Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

May 2, 2016

Zelda 2

by Will Ross

While the vast majority of The Legend of Zelda is played in a top-down, isometric perspective, there are a few brief sidescrolling segments within dungeons, where the player can either find a new item or bypass significant portions of the dungeon to reach a distant room. These sections control the same as the top-down areas, except that y-axis traversal becomes limited to the ladders scattered around. These sections, and the combat within them, don’t have much in the way of depth or development (they mostly involve slashing at slow-moving bats); it’s fairly clear they were primarily designed as ways to circumvent the limitations of dungeon layouts when the game’s development team painted themselves into corners. Still, these moments offer an even greater breadth to Zelda 1’s considerable array of game mechanics, and even its limitations hint at further possibilities down the road. “Down the road” arrived when The Legend of Zelda was a hit and a sequel was greenlit. Shigeru Miyamoto and co. decided to make a more fleshed out integration of the sidescrolling elements the focus of the next game, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, while pushing the top-down, overworld exploration established in its predecessor more in the direction of RPG contemporaries like Dragon Quest and Ultima IV. The combat has been completely removed from the sections of top-down play, which now exclusively feature the player maneuvering Link around Hyrule through swamps and forests and mountains to reach the towns and dungeons (here called “palaces”) where most of the combat and puzzle-solving take place. In order to justify the quick movements from environment to environment, the scale of movement in the overworld map has been vastly shrunk, so that while a wooded area would have taken up several screens in The Legend of Zelda, it comprises a small portion of one screen in The Adventure of Link. This change in movement scale has two major benefits. First, it widens the scope of the game; one screen, in particular, will be recognizable to those who played the first Zelda as a miniature version of the world map in that game; in effect, this suggests that the 128 screens of Hyrule in Zelda 1 are a mere single screen in Zelda 2. Second, it justifies the inclusion of towns, and while maybe one town could have been included in the original game, having multiple ones would have unbalanced the map and demanded a disproportionate allocation of the game’s technical resources.

The Zelda 1 overworld as it appears within a single screen of The Adventure of Link

The shift in scale also comes with a host of problems. First, removing combat mechanics from overworld traveling makes it an extremely simple and dull affair — the player moves up, right, left, and down, occasionally presses “A” to make a rock disappear, and tries to avoid triggering enemy combat instances. Second, they drain the sense of adventure from the game, as the player can no longer feel like a real-sized person dwarfed by an enormous world when that world is so quickly and easily navigated. The Legend of Zelda’s Hyrule map feels like a world you’re fighting through and discovering; The Adventure of Link’s Hyrule map feels like a map, and it is about as engaging to move across that map as it is to drag your finger very slowly along a globe — not that it can’t be enjoyable to see what you find on a globe, but it’s a far cry from the effect of crisscrossing the winding forests and looming mountains of Zelda 1. The traveling is only broken up by the sudden change from the overworld map to an action segment, which is triggered in one of two ways: the player steps onto a section of the map where such a segment is started automatically, or the player steps into a section of the map that spawns shadowy, monster-looking figures nearby that will pursue Link. They can be avoided, but will trigger battle should Link come into contact with them. Whichever of these two scenarios occurs, the screen goes black momentarily, and then transitions to the sidescrolling view. The sidescrolling perspective in The Adventure of Link is used in order to deepen the effective but light combat mechanics of the first game and open up new movement options for Link. While positioning yourself along the X- and Y-axes of a grid in the first game could be a hectic challenge, moving or attacking up or down had the same effect as doing so left or right. The sidescrolling view eliminates the free Y-axis for combat while preserving it for overworld exploration, and allows the inclusion of jumping, falling, and ducking in the action sections. This ‘best-of-both-worlds’ approach, however, is a significant setback to the principles that have underlied all the series’s successes. While both components of the game play fine in a vacuum, the sharp division between them in perspective and mechanics mutually weakens rather than strengthens them. Instead of a fluid sense of motion through a dangerous environment, the game imparts a sense of free motion through a passive map, with sudden roadblocks that sharply interrupt traversal and must be separately conquered before travelling can continue. But, in respect to the vacuum: Zelda 2’s combat is indeed deeper and more satisfying than it was in the first game. Each enemy has its own quirks of timing and tactics, requiring the player to respond to complex attacks; my favourite is a monster who throws boomerangs both above and below Link, requiring the player to quickly position their shield in both a standing and crouching position, sometimes facing towards the enemy and sometimes away, while also making time to close in on and stab the monster. While some of these enemies become a bit samey by the end of the game, there are enough different kinds of them that that’s not really a problem, and enemy variety stays pretty fresh.

