Moving (お引越し, Shinji Somai, 1993)

The title of Shinji Somai’s 1993 coming-of-age drama Moving (お引越し, Ohikkoshi) quite literally refers to the process of vacating one space in order to inhabit another but also to the heroine’s liminal movement into a space of adulthood while caught in the nexus of a recently destabilised society itself in a state of flux. Not only must she process the disruption of her father’s decision to leave the family home, but its wider implications that will one day leave her orphaned while coming to accept that such partings are only a part of life to borne with stoicism and sympathy. 

At around 12 or so, Renko (Tomoko Tabata) finds herself on the brink of change. Not only is she beginning to grow up, soon to be changing schools, but is also facing a further destabilisation of her home as her parents prepare to separate. The tension in the household is clear from our first meeting with the family as they sit around an almost violent, green triangular table the point aimed straight at us with Renko at the opposite end and her near silent mother and father on either side. As she often will, Renko attempts to parent her parents, repeatedly criticising her father for his poor table manners wondering if he’ll be able to take care of himself when living alone while later remonstrating with her mother for having had too much to drink while cautioning her to mind what the neighbours might think. 

Already unbalanced by the economic shock of the bubble bursting, the Japanese society of the early 90s was also changing evidenced in part by the separation itself. Divorce is still a minor taboo, even Renko herself had taken part in the shunning and bullying of another girl who’d transferred to their school after returning to her mother’s hometown following her parents’ separation, but this is perhaps the first era in which it becomes acceptable to end a marriage solely because one or both parties is unhappy rather than there being some additional pressure that endangers the family. “Marriage is survival of the fittest”, Renko’s mum Nazuna (Junko Sakurada) later exclaims during a heated exchange but we can also see that the marriage itself was already unusual perhaps uncomfortably suggesting an altered power balance and shifting gender roles led to its breakdown. Father Kenichi (Kiichi Nakai) had previously worked from home completing many of the domestic tasks while Nazuna had become the breadwinner with a successful career earning higher salary. She complains that when she was pregnant with Renko Kenichi sniped at her for not contributing to the household financially but changed his tune when her economic success undercut his sense of masculine pride. 

Despite apparently embracing her freedom Nazuna nevertheless seems to resent Kenichi for leaving, accusing him of deserting his family while he later floats the idea of trying again but only perhaps because he is feeling the ache of the loss of the home he previously hinted suffocated him in responsibility. Meanwhile, Renko is also forced to process the fact that a family friend, Yukio (Taro Tanaka), on whom she’d had an innocent childish crush, is engaged to be married. Overhearing their conversation she also learns that his fiancée is pregnant but unsure about having the baby. Given all of these changes, she begins to wonder why it is she was born, intensely anxious in potential parental abandonment while witnessing the remaking of her home. 

Yet to cure her of her anxiety Somai removes her from her environment, Renko once again taking on a parental role in borrowing her mother’s credit card to book a hotel and train tickets to a familiar destination they’d previously travelled to as a family. It’s in this liminal space that Renko begins roam, eventually encountering an old man with some important life lessons while undergoing a spiritual odyssey of her own as she weaves through a summer festival towards an ethereal encounter with her past self and the spectre of her future orphanhood. Somai’s characteristically lengthy tracking shots add to the sense of destabilisation, Renko’s world constantly in motion yet as she tells us herself she’s on her way to the future, moving on but on a more equal footing and discovering at least a sense of equilibrium in an ever shifting society.


Moving screens at the BFI on 29 December as part of BFI Japan.

Black Rain (黒い雨, Shohei Imamura, 1989)

Caught in a moment of transition, post-war Japan struggles to free itself from the lingering feudal legacy and the trauma of the immediate past in Shohei Imamura’s contemplative adaptation of the novel by Masuji Ibuse, Black Rain (黒い雨, Kuroi Ame). As many things change others stay the same, the Shizuma family burdened not only by the anxiety of a ghostly illness symptomless until it isn’t and the unfair prejudice of a wounded society, but the pressure of outdated patriarchal social codes along with a sense of filial failure in the inability to protect their ancestral estate. 

Imamura opens on the fateful morning the atomic bomb struck Hiroshima, voiceovers from 20-year-old niece Yasuko (Yoshiko Tanaka) and her uncle Shigematsu (Kazuo Kitamura), a soldier severing at a factory in the city, detailing what they were doing on that very ordinary day. What unfolds is a scene of hell, the train Shigematsu is riding on blown apart while he crawls free and tries to look for his wife, Shigeko (Kazuo Kitamura), packing up their house preparing for evacuation, eventually reuniting with Yasuko who had come into town to find them. Hoping to get to the factory, they make their way past charred and hideously warped bodies, a woman cradling her carbonised infant, a little boy overjoyed to have found his big brother only to go unrecognised because his face is melted away while skin hangs painfully from his forearms and fingertips. The brother only accepts him after checking his belt which has somehow miraculously survived. The trio eventually make it to comparative safety at the factory with relatively few injuries, only later learning of the implications of having been in such close proximity to the blast. 

Jumping ahead five years, the Shizumas are living quite comfortably in their ancestral home on a mountain estate largely spared the post-war agricultural land reforms because of its location, though Shigematsu attributes his mother’s dementia to an inability to accept the changing times not only their loss of a semi-aristocratic status but the essential failure of having proved unable to protect their ancestral lands. His immediate problem is however the marriage of the now 25-year-old Yasuko. We see him triumphantly leave a doctor’s office with a certificate stating that Yasuko is in good health he hopes will reassure her current suitor’s family in the face of persistent rumours that she too was a direct victim of the “flash”, rather than an indirect victim simply of the rain which Shigematsu mistakenly believes to have been less dangerous. 

At 25 this is Yasuko’s last chance, she’s aged out of the arranged marriage market. She has also had a promising job offer from the local post office but is minded to turn it down in the hopes of being married. Taking the post office job may be the most sensible option, but it also seems like defeat, an acceptance that she is unfit for marriage and a clear sign that Shigematsu and Shigeko have failed in their patriarchal duties to ensure that Yasuko finds a good husband and will be well looked after for the rest of her life. In this age, it is difficult for a woman to support herself alone even leaving aside the social stigma of being an unmarried woman. A marriage is therefore also a job, and the families fear one Yasuko may not be able to perform if as the rumours suggest her exposure to radiation may have left her unable to bear children. The situation is further complicated seeing as Shigematsu and Shigeko were not able to have children of their own, and with Yasuko’s mother Kiyoko having died young Yasuko is the last of the Shizuma line even if she technically may not bear their name. 

Lost in old memories and mistaking Yasuko for her mother, grandma (Hisako Hara) may have it right when she tells her not to marry for marriage only leads to death. Yet in an odd way, Yasuko’s liminal status perhaps grants her the right to turn away from these old-fashioned patriarchal expectations in making her own decision not marry even if she orients herself back towards the filial in requesting to stay with the aunt and uncle who raised her in order to care for them should they suddenly begin to experience symptoms of their exposure to “the flash”. Shigematsu continues to treat the notion of radiation sickness with an almost supernatural mentality, convinced that having seen the light or not is all that matters constantly trying to provide evidence that Yasuko was not there when the bomb went off while ignoring her exposure to the black rain which fell afterwards even while himself filled with the anxiety of not knowing if he may someday become ill even if he and Shigeko are in otherwise good health. 

He watches friends with secondary exposure become ill and die before him, recalling being asked to read sutras for the dead in the aftermath of the bomb though feeling himself unqualified, while some in the village perhaps jokingly accuse them of playing on their status as bomb victims as if they are merely lazy rather than actively sick. Meanwhile, across the way a young man with intense PTSD suffers flashbacks every time he hears an engine running and is compelled to throw himself in front of it as if it were an enemy tank. Yuichi (Keisuke Ishida) is ironically enough “a veteran of the suicide squad”, otherwise alright if fragile spending his days carving Buddhist Jizo statues may of which have grotesque, anguished expressions in contrast to the comforting, almost cute faces such statues usually bear. Just as the wider society distances itself from the survivors of the bomb, so they reject men like Yuichi. When Yuichi’s mother comes to propose an unlikely marriage between the two lonely youngsters who have become close after bonding through their shared anxieties, Shigematsu is offended, resenting the implication that they must believe Yasuko is a poor catch if daring to suggest she marry a man of a lower social class who is also in need of assistance in living with his mental illness. 

