Eye of the Story

The Evergreen State College

Category: Week 4 Viewing

Ozu’s conveyance- Tokyo Story

Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story is carefully prepared and visually intricate, but by story standards it is incredibly strait forward. Ozu uses a centralized camera to put the viewer at the center of the dialogue, almost like a kid looking up and observing the adult’s actions and conversations; all carefully framed and paced with stillness and awkward pauses in conversation included. By imposing the limitations of a low angle camera with no tracking shots, Ozu is forced to pack as much information and subtle movement into each frame as possible.

The major factor of Ozu’s style is conveyance. The anxiousness that comes with a family visit is palpable in the opening of Tokyo story. Norikos over exaggerated facial expressions along with her sister in laws cheapness and efforts to get the parents to leave as soon as they come is all too familiar; the tension in the silence is made apparent by the closeness of the space shared by the actors. I will be discussing two scenes in which this minimal framing is crucial to conveyance.            

            The first being the small fight the Grandparents have at the very beginning over the inflatable cushion. The father swears he gave it to her, and that her memory is going because she is always losing things. He finds it in his belongings shortly, and the mother sits in silent victory. Not only is this a great visual argument, it’s conveying so much information about the characters. The mothers obviously had these arguments before, the smugness isn’t shown on her face but the little victory is palpable. We are introduced to the dynamic of their relationship, and through the children we see all the stages of the relationship.

The other is the sea wall the Old couple sits on, where mother becomes dizzy.

The scene is gorgeous, our two main characters sit on the sea wall in stillness, the shot is almost deliberately cut in half, and the bottom is in darkness that swallows the characters shadows. Too contrast, we have the shimmering ocean stretching away from them. The stillness in the shot makes the wind apparent as it ruffles the hot springs guest robes. We can see the clothing ripple and watch them pay close attention to their balance while still braving the potential fall for the sake of the view. Which leads to mother’s dizziness, and one of the only shots of pure foreshadowing in the film. As mother attempts to stand up on the sea wall she collapses kneeling in front of her husband. The father explains it away as mother has just had bad sleep, but then we cut to two smoke stacks belching black smoke. It is the only instance in the movie where smoke stacks are blowing black smoke and it is clearly overshadowing mother’s health.

Ozu’s conveyance is what makes his movies so powerful. This ability to so say so much, to deliver stories within stories through subtle gestures and literal windows, is what justifies the somewhat grinding pace of the film. The small moments that seem arbitrary at first amount to a bigger picture that shows the theme steadfastly through out the whole film.

Keegan Linnett, “Compassion and Companionship” in Tokyo Story

It is possible to count an exhaustive list of the various meanings and representations woven into  Yasujiro Ozu’s 1953 masterpiece, Tokyo Story. At the same time, this film’s portrayal of the implications in the unspoken familial contracts of tradition, responsibility, and compassion are all reducible to a simple, masterful expression of domestic life. The title Tokyo Story is hardly representative of what this film actually shows. Almost entirely set indoors with all the action in the film being the subtleties of the interrelations between family members of both blood and marriage, this film could have taken place anywhere. Tokyo itself is quite irrelevant  to the plot besides the city itself acting as a symbol for contemporary life with its new list of priorities that feature a responsibility shift towards economy and away from the family.

It is within this juxtaposition and the negotiation of it between tradition and modernity that the terms of companionship, loyalty, and expectation must be worked. Noriko’s tenderness towards all is a reflection of truth in the value of selflessness. Her compassion becomes the crux of contention in the film, standing out from the self-serving motives of the other characters. Companionship can be seen as a derivative of compassion that is a sustaining force for the happiness of the characters. The quality of companionship that the Koichi and Fumiko share is it one that is incompatible with alcohol and other false stocks like the success of one’s children. Without a sense of compassion, when one’s faculties are given over to economy, that enchanting hierarchical structure devoid of any familial satisfaction, what is left is a susceptibility to passivity and disappointment.

