ACA Cinema Project Presents New Films From Japan

ACA Cinema Project will be returning to New York’s IFC Center from Feb. 10 – 16 with New Films From Japan, a five-film series featuring some of this year’s most highly acclaimed festival hits including Kei Ishikawa’s A Man which recently dominated the nominations for this year’s Japan Academy Film Prize.

A Man

The latest film from Kei Ishikawa (Gukoroku: Traces of Sin, Arc), A Man stars Satoshi Tsumabuki as a lawyer who is pulled into a web of intrigue when a former client asks him to investigate her late husband who had been living under an assumed identity.

Small, Slow But Steady

A young deaf woman and aspiring boxer is beginning to lose the will to fight in Sho Miyake’s empathetic character study touching on attitudes to disability in the contemporary society. Review.

The Zen Diary

Inspired by the 1978 non-fiction book by Tsutomu Mizukami, The Zen Diary follows a mountain hermit (Kanji Sawada) living an ascetic life growing his own veg and foraging for mushrooms while continuing his writing career. His peaceful days are sometimes interrupted by the arrival of his editor (Takako Matsu) who turns up to collect his manuscripts and enjoy a good meal.

Thousand and One Nights

Drama following two women whose husbands a have each disappeared. No one has heard from Tomiko’s (Yuko Tanaka) husband in over 30 years, but she deflects the romantic interests of local fisherman Haruo continuing to wait for his return. Meanwhile, she meets a younger woman, Nami (Machiko Ono), whose husband went missing two years previously only for Tomiko to spot him in the street…

Yamabuki

Director Juichiro Yamasaki will be in attendance for a Q&A

The lives of those living in a small mountain town in western Japan gradually intersect from a former Olympic Korean equestrian now working at a quarry to a young woman who begins holding silent protests at a crossroads much to the consternation of her widowed policeman father.

New Films From Japan runs at New York’s IFC Center Feb. 10 – 16. Tickets priced $17 adults, $14 seniors/children, and $13 students are on sale now via the official website. You can also keep up with all the latest news by following ACA Cinema Project on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Stray Dog (野良犬, Akira Kurosawa, 1949)

“And, yes, I think the world’s not right. But it’s worse to take it out on the world” the conflicted policeman at the centre of Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (野良犬, Nora Inu) explains as he struggles to reacquire his sense of authority while weighing up its limits and his own right to pass judgement on what is right or wrong or merely illegal. He must ask himself how he can enforce the law while faced with the reality that the man he chases is an echo of himself, the him that took another path amid the chaos, confusion, and despair that followed in the wake of defeat and occupation even as his well-meaning mentor insists that some people are good and others bad and he won’t be able to do his job if he gives it much more thought than that.

The policeman, Murakami (Toshiro Mifune), is perhaps the stray dog of the title who can only follow the straight path towards his missing gun taken from him on a sweltering bus in the middle of summer while he was distracted not only by the heat but by exhaustion having been up all night on a stakeout. As we later discover, Murakami is a rookie cop and recently demobbed soldier trying to make a life for himself in the post-war society. In this he is quite lucky. Many men returned home and struggled to find employment leaving them unable to marry or support families, a whole pack of stray dogs lost in an ever changing landscape. This must have weighed quite heavily on his mind as he made the decision to resign from the police force to take responsibility for the laxity that led to the gun possibly ending up in the wrong hands only to discover his superiors don’t regard it as seriously as he does. His boss tears up the letter and tells him to turn his defeat into something more positive by trying to do something about it, which might in its own way be a metaphor for the new post-war society. 

So closely does Murakami identify himself with his gun that on hearing it has been used in a violent robbery it’s almost as if he has committed the crime and is responsible for anything it might do. There is an essential irony in the fact that this weapon that was supposed to prevent crime is being subverted and used in its service as if mirroring the paths of the two men who both returned to a changed Japan and had their knapsacks stolen on their way back home. Murakami has chosen the law, while the thief Yusa (Isao Kimura) is thrown into nihilistic despair unable to make a life for himself. Murakami’s sense of guilt is further compounded on realising that he may have frustrated Yusa’s attempt to turn back, returning the gun to the underground pistol brokers who make their living through selling illegal weapons stolen from police or bought from occupation forces.