Yet her marriage continues to weigh heavily on Shigeko’s mind, feeling as if she has failed the Shizuma family in being unable to provide an heir and subsequently failing to secure a match for Yasuko. It is perhaps this anxiety that finally makes her ill, taking strange medicines provided by a dubious Shinto priestess who tells her it’s all her own fault for not being able to visit Kiyoko’s grave because someone has to stay at home to look after grandma. Only Shigematsu sees the writing on the wall, advising Yasuko that after grandma dies she should sell the estate and take the money as her dowry freeing her from the feudal and familial legacy and giving her permission to move into the modern post-war future even as she begins to doubt that the future has a place for her. 

Shooting in black and white and in a much more classical style than that which is found in his other work, Imamura adopts the aesthetics of Golden Age cinema to comment on the contemporary era now perhaps feeling itself sufficiently distanced from the toxicity of wartime trauma, suggesting that the entire society is in a sense soaked in black rain its inability to confront the recent past a poison slowly eating away at its foundations. “An unjust peace is better than a just war” Shigematsu is fond of saying, quoting Cicero dismayed by the heated geopolitical debates he hears on the radio he uses to set the clock, his friend dying without ever really understanding why the bomb was dropped, why on Hiroshima, why at that particular moment. Imamura denies us closure too, leaving on a note of anxiety if tempered with an all but forlorn hope for signs of a miracle on the horizon that the sickness can be healed and a better world will someday arrive.


Black Rain screens at the BFI on 28th December as part of BFI Japan and is also available on blu-ray as part of Arrow’s Imamura boxset or to stream in the UK via Arrow Player

Love Letter (ラブレター, Shunji Iwai, 1995)

“People are forgotten so easily” a widow laments after an insensitive comment from a family friend, yet there is perhaps a difference between forgetting and letting go as exemplified in the distance between two accidental pen pals in Shunji Iwai’s profoundly moving romantic melodrama, Love Letter (ラブレター). A huge hit and pop culture phenomenon throughout Asia on its 1995 release, Iwai’s first theatrical feature bears many of the hallmarks of his enduring style in its soft focus, ethereal lighting and emphasis on nostalgia as the two women at the film’s centre each restore something to the other through their serendipitous correspondence. 

Iwai opens with a memorial service for Itsuki the late fiancé of the heroine, Hiroko (Miho Nakayama), who passed away two years previously in a mountain climbing accident. Hiroko has since started a relationship with his friend Akiba (Etsushi Toyokawa) who avoided attending the memorial out of misplaced guilt and gave up mountaineering soon after Itsuki’s death. Akiba is keen to move their relationship forward, but fears that Hiroko is still stuck in the past unable to let go of her love for Itsuki. On a visit to Itsuki’s mother (Mariko Kaga), she finds an old address in his middle school year book for a home that apparently no longer exists and decides to mail him a letter saying nothing more than “How are you? I’m fine” of course expecting no reply. What she didn’t know, however, is that there were two Itsuki Fujiis in her Itsuki’s class, the other being a woman still living at the same address to whom Hiroko has accidentally mailed her correspondence. Confused, the other Itsuki (also played by Miho Nakayama) mails back and eventually finds herself recalling memories of the male Itsuki as an awkward, diffident teen she may have entirely misunderstood. 

Played by the same actress the two women are each in a sense trapped in an eternal present, unable to move forward with their lives. While Hiroko is consumed by grief and fearful of committing to her new relationship with Akiba lest she betray the memory of Itsuki, Itsuki is still struggling to come to terms with the traumatic death of her father 10 years previously who passed away from pneumonia after contracting the common cold leaving her with persistent health anxiety. Meanwhile, she is also struggling to move on from her family home which is in an increasingly perilous state of disrepair. She and her mother (Bunjaku Han) want to move into a modern apartment, while her grandfather (Katsuyuki Shinohara) prefers to stay even though it seems that the house will soon have to be demolished. 

Through their accidental correspondence, both women are forced to deal with recent and not so recent loss, Itsuki in some senses having forgotten the boy who shared her name while Hiroko remains unable to forget. Through his trademark ethereal lighting and frequent use of dissolves, Iwai hints at a sense of perpetual longing for the nostalgic past. The letters may not have been from the late Itsuki in a literal sense but were perhaps a message from him, connecting the two women and eventually freeing each of them as the love letter of the title is finally delivered ironically enough hidden inside a copy of Remembrance of Things Past. 

This sense of grief-stricken inertia is perfectly reflected in the snowy vistas of the lonely northern town of Otaru, thrown into stark contrast with the intense heat of the furnace in Akiba’s glassblowing workshop, or the gentle warmth of the old-fashioned stove in Itsuki’s room as she types replies to Hiroko’s handwritten letters. As Hiroko eventually reflects, they each knew a different Itsuki and have each in a sense both lost him if restoring something one to the other through the exchange of memories that grants Hiroko the understanding she needs to let go and Itsuki the poignant realisation of a youthful missed connection. A bittersweet meditation on love, loss, grief, and memory, Iwai’s epistolary drama has its own sense of magic and mystery in the strange power of this serendipitous connection leading to a tremendous sense of catharsis as a long delayed message finally makes its way home bringing with it a shade of melancholy regret but also possibility in the new hope of forward motion.


Love Letter screens at the BFI on 22/28 December as part of BFI Japan.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Shall We Dance? (Shall we ダンス?, Masayuki Suo, 1996)

If your life has gone pretty well and you’ve more or less achieved conventional success but you’re still somehow unhappy then what is it that you’re supposed to do? Sugiyama (Koji Yakusho), the hero of Masayuki Suo’s charming ballroom dancing dramedy Shall We Dance? (Shall we ダンス?) is beginning to wonder, after all he’s a “serious” man as his wife repeatedly describes him but is it really acceptable for a middle-aged husband and father to chase emotional fulfilment or would he be cheating on the salaryman dream in daring to nourish his soul?

As he later says, Sugiyama has followed a conventional path in life. He has a respectable job as an accountant, married at 28 and had a child at 30. By 40 he was able to buy a family home, but also acknowledges that he sold his soul to the company to do so seeing as with the mortgage hanging over his head he is now fully locked in to the corporate system and couldn’t leave even if he wanted to. Yet he’s not quite like his co-workers, an early scene sees the roles somewhat reversed as he, the boss, declines the invitations of a drunken subordinate to stay out longer after an effectively compulsory after work drinking session to return to his family home at only 9pm but going straight to bed when he gets there. He and his wife Masako (Hideko Hara) share a room but sleep in separate beds presumably so he doesn’t wake her when he gets up early to go to the office making his own breakfast before he leaves. 

“It’s not a matter of like or dislike, it’s work” Sugiyama tells his co-worker as she complains that the more glamorous sales department gets all the best perks and she’s sick of working in accounts, hinting at his inner malaise in his relentlessly corporate life. That’s one reason he’s captivated by the sight of a beautiful yet sad woman gazing out of a window from a building above on his train journey home. When he gets off the train to look for her, he in one sense leaves the salaryman rails breaking with the conventions that he is expected to fulfil in search of something more. Mai (Tamiyo Kusakari), a former ballroom dancer taking a temporary sabbatical from competitive sport teaching at her father’s studio, is just as unhappy as he is but for contrary reasons. She has lost the joy of dance, for her it has become as soulless a job as Sugiyama’s accountancy and she too struggles with the image she has of a dancer and what that means for her in terms of personal fulfilment. 

Yet as Sugiyama explains in his opening voiceover, ballroom dancing is viewed as something of a naff hobby mostly associated with sleazy old men only there for the opportunity of physical contact with women of varying ages. When he spots his co-worker Aoki (Naoto Takenaka) at the dance class it’s embarrassing for both of them, each promising not to say anything to anyone at work, the floor later erupting in laughter when someone finds a picture of Aoki taken at a competition in the newspaper. Developing an interest in the sport, Sugiyama buys a ballroom dancing magazine but interrupted by his daughter quickly hides it as if he had been looking at pornography or some other material he feels to be shameful. 

