Gate of Hell (地獄門, Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1953)

Which is the greater challenge to the social order, love or ambition, or are they in the end facets of the same destabilising forces? Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell (地獄門, Jigokumon) is, from one angle, the story of a man driven mad by “love”, reduced to the depravity of a crazed stalker betraying his samurai honour in order to affirm his status, but it also paints his need as a response to the chaos of his age along with its many repressions while the heroine is, once again, convinced that the only freedom she possesses lies in death. Yet in the midst of all that, Kinugasa ends with a triumph of nobility as the compassionate samurai restores order by rejecting the heat of raw emotion for an internalised contemplation of the greater good. 

Set in the 12th century, the film opens in revolt as two ambitious lords combine forces to attack the Sanjo Palace in what would become known as the Heiji Rebellion. The lords have attacked knowing that Taira no Kiyomori (Koreya Senda) is not in residence, having departed on a pilgrimage. Fearful for the safety of his sister and father, retainers order decoys to be sent out to distract the rebels. Kesa (Machiko Kyo), a court lady in service to the emperor’s sister, agrees to be her decoy and Morito (Kazuo Hasegawa), a minor retainer, is ordered to protect her. He manages to escort her back to his family compound where he assumes she will be safe, transgressively giving her a kiss of life, pouring water into her mouth with his own, after she has fainted during the journey. Unfortunately, Morito has miscalculated. His brother has sided with the rebels and they are not safe here. During the chaos they go their separate ways, and as soon as Kiyomori returns he puts an end to the rebellion restoring the status quo.  

Shocked at his brother’s betrayal, Morito tells him that only a coward betrays a man to whom he has sworn an oath of loyalty but he explains that he is acting not out of cowardice but self interest. He has made an individualist choice to advance his status in direct opposition to the samurai code. Morito doesn’t yet know it but he is about to do something much the same. He has fallen in love with Kesa and after meeting her again at the Gate of Hell where they are each paying their respects to the fallen, his brother among them, is determined to marry her, so much so that he asks Kiyomori directly during a public ceremony rewarding loyal retainers for their service. The other men giggle at such an inappropriate, unmanly show of emotion but the joke soon fades once another retainer anxiously points out that Kesa is already married to one of the lord’s favoured retainers. Kiyomori apologises and tries to laugh it off, but Morito doubles down, requesting that Kiyomori give him another man’s wife. 

This series of challenges to the accepted order is compounded by a necessity for politeness. Morito is mocked and derided, told that his conduct is inappropriate and embarrassing, but never definitively ordered to stop. Making mischief or hoping to defuse the situation, Kiyomori engineers a meeting between Morito and Kesa, cautioning him that the matter rests with her and should she refuse him he should take it like a man and bow out gracefully. Kesa, for her part, has only ever been polite to Morito and is extremely confused, not to mention distressed, by this unexpected turn of events. She is quite happily married to Wataru (Isao Yamagata) who is the soul of samurai honour, kind, honest, and always acting with the utmost propriety. That might be why he too treats Morito with politeness, never directly telling him to back off but refusing to engage with his inappropriate conduct. That sense of being ignored, however, merely fuels Morito’s resentment. He accuses Kesa of not leaving her husband because Wataru is of a higher rank, as if she rejects him out of snobbishness, rather than accept the fact she does not like him. 

Morito continues in destructive fashion. We see him repeatedly, break, smash, and snap things out of a sense of violent frustration with the oppressions of his age until finally forced to realise that he has “destroyed a beautiful soul” in his attempt to conquer it. “One cannot change a person’s feelings by force” Wataru advises, but is that not the aim of every rebellion, convincing others they must follow one man and not another because he is in someway stronger? The priest whose head was cut off and displayed at the Gate of Hell was killed in part because he reaped what he had sown in beheading the defeated soldiers of a previous failed revolution. Morito kills a traitor and he falls seemingly into rolling waves which transition to an unrolling scroll reminding us that rebellions ebb and flow through time and all of this is of course transient. Only Wataru, perhaps ironically, as the unambiguously good samurai is able to end the cycle, refusing his revenge in the knowledge it would do no real good. Morito is forced to live on in the knowledge of the destruction his misplaced passion has wrought, standing at his own Gate of Hell as a man now exiled from his code and renouncing the world as one unfit to live in it. 


Gate of Hell is currently streaming on BFI Player as part of the BFI’s Japan season.

Late Autumn (秋日和, Yasujiro Ozu, 1960)

“It’s people who complicate life. Life itself is surprisingly simple” according to a puffed up old man having just hugely overcomplicated an admittedly delicate situation in Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Autumn (秋日和, Akibiyori). A reinterpretation of his classic Late Spring, Late Autumn once again stars Setsuko Hara but this time as a widowed mother far more enthusiastic about marrying off her only daughter while enduring the sometimes unwelcome assistance of a group of middle-aged men stepping into the decidedly female realm of matchmaking and of course concluding that they are doing a fantastic job. 

The action opens at the seventh memorial service for Akiko’s (Setsuko Hara) late husband, Miwa, attended by his three old high school friends, Taguchi (Nobuo Nakamura), Hirayama (Ryuji Kita), and Mamiya (Shin Saburi) who’s turned up fashionably late in the hope of skipping most of the sutras. At the refreshments afterwards, talk turns to the marriage of Miwa’s daughter Ayako (Yoko Tsukasa) who is now 24 which is actually edging towards the late side by the standards of the time. The three old men offer to help find prospective matches with Taguchi instantly proposing an acquaintance to which Ayako smiles demurely but is later relieved to discover is already taken. Mamiya too has a lead, a nice young man from his office, Goto (Keiji Sada) who graduated from a good university and is not bad looking either. Though Akiko is excited, she’s surprised to discover that her daughter wants to shut the offer down immediately before even exchanging photos. She feels she’s not ready for marriage and is happy the way things are. Of course, if she fell in love it might be a different matter, but to her mind there’s no rush to get married just for the sake of it. 