As he admits, Murakami could have ended up committing a robbery but realised he was at a dangerous crossroads and made a deliberate choice to join the police instead. He literally finds himself walking the other man’s path when he’s told by a pickpocket, Ogin (Noriko Sengoku), that the underworld pistol dealers will find him if he walks around downtown looking like he’s at the end of his rope. Ogin, the woman reeking of cheap perfume who stood next to him on the bus, was once known for her fancy kimonos but is now in western dress, signalling perhaps a further decline. In this age of privation, only kimonos and rice have held their value and it’s not unreasonable to assume that she’s sold all of hers and joined the modern generation. Ogin doesn’t have anything to do with the theft, but seems to take pity on Murakami seeing him as naive and essentially unable to understand the way things work on the ground. His mentor, Sato (Takashi Shimura), seems to understand too well, on one level looking down on those like Ogin as simply bad but otherwise happy in her company knowing exactly how to get what he wants through their oddly flirtatious conversation as they suck ice lollies and smoke illicit cigarettes in the interview room. 

Dressed in a ragged military uniform, Murakami wanders around the backstreets of contemporary Tokyo past street kids and sex workers and groups of men just hanging around. Kurosawa employs montage and superimposition to reflect the endless drudgery and maddening circularity his of passage under the stifling heat of summer in the city that allows him a better understanding of what it is to live in this world. Even so, the boy who eventually makes contact seems to see through him pointing out that he looks too physically robust to pass for a desperate drifter. Yusa meanwhile is wiry and hollow, a frightened man who uses Murakami’s gun to affect an authority he does not own which might explain why both of his victims are women. Sato emphasises the worthiness of their victimhood, explaining that the first was robbed of the money she’d saved over three years for her wedding meaning she might have to wait even longer at which point there would be no point getting married at all, while the second woman was killed at home alone and defenceless. We’re also told that her body was nude when discovered which raises the question of whether she might have been assaulted before she died which would cast quite a different light on Yusa’s crimes no longer an accidental killer but a crazed rapist well beyond salvation. 

Yet the accidental nature of Yusa’s fall does seem to be key. The trigger seems to have been a childhood friend he’d fallen in love with gazing at a dress he could never afford to buy for her, pushed into a corner by his wounded masculinity and taking drastic action to reclaim it in much the same way Murakami later does in searching for his missing gun. In their final confrontation they grapple violently in existential struggle in a small grove behind some posh houses where a woman plays a charming parlour tune on the piano pausing only for a few moments to peer out of the window on hearing gunshots. Murakami retrieves his gun and the pair fall to the ground side by side to be met by the sound of children singing, provoking a wail of absolute despair from a defeated Yusa suddenly hit by the full weight of his transgressions. He too was a stray dog heading straight in one direction driven out of mainstream society by the unfairness of the post-war world. Sato tells Murakami that he’ll eventually forget all about Yusa, that he’ll become “less sentimental” and accept the world is full of bad guys and those who fall victim to them, but Murakami doesn’t seem too convinced, for the moment at least unable to forget that Yusa was man much like himself only less lucky or perhaps simply less naive.


Stray Dog screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 1st & 13th February 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

Get ’em All (「みな殺しの歌」より 拳銃よさらば, Eizo Sugawa, 1960)

A recently released young man is forced onto a nihilistic path of meaningless violence when his bank robber brother is killed in a hit and run in Eizo Sugawa’s moody post-war noir, Get ‘em All (「みな殺しの歌」より 拳銃よさらば, ‘Minagoroshi no uta’ yori kenju yo saraba). Adapted from a novel from Japan’s hardboiled master Haruhiko Oyabu who also provided the source material for Sugawa’s The Beast Shall Die, the film is as much about defeated aspiration and personal despair as it is about the corrupting influence of money and the futility of vengeance.

After waiting a year to divide the loot from a bank robbery, a random syndicate of crooks is shocked to discover that it has gone missing from its hiding place in an ancestral tomb belonging to one of their members along with a gun connected to the crime which is presumably being kept for insurance purposes. Everyone is convinced someone else has taken it with Tanabe (Tetsuro Tanba), the owner of the tomb, most particular about getting his hands on his share as quickly as possible and directing his suspicion towards the heist’s mastermind, Koromogawa (Akihiko Hirata). 