The irony is that Masako had wished Sugiyama would go out more, realising that he’s selflessly dedicated himself to the salaryman dream in order to provide for their family, but then becomes suspicious and resentful as he leaves her alone to pursue his new hobby which he cannot disclose to her out of embarrassment. She in turn sniffing perfume on his shirts fears he’s having an affair, but is unable to ask him about it directly preferring to hire a private detective (Akira Emoto) instead. Leaving aside that each of them ends up secretly spending money when they’re supposed to be saving for the mortgage, the oppressive social conformity of the salaryman existence is beginning to erode their relationship. Forced into the role of the conventional housewife, Masako too is lonely expected to find fulfilment only in home and family while preparing to re-enter the world of work now her daughter is old enough to care for herself because of the financial burden of the mortgage rather than her own desire to fulfil herself. Sugiyama isn’t having an affair, but still she feels betrayed because he left her behind to chase emotional liberation on his own rather than taking her with him never really noticing her loneliness. 

Yet as Sugiyama is repeatedly told, dancing, unlike the salaryman game, is about more than learning the steps, it’s about feeling the music and finding joy in movement. That’s something Mai has also lost sight of, finally realising that she too was a selfish dancer who’d been dancing alone all along unable to fully trust her partner rediscovering her joy in dance as she coaches not only Sugiyama but his classmates towards their own liberation. Sugiyama remains conflicted because the excessively corporatised society leads him to believe that it’s taboo to devote oneself to anything other than work or in essence to experience joy that is not directly related to productivity, that he should be wholly “salaryman” and nothing else, just his wife should be nothing more than that. It’s this oppressive conformity that undermines their conventional marriage rather than Sugiyama’s transgressive decision to get off the salaryman train, put down his briefcase, and embrace his desire for personal fulfilment. Only through this act of mutual emotional authenticity can they restore familial harmony. A minor meditation on the emptiness of the increasingly elusive salaryman dream in the economically stagnant ’90s, Suo’s charming drama insists on joy as a basic human need in a society which often trivialises personal happiness.


Shall We Dance? screens at the BFI on 21/30 December as part of BFI Japan.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Fire Festival (火まつり, Mitsuo Yanagimachi, 1985)

By 1985 the Japanese economy was approaching its zenith yet along with increasing economic prosperity had come social change of which small-town Japan was either casualty or sacrificial victim. “Nigishima will stay as it is” declares the last holdout of an increasingly obsolete way of life in Mitsuo Yanagimachi’s intense modernity drama, Fire Festival (火まつり, Himatsuri), a manly mountain man and animalistic force of nature by several metrics unsuited to life in the contemporary society into which he is ultimately unable to progress. 

There are many things which it seems have not changed in Nigishima for generations, one being the animosity between the cohorts of its bifurcated community, those who live by land and those who live by sea. Rural depopulation may have forced them to come closer but it has also increased their sense of mistrust while both industries continue to suffer in an economy which no longer prizes their humble rural output. Despite being catapulted into a promised modernity by the advent of the railway to great fanfare in 1959, it now seems that Nigishima cannot survive without a new road which could be paid for by the development of a marine park only mountain man Tatsuo (Kinya Kitaoji) owns the property right in the middle of the earmarked area and has hitherto refused to sell further increasing the tension between the two communities. 

Tatsuo is thought of, and thinks of himself, as a big man in the area quite literally it seems as part of the reason he enjoys this status is down to his being unusually well-endowed. He believes himself to have a special relationship with the mountain goddess, often joking to the other men about having a sexual relationship with her while sometimes describing her as his girlfriend. Several times he is mistaken for an animal, firstly by the boatman bringing his childhood sweetheart and sometime mistress Kimiko (Kiwako Taichi) back to the island who assumed he was a monkey crawling along the cliff edge thoughtlessly throwing rocks at them, while he often gambols through the forest whooping like some kind of Tarzan. Entirely unreconstructed, his worldview is patriarchal and misogynistic. All of his banter with the other men is sexual, constantly referring to his penis while greeting his friends with lewd hand gestures thrusting his fist into his pocket as if waving with an erection. The cure for offending the goddess he tells his young protege Ryota (Ryota Nakamoto) is to drop his trousers and display his manhood, Tatsuo strangely believing this would appease her for taking wood from a sacred tree or killing without permission. 

Smearing the blood of a sacrificial animal over his chest and forearms he dedicates the death to the goddess, a gesture he will repeat in the film’s violent and tragic conclusion yet there is also arrogance in his conduct as if he believes himself above natural law, protected as the goddess’ favourite even as he describes himself as “suffocated” by the women in his life from his mother and five older sisters all of whom indulge him to his wife, kids, and mistresses. He has trained his dogs to hunt wild boar without the use of guns in a method he admits even other hunters describe as “cruel” while breaking a local taboo shooting monkeys in the forest well aware of nature red in tooth and claw. As such, there is little nobility to be seen in his determination to preserve this already obsolete way of life. His virility maybe contrasted with that of the ageing land broker Yamakawa (Norihei Miki) and his failed attempts to bed sex worker Kimiko who tricks him into paying off her debts, but he at least knows the way the wind is blowing explaining to her that towns such as Nigishima survive only through things like marine parks or hotels or even nuclear power plants. Without the road, the town will die. 

Yet in 1959 they were told the railway would save them and it seems it did not. Tatsuo’s love making with Kimiko in a boat borrowed from a treacherous fisherman who later agrees to sail it transgressively into sacred waters is intercut with memories of the rail line’s opening ceremony, two teenagers who might have been them or at least of around the same age ride an elephant on the jetty while the townspeople arrange themselves into the formation of the character for “celebration” captured by the aerial photographer above. For Tatsuo as a boy, was this a rebirth of Nigishima or the beginning of its demise as the coming modernity began to eat away at its foundations? 

The fire festival is “for men”, according to Tatsuo, “to drive out evil spirits”, his manliness getting the better of him as he disrupts the proceedings to attack a man he accuses of having brought “false fire”. These are the lessons he teaches to surrogate son Ryota whose devotion to him borders on the homoerotic, Tatsuo cradling him during the climactic rain storm and he seeming to develop a fascination for Kimiko as a kind of indirect fixation. Ryota has learned Tatsuo’s chauvinism mimicking his lewd hand gestures and swaggering walk, his cruelty in sacrificing 1000 yen to trick Yamakawa into injuring his hand in a bear trap, and his arrogance ensuring that his problematic masculinity will survive into another generation presumably no more capable of halting the march of modernity than he has been. Tatsuo poisons the waters with fuel oil which as one of the greek chorus of fish wives points out does not catch fire, Tatsuo himself smouldering until an inevitable explosion. Receiving some kind of epiphany during a mystical congress with the goddess in the middle of a storm, he knows what he must do and accepts that he cannot progress into the modern society. Smoulderingly intense in its small-town animosity and primeval sensibilities, Yanagimachi’s poetic tragedy of futility and the broken promises of a badly distributed modernity may accept the the sacrifice but mourns it all the same. 


Fire Festival screens at the BFI on 20/27 December as part of BFI Japan.

Clip (English subtitles)

The Demon (鬼畜, Yoshitaro Nomura, 1978)

By the late 1970s Japan had achieved its economic miracle, but it had yet perhaps to deal with the traumas of the immediate post-war era. Once again adapted from a story by Seicho Matsumoto, Yoshitaro Nomura’s shocking social drama The Demon (鬼畜, Kichiku) explores the radiating effects of orphanhood and economic privation on the family unit producing as a rather judgemental policeman eventually puts it a generation of parents who don’t know how to raise children and may even lack the inclination to do so even if thankfully not to the extent of the couple at the film’s centre.

Nomura opens with one of his trademark lengthy train sequences following a harried mother and her three children travelling in the sweltering heat from the countryside to the city as she makes a last, desperate attempt to remind the father, Sokichi Takeshita (Ken Ogata), of his responsibilities. Once a successful businessman, Sokichi has become financially ruined after a fire destroyed his print shop and no longer has the means to maintain a second household for his mistress and children at a discrete distance from the home he shares with his wife, Oume (Shima Iwashita). As Kikuyo (Mayumi Ogawa) points out to him, she is unable to support herself economically while caring for the children but he has little answer for her especially once the previously oblivious Oume overhears their conversation. After a series of heated arguments, Kikuyo makes the radical decision to simply abandon the children with their father and thereafter disappears having vacated her previous home and left no forwarding address. 

