Movie Night With Urbaniak: Yukoku, Z

Two political thrillers of extremely different stripes this evening. The first, Yukio Mishima’s short 1966 film Yukoku and then Costa-Gavras’s 1969 political thriller Z. The two movies could not be more unalike: Yukoku is brief, stark, weird, highly stylized and almost freakishly intense, Z is naturalistic, frenetically shot and edited, alarming and intensely furious. The fact that they were made around the same time and come from polar opposites of the political spectrum make the evening that much more fun.

For those of you unfamiliar with Yukio Mishima, there is a wonderful feature by Paul Schrader that is compelling and informative, while stretching the limits and nature of the bio-pic genre.

Yukoku is based on a short story published in the US as “Patriotism,” which is essentially a dry, clear-eyed, blow-by-blow account of an army officer committing seppuku. The movie is much more stylized, artsy even, with its abstract sets, lack of dialog and dramatic lighting. The officer comes home, greets his wife, explains the situation with her, she agrees to also kill herself, they have serious, intense, dramatically-lit sex, he gets dressed and kills himself, she goes and puts on fresh makeup, then comes back and kills herself too. A lot of Mishima’s key themes are distilled into this 25-minute movie — the changing nature of Japanese culture (which Mishima despised, being politically conservative in the extreme), the importance of dying while still beautiful, the tying together of sex and death and the compulsion to make one’s death a work of art. (Of course, most people these days watch Yukoku, if they watch it at all, because Mishima later killed himself in a manner startlingly similar to what he does in this movie.)

Mishima, surely one of the most egotistical men of his day, strangely declines to give himself a single close-up in this most personal of stories. Instead, he hides his face behind the bill of his army hat through the whole movie, giving all the close-up time to the actress playing his wife. She becomes, essentially, the protagonist of the movie — the army officer remains opaque and unknowable, while his wife (and by extension, we) are meant to fall desperately in love with his noble honor and tragic beauty. After her husband dies, the wife goes to freshen up and there is a terrific shot of her silk robe dragging through the pool of her husband’s blood on the floor. On the one hand, one says “ick,” but on the other hand, the shot drips (sorry) with symbolism and beauty, which kind of sums up my feelings about Mishima in general. On the whole, I’d rather he go on making experimental films instead of killing himself in a meaningless political gesture, but then I probably wouldn’t be sitting here thinking about him.

Z is a whole different kettle of fish.

Here in the US, we’re completely comfortable watching movies about Russia or Italy or Spain and seeing American actors speak English with cheesy accents — we don’t think a thing about it. But when watching Z, it’s disorienting for a while because it’s a movie set in Greece about Greek people but is shot, um, somewhere that’s not Greece (I think French Morocco), starring an all-French cast speaking French. On top of that, the filmmakers have made the decision to not try too hard to make their locations look authentic, which means that it feels like all you need to know is that it’s a political thriller that takes place in some sunny country. (At the time of course, the story was not only fresh but still going on, so none of this had to be explained to anyone.)

For the first half, it’s a political thriller par excellence, shot with such verisimilitude as to be startling and confusing. Nothing is explained, nothing is slowed down for the newcomers or Americans. There’s some kind of country, and it’s run by some kind of quasi-fascist regime, and an opposition leader is coming to town for a rally. We see the rally organizers trying to nail down the specifics of their upcoming event, we hear that there is a threat of assassination in the air, we see the general political unrest in the streets. We (at least we in 2007) don’t know which side anyone is on, who to root for, or even who the protagonist is. We’re just kind of plunked down in the middle of this situation and left to fend for ourselves. The shooting is all documentary style, handheld cameras and whipcrack pans, with a few artsy little flourishes, and then just when we’re getting oriented to who’s who and what’s at stake, the opposition leader gets assassinated and the movie changes gears.

53 minutes into the narrative, the protagonist shows up, the special prosecutor hired toinvestigate the assassination, and the movie becomes a detective thriller as we watch the prosecutor gather evidence, track down leads, and piece together the chain of events that led to the assassination. It’s almost unbearably thrilling, because we are in the exact same situation as the prosecutor — we just got here, we saw everything happen but we have little idea what any of it means. So as the scope of the conspiracy becomes clear and the stakes rise, our anger towards the people responsible gets greater and greater.

I first saw this movie in 1981 or so and thought “Wow, fascinating, what interesting places these horrible little tinpot dictatorships are,” and last night, of course, James and I could not help but be reminded of what our country is going through right now. We watch as government officials edit intelligence reports to fit a pre-decided outcome, twist and distort language to serve ideological ends, smear, intimidate and destroy their political opposition and finally kill anyone who disagrees with them, banning the use of language itself when it contradicts the official viewpoint, and it’s like being granted a backstage view at the White House. Halfway through the movie, I had a vision of the 28-year-old Dick Cheney watching this movie in 1969, watching how the fascists operate and whipping out a notebook, nodding along, saying “uh huh, got it, good, oh that’s a good one, yes, ah yes, indeed.”

Late in the movie the prosecutor is delivering his findings to his government superior, who grows increasingly upset as the story is accurately assembled before his eyes. The prosecutor, who has no agenda other than finding out who done it, turns up his palms, almost apologetically, and says “these are simply facts,” which is, of course, why his boss is so upset, and which is why the scene resonates with us so strongly today. We live in a country where the simple stating of facts is considered a dangerous left-wing attack on the government.

The fascists of Z despise modernism, long hair, rock music, liberalism and lack of respect for the government. One wonders whose side Mishima would have been on while watching the movie.

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6 Responses to “Movie Night With Urbaniak: Yukoku, Z”
  1. uthuze says:

    Interesting post

    Thanks for bringing these two films to my attention, especially the latter. I’ve known of Mishima for a long time, and found him pretty annoying and overwrought, but I’ve never heard of this movie he made. Nor have I heard of Z. I’ll have to check them out.

  2. dougo says:

    You got through the whole alphabet already?!

  3. craigjclark says:

    It may have taken a while, but I finally caught up with Patriotism on Tuesday (which was the anniversary of Mishima’s suicide) courtesy of Netflix. (I’m still puzzled as to why Criterion didn’t just include it as a supplement to their Mishima: A Life in Four Parts release, but I guess the addition of the reprinted story would driven the price of that up considerably.) I still haven’t gotten around to Z yet, but I expect I will eventually since they actually have that at my library.

    • Todd says:

      I’m kind of pissed about Criterion not including Yukoku with Mishima — twenty-five bucks is a lot to pay for a half-hour movie. Although I would certainly like to see a restored print — the transfer I saw was a video copy of a video copy.

      • craigjclark says:

        And I can report that the print does look stunning. This is not too surprising, though, considering they were working from the original negative since Mishima’s widow had had all of the prints that were in circulation at the time of his death destroyed.