a story/1983 film by Chris Marker
The first image he told me about was of three children on a road in Iceland, in 1965. He said that for him it was the image of happiness and also that he had tried several times to link it to other images, but it never worked. He wrote me: one day I’ll have to put it all alone at the beginning of a film with a long piece of black leader; if they don’t see happiness in the picture, at least they’ll see the black.
He wrote: I’m just back from Hokkaido, the Northern Island. Rich and hurried Japanese take the plane, others take the ferry: waiting, immobility, snatches of sleep. Curiously all of that makes me think of a past or future war: night trains, air raids, fallout shelters, small fragments of war enshrined in everyday life. He liked the fragility of those moments suspended in time. Those memories whose only function had been to leave behind nothing but memories. He wrote: I’ve been round the world several times and now only banality still interests me. On this trip I’ve tracked it with the relentlessness of a bounty hunter. At dawn we’ll be in Tokyo.
He used to write me from Africa. He contrasted African time to European time, and also to Asian time. He said that in the 19th century mankind had come to terms with space, and that the great question of the 20th was the coexistence of different concepts of time. By the way, did you know that there are emus in the Île de France?
He wrote me that in the Bijagós Islands it’s the young girls who choose their fiancées.
He wrote me that in the suburbs of Tokyo there is a temple consecrated to cats. I wish I could convey to you the simplicity—the lack of affectation—of this couple who had come to place an inscribed wooden slat in the cat cemetery so their cat Tora would be protected. No she wasn’t dead, only run away. But on the day of her death no one would know how to pray for her, how to intercede with death so that he would call her by her right name. So they had to come there, both of them, under the rain, to perform the rite that would repair the web of time where it had been broken.
He wrote me: I will have spent my life trying to understand the function of remembering, which is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather its lining. We do not remember, we rewrite memory much as history is rewritten. How can one remember thirst?
He didn’t like to dwell on poverty, but in everything he wanted to show there were also the 4-Fs of the Japanese model. A world full of bums, of lumpens, of outcasts, of Koreans. Too broke to afford drugs, they’d get drunk on beer, on fermented milk. This morning in Namidabashi, twenty minutes from the glories of the center city, a character took his revenge on society by directing traffic at the crossroads. Luxury for them would be one of those large bottles of sake that are poured over tombs on the day of the dead.
I paid for a round in a bar in Namidabashi. It’s the kind of place that allows people to stare at each other with equality; the threshold below which every man is as good as any other—and knows it.
He told me about the Jetty on Fogo, in theCape Verde islands. How long have they been there waiting for the boat, patient as pebbles but ready to jump? They are a people of wanderers, of navigators, of world travelers. They fashioned themselves through cross-breeding here on these rocks that the Portuguese used as a marshaling yard for their colonies. A people of nothing, a people of emptiness, a vertical people. Frankly, have you ever heard of anything stupider than to say to people as they teach in film schools, not to look at the camera?
He used to write to me: the Sahel is not only what is shown of it when it is too late; it’s a land that drought seeps into like water into a leaking boat. The animals resurrected for the time of a carnival in Bissau will be petrified again, as soon as a new attack has changed the savannah into a desert. This is a state of survival that the rich countries have forgotten, with one exception—you win—Japan. My constant comings and goings are not a search for contrasts; they are a journey to the two extreme poles of survival.
He spoke to me of Sei Shonagon, a lady in waiting to Princess Sadako at the beginning of the 11th century, in the Heian period. Do we ever know where history is really made? Rulers ruled and used complicated strategies to fight one another. Real power was in the hands of a family of hereditary regents; the emperor’s court had become nothing more than a place of intrigues and intellectual games. But by learning to draw a sort of melancholy comfort from the contemplation of the tiniest things this small group of idlers left a mark on Japanese sensibility much deeper than the mediocre thundering of the politicians. Shonagon had a passion for lists: the list of ‘elegant things,’ ‘distressing things,’ or even of ‘things not worth doing.’ One day she got the idea of drawing up a list of ‘things that quicken the heart.’ Not a bad criterion I realize when I’m filming; I bow to the economic miracle, but what I want to show you are the neighborhood celebrations.
He wrote me: coming back through the Chiba coast I thought of Shonagon’s list, of all those signs one has only to name to quicken the heart, just name. To us, a sun is not quite a sun unless it’s radiant, and a spring not quite a spring unless it is limpid. Here to place adjectives would be so rude as leaving price tags on purchases. Japanese poetry never modifies. There is a way of saying boat, rock, mist, frog, crow, hail, heron, chrysanthemum, that includes them all. Newspapers have been filled recently with the story of a man from Nagoya. The woman he loved died last year and he drowned himself in work—Japanese style—like a madman. It seems he even made an important discovery in electronics. And then in the month of May he killed himself. They say he could not stand hearing the word ‘Spring.’
He described me his reunion with Tokyo: like a cat who has come home from vacation in his basket immediately starts to inspect familiar places. He ran off to see if everything was where it should be: the Ginza owl, the Shimbashi locomotive, the temple of the fox at the top of the Mitsukoshi department store, which he found invaded by little girls and rock singers. He was told that it was now little girls who made and unmade stars; the producers shuddered before them. He was told that a disfigured woman took off her mask in front of passers-by and scratched them if they did not find her beautiful. Everything interested him. He who didn’t give a damn if the Dodgers won the pennant or about the results of the Daily Double asked feverishly how Chiyonofuji had done in the last sumo tournament. He asked for news of the imperial family, of the crown prince, of the oldest mobster in Tokyo who appears regularly on television to teach goodness to children. These simple joys he had never felt: of returning to a country, a house, a family home. But twelve million anonymous inhabitants could supply him with them.
