Japón: On Seeing Ourselves Seeing

On Film / Essays — Mar 29, 2019

When Carlos Reygadas’s debut film, Japón, came out in 2002, my generation was just starting to drive cars, smoke weed, use contraceptives. A movie ticket at the Cineteca Nacional still cost only twenty pesos then if you showed your student ID (it was free if you were a film student), and it was there that most of us were initiated into cinema as a culture and a way of life. The thing was, though, that it was really difficult, even at the Cineteca, to watch Mexican movies—or any Latin American movies, for that matter. Few films were being produced in Mexico, and we had anyhow been educated under the precept that good cinema was always synonymous with foreign cinema, especially if it was European—whether or not a specific film might seem particularly notable. So when Japón arrived, we were unprepared, taken by surprise; but also desperately thirsty for something that we could call our own—whatever that meant. I watched Japón at the Cineteca the year it was released and remember the state of awe and intermittent rapture in which I sat through its entire length. Or perhaps I should simply say the state of Fuck yes, this is possible. But also, What is this all about?

The film opens with a scene of Mexico City traffic, a scene almost identical to the one that was surely taking place right outside and around the Cineteca: a long line of vochos and Tsurus in the darkness of an underpass, their rear lights moving like embers of slow lava toward the light at the other end of the tunnel. The effect was peculiar, as if the screen were suddenly removed and the viewers who had just sat down to watch the movie were all back in their cars, moving within and across Mexico City. The camera follows a series of streets and eventually reaches a highway by night, continuing ever forward until we are blinded by the brilliant sunlight of a crisp morning in rural Mexico. The eye of the camera has left the city, and we have left with it. Because Japón is, perhaps, a movie about leaving and leaving behind.

The transition between the city and the countryside is not a trivial or cosmetic narrative device (nothing is in Reygadas’s films). From the outset, Japón openly lays out the poles of its narrative tension: urban and rural; the man-made world with all its mores and codes, and the natural world with its own bestial laws and logic. Once in the deep of the countryside—vast, beautiful, arid planes sprinkled with magueys and nopales—we finally see the unnamed main character (played by Alejandro Ferretis), a middle-aged man who walks with the aid of a cane and has a face at once fiery and melancholy. The man, about whom we later learn that he has left the city with the intention of killing himself, comes across a little boy who is hunting a bird but is unable to finally snap its neck once it has fallen from the sky to the ground. “My fingers are not strong enough,” says the boy to the man, handing him the bird. It’s among the first sentences spoken in the film, and one that does not seem casual. Because Japón is perhaps also a film about lacking the strength to ultimately consummate desire and impulse—whether it be Eros or Thanatos tugging at the strings of the will.

“While the human drama unfolds, the seasonal rains come, the river swells, animals die and are born, clouds form and pass.”

The plot of Japón is meager and not overly complicated. The protagonist—a painter, as we soon discover—arrives in Ayacatzintla, a small town in the state of Hidalgo, and takes lodgings with an elderly woman played by Magdalena Flores and named Ascen (short for Ascención), who owns a modest house perched on one of the rough, jagged escarpments that surround the town. There, as the days pass uneventfully and he perhaps attempts to gather the resolve to commit suicide, he begins to be flooded by life, by an intense will to continue living. His connection to that desire is less intellectual or emotional than it is visceral. It takes the form of carnal craving, an awakened sexual energy. Simultaneously, Ascen is being stripped of her dignity and of her actual, physical place in the world: a nephew of hers is claiming his deed rights to part of her property, and will eventually arrive with a group of hammer-holding men and destroy her house, in order to reuse the rocks it is made from to build a place of his own. While the human drama unfolds, the seasonal rains come, the river swells, animals die and are born, clouds form and pass. There is always an ambivalence in Reygadas’s work as to whether landscape and geography are the backdrop against which human stories play out, or whether those stories function as the background for the much greater tragicomedy of the natural world.