Generally speaking, it’s other women who mostly enforce these restrictive patriarchal social norms, after all a daughter’s marriage is ironically the one area of a woman’s life over which she usually has total control. In this case, however, Ayako’s marriage becomes a kind of hobby for three eccentric old men who each have problems of their own they don’t seem to be in a big hurry to deal with. They each have a latent crush on Akiko from their youth though it was obviously Miwa who later married her. Hirayama is widowed with a teenage son, but Mamiya and Taguchi have wives and daughters of their own, Taguchi’s already married but apparently experiencing frequent bouts of “frustration” with her husband, and Mamiya’s still in school, while their wives are fully aware of their lingering affections for Akiko but mostly content to laugh at their ridiculousness. They are all certain that Ayako “needs” to get married as soon as possible and that they are “helping” her towards “happiness” though what they’re mostly doing is a father knows best routine in which they resolutely ignore her repeated desire for things to go on as they are until she decides that they shouldn’t. 

Ayako isn’t interested in arranged marriage, but does become interested in Goto after accidentally meeting him at Mamiya’s company and then discovering they have a mutual friend, all of which makes their relationship both “arranged” and “not”, giving Mamiya cause to think he’s responsible when he’s really just incidental. Thinking things aren’t moving fast enough, the guys decide the problem is Akiko and if they can persuade her to remarry then Ayako will be less reluctant to leave home. Their behaviour is in fact quite manipulative, something they are later called out on by Ayako’s feisty friend Yuriko (Mariko Okada) who is also trying to help but determined to do it in a less problematic way. The gang’s suggestion to Ayako that her mother is considering remarriage when in fact she had no such intentions at all places a rift between the two women with Ayako left feeling hurt and betrayed, as if her mother has offended her father’s memory and done something improper behind her back. 

Ayako is not alone in her lingering prejudice against second marriage even if Yuriko tries to explain to her that she’s being unreasonable. Hirayama too originally objects to the gang’s plan to get him to marry Akiko on the grounds that it would be “immoral” to marry his old friend’s wife, but is brought round when he puts the idea to his son and finds him wildly enthusiastic if only in part because he’s already thought ahead to his own marriage and is worried his dad will want to live with them and that would inconvenient for everyone. When it comes to Akiko’s marriage, there seems to be more wiggle room. Everyone wants her to be “happy” and so there’s a greater freedom to explore various options while completely ignoring her preference to remain a widow. As we see from Akiko’s life, she is already financially independent and really has no “need” to remarry unless she happened to fall in love though she remains attached to her husband’s memory. As she later confesses to Ayako, she has no desire to “climb that mountain” again, and in fact will be happier living in freedom as an independent woman. 

As so often, however, while remarriage is optional marriage is not. Ayako has to marry, she never really has the option to remain single even that was what she wanted. She falls in love with Goto and indeed wants to marry him if perhaps worried about leaving her mother behind, making the three old men partially correct in their conviction that her reluctance was more anxiety than it was opposition. Unfortunately, their “success” emboldens them towards the next match and possibly more unhelpful meddling, complicating what should be simple with their increasingly outdated ideas fuelled by a desire to rebel against their sense of impending obsolescence. “In marriage you just give up” an exasperated wife admits, but wouldn’t it be something if you didn’t have to?


Late Autumn is currently streaming on BFI Player as part of the BFI’s Japan season.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Onibaba (鬼婆, Kaneto Shindo, 1964)

How do you go on living in a world turned upside-down? It may be the central theme of post-war cinema, but few have tackled it in such a direct if allegorical way as Kaneto Shindo, repurposing a Buddhist parable about the perils of duplicity as lesson in the dangers of the age, defined by a cruel hunger which could not be satisfied by bread alone even if there were bread to satisfy it. Onibaba (鬼婆), as the title implies, makes a villainess of an old woman driven to extremes by her chaotic times, but perhaps suggests that the times make villains of us all.

Deep in the war-torn country of 14th century Japan the imperial capital of Kyoto has been razed, a horse is said to have given birth to a cow, and the sun rose black in the sky leaving day as black as night. With farmers dragged away from their fields to fight in a war they barely understand on behalf of distant lords, the grain basket of the nation is close to empty. An old woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) have learned to make ends meet by hunting battle-weary samurai, stripping them of their armour, and throwing their bodies into a gigantic pit sitting right in the middle of the tall grass like a gravitational black hole of human compassion. The old woman has been patiently waiting for the return of her son, Kichi, who was taken away by the samurai, certain that everything is going back to normal when the war is over. Kichi, however, will not be returning. Hachi (Kei Sato), another young man from the village taken along with him, brings the sad news that the old woman’s son was beaten to death by a mob of farmers much like herself resentful of the war’s intrusion onto their land. 

Everything becomes food, Hachi explains, a sentiment extremely familiar to those who lived through the chaos of the immediate post-war era. Pointing at a baseline problem in the feudal economy, the war starves the poor and makes the wealthy hungry. The fields run wild with no men to tend them, as if symbolising the madness of the times. Lost in the tall grass, samurai and peasant alike search for an exit but are drawn only towards that black pit of human cruelty, more beasts than men driven by the need to survive alone. 