He wrote: Tokyo is a city crisscrossed by trains, tied together with electric wire she shows her veins. They say that television makes her people illiterate; as for me, I’ve never seen so many people reading in the streets. Perhaps they read only in the street, or perhaps they just pretend to read—these yellow men. I make my appointments at Kinokuniya, the big bookshop in Shinjuku. The graphic genius that allowed the Japanese to invent CinemaScope ten centuries before the movies compensates a little for the sad fate of the comic strip heroines, victims of heartless story writers and of castrating censorship. Sometimes they escape, and you find them again on the walls. The entire city is a comic strip; it’s Planet Manga. How can one fail to recognize the statuary that goes from plasticized baroque to Stalin central? And the giant faces with eyes that weigh down on the comic book readers, pictures bigger than people, voyeurizing the voyeurs.
At nightfall the megalopolis breaks down into villages, with its country cemeteries in the shadow of banks, with its stations and temples. Each district of Tokyo once again becomes a tidy ingenuous little town, nestling amongst the skyscrapers.
The small bar in Shinjuku reminded him of that Indian flute whose sound can only be heard by whomever is playing it. He might have cried out if it was in aGodard film or a Shakespeare play, “Where should this music be?”
Later he told me he had eaten at the restaurant in Nishi-nippori where Mr. Yamada practices the difficult art of ‘action cooking.’ He said that by watching carefully Mr. Yamada’s gestures and his way of mixing the ingredients one could meditate usefully on certain fundamental concepts common to painting, philosophy, and karate. He claimed that Mr. Yamada possessed in his humble way the essence of style, and consequently that it was up to him to use his invisible brush to write upon this first day in Tokyo the words ‘the end.’
I’ve spent the day in front of my TV set—that memory box. I was inNara with the sacred deers. I was taking a picture without knowing that in the 15th century Basho had written: “The willow sees the heron’s image… upside down.”
The commercial becomes a kind of haiku to the eye, used to Western atrocities in this field; not understanding obviously adds to the pleasure. For one slightly hallucinatory moment I had the impression that I spoke Japanese, but it was a cultural program onNHK about Gérard de Nerval.
8:40, Cambodia. From Jean Jacques Rousseau to the Khmer Rouge: coincidence, or the sense of history?
In Apocalypse Now, Brando said a few definitive and incommunicable sentences: “Horror has a face and a name… you must make a friend of horror.” To cast out the horror that has a name and a face you must give it another name and another face. Japanese horror movies have the cunning beauty of certain corpses. Sometimes one is stunned by so much cruelty. One seeks its sources in the Asian peoples long familiarity with suffering, that requires that even pain be ornate. And then comes the reward: the monsters are laid out, Natsume Masako arises; absolute beauty also has a name and a face.
But the more you watch Japanese television… the more you feel it’s watching you. Even television newscast bears witness to the fact that the magical function of the eye is at the center of all things. It’s election time: the winning candidates black out the empty eye of Daruma—the spirit of luck—while losing candidates—sad but dignified—carry off their one-eyed Daruma.
The images most difficult to figure out are those of Europe. I watched the pictures of a film whose soundtrack will be added later. It took me six months for Poland.
Meanwhile, I have no difficulty with local earthquakes. But I must say that last night’s quake helped me greatly to grasp a problem.
Poetry is born of insecurity: wandering Jews, quaking Japanese; by living on a rug that jesting nature is ever ready to pull out from under them they’ve got into the habit of moving about in a world of appearances: fragile, fleeting, revocable, of trains that fly from planet to planet, of samurai fighting in an immutable past. That’s called ‘the impermanence of things.’
I did it all. All the way to the evening shows for adults—so called. The same hypocrisy as in the comic strips, but it’s a coded hypocrisy. Censorship is not the mutilation of the show, it is the show. The code is the message. It points to the absolute by hiding it. That’s what religions have always done.
That year, a new face appeared among the great ones that blazon the streets of Tokyo: the Pope’s. Treasures that had never left the Vatican were shown on the seventh floor of the Sogo department store.
He wrote me: curiosity of course, and the glimmer of industrial espionage in the eye—I imagine them bringing out within two years time a more efficient and less expensive version of Catholicism—but there’s also the fascination associated with the sacred, even when it’s someone else’s.
So when will the third floor of Macy’s harbor an exhibition of Japanese sacred signs such as can be seen at Josen-kai on the island of Hokkaido? At first one smiles at this place which combines a museum, a chapel, and a sex shop. As always in Japan, one admires the fact that the walls between the realms are so thin that one can in the same breath contemplate a statue, buy an inflatable doll, and give the goddess of fertility the small offering that always accompanies her displays. Displays whose frankness would make the stratagems of the television incomprehensible, if it did not at the same time say that a sex is visible only on condition of being severed from a body.
One would like to believe in a world before the fall: inaccessible to the complications of a Puritanism whose phony shadow has been imposed on it by American occupation. Where people who gather laughing around the votive fountain, the woman who touches it with a friendly gesture, share in the same cosmic innocence.
