Silence Has No Wings (1966)
Directed by Kazuo Kuroki
December 8, 14 at MoMA, part of its “Art Theater Guild and Japanese Underground Cinema, 1960-1984” series
In the 1950s, avant-garde art and artists exploded across Tokyo with institutional help. In cinema, the key Japanese experimental film distributor and producer became the Tokyo-based Art Theater Guild (ATG), which ran from 1961 to 1984; MoMA will screen 71 of its 180 titles. Its genre-busting releases, which included a gay Oedipus Rex adaptation (Funeral Parade of Roses) as well as a radical agitprop sex film (Ecstasy of the Angels), broke through conventional forms with sudden, shocking cuts and zooms. From ATG’s first coproduction, the amazing Shohei Imamura’s partly staged missing-person investigation A Man Vanishes, and onwards, documentary and fiction were forever in dialogue, often playing out opposite each other in theatricalized settings or even (as in Masahiro Shinoda’s great Double Suicide) on a shape-shifting theatrical stage. The major differences between ATG’s greatly varied films came largely from the great variety of its directors, whether State-smashing titans too radical to work anywhere else (all hail Double Suicide, Boy, and the master Nagisa Oshima) or little-known one- and two-offs like The Youth Killer’s Hasegawa Kazuhiko.
Considering that the first non-Japanese publication devoted entirely to the ATG was only released in 2004, it makes sense that Kazuo Kuroki, one of the company’s chief auteurs, would be unknown to overseas audiences. But his delicate, elusive Silence Has No Wings is well worth seeking out. The film begins with a boy in the northern countryside of Hokkaido who’s caught a Nagasaki swallowtail, a possibility that his teacher dismisses (to the point of demonstrating the impossibility of the Southern butterfly’s arrival with a map). Yet even if what he had was once a butterfly, the boy comes to believe, it isn’t anymore. A butterfly is supposed to be flying; what rests in his hands, instead, is a corpse.
“The dead can’t speak anymore,” we’re told, before a move to Nagasaki, one of many flights the film will take through space and time. A caterpillar develops indoors until a terrified man throws it out his window; later, in Hiroshima, outraged citizens (“Every day we’re stained with black oil. And we’re paid peanuts”) march united against atomic and hydrogen bombs. The movie involves itself in their feelings, and even criticizes Japan’s own government—a country in which hospitals have stopped reporting their death counts really should not be developing its military any further—while also maintaining a distance. “It’s not about anger, sorrow, nor pain,” a character says of his reaction to devastation. “It’s there.” The line echoes in the mind later in a Kyoto cemetery, as a man tells a woman he loves her while a caterpillar crawls on a nearby gravestone. Life and death are each simply there.