Corresponding to the added depth, combat has also become significantly more challenging to grasp and master. Little changes like adding a half-second delay to Link’s sword thrusts make an enormous difference upon the demands made of the player; they must anticipate both their position and that of their enemies when they hit the sword button. The emphasis on split-second timing and repetition is satisfying in its own way, but is sorely lacking in the dynamic contexts and tactical problem-solving that Zelda 1 hinted at. The fact that almost all offensive weapons that were present in the first game have been removed here (most notably the bow and arrows) places further emphasis on the player’s precise control of Link’s sword. Sword-launched projectiles and further movement options are granted to the players by way of magic spells (e.g. “Jump”) which are discovered over the course of the game and drain a newly introduced “Magic meter”. The magic meter, Link’s attacking power, his total amount of health, and his ability to minimize the amount of damage taken by enemies, are all looped into an RPG-style system of experience points. While Link’s attacking power and health can be increased by his magic spells, those spells’ duration is finite and they drain his magic meter, and while that magic meter can be replenished by picking up potions from enemies or visiting safe houses in towns, new magic spells demand more of the meter as the game progresses, and enemies both deal and take more and more damage. Therefore, to increase the player’s the minimum possible amount of damage inflicted, and the maximum possible amount of health and magic they can have, the game allows the player to periodically “level up” these statistics after gaining enough experience points from enemies. I have never been too enchanted by this level-up system, common to many RPGs. The system tips the measurement of a player’s acquired power towards quantitative accumulation of playtime rather than the skilled and effective use of that playtime. Experience is a universal currency, handed out at the end of each and every battle, whereas finding items and power-ups that improve these statistics is tailored towards achieving specific goals; the latter strikes me as a far more satisfying way to measure and reward a player’s actions. It’s not that the level-up system hurts Zelda 2’s sense of progression in an actively annoying way, but it diminishes the satisfaction of more substantive accomplishments like discovering a new spell or defeating a palace’s boss. At worst, they encourage a player to waste large amounts of time “grinding” — seeking out and killing large numbers of weaker enemies to accumulate enough points to level up — rather than using their existing repertoire to overcome difficult problems. The compounded difficulty in The Adventure of Link has not coincided with more forgiving punishments for failure. Like its predecessor, Zelda 2’s cartridge featured a battery-powered save feature, allowing players to retain the progress that came after considerable time investments, and will respawn a player at the entrance to whichever area they died in with whatever items or money they have gathered intact. Unlike its predecessor, it will not respawn the player there as many times as they die, but, after losing three lives, will take them first to a “GAME OVER” screen, and then respawn them next to Zelda’s sleeping body, at the very beginning of the game, necessitating the player to navigate the clunky overworld map and the combat encounters along the way all over again. This is an unforgivably regressive flaw. Zelda 2’s heavy emphasis on a demanding action component means that repeating difficult scenarios is key to improvement and progression. Instead, by wholly removing them from those scenarios by several minutes and furthermore forcing them into the top-down exploration controls, the game breaks its own flow and disrupts the player’s focus. This makes practice a far slower and less efficient affair and renders death a needlessly frustrating affair. Instead of death providing an exciting opportunity to dive back into a closed mechanical system, it sentences the player to a lengthy re-staging of navigation and combat which they have mastered long ago. The final dungeon, while notoriously difficult, is ironically one of the most enjoyable parts of the game, simply because the player a game over simply respawns the player just outside the palace and allows them to play it as a single, ongoing challenge.

The only upside to The Adventure of Link’s altered approach to death is that it leverages narrative context to urge the player forward. Each time the player sees the “GAME OVER” screen, they are taken back to the room where they started the game, an interior where a slumbering Princess Zelda can be seen on a pedestal. If the player has read the instruction booklet or the backstory crawl on the game’s title screen, they’ll have a decent understanding of why the princess sleeps, how Link came across her, and why he has to journey out to waken her from her sleep. But, if the player doesn’t have this context, so long as they have a very basic grasp of fairy tales (especially “Sleeping Beauty”) they can figure out the gist of what they need to do, and see a tangible reward for completing the game — the princess will wake up! It's a modest increase in the incorporation of narrative, but it's an effective one. I’d be lying if I said the game didn’t frequently test my patience beyond what those kinds of stakes can withstand. Zelda 2 continues its predecessor’s bad habits of excessive esoteria in its puzzles, requiring the player to make substantial leaps of logic and unreasonable amounts of trial-and-error in order to proceed in many instances. This is somewhat prevalent in the dungeons but runs rampant in the overworld. The game will vaguely hint to you that the town you have reached has been abandoned, and a new settlement established nearby, but how the hell was I supposed to know to use my hammer on a particular patch of forest in the overworld map to uncover that new settlement? Maybe there’s some part of the game that hints at that particular square or the utility of the hammer in clearing large blocks of forestry, but I am not embarrassed to admit that after an hour of failing to find such a hint, I consulted a walkthrough for this section. Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, on paper, has around the same number of strengths and missteps as The Legend of Zelda did, but the sum of the former's parts make it a far worse game. By attempting to segregate the combat and exploration elements in order to individually improve them, the link between them was severed (ha, ha), and the first game’s sense of flow — which was imperfect, but unparalleled in its time — was almost entirely lost, with all the smaller problems with the combat, exploration, and puzzle-solving exacerbated by the resultant pacing issues. While a series has no obligation to go on being the same thing from entry to entry, the abandonment of this core success by the franchise’s first sequel is irrevocably damaging to that game, and would have probably capsized the whole Zelda corpus in short order had the next game not reassessed which of the first entry’s strengths it ought to build on.

