The Subway Sumo Scene from Chris Maker’s film Sans Soleil left an impression on me and kept me memorized the entire time. I didn’t want to the scene stop. He filmed the scene in an autoethnography style. He filmed what appeared as a common commute to him; there was this sense of familiarity with train and the people on them, even though it may have not been a routine commute for him. He starts the scene with a digital animation of moving down train tracks that flashes some what appears as Japanese writing and then switches to filming the passing of actual tracks from the back of the train window. This start and transition gave me a geographical frame of reference.
As the tracks fed out from beneath the train I began to place myself on this train with him. Not with him, it was like I became the passenger. His sequence seemed in rhythm with a natural space of looking around and riding on the subway train.
The camera begins to explore its surrounding and films the faces of people, looking out of the windows, looking at the camera and just staring off. Close up of people’s hands holding the handles that hang from the ceiling revealed tenseness, boredom, anxiety, and defeat. Chris showed emotion with those small details, setting the stage for how commuting feels in Japan, at least for him.
He then focuses on people sleeping and nodding, bobbing heads as the train keeps on moving and rocking. Further expanding on the emotions he has already been invoking. He’s recording the Japanese commuting experience but from a very personal perspective. We are choosing who to focus on but instead he focuses for us. It is his experience of commuting within Japan, an experience that becomes mine as I watch his video.
Suddenly scenes from Japanese television flash quickly in between frames of people sleeping. Are these their dreams? Or his memories from watching the shows that he mixes into how he views their culture and people? It is indistinguishable. The memories and dreams may be his or theirs. It is here that the segment definitely changes from documentary to autoethnography. He gives no context for the television flashes on than the sleeping passengers.
Then shots of people in huge groups walking down and up subways stairs appear. He fills the entire frame, edge to edge with people walking up and down. Does he feel crowded or herded? How do the people feel? We don’t know. A woman walking down stairs he tells us is the music of stairs. The constant repetitive sound of a variety of styles of shoes hitting against the steps, do form a type of natural music you hear frequently in the city.
Two old men are sitting and watching TV, multiple TVs of sumo wrestlers. What are they watching? Chris zooms in on one TV showing us. Showing us their massive bodies collide into one another has he quickly flashes to the gaze of older men in between shots. He trying to infer a hard thick fleshy struggle, perhaps between him and the culture.