Italian restaurants in Wellington. Then there were those decrying the popularity of McDonalds in Japan, but who accepted McDonalds as part of their own local city landscapes in England, Australia and Canada. When you do that (and I did it too) you end up putting yourself in the same camp as Japanese nationalists who want to drive all the foreign devils into the sea for diluting the essence of pure Japan. In other words you put yourself in the camp that would also drive you out of the country too. The idea of saving cultures that are “other” to mine from “my” culture’s influence is daft and patronising. If I can eat sushi in New Zealand without destroying my culture then the Japanese can probably manage a burger in their own country without destroying theirs.
The characters in Elegant Beast have blue cheese and cola and caviar. The art is European, the music is rock’n’roll, and the Japanese diet is criticised. This is clearly all meant to contribute to the film’s portrayal of the family, but what statement do the contributions amount to? Every character in the film is involved in or benefiting from the scamming, and if every character is involved then it gets hard to know who we are supposed to condemn. In fact condemnation doesn’t feel like the point of the film. It feels like we are observing a social phenomenon; a development of one kind of people in response to the new Japan that was metamorphosing (or mestastising, depending on your point of view) all around the audiences that came to see the movie in 1962.
The one character who makes a conventional if melodramatic act at the end of the film certainly does not seem heroic, vindicated, or better than any of the other characters. In an amoral word his action actually seems meaningless, and is rendered meaningless to the family at the centre of the drama by the mother’s decision not to inform the family of it.
On a bad day it was easy to feel that life was meaningless living in Osaka. It is a densely-built, sprawling city of utilitarian buildings. The shopping is intense and intensely wasteful and empty. There are homeless people sleeping rough and grotesque wealth. The castle sitting in its centre is a concrete replica.
On bad days it was easy to sneer at the bastardisation of Japanese culture, or be a snob, or be critical of the Japanese and their society. To say that the Japanese were racist; too reserved; that they were arrogant about their culture, and that their bureaucracy was officious. They were also the opposite of all those things: tolerant, warm, curious and efficient.
People from different cultures are different from each other. I’m not a fan of the notion that “we’re all the same in the end”. The difficulty is that once you start pushing too far into that idea of cultural difference you end up in a morass. It’s ok to go a certain distance with it, and make some generalisations, but not too far where you enter into caricature.
When the daughter and son dance on table tops against a brilliant red sunset to rock-n-roll the parents – in traditional Japanese clothes – carry on eating their soba as if nothing is happening. The rock-n-roll gets drowned out by a rising soundtrack of traditional Japanese percussion. It’s a great scene. We’re not supposed to admire anyone. Neither the children for their licentious dance nor the parents for their utter indifference. Young and old are participating in this scene. The old have lost authority, the young have lost control. Something is rotting in the heart of society.
Isn’t it fun?