May 1, 2016

Zelda 1

by Will Ross

Even for detractors of the series, there’s no reasonable argument I know of against the conventional wisdom that The Legend of Zelda is a totem of game design. The Zelda games, as a whole, are a prominent benchmark for adhering to strict but creative principles of design within a unique framework. Nothing else seems to offer an equivalent gameplay experience (short of the near-plagiarism of e.g. Star Fox Adventures), and this inimitability has been a major contributor to the franchise’s critical and popular durability. Almost every entry offers a reinvention or distinctive twist of the formula. Since the new millennium, they also introduce new story elements within a labyrinth of lore and timelines that purposely obscures the relationships between games. The totality of these merits is what makes Zelda a mainstay in arguments for gaming’s greatest series. But in discussing those merits of the series as a whole, it’s easy to miss the trees for the forest. Each Zelda game is, first and foremost, crafted as a stand-alone object that arcs in story, difficulty, and item accumulation, and as a necessary penalty for both the risks of innovation and the stagnancy of holding patterns, many games in the series have significant flaws that keep them from being the holistic experience they are so often shorthanded as being. What exactly is this holistic experience? I’d broadly argue that it involves a seamless flow between each game’s primary elements: combat, exploration, and puzzle-solving. Since Ocarina of Time, many games have also made the narrative/thematic element equally prominent, an addition that both elevates the potential of each iteration, and provides another variable that risks failure. Nonetheless, the former three are universal within the series, and its success or failure is often centered on how successfully they interlock. Together, they provide a deep and entertaining system of challenges that is greater than the sum of its parts, a sort of “triple force” requiring power, courage, and wisdom. Ha, ha. As an example of how the Zelda games encourage this flow, consider their items. For instance: the recurring “hammer” item can be used to destroy certain obstacles (e.g. large rocks) and open up new rooms or even regions to traverse; it can be used to dislodge, depress, or otherwise alter the state of objects associated with a puzzle; it can be used in battle (often with unique functions, such as flipping over enemies with a shell). Not every item in even the series’s best entries features such broad application, but given that most of them are only a quick pause-screen selection away, and that using them with the push of a button is so fluidly incorporated with the isometric or 3D environments, it’s easy to see how the series has had a strong foundation to build on from its very first entry. As is natural for works of great breadth and ambition, it also has a lot of room to cock up, since it’s very easy for one of those three pillars to come tumbling down and destabilize the whole structure, screwing up the flow and pace of the game. Given that, it’s both remarkable how well the original Zelda game succeeds, and understandable how profoundly it fails. The Legend of Zelda is clearly the foundation for most of the series’s defining conventions, and is therefore also a good opportunity to define those basic traits and develop a critical understanding of them. Zelda 1 was produced parallel to and released within five months of the even more revolutionary Super Mario Bros., and it takes the momentum of that game’s design, makes the Y-axis as quickly navigable as the X, and more or less throws you to the wolves: other than the cave that is visible on the first screen — which, when entered, offers the player their sword and a warning of danger ahead — each bit of progress in the game requires copious exploration and experimentation within a world that is almost totally open from the start. Unlike the “side-scrolling” Mushroom Kingdom of Super Mario Bros., the overworld of Hyrule is divided up into screens shown with a fixed camera. When the player’s character (custom-named at the start of every game, but generically referred to as “Link”) moves across the edge of the game’s displayed area, all movement briefly pauses while the isometric camera whisks over to show the new environs Link is entering, thus displaying a new “screen”. Each screen’s enemies are mutually exclusive, and therefore they cannot pursue Link when he moves from one screen to another. Rather than breaking the continuity of movement in Hyrule, this becomes a useful way to make the game world more comprehensible, as the player can categorize areas and measure distances by using screens as compartmentalized units. Displaying action through a series of interconnected screens was a well-established form for adventure games, but here the quick camera moves between them contributes further to the sense that the player is moving through a continuous world. Each screen has features of combat, puzzle-solving, or exploration, and in Zelda 1 those features were unprecedented in the collective strengths they brought to the table, but came with varying degrees of oversights, issues, and imbalances.
The full overworld map of Hyrule.