Koromogawa is currently doing quite well for himself, having recently married and moved into a fancy new flat on a danchi. His brother Kyosuke (Hiroshi Mizuwara) has just been released from prison for an undisclosed juvenile crime and evidently has never met his sister-in-law Mamiko (Yukiko Shimazaki). Strangely buoyant and incredibly naive for someone who’s spent time inside, Kyosuke is determined to go straight and is intending to save money to buy a truck he can use to start his own business. He has no idea that his brother’s newfound wealth is down to robbing banks and is absolutely certain that he is a morally upright person who’d never have anything to do with criminality. When Koromogawa is killed in a hit and run after leaving to meet Tanabe, the suspicion is that he’s been murdered by one of the crooks in a dispute over the money though that would admittedly be quite a counterproductive move as if he really has taken it now that he’s dead no one knows where it is.   

Kyosuke is shocked by Mamiko’s apparently indifference to her husband’s death, even going so far as openly flirt with him. After discovering a receipt for a coin locker in his brother’s wallet, he opens it and finds a pistol first planting the seeds of doubt in his mind about Koromogawa’s life and death. The gun, however, begins to take him over. After reuniting with old girlfriend Yuriko (Akemi Kita), Kyosuke was beaten up by her new squeeze but when he tries the same thing again and notices the pistol tucked into Kyosuke’s waistband he immediately backs down. With the gun in his hand, Kyosuke is able to completely humiliate him, forcing the man to crawl on the floor like a pig and drink dirty water from a puddle in the road. This new sense of ultimate power fuels his desire for revenge setting him on a killing spree starting with Tanabe in an effort to figure out what happened to his brother, an exercise often frustrated by his killing those concerned before turning up any real information. 

Meanwhile, using the gun is also quite a stupid and naive thing to do as the police already have it on file from a shot that was fired during the robbery bringing the crime back into police consciousness and therefore making it impossible for any of the men to spend the money should they finally get their hands on it. Each has a different reason for wanting the loot, a clockmaker wanting to support a daughter left with disabilities after contracting polio, a former record producer realising that he’s aged out of his industry, a former boxer with a lame leg (Tatsuya Nakadai) dreaming of buying a small plot of land, and a couple of embezzlers looking for ways out along with in one case divorcing a wife to marry a bar hostess mistress. But then as in the last two cases and Koromogawa’s own it is perhaps the allure of rising consumerism that has already corrupted them. So much of the action revolves around big American cars, while we’re also told that the gun was one manufactured in Nazi Germany and was most likely bought or stolen from an American serviceman. 

So drunk is Kyosuke on the power of the gun that he doesn’t really take stock of what he’s doing until it’s already too late, realising he’s become an accidental serial killer and no longer has a possibility of leading a normal life. He had begun to feel that way before, especially in the wake of his brother’s death, as he finds each of his job applications failing when prospective employers learn of his criminal past. He’s repaid his debt to society, but if society refuses to give him a second chance then realistically he has no other avenue than heading deeper into crime. Kyosuke liked it that the gun made people fear him but is confronted by the illusionary quality of its power when a child suddenly grabs it in the middle of a game of cops and robbers, pointing the gun at him believing it to be a toy while passers-by laugh at the amusing sight of this little boy holding a grownup hostage. It seemed to confuse Kyosuke that Yuriko had not been afraid of him even with the gun in his hand, but her sudden terror on realising that he has killed and may yet kill her only shows him what he’s become. 

He wanted revenge for his brother’s death, but what if it really was just an accident? The gang begin to turn on each other after the money disappears, some believing Koromogawa took it for safekeeping to prevent them incriminating each other by spending it too early and others that he just took it for himself while each suspecting one another believing one of them is slowly killing the others to pocket the whole amount for themselves. But in the end it’s all for nothing, they couldn’t spend it anyway and several of them decide they’d rather not have the bother and are ready to live quiet lives in the country only it’s too late for that now. A final revelation confirming his brother’s criminality coupled with the betrayal of a friend’s well-meaning attempt to keep him in the dark lead only to an internecine confrontation with the futility of crime. With its noirish jazz score and photography reminiscent of contemporary American independent cinema Sugawa captures a sense of restless youth but also the latent desperation of those left languishing on the margins of an increasingly prosperous society.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Japan Academy Film Prize Announces Nominees for 46th Edition

©2022 "A MAN" FILM PARTNERS
©2022 "A MAN" FILM PARTNERS

The Japan Academy Film Prize, Japan’s equivalent of the Oscars awarded by the Nippon Academy-Sho Association of industry professionals, has announced the candidate list for its 46th edition which honours films released Jan. 1 – Dec. 31, 2022 that played in a Tokyo cinema at least three times a day for more than two weeks. This year’s favourite is Kei Ishikawa’s A Man which picks up 13 nominations across 12 categories, while there is also a strong showing for Ryuichi Hiroki’s Phases of the Moon and big budget tokusatsu Shin Ultraman. The awards ceremony hosted by last year’s Best Actress winner Kasumi Arimura and TV presenter Shinichi Hatori will take place at Grand Prince Hotel New Takanawa International Convention Center Pamir on 10th March.

