In our new column, Less Than (Five) Zero, we take a look at films that have received less than 50 logged watches on Letterboxd, aiming to discover hidden gems in independent and world cinema. For this first instalment, Conor Bateman looks at the experimental Kazuo Kuroki feature Silence Has No Wings.
Date Watched: 11th September, 2014
Letterboxd Views (at the time of viewing): 47
“From one fanatic ideology centered around the Emperor to another one centered around MacArthur, that idea of our conversion to postwar democracy was represented through the butterfly” – Kazuo Kuroki
Unlike many of the films this column will (presumably) be looking at, I didn’t find Silence Has No Wings (とべない沈黙) tucked away in a Letterboxd list of oddities or underseen Japanese classics. Instead, I stumbled upon it on Biblioklept, this brilliant blog devoted to literature and ideas and concepts that spring from literature. Instead of any description or overview, instead all that the site had done was embed a YouTube link of the full film, complete with English subs, into a post. The still used for the video was arresting on its own – a young boy handing an older girl a butterfly, both of them almost silhouetted in the frame as a result of this endless white sky above them. On a whim, I decided to watch the start of the video and after a few minutes realised that I was going to have to sit through all of it. It’s not the plot that hooked me, because there isn’t much there at all. Rather, in the opening vignette (which lasts around 20 minutes) the simple story of a young boy collecting butterflies is vastly enhanced by entrancing black-and-white cinematography. Poetic seems to be a phrase oft-used to describe Silence Has No Wings but poetry seems to be a narrow term, or at very least, a misleading one. Not only is there a lilting, literary quality to the work, its images are so clearly ‘cinema’ (in big quotation marks) – the constraints of a 4:3 frame are used to great effect, at times for contrast and at other points, the dark outer edges of the image intentionally blend into the screening space.
Not only is the image cinematic but the film itself seems fully aware of its cinematic context. Positioning itself as social commentary on post-war Japan, Kuroki uses stock historical footage of the atomic bomb, an anti-nuclear rally and a memorial service and places his characters around them, some engage directly with history and others appear to ignore the past altogether. In continuing to engage with the insular chaos caused by outward destruction, a lot of the film also deals with love, playing off of ripped-from-the-headlines B-movies – at one point in the film it’s revealed through newspapers that a wife killed her husband to be with another lover – and contemplative French dramas, a slow-moving duologue about admitting love might hit its satirical mark, though it doesn’t entirely land in-scene.1 After all of that, the film abruptly shifts in tone to become a yakuza parody akin to the work of Seijun Suzuki, an unexpected delirium that shows Kuroki fully aware of Japanese cinematic culture at the time, whilst a shot near the end of this segment vividly calls to mind Godard’s Breathless.2
What ties all of these eclectic elements together is both the visual tone of the film but also, on a narrative level, the journey of a butterfly larvae across the country against the odds.3 The whimsical beginning almost deceives the viewer, the film’s almost reckless abandon for narrative conceit giving way to social commentary, which is at once surprising then quite powerful. Even when we see a former soldier suffering horrible flashbacks in a cemetery, Kuroki shoots it with an almost amusing standoffishness – though we get a short and powerful glimpse of the source of his pain, the rest of the scene sees him yelling at the pouring rain (which he imagines) whilst trying to hold onto his girlfriend’s umbrella.
After viewing the film I did some research into it, feeling that it needed greater context than merely an odd discovery on YouTube. As it happens, the film was made at Toho studios, then shelved indefinitely as a result of them labelling it a “lunatic film” and not at all fulfilling the aims of a starring vehicle for actress Mariko Kaga.4 Kaga happens to play almost every major female role in the film, an impressive feat, but also important with regards to framing the fractured social state of post-war Japan. When we see Kaga’s face on a billboard later in the film, this sense of collective identity becomes clearer.5 The film was eventually released by the Art Theatre Guild (ATG), an experimental Japanese producer and distributor, whose first co-production was A Man Vanishes, the hybrid documentary from Shohei Imamura.6 Kuroki would continue to make films for the ATG, he served on their artistic board and made features until his death in 2006.7
A lot of the credit for the film’s potency should go to cinematographer Tatsuo Suzuki. Certain images in the film are startlingly beautiful – both classic in their framing and oddly modern with regards to shooting the city, it looks at times as if it should be accompanying the words of Marshall McLuhan, framed with a clean mechanical air about it. The recurring theme from composer Teizô Matsumura is also central to the ability of the film to pass over the viewer in a haze, its melody at times akin to a lullaby.
The film’s lack of exposure today can fairly clearly be put down to access. Whilst the first English-language book on the ATG, which was released in 2004, and a screening of the film at New York’s MoMA in 2012 raised awareness, there seems to be a long way to go before Kuroki is seen in the West alongside Shohei Imamura, his contemporary. On its own, though, Silence Has No Wings is a bold stylistic experiment that, whilst not always succeeding with its societal statements, never fails to intrigue and impress on an aesthetic level.