Sexual Drive (性的衝動, Kota Yoshida, 2021) [Fantasia 2021]

A weird chestnut-bearing spirit of sexual awakening visits three troubled couples in Kota Yoshida’s odyssey of food-themed eroticism, Sexual Drive (性的衝動, Seitekishodo). As the title perhaps implies, Yoshida’s loose thesis seems to be that each of the spouses he counsels is living a dull and unfulfilling life because they’re repressing their authentic selves either unrecognising or rejecting the true nature of their sexual desires. Yet who or what is Kurita (Tateto Serizawa) and what is he really up to? Aside from all that, is he even “real”?

When we first meet Kurita, he’s bearing a box of Chinese chestnuts (“chestnut” being the first character of his name but also a slang term for clitoris) and walking with a pronounced limp. This lends credence to his story of having suffered a stroke three years previously though as we will later discover the cause is likely very different if at least suggesting a healthy corporality. The visit is all the more unusual as it seems he doesn’t know the man he’s come to see, Enatsu (Ryo Ikeda). Just as we’re wondering if this is some kind of hookup while his wife (Manami Hashimoto) works an extra shift at the hospital, we realise that the reverse may be true as Kurita claims to have been having a three-year affair with Enatsu’s spouse having fixated on her after she fitted a catheter for him following an operation. This is a discussion between men, but Kurita soon becomes excitable making lewd gestures with a mostly empty natto carton apparently likening its distinctive taste and odour to the nether regions of Enatsu’s wife. Goading him that their marriage has been sexless for the last five years, what Kurita seems to do is ironically restore Enatsu’s sexual potency through his vicarious enjoyment of his wife’s taste for this famously love it or hate dish of fermented soy beans. 

Kurita’s second victim, meanwhile, has apparently committed the crime of making inauthentic mapo tofu, its heat turned down to suit the Japanese palate. This time Kurita claims to have been an elementary school classmate of the nervous Akane (Honami Sato) who has frequent panic attacks and has finally got up the courage to go for her first solo drive. He insists that Akane is a sadist who brokered his own masochistic awakening through her merciless bullying and that the reason she’s so on edge is because she’s living a neutered life with only inauthentic mapo tofu when she should really be making her own loaded with enough spice to burn the roof of her husband’s mouth clean off. 

His third case, however, sees him steal a device from Snake of June in communicating with an adulterous husband, Ikeyama (Shogen), claiming that he’s kidnapped his mistress, Momoka (Rina Takeda), and will soon expose his extra-marital affair if he refuses to follow the instructions he gives him. These are mostly surprisingly wholesome and a little bit sad as what Kurita is hoping to teach Ikeyama is what a cad he’s being and how his insensitive treatment of Momoka must make her feel. Accordingly, he sends him to a greasy ramen bar mostly frequented by middle-aged men where talking is very much not allowed in order for him to consume a satisfyingly fatty dish the transgressive energy of which both inflamed Momoka’s desire and forced her into a contemplation of her role as the mistress of a married man. Ikeyama’s awakening is less to sex than to love in being forced to accept Momoka’s personhood in empathising with the loneliness his indifference causes her to feel. 

Yet, if it weren’t for the chestnuts, we might wonder if Kurita were real or merely a manifestation of each of his victims’ subconscious fears and desires. Even as it stands, we can’t be sure that anything he says is actually true, nor do we know what motive he has for guiding these frustrated souls towards their sexual release like some strange sex fairy sent from on high. Nevertheless, in satisfying appetites of all kinds he paints the fulfilment of authentic sexuality as a basic human need even as food becomes a kind of displacement activity standing in for the satisfaction of human desire. Strangely absurd in Kurita’s rather creepy demeanour coupled with his victims’ crumbling wholesomeness, Sexual Drive even if ironically presents a refreshingly positive message of embracing kink while remaining mindful of its effects on others. 


Sexual Drive streams in Canada Aug. 5 – 25 as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Escape from Mogadishu (모가디슈, Ryoo Seung-wan, 2021)

“You think we can accomplish more together?” the North Korean ambassador incredulously asks of the South, realising that if they’re to escape their desperate situation they will temporarily have to put ideology aside. Ryoo Seung-wan’s latest big budget action drama Escape from Mogadishu (모가디슈, Mogadishu) finds the diplomatic staff of a newly democratic South Korea ironically caught up in another nation’s much less peaceful revolution while perhaps confronted by the duplicities of their globalising ambitions even as they realise the North may already have the upper hand when it comes to cultivating relationships with authoritarian regimes. 

As the opening title cards explain, having successfully transitioned into democracy and fresh from its Olympic success the South Korea of 1991 was keen to claim its place on the global stage by joining the UN. Knowing that African votes are important in the process, the ambassador to Somalia, Han (Kim Yoon-seok), is determined to ensure he has that of President Barre in the bag before he finishes out his term. Unfortunately, his attempts are frustrated firstly by a lack of cultural knowledge in his home nation as witnessed by the inappropriate gifts they’ve prepared for the president which include expensive alcohol despite the fact Somalia is a muslim nation, and secondly by the North Koreans who seem to have cultivated a closer relationship with the ruling regime and are keen to ensure South Korea does not get its seat at the UN. 

Meanwhile, it becomes increasingly clear that there is unrest in the country with rebel forces intent on deposing the despotic regime of a military dictator and installing full democracy. The circumstances are in a sense ironic, the rebels and the ordinary citizens who later stage an uprising are only doing the same thing South Korea itself has recently done only they are of course doing it in a much less defensible way with widespread violence culminating in an entrenched civil war. The staff at the embassy therefore find themselves in a difficult position. “At home they turn innocent students into communist spies, think they can’t do that here?” a conflicted staff member advises uncertain as to what to do on realising they may unwittingly be harbouring a rebel soldier while diplomatically unable to declare a clear side. All they can think to do is play a tape from their welcome event describing themselves as friends of the Somalian people in the hope of deflecting rebels’ the anger. 

