Written at the start of World War I and published in 1925 after its author’s untimely death, Franz Kafka’s “The Trial” is one of those novels everyone knows by reputation (or, in my case, from a fevered reading in high school).
The unequal contest between the beleaguered hero, Josef K., and the shadowy, maze-like judicial system that traps him, came to be viewed as a metaphor for 20th-century totalitarianism, though Kafka’s own frame of reference was the bureaucracies of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which then ruled his native Prague.
For veteran filmmaker John Williams the novel is the inspiration for a new film set in contemporary Japan. Titled “The Trial” (“Shinpan” in Japanese), it refrains from channeling previous screen adaptations, especially the one made by Orson Welles in 1962.
“I love that film. It’s very noirish and surreal,” Williams tells me while sitting in his cluttered office at Sophia University, where he teaches film courses, “but it’s also a Cold War-era film, one that is very much Welles’ own interpretation. And there’s no way for me to beat Welles.”
The story of Williams’ “The Trial” follows the outlines of the novel: Yosuke Kimura (played by Tsutomu Niwa) awakens one morning to the disturbing sight of two smirking men at the foot of his bed who say they have a warrant for his arrest. They proceed to seize his valuables, but do not take him into custody. When Kimura asks to see the warrant, they contemptuously refuse — and the taller one takes a big bite of an apple in Kimura’s kitchen.
Then Kimura’s oddly seductive next-door neighbor, Mari Suzuki (Rino Tsuneishi), tells him out of the blue that he should confess. But how did she know about his arrest?
Even stranger is his first hearing in a “courtroom” in a school gym. The judge (Ichiro Murata) tells Kimura he is an hour and 26 minutes late, though the court summons did not specify a time. After a line of questioning that strikes him as pointless, an indignant Kimura proclaims, “I will not come back.”
“We’ll make you,” is the bland reply. Meanwhile, behind the judge, on a line that stretches across the room, a woman is nonchalantly hanging laundry.
Similar bizarreness can also be found in the novel, but the film, Williams says, “is set in a real world where odd things happen in a kind of parallel reality” — everyone dresses in ordinary clothes and the action unfolds in everyday settings. Yet there is nothing ordinary or everyday about the hero’s situation.
“The film reflects the weird times that we live in,” Williams explains. “A kind of double reality exists not only in Japan but the whole world.
“I could have said many things about how strange this country has become,” he adds, citing Japan’s “political drift to the right.” Examples include the push for revision of Japan’s war-renouncing Constitution and the calls for education in prewar “Japanese values” in the schools. “Democracy is eroding here, but people are falling asleep — only a few are paying attention.”
The story of the hapless Kimura, says Williams, “is a metaphor that works on different levels — not just the judicial or political.” The hero, he explains, “sees the world differently. He sees that it’s crazy, that it doesn’t make sense.” He also refuses to accept the illogic of a system that is slowly crushing him, an illogic that those around him accept — or embrace. “He’s the classic nail that stands out.”
And when he is offered help — as when the laundry woman, Anna (Shizuko Kawakami), coyly tells him she can get his file erased if he “plays ball” — Kimura rejects it, while recoiling from his putative helper. “In one sense, he’s an idiot, a comic hero,” Williams says. “In another, he has a kind of nobility — he won’t buckle under.”
In the original novel, K is executed, with his last words being “like a dog.” But Williams did not want to leave the audience of “The Trial” with a feeling of hopelessness. Instead of being wreathed in a fog of existential gloom, the film, says Williams, “fits into a Buddhist world view.”
The view is best expressed by a hollow-voiced monk who tells Kimura a parable derived from the novel’s story-within-a-story “Before the Law.” “It resembles a Buddhist mondo — that is, an unsolvable riddle,” explains Williams. A man glimpses a light in the darkness behind a large, heavy door, but when he tries to go through, he is stopped by a giant of a doorkeeper. He waits patiently outside to the end of his life — when the doorkeeper finally closes the door, but Williams denies that the man’s quest to enter has been futile.
“At least he kept looking for something,” he says. “It’s like the story of Socrates, who was playing a flute while they were preparing hemlock for his execution. When he was asked why, he said, ‘At least I can learn this melody before I die.'”
This never-give-up attitude also characterizes Williams’ approach to filmmaking. Knowing that “The Trial” is unlikely to be a box-office hit, he nonetheless plunged ahead with a crowdfunding campaign that raised enough money to begin shooting, if with a budget tiny by even low local standards.
“I think it’s wrong to give up because a film is simply not commercial,” he says. “But in Japan it’s becoming harder and harder to make what might be called ‘artistic’ films. By that I don’t mean ‘difficult,’ but films that depict social reality.”
His solution: more government support for indie filmmakers.
“The Agency for Cultural Affairs supports filmmakers, but it doesn’t have enough money,” Williams says. “Some German regions allocate more money (for local film production) than Japan does, and a lot of it goes to young filmmakers. That’s a good model.”
But with or without support, Williams intends to plug on, with several projects, commercial and noncommercial, in the works.
“When I met Beat Takeshi (actor, director and comedian Takeshi Kitano) at a party in Busan many years ago, he told me to ‘just keep making films,'” he says. “That’s the best advice anyone ever gave me.”
“The Trial” is now playing with English subtitles at Eurospace cinemas in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo. John Williams will take part in a talk event at Eurospace on July 20. For more information, visit www.shinpan-film.comen.