Little exists, critically speaking, on the subject of Yoshishige Yoshida’s “Heroic Purgatory”. It is a singular experience in that it has never been the subject of much acclaim or criticism. Film sites boast very few, if any, reviews. You will not find its name amongst the more famous Japanese cinematic works. Once one has seen the film, that is all there is. There is no chance to read a critical evaluation and put the pieces together with the help of a more wise, trusted and noted critic. The film extrapolates no farther than itself and its viewer.
This is all positively refreshing, as is the work itself, an experience like none other. It flows and looks and feels like none other film. Just to explain what it is about is a challenge, but not for the traditional reasons. This is not a case of jump cuts matching unrelated imagery, surrealism at its most hypnotic and hallucinogenic heights. No, rather it is a meditative and engrossing piece that flows with passion and vigor and a sense of purpose. Its individual scenes seem to work alone as their own perfectly composed entities. The real challenge lies in finding the strain that connects them. I do not profess to have truly achieved this.
The film begins with an act of unexplained violence and death, stark but restrained. Much in the same way, this is how the film ends. The essence lies in the differences in how these two acts are portrayed, and how it suggests the time frame of the film. At the film’s beginning a character gazes down at a lifeless body and retracts in shock, fleeing from the scene. The body lies in a symmetrical position, framed by the spiral of a descending staircase, as if it was placed there by immaculate intervention. The suggestion of beauty in death is magnified by the film’s closure, a moment that suggests how far the characters have come through the film, an experience representative of the entirety of their lives. Here they stand still, motionless, at what looks like a train station. They do not retract or flee. A tear rolls down one’s face. “It’s completely over…nothing’s left…”, one says. The other replies: “There are still things to do…I’m going to get rid of what I thought was my God.” The camera fazes to the background, which comes gently into focus, revealing a sign that reads ‘Dead End’.
The entirety of these characters’ frantic and inexplicable lives leads up to this point, as does the film. Continually throughout the work the camera seems to linger upwards. Bodies and heads are framed unconventionally, the images seems to gravitate towards something above. Few simple artistic choices have contributed so greatly to a film’s meaning and revelation, while still maintaining intrigue, while still giving the film an appearance of the unique.
After I first experienced the film I wrote a quick blurb about it, for my own good, and as reflection. I called the work a “kaleidoscopic vision of a marriage through the nonlinear lens of love, politics, sex and family.” I still stand by this. All is achieved through a collision of the past, present and speculation on the future. Differentiation is not truly important as opposed to reflection. The film can be viewed as one’s imaginings of their life gone by in the moment before death. It abides by no sense of linearity, no regard for cohesion, but the abstractness of it all does not, surprisingly, render it null. It is not a bastard child of experimental film that exists solely as a piece to be gawked at and marveled at for its inaccessibility. If anything its sense of mystery compounds and magnifies its utter significance. It exists as a nostalgic look back upon a life of equal measure happiness and misery, a life whose events are, in retrospect, less important than the feelings and emotions they evoked. The ramblings on politics, the feuds, the quarrels, the proposed disintegration of marriage: all seem insignificant at the onset of one’s demise. The beauty of bluntly existing seems all the more profound. At the end one character proclaims to wish to abandon her God. Such a belief is no longer necessary. Similarly, during one of the film’s final sequences a noted scientist is asked an abundance of questions. The audience may, like those questioning, strive for answers. His reply is sharp and poignant: “Please ask me a question I can answer.” The film admits that answers to the questions we all seek do not exist.
Yoshida wrote a book about Yasujirō Ozu, whom he worked with as a young man during his time at the famous Shochiku studios. His film bares slight resemblance to the work of Ozu, if not in style than in tone. True, Yoshida learned from Ozu’s intimacy and gentle quietness and made a much more frantic and abstract piece, but his fascination with the past seems to draw from Ozu’s focus on human memory and the past, such as in a work like “Floating Weeds” – a film which also ends with a sequence at a train station and a journey away from one’s past. Both Ozu and Yoshida understand the power of a gentle abandonment of what one once had, once was, where they once lived. And like in “Floating Weeds”, at the end of “Heroic Purgatory”, the preceding events are only to an extent of value. What is more important is where they have brought the character, and how they have progressed. Ozu’s characters experience forgiveness and acceptance, Yoshida’s characters conquer their fears of passing away.
It all coincides with what appears to be the larger scope of the Japanese New Wave, the movement which Yoshishige Yoshida belongs to. The Japansese directors of the movement were more interested in style and emotion than character and plot. Much alike “Heroic Purgatory”, another New Wave film, “Funeral Parade Of Roses”, presents a series of loosely connected, nonlinear events as a symbolic lead up to a profound finale. Both films are constructed as mostly symbolic, verging on the allegorical, more of suggestions towards themes than literal representations of them. The works of the genre remain consistently fascinating and represents one of the most pure and visually stunning movements since the rise of German Expression in the 1920’s. In “Heroic Purgatory” walls and shadows seem to become entities of their own, characters seem to exist in a world unlike our own, achieved without an alteration of their surroundings, but rather by the way in which they are placed within reality. Their faces linger at the bottom of the frame as vast space stretches out above them. The disregard for what is proposed as simple basics of mise en scene is turned upside down. All that would normally serve as examples of poor framing is instead, through conviction, context and implication, turned into something or great suggestion and beauty.
The work presents an existence too vague and symbolic to truly dissect on face value. The characters are less important as characters than they are as representations of individuals to the audience. To tear them down into wife, husband, child, etc., would be to deny them the complexity the film presents. Each person is their own individual, and yet they are all the same: they all face the same ‘Dead End’. “Heroic Purgatory” is an account of getting there.