Heaven Knows We’re Digital Now

by Rob White

From Film Quarterly Summer 2009, Vol. 62, No. 4

Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)

In Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s films, compulsive violence and fiendish visitations beset Tokyo. Ghosts stalk empty streets and derelict buildings. Even in Bright Future, which mostly avoids the supernatural, an executed young murderer comes back from the dead to witness the touching relationship between his father and the disturbed former flatmate whose life has unraveled since the sentence was carried out. The doomed age-gap friendship is as near as we ever get in Kurosawa’s work to happy intimacy.

His films often explore alienation with the aid of gothic conspiracy theories. Spectral contagion is a preferred, if perplexing, explanation. “Suppose there is someone else who saw her in their dreams besides you,” says the fidgety counselor in Retribution. “One more person, two more … and the number keeps growing.” In Pulse, a student discovers an Internet-enabled phantom invasion: “Ghosts won’t kill people. Because that would just make more ghosts … instead, they’ll try to make people immortal by quietly trapping them in their own loneliness.” The plague spreads in Pulse, which ends (as Retribution does too) with Armageddon.

This uncanny environment no doubt relates to Japanese socioeconomic stagnation, but Kurosawa tends to dismantle the allegory. His apparitions are never just figments or symbols—characters even lay hands on them in Pulse, Doppelganger, and Retribution. At the same time, living beings are becoming ethereal. “Nobody notices me,” says one of Retribution’s killers. “I’ll be forgotten in this world. People who are in front of me won’t see me at all.” Fantasy contaminates reality. Near the end of the film, Kurosawa seems to straighten things out, bracketing off delusion by showing a character embracing thin air where previously we had seen a revenant in his arms. However, everything is overturned again by one of the weirdest special-effects shots I have ever seen, involving a plummeting wraith and a bowl of earthquake-jolted water, before Retribution finishes with another deserted cityscape and a howl of torment from beyond the grave.

Tokyo Sonata seems to break from the eerie desolation. There are, by this filmmaker’s standards, crowds: the fired administrator Ryuhei has to join long lines of the unemployed waiting for job advice and hand-out meals. And for once we see an intact family: Ryuhei, his wife Megumi, and their sons Takashi and Kenji. Yet the boys long for escape. Takashi manages to enlist in the U.S. army to fight in Iraq while Kenji, a prodigy, uses his lunch money for piano lessons.


Phantom pallor Retribution © 2006 Sakebi Film Partners. DVD: Lionsgate.

The film’s first hour plays out as traditional melodrama (husband and wife each later declare they want to “start again,” suggesting Ozu’s Tokyo Twilight as one point of reference—see my notebook in the summer 2008 issue). Some critics have identified a new realism in Kurosawa’s work, perhaps overlooking the element of reiteration. For Tokyo Sonata grows strange, beginning with what is explicitly a dream sequence. Takashi comes home. “I killed so many people,” he says. “I killed too many.” He sits and Megumi reaches to touch his shoulder—and then we cut to her waking up.

But has the dreaming ended? When Megumi goes on a forced road trip with an inept burglar (a cameo by Koji Yakusho, Kurosawa’s regular lead actor), the erotic adventure seems to occur outside ordinary time, recalling the Pierrot le Fou-like escapade at the end of Doppelganger. The next morning, Megumi stands on a beach and an unnatural light shines on her. There are similar effects at the close of Retribution—we twice see the anguished specter’s face bleach out, heightening a sense of the occult—so maybe we are still in a universe where, as that student in Pulse remarks, “ghosts and people are the same.” According to such a reading, Tokyo Sonata’s lovely but disjointed final sequence starts to appear sorrowful and mysterious. It might even seem less like a conciliatory set piece than a moonlight death masque at one more end of the world.

Time was when characters in stories looked to the skies for consolation—to contemplate eternity, sense divinity: “they thought that someone was looking down on them from the very heights of heaven, out of the deep blue sky where the stars were … and was watching over them” (Chekhov, “In the Ravine,” translated by Ronald Wilks). Not so in Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies. Leonardo DiCaprio’s field agent stares upward and sees a flash of light reflected off an overflying spyplane’s fuselage. In a reverse shot, we see his magnified face as it appears to the drone camera. Mysticism is no longer required in order to posit a power of celestial observation. Electronic signals are transmitted from the heavens to situation-room monitors, which are often also targeting devices (those who notice the metallic gleam are more likely to be blown up than consoled).

One of the most striking trends in recent cinema has been the abundance of movies that treat the “War on Terror.” What Garrett Stewart demonstrates with reference to thirteen fiction films made since 2005 (there are at least as many documentaries besides) is the way digital video clips, “from high-altitude surveillance transmits to video diaries and cellphone souvenirs,” recur in them. These war films double as media studies, dealing with “a regime change in media as well as military control,” a shift to a computerized system of “total visual transcription” exemplified by the shot in Body of Lies.

Except that this high-tech system is inefficient; the supposedly all-seeing apparatus produces unintelligible images. In Rendition and Vantage Point, amateur assassination footage is undistorted, but its significance eludes investigators. Elsewhere there is defacement: Body of Lies ends with the espionage feed cutting out, the screen a rasterized and abstract mess; thermal images of a killing ground in Lions for Lambs show dead soldiers as an indistinct blotch of pixels.

There is a crisis of imaging here. Central to In the Valley of Elah is a decomposed, initially unreadable cell-phone snapshot. Stewart dwells on the film’s conclusion in which a 35mm flashback finally explains the photo. The sequence is an assertion, through montage, of an “inherent cinematographic power to figure an ethics of clarified vision”—and a presentation of digital video’s failings not its apotheosis.

Problems of intelligibility also arise in Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure, which features highly stylized reenactments of Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse in addition to selfreferential Eye robot CGI trickery. For Caetlin Benson-Allott, this showmanship offers a crucial cautionary lesson, reminding viewers that digital representation is by definition tenuous, a computer-encoded simulation of reality. It is not automatically truthful, no matter how crystal-clear its high-definition detail. This does not mean that digital pictures are inevitably treacherous, but their code can be changed, the pixels reconfigured, the content cropped. In Benson-Allott’s account of Morris’s technique, it is important “not to mistake it for anything other than a version of events.”


Eye robot Body of lies. © 2008 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. DVD: Warner Home Video (U.K.).

There are omissions and distortions. Like the recent American war films, Standard Operating Procedure unsettles the notion that digitization leads to obviously improved, more accurate visual records. It is not a downplaying of atrocity to claim that the Abu Ghraib photos cannot be taken entirely at face value. Although they delineate a manifestly horrifying dungeon world of kidnapped men hooded with sandbags, piled bodies, leering jailers, we know that there were worse things beyond the margins of these images.

The title of Rory Kennedy’s documentary, Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, refers to people who mainly stayed outside the frame: incognito “handlers” as well as illicit detainees; invisible victims, unaccountable perpetrators—and, at a further remove, the redacted chain of command. The Abu Ghraib pictures attest to torture while providing alibis for the powerful. In this sense too, they are less comprehensive than they may seem, as secretive as they are revelatory.