Nevertheless, the rebels have declared all foreign presences as their enemies for their tacit support of Barre’s regime. Han is certainly guilty of that in cosying up to the government in the hope of winning their vote, while the North Koreans fare little better despite being accused of secretly trafficking weapons to the rebel army while the rebels complain that foreign aid has only been used to facilitate Barre’s ongoing oppression. When the North Korean Embassy is destroyed and the Chinese have already left, the North Koreans are left with no choice other than the unthinkable, asking the South for help. The South, however, is conflicted. If they let them in they’re in danger of breaking the National Security Law and in any case they aren’t sure they can trust the North. “I hear they’re trained to kill with their bare hands” one of the ladies exclaims even doubting the children. But if they refuse to open the gate it means certain death for those who are, if not their fellow countrymen, then in a sense fellow Koreans. 

Based in historical fact, Ryoo’s high tension drama is in essence a division film which makes a strong case for the united Korean family even as the two sides remain somewhat distanced despite making the practical decision to trust each other in order to survive and escape. To do so they each have to make unpalatable political decisions, the South Koreans allowing others to believe the Northerners intend to defect in the hope of additional help from their own side and the wider diplomatic community. Given the opportunity to leave alone, Han nevertheless insists on making space for the North Koreans too unwilling to simply leave them behind. The North Koreans, meanwhile, reveal the reasons they could not defect even if they wanted to in that many of them have been forced to leave children behind in Pyongyang as hostages to ensure their continued obedience to the regime. Han may have gained a degree of enlightenment in realising there are sometimes “two truths” but there’s also an undeniable poignancy on realising that however much they’ve shared, the two men will never again be able to acknowledge each other in public, escaping Mogadishu but forever divided. Shooting in Morocco, Ryoo fully recreates the terror and desperation of being trapped in an unpredictable, rapidly devolving situation while allowing his divided Koreans to find a sense of commonality as they band together in order to escape someone else’s civil war.


Escape from Mogadishu opens this year’s New York Asian Film Festival on Aug. 6 and will thereafter screen at cinemas across the US courtesy of Well Go USA

International trailer (English subtitles)

Fantasia International Film Festival Confirms Complete 2021 Programme

Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival celebrates its 25th anniversary with a hybrid edition in theatres and streaming across Canada Aug. 5 – 25 showcasing the best in global genre cinema. Here’s a look at the East Asian features included in this year’s programme:

China

  • Back to the Wharf – A wounded young man’s attempts to start over in the shadow of his crime are doomed to failure in Li Xiaofeng’s moody, fatalistic neo-noir. Review.

Japan

  • Kakegurui 2: Ultimate Russian Roulette – sequel to the hit high school gambling manga adaptation.
  • Remain in Twilight – six former high school friends reunite for a funeral in a poignant drama from Daigo Matsui.
  • Wonderful Paradise – An impromptu going away party descends into a psychedelic rave of death and rebirth in Masashi Yamamoto’s defiantly surreal nighttime odyssey. Review.
  • Caution, Hazardous Wife – big screen outing of the TV drama starring Haruka Ayase as a former assassin turned regular housewife.
  • Not Quite Dead Yet – A resentful young woman comes to understand her awkward scientist dad only after he becomes temporarily deceased in Shinji Hamasaki’s delightfully zany comedy. Review.
  • Art Kabuki – filmed kabuki performance
  • Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes – A diffident cafe owner faces an existential dilemma when trapped in a time loop with himself from two minutes previously in Junta Yamaguchi’s meticulously plotted farce. Review.
  • Love, Life and Goldfish – musical manga adaptation in which a salaryman is demoted to a rural town after insulting his boss.
  • Poupelle of Chimney Town – animated adaptation of the picture book by Akihiro Nishino.
  • Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko – animated adaptation of the much loved book by Kanako Nishi centring on the sometimes difficult relationship between a serious young girl and her cheerful mother.
  • It’s a Summer Film! – A jidaigeki-obsessed high schooler sets out to make her own summer samurai movie in Soshi Matsumoto’s charming sci-fi infected teen rom-com. Review.
  • Jigoku-no-Hanazono ~ Office Royale ~ – delinquent office lady comedy drama.
  • Sakura – nostalgic family drama adapted from the novel by Kanako Nishi and directed by Hitoshi Yazaki.
  • Pompo: the Cinéphile – anime adaptation of the movie-themed manga.
  • Satoshi Kon, the Illusionist – documentary by Pascal-Alex Vincent on the late director of Perfect Blue.
  • Junk Head – new theatrical edit of the sci-fi horror stop motion animation.
  • Dreams on Fire – A country girl comes to the city to become a dancer and finds a sense of solidarity in subculture in Philippe McKie’s refreshingly positive drama. Review.
  • Georama Boy Panorama Girl – teen romance adapted from the manga by Kyoko Okazaki and directed by Natsuki Seta.
  • Hold Me Back – latest from Akiko Ohku in which a happily single 31-year-old woman’s peaceful life is disrupted by romance. 
  • Ora, Ora, Be Goin’ Alone – latest from Shuichi Okita starring Yuko Tanaka as an older woman reflecting on her younger self (Yu Aoi) and surrounded by the “voices of her heart”.
  • Sexual Drive – three tales of food and sex from Kota Yoshida
  • Great Yokai War: Guardians – Takashi Miike’s sequel to The Great Yokai War in which an elementary school student inherits the blood of the legendary monster hunter in order to save the world from rampaging yokai.
  • Tokyo Revengers – manga adaptation in which a freeter discovers his first love was murdered by gangsters.
  • Follow the Light – sci-fi-inflected coming-of-age story in which a crop circle appears in a quiet rural village.
  • The Deer King – animated feature in which a former soldier and a young girl attempt to escape a deadly plague.
  • Grand Blue Dreaming – manga adaptation in which a straight-laced college student is pulled into the debauched life of the local diving club.
  • The 12 Day Tale of the Monster that Died in 8 – black & white COVID kaiju drama from Shunji Iwai.
  • Under the Open Sky – A pure-hearted man of violence struggles to find his place in society after spending most of his life behind bars in Miwa Nishikawa’s impassioned character study. Review.
  • Uzumaki – 2000 horror movie adaptation of Junji Ito’s manga in which mysterious spirals engulf a small town.
  • Funky Forest – 2005 quirky anthology film
  • Warped Forest – 2011 sequel to Funky Forest from Shunichiro Miki
  • All About Lily Chou Chou – Shunji Iwai’s 2001 school bullying drama
  • April Story – Shunji iwai’s charming 1998 mid-length film starring Takako Matsu as a young woman moving to Tokyo for uni.