Entering Noriko’s apartment for the first time is the most significant introduction to her hospitality that goes beyond just being a good hostess. This scene establishes her as a character apart from the rest. A single room, her apartment conveys her humble priorities. Even though that small room might be all she can afford from the salary of her clerical desk job, never does she allude to wanting any self-serving material gains. She is content with what she has with the exception that she wishes she could offer her two guests, her in-laws Koichi and Fumiko, more. Somehow, by reasons never addressed by the film, Noriko has managed to maintain a functional life philosophy based on serving others. The only other person in the film who rivals Noriko’s hospitality is her next door neighbor that provides her with sake, food, and cups, the material items she needs but does not own herself in order to provide for her guests.

Paper fans are prevalent throughout this film and are being waved by any given number of characters in any given scene: in the living room, at dinner, in bed, in conversation, in solitude, in the evening, in the morning.  It must really be hot in Tokyo. So often are characters fanning themselves, sometimes desperately, sometimes casually. But it is almost exclusively Noriko who does not fan herself but rather fans Koichi and Fumiko. The scene in Noriko’s apartment ends with her fanning the old couple as they eat the food she has ordered for them . It creates a feeling of solidarity among the three of them. The scene that immediately follows is of Shige and her husband lounging right next to one another, each fanning themselves with their own fan as they plot to ship their parents away to Atami. They could not seem more distant from each other despite their literal immediate proximity. And they could not seem more different than the loving trio that was just on screen. The same fanning happens in both scenes but it is the intention behind who is fanning who that makes the difference.

Noriko does not reciprocate the same attitude of service, respect, and love to herself though. Despite her late husband dying eight years prior in the war, and despite still being youthful and attractive, she does not have the confidence to think that she could still be a potential mate for some young bachelor. She constantly denies any praise given to her and, given her level of self-esteem, must really be confused why anybody likes to spend time with her at all. She does not recognize her qualities that set her apart from the other characters in this film. Noriko is the definitive representation of compassion, never once wavering from her position of self-less care.

The strength of Koichi and Fumiko’s relationship is visibly displayed during this scene. They move in tandem, simultaneously rotating around a picture of their deceased son. Their speech is complementary, often saying the same things in different ways. And, as Ozu’s 90 degree shots promote, they sit, one on each side of the table, surrounding Noriko. Koichi and Fumiko are shown as a single entity. Their companionship is what gives them strength and they are affirmed by the gentleness and appreciation they share.

As wholesome and firm as this relationship seems to be, it is not unbreakable. Even before Fumiko’s death, cracks start to appear in their bond, most notably with the introduction of alcohol to the story. One third of the way through the film, sake makes an appearance and maintains its presence throughout. It is unabashedly displayed in the scenes where Koichi gets sloshed with his obstreperous friends and when the young bachelors enjoy themselves at the spa. It is also shown subtly like becoming a routine at meals and being slipped into anecdotal dialogue between characters. Once Koichi drinks up at Noriko’s apartment for the first time, his and Fumiko’s relationship seems only to deteriorate from that point, ending eventually in a total severance with her death.

After Noriko’s, they are sent to Atami where the first signs of Fumiko’s weakness are revealed. As they sit on the cement break wall by the ocean, Koichi stand up to leave and begins to walk away but Fumiko is seen left on her hands and knees trying follow Koichi but cannot. They have fallen out of the harmony of complementarily. They are no longer one.  As both Koichi and Fumiko gather their strength from one another and their mutual companionship, a weakness within one is a weakness to the other.

After they leave Atami, the two are never seen together again for another forty minutes of the movie. They join again when the whole family is shown waiting in that grimy, throbbing Tokyo train station to see them off.  This train station is an awful place and one would hope that Koichi and Fumiko’s reunion would be somewhere more endearing. She’s not dead yet, after all. No one is happy here, the goals of coming to Tokyo seem unfulfilled, and there is a pang of disappointment in knowing certain expectations now cannot be met. This is their last trip to Tokyo and everyone knows it and Fumiko dies shortly after. It is with the sake that the degradation of this relationship begins. Prior to its introduction, even though they are practically on house arrest and what little they’ve seen of Tokyo is unexciting, the couple have each other and were able to exist in their own world with their own means to happiness. Whether or not Ozu intended alcohol to represent a force that empowers egoism, the muse of the young, while destroying anything wholesome, alcohol is noticeably present in this film and draws attention to its relationship with the characters.

