What happens when you take an idea for a nature documentary short about a specific type of butterfly like the Nagasaki Swallowtail (papilla memnon) and expand it into an experimental narrative feature incorporating stylistic influences of the French New Wave with allegorical and sociological overtones? The result is Silence Has No Wings (aka Tobenai Chinmoku, 1966), a visually astonishing and rarely seen film by Japanese director Kazuo Kuroki, who began his career as an assistant director before helming several public relations and documentary shorts like Electric Rolling Stock of Toshiba (aka Toshiba Sharyo, 1958) and The Seawall (aka Kaiheki, 1959).
You could say that – on the surface – Silence Has No Wings is like a road movie but instead of a human protagonist you have an insect larva transitioning into a caterpillar and eventually a butterfly as it makes its way across Japan from Hokkaido, the northernmost of the country’s islands, to Yokohama, which is southwest of Tokyo. The movie opens and closes with a framing device that sets up the journey that is about to unfold.
A pre-teen schoolboy is fascinated by the exotic butterflies he sees in a display room and he later stalks and captures a rare species in the fields. When he proudly displays the captured Swallowtail to his teacher, his discovery is received in an incredulous manner. How could the boy have come into possession of this butterfly which is native to the Southern tropics of Japan and only feeds on zabon trees (a type of Japanese citrus like grapefruit), which are unknown in Hokkaido? The teacher sends the schoolboy to an authority on butterflies who compares his Swallowtail sample to a scientific hoax, drawing parallels to the infamous case of the Piltdown Man where fossilized human remains were passed off as the bones of someone from the Paleozoic era. In frustration, the boy flees into the countryside with his specimen and encounters a mysterious woman (Mariko Kaga) in the misty underbrush. She takes him to her father, a woodcutter, who advises the schoolboy that if he truly believed his dead butterfly was once alive and could fly, he should ignore those who doubted him.
It is at this point that Silence Has No Wings takes on a vignette-like approach to the narrative as it moves from city to city, adopting various genre forms (melodrama, musical, spy thriller, etc.) to tell each story with Mariko Kaga serving as the human link in each episode. Is she some sort of Japanese everywoman or a recurring motif intended to represent post-war Japan? Only director/co-writer Kazuo Kuroki knows for sure but even when some of the narrative threads become impenetrable or obtuse, Silence Has No Wings works as a haunting cinematic poem. Even audiences who normally find underground or experimental cinema boring or pretentious can enjoy Kuroki’s film as a purely sensory experience. This is a movie you feel on a purely instinctual level thanks to the evocative soundscapes, shifting emotional tones, a poignant recurring theme song and music score by Teizo Matsumura and the stunning black and white cinematography of Tatsuo Suzuki, which goes from microscopic close-ups of larva eating zabon leaves to dramatic lighting schemes in the style of a film noir thriller.
Each vignette is identified by the city or region in which it takes place so you have the journey begin in Hokkaido and move to Nagasaki as the caterpillar hitches a ride on a train bound for Tokyo and ends up on a ceremonial warrior costume in Hagi. Other stops along the way include Hiroshima, Kyoto, Osaka and Yokohoma before Silence Has No Wings circles back to its origins in Hokkaido.
The Hiroshima segment is possibly the most melancholic and philosophical of the vignettes as it explores the post-WW2 traumas of that city, particularly the fate of survivors who are slowly dying from the lingering effects of the atomic bomb. Over footage of memorial lanterns floating on the river at night and pedestrians wandering the city streets you hear the voice-over of anonymous victims say, “Something’s inside our bodies to periodically bring back memories. I’m fine today but you never know when the disease will get you….You wonder when the time will come when you can honestly say it was good to be alive.”
In an interview with Yasui Yoshio for the website Documentarists of Japan, director Kuroki discussed the origins of Silence Has No Wings. It was originally a project that was assigned by Toho studios, which had recently scored an international art house success with Woman in the Dunes (aka Suna No Onna, 1964), to documentary specialist Matsukawa Yasuo. Yasuo didn’t want to do it so he handed the screenplay for a short film entitled “The Lonesome Butterfly” to Kuroki, who was inspired to expand it into an unconventional narrative fiction with a title inspired by a line in a Federico Garcia Lorca poem.
Kuroki freely admits to being influenced by the films of Jean-Luc Godard and Alain Resnais and it’s no surprise that Silence Has No Wings was later praised and championed in France by such influential cineastes as Marc Allégret (Blanche Fury, Lady Chatterly’s Lover), Pierre Braunberger (producer of Shoot the Piano Player, Vivre Sa Vie, Muriel) and Henri Langlois, the director of the Cinemathèque in Paris.
In the aforementioned interview, Kuroki explains why he was attracted to Silence Has No Wings and his original intentions for the film: “I wanted to make films where the non-existent really does exist…and that’s why I focused the film on the butterfly. From one fanatic ideology centered around the Emperor to another one centered around MacArthur, that idea of our conversion to postwar democracy was represented through the butterfly. And I wanted to invest in it all the bitterness of the Showa Era (1927-1989) where a difference of a few years could mean the difference between wartime and postwar. It is about a Japan that one day will surely alter the Peace Article of its Constitution, a Japan that will again become one of a small number of military states to wage war once more. The cinematic version of this prediction was Silence Has No Wings.”
When Kuroki completed his film, it was scheduled for a national release in Japan. Unfortunately, once the company heads at Toho screened the movie, they decided to shelve it instead, proclaiming it “a lunatic film.” A year later, Silence Has No Wings was picked up for distribution by the Art Theatre Guild of Japan (ATG) and thanks to that organization, the film slowly acquired an international following. In recent years, Silence Has No Wings has popped up at rare repertory screenings in the U.S. such as The Japan Society in NYC but Kuroki still remains a little-known director on these shores in comparison to more famous peers like Kon Ichikawa (The Burmese Harp, Fires on the Plain) and Shohei Imamura (The Insect Woman, The Battle of Narayama). That’s a shame since Kuroki’s later films were much less experimental in nature and more accessible to mainstream audiences such as his 1970 yakuza thriller Evil Spirits of Japan (aka Nippon No Akuryo) or 1974’s The Assassination of Ryoma (aka Ryoma Ansatsu), a historical drama set during the years 1836-1867); both of those were commercial successes in Japan.
Another interesting aspect of Silence Has No Wings is Kuroki’s use of Mariko Kaga in the film. Appearing in various guises throughout the film, which range from femme fatale murderess to fashion model to Kyoto temple entertainer, Kaga’s persona is as shape-shifting as the central metaphor of the larva/caterpillar/butterfly. It was certainly shrewd casting on Kuroki’s part because Kaga was a rising Japanese star at the time, having appeared in such now cult titles as Masahiro Shinoda’s Pale Flower (1964), Ko Nakahira’s Only on Mondays (1964) and Nagisa Oshima’s Pleasures of the Flesh (1965). Kaga would go on to win awards and critical acclaim for such films as Kohei Oguri’s Muddy River (aka Doro No Kaga,1981) and Yoshihiro Fukagawa’s In His Chart (aka Kamisama No Karute, 2011) and continues to remain active in Japanese cinema today.
Silence Has No Wings is not currently available on any format in the U.S. and may be missing in action for years to come unless some enterprising distributor like Arrow Films or The Criterion Collection step in to save it from oblivion. Meanwhile, you might be able to score a bootleg of it from gray market providers. It is well worth seeking out.
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