Look, This Heart Really Beats: P.P. Rider at Japan Society
Thank you to Alexander Fee and Japan Society for organizing this program, the first of its kind in North America. It’s an important event and I know it will be eye-opening for many. It’s not an exaggeration to say these films have the power to change your life, as Ryusuke Hamaguchi says, because on some level they teach us how to be in the world: that is, freely.
Looking at a Shinji Somai film one quickly understands that something out of the ordinary is going on in terms of style. You’ll know by now that Somai had a preference for long takes, shots which are often astonishingly acrobatic, moving way up high and down low, traversing over walls and fording bodies of water, leaping out into space through elaborate use of cranes and dollies. We observe his actors in real time as they perform daring and dangerous feats of physicality; they climb on things and bounce around and fall down and take up space, putting their necks on the line (nearly all of his films feature a bloody nose); it’s a strange dance that’s at once very designed and totally off-the-cuff. His actors are forever in motion, and they work up a sweat doing it.
To see actors exerting themselves like this is unusual; I think you will notice how strange it is. When asked what he treasures most in life, Somai said: “There are no treasures; all I need is air”; and asked why his actors are constantly moving, he said: “Running takes a lot of air. Breathing in and out a lot of air is the basis of life.” There is a sense that Somai made these films just to see people move and work oxygen through their lungs. (In fact, one criteria for casting his actors was their lung capacity.) Somai preferred to work with amateurs for their lack of affectation; and this way of getting them to exert themselves and breath heavy was geared to the same end: to lay bare the person behind the character, to catch them in unstudied states of being. His long takes are a consequence of this fixation with life and air, and they cannot be called elegant: they don’t take the path of least resistance from point A to B. Rather, Somai strong-arms these scenes into being, forcing his camera this way and that to match the volatility of his performers, and to urge them along: keep moving. These shots are very uneasy, and they often seem to be on the verge of falling apart. One could say they’re artificial to the point of being artless—which is a high compliment to be sure, and a quality which Somai no doubt aspired to.
In a Somai film the fiction is always taking a backseat to something more immediate: something like the sheer fact of these people and this camera in an environment, the actors (not their characters) in the street or on a set dealing with the world in front of them, trying to overcome it; as you’ll see, his actors are always trying to get off the ground, clambering into the air; or they’re wrapped up in some other spatial game or activity that Somai has set them to doing, a thousand lively, self-sufficient gestures that precede the narrative. Just as Somai is forever experimenting with new geometries for his camera to move through space, his actors, likewise, are constantly inventing new shapes to make in the air with their bodies. Somai’s films are not realistic in this sense, meaning they’re not interested in appearing real: they’re after something stranger, something like reality, which Somai provokes out of the world and his actors through brazen artifice. He externalizes things, makes things move for the sake of movement, as if to say: look, this heart really beats. The filmmaker Nobuhiko Obayashi, a friend of Somai’s, once talked about their mutual love of theater; it’s a revealing statement. He said:
“After each show, Somai and I would agree that theater is so much better, because one can create lies and fiction easily, while films—on the contrary—are treated very seriously, so in that sense their form is quite stiff… That is what kept me close to Somai—we both believed that a lie would deprive a piece from realism, but not from its true soul.”
The film you are about to see, P.P. Rider, is full of lies—on the surface, it’s perhaps Somai’s most ridiculous work. It’s adapted from a script by Leonard Schrader, a comic strip-like scenario about three teens on a journey to find their classmate, who’s been kidnapped by a gang of yakuza. It’s a story that does not belong to real life. But what Somai does is take this unreal scenario and transplant it concretely to our world; he makes a street film out of it, a kind of open-air theater. Working with very extravagant material, Somai creates some of his most raw and undecorated images. And so what we have in P.P. Rider is cartoon characters doing cartoonish things, but doing so while dealing with the real effects of gravity.
The kids in this film are typical Somai kids, children of the sun: they move through the world fluidly and audaciously; they vagabond around, swap identities, swept along less by a plot than by the plain momentum of being alive; they act tough, fight, say crass things, and like the street kids in Buñuel’s Los Olvidados, they will often shock us with their actions—and because of their freedom, they must face the violence of gangsters and cops. There is a palpable feel for the vitality of youth in this film, and for the real ugliness of a world that tries to stamp it out. Somai described it as a film about running and running as far as possible during summer vacation; but vacation must end and you must return; you can’t run forever.
Please look out for the opening shot, which—according to legend—required the use of three cranes; and another long, highly athletic sequence halfway through which tracks the characters as they chase along some logs floating in a canal—among other scenes. They are hard to forget.
I’ve said this to Alexander, and it’s why he let me do this introduction, but I think this film is the key work by Shinji Somai, the first unbridled flowering of his style, the one that I would sacrifice all others to keep. And I believe this all the more so because it’s not an obvious candidate: a superficially unserious farce. But I can think of few more profoundly serious things than this very silly, very free film. I hope you enjoy it.