Picture of the Year

  • A Man
  • Shin Ultraman
  • Phases of the Moon
  • Anime Supremacy!
  • Wandering

Animation of the Year

  • Inu-Oh
  • Lonely Castle in the Mirror
  • Suzume
  • One Piece Film Red
  • The First Slam Dunk

Director of the Year

Screenplay of the Year

Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role

  • Sadao Abe (Lesson in Murder)
  • Yo Oizumi (Phases of the Moon)
  • Satoshi Tsumabuki (A Man)
  • Kazunari Ninomiya (Fragments of the Last Will)
  • Tori Matsuzaka (Wandering)

Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role

Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role

  • Tasuku Emoto (Anime Supremacy!)
  • Masataka Kubota (A Man)
  • Kentaro Sakaguchi (Hell Dogs)
  • Ren Meguro (Phases of the Moon)
  • Ryusei Yokohama (Wandering)

Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role

  • Kasumi Arimura (Phases of the Moon)
  • Sakura Ando (A Man)
  • Machiko Ono (Anime Supremacy!)
  • Nana Seino (A Man, Kingdom 2: To Distant Lands)
  • Mei Nagano (Motherhood)
  • Honoka Matsumoto (It’s in the Woods)

Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography

Outstanding Achievement in Lighting Direction

Outstanding Achievement in Music

  • Yoshihiro Ike (Anime Supremacy!)
  • Yu Takami (Whisper of the Heart)
  • Cicada (A Man)
  • Mari Fukushige (Phases of the Moon)
  • Radwimps / Kazuma Jinnouchi (Suzume)

Outstanding Achievement in Art Direction

  • Toshihiro Isomi / Emiko Tsuyuki (Fragments of the Last Will)
  • Hidetaka Ozawa (Kingdom 2: To Distant Lands)
  • Satoshi Kanda (Anime Supremacy!)
  • Yuji Hayashida / Eri Sakushima (Shin Ultraman)
  • Hiroyuki Wagatsuma (A Man)

Outstanding Achievement in Sound Recording

Outstanding Achievement in Film Editing

Outstanding Foreign Language Film

  • Avatar: The Way of Water
  • Coda
  • Spider-Man: No Way Home
  • Top Gun: Maverick
  • RRR

Newcomer of the Year 

  • Karin Ono (Anime Supremacy!)
  • Hinako Kikuchi (Phases of the Moon)
  • Riko Fukumoto (Even if This Love Disappears from the World Tonight)
  • Meru Nukumi (My Boyfriend in Orange)
  • Daiki Arioka (Shin Ultraman)
  • Ichiro Banka (Sabakan)
  • Hokuto Matsumura (xxxHOLiC)
  • Ren Meguro (Phases of the Moon)

Special Award from the Association

(Lifetime achievement awards)

  • Masanobu Amemiya (car stunts)
  • Shohei Kawamoto (animation background art)
  • Naomi Koike (production design)
  • Yasuhiro Fukuoka (casting producer)

Award for Distinguished Service from the Chairman

(Lifetime achievement awards for contribution to the film industry)

  • Shunya Ito (film director)
  • Yuzo Kayama (actor)
  • Hideki Mochizuki (lighting)

Special Award from the Chairman

(Lifetime achievement award presented to members of the film industry who passed away during 2022)

  • Hideo Onchi (film director)
  • Hiro Matsuda (screenwriter)
  • Mitsunobu Kawamura (producer)
  • Iwao Ishii (editor)
  • Kazuki Omori (director & screenwriter)
  • Yoichi Sai (director & screenwriter)

Special Award

  • One Piece Film Red music crew

Source: Japan Academy Film Prize official websiteEiga Natalie

The Hidden Fortress (隠し砦の三悪人, Akira Kurosawa, 1958)

“Your kindness will harm you” a well-meaning retainer advises his charge, but in the end it is her kindness which saves her along with numerous others in Akira Kurosawa’s Sengoku-era epic, The Hidden Fortress (隠し砦の三悪人, Kakushi Toride no San Akunin). Largely told from the point of view of two bumbling peasants trying to get rich quick by exploiting the hierarchal fluidity of a time of war, the film nevertheless cuts against the grain of the democratic era in advocating not so much the destruction of the class-bound feudal order as benevolent authority. 