Hong Kong

  • Time – an ageing hitman takes up a new career in euthanasia in Ricky Ko’s black comedy. 
  • Septet – HK-themed anthology featuring instalments by Patrick Tam, Ringo Lam, Ann Hui, Johnnie To, Yuen Woo-ping, Tsui Hark, Sammo Hung
  • Hand Rolled Cigarette – A cynical former British soldier and a South Asian street thief find unexpected solidarity in Chan’s gritty neo-noir. Review.
  • One Second Champion – A dejected single-father with a “useless” superpower finds a new lease of life in the boxing ring in Chiu’s plucky social drama. Review.
  • Raging Fire – Benny Chan action drama starring Donnie Yen as a by the book cop facing off against Nicholas Tse’s maverick gone rogue.

Korea

  • Voice of Silence – A mute farmer begins to dream of a different life after being charged with minding a kidnap victim in Hong Eui-jeong’s strangely warmhearted crime caper. Review.
  • The Slug – A woman in her ’30s struggles to overcome a sense of toxic inadequacy born of teenage trauma in Choi Jin-young’s whimsical drama. Review.
  • Collectors – a tomb raider prepares a daring heist to retrieve a precious artefact.
  • Devil’s Deal – political drama in which a slighted politician steals classified information
  • Midnight – thriller in which a deaf woman becomes a target for a killer after witnessing a murder.
  • Fighter – a North Korean refugee pins her hopes on boxing to bring her father to the South
  • Josee – Korean adaptation of Seiko Tanabe’s short story Josee, the Tiger and the Fish in which a student befriends a young woman isolated by her disability.
  • Seobok – big budget sci-fi starring Gong Yoo as a former government agent teaming up with the first human clone

Kazakstan

  • Sweetie You Won’t Believe It – after arguing with his wife a husband gets more than he bargained for while fishing with friends.

Malaysia

  • The Story of Southern Islet – a wife embarks on a perilous journey to save her ailing husband.

The Philippines

  • Midnight in a Perfect World – dejected youngsters contemplate the costs of their newly “utopian” society in Dodo Dayao’s eerie, sci-fi inflected horror take on the legacy of martial law. Review.

Singapore

  • Tiong Bahru Social Club – An earnest young man experiences an existential crisis while living in the “happiest neighbourhood in the world” in Tan Bee Thiam’s whimsical satire. Review.

Taiwan

  • The Sadness – an office worker and her filmmaker boyfriend attempt to escape a deadly epidemic of rage and violence in Robert Jabbaz bloody horror

Most films will be available to stream in Canada from 5th – 25th August with some also screening in Montreal. “Tickets” for online movies are limited in number comparable to the size of a physical auditorium and while much of the programme is available on demand selected films will stream live only. Full details for all the films are available via the the official website, and you can also keep up with all the latest news via the festival’s official Facebook pageTwitter account, Instagram, and Vimeo channels.

Black Cat Mansion (亡霊怪猫屋敷, Nobuo Nakagawa, 1958)

A doctor and his wife find themselves at the mercy of an ancestral curse in Nobuo Nakagawa’s eerie gothic horror, Black Cat Mansion (亡霊怪猫屋敷, Borei Kaibyo Yashiki, AKA Mansion of the Ghost Cat). Most closely associated with the supernatural, Nakagawa’s entry into the ghost cat genre is among his most experimental outside of avant-garde horror Jigoku released two years later. Employing a three level flashback structure spanning the modern day, six years previously, and then all the way back to Edo, Nakagawa positions contemporary Japan as a kind of haunted house with skeletons in its closet which must finally be exposed and laid to rest if society is to recover from the sickness of the feudal legacy. 

Nakagawa opens, however, with an ethereal POV shot in blue-tinted monochrome of a doctor walking through a darkened hospital armed only with a torch while a pair of orderlies silently remove a corpse on a gurney right in front of him. A man of science, the doctor, Tetsuichiro (Toshio Hosokawa), confesses that he’s tormented by the sound of footsteps on this “evil night” which remind him of a strange series of events that took place six years previously while his wife Yoriko (Yuriko Ejima) was suffering from advanced tuberculosis. In an effort to aid her recovery the couple left Tokyo to return to her hometown in the more temperate Kyushu. Yoriko’s brother Kenichi (Hiroaki Kurahashi) expresses concern over his sister’s health, wondering if she wouldn’t be better to have an operation but Tetsuichiro explains that at this stage an operation might only make things worse so they’re hoping the quiet and fresh air will allow her lungs to recover more quickly. Kenichi has sorted out a place for them to live in an abandoned mansion but the house is extremely dilapidated and in fact barely habitable especially for someone suffering with a debilitating medical condition in which it might be sensible to avoid dusty environments. Nevertheless, the couple fix the place up and Tetsuichiro opens a surgery in the front room. 

For Yoriko, however, the house is full of foreboding. On their journey there, the driver had to swerve to avoid a black cat running out in the road, nearly careering off the side of mountain, while she is also alarmed to see a crow malevolently perching on a tree outside the mansion. Once inside, she glances into a storehouse by the entrance and thinks she sees a creepy old woman silently grinding corn. Tetsuichiro sees nothing when he checks it out, but is strangely unperturbed when Yoriko spots what seems to be a bloodstain on a bedroom wall insisting that they can paint over it while the footprints of someone walking barefoot through the dusty house are probably unrelated and belong to a homeless person who’s since moved on. For a man of science, Tetsuichiro is doing a lot of overlooking but seems to believe that his wife’s distress as she continues to complain of bad dreams featuring rabid cats and the creepy old woman is mere “hysteria” provoked by the mental stress and anxiety of living with a potentially fatal medical condition. 

Unfortunately for him, however, vengeful cat spirits don’t care if you believe in them or not, what sort of person you are, or even if you have any real connection to whatever it was that turned them into a vengeful cat spirit in the first place. A visit to a local Buddhist priest reveals, in a vibrant colour filled with kabuki-esque shadows on the shoji, the reasons everyone thought the house was haunted which stem back to the Edo era and an entitled samurai lord with anger management issues, Shogen (Takashi Wada). Shogen hires a local Go master, Kokingo (Ryuzaburo Nakamura), to teach him the game and is enraged by Kokingo’s lateness for the appointment which is attributed to the fact that his mother is blind but is actually more to do with his cat’s severe separation anxiety. 