Without her son, the old woman is unable to farm, and without her daughter-in-law she is unable to survive through killing. She knows that these are times without feeling and that if Kichi will not return there is no reason for her daughter-in-law to stay. Ushi (Taiji Tonoyama), the broker for the looted samurai armour, makes an indecent proposal of extra millet for sexual favours but the old woman defiantly turns him down, perhaps not quite realising the offer was likely not intended for her. Which is to say that Hachi is not the only man in town, but is perhaps the only “desirable” one. Such desires that there are apparently cannot be satisfied by a crusty old man like Ushi, but are there all the same. Hachi presents a triple threat. The old woman knows her survival depends on the younger one, but also that she has no means to keep her now that her son is dead. She offers Hachi her body instead but he, as she did Ushi, baulks at the idea of slaking his lust on such an old woman. 

When a strange samurai wanders into her hut and orders her at the point of his sword to lead him out of the tall grass a solution presents itself. The old woman lures him to the black pit and prises away the ornate oni mask which he claimed he wore to protect his beautiful face from the ravages of war. Despite the fact that the samurai appears to have suffered from some kind of aggressive skin disease, the old woman unwisely decides to put the mask on her own face, convincing her daughter-in-law that her relationship with Hachi is sinful and appearing out of nowhere dressed as a demon to remind her that she’s going to hell. The mask’s crazed expression becomes fused with her own face, cementing her transformation into a “demoness” which it seems had already begun with stretch of white disrupting the uniformity of her hair and the kabuki-esque exaggeration of her eyebrows. Running desperately through the tall grass she cries out that she’s human, but this world has made demons of them all. The black pit of hunger knows no fill, and there can be no satisfaction in a world so devoid of human feeling.


Onibaba is currently streaming on BFI Player as part of the BFI’s Japan season.

Original trailer (dialogue free)

Cruel Story of Youth (青春残酷物語, Nagisa Oshima, 1960)

More interested in politics than cinema and never quite at home in the studio system, Nagisa Oshima began his career at Shochiku as one of a small group of directors promoted as part of the studio’s effort to reach a youth audience they feared their particular brand of inoffensive melodrama was failing to capture. Like The Sun’s Burial, Cruel Story of Youth (青春残酷物語, Seishun Zankoku Monogatari) is a nihilistic tale of a fracturing society, but it also looks forward to Night and Fog in Japan in its insistence that youth itself is a failed revolution and this generation is no more likely to escape existential disappointment than the last. 

The film opens with teenager Makoto (Miyuki Kuwano) and her friend Yoko (Aki Morishima) trying to get free rides from skeevy middle-aged men rather than having to pay for a cab. As you might expect, that’s a fairly dangerous game and while it might be alright while there’s two of you, as soon as Yoko has been dropped off, the driver changes course and suggests going for dinner only to park in front of a love hotel and try to drag Makoto inside. Luckily, or perhaps not as we will see, she is “rescued” by young tough Kiyoshi (Yusuke Kawazu), a student and angry if politically apathetic young man. Struck by his manly white knight act, Makoto takes a liking to Kiyoshi but he too later rapes her under the guise of satisfying her curiosity about sex to which he attributes her ride hailing activities. After this violent genesis, they fall in “love” but continue to struggle against an oppressive society.

We assume that the “cruel story of youth”, and it is indeed cruel, that we are witnessing is that of Makoto and Kiyoshi, but it’s also that of her slightly older sister Yuki (Yoshiko Kuga) and her former lover Akimoto (Fumio Watanabe) who has become a conflicted doctor to the poor betraying himself by financing the clinic through charging for backstreet abortions. Yuki complains to her apathetic father that they were strict with her in her youth, that she’d get a hiding just for coming home after dark, whereas Makoto can stay out all night and not get much more than a stern look. Her father explains that times were different then, “We thought we had new horizons. We started again as a democratic nation, and it was a responsibility that went hand in hand with freedom. What can I say to this girl today?” admitting both the failures of the past and the mistaken future of a society that actively resists change. 

Yuki and Akimoto were part of the post-war resistance, left-wing students like the older generation of Night and Fog in Japan, who’d actively fought for real social change but had seen that change elude them. Yuki, we hear, left Akimoto for an older man but perhaps now regrets it along with her half-finished revolution. She may not approve of her sister’s choices, but she also on some level admires her for them or at least for the strength of her rebellion even if it will ultimately be as fruitless as her own. “This is a cruel world and it destroyed our love” Akimoto laments, mildly censuring the youngsters in suggesting that his love was pure and chaste because they vented their youthful frustrations through political action whereas this generation is already lost to the mindless hedonism of unbridled sexuality. 

He forgives them, because he feels that their plight is a direct result of his failure to bring about the better world, but there is also a suggestion that it is a lack of political awareness which is somehow trapping the young. Oshima cuts from footage of the April Revolution in Korea which is described as a “student riot” in the news to a protest against the Anpo treaty at which Kiyoshi and Makoto look on passively from the sidelines. “I think taking part in the demonstrations is stupid”, Makoto’s friend Yoko tells a prospective boyfriend, “why don’t we think about getting married instead?”, drawing a direct line between social conservatism and political inaction. 