This can quite clearly be seen in the dynamic figure of displaced princess Yuki (Misa Uehara), the successor of her routed clan protected by a hidden fortress in the mountains which she must eventually leave. Her female servant laments that her father raised her as a boy which has given her a haughty and dominant manner at odds with the polite submissiveness usually expected of upperclass women. While often exerting her authority, she is otherwise uncomfortable with the uncritical servitude of her retainers, chief among them the talented general Makabe (Toshiro Mifune) who sacrificed the life of his own sister, allowing her to be executed in Yuki’s place buying them some time. “Kofuyu was 16. I am 16. What difference is there in our souls?” she asks, yet even if she believes their souls are equal she is not quite so egalitarian as to forget her position or the power and privilege that comes with it. 

Nevertheless, hers is an authority that is tempered by compassion and in the end chosen. Her salvation comes in speaking her mind to an enemy retainer, Tadokoro (Susumu Fujita), who has been savagely beaten by his own lord for losing a duel with Makabe who, to the mind of some, humiliated him with kindness in refusing to take his life leaving him to live in defeat. Yuki says she doesn’t know who is stupider, Tadokoro or his lord, for never would she punish a man in such a way simply for losing to an enemy. She tells him that there is another way, and that he need not serve a lord who does not serve him leading Tadokoro to defect and choose to follow her instead. 

She also inspires confidence in a young woman she insists on redeeming after discovering that she is a former member of the Akizuka clan sold into sexual slavery after being taken prisoner by the Yamane. Kurosawa presents the girl with a dilemma on realising that the mysterious woman who saved her is the fugitive princess, knowing that she could betray her and pocket the gold, but finds her resolving to serve Yuki all the more. In a moment of irony, we learn that the girl was bought for five silver coins, the same amount of money a wealthy traveller offers for Makabe’s horse, but displeases her master in refusing to speak or serve customers. For Yuki he offers gold, though withdraws on being told that she is mute. Knowing that she would be unable to disguise her speech or accent which would instantly give her away as a haughty princess, Makabe convinces her to stay silent though as she tells him he cannot make her heart mute too. 

Even the peasants, oblivious to her true identity, view Yuki as part of the spoils insisting that they should be entitled to a third of her too and at one point preparing to rape her only to be fought off by the rescued girl. “We can rely on their greed” Makabe had said, knowing that their material desires make them easy to manipulate and that their loyalties are otherwise fickle. Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara) and his friend Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) sold their houses in their village to buy armour in the hope of achieving social mobility through distinguishing themselves in war, but have largely been humiliated, robbed of their armour, mistaken for captured members of the enemy, and forced to dig the graves of others. They pledge eternal friendship but their bond is continually disrupted by the promise of monetary gain. They fall out over a moral quandary, one willing to plunder the body of a fallen soldier and the other not, while even on reuniting squabbling about how to divide the money first deciding it should be equal and immediately disagreeing as soon as they get their hands on it. At the film’s conclusion it rests on Yuki to play mother, telling them that they must be good and share the boon she’s given them equally without complaint each then too only quick to be generous insisting that the other can keep it. 

The implication is still, however, that Matashichi and Tahei should return to their village to live as peasants while Yuki assumes her place in a castle no longer hidden as its ruler. Order has returned and the old system remains in place, all that changes is that this is now a compassionate autocracy ruled by a benevolent lord who views her subjects lives as equal to her own yet not perhaps their status. Where it might prompt Tadokoro to conclude that he need serve no lord at all for there should be no leaders only equals, the film concludes that a leader should be just and if they are not they should not be followed. Then again, the disagreement between firm friends Matashichi and Tahei is ended when they each have enough and no longer find themselves fighting for a bigger slice of the pie content in the validation of their equality. As Makabe puts it, heavy is the head that wears the crown. Yuki’s suffering is in the responsibility of rebuilding her clan though she does so with compassion and empathy ruling with respect rather than fear or austerity. Kurosawa utilises the novel scope format to hint at the wide open vistas that extend ahead of the peasants as they make their way towards the castle in search of gold only to leave with something that while more valuable may also shine so brightly as to blind them to the inherent inequalities of the feudal order. 