Taking this as a personal slight to his position, Shogen attacks his loyal servant Saheiji (Rei Ishikawa) and is only prevented from killing him by his levelheaded son (Shin Shibata) who makes a point of asking his grandmother to keep an eye on his dad because he’s worried his famous temper will cause embarrassment to the family. He is right to worry. Shogen takes exception to Kokingo right away, insisting on playing a “real” game but asking for take backs every five seconds when Kokingo makes a winning move. Fed up with Shogen’s behaviour, Kokingo brands him a cheat and threatens to leave the game. Shogen is once again enraged and fight develops during which Kokingo is killed. Shogen threatens Saheiji into helping him dispose of the body by walling it up inside an adjacent room while telling his mother that Kokingo was so embarrassed over losing to him that he’s gone off  in a huff for additional study in Kyoto and Osaka. Shogen doesn’t even stop there, raping Kokingo’s mother when she starts asking questions after seeing her son’s ghost leading her to commit suicide after cursing his entire family and instructing Kokingo’s beloved cat to lap up her blood and imbibe her wrath to become a vengeful cat spirit. 

Shogen is all the worst excesses of the samurai class rolled into one, narcissistic, angry and entitled as he uses the exploitation of those below him to foster a sense of security in his authority. As in any good ghost tale, the vengeful spirits distort his sense of reality forcing him to destroy himself out the guilt he refuses to feel. His son, Shinnojo, meanwhile is positioned as a good, progressive samurai determined to marry the woman he loves even though she is only a maid and therefore of a lower social class while often transgressively denouncing his father’s bad behaviour. That matters not to the ghost seeing as the curse is to Shogen’s entire bloodline meaning Shinnojo must to die and most likely at the hands of his father caught in a delusion trying to fight the ghosts of his past crimes. 

Tatsuichiro and Yoriko are “innocent” too though as it turns out Yoriko does have a connection to the house and the crimes of the past. They are still, however, trapped within the embodiment of the feudal legacy that is the former samurai mansion. Tatsuichiro’s determination that they can simply “paint over” the bloodstain is in many ways the problem and one reaching a crescendo in post-war Japan as it struggles to deal with the trauma of the immediate past while freeing itself of the latent feudalism which in part caused it. Only by facing the ghost, unearthing the bodies buried in the walls and laying them to rest, can they ever hope to make a recovery both spiritually and medically. Tatsuichiro at least seems to have cured himself even if left with a lingering sense of unease while his apparently now healthy wife seems to have overcome her fear of cats in the relative safety of modern day Tokyo. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Equinox Flower (彼岸花, Yasujiro Ozu, 1958)

Japanese golden age cinema is famed for its centring of female stories, but while it’s true that many of Yasujiro Ozu’s family dramas revolve around a young woman’s feelings towards marriage, the perspective is often surprisingly male. Equinox Flower (彼岸花, Higanbana), his first film in colour, marks something of a change in direction in its spirited defence of the young, but at heart is still a story as much about impending old age, the responsibilities of fatherhood, and changing times as it is about contemporary family dynamics or female agency. 

The father in question, Hirayama (Shin Saburi), is a high ranking executive with two daughters. The older, Setsuko (Ineko Arima), is working at another company, and the younger, Hisako (Miyuki Kuwano), is still in school. Marriage is on his mind because he’s just attended the wedding of an old school friend’s daughter at which he gave a speech, with his wife Kiyoko (Kinuyo Tanaka) sitting awkwardly next to him, describing the arranged marriage he had with her as “pragmatic, routine” while he envies the young couple’s “fortunate opportunity” to indulge in romance. He and Kiyoko idly discuss the idea of Setsuko’s marriage, it seems as if there is a promising match on the horizon, with Hirayama conflicted while Kiyoko is very much in favour of doing things the traditional way. She’s already mentioned it to her daughter, but all she does is smile demurely which seems to provoke different interpretations from each of the parents. 

While thinking about all of that, Hirayama receives a visit from an old friend who was a notable absence at the wedding asking him to check up on his daughter Fumiko (Yoshiko Kuga) who ran away from home two months ago to live with a musician after he tried to veto her intention to marry without consulting him. Hirayama is sympathetic, perhaps thinking his friend has acted foolishly and pushed his daughter away. After visiting the bar where she works, he comes to the conclusion that as long as she’s happy with her choice then everyone else should be too. That all goes out the window, however, when a young man, Taniguchi (Keiji Sada), visits him unexpectedly at work and asks for permission to marry Setsuko. Hirayama quite rudely asks him to leave and then irritatedly talks the matter over with Setsuko before petulantly refusing his consent, not because he objects to Taniguchi, but because he is hurt on emotional level that she hadn’t talked to him about this first (not least so that they stop worrying about arranging a marriage) while resentful that she’s gone behind his back and undercut his patriarchal authority. 

In addition to the changing nature of family dynamics, Hirayama is perhaps conscious of his advancing age, feeling himself increasingly obsolescent and therefore additionally wounded by this assault on his authority as a father. The generation gap, however, is all too present. Both Setsuko and Fumiko feel as if they simply cannot talk to their parents because they wouldn’t listen and will never understand. Yukiko (Fujiko Yamamoto), the daughter of another friend, feels something similar in her exasperation with her well-meaning single mother who keeps hatching plans to set her up with various men she isn’t interested in. Intellectually, Hirayama sides with the young, envying them their freedoms and advising Yukiko firstly not to marry at all, and then encouraging her desire to resist arranged marriages despite trying to foist them on his own daughters. 

Even Kiyoko eventually describes her husband’s continuing petulance as “inconsistent”. It seems obvious that Kiyoko is siding with her daughter, immediately taking a liking to Taniguchi who politely brought her home after she stormed out following an argument with her father, but she continues to behave as a “good wife” should, politely minding her husband while gently hoping that he will eventually come round. Only once pushed does she try to explain to him, again politely, that he’s being selfish and unreasonable, but he continues on in resentment while causing his daughter emotional pain simply for trying to find her own happiness rather letting him decide for her. Kiyoko is afraid that if it carries on like this, then Setsuko will, like Fumiko, eventually leave and they’ll lose her completely, something which Hirayama either hasn’t fully considered or is actively encouraging through his petulance. 