The second part of the museum—with its couples of stuffed animals—would then be the earthly paradise as we have always dreamed it. Not so sure… animal innocence may be a trick for getting around censorship, but perhaps also the mirror of an impossible reconciliation. And even without original sin this earthly paradise may be a paradise lost. In the glossy splendour of the gentle animals of Josen-kai I read the fundamental rift of Japanese society, the rift that separates men from women. In life it seems to show itself in two ways only: violent slaughter, or a discreet melancholy—resembling Sei Shonagon’s—which the Japanese express in a single untranslatable word. So this bringing down of man to the level of the beasts—against which the fathers of the church invade—becomes here the challenge of the beasts to the poignancy of things, to a melancholy whose color I can give you by copying a few lines from Samura Koichi: “Who said that time heals all wounds? It would be better to say that time heals everything except wounds. With time, the hurt of separation loses its real limits. With time, the desired body will soon disappear, and if the desiring body has already ceased to exist for the other, then what remains is a wound… disembodied.”
He wrote me that the Japanese secret—what Lévi-Strauss had called the poignancy of things—implied the faculty of communion with things, of entering into them, of being them for a moment. It was normal that in their turn they should be like us: perishable and immortal.
He wrote me: animism is a familiar notion in Africa, it is less often applied in Japan. What then shall we call this diffuse belief, according to which every fragment of creation has its invisible counterpart? When they build a factory or a skyscraper, they begin with a ceremony to appease the god who owns the land. There is a ceremony for brushes, for abacuses, and even for rusty needles. There’s one on the 25th of September for the repose of the soul of broken dolls. The dolls are piled up in the temple of Kiyomitsu consecrated to Kannon—the goddess of compassion—and are burned in public.
I look to the participants. I think the people who saw off the kamikaze pilots had the same look on their faces.
He wrote me that the pictures of Guinea-Bissau ought to be accompanied by music from the Cape Verde islands. That would be our contribution to the unity dreamed of by Amilcar Cabral.
Why should so small a country—and one so poor—interest the world? They did what they could, they freed themselves, they chased out the Portuguese. They traumatized the Portuguese army to such an extent that it gave rise to a movement that overthrew the dictatorship, and led one for a moment to believe in a new revolution in Europe.
Who remembers all that? History throws its empty bottles out the window.
This morning I was on the dock at Pidjiguity, where everything began in 1959, when the first victims of the struggle were killed. It may be as difficult to recognize Africa in this leaden fog as it is to recognize struggle in the rather dull activity of tropical longshoremen.
Rumor has it that every third world leader coined the same phrase the morning after independence: “Now the real problems start.”
Cabral never got a chance to say it: he was assassinated first. But the problems started, and went on, and are still going on. Rather unexciting problems for revolutionary romanticism: to work, to produce, to distribute, to overcome postwar exhaustion, temptations of power and privilege.
Ah well… after all, history only tastes bitter to those who expected it to be sugar coated.
My personal problem is more specific: how to film the ladies of Bissau? Apparently, the magical function of the eye was working against me there. It was in the marketplaces of Bissau and Cape Verde that I could stare at them again with equality: I see her, she saw me, she knows that I see her, she drops me her glance, but just at an angle where it is still possible to act as though it was not addressed to me, and at the end the real glance, straightforward, that lasted a twenty-fourth of a second, the length of a film frame.
All women have a built-in grain of indestructibility. And men’s task has always been to make them realize it as late as possible. African men are just as good at this task as others. But after a close look at African women I wouldn’t necessarily bet on the men.
He told me the story of the dog Hachiko. A dog waited every day for his master at the station. The master died, and the dog didn’t know it, and he continued to wait all his life. People were moved and brought him food. After his death a statue was erected in his honor, in front of which sushi and rice cakes are still placed so that the faithful soul of Hachiko will never go hungry.
Tokyo is full of these tiny legends, and of mediating animals. The Mitsukoshi lion stands guard on the frontiers of what was once the empire of Mr. Okada—a great collector of French paintings, the man who hired the Château of Versailles to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of his department stores.
In the computer section I’ve seen young Japanese exercising their brain muscles like the young Athenians at the Palaistra. They have a war to win. The history books of the future will perhaps place the battle of integrated circuits at the same level as Salamis and Agincourt, but willing to honor the unfortunate adversary by leaving other fields to him: men’s fashions this season are placed under the sign of John Kennedy.
Like an old votive turtle stationed in the corner of a field, every day he saw Mr. Akao—the president of the Japanese Patriotic Party—trumpeting from the heights of his rolling balcony against the international communist plot. He wrote me: the automobiles of the extreme right with their flags and megaphones are part of Tokyo’s landscape—Mr. Akao is their focal point. I think he’ll have his statue like the dog Hachiko, at this crossroads from which he departs only to go and prophesy on the battlefields. He was at Narita in the sixties. Peasants fighting against the building of an airport on their land, and Mr. Akao denouncing the hand of Moscow behind everything that moved.
Yurakucho is the political space of Tokyo. Once upon a time I saw bonzes pray for peace in Vietnam there. Today young right-wing activists protest against the annexation of the Northern Islands by the Russians. Sometimes they are answered that the commercial relations of Japan with the abominable occupier of the North are a thousand times better than with the American ally who is always whining about economic aggression. Ah, nothing is simple.
