As is common, I had a mental breakdown within the first few weeks of university. Almost everything I had known was either gone or irrevocably changed. Every reference I used to define myself was different so I had to redefine who I was. I’ve since been told that this is called ‘becoming an adult’ and that I should stop being so melodramatic and get on with it. So I did. One year on and the question “Who am I?” still sits within my subconscious relatively unanswered; and when one day I decide to have a bit of a Japan themed movie marathon, I realise that this sort of question, the question of identity, isn’t exclusive to anxious teens, but adults, and even entire nations too.
I tried to watch Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) around two years ago and didn’t manage it. I returned to it now, a little older and with more of an attention span. If you haven’t heard of it its the story of a town who, under the threat of a gang of bandits, hire a group of samurai to protect them. If this sounds familiar thats because it formed the basis of John Sturges’ 1960 film The Magnificent Seven and by extension its rather poor 2016 remake. (I couldn’t get through that film the first time either though I doubt I’ll return to it) Like Sturges’ seven gunmen the Samurai fend off the bandits at great personal cost; leaving the survivors to lament that although they may have won a victory for the farmers, the Samurai have ultimately lost.
Identity comes into Seven Samurai in it’s historical context. In the early 1950’s Japan was getting over the devastation left by the Second World War miraculously well. However, the new, post war world they found themselves in was entirely different from the one they knew before. After all, until 100 years previous the country had been incredibly isolationist for over two centuries under Sakoku. (Bit of history for you there) The Japanese where finding that their cultural heritage was becoming more and more irrelevant in their current time.
Take the characters. Like Kambei, (Takashi Shimura) the oldest and wisest Samurai. He knows who he is; he may be worldweary and weatherbeaten but his confidence is what makes him so enigmatic and such a good leader. Alternately Kikuchiyo (Toshiru Mifune) Who despite being the most boisterous, loud and confident has no clue who he is because he is desperately trying to be something the society he lives in says he cannot be. (i.e. a samurai when he is the son of a farmer) Kikuchiyo is an anomaly whom no one can rectify much to everyone’s annoyance; perhaps characterising the mood of the Japanese in the 1950’s.
The next film was Ghost In The Shell, (1995) an adapted manga. I’m not much of a Anime fan, I’ve never really taken the time to get into it other than Studio Ghibli which is essentially a separate movement of animation altogether. Its a richly detailed film following the same thematic lines as Philip. K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? and by extension Ridley Scott’s 1982 film adaptation Blade Runner. The concept of humanity’s steady amalgamation with technology has been a growing obsession in pop media. Ghost In The Shell itself is cited as one of the Wachowski sister’s inspirations for The Matrix trilogy as well as Spielberg’s approach to his 2001 film, A.I. Artificial Intelligence. The film has even recently received it’s own live action remake (which is reportedly lacklustre, I wouldn’t know, I haven’t bothered. Too Many Remakes!)
Above all though, and much like Seven Samurai, the film is damn pretty; going as far as to have a four minute montage of the fictional city in which it is set. The animation presents an amazing attention to detail which is stunning; especially when you think that it is predominantly hand-drawn with only bits of CG thrown in for special effects.
The films plot follows Major, A police-officer/G-Woman trying to solve a mystery of political and philosophical intrigue. The theme of identity is obvious here as the plot centres heavily around people having their cybernetically enhanced brains hacked and having false memories put in place. As well as this, Major, who has had her body almost entirely replaced by cybernetic prosthesis wonders if she is even a person any more. Along the same lines as ‘if I replace a spade’s head and then later its handle, is it the same spade?’ Beyond the material, what are we? What’s the difference between you and me? A collection of experiences that has taught us how to behave. What if experiences could be manufactured? Just as Major finds in the henchman of the film’s antagonist The Puppet Master. Are they even real people if what makes them them is false.
Ah yes, Lost In Translation… Sofia Coppola’s 2003 romance is one of those films that inspires a massive crush on Scarlett Johansson; like The Girl With The Pearl Earring, The Prestige or (if you’re a bit weird) Under The Skin. This film follows Rob Harris, (played by Bill Murray of all people) a washed up actor who is visiting Tokyo to appear in a marketing campaign for a Japanese whisky brand. At the hotel he is staying at he meets relatively newlywed, Charlotte, (Johansson) who is bored out of her mind thanks to her inattentive photographer husband. Both are utterly disorientated by the acutely alien culture that surrounds them and the two strike up a friendship.
Lost In Translation‘s take on the theme of identity is a lot more relatable to you or me than in the previous two films. It’s not as broad as a nation trying to come to terms with its cultural heritage or as high concept as losing ones self in a technology that, as of yet, does not exist. Coppola gives her two characters on opposite ends of their lives two questions. ‘Who am I? and Who have I been?’. Rob, well into his midlife crisis is dissatisfied with his choices and lot in life; (whether he consciously admits this to himself or not) and Charlotte having just graduated with a philosophy degree (“yeah I hear there’s a good buck in that racket”) is bewildered as to what she will do with her life next. Tokyo as a setting serves as a metaphor for the baffling and opaque world in which our characters find themselves. The language barrier, often mined for humour as with Rob’s experiences with the director and prostitute, mirror both he and Charlotte’s inability to communicate with each other’s partners.
The connection between these films beyond their setting did not occur to me until much after viewing them. If you ever worry as a creative that you’re just traveling the beaten path then you probably are but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. With matters of the human condition the issues are unlikely to change for the foreseeable future. And what does Rob whisper to Charlotte at the end of Lost In Translation? What makes their dire situations seem less hopeless? The answer (to me at least) is that it doesn’t matter; to us. The answer to your problems is unlikely to be the same as the answer to theirs. All we need to know is that there is an answer. It’s up to you to find it, and yourself along the way.