A part of the problem in the Takeshitas’ marriage had been that they have no children of their own, Sokichi remarking to Kikuyo, whom he met while she was working in a traditional teahouse where he used to take clients, that he had always wanted a child. Conventional gender roles have in a sense been reversed, Oume angrily insisting that her husband would never have made any money had not been for her while it appears that she is more or less in charge of their business affairs and he is the one largely looking after the children to the extent that they are “looked after”. To Oume, the siblings are partly a reminder that her husband betrayed her with another woman but also an attack on her femininity in reminding her that she was unable to become a mother while someone else has given birth to Sokichi’s children. For all of these reasons they are to her children which cannot continue to exist. She undermines Sokichi’s attachment to them by frequently questioning their paternity pointing out that they share little physical resemblance while reminding him that he met Kikuyo through her occupation on the fringes of the sex trade. 

Her mistreatment begins as neglect, refusing to feed or bathe “a stranger’s” child and then graduates to physical violence stuffing food into the mouth of Sokichi’s infant son Shoji after catching him playing with the dinner bowls. Yet when Sokichi finds her endangering the baby while moving heavy papers from a shelf he does nothing, suspecting his wife has become a threat to the children’s safety but also as she later implies wanting to be rid of them himself. The couple could, of course, have simply surrendered the children to an orphanage (it remains unclear how exactly their existence has been registered), but ultimately choose not to as if they wanted to obliterate the idea of them as if they had never been born. 

It may be tempting to view Sokichi as a helpless victim casting Oume as terrifying Lady Macbeth intimidating him into destroying the evidence of his indiscretion, but even if it was Sokichi “looking after” the children, it is finally he who must also “take care” of them. During his abandonment of his second child, 3-year-old daughter Yoshiko (Miyuki Yoshizawa), he takes her into a toy store where a group of boys are playing with remote control cars demonstrating that this is no longer an age of economic privation and that in the end the reason for the children’s second abandonment is not primarily financial even if Sokichi has been in a sense humbled, deluded into a false sense of security in his business success only to be robbed of the era’s increasing prosperity through a freak accident. “Everybody’s struggling” he eventually reflects as his assistant (Keizo Kanie) informs him that he is leaving, ironically to take better care of his ageing parents and small children presumably in a less toxic environment.

Yet as we discover the reasons for Sokichi’s sense of displacement stem back to his own post-war childhood, apparently born out of wedlock never knowing his father and then abandoned by his mother, bounced around between relatives all of them poor who viewed him as nothing more than a burden until effectively indentured to a print shop at ten years old by an uncle who stole his advance pay and once again abandoned him. These kinds of familial disruptions whether caused by a literal orphanhood or the economic constraints of the immediate post-war period have produced according to the moralising policeman at the film’s conclusion a generation of people who do not know how to parent because they were not effectively parented themselves many of whom go on to have children perhaps accidentally but have no idea how to relate to them, frightened of the responsibility or resentful of the “burden” as Sokichi eventually seems to have become. 

Nevertheless, Nomura ends on a note of ambiguity, the goodness in eldest son Riichi (Hiroki Iwase) emphasised as he refuses to name his father or reveal his abuse, an action interpreted by the police as an attempt to protect Sokichi but could equally be a trauma response owing to have been returned to him by the police once before. In any case the film asks if in being rescued from his toxic family circumstances, effectively orphaned, Riichi will simply end up continuing the cycle of displacement, another man unable to become a “father”. But then again, what of Kikuyo who branded Sokichi “inhuman” yet left her children with him and disappeared, perhaps as a neighbour implies with another man? A sympathetic policewoman (Shinobu Otake) reassures Riichi they’ll look for his mother, but as she too abandoned him would that actually help? The jury seems to be out on whether this sense of displacement, in essence the integrity of the traditional family, can ever effectively be repaired even as an increasingly consumerist society continues to erode its foundations. 


The Demon screens at the BFI on 12/19 December as part of BFI Japan. It is also available to stream in the US via Criterion Channel.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Muddy River (泥の河, Kohei Oguri, 1981)

The post-war era refuses to die in Kohei Oguri’s heartbreaking exploration of childhood friendship and the costs of experience, Muddy River (泥の河, Doro no Kawa). Adapted from the novel by Teru Miyamoto and situating itself in the Osaka of 1956, Oguri’s realist drama takes place at a moment of transition not only in the life of the young hero but also of the nation which was at long last beginning to leave post-war privation behind thanks to increasing economic prosperity. Yet for men like young Nobuo’s father Shinpei (Takahiro Tamura), the traumas not only of the war itself but its aftermath will not be so easy to escape. 

A shy child who often wets the bed, 9-year-old Nobuo (Nobutaka Asahara) lives with his parents Shinpei and Sadako (Yumiko Fujita) above a small riverside noodle bar mainly frequented by sailors and workmen such as Shioda (Gannosuke Ashiya), a regular who pulls a horse and cart for a living. Nobuo can’t stop staring at Shioda’s ruined ear, presumably a battlefield injury though the avuncular gentleman tries to raise his spirits with false cheerfulness explaining that he’s seen the writing on the wall and the days of cart pullers are coming to an end. He jokes about giving his horse to Nobuo as a pet though obviously he has no need for or ability to keep a horse, explaining that he’s going to buy a second-hand truck so he won’t be left behind in the race for modernity. Unfortunately, however, as Nobuo follows him out Shioda’s cart gets stuck in the mud. Somewhat bluntly he violently beats the horse to make him free it, but the cart ends up blocking the bridge and the horse is spooked by oncoming traffic. Crushed by his falling load, Shioda is pulled under the wheels and killed, his hopes for the future dashed while his wife and child are left without economic support. 

Emulating the visual imagery of silent cinema, Oguri frames this sequence perfectly with an inescapable anxiety that captures the inevitability of the moment. This is Nobuo’s first glimpse of death, running confused back to his father to tell him that the cart man’s dead, Shinpei at first not quite comprehending but later reflecting that he was like him another casualty of the post-war era as if his death were merely delayed remembering that he’d once said the war had already killed him and so he’d never die again. On an awkward train journey Shinpei opens a newspaper and reads that “the post-war period is over”, but of course for him it isn’t and perhaps never will be. Reflecting on the last 10 years of his life, he wonders if it was worth it, there must be many people who think it would have been better to die in the war than suffer as they did afterwards. Young Nobuo, born to him in his 40s, is his only achievement. Sadako meanwhile harbours her own guilt in feeling as if she wronged another woman with whom Shinpei had previously been involved after the war by stealing him away and building this life together in burned out Osaka which, while far from perfect, is comfortable enough and happier than most. 

That Nobuo learns for himself when he befriends another boy staring at the abandoned cart. 9-year-old Kiichi (Minoru Sakurai) and his sister Ginko (Makiko Shibata) live on a houseboat recently moored opposite, something which Nobuo finds unusual and mysterious but not itself bad. Still innocent and too young to have incorporated moral judgement, Nobuo simply befriends the other boy bonding over a strange tale of a monstrous carp in the river though perhaps also feeling sorry for him on noticing his ragged clothes and the holes in his shoes. On visiting their houseboat, he only hears only the voice of Kiichi’s mother Shoko (Mariko Kaga) a mysterious disembodied presence who lives in a separate area of the boat accessible only via a different entrance. When she instructs Kiichi to give him some raw sugar and tell him not to come back too often, he takes it that he’s unwanted later confused when his father tells him that it’s fine for his new friends to visit but he shouldn’t go near the boat after dark. 