On the other sidewalk the Left has the floor. The Korean Catholic opposition leader Kim Dae Jung—kidnapped in Tokyo in ’73 by the South Korean gestapo—is threatened with the death sentence. A group has begun a hunger strike. Some very young militants are trying to gather signatures in his support.
I went back to Narita for the birthday of one of the victims of the struggle. The demo was unreal. I had the impression of acting in Brigadoon, of waking up ten years later in the midst of the same players, with the same blue lobsters of police, the same helmeted adolescents, the same banners and the same slogan: “Down with the airport.” Only one thing has been added: the airport precisely. But with its single runway and the barbed wire that chokes it, it looks more besieged than victorious.
My pal Hayao Yamaneko has found a solution: if the images of the present don’t change, then change the images of the past.
He showed me the clashes of the sixties treated by his synthesizer: pictures that are less deceptive he says—with the conviction of a fanatic—than those you see on television. At least they proclaim themselves to be what they are: images, not the portable and compact form of an already inaccessible reality. Hayao calls his machine’s world the ‘zone,’ an homage to Tarkovsky.
What Narita brought back to me, like a shattered hologram, was an intact fragment of the generation of the sixties. If to love without illusions is still to love, I can say that I loved it. It was a generation that often exasperated me, for I didn’t share its utopia of uniting in a common struggle those who revolt against poverty and those who revolt against wealth. But it screamed out that gut reaction that better adjusted voices no longer knew how, or no longer dared to utter.
I met peasants there who had come to know themselves through the struggle. Concretely it had failed. At the same time, all they had won in their understanding of the world could have been won only through the struggle.
As for the students, some massacred each other in the mountains in the name of revolutionary purity, while others had studied capitalism so thoroughly to fight it that they now provide it with its best executives. Like everywhere else the movement had its postures and its careerists, including, and there are some, those who made a career of martyrdom. But it carried with it all those who said, like Ché Guevara, that they “trembled with indignation every time an injustice is committed in the world.” They wanted to give a political meaning to their generosity, and their generosity has outlasted their politics. That’s why I will never allow it to be said that youth is wasted on the young.
The youth who get together every weekend at Shinjuku obviously know that they are not on a launching pad toward real life; but they are life, to be eaten on the spot like fresh doughnuts.
It’s a very simple secret. The old try to hide it, and not all the young know it. The ten-year-old girl who threw her friend from the thirteenth floor of a building after having tied her hands, because she’d spoken badly of their class team, hadn’t discovered it yet. Parents who demand an increase in the number of special telephone lines devoted to the prevention of children’s suicides find out a little late that they have kept it all too well. Rock is an international language for spreading the secret. Another is peculiar to Tokyo.
For the takenoko, twenty is the age of retirement. They are baby Martians. I go to see them dance every Sunday in the park at Yoyogi. They want people to look at them, but they don’t seem to notice that people do. They live in a parallel time sphere: a kind of invisible aquarium wall separates them from the crowd they attract, and I can spend a whole afternoon contemplating the little takenoko girl who is learning—no doubt for the first time—the customs of her planet.
Beyond that, they wear dog tags, they obey a whistle, the Mafia rackets them, and with the exception of a single group made up of girls, it’s always a boy who commands.
One day he writes to me: description of a dream. More and more my dreams find their settings in the department stores of Tokyo, the subterranean tunnels that extend them and run parallel to the city. A face appears, disappears… a trace is found, is lost. All the folklore of dreams is so much in its place that the next day when I am awake I realize that I continue to seek in the basement labyrinth the presence concealed the night before. I begin to wonder if those dreams are really mine, or if they are part of a totality, of a gigantic collective dream of which the entire city may be the projection. It might suffice to pick up any one of the telephones that are lying around to hear a familiar voice, or the beating of a heart, Sei Shonagon’s for example.
All the galleries lead to stations; the same companies own the stores and the railroads that bear their name. Keio, Odakyu—all those names of ports. The train inhabited by sleeping people puts together all the fragments of dreams, makes a single film of them—the ultimate film. The tickets from the automatic dispenser grant admission to the show.
He told me about the January light on the station stairways. He told me that this city ought to be deciphered like a musical score; one could get lost in the great orchestral masses and the accumulation of details. And that created the cheapest image of Tokyo: overcrowded, megalomaniac, inhuman. He thought he saw more subtle cycles there: rhythms, clusters of faces caught sight of in passing—as different and precise as groups of instruments. Sometimes the musical comparison coincided with plain reality; the Sony stairway in the Ginza was itself an instrument, each step a note. All of it fit together like the voices of a somewhat complicated fugue, but it was enough to take hold of one of them and hang on to it.
The television screens for example; all by themselves they created an itinerary that sometimes wound up in unexpected curves. It was sumo season, and the fans who came to watch the fights in the very chic showrooms on the Ginza were the poorest of the Tokyo poors. So poor that they didn’t even have a TV set. He saw them come, the dead souls of Namida-bashi he had drunk saké with one sunny dawn—how many seasons ago was that now?
He wrote me: even in the stalls where they sell electronic spare parts—that some hipsters use for jewelry—there is in the score that is Tokyo a particular staff, whose rarity in Europe condemns me to a real acoustic exile. I mean the music of video games. They are fitted into tables. You can drink, you can lunch, and go on playing. They open onto the street. By listening to them you can play from memory.