From Noriko’s hospitality, she may be the only character who gains something truly valuable. By contrast, Shige, at the submissiveness of her siblings, acquires some nice possessions of her newly deceased mother whose body is probably not even cold yet, but aside from that her change is nonexistent. It is Noriko who achieves a true catharsis by the end of the film when Koichi gives her Fumiko’s old pocket watch. Finally, Noriko receives something more than just flimsy, though genuine, formalities for her unconditional kindness. This is something she can feel. Finally, it is Noriko who is the one saying thank you. It is here that her endless self-imposed sense of duty towards others is rationalized for herself. She can stop all of her efforts and let her guard down. For once her proper composure is lost. She sobs into her hands as tears flow with this internal reconciliation taking place and just revels in the feeling of gratitude knowing that somebody loves her with the same tenderness that she expends everyday of her life.

Even though the plot of this film is insignificant, its beauty lies in the minutia. The tedium of it may be hard to watch for viewers accustomed to more plot driven narratives. Even still, there is something heartwarming and satisfying about it all. The style of this movie can be likened to poetry; it takes the everyday and gives it a sense of profundity so that the reader may find beauty in the common experiences of life.

 

Chi Lin, Tokyo Story – Ozu (close reading)

Chi Lin

Tokyo Story – Yasujiro Ozu

 

Like Shukishi and Tomi, my own grandparents are quite stoic in their own right. Having grown up in a traditional Taiwanese village and worked his way up through the capitalist world of higher education, degrees and hard work to build a stable career for himself, my grandfather has always preached to me the importance of family values and security. As I am the first born son after him (he had three daughters, one being my mother), he was overjoyed when I told him I would be pursuing a degree in biology. And equally disheartened when I bailed on it after two semesters. Watching the three fathers in Tokyo Story drink sake and ramble on about the inevitable disappointments their children have become, I thought back to my grandfather, and wondered about the things he must have said about me. The timeless notion rings true: it is their disappointment that hurts the most.

I resisted writing about Tokyo Story at first, mostly because it hits very close to home. The stoicism, forced pleasantries, patient, surface-level conversations. The grandparents’ mundane, uneventful visit with their children. I kept picturing my grandmother at the kitchen table working out Sudoku’s and rubbing her knees while we all got ready to go to the movies. I kept thinking about how diligent I try to be about calling my grandfather regularly, and then how short-lived and uneventful our conversations are. I guess, as the film points out, there is much more to conversations than the words.

For how much dialogue is in the film, they say very little. For how drawn-out the film is, very little happens. The meat of the film is in its commentary. Specifically, its commentary on the subtleties and stoicism of eastern Asian cultures; generally, its commentary on humanity as a whole and our propensity (and failure) to hide our emotions. Why do we mask our emotions so incessantly? Why do we fake smiles when we’re sad and lie about being angry and downplay our happiness and excitement? I may have forced the film to fit into my own train of thought, but what I gathered from it was an argument that I believe to be true: many of us, especially in eastern Asian cultures, prescribe to an overly indulgent school of thought that promotes compassion and contentedness unconditionally and exclusively in a way that limits a full and honest experience of life.

One of the most revealing aspects of the film is Noriko’s smile. Even without her breakdown at the end, her pain is apparent – it wells in her squinted eyes and seeps through her teeth. Setsuko Hara gives us all we need to know in these perfect, gruelling expressions. When Tomi dies, Shige and Kyoko cry, Koichi’s normally stern expression turns grim, and even Keiko drops a tear in solitude, but there is no greater sadness in this film than Noriko’s consistent, dutiful smile.

I find a parallel here with Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Dalloway, of 1920’s England, and Noriko, of 1950’s Japan, characters from seemingly two worlds apart, when stripped down, share much in common, most importantly a vital, life-changing marriage and subsequent masking of a secret as a result of those marriages, which, it is important to add, are both rooted in honor and duty above all else. Though their marriages progressed in somewhat opposing manners, they both end up, in the end, hiding parts of themselves away from the world behind facades. In the same way Mrs. Dalloway hides Clarissa behind her name and her parties and her dresses, Noriko hides the pain and shame she feels in the wake of her husband’s death behind her smile and her kindness. Both characters long for a time in their past when things were simpler, when they didn’t have to hide.