In the end the conclusion he comes to is that the parents will eventually have to give way or risk losing their children entirely. He tells both Fumiko and Yukiko that all parents want is for their children to be happy and so nothing else matters, but struggles to put his advice into practice when it comes to his own daughter. Like pretty much everyone in an Ozu film, Hirayama is a good, kind person, even if one struggling against himself as he contemplates a loss of authority, a change in standing, and the difficulty of dealing with complex emotions as a man in a patriarchal society. Predictably, it’s women who essentially bully him into making better decisions, Yukiko “interfering” in the nicest of ways, while his wife makes it clear that though she thinks he’s wrong she will continue to stand by him if only in the hope he will eventually see the light. “Life is absurd, we’re not all perfect” he admits, only later realising how his stubborn foolishness may have caused unnecessary suffering to those he loves the most.


Currently streaming in the UK via BFI Player as part of Japan 2020. Also available to stream in the US via Criterion Channel.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Supermarket Woman (スーパーの女, Juzo Itami, 1996)

By 1996 Japan had entered an extended period of economic stagnation which signalled the end of post-war aspiration but for many at least the false promises of the Bubble era proved hard to dispel. In what would be his penultimate film, Supermarket Woman (スーパーの女, Supa no Onna), Juzo Itami turns his attentions to the insular world of the nation’s family-held, independent supermarkets to ask a few questions about integrity in business which cut straight to the heart of what kind of society post-Bubble Japan intended to be given yet another opportunity to make itself anew. 

As the opening text crawl explains, this is a story not about giant supermarket chains but your friendly indie local. “Honest Mart” is a family-owned, mid-range supermarket in a declining industrial area nominally run by absentee CEO Goro (Masahiko Tsugawa) who was bequeathed the place by his father but is a melancholy drunkard delegating responsibility to his manager. The store has a huge problem in that a rival has recently re-opened under the new name “Discount Demon” and seems primed to steal all their business. On a stakeout of the new place, Goro runs into a childhood friend, Hanako (Nobuko Miyamoto), who is now a widow returning to the area. With her lifelong experience as a veteran housewife, Hanako knows a few things about supermarkets and she’s not very impressed with Discount Demon, doing a few quick calculations to realise the supposed discounts aren’t as enticing as they seem while common gimmicks like the all pervasive red glow that makes their meat look fresher than it really is only irritate her. Goro asks her for a “professional” opinion on Honest Mart without telling her who he is, only to discover she’s even less impressed with them, certain that his place is on the way out thanks to its dated decor, uninviting atmosphere, and low quality produce. 

The irony is Honest Mart is not much better than Discount Demon, both stores are subject to the same industry standards in which a certain degree of obfuscation is permissible. “In business honesty doesn’t pay” Hanako is told by the onsite butcher after she questions his tendency to mix meats to pass them off as more expensive cuts, while she later discovers that the store engages in the practice of repackaging unsold meat and fish with new expiration dates and is not very particular about its suppliers when it comes to buying in ready-made products. Brought on board to save the store, Hanako breezes in with a new mission to win the hearts and minds of her customers, and she can’t do that if she can’t have confidence in her stock. In any case, her the customer is always right policy quickly brings her into conflict with the store manager, an older more conservative man who actively resists innovation and resents having his authority undercut by an interloping woman. 

Meanwhile, we can also see that customer attitudes have changed. There’s a problem with availability of trolleys because, perhaps unusually for Japan, customers are just abandoning them willy-nilly in the carpark instead of retuning them to the trolley point like responsible shoppers. One man is even for some reason intent on stealing a large number of shopping baskets, caught by Hanako loading them into his car. Everybody wants cheap, which is understandable especially given the economic situation, and they might even be a little underhanded when it comes to getting it, but they also expect a reasonable level of quality and to be able to trust that the food they’re buying is safe to feed their families. Hanako is most alarmed that the ladies who work in the kitchen area, who are obviously wives and mothers themselves, do not shop at Honest Mart because they know what goes on at the store and they don’t trust it. 

“A housewife knows” Hanako is fond is saying. Her revolution is in essence a vindication of “the housewife”, perhaps the most maligned and dismissed figure of the mid-90s society, putting to good use all of her veteran experience both of running a home and of working a series of part-time jobs including those in supermarkets which she claims to love. Approaching the problem from the point of view of a consumer, she attempts to help Goro achieve his dream of making Honest Mart number one in Japan not through making it the most financially successful but the most loved by listening to women like her in the form of a focus group of local aunties some of whom had previously been serial complainers. 

Then again, some of her decisions are in a sense contradictory as she attempts to streamline the business along classically capitalistic lines in suggesting that the store doesn’t really need its overqualified butcher and fishmonger because the part-timers could be trained to do a “good enough” job. “Good enough” is in a sense her business philosophy, only not in the sense that somewhere like Discount Demon which falsely advertises regular steak as discount Wagyu means it, rather that her customers are after an everyday level of produce and so it’s not surprising that premium meats don’t sell. She wants to get rid of the butcher, who turns out to be on the fiddle, and the melancholy fishmonger disappointed no one wants his top quality seafood, because their “artistic temperament” is disruptive to the flow of the store and their presence is perhaps emblematic of the bloated, pretentious management style which is holding it back. 

Positioning the “housewife’s choice” as the ultimate seal of approval, Supermarket Woman advocates for a return to wholesome, small-town values, prioritising a sense of integrity as Honest Mart projects itself as a corporate force their customers can trust, perhaps anticipating a trend in dedicating itself to providing good quality fresh produce at fair prices in direct opposition to Discount Demon and its underhanded trickery. “Honest Mart keeps its word” Goro assures, pledging to honour a mistaken ad which promised eggs at prices so good it caused minor riot. In the end, it’s all about trust and integrity. If you don’t have that, you don’t have anything and the housewives of post-Bubble Japan will it seems vote with their feet. 