Makoto and Kiyoshi rebel by using, or to a point not using, their bodies as a direct attack on the society. Following their rather odd and troubling meeting, the pair earn their keep through repeating the experience. Makoto picks up men who will inevitably have an ulterior motive, and Kiyoshi rescues her, extorting money from their targets. Yet it is Kiyoshi who is forced to prostitute himself, gaining financial support as a gigalo kept by a wealthy middle-aged housewife who is just as sad and defeated as Yuki and Akimoto, dissatisfied with the path her life has taken and in her case attempting to escape it through passion and control exerted over the body of a young man. Though the consequences of a becoming a kept man may be different than those Makoto would face should the less “nice” delinquents get their hands on her, they do perhaps fuel his sense of violent emasculation which he channels into a pointless act of revenge against the society in the form of its most powerful, wealthy middle-aged men whose misogyny he claims to abhor while simultaneously mirroring and directly exploiting.

“Someone needs to be responsible” a strangely sympathetic policeman insists, chiding Kiyoshi that at heart he’s just a petty criminal who liked having money no matter how he might have tried to dress it up. “You’re just like them, you’re a victim of money too”, he adds correctly diagnosing the flaws of an increasingly consumerist society. Only, no one takes responsibility. Kiyoshi’s lady friend pulls stings. It turns out her husband does business with Horio, one of Makoto’s pick ups who despite being nice and kind still had his way with her and then reported Kiyoshi for extortion. Akimoto explained that their failures would drive them apart, but Kiyoshi swore they’d always be together only to wonder if in his love for her the only thing to do is save Makoto from his corrupting influence though she does not want to leave him. We won’t be like you, Kiyoshi countered, because we have no dreams with which to become disillusioned. But youth itself is a failed revolution, and the force which destroys them is perhaps love as they meet their shared destinies at the hands of an increasingly cruel society.


Cruel Story of Youth is currently streaming on BFI Player as part of the BFI’s Japan season.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice (お茶漬けの味, Yasujiro Ozu, 1952)

Famously, many of Yasujiro Ozu’s films end with a young woman getting married and the emotional desolation that it provokes in those left behind. Ozu, unlike some of his contemporaries, generally comes down on the side of marriage. His heroines always succumb, rarely finding independence or resignation and settling for a second choice even if their first proved unavailable. The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice (お茶漬けの味, Ochazuke no Aji), however, takes him in a slightly different direction in asking what, if anything, is to blame when a marriage is unhappy, repurposing the arranged married debate to perhaps imply that wedded bliss is less about romance than it is about endurance and mutual understanding. 

Taeko (Michiyo Kogure), a middle-aged woman, consented to an arranged marriage to Mokichi (Shin Saburi) at the usual age but seems to feel little more than contempt for him. A friend from school, Aya (Chikage Awashima), invites her on an impromptu trip to an onsen and for reasons not entirely clear, Taeko feels she has to lie rather than simply telling Mokichi that she would like to go away with a friend for a couple of days. Aya encourages her to spin a tale that her niece, Setsuko (Keiko Tsushima), who often stays with them in the city, has been taken ill and is in need of urgent care, but the plan is foiled when she swans into their home right as rain before Aya could give her instructions. Caught on the hoof, Taeko is forced to improvise that a different friend is ill, the four women eventually heading off on a girls’ trip leaving Mokichi at home alone and apparently none the wiser. 

Perhaps surprisingly, Mokichi turns out to be a kind and considerate, if perhaps dull, kind of man. We later discover that he knew all along that Taeko was lying but thought it wasn’t worth making a fuss over. He makes a point of chatting with the maid, asking after her family and is apparently well acquainted with her circumstances. Unlike other men, he doesn’t spend his time out drinking or gambling or even overworking, coming home to read instead, but still Taeko is put out when she phones him at work to kickstart the onsen plan and discovers his desk to be empty. It turns out that he met up with the younger brother of an old friend killed in the war who had asked for his help with a recruitment exam. Non-chan (Koji Tsuruta), as everyone calls him, is a cheerful sort guy who openly admits he wears army surplus suits and likes to eat in restaurants which are “good and cheap”, all of which suits Mokichi much better than his wife’s rather more sophisticated tastes. The younger man is quick to introduce him to the pleasures of the age including bicycle racing and pachinko parlours which is where he runs into an old army buddy, Hirayama. 

While Taeko and her old friends break into a rendition of a song from their student days with Setsuko looking on in minor confusion, Mokichi sits around a small table with Hirayama and an equally out of place Non-chan recalling his glory days in Singapore and singing old army songs. They are each, in their own and infinitely parallel ways, mourning the promise of their youth. Taeko’s friends, Aya and Takako, have an equally cynical view of marriage. Takako’s husband has gone to Paris and she, it seems, couldn’t be happier with her newfound freedom, while Aya runs a small boutique and regards hers as little more than a necessary inconvenience. When the ladies take in a baseball game, Aya is surprised to spot her sports-hating husband on the bleachers apparently escorting a woman she recognises from a nearby bar, but she isn’t in any way jealous or angry merely amused and planning to use it as extra leverage to persuade him to buy her a new kimono despite the fact that we later see him asking her for money (which she snatches back as punishment). 

Despite all of that however Taeko’s tragedy maybe that somewhere deep down she wanted her marriage to work. Her open contempt for Mokichi, likening him to a big fat carp and referring to him as “Mr. Bonehead” in assuming he is stupid enough to believe all her lies, annoys the otherwise modern Setsuko who sees their unhappy union as definitive proof that arranged marriages do not work. Interrogated by her exasperated niece who was sure her aunt would support her in her resistance to her parents’ matchmaking, Taeko claims that she is happy and perhaps she is even if in her unhappiness, but Setsuko’s unexpected seizure of her agency though rudely walking out on the omiai brings her own marriage to a crisis point. Mokichi cannot quite say so but tacitly supports Setsuko’s desire to decide her own romantic future even if he disapproves of her irresponsible rudeness to her prospective suitor. “Forcing her to marry against her will would just create another couple like us” he eventually explains to Taeko in boldly saying that which should not be said. 