The Hidden Fortress screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 20th & 27th January 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

The Lower Depths (どん底, Akira Kurosawa, 1957)

“How can you go to hell if you’re already there?” quips a stoical gangster, perhaps the only denizen of a rundown tenement block no longer looking for escape in Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation of the Gorky play The Lower Depths (どん底, Donzoko). In general, much of Kurosawa’s post-war work decries deliberate falsehood but paradoxically suggests that some degree of self-delusion is essential for surviving an otherwise hopeless world. The wandering pilgrim who arrives like some kind of emissary from the land above says as much as he offers what may turn out to be false promises of a better world to come, but as one of his charges points out he does so “out of pity for those beyond hope.”

Then again, perhaps spirituality won’t save you either. As the film opens, it’s two monks who are seen throwing leaves over a cliff describing the settlement below as “just an old rubbish dump”, which in a sense it is if that were not such a cruel thing to say. In any case, the people who live here are all those who have already fallen into desperation, exiled from mainstream society and caught between a fierce desire to claw their way back up and the despair of knowing that in all likelihood they never will. A man who claims to be a former samurai waxes on his illustrious past, while a melancholy sex worker meditates on the lost love that reduced her to current position, and a stage actor laments his failing memory his mind now fogged by years of alcohol abuse that he says have already poisoned his “bitol organs”. A tinker secretly thinks he’s better than those around him. He’s only been here six months and insists that he’s a skilled craftsman who can continue working, but blames his desperate circumstances on the sickly wife whose death he quietly awaits assuming it will free him of this burden and thereafter this place.

It doesn’t, of course. He sells his tools to pay for her funeral, and otherwise appears lost no longer a husband to a dying wife. In essence the film revolves around a confrontation between the pilgrim who offers what may well be an illusion of salvation and the thief Sutekichi (Toshiro Mifune) who challenges him but begins to believe that it really may be possible for him to leave this place and take the woman he loves, Okayo (Kyoko Kagawa), with him or else fall further and remain trapped in this mortal hellscape. The problem there is that Sutekichi had previously been having an affair with the landlord’s wife Osugi (Isuzu Yamada) who is Okayo’s sister. Though Osugi, whose hope of escape through romance is dashed, first takes against her sister, she later offers to surrender her to Sutekichi if only he will assist her by killing her greedy husband Rokubei (Ganjiro Nakamura). 

In this cold and austere place which is in effect a living hell, there is a sense that many of the residents are already dead. Rokubei’s face is the palest of them all, suggesting that he is already too far gone ever to be saved and most likely doesn’t want to be anyway for in this terrible place he is in effect the king. Osugi is the queen, but often framed behind bars now a prisoner already too corrupt to leave the tenement behind. Her uncle, Deputy Shimazo (Kichijiro Ueda), has a largely illusionary sense of power in his position in a policeman which he prosecutes selectively and mostly at the service of the landlord. In the climactic closing scenes, his policeman’s baton is stolen by the drunkard Unokichi (Yu Fujiki) who dances through the streets with it demonstrating just how little authority he actually wields finally losing his position when the landlord is deposed and his familial connections become irrelevant. He inherits the landlord’s residence, but is reduced to the husband of the sweet seller Otaki (Nijiko Kiyokawa) whose status as a working woman is perhaps higher than his. 

Yet the pilgrim seems to think there is still time to save Sutekichi who at heart wants to go straight but is also resentful admitting that in a world where swindlers prosper perhaps it is foolish not to be a swindler. The pilgrim promises all of them a “better place”. “As long as you believe you’ll find it, you surely will”, he explains telling the actor about a temple that can help him cure his alcoholism while simultaneously urging the tinker’s suffering wife to give in to her fate and go to Buddha’s embrace as soon as possible. Perhaps he sincerely believes these things to be true, but also seems to have a sense that even if they weren’t these hopeless people could not go on if they knew there was no way out. They all say they’ll leave, but discover there are only two means of escape, to die or fall still further in banishment from this already banished place. Only Okayo whose final whereabouts remain unknown may finally have been able to free herself. Staying almost exclusively with the claustrophobic confines of the drafty tenement as wind the whistles through it, Kurosawa frames the space of one of existential purgatory but perhaps suggests that in the absence of salvation a comforting falsehood is the only means of survival.