Truth be told, it was Noriko that made this film real for me. Her character is the spearhead of what I gathered to be the major question that this film brings up: why do we feel the need to hide? Ozu might argue that the “death before dishonor” sentiment echoes in all facets of our lives, so much that to speak ill about a dead husband or not to cry at your mother’s funeral are the worst possible examples of behavior. I don’t believe Shige cried out of genuine sadness when her mother died, and I don’t believe Noriko felt much compassion for her husband, but honor and duty required them to keep their masks on. So why do we see that same masking of emotion here, now, in a culture so far removed from the 1950’s Japan portrayed in the film? Maybe it’s a fear of vulnerability. Maybe it’s done out of politeness, I don’t know. But at the end of the film, when Noriko’s facade finally cracks, as an audience member I felt a certain amount of closure and reassurance. She’s human and she’s scared, and she shouldn’t have to hide it. 

 

To Dream of Beaches: Jonah Barrett Viewing (Did I put this in the right place?!?)

There is a boy running down by the shore, in search of something he has lost… or longs for. It’s hard to say at this point. This is just but the opening shot, after all. The possibilities for the film are still numerous, slimming down a bit as the second shot cuts in. A panning track of feet by the water. A dreamy, ethereal mood sweeps over the viewer as they soak in the presented images that depict a sunny day at the beach. Clips of rushing waves, gasping marine life, and running boys flutter against the screen. The boys stop for a moment, catching their breath. James, the one in the pink shirt and terribly dyed hair, looks up.

“You never told me your name,” he says. The other boy smiles at him and laughs. He wears a blue button-up, hair slicked back with a tight undercut that’s all the rage in the 2014 gay community. His name is Jasper.

“Is it important?” the other boy asks.

“I think so,” James replies. Jasper just laughs again, and continues running down the beach, James calling out to him and running to catch up; past the choppy brown waves of the muddy beach, through the barnacle-encrusted posts that litter the sandbar, and the terribly disorienting “bloom” effect added in post to indicate that none of this is real.

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The other week I had the pleasure of viewing my professor Caryn Cline’s short film “Perchance” in class. The work consists of found footage salvaged from two different films from the 1960’s (or 50’s?) and features a small boy dreaming of another reality, a blue-tinted world where he is free to roam the beach of his dreams all day, forever until the end of time, accompanied by a menagerie of frightening seagulls and hungry sea urchins. Of course, as a filmmaker myself, I did what every other filmmaker does when confronted with another director’s work: I compared it to my own. “Perchance” however, reminded me immediately of a dream sequence I shot myself two years ago. The production was an eight-part web series about dreams, titled Wake Up!, and the opening sequence featured two boys running through a beach together. The similarities don’t end there.

So what is going on here exactly? These aren’t the only two examples of a dream sequence taking place at a beach in the world. What is it about beaches that present a surreal dreamlike quality to Cline and myself? Something about chasing after someone you lust for in a dream screamed “BEACH” to me, and viewing large amounts of found beach footage screamed “DREAM” at Cline. Does this say something about us? Our subjectivity?

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“The process of assembling images and texts strongly involves the artist’s subjectivity in ways that constantly recompose possible narratives across associations between disparate fragments,” says feminist scholar Giovanna Zapperi (27). Cline’s subjectivity is called into question when we look closely at “Perchance.” What led her to arrange the film in this particular montage of images and sound? “Perchance” is without question an artwork, an avant-garde film, but perhaps the artist’s personal subjectivity should not be bothered with when reviewing these things. At least, that’s what Russian-American experimental filmmaker of the 1940’s Maya Deren believed. Everyone has a subjective. Big whoop. Deren wrote of the collective subjective, the “communication of art between these elements common to all people” (208).