It would be easy to think that the problem is Taeko and Mokichi simply aren’t suited. There is an obvious class difference that seems to be a continuing problem for the snooty Taeko. It annoys her that he insists on pouring his miso soup into his rice bowl which she feels is common, like his cheap cigarettes and preference for third class rail travel. He explains that it’s not that he’s cheap, simply that these are the things he likes, that he’s familiar with, that make him feel relaxed. Their upbringings are different. Taeko feels relaxed in first class because that’s how she’s always travelled and she likes the finer things because they reassure her in her status. That might be one reason they occupy different areas of a shared home, he with a traditional futon in a tatami mat room, she in a well appointed Western-style boudoir even as she exclusively wears kimono. 

Yet the problem isn’t that they like different things so much as an essential misconnection. Without perhaps knowing, Taeko is so filled with resentment over her lack of control of her romantic destiny that she’s never warmed to her husband or felt secure in her marital home. It’s a cliche to say she doesn’t understand him, but perhaps she wanted something different to what she eventually got. A sudden crisis after the Setsuko episode sees Taeko make a temporary retreat only for Mokichi to be abruptly sent abroad. Sharing the homely comfort food of green tea poured over rice, she finally begins to understand that what she took for indifference was perhaps merely a different way of showing love. Mokichi really is a man who likes the simple things, affection without ceremony, like the flavour of green tea over rice. She knows that unlike Aya’s husband Mokichi will never betray or hurt her. He is infinitely “reliable” which might not sound romantic, but is perhaps the only solid basis for a successful marriage. 

That’s the advice she eventually offers to Setsuko, walking back on her commitment to arranged marriage, a “feudal” tradition she and all the other women had been determined to force onto her despite the fear and pain it caused them in their own youth and beyond, to remind her that marriage is for life. Find someone “reliable”. A flashy suit and a handsome face might look good now, but they might not in 20 years’ time. Setsuko has taken a liking to Non-chan who claims to be “reliable” but his taste for pachinko and bicycle races might suggest otherwise. In any case, after a heartwarming resolution that repairs the fractured marriage of Mokichi and Taeko, Ozu ends on a moment of cheeky ambivalence in which Non-chan says the wrong thing, upsetting Setsuko who retreats into a small hut. Non-chan repeatedly apologises and tries to enter, while she pushes him back out, neatly symbolising the arc of a marriage as an accidental battleground of intimacy though in this case one with a playful resolution. 


The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice is released on blu-ray in the UK on 18th May courtesy of BFI in a set which also includes an audio commentary by Tony Rayns. The first press edition also comes with a booklet featuring an essay by Tom Milne.

Short clip (English subtitles)

Funeral Parade of Roses (薔薇の葬列, Toshio Matsumoto, 1969)

“The spirit of an individual reaches its absolute through infinite negation” according to the title card which concludes Toshio Matsumoto’s anarchic voyage through the counter culture underworld of late ‘60s Tokyo, Funeral Parade of Roses (薔薇の葬列, Bara no Soretsu). Repurposing Oedipus Rex as mediated through Pasolini as an exploration of the crushing impossibility of true authenticity, Funeral Parade of Roses is also an atypical portrait of a city in transition. Like many a post-war melodrama, it’s a story of Tokyo bar hostesses only we find ourselves not in the comparatively upscale Ginza where unlucky women dream of escape into more conventional lives, but the grungier Shinjuku in which those who have no desire to attain conventionality, of that kind at least, have found a kind of freedom to become their truer selves. 

Our hero, Eddie (Peter), is something of an ephebe pursuing his destiny as a “gay boy” (cross-dressing bar hostess) at bar Genet where he has entered a relationship with the much older proprietor, Gonda (Yoshio Tsuchiya), who is growing tired of his current lover, Leda (Osamu Ogasawara), the bar’s mama-san. At the risk of mixing our metaphors, or at least allegories, in Greek mythology Leda was the mother of Helen of Troy, raped by Zeus in the guise of a swan. In any case, the primary crisis is one familiar from any other bar girl drama where Leda might be the melancholy heroine, facing the tragedy of her fading youth and an increasingly uncertain future. We see Eddie leave an apartment arm in arm with Gonda, a hearse passing ominously in front of them, while Leda looks on with scorn perching in front of a street corner convenience store to confirm that her suspicions are in fact correct. 

Leda is or will be the victim of Eddie’s quest for a place of his own, displaced within a world of displacement. She will eventually find her own kind of escape, dressed in a wedding dress and surrounded by white roses but drenched in romantic tragedy. Eddie meanwhile is plagued by visions of a traumatic past and a feeling of alienation. “I feel abandoned by life” he later complains to a counter culture friend, Guevara (Toyosaburo Uchiyama), who has adopted a strange fake beard in addition to his fake name. In the gallery in which Eddie meets him, a record is playing to remind us that we are each wearing a mask and that perhaps our mask may fit us so comfortably that we have forgotten the shape of our own face. We can never be sure if we are seeing those in front of us as they truly are or merely observing the masks they have chosen to wear. Beneath one mask may lie another, and another, into infinity hiding even from ourselves our truest identity in the truest form of loneliness.