The combat in The Legend of Zelda is probably its least innovative feature and its least compromised success. Most combat involves maneuvering Link around an enemy monster and pressing “A” to have him instantly thrust with his sword. The central challenge of combat (here and in future isometric Zelda titles) is in positioning — the player must rapidly move Link around the screen to avoid enemy attacks while also looking for openings to counterattack. The game uses a number of tactics to complicate this formula, such as different combinations and positions of monsters, different layouts for each screen, and the presence of a shield for Link (which blocks projectiles when the player is correctly positioned). While the uncomplicated input-output of the game on two simultaneous axes leads to fast-paced, fairly complex swordplay, it can also be overwhelming and a bit frustrating at times. This being the 8-bit era, difficulty sometimes substitutes complexity, as some combat engages the player’s focus through the sheer volume of assailants and their projectiles rather than thoughtfully building on the rules of fighting. As the player becomes more familiar with the controls, this problem is partly mitigated by experience; engaging with a room crammed with semi-randomly moving enemies requires both precision and endurance in a way that offers the satisfaction of a “mastered” challenge. On the other hand, it requires so much repetition to master (rather than gradually training the player for the encounter beforehand) that it brings the game’s progression to a screeching halt. This interrupts any sense of adventure (i.e. a continuous movement through disparate spaces and thrilling experiences) and instead resembles a gauntlet. Thankfully, these roadblocks are mostly limited to self-contained areas intended to specifically challenge the player’s combat and puzzle-solving sensibilities, and even then, they are rarely as overwhelming as what I described above. These self-contained areas are present in every Zelda game, and are key to their structure: they provide opportunities for the player to focus on applying and further developing their repertoire of skills, while offering a tangible reward for completion in the form of new items and quantitative progression (the player must complete all of these areas to beat each game). These series hallmarks, discovered in but almost wholly separate from the overworld, are generically called “dungeons”, though this game’s NES-era instruction booklet calls them “labyrinths”. “Labyrinth” is a misleading term, as these areas often feature lengthy branches of rooms that have to be fully explored in order to find enough keys to unlock other areas, fight the dungeon’s boss, and collect the area’s reward (here, one shard of the mystical Triforce for each of the 8 dungeons). These areas, when executed well, are incredibly satisfying microcosms of the franchise’s pleasures: you discover your limits and boundaries as you explore, you complete the most accessible area in order to expand those limits and boundaries, then repeat until you have done this comprehensively and stand victorious over the boss’s smoldering corpse. Dungeons are room-by room affairs, where this route must lead to a key or new item that will let you progress past that wall you hit back there, and there must be a way to clear this room to open up the way further on that route. This approach benefits from the suspense of endurance, as the player’s hearts (the games’ units of health) are slowly whittled down over time. Losing is a merciful affair, as most Zeldas will simply warp the player to the entrance of the dungeon. The loss of time and enforcement of repetition stings, but dungeons are often designed to allow the player to reach their point of death within a couple minutes, keeping the experience enjoyable while still encouraging the tension of watching those hearts slowly disappear. When the player reaches the boss, their skills are tested against an especially powerful and complex foe — or not, in the case of several bosses which are simply repeated without upgrade from earlier dungeons. Nonetheless, while the dungeons in Zelda 1 are probably the high point of the experience, they show just how much lighter the puzzle-solving element is here than almost anywhere else in the series. Puzzles are frequently either so simple that they can barely be called puzzles (most dungeon rooms award keys by simply defeating every enemy, or pushing a single arbitrary block) or so obscure that they definitely can’t be called puzzles (more on that when I discuss the game’s exploration). A few are clever in a way that stand out; for instance, there is a forest called the “Lost Woods” that the player leaves by moving to the right of the screen (the east), but no matter how many times they move north, west, or south, they don’t seem to progress, and can always leave by moving one screen to the east again. However, there is an old woman elsewhere on the overworld who simply says “GO NORTH, WEST, SOUTH, WEST”, which will lead the player through the woods and into a new part of the overworld map. Later, a similar area on a mountain provides a staircase upwards (north), a rocky plateau leading east or west, and a staircase downwards (south), but seems to loop no matter which way you go and simply leads you back the way you came if you go south. Another old woman advises you “GO UP, UP, THE MOUNTAIN AHEAD”, and sure enough if you climb the staircase north five times you’ll advance to a new area. No matter which order you solve these two puzzles in, the second one subverts your directional understanding of the overworld map (North vs. Up), and yet each solution is logical to the place (a winding path through the woods vs. a staircase up mountain).

These, however, are probably the most enjoyable puzzles in the game, and many others can be infuriating. For example, the “Level-7” dungeon features a harmless monster character who says “GRUMBLE, GRUMBLE…” and will not allow Link to pass, even if Link attacks it. From this dialogue, the player must surmise that
  1. The monster’s stomach is growling.
  2. Therefore, it requires food.
  3. The only equippable food in the game is bait that must be purchased in a secret shop in the overworld, whose entrance is not easily found.
  4. If they do not have the bait but have enough money to buy it, they must return to that shop in a distant part of Hyrule.
  5. If they do not have enough money to buy it, they must run around the world and kill enemies until they do, and then return to the shop.
  6. Once the bait is bought, they must return to the dungeon and use it on the monster and then advance.
This is all frustrating enough — each step is tedious or obscure — if you already know about the secret shop. If you don’t know about this particular secret shop, and therefore have nothing to even trigger your awareness of food or hunger within the game, and have no idea that you need to leave the dungeon in order to advance in the game, and refuse to ask the advice of a friend or internet walkthrough, then god help you, because you have entered the gravity well of a puzzle that is not a puzzle, and it is a black hole that has no end. Instead, this kind of scenario (an alarmingly common one) is a daunting task of sheer trial-and-error and catapults you — sometimes unknowingly — into the game’s exploration element. The Legend of Zelda requires you to explore, a lot. It requires you to walk all around the 128 screens of Hyrule until you know the place inside and out, it requires you to test your items and abilities on almost in multiple combinations on almost all of those screens to discover its power-ups, shops, and cryptic hints, and it requires you to run through even more combinations of each location and each hint and shop and item in order to get unstuck. This quirk of design is intentional (it is heavily referenced and encouraged in the instruction booklet), and it is not without its positive aspects. A few years ago, a very smart critic named Tevis Thompson made a spirited, well-circulated blog post that detailed his hatred of later Zelda games, explained his adoration of the original, and held the undirected quality of the latter up as one of its great distinguishing triumphs.

