Nostalgia & National Failure –

Here’s a paper I recently wrote for my Cinema Studies class. It’s a little rough around the edges but it deals with the personal guilt over national failure. It’s somehow related to my interest in the weight of memory & nostalgia. Enjoy the pictures:

‘AN EGYPTIAN STRAY DOG’

Personifying the National Failure of
Kurosawa’s Japan & Abdel-Nasser’s Egypt

Kurosawa’s 1949 Stray Dog is usually considered the director’s first masterpiece. From it’s strong visual design to its meditations on masculinity, class conflict and romantic nostalgia we have all the makings of the visionary that would go on to direct films such as Rashoman and Seven Samurai. Instead of rehashing what’s already been said about the film, let us explore an aspect that’s often neglected yet at the forefront of Kurosawa’s vision as he set the story to film: the personal guilt over national failure. Also, in this short paper we will evaluate the timeliness of the film in order to decide if it can be remade for this region.

Before discussing the actual story, let us remind ourselves about what has happened in Japan by 1949. An Imperial force, with a long feudal history of independence, has been crushed into surrender by the Allied Forces. Bombing raids on key cities such as Tokyo culminated in the dropping of two devastating atomic bombs on civilian-laden Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The concept of ‘the frontline’ has been redefined to include even living rooms. Japan lost roughly half a million civilians and two million soldiers. It had also been ‘encouraged’ to ratify a new pacifist constitution – further emasculating itself of any military strength.

It is this rubble and psyche of Japan that Kurosawa guides us through as we follow Detective Murakami (Toshiro Mifune) in search of his gun and doppelgänger Yusa (Isao Kimura). While he has succeeded in escaping the poverty and criminality of the individuals he meets, he realizes his personal success is an anomaly. He is slowly weighted with the guilt of his country and countrymen’s failings. The noteworthy Holocaust survivor and writer Primo Levi has devoted his life talking about this type of guilt due to his own luck in surviving the Nazi Vernichtungslager, of being one of ‘the saved’ amongst ‘the drowned’.

The weight of this national nostalgia and failure – ‘what we were’ and ‘what we were supposed to become’ versus ‘what we actually are’ – burdens Murakami’s psyche and maybe the atmosphere of the entire film. What makes Stray Dog special is that the majority of Kurosawa’s masterpieces were detached from modern-day and set against an idyllic backdrop of feudal, samurai Japan. This is a little too close to home for him. The rubble and crushed humanity we see on the streets of postwar Tokyo aren’t the result of the production design department; they are real, all the camera does is document it. The film captures the true victim of war – civilians. But maybe the film is also meant to act as a form of therapy as symbolized by Murakami’s older, wiser partner, Sato (Takashi Shimura). He not only tries to help Murakami find his gun but also the younger’s own maturity and move past the painful memories.

But why talk about this film now? Is such an experience, such a film, relevant to the Middle East region? Unfortunately, yes – in the last century the Middle East has witnessed some of the bloodiest conflicts and cataclysmic shifts in national identity. Examples include Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria. Let us not forget nations within nations who have suffered from the cruelest form of warfare, genocide, such as the Armenians and Kurds. One of these conflicts should suffice in making our point about the need to remake or re-explore this theme of national defeat and guilt.

Parallels can be drawn between the change in Japanese power and national psyche at the close of World War II and Egypt after the ‘67 war with Israel. The superpower of the Middle East, Egypt suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of a smaller but better-equipped Israeli army. This is best personified by the televised attempt of Gamal Abdel-Nasser to resign immediately following the defeat. Most likely a political stunt, what’s astonishing is the response – tens of thousands of ordinary Egyptians took to the streets of Cairo to offer their solidarity with the leader, declaring “we are your soldiers Gamal”. This was no ordinary leader and this was no ordinary defeat.

Today it’s difficult to appreciate the significance of Nasser’s charisma, rule and influence but Time Magazine makes a solid attempt: “Nasser imparted a sense of personal worth and national pride that they [Egypt and the Arabs] had not known for 400 years” . During his rule, not only did Egypt flourish as a military power but as a cultural empire as proven by the likes of Naguib Mahfouz, Umm Kalthoum, and a prolific film industry during this time. For whatever reasons, these icons and achievements are psychologically associated with Nasser’s era, with Nasser’s Egypt, in the collective memory of Egyptians and Arabs. In retrospect he is regarded as Egypt’s last great pharaoh, the ‘Arab JFK’, who ruled with an iron fist but who was also loved by the masses.

At his death in 1970, a Beirut newspaper quipped that “one hundred million human beings – the Arabs – are orphans.” When millions of Egyptians poured out in the streets for Nasser’s funeral, they were not only burying their leader but in a sense themselves – their dreams of pan-Arabism, Egyptian superiority and independence. It was a emasculating defeat felt by everyone, from ‘The Pharaoh’ to the common man. To the returning soldiers, like Kurosawa’s Murakami – all part of an impotent war machine. With the death of Nasser, the masses had no one to point the finger of blame to – so they pointed it at themselves.

Stray Dog not only reinforces the need to explore such topics of national identity and failings but also how cathartic it can be for a national audience to re-experience them. For those of us outside of Japan, we may have assumed that World War II ended as the mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki dissipated. But Kurosawa reminds us that wasn’t the case – that’s when the real war started. His example also teaches us that filmmaking can be therapeutic, a form of catharsis, where we can allow our nation’s painful events into our ‘prosthetic memory’ instead of ignoring them.

A survey of the discussion surrounding Stray Dog seems to center on the film’s noir aesthetic choices and the psychology of a man chasing down a twin-variant of himself. I think we can also agree that any discussion of the film seems dwarfed by Kurosawa’s body of work and constant search for connections to later masterpieces such as Rashoman and Seven Samurai instead of appreciating the film as is. A discussion on the personal and collective guilt over national defeat offers us a foothold to have a new type of discussion about the film and to link it to the pressing themes that filmmakers in this region may need to express as a testament to the past and way to start healing national identity.

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4 thoughts on “Nostalgia & National Failure –

  1. I think that your parallel between Japan and Egypt’s (and by extension, the Arabs) identity of “defeat” are not only insightful in their resemblances; but also in its differences.

    Whereas there is a lingering sense of disappointment in post-WW2 Japan, they have decided to face their reality, and move on.

    What I think is interesting is the fact that that did not happen with the Egyptians. And I have not seen an Egyptian film that depicts this state: Defeated vanquishers.

    Although we are no longer in the immediate post-67 or post-73 (or post-79, for that matter), our current times are fertile grounds to reignite this truth that no one would speak of.

    • Thanks Moustafa for the comment – I think I need to continue the paper and investigate whether Egypt has produced a film about the state you mention, ‘defeated vanquishers’.

      If such a film doesn’t exist, which I don’t think it does, then I need to explore how we modern filmmakers can fill that gap.

    • This is a fascinating take on Stray Dogs. Complements! This brings up a much larger issue of memory as an act – one that can be avoided – and the consequences of choosing to remember or not. Would be very interested to see what comes out of your research, Kasem.

      • Thanks for the comment Professor – I’ve been talking to a few Egyptian film buffs that lived during the era and they tell me there were a couple of films that had the overtone of defeat but I’m going to see if I can get copies to see what exactly has been done and how much national history Egyptian audiences have been able to relive through cinema. One of the films is called ‘karnak’ if that rings any bells.

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