Deren herself includes a few (non-personal, of course) subjective beach dream sequences during the course of her production “At Land.” (Deren referred to the setting in her film as a “relativistic universe,” where locations shift all the time and distances are shorted or stretched out. So… basically a dream.) “At Land” opens with a black and white shot of the ocean, waves crawling up onto the sand and washing over Deren (or the nameless character which Deren plays). She coughs, appears to wake up, and the waves swiftly retreat in reverse motion at the sight of her awakening. Deren proceeds to stare up into the sky at a flock of seagulls, reach around her, climbs up the root systems of an upturned tree that wasn’t there seconds before, and discovers a dinner party at the top. Adventures ensue. This relativistic method of moving about the dream world, combined with the reverse footage of waves retreating, grants “At Land” a dreamlike status, henceforth I am counting it as a filmed dream sequence.

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It is totally curious to note that out of these three beach dream sequences, it is only Deren’s that actually exhibit any physically impossible happenings in her film, and yet she is the filmmaker that does not specifically reference her work as a dream. While Deren’s character flits through an eternal space of doors and cliffs that lead to other realms, Cline and I mostly represent our films’ dream aspects through filters. “Perchance”’s dream footage soaked in an array of cyan hues, contrasting from the magenta “reality” footage, while Wake Up!’s dream sequence has been run through the aforementioned “bloom” effect in Final Cut Pro. (It looks weird, I know it looks weird. But we all must get the “bloom” effect out of our systems at one point or another. This was my time.) I use the word “mostly” to describe this filter method as there are a scant number of other surreal qualities that Cline and I use. The closing shot of “Perchance” features the ocean, much like Deren’s opening shot, except for the slow wanderings of the camera as it’s gradually tilted upside down until the scene fades out. Likewise, James finally catches up with Jasper after playing an almost dragged out game of cat-and-mouse, holding each other in their arms.

“Why won’t you tell me your name?” James asks. (I, like Deren, have starred in my own films sometimes. James was me, and I was James, forever until the end of time.)

“Because this isn’t real anyway,” Jasper, whose real name was Sonny Nguyen, replies. Instead of showing anything surreal, like a good filmmaker would, I simply had the characters state what was happening. A common rookie mistake that I am probably still making in my work, let’s be honest. The most surrealist aspect of Wake Up!’s opening dream sequence, perhaps, is when I kiss Nguyen on the mouth (which would have never of happened in real life)—reflective water of the Puget Sound behind us, uncomfortably embraced in reality, but looking hot as hell on camera; so it was probably worth the shot.

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But still, why the beach?? Why are we filmmakers dabbling in the dream genre? Photography and filmmaking are already surreal experiments in themselves. In her book On Photography, Susan Sontag stated that “Surrealism lies at the heart of the photographic enterprise: in the very creation of a duplicate world, or a reality in the second degree, narrower but more dramatic than the one perceived by natural vision” (52). Have Cline, Deren and I given into a kind of filmmaking trope? “Dreams on the beach”?? All three sequences have spooky similarities. Each features motifs of running (James chases after Jasper, Cline’s child protagonist runs freely by the shore, Deren’s character rushes with her hands in the air down the beach into the distance at the end of her film), marine life (dying barnacles litter the rocky beach in Wake Up!, seagulls and pelicans fly about in “Perchance” along with an urchin that tries to eat the child’s finger, a flock of seagulls that I already mentioned make a cameo appearance as Deren looks up into the sky in “At Land”), and a common theme of escapism and exploring (James dreams of the perfect boyfriend, the child a life away from school where he’s free to adventure, and Deren… who knows what Deren’s trying to find). Do these motifs and themes mean anything though? After kissing Jasper on the beach, James wakes up to an alarm clock to find that everything just experienced was all a fantasy. (He was told this anyway…) He calls his best friend, Nicole, and asks if she can look up “beaches” in a dream encyclopedia she owns.

“To dream of the beach represents a time in your life when you are facing uncertainty, it may also represent a transition from a familiar setting to an unfamiliar one,” she says.

“This is not a scientific fact, by the way,” Wake Up!’s narrator cuts in. (The show has an omnipresent narrator.) “No dream interpretation is.”

James gasps. “What do you think that means??”

“Probably nothing.”