I saw these games born in Japan. I later met up with them again all over the world, but one detail was different. At the beginning the game was familiar: a kind of anti-ecological beating where the idea was to kill off—as soon as they showed the white of their eyes—creatures that were either prairie dogs or baby seals, I can’t be sure which. Now here’s the Japanese variation. Instead of the critters, there’s some vaguely human heads identified by a label: at the top the chairman of the board, in front of him the vice president and the directors, in the front row the section heads and the personnel manager. The guy I filmed—who was smashing up the hierarchy with an enviable energy—confided in me that for him the game was not at all allegorical, that he was thinking very precisely of his superiors. No doubt that’s why the puppet representing the personnel manager has been clubbed so often and so hard that it’s out of commission, and why it had to be replaced again by a baby seal.
Hayao Yamaneko invents video games with his machine. To please me he puts in my best beloved animals: the cat and the owl. He claims that electronic texture is the only one that can deal with sentiment, memory, and imagination. Mizoguchi’s Arsène Lupin for example, or the no less imaginary burakumin. How one claim to show a category of Japanese who do not exist? Yes they’re there; I saw them in Osaka hiring themselves out by the day, sleeping on the ground. Ever since the middle ages they’ve been doomed to grubby and back-breaking jobs. But since the Meiji era, officially nothing sets them apart, and their real name—eta—is a taboo word, not to be pronounced. They are non-persons. How can they be shown, except as non-images?
Video games are the first stage in a plan for machines to help the human race, the only plan that offers a future for intelligence. For the moment, the inseparable philosophy of our time is contained in the Pac-Man. I didn’t know when I was sacrificing all my hundred yen coins to him that he was going to conquer the world. Perhaps because he is the most perfect graphic metaphor of man’s fate. He puts into true perspective the balance of power between the individual and the environment. And he tells us soberly that though there may be honor in carrying out the greatest number of victorious attacks, it always comes a cropper.
He was pleased that the same chrysanthemums appeared in funerals for men and for animals. He described to me the ceremony held at the zoo in Ueno in memory of animals that had died during the year. For two years in a row this day of mourning has had a pall cast over it by the death of a panda, more irreparable—according to the newspapers—than the death of the prime minister that took place at the same time. Last year people really cried. Now they seem to be getting used to it, accepting that each year death takes a panda as dragons do young girls in fairy tales.
I’ve heard this sentence: “The partition that separates life from death does not appear so thick to us as it does to a Westerner.” What I have read most often in the eyes of people about to die is surprise. What I read right now in the eyes of Japanese children is curiosity, as if they were trying—in order to understand the death of an animal—to stare through the partition.
I have returned from a country where death is not a partition to cross through but a road to follow. The great ancestor of the Bijagós archipelago has described for us the itinerary of the dead and how they move from island to island according to a rigorous protocol until they come to the last beach where they wait for the ship that will take them to the other world. If by accident one should meet them, it is above all imperative not to recognize them.
The Bijagós is a part of Guinea Bissau. In an old film clip Amilcar Cabral waves a gesture of good-bye to the shore; he’s right, he’ll never see it again. Luis Cabral made the same gesture fifteen years later on the canoe that was bringing us back.
Guinea has by that time become a nation and Luis is its president. All those who remember the war remember him. He’s the half-brother of Amilcar, born as he was of mixed Guinean and Cape Verdean blood, and like him a founding member of an unusual party, the PAIGC, which by uniting the two colonized countries in a single movement of struggle wishes to be the forerunner of a federation of the two states.
I have listened to the stories of former guerrilla fighters, who had fought in conditions so inhuman that they pitied the Portuguese soldiers for having to bear what they themselves suffered. That I heard. And many more things that make one ashamed for having used lightly—even if inadvertently—the word guerrilla to describe a certain breed of film-making. A word that at the time was linked to many theoretical debates and also to bloody defeats on the ground.
Amilcar Cabral was the only one to lead a victorious guerrilla war, and not only in terms of military conquests. He knew his people, he had studied them for a long time, and he wanted every liberated region to be also the precursor of a different kind of society.
The socialist countries send weapons to arm the fighters. The social democracies fill the People’s Stores. May the extreme left forgive history but if the guerrillas are like fish in water it’s a bit thanks to Sweden.
Amilcar was not afraid of ambiguities—he knew the traps. He wrote: “It’s as though we were at the edge of a great river full of waves and storms, with people who are trying to cross it and drown, but they have no other way out, they must get to the other side.”
And now, the scene moves to Cassaque: the seventeenth of February, 1980. But to understand it properly one must move forward in time. In a year Luis Cabral the president will be in prison, and the weeping man he has just decorated, major Nino, will have taken power. The party will have split, Guineans and Cape Verdeans separated one from the other will be fighting over Amilcar’s legacy. We will learn that behind this ceremony of promotions which in the eyes of visitors perpetuated the brotherhood of the struggle, there lay a pit of post-victory bitterness, and that Nino’s tears did not express an ex-warrior’s emotion, but the wounded pride of a hero who felt he had not been raised high enough above the others.
And beneath each of these faces a memory. And in place of what we were told had been forged into a collective memory, a thousand memories of men who parade their personal laceration in the great wound of history.