Understanding people, neither Shinpei or Sadako, instantly grasping the situation, reject the family because of the stigma of sex work realising that people do what they have to to survive and in any case it isn’t the children’s fault or responsibility. On hearing Kiichi enthusiastically singing an old imperial song about losing friends in Manchuria, Shinpei begins to feel a kinship with his late father as another old soldier claimed by the muddy river of the post-war society. Like the cart man, and an old fisherman Nobuo witnessed “disappear” from his boat never to be seen again, he was simply a casualty of the times one of many unable to enter the new society promised by rising economic prosperity. Shinpei fears he may also be one of these men, left behind unable to break free of wartime survivor’s guilt and the traumas of what came afterwards. He also disappears from his son’s life abruptly and without warning if only temporarily, but accidentally deserts him at the time he needs him most allowing his fragile new friendship to fracture as the two boys fatefully return to the boat after dark and Nobuo encounters a loss of innocence on several levels Kiichi realising that something is now broken between them. 

Something is perhaps broken in the times, the end of Nobuo’s childhood coinciding with the the dawning of a new era free of post-war privation but one that also threatens to leave those who can’t catch up to it behind Kiichi’s boat bound for further down the river while Nobuo remains firmly on land his own foundation perhaps more secure now that his father has exorcised some of guilt over the recent past. Shot with a nostalgic realism in black and white and in academy ratio, Oguri’s quietly devastating drama sets one boy’s loss of innocence against the lingering affects of another as the adults all around him struggle to acclimatise themselves to a changing society but all he sees is the muddy river flowing past him taking his friend away because he saw something he shouldn’t have leaving him with nothing but sorrow and loneliness on the other side of an unbreachable divide. 


Muddy River screens at the BFI on 12/23 December as part of BFI Japan.

Opening sequence

Seven Samurai (七人の侍, Akira Kurosawa, 1954)

An eclipse of the accepted order allows a temporary truce in the ongoing class conflict that defines feudal society in Akira Kurosawa’s seminal post-war historical epic, Seven Samurai (七人の侍, Shichinin no Samurai). Set in the late 16th century, the action takes place in a world on the brink of collapse. The Sengoku era is drawing to a close but is also in a moment of intense crisis which has left large numbers of highly skilled warriors essentially orphaned, wandering the land torn between their basic needs for food and shelter and their dignity as members of a theoretic aristocracy. 

Plagued by bandits, many of whom may be these orphaned swordsmen, a small village contemplates the unthinkable in hiring samurai, otherwise their oppressors and uniquely responsible for the chaos which surrounds them, for protection. “Land tax, forced labour, drought…and now bandits!” one woman exclaims shortly before suggesting they simply surrender all their grain and then hang themselves. As they can offer only expenses in the form of rice, the only samurai they can hope to recruit are already desperate, so hungry that they may be willing to deign to defending their social inferiors with whom they would not usually mix unwilling to accept that they are both victims of the inherently corrupt social order. This explains why the villagers’ early entreaties are met with such scorn and cynicism, either rudely rejected out of hand or ending only in deception. 

In this there is an echo of the world of 1954 which was beginning edge away from the chaos and privation of the immediate post-war society, bandits standing in for thieves and profiteers themselves a product of intense food insecurity. Yet here it’s desperation that allows a temporary merging of the world of lord and peasant, brokered finally by unexpected compassion on the part of a noble samurai who, in an act of extreme transgression, symbolically erases his elite status by shaving his head in order to save a child taken as a hostage by another desperate man. Kambei (Takashi Shimura) may be somewhat reduced in circumstances but refuses to give in to the immorality of the world around him, finally agreeing to help the villagers essentially out of a sense of pity willing to accept only the gift of sustenance moved by the villagers’ sacrifice in discovering that they give him the last of their white rice while subsisting only on millet. 

Yet having taken this step, the villagers remain uncertain they can really trust the men they’ve hired to protect them who are after all each trained in death. Later we discover that they have, like many of the time, occasionally finished off the odd lone samurai fleeing the battlefield in order to loot the bodies as a large stockpile of samurai armour later discovered by the samurai-pretender Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) testifies. On being confronted with this uncomfortable reality, the samurai fall silent knowing this armour was stripped from men much like themselves, but can ultimately offer little by way of defence when presented with an angry rant from Kikuchiyo who points out that they are themselves responsible in having created this world of chaos through their internecine quests for power. “In war you burn their villages, trample their fields, steal their food, work them like slaves, rape their women, and kill ‘em if they resist. What to you expect ‘em to do?”

When Kambei and the others first arrive in the village, there is no welcoming committee. The villagers all hide, frightened to leave their homes partly because of paranoia spread by widowed father Manzo (Kamatari Fujiwara) convinced that randy samurai are going ravish all of their daughters who will, doubtless, be overcome with awe by these sophisticated men of the elite. In an echo of Kambei’s transgression, Manzo forces something similar on his teenage daughter Shino (Keiko Tsushima), roughly cutting her hair while she cries and resists before dressing her up as a boy so that she’ll be safe from lusty samurai. The plan, however, backfires in that she later engages in a doomed romance with the young Katsuhiro (Isao Kimura). Their eventual union is the symbolic merging of the two worlds, a moment of eclipse in the usual hierarchy, but it’s born of the same impulses than brought Kambei and the others to the village. In fear and desperation, they behave as if there’s no tomorrow, only tomorrow must come and just as sun and moon must eventually move apart and resume their regular orbits so the relationship between Katsuhiro and Shino is an impossibility. 

Like Kambei, Katsuhiro had occupied a slightly liminal position because of his relative youth, neither boy nor man. He first encounters Shino while marvelling at the natural beauty of the forest, only to berate her for doing the same. “Is this any time for an able-bodied man to be picking flowers?”, he ironically asks her, yet he is repeatedly forced back towards conventional masculinity as marker of adulthood virtually ignoring her when tasked with carrying a dummy to the ridge, while she later returns the same gesture reassuming her femininity in joining the rice planting, a peasant woman once again. “What’s wrong with two people in love?” the wounded Rikichi (Yoshio Tsuchiya) asks Manzo, trying to smooth over this moment of cross-class crisis, only for Monzo to ask what he’s supposed to now his only daughter has become “damaged goods”, unfit for marriage in a fiercely patriarchal society in which it is impossible to survive without a husband. 

Katsuhiro cannot marry her, this sense of solidarity if not quite equality can be only temporary. Kambei himself admits as much as he reflects that the battle has been won but the victory belongs not to them but to the peasants, anticipating his a sense his own obsolescence the end of the Sengoku era bringing about a change in the nature of the samurai that two centuries later will lead to its abolition. Our sympathies might shift, witnessing Kambei’s obvious disapproval of the peasants’ relish in taking revenge on the bandits who have caused them so much misery in their own way perhaps perpetuating the cycle of violence and resentment that drives the feudal engine. One cannot help but pity him, displaced once again returning to a life of ceaseless wandering, his presence in the village now no longer necessary and in fact inappropriate. 

Returning to the world of 1954, there might be something a little uncomfortable in this lament for the death of the samurai who can have no place either in the modern society or in a peasant village in 1587, as there may be in the implication that the peasants are savage and vindictive while Kambei alone is good and kind even if the roots of his compassion lie in his willingness to literally sever himself from his elite status. The roles had in a sense been reversed, the samurai hired hands to peasant bosses, but the inversion can be only temporary. In insisting that only by protecting others can one hope to protect oneself, Kambei may be advocating for a more compassionate society but as much as he has attempted to remove himself from the class system he can not in the end overcome it. Nevertheless, in the gruelling battle scene that closes the film, all rain, mud, death and misery, Kurosawa himself deals the final blow to the samurai in the nihilistic futility of violence manifesting itself once again in the lingering feudalism of the mid-century society. 


Seven Samurai is re-released in UK cinemas in its recent 4K restoration as part of BFI Japan on 29th October.

BFI re-release trailer (English subtitles)

Early Spring (早春, Yasujiro Ozu, 1956)

By the mid-1950s, Japan’s economy was beginning to improve but now that the desperation that went with hunger had dissipated it freed those who’d managed to climb out of post-war privation to wonder just what the point of their ceaseless toil was. Yasujiro Ozu’s primary subject matter remained the modern family, but 1956’s Early Spring (早春, Soshun) sees him heading in a darker direction as he weighs up the delusions of the salaryman dream and discovers that whichever way you swing it, life is disappointing. 