Modern Zeldas do not offer worlds. They offer elaborate contraptions reskinned with a nature theme, a giant nest of interconnected locks…. One of the greatest offenders occurred early on with A Link to the Past: most bomb-able walls became visible. What had been a potential site of mystery in the original Legend of Zelda (every rockface) became just another job for your trusty keyring. Insert here. Go on about your business.
Thompson is effectively arguing that any guidance granted the player, any induction into a logical system that can be systematically solved in order to advance, is a compromise to the agency offered by unhampered exploration. He’s not wrong about that — it is an objective fact that the less a developer helps a player, the more agency they attain. But had Zelda continued down that path, its limited palette of satisfactions and discoveries would have become clear very early. There are limitations the what unsparing agency can offer a player, and The Legend of Zelda is an excellent case study in this. Thompson thinks that observably bombable walls are like showing a lock and telling the player which of their keys to use. I think that’s an oversimplification, but even if it weren’t, I think it’s far less tedious than Zelda 1’s alternative: the player is granted a massive number of keys on a single ring, shown a lock, and then asked to test every key on the lock until it opens. I’m sure that bombing every single viable rockface, burning every single bush, pushing every single statue felt like a rewarding adventure in 1986, but whatever thrill exploring an unguided video game world had (and make no mistake, this game kicked open its fair share of doors for the industry), it’s one dulled by the countless dead-end puzzles in countless games ever since, and there’s a reason those moments tend to be called “bad design” instead of “freedom”.

by Will Ross

In this series of posts, I’ll be describing my impressions and making personal observations, at first historical and then increasingly critical, as I view every extant film by Kenji Mizoguchi. I will be learning and writing as I watch, and may periodically come back to extend or update my earlier posts.

Mizoguchi’s earliest sound film has, sadly, seen extensive deterioration of its soundtrack, not that there seems to have been fidelity much there to start with. Oyuki, the Madonna was made for the independent Daiichi Eiga studio, and seems to have a correspondingly smaller budget than The Downfall of Osen. In any case, that movies most incredible meshes of technical and artistic flair are mostly absent here, and what remains is a simple morality tale with a discomforting moral outlook and reduced showmanship, but effective moments here and there. The story comes from Guy de Maupassant’s Boule de Suif, the same source that inspired John Ford’s socio-thematic approach to Stagecoach four years later. In Mizoguchi’s adaptation, a number of locals, many strangers from different classes, take to a hired stagecoach to escape a warzone. Soon, the bourgeois passengers turn their class prejudice against two prostitutes on board: the confrontational, fiery Okin; and the passive, compassionate Oyuki. But after the passengers are all captured  by government soldiers and suspected as spies (a bizarre, unpleasantly fragmentary ellipsis), the bourgeois stagecoach passengers beg that the prostitutes offer themselves to the ranking officer, with the hope of earning escape for the whole group. Okin is rejected, much to her humiliation, in a shot that demonstrates Mizoguchi’s skill in radically altering the depth of a composition with simple, expressive gestures.

Oyuki’s offer is better-received, though the soldier’s deep sense of honours compels him to pound back alcohol before accepting her proposition. The moment of intercourse is handled by an elliptical gesture: the soldier sits gazing at Oyuki, then as he stands up, the camera tilts downward and tracks backwards with his striding feet before resting on tattered leaves on the floor. Before returning to the couple, we see a stark exterior wide of soldiers guarding the building, which is soon filled by a small band of trumpets and drums that call away the soldiers. The moment also stands as an elliptical comment, a metaphorical stand-in for copulation.

When the escaped stagecoach passengers reach a ferry across the river, they hypocritically turn upon Oyuki and Okin and send them back from where they came. The two return to their war-torn homes, desperate for work but lacking clientele. They discover that by coincidence the government soldier has hidden in their home. Hoping for a reward and full of spite, Okin hopes to turn him in; Oyuki, however, has fallen in love with him, and begs Okin to spare him, claiming that Okin, too, has fallen for him. The confrontation, wherein Okin threatens the two with a rifle but finds herself unable to pull the trigger, offers another glance at Mizoguchi’s methods of calling attention to different nuances of his characters’ emotions and personal conflicts with small pieces of blocking and lighting conceits, and without cutting.

Acknowledging truth in Oyuki’s accusations, Okin grants mercy, and the soldier escapes, leaving the pair alone.

This romanticization of a woman’s assumed moral fealty to a man marks out a clear retort to those who would claim Mizoguchi as a proto-feminist filmmaker. Though I can’t be certain whether these elements were Mizoguchi’s idea, his collaborators', his studio’s, or the product of censorial fear (Mizoguchi had been the recent object of government surveillance for his socially progressive themes, a fact that frightened him), it’s clear that while at this point Mizoguchi had retained his sorrow at the unfair sacrifices that women make to support men, his storytelling had lost its disdain for patriarchal imbalance. But perhaps some of this impression comes from the emotional incoherence of the ending, which combines the plot contrivance and inorganic psychological behaviour that have dogged Mizoguchi’s films up to this point. Nonetheless, the concluding sequence is lovely in its simplicity and sorrow: a melancholic piece of music fills the soundtrack as the soldier departs on a boat in the distance, leaving the universally rejected pair isolated in the desolation of a bygone civilization.

