Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Is Explanation Necessary?

I just finished reading Ronnie Scheib's Variety review of a screening of Kichitaro Negishi's Viyon No Tsuma (Villon's Wife) at the Montreal Film Festival. What struck me is that the name "Villon" only appears when the title of the film is mentioned with absolutely no explanation of what it is doing in the title. Scheib does mention that the film is based on a 1947 semi-autobiographical novel by Osamu Dazai in which he portrays himself as a "womanizing, heavy-drinking, suicidal hero" (who, incidentally, committed suicide a year after the novel was published). However, the idea that Dazai may have seen himself as a latter-day reincarnation of François Villon, described in his Wikipedia entry as "a French poet, thief, and vagabond," never surfaces in the review, leading me to wonder whether it arose in the film or, for that matter, the novel.

In the early twentieth century there were a variety of literary and musical works that romanticized Villon to a point of absurdity, which may be one reason that Bertolt Brecht decided to pull him in the opposite direction, using him as the model for the truly vile Baal character in his play of the same name. At the very least Negishi (and probably Dazai) saw fit to honor the thief side of Villon's reputation, since the film begins with Dazai's alter ego stealing ¥5,000 from a bar where he has run up a tab that he cannot pay. However, the closest Scheib comes to seeing any poetic side in this character is in describing him as "Byronic." (Oops! Wrong country! Wrong century! There is a good chance that Lord Byron was not acquainted with either the poetry or reputation of Villon, so it would be unfair to accuse Byron of channeling Villon.)

However, does any effort to set the record straight really matter? It probably would have mattered to Dazai. He went to the trouble of invoking Villon in his title. Whether or not the burden of recognizing the significance of the name was left as an exercise for the reader, the name was clearly important to him. Does it matter if that importance eluded Negishi? Does it matter that it eluded Scheib on the grounds that one dissolute scoundrel with "a touch of the poet" is as good as another? Ultimately, the narrative is more concerned with the good wife picking up after her husband than with the husband himself. Furthermore, Villon's own relations with women seemed to have more to do with getting into trouble than with having someone to clean up the mess. Perhaps Scheib is on to something. Perhaps Dazai would have done better to title his novel Byron's Wife!

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