So it seems to be for salaryman Shoji (Ryo Ikebe). He and Masako (Chikage Awashima) married for love a long time ago, but it’s clear that there is distance in their relationship. They sleep in the same room but their futons are slightly too far apart, and the few words they exchange with each other in the morning are terse in the extreme. The truth is that for many a salaryman for whom long hours and interoffice bonding sessions are compulsory, work is the new family. Wives are welcome to join the Sunday hiking outings but it seems few do. Masako too declines, telling her mother she felt it to be too expensive, already irritated with her husband’s irresponsible spending on mahjong games and drinking with friends. 

Money is certainly a constant worry for her and as we learn from her mother they’re behind on the rent despite it being “very cheap”. Masako had made a visit home in part to ask for another loan, which her mother seems reluctant to give, offering her daughter a takeout of the oden her restaurant sells which is first declined but then accepted. Her mother also flags up the other problem in their marriage which is that they sadly lost a child in infancy and have had no more. Sorrow may have killed their love, but the fact her husband stays out all hours and wastes the little money he earns while failing to win promotions only makes the situation worse. 

As for Shoji, he is becoming very aware of the delusions of the “salaryman dream”. He is one of thousands of men identically dressed in white shirts and grey trousers that board the packed rush hour trains every day heading into the city. His life is one of pointless drudgery and its only victory is that keeps hunger from the door, not even quite stretching to a roof over his head. “All that’s waiting for us is disillusion and loneliness” according to a veteran salaryman growing close to his retirement and realising that he has little left to live on, his dream of buying a small stationary shop all but unobtainable. He was dead set against his own son joining the ranks of the salaryman, but in the end failed to prevent it.

It is perhaps this sense of frustration and impotence that draws Shoji into an affair with a younger woman, Chiyo (Keiko Kishi), who is admittedly very pretty but seems to hold little interest for him aside from her youth and beauty. Chiyo openly pursues her older colleague, declaring that she doesn’t care he has a wife but has come to hate her after the first time they slept together. Shoji meanwhile remains guilty and conflicted. He evidently continues seeing Chiyo, lying to Masako that he’s visiting a sick friend, but otherwise regards her as an irritation. When his co-workers figure out what’s going on they try to stage an intervention, but Shoji doesn’t show up and Chiyo angrily denies everything before arriving at Masako’s looking for Shoji only this time he really is out visiting a sick friend. 

Miura (Junji Masuda), the sick friend, is a true believer in the salaryman dream. Now that he’s ill, he misses the packed trains and elevators, not to mention his old workplace friends. All he wants is to be well enough to return to the office and his predicament perhaps has Shoji thinking that at least he has his health and things aren’t so bad for him after all. Masako, meanwhile, turns to other women for advice. The woman across the way recounts how she caught her husband out with his mistress and made a scene that’s rendered him docile and obedient ever since (a rare man in an Ozu film putting his socks neatly in the laundry basket and hanging up his own coat rather than throwing it on the floor for his wife to deal with). Her widowed friend is more sanguine, admitting that caution is necessary but it’s a little dark to envy the life of a widow for its “freedom”, while her mother thinks she’s overreacting because that’s just how men are in this generation or any other. 

Shoji’s old mentor agrees that “everyone’s disappointed” and all that remains is to try and make the most of it, but still he sees that Shoji has been reckless and inconsiderate in his treatment of both women. He avoids his wife because of the emotional distance between them born of grief, and only really has an affair with Chiyo because it was easier than refusing her. He didn’t even enjoy it, and doubtless it did not quite quell the sense of despair he feels with the utter pointlessness of the “salaryman dream”. Masako, in turn, is disappointed with married life, with her husband’s emotional cowardice, and with her own lack of options. Ultimately, Ozu sides with the mother, not quite condoning Shoji’s behaviour while perhaps excusing it as a direct consequence of dullness of his life while forcing Masako to accept complicity in her husband’s weakness. They may reunite, the stressors of their Tokyo life from the high cost of living to the lure of mahjong now absent, but there is a sense of futility in their eventual insistence that they will “make it work” through starting over in a new place while gazing at the train that, they assume, will eventually carry them back to the city and all of its false promises of a brighter future. 


Early Spring screens 19th/20th/21st October & 20th/23rd November at London’s BFI Southbank as part of BFI Japan. It is also available to stream in the UK via BFI Player and in the US via Criterion Channel.

BFI Japan 2021 to Celebrate More Than 100 Years of Japanese Cinema

The Olympics may be over, but BFI’s long-awaited Japan season finally makes its way to the big screen this October with a vast programme spanning a century of cinema from early masterpiece Souls on the Road right up to a preview of Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s recent festival favourite Drive My Car.

Screening between 18 October and 30 November

Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)

EXTENDED RUN FROM FRI 29 OCT

Classic jidaigeki gets a post-war twist as a collection of down on their luck wandering samurai come to the rescue of peasants beset by bandits.

Also available on BFI Player

Souls on the Road (Minoru Murata, 1921)

FRI 22 OCT 18:00 NFT2 / SAT 30 OCT 15:30 NFT2

A landmark of early Japanese cinema directed by and starring Minoru Murata, Souls on the Road draws inspiration both from Gorky’s The Lower Depths and German novel Mutter Landstrasse, das Ende einer Jugend by Wilhelm August Schmidtbonn featuring four interconnected tales of mercy and and its absence. Review.

A Page of Madness (Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1926)

SAT 23 OCT 13:00 NFT2 / MON 15 NOV 20:50 NFT3

Teinosuke Kinugasa’s avant-garde masterpiece inspired by a story by Yasunari Kuwabata set in a rural psychiatric institution where a janitor attempts to secretly care for the wife his abuse drove into madness.

I Was Born, But… (Yasujiro Ozu, 1932)

SAT 23 OCT 15:00 NFT2 / SUN 28 NOV 14:45 NFT1

Early silent classic from Yasujiro Ozu in which the faith of two young boys in their salaryman dad is shaken when they spot him humiliating himself for his boss’ benefit. Review.

Also available on BFI Player

Our Neighbour, Miss Yae (Yasujiro Shimazu, 1934) + intro by season co-programmer Alex Jacoby*

SUN 24 OCT 12:40 NFT2 / MON 1 NOV 18:15 NFT2*

Cheerful talkie from Yasujiro Shimazu centring on the close relationship between two suburban families which is disrupted first by the unexpected return of a married daughter and then by the spectre of political destabilisation. Review.

Humanity and Paper Balloons (Sadao Yamanaka, 1937)

SUN 24 OCT 18:10 NFT2 / TUE 2 NOV 20:45 NFT2

The final film from Sadao Yamanaka who sadly died a year later on the Manchurian front after losing his military exemption, Humanity and Paper Balloons chronicles everyday despair in an impoverished street in Edo. Review.

Fallen Blossoms (Tamizo Ishida, 1938) + intro by Japanese film scholar Alejandra Armendáriz-Hernández*

SUN 31 OCT 13:00 NFT3 / WED 3 NOV 18:20 NFT2*

Based on a play by Kaoru Morimoto, Tamizo Ishida’s all-female drama situates itself in a Kyoto geisha house during the Boshin War.

The Life of Matsu the Untamed (Hiroshi Inagaki, 1943)

TUE 26 OCT 20:40 NFT2 / SUN 7 NOV 11:40 NFT2

Director Hiroshi Inagaki later remade this film as The Rickshaw Man in 1958 starring Toshiro Mifune and Hideko Takamine. Nevertheless this original take on the life of an impoverished rickshaw driver who becomes a surrogate parent to a fatherless little boy is often regarded as the better of the two.

Children of the Beehive (Hiroshi Shimizu, 1948) + intro by season co-programmer Alex Jacoby*

MON 25 OCT 20:45 NFT1* / MON 8 NOV 18:10 NFT2

Closely associated with the cinema of children, Hiroshi Shimizu’s post-war independent film follows a series of war orphans and the demobbed soldier guiding them towards a new Japan. Review.

My Love Has Been Burning (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1949)

FRI 5 NOV 18:30 NFT2 / MON 15 NOV 17:40 NFT1

The third in Mizoguchi’s series of films focussing on female emancipation, My Love Has Been Burning stars Kinuyo Tanaka in a biopic of Meiji-era feminist Eiko Hirayama. Review.