Hey, Will has a new review of László Nemes's close-up Holocaust drama, Son of Saul up over at Tiny Mix Tapes! If you're interested, why not give it a look?

by Will Ross

In this series of posts, I’ll be describing my impressions and making personal observations, at first historical and then increasingly critical, as I view every extant film by Kenji Mizoguchi. I will be learning and writing as I watch, and may periodically come back to extend or update my earlier posts.

In its broadly available form, The Downfall of Osen has two soundtracks, one created in 1935 with a sound-on-film benshi narration, another one created in a modern age. The original 1935 soundtrack is the more accurate of the two to the original film, but seeing both recontextualized the benshi in late silent Japanese cinema for me, and as is so often the case seeing multiple versions of a film contributes to a fuller appreciation of it.

The Downfall of Osen was not Mizoguchi's first film made with a soundtrack; he made that around five years earlier. However, it was produced very far into Japan's protracted transition from silent cinema to sound cinema. An essay by Chika Kinoshita ("The Benshi Track: Mizoguchi Kenji's The Downfall of Osen and the Sound Transition") reveals much about the film including, most intriguingly, that it was originally intended as a sound film, but was switched to a silent very shortly before production began, with post-recorded music and benshi narration supplementing intertitles as a means of compromise between a sound system and the limited equipment available to many rural Japanese theatres. That was a rarity at the time, it seems, but the inclusion of a recorded benshi track was not, and led to negative reviews against the film which asserted that it was a detrimental and old-fashioned component. Kinoshita argues that Mizoguchi incorporated the benshi into the space of the film by having the narration draw attention towards important parts of the frame which the film does not visually focalize; he implies that Mizoguchi planned the film around a benshi. I find this a bit far-fetched, and believe that more evidence exists to suggest that Mizoguchi shot The Downfall of Osen in precisely the manner he meant to, and that the benshi served as an after-the-fact compensation for moments when on-set sound could not serve its intended and required purpose. A few scenes suggest that the film was carefully designed for synchronized sound; I’ll give an example in a moment.

The Downfall of Osen is another Mizoguchi film set in the Meiji period and dealing with the self-sacrifice of a woman who destroys her life in order to give an unworthy man she loves a chance for success. The narrative is somewhat fragmented and given to leaps of logic and occasional contrivances, but it is still the most effective Mizoguchi narrative I have seen thus far. It opens with a scene that cuts between a train station where a distinguished, academically-dressed man looks to a nearby temple on a mountain on a rainy night, and a young, poor man on that mountain as he prepares for suicide by knife. The film suggestively cuts between that older man's intent gaze and the young man, suggesting that the former is watching the latter. We gradually realize that, in a twist of form that anticipates the bravura opening of Speed Racer more than 70 years later, we are in fact viewing a flashback that uses the character's mental interaction with their physical space to project their experience with that location across a broad temporal spectrum.

An incredible opening, one made all the more stirring by the sumptuous visuals, which show Mizoguchi's photographic mastery reaching full stride for the first time in his extant work.

A later scene further bears out the importance of sound in this film's planning, as Kinoshita observes. When one dramatic scene ends and both characters leave the frame via the foreground, the camera moves forward on the empty street. In silent presentation (and, indeed, in the new Benshi recording), this shot is attractive but totally oblique, seeming to emphasize little but its own emptiness.

However, the original sound-on-film recording plays the sound of a bell, indicating the tower in the background. That tower belonged to the Saint Nicholas Orthodox Church, famous for its bells, and this soundmark both redefines the focal point of the shot and deepens the textual weight of the scene. 

The benshi narration (which is fairly unaffected but unobtrusive) and the removal of synchronous sound were far from the most damaging effect of the film's 11th-hour switch to a silent. That would be the intertitles, which frequently interrupt what are otherwise gorgeously mounted long takes and camera movements. Mizoguchi was clearly fully prepared to play with the mise en scene of extended shot lengths, and the dramatic effect of these shots is readable and probably would have been fantastically effective in their intended (read: sound dialogue) context. But the intertitles slice through them mercilessly, reducing their impact, their spatial declamations, to a technical and theoretical object.

Because of this shortcoming, The Downfal of Osen doesn't provide nearly as complete an evidence of its maker's skills as it ought to have; we must instead take the aforementioned flashback sequences, frequently breathtaking lighting and frame composition, and a late-film superimposition of hallucinations in a hospital room as examples that confirm his technical and formal prowess was in search of the the robust narrative shape he required for a masterpiece. Obviously, I am still in the early stages of this filmography crawl, but I suspect that for the non-completionist looking for a chronological run through Mizoguchi, this is a good point to start. I cannot emphasize enough that the original soundtrack provides the superior viewing experience.

Jan 26, 2016

The Big Short (2015)

by Will Ross

Though it was one of the defining events of the 21st century so far, and ripe with dramatic potential, the 2008 global financial crisis has yet to receive anything like a definitive comment in cinema. Sure, Margin Call was a solid and intelligent all-rounder, and Inside Job was a competent breakdown and civics lesson, but for an event engineered with such villainy that had such widespread impact, eight years is a long time to go without essential representation by a great artist (the other transformative American event of that decade, 9/11, was five years removed from Paul Greengrass’s masterpiece United 93). With the United States’s apparent disinterest in banking reform, the topic isn’t getting any less important, so it’s surprising that the most high profile effort towards it so far is directed by Adam McKay, of all people.

