Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Transcenders

Riding the Japanese New Wave and catching up with Paul Robeson.

By Chris Herrington

FEBRUARY 21, 2000: 

Violence at Noon, Directed by Nagisa Oshima, Kino on Video

"Violence at Noon" (1966) is an early masterwork from Nagisa Oshima, a Japanese New Wave director probably best known in the United States for the youth alienation flick The Cruel Story of Youth (1960) and the erotic cult classic In the Realm of the Senses (1976). Released in a new, letterboxed print as part of Kino on Video's ongoing series on the Japanese New Wave, Violence at Noon isn't exactly easy going, but it's absolutely worth the extra effort that viewers need to bring to it.

A bizarre love triangle about a brutal sex murderer, his wife, and the first woman he ever raped, Violence at Noon opens as a sexual predator named Eisuke breaks into the home of a wealthy family. He rapes and kills a woman who lives there and, as he leaves, is spotted by the family's maid, who he curiously spares. The maid seems to recognize the man and, when the police question her about this "phantom killer," she seems reluctant to give them much information. We learn through flashbacks that the maid, Shino, once lived on a rural, socialist commune with Eisuke, and with Matsuko, the woman who would later become his wife. We also learn that Shino was Eisuke's first rape victim.

Based on the case history of an actual Japanese rapist, this is Oshima's attempt at a crime film, but one that artfully transcends the genre. Like many of his contemporaries in the Japanese New Wave, Oshima was heavily influenced by Jean-Luc Godard, as seen by the fractured narrative, jump cuts, and high contrast cinematography in this highly stylized film.

In the present, both Shino and Masuko are well aware that Eisuke is the notorious "phantom killer," but both refuse to turn him in out of a perverse sense of loyalt. The two women do discuss the issue, though. Shino says to Matsuko at one point: "Your husband, Eisuke, is the ‘phantom killer.' Do you mind if I mention his name to the police?" It is also implied that the women's dedication is related to the commune, the characters clinging to past ideals in the face of ugly truth. Violence at Noon is one strange and bitter film.

Paul Robeson: Here I Stand, Directed by St. Clair Bourne, Winstar Home Entertainment

Black history month has seen the release of a deluge of Paul Robeson-related video product — reissues of several of his films, as well as at least two documentaries. Here I Stand is a well-produced, if conventional, documentary bio: comprised entirely of archival footage and talking head interviews with relatives, biographers, historians, and contemporaries, and told in a straight-ahead chronological fashion.

Recent years have seen a slight rebirth of interest in Robeson, one of the true renaissance men of the first half of the 20th century. A touring exhibit, "Paul Robeson: Spirit of a Culture," was featured at the National Civil Rights Museum about a year ago, but if you missed that, Here I Stand serves as a solid primer.

The documentary effectively lays out the extraordinary trajectory of Robeson's life: from his student days at Rutgers, to his theatrical emergence during the height of the Harlem Renaissance, to his Depression-era glory years as an internationally known singer and actor, on through to his Cold War political crusades and eventual persecution by a system intent on silencing him.

Robeson's most lasting artistic accomplishment is likely his key role in the popularization of the Negro spirituals, but he's probably best known — outside of Memphis, anyway — for singing "Old Man River" in Show Boat, which he did on stage and screen. Indeed, the most interesting moment in Here I Stand may well be footage of Robeson in latter years singing the song, but changing the lyrics of the racist standard to fit his true feelings: "There's an old man called the Mississippi. That's an old man I don't want to be. What does he care if the world's got troubles? What does he care if the land's not free?"

Ordering info: Kino on Video 1-800-562-3330; Winstar 1-800-826-3456.

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