Currently available to stream in the US via Criterion Channel.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Hometown in Heart (마음의 고향, Yoon Yong-Kyu, 1949)

Should the “sins” of the mother be visited on the son? The ageing monk at the centre of A Hometown in Heart (마음의 고향, Maeum-ui Gohyang) seems to think so, punishing a young boy for his mother’s transgressions by treating him as a little man and insisting he reform himself by careful study of the sutras. A bereaved mother feels differently, certain that all he needs is maternal love, while the boy pines for the woman who abandoned him when he was so young that he is unable to remember her. 

As the film opens, 12-year-old Do-seong (Yu Min) is an apprentice monk at a mountain temple where he is forced to do the chores typically assigned to novices such as ringing the bell and carrying water from the valley below despite his youth. Do-seong has no interest in Buddhism and does not want to become a monk though he has little choice. He looks on enviously as the other children laugh and sing while playing in the forest, but if they bump into each other he is mocked and bullied. The ringleader, hunter’s son Jin-su (Cha Geun-su), is fond of killing birds around the temple with his slingshot, which is not very Buddhist and often gets him in trouble with the head monk which is another reason why he dislikes Do-seong. Meanwhile, all Do-seong hopes for is that his mother, who left him at the temple when the was three, will one day return. Apparently, she was very beautiful and is now living in Seoul, the urban paradise on the other side of the mountains. 

As we later learn, Do-seong’s mother was herself a relative of the head monk who took her in when she was orphaned and raised her as a nun, only she ran off with a hunter and gave birth to Do-seong perhaps not quite legitimately. All of that makes Do-seong almost like the head monk’s grandson, but he continues to hold his mother’s “betrayal” against him, insisting that he needs to be more virtuous than the other children in order to make up for his mother’s “sins” in running off with the hunter and abandoning her child. The monk claims that he could forgive her for the hunter, but not for leaving her son. Later we hear that the choice could not have been easy for her, she had two children and could not raise them both and so she left Do-seong somewhere he’d be safe. Do-seong has been pining for her all this time, little knowing she tried to visit him five years previously but the monk turned her away. 

Meanwhile, the temple is all abuzz because they’re due to hold a 49th day ceremony for the wealthy Ahn family from the city. Sadly, the young son of the widowed daughter-in-law (Choi Eun-hee) has passed away from measles at only six years old. On hearing that the ceremony is for a boy from a wealthy family, Do-seong is confused, certain that a family of that kind would have taken great care him, in the way he perhaps longed to be taken care of by a loving mother. Diseases like measles, however, do not discriminate. The loss of the child is a double blow for the widow because he was her only son and as her husband died just before the baby was born, perhaps in the war, she will have no more children. That may be why she takes so strongly to little Do-seong even though he’s much older than her son was, immediately realising how lonely he must be and how much he must miss his mother even though he never knew her.  

Growing close to the boy, the widow begins to wonder if she shouldn’t adopt him and take him away from this cold and austere temple life which he seems to so dislike. Her mother is against it, telling her to put the past behind her and attempt to marry again, but the widow is certain that she wants to raise Do-seong with maternal love in opposition to the head monk’s emotionless rigidity. The monk, however, is resistant, punishing Do-seong because of the grudge he bears his mother. Only when the boy’s mother turns up unexpectedly does he relent, preferring that Do-seong leave with the widow rather than with the woman who abandoned him. Do-seong’s mother wrestles with herself, longing to see her son but unsure she has the right, eventually meeting with the widow to ask her to reconsider which she of course does because she’s not someone who’d want to separate a mother and a child. But Do-seong is so excited about going to Seoul, getting a suit, and maybe going to college that his mother reconsiders and decides that perhaps it’s too late after all and Do-seong should go with the widow who can give him a much more comfortable life. 

As if to prove the head monk right, however, karma catches up with Do-seong when it’s discovered that he too killed one of the birds hoping to make a fancy feather fan like the widow’s for his mother in case she ever came back. The widow’s mother is scandalised, not wanting to bring a killer into her home, while the head monk revokes his permission in certainty that Do-seong is “bad”, filled with the sins of his mother, and in need of further correction. The widow disagrees and points out that he must miss his mother very much to have done something like that for her and what he needs is a mother’s love, not the cold cruelty of the monk’s emotionless asceticism. As the servants point out however, “we can’t do anything about our fate, we all have to live and die according to our lot”. There’s not much the widow can do other than promise to try again later. 

One of the other monks had tried to comfort the widow and her mother by reassuring them that it’s all because of karma, which seems like an inappropriate thing to say to a woman who’s lost a child no matter how sincerely it’s meant. The head monk also tells Do-seong that he’s bad because he’s got bad karma, but perhaps that’s not something he really needs to believe. Overhearing that his mother had returned and tried to see him but was prevented, he takes his fate into his own hands, striking out alone towards the city and an end to his loneliness in claiming his birthright as a beloved son in a world unburdened by moral austerity.


A Hometown in Heart is available on DVD from the Korean Film Archive in a set which also includes a bilingual booklet featuring essays by film critic Kim Jong-won and KOFA Film Conservation Center manager Jang Gwang-heon.

Repast (めし, Mikio Naruse, 1951)

“Must every woman grow old and die feeling empty?” asks the unhappy heroine of Naruse’s 1951 melodrama Repast (めし, Meshi) only to conclude that yes, she must, but that this in fact constitutes “happiness” as a woman. The first of Naruse’s Fumiko Hayashi adaptations Repast arrived in the year of the author’s death and is inspired by a short story left unfinished at the time of her passing. Screenwriter Sumie Tanaka was apparently convinced that the film should end with a divorce, as Sound of the Mountain would two years later, and consequently left the project after the studio mandated a more “sympathetic” ending. Superficially happy as it might seem, however, the conclusion is as bleak as one might expect from Naruse in which the heroine simply accepts that she must recalibrate her idea of happiness to that which is available to her and learn to find fulfilment in shared endeavour with her husband. 

As she explains in her opening voiceover, Michiyo (Setsuko Hara) married her husband Hatsunosuke (Ken Uehara) five years ago in Tokyo against her family’s wishes and has been living on the outskirts of Osaka for the past three. Marital bliss has quite clearly worn off. As we see from the repeated morning scenes of the local community sending their sons off to school and husbands to the office, every day is the same and all Michiyo ever seems to do is cook and clean. The only words Hatsunosuke says to her are “I’m hungry”, and the only source of solace in her life is her cat, Yuri. Yet even this constant state of unhappy frustration is disrupted by the unexpected arrival of Hatsunosuke’s spoilt and immature niece Satoko (Yukiko Shimazaki) who has apparently run away from home in rebellion against an arranged marriage. 