Early Summer (Yasujiro Ozu, 1951) + intro by Professor Alastair Phillips, University of Warwick*

MON 18 OCT 14:30 NFT3 / TUE 19 OCT 20:35 STUDIO / WED 20 OCT 17:50 NFT3 / THU 4 NOV 18:00 NFT2 / THU 18 NOV 20:30 NFT3* / SUN 21 NOV 11:30 NFT1

Second in the “Noriko Trilogy”, Early Summer stars Setsuko Hara as a woman who resists arranged marriage but scandalises her family when she accepts a proposal from the mother of the widower living next-door.

Also available on BFI Player

The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice (Yasujiro Ozu, 1952) 

MON 18 OCT 18:10 NFT2 / WED 20 OCT 20:40 NFT2 / THU 21 OCT 14:40 STUDIO / MON 8 NOV 14:30 NFT2 / TUE 23 NOV 14:30 NFT3

Marital crisis in the younger generation provokes an epiphany in the life of an unhappily married woman in Ozu’s wry exploration of the meaning of wedded bliss. Review.

Also available on BFI Player

Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953)

MON 18 OCT 20:20 NFT3 / THU 21 OCT 14:30 NFT1 / SAT 13 NOV 14:10 NFT1 /TUE 30 NOV 14:00 NFT3

Post-war classic in which an old couple from the country make a rare trip to the city to see their grown up children but are disappointed to discover that they don’t have much time for them.

Also available on BFI Player 

Love Letter (Kinuyo Tanaka, 1953) + intro by Irene González-López, co-editor of ‘Tanaka Kinuyo: Nation, Stardom and Female Subjectivity’*

SAT 6 NOV 12:30 NFT2 / SUN 21 NOV 14:40 NFT1*

Landmark directorial debut from actress Kinuyo Tanaka scripted by Keisuke Kinoshita and starring Masayuki Mori as an embittered war veteran making a living writing letters on behalf of illiterate women to the GIs who left them behind while fixating on the supposed betrayal of his first love (Yoshiko Kuga) who married someone else and later became the mistress of an American soldier. Review.

An Inn at Osaka (Heinosuke Gosho, 1954) + pre-recorded intro by Professor Hiroshi Kitamura, College of William & Mary

SAT 6 NOV 15:30 NFT2 / SUN 21 NOV 18:00 NFT1

A demoted salaryman begins to find a new sense of solidarity with his fellow humans while staying in a bustling Osaka boarding house in a characteristically bittersweet drama from Heinosuke Gosho. Review.

Godzilla (Ishiro Honda, 1954)

SUN 7 NOV 16:20 NFT3 / TUE 23 NOV 20:40 NFT2

Ishiro Honda’s landmark monster movie needs no introduction, advancing a strong anti-nuclear message as a giant sea lizard is awoken from its slumber by human violence and goes on a grumpy rampage through contemporary Tokyo.

Sansho Dayu (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1954)

MON 8 NOV 20:40 NFT1 / SUN 28 NOV 18:20 NFT1

Mizoguchi’s Heian-era tale follows two aristocratic children who are captured by bandits and sold into slavery while trying to unite with their exiled father.

Marital Relations (Shiro Toyoda, 1955) + pre-recorded intro by Professor Hideaki Fujiki, Nagoya University 

SUN 7 NOV 18:20 NFT2 / THU 25 NOV 18:00 NFT2

Adaptation of the novel by Sakunosuke Oda in which the married son of a wealthy family (Hisaya Morishige) takes up with a geisha (Chikage Awashima) but struggles to adapt to his life without money or status. Review.

She was Like a Wild Chrysanthemum (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1955)

TUE 9 NOV 18:20 NFT2 / TUE 30 NOV 20:40 NFT1

An old man meditates on lost love on visiting his rural hometown in Kinoshita’s tale of heartbreak and social rigidity. Review.

Early Spring (Yasujiro Ozu, 1956)

TUE 19 OCT 14:30 NFT2 / WED 20 OCT 20:15 STUDIO / THU 21 OCT 17:40 NFT2 / SAT 20 NOV 15:20 NFT3 / TUE 23 NOV 17:40 NFT2

An example of a darker Ozu, Early Spring finds the relationship between a young couple (Ryo Ikebe & Chikage Awashima) strained by the duplicities of the salaryman dream as the husband is drawn into an affair with a woman at the office (Keiko Kishi).

Also available on BFI Player

Night Drum (Tadashi Imai, 1958)

WED 10 NOV 20:50 NFT2 / TUE 16 NOV 18:15 NFT2

The life of a loyal retainer (Rentaro Mikuni) is thrown into chaos by rumours that his wife (Ineko Arima) has betrayed him with a travelling musician (Masayuki Mori) in Tadashi Imai’s tense social drama co-scripted by Kaneto Shindo & Shinobu Hashimoto. Review.

Throne of Blood (Akira Kurosawa, 1957) + Inside Cinema: Akira Kurosawa*

MON 18 OCT 20:35 STUDIO / TUE 19 OCT 18:10 NFT1 / THU 21 OCT 20:45 NFT1 / WED 27 OCT 20:30 NFT2* / FRI 12 NOV 14:15 NFT3* / SAT 27 NOV 20:45 NFT1

Akira Kurosawa’s take on Macbeth starring Toshiro Mifune as the ambitious lord and Isuzu Yamada as his steely wife.

Also available on BFI Player

Yojimbo (Akira Kurosawa, 1961) + Inside Cinema: Akira Kurosawa*

TUE 19 OCT 20:45 NFT1 / THU 21 OCT 17:50 STUDIO / FRI 19 NOV 14:30 NFT1* / SUN 28 NOV 12:00 NFT1*

Toshiro Mifune stars as a wandering ronin finding himself in the middle of a turf war.

Also available on BFI Player.

Harakiri (Masaki Kobayashi, 1962)

WED 10 NOV 17:45 NFT2 / TUE 16 NOV 20:30 NFT2

Powerful drama decrying samurai hypocrisy starring Tatsuya Nakadai as a ronin who requests permission to commit seppuku in the courtyard of a lord as an act of revenge for the forced suicide of his adopted son.

Elegant Beast (Yuzo Kawashima, 1962) + pre-recorded intro by Professor Yuka Kanno, Stanford University

WED 17 NOV 20:50 NFT3 / SAT 27 NOV 18:10 NFT1

Dark, claustrophobic farce from Yuzo Kawashima in which a family of dubious morality is outsmarted by a sophisticated schemer (Ayako Wakao). Review.

An Actor’s Revenge (Kon Ichikawa, 1963) + intro by Jennifer Coates, The University of Sheffield*

WED 20 OCT 14:15 NFT1 / THU 11 NOV 20:40 NFT3 / SAT 20 NOV 12:40 NFT3

Kazuo Hasegawa returns to the role of Yukinojo in Kon Ichikawa’s remake of the classic tale as a successful onnagata attempts to take revenge for the deaths of his parents. Review.

Yearning (Mikio Naruse, 1964)

FRI 12 NOV 18:20 NFT2 / SUN 14 NOV 18:20 NFT3 / FRI 26 NOV 21:00 NFT1

Melodrama scripted by Zenzo Matsuyama and starring Hideko Takamine as a war widow who patiently rebuilt and maintained her husband’s family grocery shop for 18 years only for her sister-in-laws to force her out in order to turn it into a supermarket, while her much younger brother-in-law suddenly confesses his lifelong love.

Tokyo Olympiad (Kon Ichikawa, 1964 )

SAT 20 NOV 16:40 NFT2 / WED 24 NOV 18:30 NFT2

Kon Ichikawa’s documentary capture of the 1964 Olympics.

Onibaba (Kaneto Shindo, 1964)

FRI 19 NOV 20:50 NFT2 / TUE 30 NOV 18:00 NFT1

An old woman (Nobuko Otowa) finds herself sinking to depths of inhuman depravity in a desperate need to survive in Kaneto Shindo’s grim fable of feudal Japan. Review.

Also available on BFI Player 

J-HORROR WEEKENDER

Ring (Hideo Nakata, 1998) 

FRI 29 OCT 18:10 NFT2

A single-mother (Nanako Matsushima) begins investigating claims that teenagers are dying seven days after watching a creepy VHS tape in Hideo Nakata’s seminal piece of J-horror adapting the novel by Koji Suzuki.