Eddie too is searching for himself, though the implication that his present persona is just that may be an uncomfortable one. To undercut it, Matsumoto frequently breaks the fourth wall to interview some of his non-professional actors and other men in the street in this particular corner of Shinjuku. They tell him that perhaps they don’t have a “reason” for becoming a “gay boy”, only that it’s who they are and have always been and in that it makes them happy (aside from one self contradictory woman who gives answers only filled with nihilistic despair). The central thesis, however, is that an identity only reaches its absolute through its own negation, which is to say that Eddie must destroy himself to become himself. Something which he perhaps does on learning the ironic truth to which he was blind that has led him towards his grim destiny. 

A film critic making an unexpected, meta appearance talks to us of the “cursed destiny of man” while Eddie walks through a burial ground sinking into the sea and casually wishes that the whole country would sink to the bottom of the ocean. A student protestor justifies his use of violence as an essential good because it works towards the end of violence and not its perpetuation, but Eddie’s violence solves nothing and eventually becomes an act of self harm that propels him towards his nihilistic destiny. Yet this is a violent age in which opposition is the only sign of life. Eddie rebels against himself to rebel against the society, a rose wounded by his own thorns, whose only refuge lies in the artifice which mirrors authenticity. 


Funeral Parade of Roses is released on blu-ray in the UK on 18th of May courtesy of the BFI in a new 4K restoration. The set also includes an audio commentary by Chris D, the original Japanese trailer plus the US trailer for the 2017 restoration, and eight Toshio Matsumoto shorts including Nishijin (1961), The Song of Stone (1963), Ecstasis (1969), Metastasis (1971), Expansion (1972), Mona Lisa (1973), Siki Soku Ze Ku (1975) and Atman (1975). The two-disc edition also comes with a 34-page booklet featuring essays by Jim O’Rourke, the BFI’s Espen Bale, Hirofumi Sakamoto with Hiroshi Eguchi, and Koji Kawasaki.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

BFI Japan 2020 to Celebrate More Than 100 Years of Japanese Cinema

The Olympics may have been postponed and everything seems like it’s on pause, but the BFI’s planned mammoth Japan season is still doing all it can to make its way to us in the 2020 that never was. With the cinemas closed for the foreseeable future, the BFI will be making the first part of the season available online via BFI player with strands dedicated to golden age directors Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu as well as a series of classics including films by Mikio Naruse and Seijun Suzuki, cult movies, and the best in 21st century cinema. Once the BFI reopens, we can also look forward to some rarer treats from this century and the last.

BFI Player

A series of strands will begin streaming via BFI Player over a six month period beginning with Akira Kurosawa and Classics (11th May), followed by Yasujiro Ozu (5th June), Cult (3rd July), Anime (31st July), Independence (21st August), 21st Century (18th September), and J-Horror (30th October). Subscriptions to BFI Player are available for £4.99 p/m following a two week free trial.

Akira Kurosawa (11th May)

  • Seven Samurai – classic jidaigeki gets a post-war twist as a collection of down on their luck samurai come to the rescue of peasants beset by bandits.
  • Throne of Blood – eerie retelling of Macbeth starring Toshiro Mifune as the man who would be king and Isuzu Yamada as his ambitious wife.
  • Yojimbo – samurai western starring Toshiro Mifune as a ronin drifter wandering into a turf war.
  • Sanjuro – sequel to Yojimbo in which Mifune reprises his role as the titular Sanjuro as he helps some locals stand up to samurai corruption.
  • Rashomon – a series of witnesses provides contradictory accounts of the same event in an adaptation of the story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa starring Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyo, and Masayuki Mori.
  • The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail – comedic kabuki adaptation in which a samurai attempts to escape with his retinue after being betrayed by his brother by disguising himself as a monk.
  • Drunken Angel – post-war tragedy starring Toshiro Mifune at his most dashing as gangster dying of TB and Takashi Shimura as the compassionate yet alcoholic doctor trying to save him.
  • Stray Dog – a policeman (Mifune) and his partner (Shimura) scour post-war Tokyo for a missing gun.
  • Ikiru – existential drama starring Takashi Shimura as a civil servant reflecting on his life after discovering he has a terminal illness.
  • Hidden Fortress – two bumbling peasants agree to escort a general and a princess in disguise to safe territory in return for gold.
  • The Bad Sleep Well – contemporary take on Hamlet starring Toshiro Mifune as man enacting an elaborate revenge plot against the corrupt CEO who drove his father to suicide. Review.
  • Red Beard – humanistic drama starring Toshiro Mifune as a gruff yet compassionate doctor to the poor. Review.
  • Ran – King Lear relocated to feudal Japan.
  • Sanshiro Sugata Pt 1 & 2 – drama inspired by the life story of a legendary judo master.
  • The Most Beautiful – naturalistic national policy film from 1944 following the lives of female factory workers.
  • No Regrets for Our Youth – 1946 drama starring Setsuko Hara as a professor’s daughter who marries a radical leftist later executed as a spy.
  • One Wonderful Sunday – post-war drama in which an engaged couple attempt to have a nice day out in Tokyo for only 35 yen.
  • I Live in Fear – Toshiro Mifune stars as a factory owner so terrified of nuclear attack that he becomes determined to move his family to the comparative safety of Brazil while they attempt to have him declared legally incompetent on account of his intense paranoia.
  • The Lower Depths – 1957 adaptation of Gorky’s novel following the lives of a collection of people living in an Edo-era tenement.
  • High and Low – Toshiro Mifune stars as a wealthy man encountering a dilemma when his chauffeur’s son is kidnapped after being mistaken for his own.
  • Dodes’ka-den – Kurosawa’s first colour film exploring the lives of a collection of people living in a shantytown above a rubbish dump.