There is obviously a blood relation between Hatsunosuke and Satoko, but Michiyo’s jealously is not exactly unreasonable given the young woman’s childish flirtation with her uncle, perhaps an adolescent extension of her propensity to pout and preen to get her own way. Aside from all that, finances weigh heavily on Michiyo’s mind. Other than her drudgery, the constant source of friction in the relationship is Hatsunosuke’s low salary and lack of career success. Satoko’s family are a little wealthier and having been brought up in relative comfort she has little idea of the real world and is often tactless, remarking on Hatsunosuke’s worn out tie much to Michiyo’s chagrin. Hatsunosuke is happy enough to have her, but Michiyo is wondering if there’s enough rice in the jar to see them through and Satoko never stops to consider that they’re feeding her for free even falling asleep when Michiyo enjoys her one and only day off reuniting with old friends rather than preparing dinner as she’d been asked. Perhaps aware of the disruptive effect of her presence, Satoko pours salt on the wound by constantly asking her uncle if Michiyo doesn’t like her or is angry, further placing a wedge between husband and wife. 

For all that, however, Hatsunosuke would not be accounted a “bad” husband for the time save perhaps for his lack of career success. He is not cruel or violent, merely insensitive and distant, taking his wife for granted and unable to see that she is deeply unhappy while otherwise internalising a sense of guilt and failure in his inability to adequately provide for her. She meanwhile sometimes takes her dissatisfaction out on him in barbed comments about his low salary, her barely hidden contempt never far from the surface. Yet as her mother later points out in encouraging her go back to him he is “reliable, discreet, and honest”, qualities borne out by his later refusal to go along with a dodgy scheme organised by the old elite along with his nervous rebuttal of the attentions of the “mistress” from across the way. 

At heart a conservative woman, Michiyo too looks down on Ms Kanazawa (Kumeko Otowa) for her taboo status as the illicit lover of a wealthy man which is only in a sense her way of seizing her future as an independent woman running her own bar. Satoko, a woman of the modern era, sees less of a problem with it and is far less judgemental, though her own attempts are destined to end in failure thanks to her inability to work out that her present lifestyle is far above her current reach. Retreating to her Tokyo home, Michiyo looks for other options, admiring the apparently happier relationship between her younger sister and brother-in-law who now run the family shop. She asks a sympathetic cousin, Kazuo (Hiroshi Nihonyanagi) who provides an alternate love interest, to help her find work but encounters the brutalising line outside the local employment office and then an old friend now a war widow desperate for employment because her benefits are about to run out and she has a young son to support. Later she spots the same woman handing out flyers, suddenly realising the fallacy of her fantasy of starting again as an independent woman. She pens a letter to her husband admitting that she’s realised how vulnerable she is without his protection, but remains undecided enough to avoid sending it. 

Hearing that Satoko, still childish but perhaps not quite as naive as she assumed her to be, has been laying her claws into Kazuo the final nail seems to have been struck. Michiyo knows she will return to Osaka, but does so not because she has rekindled her love for her husband but because she has accepted there are no better options. Hatsunosuke is dull, but he is in a sense reliable, and honest to the extent that he may be about to be rewarded for his moral unshakability. He cares enough about her to show up in Tokyo hoping, but not insisting, she will return with him which is perhaps as close to a declaration of love that one could hope for. On reflection she decides that a woman’s happiness is found in sharing the journey with her husband, accepting that she must subsume her own desires into his and cannot hope to expect emotional fulfilment other than that found in his satisfaction. Even for a Naruse film, and one as peppered with moments of slapstick humour as this one is, it’s an extraordinarily bleak conclusion subtly hinting at the iniquities of life in a patriarchal society in which the best a woman can hope for is a life of unrewarded drudgery. 


Amagi Pass (天城越え, Haruhiko Mimura, 1983)

There’s no statute of limitations on guilt an ageing policeman laments in Haruhiko Mimura’s adaptation of the Seicho Matsumoto mystery, Amagi Pass (天城越え, Amagi-Goe). Co-produced by Yoshitaro Nomura and co-scripted by Tai Kato, Amagi Pass arrives at the tail end of the box office dominance of the prestige whodunnit and like many of its kind hinges on events which took place during the war though in this case the effects are more psychological than literal, hinging on the implications of an age of violence and hyper masculinity coupled with sexual repression and a conservative culture. 

In a voiceover which doesn’t quite open the film, the hero, Kenzo (Mikijiro Hira / Yoichi Ito), as we will later realise him to be, likens himself to that of Kawabata’s Izu Dancer though as he explains he was not a student but the 14-year-old son of a blacksmith with worn out zori on his feet as he attempted to run away from home in the summer of 1940 only to turn back half-way through. In the present day, meanwhile, an elderly detective, Tajima (Tsunehiko Watase), now with a prominent limp, slowly makes his way through the modern world towards a print shop where he orders 300 copies of the case report on the murder of an itinerant labourer in Amagi Pass in June, 1940. A wandering geisha was later charged with the crime but as Tajima explains he does not believe that she was guilty and harbours regrets over his original investigation recognising his own inexperience in overseeing his first big case. 

As so often, the detective’s arrival is a call from the past, forcing Kenzo, now a middle-aged man, to reckon with the traumatic events of his youth. Earlier we had seen him in a doctor’s office where it is implied that something is poisoning him and needs to come out, his illness just as much of a reflection of his trauma as the policeman’s limp. Flashing back to 1940 we find him a young man confused, fatherless but perhaps looking for fatherly guidance from older men such as a strange pedlar he meets on the road who cheekily shows him illustrated pornography, or the wise uncle who eventually tricks him into buying dinner and then leaves. His problems are perhaps confounded by the fact that he lives in an age of hyper masculinity, the zenith of militarism in which other young men are feted with parades as they prepare to fight and die for their country in faraway lands. Yet Kenzo is only 14 in 1940 which means he will most likely be spared but also in a sense emasculated as a lonely boy remaining behind at home. 

