Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 25, 2008


Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:50 pm

Now showing at the ImaginAsian Theater in New York and scheduled for release at Los Angeles’s ImaginAsian on July 31, “Canary” is a powerful study of two deeply troubled 12 year olds who bond together in an odyssey across Japan. Koichi (Hoshi Ishida) is the son of a woman who had joined the “Nirvana” cult (a fictionalized version of Aum Shinrikyo, the perpetrators of the sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway).

Koichi and his younger sister were forced to become acolytes as well. After the Nirvana cult is accused of mass murder, the leaders go into hiding, including Koichi’s mother, and their children are remanded to a group home. Koichi’s maternal grandfather takes custody of his sister, but Koichi is spurned as an incorrigible cultist just like his mother.

The movie begins with Koichi escaping barefoot from the group home which is near Kyoto and heading down a road to make it to Tokyo, some 320 miles away in order to reunite with his sister and take vengeance on his grandfather. He stops at a nearby school and finds a pair of sneakers and a screwdriver that he begins sharpening into a dagger for use on his grandfather and any stranger who gets in the way of this feral youth.

Not long after he is back on the road, he is fated to meet Yuki (Mitsuki Tanimura) who will serve as his Sancho Panza. She is a child prostitute who we first meet in the front seat of a car driven by her latest john, a mean-looking man who orders her to put on the handcuffs he keeps in the glove compartment-trying to reassure her rather unsuccessfully that he is a cop. Just as she is about to finish putting on the handcuffs, the car nearly runs into Koichi who is walking in the center of the road. The john loses control of the car which careens off the road and tumbles into a field.

Yuki flees from the car and greets Koichi as her liberator, even if unintentionally so. He shows little interest in her adulation and for that matter remains unsmiling and taciturn throughout their initial encounter. Clearly, cult life has placed a hard shell around the youth. Yuki is his polar opposite, remaining warm and cheerful even though life has dealt her some major blows as well. Her mother is dead and her father beats her. Deciding that there is nothing at home worth staying for, she announces to Koichi that she will join him on the trek to Tokyo. His reaction is to shrug his shoulders and to continue down the road with her in tow.

Despite his lone wolf personality, Koichi learns that he has to depend on Yuki especially when it comes to the matter of supporting their trip materially. Without any money, you can’t get very far in Japan or any other wealthy capitalist nation. She brings Koichi with her to a visit to one of her oldest johns, a man who is happy to pay her 2000 yen (about 20 dollars) just to look at her breasts.

Towards the middle of the film, there are flashbacks to Koichi’s days in the Nirvana temple, which are filled with sadistic punishment when a rule is broken. For example, after Koichi refuses to take part in a ritual meal that supposedly connects them to the cult leader in communion wafer style, he is hanged by his feet in an isolation chamber and forced to chant a mantra 10,000 times. His mother comes to visit him and urges him not to rebel. Finally, his spirit is broken and he too becomes a True Believer.

Despite the grim subject matter, “Canary” is filled with joyous moments as the two children make their way toward Tokyo. Director/screenwriter Akihiko Shiota has crafted deeply nuanced characters in the two 12 year olds that is unlike anything I have seen in recent movies, with the exception of some of Gus Van Sant’s and much earlier French New Wave films such as “The 400 Blows”.

In a writer’s workshop I took at NYU in the early 1980s, the teacher said that there are basically about 10 plots in all of world literature, including theater and movies. One of them is the “road” story, which includes “Thelma and Louise”, “Rain Man”, “Huckleberry Finn”, “On the Road”, and the granddaddy of them all: Homer’s Odysseus. It gives the author the opportunity to structure the plot around a series of chance encounters that help to define the characters and move the plot along. As such, “Canary” succeeds with flying colors.

On another level, it is a fascinating look at Aum Shinrikyo, a group that expressed the same kind of maniacal intensity as the United Red Army activists featured in Koji Wakamatsu’s semi-documentary. Whether it is cult-style religion or Maoism, the Japanese do seem to have a way to push the envelope in a self-destructive manner.

Since “Canary” was not intended to deal with Aum Shinrikyo in documentary fashion, it is left to the audience, especially foreign ones, to make the effort to find out more about this bizarre cult. As always, wiki articles on the founder and the cult itself are good places to start.

Founded in 1987 by Shoko Asahara, a 32 year old religious pilgrim, the cult was an eclectic mix of various doctrines:

Asahara’s teachings stress the importance of ascetic practice, similar to those of a Kagyudpa – a Tibetan Buddhist school. Modern technology, such as computers and CD players, can be used to complement the ancient meditations. To justify the achievement of a certain stage of religious practice, practitioners must demonstrate signs such as cessation of oxygen consumption, reduction of heart activity and changes in the electromagnetic activity of the brain. The intensive practice (retreat) rooms are equipped with corresponding sensors.

Maybe the lack of oxygen inspired Asahara to launch the attack on Tokyo subway riders:

On March 20, 1995, members of Aum attacked the Tokyo Subway System with the nerve gas sarin. Twelve commuters died, and thousands more suffered from after-effects. After finding sufficient evidence, authorities accused Aum Shinrikyo of complicity in the attack, as well as in a number of smaller-scale incidents. Tens of disciples were arrested, Aum’s facilities were raided, and the court issued an order for Shoko Asahara’s arrest. Asahara was discovered in a very small, completely isolated room of the building belonging to Aum, meditating. As a bizarre sidenote, Asahara had strongly spoken against oily meats and junk foods, deeming them a tool of a Judeo-Freemason conspiracy. Deep-fried prawns, however, were found in his refrigerator after the capture.

No matter how bizarre such a cult appears, it is to director Shiota’s credit that one of his major characters retains his humanity even after it is clear that the cult has practically turned him into a robot. Eventually, Koichi runs into a group of ex-cultists who help him redeem his humanity and prepare him for the final confrontation with his grandfather, a truly gripping scene.

Schedule information for Canary

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