Also available on BFI Player 

Dark Water (Hideo Nakata, 2002)

FRI 29 OCT 20:30 NFT2

A woman in the midst of a divorce and custody battle is haunted by the spectre of a lonely child in Hideo Nakata’s adaptation of the Koji Suzuki novel. Review.

Cure (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 1997) 

SAT 30 OCT 18:00 NFT2

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s noirish horror starring Koji Yakusho as a detective investigating a series of bizarre murders.

Pulse (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2001)

SAT 30 OCT 20:40 NFT2

Death is eternal loneliness in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s tech-fearing horror classic starring Kumiko Aso as a young woman investigating the suicide of a close friend. Review.

Also available on BFI Player 

Audition (Takashi Miike, 1999) 

SUN 31 OCT 15:20 NFT3

Takashi Miike’s deceptive drama begins as a gentle romcom before edging slowly towards the horrific as a widower (Ryo Ishibashi) takes his his friend’s advice and sets up a fake audition to find the perfect wife but ends up finding something quite different.

Also available on BFI Player

Ichi the Killer (Takashi Miike, 2001) 

SUN 31 OCT 18:00 NFT3

Takashi Miike’s adaptation of the manga by Hideo Yamamoto in which a sadistic yakuza footsoldier (Tadanobu Asano) pursues a repressed psychopathic killer (Nao Omori).

Preview: Drive My Car (Ryusuke Hamaguchi, 2021) 

MON 15 NOV 19:40 NFT1

A stage actor and director (Hidetoshi Nishijima) attempting to come to terms with the death of his unfaithful wife casts her lover in his upcoming multi-lingual production of Uncle Vanya while developing a relationship with the reticent young woman driving his car in Hamaguchi’s adaptation of the Haruki Murakami short story.

Screening between 1 and 31 December

(Exact screening dates TBC)

Woman of the Dunes (Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1964)

A bug collector (Eiji Okada) eventually comes to appreciate his new life of simplicity after being trapped in a hole in the sand with a mysterious woman (Kyoko Kishida) in Teshigahara’s adaptation of the Kobo Abe novel.

Also available on BFI Player

Pale Flower (Masahiro Shinoda, 1964)

Visually striking noir from Masahiro Shinoda starring Ryo Ikebe as a recently released yakuza who enters a destructive relationship with a female gambler (Mariko Kaga).

A Fugitive From the Past (Tomu Uchida, 1965)

A fugitive murderer (Rentaro Mikuni) attempts to forge a new identity for himself in the post-war society but discovers the past is not so easily buried in a late career masterpiece from Tomu Uchida. Review.

Tokyo Drifter (Seijun Suzuki, 1966)

Visually striking, surreal yakuza movie from Seijun Suzuki starring Tetsuya Watari as a yakuza targeted by a rival outfit after his own gang is disbanded.

Woman of the Lake (Kiju Yoshida, 1966)

Yoshishige (Kiju) Yoshida’s adaptation of Yasunari Kawabata’s The Lake starring Mariko Okada as an adulterous woman blackmailed by a third party over nude photos taken by her lover.

Silence Has No Wings (Kazuo Kuroki, 1966)

The first feature from continually underrepresented director Kazuo Kuroki, Silence Has No Wings follows a caterpillar from Nagasaki to Hokkaido.

Death By Hanging (Nagisa Oshima, 1968)

Brechtian drama from Nagisa Oshima in which a Korean student is hanged but survives having lost his memory. Unsure of the ethics of re-executing a man who cannot acknowledge his crimes because he does not remember them, the prison staff proceed to act them out.

Funeral Parade of Roses (Toshio Matsumoto, 1969)

Toshio Matsumoto repurposes Oedipus Rex to explore the impossibilities of true authenticity in an anarchic voyage through late ’60s counterculture Shinjuku. Review.

Shinobugawa (Kei Kumai, 1972)

Two dejected youngsters (Go Kato & Komaki Kurihara) find new strength to embrace post-war freedom in the power of loving and being loved in Kei Kumai’s delicate romance. Review.

In The Realm of the Senses (Nagisa Oshima, 1976)

Inspired by the notorious story of Sada Abe, Oshima’s controversial drama sees two lovers retreat from an increasingly authoritarian society into a private world of self-destructive eroticism.

The Demon (Yoshitaro Nomura, 1978)

A single-mother (Mayumi Ogawa) leaves her three children with their married father (Ken Ogata) when he stops supporting them financially but his wife (Shima Iwashita) is far from happy about the situation in Yoshitaro Nomura’s shocking psychological drama adapted from the novel by Seicho Matsumoto.

The Man Who Stole the Sun (Kazuhiko Hasegawa, 1979)

(C) Toho 1979

’70s pop icon Kenji Sawada stars as a nerdy high school science teacher belittled by his students and the wider society around him but plotting revenge by building a mini atom bomb in his apartment. Review.

Muddy River (Kohei Oguri, 1981)

Two children living by the river in post-war Osaka become friends but their innocent connection is disrupted by the muddiness of life in Kohei Oguri’s moving drama.

Fire Festival (Mitsuo Yanagimachi, 1985) 

A stubborn lumberjack’s refusal to sell his land to developers set on building a marine park sets him at odds with his community culminating in a fiery act of violence in Mitsuo Yanagimachi’s ’80s indie drama.

Tampopo (Juzo Itami, 1985)

Juzo Itami’s comedy classic starring his wife Nobuko Miyamoto as the titular Tampopo, a recent widow struggling to run a small ramen bar eventually rescued by Tsutomu Yamazaki’s wandering truck driver ramen master. Review.

The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (Kazuo Hara, 1987)

Kazuo Hara’s landmark documentary following confrontational Pacific War veteran Kenzo Okuzaki. Review.

Also available on BFI Player

Black Rain (Shohei Imamura, 1989)

Drama centring on the survivors of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. A young woman living with her uncle and aunt finds her marriage prospects all but ruined because of her presence in the city when the bomb was dropped but later bonds with a young man suffering from wartime PTSD.

Moving (Shinji Somai, 1993) 

Shinji Somai’s moving youth drama in which a young girl (Tomoko Tabata) struggles to come to terms with her parents’ impending divorce.

Love Letter (Shunji Iwai, 1995)

Much loved ’90s romantic melodrama from Shunji Iwai starring pop star Miho Nakayama in dual roles as a young woman struggling to move on after the sudden death of her fiancée, and an old classmate of his who happened to share the same name.

Shall We Dance (Masayuki Suo, 1996)

An unexpected ’90s international hit later remade in Hollywood, Shall We Dance? stars Koji Yakusho as a dejected middle-aged man having achieved the salaryman dream but found it unfulfilling discovering a new lease on life after taking up ballroom dancing.

Suzaku (Naomi Kawase, 1997)

Naomi Kawase’s fictional feature debut follows the disintegration of a small family after a railway threatens their rural way of life.

After Life (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 1998)

Hirokazu Kore-eda ponders the meaning of life as the recently deceased are invited to re-create their favourite memory as film before moving on. Review.

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Ryusuke Hamaguchi, 2021)

A triptych of romantic tales from Ryusuke Hamaguchi in which a young woman realises her friend is unwittingly dating her ex, a student attempts to seduce a professor, and two women connect through an instance of mistaken identity.

SCREENING AT BFI IMAX: Akira (Katsuhiro Otomo, 1988)

Katsuhiro Otomo’s seminal anime adaptation of his own manga is set in a dystopian Tokyo of 2019 in which a delinquent biker ends up with superpowers after crashing into a recently released test subject from a government lab.

Battle Royale (Kinji Fukusaku, 2000)

A group of teens is sent to an island where they are told to kill each other off until there is only one survivor in this zeitgeisty adaptation of the cult novel by Koushun Takami which would become the final film directed by Battles Without Honour and Humanity’s Kinji Fukasaku.

Also available on BFI Player 

Talks

BFI Japan runs October to December 2021 at BFI Southbank and selected partners across the country. For the full details on this and other BFI seasons be sure to check out the BFI’s website where you can also find a link to BFI Player. You can also keep up with all the latest news by following the BFI on TwitterFacebookInstagram, and YouTube.