McKay is an odd choice for a comedy drama prestige film. In spite of ample experience in the “comedy” realm, his work has all had a ramshackle absurdity that ensures they cannot be taken seriously, and frequently turns that to his advantage. The Big Short, despite its frequent quips and asides, absolutely must be taken seriously in order to work on any level at all, and McKay doesn’t seem to have the directorial toolkit to make that happen.

This is not to decry McKay as incapable of relevance. I’ll be damned if I can think of another director who could have made Anchorman, and whatever you think of that film, it had a powerful influence on the decade of comedy that followed. He has a deft sense of comic rhythm where it counts. But he’s also never produced a film that formed an irreducible whole; his spotty music choices, indulgent stylistic tangents, sloppy pacing, and near-incompetence as a camera director make sure of that.

McKay doesn’t overcome any of those weaknesses in The Big Short, not by a long shot. But his strengths do keep the script’s quips from thudding too mechanically. And, to its credit, the screenplay rattles off its breezy dialogue very nicely, for the most part. In any case, it’s clear that Charles Randolph has a fine utility with words, if not entirely with structure. The Big Short flirts with a hyperlink influence, but the disparate paths of its characters never cross, probably because in real life they never did cross, and, as the film is fond of repeating via voiceover, This Stuff Really Happened. But the separate stories never cross in a meaningful thematic way, either. They just trundle along their parallel story threads, going through the same events with the same emotional tenor and the same overarching observations and the same results, and the only thing that keeps them feeling any different is the contrasted personalities involved, which are thinly sketched at the start and then hardly filled in at all, in spite of being capably embodied by the film’s all-star cast.

But the script’s greatest sin is its celebrity cameo-lectures, which are disastrously disruptive to the film and condescending to the audience. An especially frustrating instance comes just after the film hits one of its emotional peaks, as a character realizes the full scope of the coming blow to the global economy. Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O' Mine” plays over the soundtrack as voiceover gives way to a flurry of impressionistic cuts between cooking, casino bets, and then the whole thing stops dead so that Selena Gomez can spend two minutes explaining what a synthetic CDO is, even though the scene that just happened did a perfectly fine job of that. There are three or four of these interruptions, and, unsurprisingly, Randolph has stated that they were McKay’s idea.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the counterintuitive but excellent choice of “Sweet Child O' Mine” was also McKay’s, but the editing that accompanies it is very obviously the work of one of his two major new collaborators on the film, Hank Corwin. Corwin gives The Big Short a lot of its best moments, bringing his editing bona fides from Terrence Malick’s The New World and The Tree of Life to bear with some ingenious flashes of discontinuity or subjective flashbacks, while also being obviously beholden to the arhythmic onus of his material. A film with heavy coverage, length, and a multi-threaded structure is a prime candidate for a rewrite in the editing stage, and doubtless Corwin could have done it, but that probably would have required more rearrangement than was possible in a 2015 release window.

If there’s one person who benefits from Corwin’s work more than McKay, it’s his second major new crew member, Barry Ackroyd. The English director of photography is a near-ideal choice for the project; he excels at bringing the best out of directors who have little confidence with cameras (Ralph Fiennes had him take charge for the entire visual design of 2011's Coriolanus), and might be the best docudrama cinematographer working today (and any docudrama DoP needs a damn fine editor backing him or her up). And yes, the best visuals feature dynamic, reactive handheld movements and reframing, and they’re entirely typical of Barry Ackroyd’s cinematography. The worst are arbitrary, uninspired coverage choices and awkward, locked-off compositions and dollies. Those are entirely typical of — you probably see this one coming — Adam McKay. Which points to one of two things: either Ackroyd isn’t at home with still frames and compositions, or Adam McKay is a lackluster director of visuals who scuttled The Big Short’s chances at aesthetic cohesion. (A reminder: Ackroyd shot the magnificent, classical, locked-off compositions of Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes the Barley.)

This illness at ease pervades almost every aspect of The Big Short, and it compromises the film’s message delivery. An early voiceover insists that the machinations of all these deals and financial terms are not beyond our understanding. If the film trusted its dramatic pull and had assured procedural storytelling, it would be able to prove this, instead of throwing asinine Bill Nye the Science Guy-style educational vignettes into the middle of its plot mechanics. Instead, it is a deeply patronizing experience, and it’s hard to give it points for necessity given the existence of Margin Call, which is at once every bit as comprehensible as The Big Short, and a smarter, more focused, and more complex film in every way that matters.