Classics (11th May)

  • Late Chrysanthemums – Naruse’s 1954 drama following the lives of four former geishas (played by Haruko Sugimura, Chikako Hosokawa, Yuko Mochizuki, and Sadako Sawamura) as they try to get by in the complicated post-war economy.  
  • Floating Clouds – Naruse’s 1955 romantic drama starring Hideko Takamine and Masayuki Mori as former lovers floundering in the post-war landscape. Review.
  • When a Woman Ascends the Stairs – Naruse’s 1960 drama starring Hideko Takamine as a widow turned Ginza bar hostess.
  • Onibaba – period horror from Kaneto Shindo in which a mother and daughter survive by murdering samurai and selling their armour.
  • Kwaidan – horror anthology from Masaki Kobayashi featuring adaptations of classic Japanese folktales.
  • Hana-Bi – noirish poetry from Takeshi Kitano as a former policeman takes on an unwise loan from yakuza to care for his terminally ill wife. Review.
  • Black Rain – Shohei Imamura’s 1989 drama set in the aftermath of the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima.
  • Branded to Kill – the anarchic 1967 hitman drama that got Seijun Suzuki fired from Nikkatsu.
  • Woman of the Dunes – Hiroshi Teshigahara’s adaption of the Kobo Abe novel in which a bug collector is imprisoned in a sand dune after missing the last bus home and being persuaded to spend the night in the home of a local woman.
  • After Life – poignant drama from Hirokazu Koreeda in which the recently deceased are permitted to recreate a favourite memory. Review. (not included in subscription, £3.50 to rent)
  • Youth of the Beast – Seijun Suzuki drama starring Jo Shishido as a mysterious figure playing double agent to engineer a gang war. Review.
  • Gate of Hell – period drama starring Machiko Kyo as a loyal wife who tricks a man trying to kill her husband to have her for himself to kill her instead.
  • Cruel Story of Youth – post-Sun Tribe youth drama from Shochiku directed by Nagisa Oshima. Review.

Yasujiro Ozu (5th June)

  • I Was Born, But… – 1932 silent in which two little boys have a hard time accepting that their dad has an inauthentic work persona. Review.
  • Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice – 1952 drama starring Shin Saburi and Michiyo Kogure as an unhappily married couple.
  • Tokyo Story – 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.
  • Good Morning – consumerist comedy in which two little boys go on a pleasantries strike to get their parents to buy them a TV.
  • Late Autumn – drama in which a young widow tries to marry off her daughter with the help of old friends from college.
  • An Autumn Afternoon – Ozu’s final film stars Chishu Ryu as an ageing widower preparing to marry off his only daughter. Review.
  • Early Summer – a family’s attempt to marry off a daughter is frustrated when they realise she is carrying a torch for the widower next door.
  • Equinox Flower – drama of generational conflict in which an authoritarian father is forced to accept his daughter’s right to choose her own husband without asking for his advice or consent.
  • Late Spring – classic in which a young woman’s close relationship with her widowed father leaves her reluctant to marry.
  • Dragnet Girl – silent crime film starring Kinuyo Tanaka as a gangster’s moll who decides to reform after meeting the sister of a new gang member.
  • Walk Cheerfully – silent crime film in which a gangster wants to go straight after falling for an ordinary girl.
  • I Flunked, But… – silent college comedy.
  • Days of Youth – two students compete for the affections of the same girl.
  • Where Now the Dreams of Youth? – tragedy enters a carefree college existence when a naive young man games the system to offer all his friends jobs after inheriting his father’s company.
  • Woman of Tokyo – silent drama in which a student is devastated to learn that his older sister is not a translator as he thought but works as a bar hostess to finance his education.
  • Early Spring – rare Ozu drama exploring the taboo of an extra-marital affair.
  • Tokyo Twilight – grown up sisters reunite with the mother who abandoned them as children to run off with another man.
  • That Night’s Wife – 1930 crime drama in which a man is hunted by police after resorting to robbery to pay for his daughter’s medication.
  • The Lady and the Beard – 1931 comedy in which a traditionally minded man’s refusal to shave off his beard makes it difficult to move on with his life.
  • A Mother Should Be Loved – a young man discovers the woman who raised him is not his birth mother.
  • The Only Son – drama in which a mother visits her grown-up son and is disappointed to learn he has a wife and child he never told her about.
  • What Did the Lady Forget? – a modern girl visits her professor uncle but is disturbed to see him henpecked by his traditionalist wife.
  • Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family – a widow discovers that her grown up children are unwilling to support her and their younger sister when their father suddenly dies leaving them deep in debt.
  • There Was a Father – a father’s attempts to do the best for his son perpetually keep them apart.
  • A Hen in the Wind – a returned soldier struggles to accept his wife’s decision to resort to prostitution to pay for a doctor to save their son’s life in Ozu’s atypically dark post-war drama.

Cult (3rd July)

  • Gushing Prayer – pink film from Masao Adachi dramatising despair in the wake of the failure of the student movement.
  • Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss – first in the Stray Cat Rock series starring Akiko Wada and Meiko Kaji.
  • Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion – Meiko Kaji stars as a woman falsely imprisoned.
  • Lady Snowblood – Meiko Kaji stars as a young woman seeking revenge against the men who raped her mother.
  • House – surreal horror from Nobuhiko Obayashi in which a high school girl takes some friends to visit her aunt but ends up in a colourful nightmare world.