In the films he has made since Japón, Reygadas has continued to explore and play with the tension between these worlds—nature and the man-made world; landscape and the innerscape; animal life and the life of the homo faber. He dramatized it most notably in Silent Light (2007) and in his most recent film, Our Time (2018), works in which geography, animals, and the human world are all placed one before the other in a kind of game of multiple shifting mirrors. What is most compelling about his exploration of these worlds, though, is that it moves beyond mere contrast, toward a layered complexity of juxtapositions, and even further, toward subtle analogy, ultimately blurring the boundaries between them.

Reygadas reasons analogically. His gaze in Japón relies on analogy to advance the recurrent themes of death, life, and desire. His camera transfers spatial observations of landscape and nature into ones that regard the mind. But also vice versa: landscape and nature are given qualities of mental states or events—a dusty, arid road winding up a mountain is also a plunge into an interior vacuum and an emotional exhaustion; a rainfall is also a discharge of neurological surplus. In other words, in Japón, land and nature are endowed with a kind of soulfulness, and interiority is materialized in space.

Similarly, Japón places animal behavior and human behavior on a sort of equalizing plane, where our apparatus of ethical standards and codes reveals itself as an inadequate viewpoint for observation (which is not the same as judgment). It’s not a form of moral relativism or even moral nihilism, though, that Japón suggests. It’s more like a stance regarding the ultimate brutality of the bodily processes of living beings and the complex behavior that attends them. In one of the film’s most memorable sequences, a group of children watch a stallion and a mare engage in a mating ritual. The children pause a soccer match to observe the scene, and the camera moves back and forth between the children’s curious gazes and nervous giggles and the two mating horses (he, the stallion, rather lost in the height of his heat; and she, the mare, poised and perhaps a little skeptical). From there, the camera catches glimpses of a changing sky, the milky clouds forming a kind of spectacular ejaculation in the blue.

“The question with Japón is not what it’s about but what the film does—to us, in the deepest of our emotional strata and our innermost neurological wirings.”

In a subsequent scene—the one that is maybe the film’s most difficult to stomach—the protagonist has asked Ascen to lend herself for sexual intercourse with him, and she has agreed. We see her aged naked body sitting on a wooden bed, and then him, aged but not as much, standing before her at the foot of the bed. We see her arrange her hair. And him, breathing more heavily. The scene directly follows one that takes place inside a church, during the Eucharist, when the sacramental bread and wine are being consecrated (signaling the moment in which they are being transubstantiated into the body of Christ before they are offered). Then we see and hear him, giving her instructions—lie down, like this, like that, not like this, turn around, put your arm there and your leg here, move to the side, kneel down, raise your hip. We see the man’s relentless drive toward the fulfillment of desire at the expense of anything and anyone, lost in the height of his heat. We see the woman complying, poised and a little skeptical—but her poise seems to reveal a kind of effort, an exercise of will, or maybe of the suppression of will. Or what is really happening? In the end, he breaks into tears and she comforts him mildly, the two of them naked on the bed, somewhat analogous to the bodies of two different representations of Christ: the Christ of suffering and the Christ of sacrifice. It’s an almost unbearable moment to watch. But we watch. And how are we different, as spectators, from the children watching the mare and stallion? How should we reconfigure a notion of ourselves, seeing ourselves seeing?

In Japón, Reygadas filmed what seemed unfilmable, either because filmmakers didn’t think those landscapes—geographic and interior—were worthy of being documented, or simply because no one had dared to stop to look and listen well enough. Japón heralded the arrival of a new Mexican cinema—one that was neither navel-gazing nor made for export. It looks at the world with a kind of foreign gaze, inasmuch as it is full of perplexity. It doesn’t show, reveal, or impose a view but rather observes and inquires and transmits ambivalence. It questions the way we view a film—and ultimately the way we take stances in the world beyond film. It transforms discomfort into a poetics and an ethics of viewing. It transfers responsibility from the maker to the observer, from the director to the audience. The question with Japón, as with the rest of Reygadas’s filmography, is not what it’s about but what the film does—to us, in the deepest of our emotional strata and our innermost neurological wirings.

The bottom line with Japón is that yes, indeed, it made possible what seemed impossible. We saw ourselves seeing, for the first time, one afternoon in the Cineteca Nacional. Fuck yes, it was possible.