McKay is a little more at home when he steps into the dramatic territory of another recent film about excessive, criminal greed in this neighbourhood, The Wolf of Wall Street, and yet any comparison shows Scorsese’s 2013 opus as the riskier film that plays its tonal shifts and “can’t-believe-it’s-a-true-story” spectacle with unstoppable forward momentum. That movie about a banker convicted in the early 2000s did much more to convincingly inspire anger against the (still unconvicted) white collar criminals who engineered the recession in '08 than this film that deals directly with the latter subject. The Big Short is allowed to succeed on its own terms, of course, but I’m not sure that the people who made it were ever sure what those terms ought to be. I don’t dislike Adam McKay — I could never dislike anyone who could conjure the good-natured anarchy of a film like Anchorman, short of Nazi apologism or something — but I can’t think of a clearer recent example of a director dragging down his material and his collaborators.

by Will Ross

There are three misdirections in the title of Boy and the World. The first is “Boy”, and though this misdirection lies at the heart of the film’s single most brilliant and defining gesture, I daren’t spoil its corresponding reveal at the end of the film, so you will have to take my word for it (I’ll throw in a couple of cryptic allusions to it to make up for that). The second is the ordering of the nouns, because while the central boy and his childlike perspective of his surroundings is central to the movie’s approach, the film is ultimately more concerned with the machinations of a World slowly crumbling under some combination of aggressive, unchecked capitalism and fascism.

The third misdirection is tonal, for a glance at Boy and the World’s promotional materials, or any given shot, or even just watching the first few minutes, would suggest you’re in for a feather-light, gamboling trip through elaborate images whose base aesthetic use a child’s doodling and collage as its main reference points. Writer-director Alê Abreu maintains that visual style, but it quickly transpires that Boy and the World is a sorrowful film, filled with equal rage and despair for a world whose consumerism and commercialization is crushing beauty and joy out of everyday life and systematically threatening the bonds of familial love. That it combines this form and intent, as well as moments of humour, but never indulges in cheap irony or sarcasm, bespeaks a maturity and seriousness that inspire an emotionally-involved political engagement. There aren’t many animated features that even aspire to that, let alone achieve it.

The film’s plot revolves around a little boy living on a farm in the country, who scampers happily through the rainbow-pastels of the grass and plays with the animals and lives a life of such innocence that when his father gets on a train and leaves for the city, he is unable to comprehend the absence of a loved one, let alone accept it. Seemingly more by impulse than by despair,the boy hops on a train and journeys to the city, and on his way there he encounters people struggling to make daily ends meet. These people’s entire lives appear to revolve around their labour; one is an old, sickly-looking man who picks cotton on a farm under the harsh scrutiny of his foreman, and one of the film’s most distinctive stretches of its kid’s-art style is a birds-eye shot that reduces the farmworkers to computer-arranged rows of abstract, geometric shapes. When the oblivious boy reaches the city, the structures and oppressiveness of consumer-capitalism become even more suffocating. The film, as I said, is a broadside to these environments, and though their design becomes ever-more elaborate, the film never loses sight of the person at its center. Indeed, the exhaustion of merely processing the world’s backgrounds and operational minutiae is enough to make the mere companionship of the boy’s newfound friends profoundly comfortable, and those moments of respite help the film narrowly avoid becoming a ceaseless parade of impressive but unmodulated design concepts. (And then that final revelation reveals the devastating irony of those acts of compassion.)

All of this is handled through wordless, subjective illustration, and I can’t say enough good things about how Boy and the World expands the possibilities and scale available to this kind of hand-drawn, show-the-brushstrokes animation. After I fawned over Inside Out, it was somewhat taken to task by some friends, who argued that its commercially-friendly adventure-story plot structure limited its ability to fully explore its conceit, that some “in the brain” scenes are arbitrarily justified, and that for every innovation towards the metaphorical depiction of an inner life, the film set down some sort of limitation. It’s hard for me to refute these claims (though I disagree that they meaningfully detract from Inside Out’s accomplishments), but it’s easy to see Boy and the World as somewhat of a corrective to these caveats, with its tricky ambiguity between real-world experience and expressionistic memories.

An even more fruitful comparison can be drawn between Boy and the World and Don Hertzfeldt’s 2015 short World of Tomorrow, a film similarly concerned between the impact of “progress” upon its stick figure characters; while World of Tomorrow suggested an inner life so defined by technology and digitizations that the film’s environments are visually defined by computer-perfect lines and shapes, Boy and the World uses its drawn-on-paper aesthetic to express the view that capitalist industrialization is incompatible with basic human decency. Both films have a decidedly pessimist outlook on techno-industrial progress, but the clichéd rural-urban/happiness-misery dichotomy of Boy is my only real sticking point with it. That’s not to say that Abreu’s politics are shallow or stupid; indeed, if they were, I doubt he could conceive images at once so intellectually and emotionally evocative as cities so over-developed, they taper upwards into the sky like long, upside-down funnels.

Boy and the World’s last 15 minutes are some of the most dense, upsetting moments of any recent movie I’ve seen precisely because its allegory is so convincing, its expressions of joy and culture (and cute dogs) so loving and beautiful that it’s nearly unbearable to see them beaten down by the powers that be. There is a momentary formal rupture during this climax that replaces animation that suggests a cold, literal reality But the film stops just short of hopelessness, thank god; though it’s undeniably sad, it holds tight to the comfort of beauty amidst tragedy, and the inalienable personal charm of its craftsmanship suggests that there is an intrinsic joyousness to living and feeling that, in some way, makes it all worth it. Even that could have amounted to sentimental defeatism in the face of oppression, but Boy and the World couples that final personal message of hope with the impression that the seemingly endless cycle of that oppression may also mean that there’s still time to make a change.