Anime (31st July)

The full lineup for the anime strand will be confirmed at a later date.

Independence (21st August)

  • Funeral Parade of Roses – Toshio Matsumoto’s avant-garde take on Oedipus Rex.
  • Tetsuo: The Iron Man – surrealist body horror from Shinya Tsukamoto.
  • Maborosi – a young widow struggles to come to terms with the apparent suicide of her husband in Hirokazu Koreeda’s debut feature. (not included in subscription, £3.50 to rent)
  • Sawako Decides – an aimless young woman struggles to find direction in her life in an early comedy from Yuya Ishii starring Hikari Mitsushima.
  • Getting Any? – zany pop culture comedy from Takeshi Kitano in which a man goes to great lengths to get a car solely so he can have sex in it. Review.
  • The Woodsman and the Rain – comedy from Shuichi Okita in which a film director bonds with a lonely lumberjack while shooting a zombie movie.
  • Love Exposure – 4-hour epic from Sion Sono in which the son of a priest becomes obsessed with upskirt photography.
  • The Mourning Forest – a bereaved mother bonds with the elderly resident of a care home where she works in an award winning drama from Naomi Kawase.
  • A Scene at the Sea – poetic drama from Takeshi Kitano about a deaf refuse collector who becomes fixated on surfacing. Review.
  • Dangan Runner – three men ricochet towards an inevitable ending in the debut feature from SABU. Review.
  • Zigeunerweisen – surreal drama from Seijun Suzuki starring Yoshio Harada as a nomad on the run after being suspected of seducing and killing the wife of a fisherman.

21st Century (18th September)

  • Still the Water – island coming of age drama from Naomi Kawase. (not included in subscription, £3.50 to rent)
  • Sweet Bean – a dorayaki salesman bonds with an old woman who helps him improve his bean paste in Naomi Kawase’s moving drama.
  • Nobody Knows – siblings are left to fend for themselves when their mother abandons them in Hirokazu Koreeda’s gritty drama. (not included in subscription, £3.50 to rent)
  • Still Walking – Hirokazu Koreeda’s moving depiction of a typical family. Review. (not included in subscription, £3.50 to rent)
  • Cold Fish – Sion Sono’s gory serial killer drama inspired by a real life incident.
  • Tokyo Tribe – a rap musical manga adaptation from Sion Sono.
  • Mitsuko Delivers – a heavily pregnant woman returns to her home town and proceeds to solve everyone’s problems in Yuya Ishii’s cheerful comedy.
  • For Love’s Sake – musical manga adaption celebrating the Showa era songbook from Takashi Miike.
  • Journey to the Shore – haunting romantic drama from Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Review.
  • Creepy – Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s eerie mystery drama. Review.
  • The Lust of Angels – edgy train groping drama from Nagisa Isogai.
  • Harmonium – a family is torn apart by unexpected tragedy when a face from the past pays a visit in Koji Fukada’s probing drama. Review.

Early films 1894-1914 (12th October)

The BFI will also be showcasing restored gems from their archive featuring footage of turn of the century Japan.

  • Japanese Dancers (1894) – rare footage of Japanese women performing an imperial dance.
  • Ainus of Japan (1913) – footage depicting the indigenous people of Hokkaido.
  • Japanese Festival (1910) – footage of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Yokohama Harbour
  • Shooting the Rapids on the River Ozu in Japan (1907) – 1907 river journey.

J-Horror (30th October)

  • Ring – a deadly curse is transmitted via videotape in Hideo Nakata’s J-horror classic.
  • Dark Water – 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.
  • Audition – Takashi Miike’s deceptive drama begins as a gentle romcom before edging slowly towards the horrific.
  • Gozu – truly strange yakuza horror comedy from Takashi Miike.
  • The Happiness of the Katakuris – Takashi Miike’s strangely cheerful musical take on the Korean film The Quiet Family.
  • Battle Royale – controversial drama from Kinji Fukasaku in which high school students are shipped to a remote island and forced to fight to the death.
  • Tetsuo II: Body Hammer – sequel to Shinya Tsukamoto’s cyberpunk body horror.
  • Pulse – death is eternal loneliness in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s tech fearing horror classic. Review.
  • Cure – Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s noirish horror starring Koji Yakusho as a detective investigating a series of bizarre murders.
  • Kuroneko – ghost cat film from Kaneto Shindo.
  • Snake of June – erotic drama from Shinya Tsukamoto in which a mysterious man targets a repressed woman and forces her to engage in illicit sex acts.

BFI Southbank

The season will continue at the BFI Southbank once the venue reopens.

  • Golden Age – season programmed by Alexander Jacoby and James Bell showcasing Japanese cinema from the 1930s to the 60s including work by Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, Mikio Naruse, and Akira Kurosawa, and starring Kinuyo Tanaka, Setsuko Hara, Hideko Takamine, and Toshiro Mifune.
  • Radicals and Rebels – also curated by Alexander Jacoby and James Bell, the Radicals and Rebels strand focuses on film after 1964 from the New Wave to the genre classics of the ’90s including work by Seijun Suzuki, Nagisa Oshima, and Kiju (Yoshishige) Yoshida.
  • 21st Century – contemporary classics co-presented by Japan Foundation and curated by Junko Takekawa.
  • Anime – major two month season curated by Justin Johnson and Hanako Miyata showcasing modern masters such as Satoshi Kon, Mamoru Oshii, Makoto Shinkai, Mamoru Hosoda, and Naoko Yamada.

For the full details on this and other BFI seasons be sure to check out the BFI’s official 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 Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.