Probably nothing, indeed. In a world that attributes meaning to everything in its narratives, Maya Deren dared to argue that symbols might just… be symbols. Already an advocate against personal subjectivity, Deren wrote “If one assumes something is a symbol, one must be prepared to answer why the artist has substituted at all; why one should assume that every image is a mask for meaning . . . The face that image has fallen into a second class in symbol is apparent. As, ‘bird in flight.’ Well, I mean bird in flight. ‘Oh, you mean that is not a symbol for something else?’ No, it is a bird in flight. ‘Oh, it’s just a bird in flight?’ It is all a bird in flight might mean.” (209-210).

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Deren did not seem to be a fan of literary interpretation, going against people attributing their own or the artist’s subjectivity on a piece of work. Rather than “What does this mean to me?” Deren preferred the question “What does that mean in terms of thing?” (211). There is a tendency in our culture to look into the meanings of our dreams, relating these meanings back to ourselves. Can we really call these sequences dreams though? Even with “At Land”’s relativistic setting, all of these “dream sequences” actually make sense, unlike actual dreams, where characters and objectives always seem to change on a whim. In attempting to appropriate the surreal language of dreams, maybe filmmakers have created a new form of subconscious exploration through art in itself. In speaking of another of her films, “Meshes of the Afternoon”, Deren stated that her short “establishes a reality which, although somewhat on dramatic logic, can exist only in film” (204). Giovanna Zapperi describes the process of montage in film as “produc[ing] a form of non-linear, anachronical temporality, in which images migrate from one context to another, and time is understood in terms not of continuity but of returns that engage the artist’s subjective desires” (28). Of course, Deren would disagree with the last subjectivity part, but she would agree with Zapperi on the subject of non-linear temporality. Throughout her career Deren’s quest as an experimental filmmaker seemed to be trying to discover the logic of film form, and not the form of a narrative (212).

So these aren’t really “dreams,” so to speak. (And Deren never called “At Land” a dream anyway.) What we call “dream sequences” may just be a form of play with our own subconscious in a narrative language. (“What particularly excited me about film was its magic ability to make even the most imaginative concept seem real,” says Deren, who I will keep quoting forever until the end of time.) I believe we call them “dream sequences” because dreams are the only other form of narrative subconscious exploration that we know. Again, for the last time: Why beaches? Why??? I have still yet to explain this. Why aren’t James and Jasper running through a forest, for example? Or how come Cline didn’t just create a narrative that involves a boy going to the beach and getting his finger caught in a nasty sea urchin? The answer could quite possibly lie in a filmmaker’s subjectivity. (My apologies to Deren as we promptly throw everything we have just discussed out the window and into the darkness below.) Beaches, typically, are reserved for “vacation days.” “Beach trips,” we call them. For me at least, beaches absolutely represent escapism. A place where I travel to and sit for hours, staring into the endless void we call the ocean and letting go of my problems, at least for a day. There’s a reason I chose a beach for the first dream sequence in Wake Up!, some setting of carefree bliss where James is allowed to pursue his subjective desires, much like a filmmaker. I imagine Cline has experienced similar carefree beach experiences herself (I could be wrong, of course). Her protagonist idolizes the beach, somewhere he is free from the confines of his claustrophobic school and (hinted at) overbearing father. Beaches are conceived as places of relaxation, of refuge from the real world, much like dreams. What better form of artist to portray that than the filmmaker, the creator of artificial, parallel realities?

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Sources

Wake Up!: Introduction to Dream Interpretations. Dir. Jonah Barrett. Self
Released, 2014. Web Series. Vimeo.com. Web. <https://vimeo.com/91951318>.

Perchance. Dir. Caryn Cline. The New School, 2008. Short Film. Vimeo.com. Web. <https://vimeo.com/19257195>.

At Land. Dir. Maya Deren. Self Released, 1944. Short Film. Youtube.com. Web. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OVMV0j6XVGU>.

Deren, Maya, and Bruce R. McPherson. Essential Deren: Collected Writings on Film. Kingston, NY: Documentext, 2005. Print.

Sontag, Susan. “Melancholy Objects.” On Photography. New York: Picador, 1973. 208. Print.

Zapperi, Giovanna. “Woman’s Reappearance: Rethinking the Archive in Contemporary Art–Feminist Perspectives.” Feminist Review 105. 21-47. Feminist Review. Palgrave Macmillan.

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The Evergreen State College
Olympia, Washington

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