In Portugal—raised up in its turn by the breaking wave of Bissau—Miguel Torga, who had struggled all his life against the dictatorship wrote: “Every protagonist represents only himself; in place of a change in the social setting he seeks simply in the revolutionary act the sublimation of his own image.”
That’s the way the breakers recede. And so predictably that one has to believe in a kind of amnesia of the future that history distributes through mercy or calculation to those whom it recruits: Amilcar murdered by members of his own party, the liberated areas fallen under the yoke of bloody petty tyrants liquidated in their turn by a central power to whose stability everyone paid homage until the military coup.
That’s how history advances, plugging its memory as one plugs one’s ears. Luis exiled to Cuba, Nino discovering in his turn plots woven against him, can be cited reciprocally to appear before the bar of history. She doesn’t care, she understands nothing, she has only one friend, the one Brando spoke of in Apocalypse: horror. That has a name and a face.
I’m writing you all this from another world, a world of appearances. In a way the two worlds communicate with each other. Memory is to one what history is to the other: an impossibility.
Legends are born out of the need to decipher the indecipherable. Memories must make do with their delirium, with their drift. A moment stopped would burn like a frame of film blocked before the furnace of the projector. Madness protects, as fever does.
I envy Hayao in his ‘zone,’ he plays with the signs of his memory. He pins them down and decorates them like insects that would have flown beyond time, and which he could contemplate from a point outside of time: the only eternity we have left. I look at his machines. I think of a world where each memory could create its own legend.
He wrote me that only one film had been capable of portraying impossible memory—insane memory: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. In the spiral of the titles he saw time covering a field ever wider as it moved away, a cyclone whose present moment contains motionless the eye.
In San Francisco he had made his pilgrimage to all the film’s locations: the florist Podesta Baldocchi, where James Stewart spies on Kim Novak—he the hunter, she the prey. Or was it the other way around? The tiles hadn’t changed.
He had driven up and down the hills of San Francisco where Jimmy Stewart, Scotty, follows Kim Novak, Madeline. It seems to be a question of trailing, of enigma, of murder, but in truth it’s a question of power and freedom, of melancholy and dazzlement, so carefully coded within the spiral that you could miss it, and not discover immediately that this vertigo of space in reality stands for the vertigo of time.
He had followed all the trails. Even to the cemetery at Mission Dolores where Madeline came to pray at the grave of a woman long since dead, whom she should not have known. He followed Madeline—as Scotty had done—to the Museum at the Legion of Honor, before the portrait of a dead woman she should not have known. And on the portrait, as in Madeline’s hair, the spiral of time.
The small Victorian hotel where Madeline disappeared had disappeared itself; concrete had replaced it, at the corner of Eddy and Gough. On the other hand the sequoia cut was still in Muir Woods. On it Madeline traced the short distance between two of those concentric lines that measured the age of the tree and said, “Here I was born… and here I died.”
He remembered another film in which this passage was quoted. The sequoia was the one in the Jardin des plantes in Paris, and the hand pointed to a place outside the tree, outside of time.
The painted horse at San Juan Bautista, his eye that looked like Madeline’s: Hitchcock had invented nothing, it was all there. He had run under the arches of the promenade in the mission as Madeline had run towards her death. Or was it hers?
From this fake tower—the only thing that Hitchcock had added—he imagined Scotty as time’s fool of love, finding it impossible to live with memory without falsifying it. Inventing a double for Madeline in another dimension of time, a zone that would belong only to him and from which he could decipher the indecipherable story that had begun at Golden Gate when he had pulled Madeline out of San Francisco Bay, when he had saved her from death before casting her back to death. Or was it the other way around?
In San Francisco I made the pilgrimage of a film I had seen nineteen times. In Iceland I laid the first stone of an imaginary film. That summer I had met three children on a road and a volcano had come out of the sea. The American astronauts came to train before flying off to the moon, in this corner of Earth that resembles it. I saw it immediately as a setting for science fiction: the landscape of another planet. Or rather no, let it be the landscape of our own planet for someone who comes from elsewhere, from very far away. I imagine him moving slowly, heavily, about the volcanic soil that sticks to the soles. All of a sudden he stumbles, and the next step it’s a year later. He’s walking on a small path near the Dutch border along a sea bird sanctuary.
That’s for a start. Now why this cut in time, this connection of memories? That’s just it, he can’t understand. He hasn’t come from another planet he comes from our future, four thousand and one: the time when the human brain has reached the era of full employment. Everything works to perfection, all that we allow to slumber, including memory. Logical consequence: total recall is memory anesthetized. After so many stories of men who had lost their memory, here is the story of one who has lost forgetting, and who—through some peculiarity of his nature—instead of drawing pride from the fact and scorning mankind of the past and its shadows, turned to it first with curiosity and then with compassion. In the world he comes from, to call forth a vision, to be moved by a portrait, to tremble at the sound of music, can only be signs of a long and painful pre-history. He wants to understand. He feels these infirmities of time like an injustice, and he reacts to that injustice like Ché Guevara, like the youth of the sixties, with indignation. He is a Third Worlder of time. The idea that unhappiness had existed in his planet’s past is as unbearable to him as to them the existence of poverty in their present.