He tells the wise man who later tricks him that he’s run away to find his brother who owns a print shop in the city because he hates his provincial life as a blacksmith, but later we realise that the cause is more his difficult relationship with his widowed mother (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) whom, he has recently discovered, is carrying on an affair with his uncle (Ichiro Ogura). Returning home after his roadside betrayal he watches them together from behind a screen, a scene echoed in his voyeuristic observation of the geisha, Hana (Yuko Tanaka), with the labourer plying her trade in order to survive. Described as odd and seemingly mute, the labourer is a figure of conflicted masculinity resented by the other men on the road but also now a symbolic father and object of sexual jealously for the increasingly Oedipal Kenzo whose youthful attraction to the beautiful geisha continues to mirror his complicated relationship with his mother as she tenderly tears up her headscarf to bandage his foot, sore from his ill-fitting zori, while alternately flirting with him. 

Yet his guilt towards her isn’t only in his attraction but in its role in what happened to her next even as she, we can see, protects him, their final parting glance a mix of frustrated maternity and longing that has apparently informed the rest of Kenzo’s life in ways we can never quite grasp. Amagi Pass for him is a barrier between youth and age, one which he has long since crossed while also in a sense forever trapped in the tunnel looking back over his shoulder towards Hana and the labourer now on another side of an unbreachable divide. The policeman comes like messenger from another time, incongruously wandering through a very different Japan just as the bikers in the film’s post-credit sequence speed through the pass, looking to provide closure and perhaps a healing while assuaging his own guilt but finding only accommodation with rather than a cure for the traumatic past. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Neither Seicho Matsumoto’s original novel or the film adaptation are directly related to the well-known Sayuri Ishikawa song of the same name released three years later though the lyrics are strangely apt.

Snow Country (雪国, Shiro Toyoda, 1957)

Closely associated with literary adaptation, Shiro Toyoda had been wanting to adapt Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country (雪国) since its serialisation and apparently spent four years preparing his treatment ahead of the 1957 film starring Ryo Ikebe as the solipsistic aesthete at the novel’s centre. Characteristically, however, he takes several liberties with the source material, notably introducing an entirely different conclusion which perhaps helps in re-centring the tale away from the hero Shimamura to the melancholy geisha who apparently falls for him because of his intense loneliness. 

A brief reference to a failed military insurrection in Manchuria sets us firmly in the mid-1930s as do repeated mentions of the ongoing depression which causes additional anxiety to local business owners in a small holiday resort town. Mimicking the novel’s famous opening, Toyoda opens with a POV shot of a train exiting a tunnel into the snow-covered landscape, the hero Shimamura (Ryo Ikebe) sitting sadly gazing out of a window and eventually captivated by the reflection of a young woman devotedly caring for a young man who appears to be in poor health. Meanwhile, another young woman, Komako (Keiko Kishi), gazes at her own reflection in a train station window, waiting once again as if unable to depart. As we discover, Shimamura has returned with the intention of seeing Komako with whom he’d struck up a relationship during a summer trip but is somewhat disappointed to learn that she has since become a geisha.

In a flashback to their first meeting, Komako asks Shimamura if he has come for “escape”, a question he doesn’t exactly answer while petulantly complaining about his lack of artistic success as someone who paints pictures apparently out of step with his times. When the head of the local commerce association tries to involve him in conversation about the failed insurrection, he bluntly tells him that he’s an artist and as such has no interest in such things, but it does indeed seem that he is looking for some kind of escape from the turbulent times, expressing that here the war seems very far away as does “the depression”. Komako, a more modern and perhaps prophetic figure than it might at first seem, is the only one to bring up the war directly speculating that it may be about to intensify while the frustrated affair between the two seems to be informed by the mounting tensions against which they are attempting to live their lives. 

Rather self-absorbed, Shimamura in a sense may even identify with Komako explaining that he too has a “patron” and implying that his flight is perhaps a response to his sense of powerlessness, that he feels constrained by his financial dependency presumably on his father-in-law though his relative economic superiority which leads Komako to frequently remark on his “extravagance” obviously affords him the freedom to make these random solo trips to ski resorts and indulge his career as a painter regardless of its capacity to support himself and his family. Komako must know on some level that the relationship is a fantasy, yet she believes in it enough to end her connection with an elderly patron on suspecting that she is carrying Shimamura’s child only to have her hopes dashed when he does not turn up for a local festival as promised with the consequence that all of her dependents are turfed out of the home he had provided for her. 

Komako is not “free” in the same way that Shimamura evidently is, her entire life dictated by the fact that she is poor and female. Fostered by a shamisen teacher, she may have been technically engaged to the young man, Yukio (Akira Nakamura), Shimamura saw on the train being cared for by Yoko (Kaoru Yachigusa), Komako’s foster sister in love with him herself, but intensely resents the burdens she is expected to bear quite literally with her body. She later tells Shimamura that she didn’t become a geisha for Yukio in order to pay his medical bills but out of a sense of obligation, while she is also responsible for her birth family, the now bedridden shamisen teacher, and Yoko who intensely resents her for her callous treatment of Yukio and generally “dissolute”, selfish way of living. During the famous fire in a cinema that closes the novel (but not the film), Komako even exclaims that her life would be easier if Yoko burned to death, but on witnessing her either fall or jump from the burning building she can do nothing other than run to her side. 

Indeed, the novel’s climax finds Shimaura standing alone indifferent to the fate of Yoko, a young woman he had come to admire if only for her contrary qualities, admiring instead the beauty of the night sky. In Toyoda’s characterisation, Yoko is in one sense the conventionally good woman whose selfless devotion to the sickly Yukio so captivates Shimamura, but her goodness is nevertheless undercut by the degree of her animosity towards Komako even as the two women remain trapped in a complex web of frustrated affection and intense resentment, each perhaps knowing they neither can have the man they want and are condemned to an eternal unhappiness as the snow mounts all around them in this perpetually cold and depressing moribund resort town. Switching between studio matte paintings ironically mimicking Shimamura’s art and on-location footage of the deepening snows, Toyoda’s sense of near nihilistic melancholy evoking the atmosphere of Japan in the mid-1930s hints at grand tragedy but finds resolution only in stoicism as the heroine picks up her shamisen and trudges onward amid the quickening blizzard.