Short Movie Time: Honeymoon (2021) review [Japan Cuts 2021]

Introduction

After delivering an atmospheric documentary-observation of the routine of a veteran griller with Fuel (2020), Yu Araki embarks on a more experimental journey to explore not only the associative nature of language but also the arbitrariness of the signifier and of culture as such.

Review

One day, at the Nagasaki Lunar Base, a live broadcast of a civil union between Adolf De Meyer (Taro Nettleton) and Cio-Cio-San (Qinhua Yang) is about to begin. Comments will be provided by Suzuki (Kosuke Matsunobu) and Dr. Irisawa (Toshiaki Hicosaka).

Honeymoon (2021) by Yu Araki

Honeymoon acts as a re-interpretation of the famous wedding scene from Carmine Gallone’s Madame Butterfly (1954). That he playfully manipulated this scene for his own purposes is already evident by his choice to replace some fictive figures with real-life historical persons. The groom is Adolf De Meyer (1868 – 1946), a French-German photographer famed for his portraits and known for becoming the first official fashion photographer for Vogue. He has, and this is important, no clear link with Japan and Japanese culture. The matchmaker is none other than anthropologist Frederick Starr (1858 – 1933), who wrote many articles about Japanese culture – e.g. ‘Japanese Collectors and What They Collect’ (1921). He was, on a side note, also known as Dr. Ofuda due to him being an avid collector of charms (ofuda) and votive slips (senjafuda). Araki also adds one historical figure by letting doctor and professor Tatsukichi Irisawa (1865 – 1938), who wrote the rather influential ‘On the Japanese Way of Sitting’ (1921), provide comments on the proceedings of the wedding ceremony.

Araki’s play with historical figures gives Honeymoon a highly anachronistic atmosphere. The futuristic context is contrasted with the traditional architecture and the long-deceased historical figures. And the historical figures are clothes in contemporary clothes. Yet, what does Araki intent to explore by transforming the wedding scene of Madame Butterfly in such an anachronistic manner? And what is the function of adding commentary?

As their commentary meanders, touching on topics like the weather, the groom’s, the bride’s and the matchmaker’s background, their fashion, the historical link between astrology and espionage/gathering intelligence, the etymologic explanation of signifiers like diplomacy and spy, the strangeness of the last name Starr and its link to astronomy, … etc., the spectator starts noticing subtle signs of discomfort in the body language of the groom and the bride. Their discomfort is caused by nothing other than the way they are sitting. Both sit in seiza (正座), a style of sitting considered correct (正) and traditional.

Honeymoon (2021) by Yu Araki.

And then suddenly, with the groom and the bride in clearly discomfort, the commentators playfully associate seiza (正座), the way of sitting, with the homonym seiza (星座), star-constellation. It is by employing such an associative network of signifiers, be it at the level of their signified or sound, that Araki reveals that ‘tradition’ is a dynamic thing and that what attains the status of tradition is highly arbitrary. Seiza, for instance, only attained its status of being the ‘correct’ way of sitting after the Meiji period. It was promoted to protest the ongoing westernization of Japan and in a ‘nostalgic’ attempt to ensure the survival of an ‘innate’ Japanese lifestyle. Besides exploring the arbitrariness of what is considered tradition, he also criticizes the fact that one’s obsession with tradition, be it as Japanese or as foreign subject, blinds the subject for the rich diversity (of lifestyles) that mark that culture.

The composition of Honeymoon is very simplistic. Araki tells his narrative with a straightforward concatenation of static shots, with only a few times a dynamic moment thrown into the mix. Yet, this simplicity is important to focus the spectator on the changes of the sitting couple and thus the ultimate message of the Araki’s narrative. The use of the auditory fragment of the apollo 11 mission, in the beginning of the narrative, is not only to echo the lunar dimension of the narrative, but also to guides the further flow of the narrative. This ‘union’ adds an ironic flavour to the narrative as the excitement that surrounded the mission to the moon is playfully associated with the event of the civil marriage. The lingering nature of the commentary on things related to stars and sitting by our commentators is, in this respect, instrumental in giving Honeymoon its lightheartedness and allowing Araki to deliver his message in a playful, yet compelling manner.

Even though Honeymoon is highly experimental and compositionally very simple, Yu Araki thoughtfully exploits the associative dimension of the signifier to deliver a pleasing narrative about the arbitrariness of language and culture. Araki furthermore delivers an important warning to people not to intoxicate themselves with idea of ‘tradition’.     

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