Naturally he’ll fail. The unhappiness he discovers is as inaccessible to him as the poverty of a poor country is unimaginable to the children of a rich one. He has chosen to give up his privileges, but he can do nothing about the privilege that has allowed him to choose. His only recourse is precisely that which threw him into this absurd quest: a song cycle by Mussorgsky. They are still sung in the fortieth century. Their meaning has been lost. But it was then that for the first time he perceived the presence of that thing he didn’t understand which had something to do with unhappiness and memory, and towards which slowly, heavily, he began to walk.
Of course I’ll never make that film. Nonetheless I’m collecting the sets, inventing the twists, putting in my favorite creatures. I’ve even given it a title, indeed the title of those Mussorgsky songs: Sunless.
On May 15, 1945, at seven o’clock in the morning, the three hundred and eighty second US infantry regiment attacked a hill in Okinawa they had renamed ‘Dick Hill.’ I suppose the Americans themselves believed that they were conquering Japanese soil, and that they knew nothing about the Ryukyu civilization. Neither did I, apart from the fact that the faces of the market ladies at Itoman spoke to me more of Gauguin than of Utamaro. For centuries of dreamy vassalage time had not moved in the archipelago. Then came the break. Is it a property of islands to make their women into the guardians of their memory?
I learned that—as in the Bijagós—it is through the women that magic knowledge is transmitted. Each community has its priestess—the noro—who presides over all ceremonies with the exception of funerals.
The Japanese defended their position inch by inch. At the end of the day the two half platoons formed from the remnants of L Company had got only halfway up the hill, a hill like the one where I followed a group of villagers on their way to the purification ceremony.
The noro communicates with the gods of the sea, of rain, of the earth, of fire. Everyone bows down before the sister deity who is the reflection, in the absolute, of a privileged relationship between brother and sister. Even after her death, the sister retains her spiritual predominance.
At dawn the Americans withdrew. Fighting went on for over a month before the island surrendered, and toppled into the modern world. Twenty-seven years of American occupation, the re-establishment of a controversial Japanese sovereignty: two miles from the bowling alleys and the gas stations the noro continues her dialogue with the gods. When she is gone the dialogue will end. Brothers will no longer know that their dead sister is watching over them. When filming this ceremony I knew I was present at the end of something. Magical cultures that disappear leave traces to those who succeed them. This one will leave none; the break in history has been too violent.
I touched that break at the summit of the hill, as I had touched it at the edge of the ditch where two hundred girls had used grenades to commit suicide in 1945 rather than fall alive into the hands of the Americans. People have their pictures taken in front of the ditch. Across from it souvenir lighters are sold shaped like grenades.
On Hayao’s machine war resembles letters being burned, shredded in a frame of fire. The code name for Pearl Harbor was Tora, Tora, Tora, the name of the cat the couple in Gotokuji was praying for. So all of this will have begun with the name of a cat pronounced three times.
Off Okinawa kamikaze dived on the American fleet; they would become a legend. They were likelier material for it obviously than the special units who exposed their prisoners to the bitter frost of Manchuria and then to hot water so as to see how fast flesh separates from the bone.
One would have to read their last letters to learn that the kamikaze weren’t all volunteers, nor were they all swashbuckling samurai. Before drinking his last cup of saké Ryoji Uebara had written: “I have always thought that Japan must live free in order to live eternally. It may seem idiotic to say that today, under a totalitarian regime. We kamikaze pilots are machines, we have nothing to say, except to beg our compatriots to make Japan the great country of our dreams. In the plane I am a machine, a bit of magnetized metal that will plaster itself against an aircraft carrier. But once on the ground I am a human being with feelings and passions. Please excuse these disorganized thoughts. I’m leaving you a rather melancholy picture, but in the depths of my heart I am happy. I have spoken frankly, forgive me.”
Every time he came from Africa he stopped at the island of Sal, which is in fact a salt rock in the middle of the Atlantic. At the end of the island, beyond the village of Santa Maria and its cemetery with the painted tombs, it suffices to walk straight ahead to meet the desert.
He wrote me: I’ve understood the visions. Suddenly you’re in the desert the way you are in the night; whatever is not desert no longer exists. You don’t want to believe the images that crop up.
Did I write you that there are emus in the Ile de France? This name—Island of France—sounds strangely on the island of Sal. My memory superimposes two towers: the one at the ruined castle of Montpilloy that served as an encampment for Joan of Arc, and the lighthouse tower at the southern tip of Sal, probably one of the last lighthouses to use oil.
A lighthouse in the Sahel looks like a collage until you see the ocean at the edge of the sand and salt. Crews of transcontinental planes are rotated on Sal. Their club brings to this frontier of nothingness a small touch of the seaside resort which makes the rest still more unreal. They feed the stray dogs that live on the beach.
I found my dogs pretty nervous tonight; they were playing with the sea as I had never seen them before. Listening to Radio Hong Kong later on I understood: today was the first day of the lunar new year, and for the first time in sixty years the sign of the dog met the sign of water.
Out there, eleven thousand miles away, a single shadow remains immobile in the midst of the long moving shadows that the January light throws over the ground of Tokyo: the shadow of the Asakusa bonze.
For also in Japan the year of the dog is beginning. Temples are filled with visitors who come to toss down their coins and to pray—Japanese style—a prayer which slips into life without interrupting it.
