A Japanese film in the heart of Brazil, or a Brazilian film featuring Japanese actors? Dirty Hearts (Corações suicos) is both one and the other but it is also an essay on intolerance, fundamentalism and the ensuing disdain for human values, and life itself.
Anyone who has ever been to Sao Paulo, even for a short stay, will surely have been momentarily puzzled on unexpectedly finding themselves face-to-face with Brazilians with strikingly oriental features. A sizeable influx of Japanese that began in the early twentieth Century paved the way to the formation of a community of almost 2 million. The industriousness of the newcomers and the initial caution that gave way to acceptance on the part of Brazilians fostered a lengthy and peaceful cohabitation, except for the dark years of World War II when Brazil took an anti-Axis stance. While the Japanese immigrants were not viewed as enemies, they were, for all intents and purposes, considered unwelcome guests to be kept under very close surveillance.
From the dark overtones of Scott Hicks’ Snow falling on Cedars to Alan Parker’s melodrama Come See the Paradise, cinema has given broad coverage to what the Japanese in the United States of America were subjected to in those days while, here, the events that unfolded in Brazil are described by Vincente Amorim. In a daring approach, he grafts a thriller on to Brazilian film aesthetics to portray honour, love and violence as far-off echoes of kabuki theatre. In order to achieve this Amorim uses a variety of styles that vary as the occasion demands, from gory samurai to psychological drama, from headlong romanticism to social portraiture. The outcome of this seemingly haphazard patchwork is miraculously balanced. It is based on the novel of the same name by Fernando Morais who, together with David Franca Mendes, wrote the film screenplay. The book, imperceptible to the viewer, is eclipsed by the power of the cinematography and the purity of the narration.
Towards the end of the war and immediately after the armistice, the Brazilian police who had been ordered to oversee the vanquished die-hards singled out many Japanese communities for particularly harsh treatment, and it is in one of these where cotton is grown, far from the big city, that Armorim sets his drama. Although absurd and only apparently incomprehensible, this makes perfect sense when contextualized with the feelings of the majority of Brazil’s Japanese population. The film takes the viewer to an imaginary place; a set reconstructed on two levels that significantly highlights the divide between the public and the private areas of life. The streets, the road signs and the street furniture show the village as an authentic example of colonial culture, but the homes and how they are furnished, the school classrooms, and the people’s dress show how firmly the grip of Japanese culture remains. This gives rise to a subtle play between inside and out and is also seen in the intensity of light that well exemplifies the conflict about to explode in the community.
Here, as elsewhere, many Japanese with a poor grasp of Portuguese, strengthened links of loyalty to the fatherland. Clueless as to reality, they refuse to believe they have been defeated, something they consider impossibility just as it is impossible that the Emperor, infallible and immortal by definition, has indeed surrendered. Anyone who takes a more realistic stance and rejects this version is branded a traitor and forced to bear the shame of the appellative “dirty heart”.
The story of Dirty Hearts is told through the dramatic events experienced by a hard-working, well-matched couple, significantly involved in memory conservation. The leading female character Miyuki (Takako Tokiwa [Cut, 20th Century Boys]) is a schoolteacher whose subject is teaching Japanese language and ideograms to the very young, while her husband Takahashi (Tsuyoschi Ihara [Letters from Iwo Jima]) is a photographer who, by means of careful black and white photography, is able to halt the passage of time. Independent of likes and passions, the life choices and ensuing behavior of the couple personify the horns of the dilemma, namely whether to accept life as it actually is or take up arms to fight for the ideal exactly like the eternal conflict between love and honour in the tradition of Japanese culture.
In the town, though, in a studied act of provocative arrogance, a high-ranking Brazilian police officer cleans his boots with the struck Japanese colours (and there will never be enough warning given about humiliation being the mother of fundamentalism, here and elsewhere, yesterday and today) that triggers a mood for defending the honour of the fatherland. The undisputed incarnation of this is Colonel Watanabe (EiJi Okuda [Chanto tsutaeru]) a retired army officer who leads the revolt of the tokkotai extremists, men willing to kill their brothers if it means exalting Japanese pride and denying its tragic military defeat. The officer gradually sheds the mask of a shopkeeper to emerge as the inspiration of nationalist propaganda. Exploiting the credulity of the less educated and the weak he plants the idea in their minds that Japan has incontrovertibly won the war. He goes on to instigate a series of killings appointing as executioner Takahashi who, despite his peaceable nature, does not know how to hold out against this call for the most execrable type of nationalism, or for the inferred responsibility of defending its honour to the death. Even if it means killing dirty hearts, his kith and kin until the day before, and even if it means the destruction of his very family and the death of his social life.
From here on, the film is gory and samurai style, with executions carried out by extra sharp swords and the ensuing copious quantities of blood shed lending the images a rather gruesome effect. All of a sudden, the Brazilian film has become the vehicle from which as though by magic a Japanese film emerges which, in turn, echoes a western melodrama punctuated by emphatically lavish music.
Dirty Hearts is a true and complete portrayal of where both ideological folly and the ensuing downward self destroying spiral can lead those who choose to allow themselves to fall into its grasp. The real theme of the film is about believing in the superiority of one’s own culture as a source of unavoidable violence, and how this can be a paradigm for application to all situations including those of the present day. Indeed, when the truth of the situation finally gets through to Colonel Watanabe, incarnation of the blackest side of the plot, he has no qualms about forcing the photographer to manipulate photographs and newspaper articles, such as the reversed roles of the famous photograph of Emperor Hirohito surrendering to General McArthur (the trumped-up version was indeed widely distributed throughout Brazil’s Japanese community). In the end, Takahashi, who has always harboured the shadow of a doubt, understands that there is no good to be had from denying reality.
Indeed Dirty Hearts sheds light on the darkness of certain historic facts as well as indirectly onto others much closer to us.
© FIPRESCI 2012