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Red Beard: Opening Titles (Roofs)

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    Vili Maunula

    If you thought that my today’s Ikiru posts are somewhat behind the times, here’s a Red Beard post of all things to wrap your heads around! (To those new to the forum, Red Beard was the film club’s movie of the month in October this year.)

    Kurosawa’s opening titles fascinate me. In many of his films, the opening titles are laid over shots that (I think) simply set the scene: street scenes, city panoramas (High and Low has a beautiful series of shots of Yokohama), the Rashomon gate in Rashomon, and so on. There are exceptions to this, as for example with Ikiru, where we have a blank background, most probably in order to magnify the impact of the x-ray that begins the actual narration.

    Red Beard‘s opening titles, however, puzzle me. It was now that I thought of the titles in Ikiru that I remembered this puzzlement and decided to go back to it.

    Rather than describe the opening titles, here is a series of screen captures that give you every shot in the opening title series (some shots had two groups of names superimposed, here I only give one name group per shot):

    Red Beard opening titles

    Red Beard opening titles

    Red Beard opening titles

    Red Beard opening titles

    Red Beard opening titles

    Red Beard opening titles

    Red Beard opening titles

    Red Beard opening titles

    Red Beard opening titles

    Red Beard opening titles

    Red Beard opening titles

    Red Beard opening titles

    Red Beard opening titles

    Red Beard opening titles

    So, what we have is roofs. Roofs, roofs and roofs. And a tree which is quite prominent in the last two shots — note the exceptionally beautiful layout of the last shot, with Kurosawa’s name next to the tree.

    Anyway, back to the roofs. Why roofs? I really don’t know, but I of course have interpretations.

    These roofs, I suppose, are from buildings that are either within or near the hospital in Red Beard. I think the latter, because there seems to be too many roofs for the handful of hospital buildings. Perhaps someone with a better eye when it comes to buildings and layout planning can tell me whether it is the hospital or the town near it?

    In any case, for me looking at these roofs/buildings is a bit like looking at apartment block buildings and trying to imagine all the separate lives and personal stories that are going on inside. I guess everyone’s done that at one point or another? At least for me, it is a very powerful feeling knowing that a single building can house dozens of stories that, in most cases, are in no way connected. The fact that I will never actually know or learn from those stories somehow makes them even more fascinating.

    In Red Beard‘s case we do get a glimpse into what is going on under those roofs in the form of all the individual stories that the film tells. As with the apartment block stories, these stories are — on the surface — not really connected. But there is a common thread, and much to learn from them.

    So, this is partly what the roofs symbolise for me: human stories.

    There is also something else to the roofs, but I cannot quite put it into words. Maybe it has to do with something that I was once told by a Japanese friend, namely that the reason why we have slightly curved roofs in Japanese houses is that when evil spirits fall from above, they slide down and, due to the curvature, fly off the property. I don’t know if this is actually true, or whether she was just pulling my leg. I don’t seem to be able to find anything online to corroborate this.

    But even then, roofs in themselves kind of are spiritual things. They protect us, but also separate us from the “heavens”. When you are on the rooftop you in a sense are on the top of the world. When up there, as with the opening titles, what you have is a god’s viewpoint, not man’s, and for us to be given that at the beginning of the film somehow makes the introduction all that more spiritual to me.

    Perhaps the triangular, or “upside down V” shape of the roofs also enhances this feeling. These roofs are, for the most part, pointing upwards. And “up” is the metaphorical direction of spiritual growth.

    Or so I think. As I said, the roofs puzzle me. It could be that they are “just roofs”, but somehow I cannot think of a director who, when deciding on a suitable way to open a film, would end up shooting roofs just to fill up the opening titles with something. Had Kurosawa wanted to set the scene, shooting the town would probably have made more sense.

    No, I cannot shake the feeling that these roofs are meant to say or do something. And, I actually think that they do. I’m just not sure if I can describe what it is.

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    Ugetsu

    Not a solution, but isn’t the ‘roof’ symbol in kanji (an inverted open ‘v’) symbolic of not just a house, but also enclosing an idea – hence a female figure under it means ‘peace’, but two mean ‘conflict’. Perhaps its some kind of visual metaphor that is meant to bring to mind the notion of half finished kanji, so you don’t know if the word is positive or negative.

    or:

    Producer: We spent a fortune on all those houses and you never showed them! How on earth do I explain the cost to the studio boss?

    Kurosawa: Oh, ok, I’ll give you a long montage sequence showing each and every building on the set….

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    cocoskyavitch

    No, I cannot shake the feeling that these roofs are meant to say or do something. And, I actually think that they do. I’m just not sure if I can describe what it is.

    Mmmm. The roofs are everything you can throw at them, Vili, Ugetsu. Of course they mean something and of course they say something. it may be that what they say and mean cannot be translated into words. And I’m allright with that. After all, if you could “say” the Sistine Chapel ceiling why paint it? One of the things a little bit slippery about the visual is that it has no moral center or absolute. Everything is culturally weighted in time, so investigations are a bit like detective work, and because you are viewing an image in your own time, you are reinventing the image…remaking it, redefining it. (Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, John Ashberry, and most importantly The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard.

    The most beautiful thing Bachelard wrote was that a housewife, in polishing and caring for a wooden table remakes it through her attentions and gives it a new life. So, it’s not only Kurosawa’s intentions-It is your attention to the roofs that make them full of beauty and mystery and meaning.

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: Not a solution, but isn’t the ‘roof’ symbol in kanji (an inverted open ‘v’) symbolic of not just a house, but also enclosing an idea – hence a female figure under it means ‘peace’, but two mean ‘conflict’. Perhaps its some kind of visual metaphor that is meant to bring to mind the notion of half finished kanji, so you don’t know if the word is positive or negative.

    I think it’s this one that you mean, right: 宀 ?

    That is an interesting idea, and I would certainly not dismiss it. Moreover, if it is kanji that we are thinking, the shapes of the roofs also remind me of the characters 入 and 人 — standing for “going in” and a “person”, respectively. Which would both certainly make interpretative sense — we are not only entering here a film that is about people, but we are in many ways also entering the human soul.

    Coco, I fully agree with you — these things are not set in stone, and don’t need to be. This is actually pretty much why I am ready to take into account interpretations like the one that Yoshimoto has about the name “Muraki Clinic” (here), even if I am told that the interpretation in all likelihood has nothing to do with why the sign was put there by the film maker(s).

    As you said, in our appreciation of works of art (or anything, really), we reinvent, remake, redefine — and not only are we doing that to the thing that we observe, but to our world view as a whole. In fact, I would personally say that good art criticism says more about you and the world around you, than it does about the work that it discusses.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Right on:

    “I think it’s this one that you mean, right: 宀 ?”

    Same thing in Chinese. Zhou Laoshi first explained it when showing us the character for “family”-“jia”-and explained the roof of the house and the second part of the character is the pig underneath-“well, you have to feed a family, and Chinese love pork” is how she explained it. The roof is a protective symbol that stands for the household. It reminds me less of 人 “ren” or “person” in Chinese-just because our teacher was so descriptive about the person walking…that this is how I always see this character.

    Vili, the screen captures are so beautiful! On the Criterion collection Prince’s commentary channel makes note of how sound is used-orchestration giving way to the sound of birds, then picking up again. The opening credits with roofline are like the opening credits of “The Lower Depths” where you see the place but not the people. It’s like looking at the wrapper of a present. You just can’t wait to see what’s inside. You have no idea how much it will affect you!

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