Brooding at the end of the world on my island of Sal in the company of my prancing dogs I remember that month of January in Tokyo, or rather I remember the images I filmed of the month of January in Tokyo. They have substituted themselves for my memory. They are my memory. I wonder how people remember things who don’t film, don’t photograph, don’t tape. How has mankind managed to remember? I know: it wrote the Bible. The new Bible will be an eternal magnetic tape of a time that will have to reread itself constantly just to know it existed.
As we await the year four thousand and one and its total recall, that’s what the oracles we take out of their long hexagonal boxes at new year may offer us: a little more power over that memory that runs from camp to camp—like Joan of Arc. That a short wave announcement from Hong Kong radio picked up on a Cape Verde island projects to Tokyo, and that the memory of a precise color in the street bounces back on another country, another distance, another music, endlessly.
At the end of memory’s path, the ideograms of the Island of France are no less enigmatic than the kanji of Tokyo in the miraculous light of the new year. It’s Indian winter, as if the air were the first element to emerge purified from the countless ceremonies by which the Japanese wash off one year to enter the next one. A full month is just enough for them to fulfill all the duties that courtesy owes to time, the most interesting unquestionably being the acquisition at the temple of Tenjin of the uso bird, who according to one tradition eats all your lies of the year to come, and according to another turns them into truths.
But what gives the street its color in January, what makes it suddenly different is the appearance of kimono. In the street, in stores, in offices, even at the stock exchange on opening day, the girls take out their fur collared winter kimono. At that moment of the year other Japanese may well invent extra flat TV sets, commit suicide with a chain saw, or capture two thirds of the world market for semiconductors. Good for them; all you see are the girls.
The fifteenth of January is coming of age day: an obligatory celebration in the life of a young Japanese woman. The city governments distribute small bags filled with gifts, datebooks, advice: how to be a good citizen, a good mother, a good wife. On that day every twenty-year-old girl can phone her family for free, no matter where in Japan. Flag, home, and country: this is the anteroom of adulthood. The world of the takenoko and of rock singers speeds away like a rocket. Speakers explain what society expects of them. How long will it take to forget the secret?
And when all the celebrations are over it remains only to pick up all the ornaments—all the accessories of the celebration—and by burning them, make a celebration.
This is dondo-yaki, a Shinto blessing of the debris that have a right to immortality—like the dolls at Ueno. The last state—before their disappearance—of the poignancy of things. Daruma—the one eyed spirit—reigns supreme at the summit of the bonfire. Abandonment must be a feast; laceration must be a feast. And the farewell to all that one has lost, broken, used, must be ennobled by a ceremony. It’s Japan that could fulfill the wish of that French writer who wanted divorce to be made a sacrament.
The only baffling part of this ritual was the circle of children striking the ground with their long poles. I only got one explanation, a singular one—although for me it might take the form of a small intimate service—it was to chase away the moles.
And that’s where my three children of Iceland came and grafted themselves in. I picked up the whole shot again, adding the somewhat hazy end, the frame trembling under the force of the wind beating us down on the cliff: everything I had cut in order to tidy up, and that said better than all the rest what I saw in that moment, why I held it at arms length, at zooms length, until its last twenty-fourth of a second, the city of Heimaey spread out below us. And when five years later my friend Haroun Tazieff sent me the film he had just shot in the same place I lacked only the name to learn that nature performs its own dondo-yaki; the island’s volcano had awakened. I looked at those pictures, and it was as if the entire year ’65 had just been covered with ashes.
So, it sufficed to wait and the planet itself staged the working of time. I saw what had been my window again. I saw emerge familiar roofs and balconies, the landmarks of the walks I took through town every day, down to the cliff where I had met the children. The cat with white socks that Haroun had been considerate enough to film for me naturally found its place. And I thought, of all the prayers to time that had studded this trip the kindest was the one spoken by the woman of Gotokuji, who said simply to her cat Tora, “Cat, wherever you are, peace be with you.”
And then in its turn the journey entered the ‘zone,’ and Hayao showed me my images already affected by the moss of time, freed of the lie that had prolonged the existence of those moments swallowed by the spiral.
When spring came, when every crow announced its arrival by raising his cry half a tone, I took the green train of the Yamanote line and got off at Tokyo station, near the central post office. Even if the street was empty I waited at the red light—Japanese style—so as to leave space for the spirits of the broken cars. Even if I was expecting no letter I stopped at the general delivery window, for one must honor the spirits of torn up letters, and at the airmail counter to salute the spirits of unmailed letters.
I took the measure of the unbearable vanity of the West, that has never ceased to privilege being over non-being, what is spoken to what is left unsaid. I walked alongside the little stalls of clothing dealers. I heard in the distance Mr. Akao’s voice reverberating from the loudspeakers… a half tone higher.
Then I went down into the basement where my friend—the maniac—busies himself with his electronic graffiti. Finally his language touches me, because he talks to that part of us which insists on drawing profiles on prison walls. A piece of chalk to follow the contours of what is not, or is no longer, or is not yet; the handwriting each one of us will use to compose his own list of ‘things that quicken the heart,’ to offer, or to erase. In that moment poetry will be made by everyone, and there will be emus in the ‘zone.’
He writes me from Japan. He writes me from Africa. He writes that he can now summon up the look on the face of the market lady of Praia that had lasted only the length of a film frame.
Will there be a last letter?