The Lower Depths screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 19th & 30th January 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

High and Low (天国と地獄, Akira Kurosawa, 1963)

A self-made man is landed with an unthinkable dilemma when his chauffeur’s son is kidnapped in place of his own just at the moment he’s staked his entire fortune on a manoeuvre to outsmart cynical executives set on taking over his company in Kurosawa’s post-war crime film, High and Low (天国と地獄, Tengoku to Jigoku). The movie’s Japanese title, Heaven and Hell, might hint more strongly at the growing economic disparities in the era of the economic miracle but also at the dualities embodied in the hero’s choices. “Success isn’t worth losing your humanity” his wife tells him, but he still struggles with the validity of choosing his heart over his head knowing that to pay anyway even though it’s another man’s son means financial ruin, the final question being if he is really prepared to allow a child to die simply to maintain his own wealth and status. 

The problem is that Gondo (Toshiro Mifune) has attempted to mount a rebellion against the evils of consumerism, incurring the ire of the cynical executives who attempt to get him on their side in their attempt to oust the boss whose outdated ideas are running the business into the ground. Though Gondo appears sympathetic, hinting that he might be interested if there’s a good enough promotion in it, he later tells them where to go on seeing that their business plan is to start producing poor quality disposable footwear. Gondo started on the factory floor and he doesn’t want to put the company’s name on such shoddy produce nor does he think that their admittedly fair point that if the shoes are well made and last a long time no one will need to buy any is a good way to do business. He doesn’t think the boss is right either and wants to make shoes his own way which is why he’s remortgaged the sizeable mansion he owns on top of a hill overlooking the city and has pretty much run through his wife’s dowry to buy a majority stake in the company.

On top of a hill is a good place to live if you want a good vantage point to oversee the land below, but while you’re looking down others look up and not all of them kindly. Gondo is as he says a self-made man, but also out of touch with contemporary society and not so far from an ambitious courtier always after a little more. He says it isn’t about getting the top job but getting shoes made right, but it seems he too had been bitten by the consumerist bug and is otherwise unable to affirm his status without material proof. When he thinks it’s his own son that’s been kidnapped, he’d have given it all away but when it’s the driver’s boy it’s a different question. Shinichi (Masahiko Shimazu) isn’t his responsibility and as he points out there are plenty of other wealthy men, why is he the only one to pay? While his wife (Kyoko Kagawa) tearfully urges him to do the right thing, his assistant (Tatsuya Mihashi) tries stop him, insisting he should take the sizeable cheque they’ve had drawn up to Osaka and the stakeholder he’s buying the shares from. 

While he vacillates, the driver, Aoki (Yutaka Sada), is humiliated and forced into servitude. Gondo seems to have the old-fashioned idea that the kidnappers would simply let Shinichi go on realising they’ve got the wrong boy and his father can’t pay, but Aoki knows there’s nothing he can do to save his son but throw himself on Gondo’s mercy. He falls to the ground and prostrates himself, but later retracts all telling Gondo it doesn’t matter, that he hadn’t realised what he was asking of him, and insisting that Shinichi is a bright boy who will look for a chance to escape on his own. Once the boy is returned he treats him harshly, interrogating him about anything he might have forgotten and later driving him around looking for the hideout where he was kept in an attempt to do something and repay the debt he now feels he owes to Gondo by helping the police retrieve the money Gondo eventually agreed to pay for him. 

In agreeing to give up the money, Gondo is in a sense unburdened knowing he has made the right choice and realising that he would never live a comfortable life in that house if cost a child’s life to keep it. Part of his rationale for not wanting to pay had been that though he had been poor before and might be again, his wife had not been and does not truly understand what it is to live in poverty much as she says her life of luxury means nothing to her. She has never wanted for anything, after all. As for the kidnapper, Ginjiro (Tsutomu Yamazaki), we know little of his motives save for his intense resentment living quite literally in the shadow of Gondo’s mansion and feeling as if it were mocking him. Then again, though his life is hard Ginjiro already had a path to success in that he would soon have completed his medical studies implying at least that he or someone else was able to cover his tuition and costs of living, that he was able to continue in education, and really had no need to take such drastic action in rebellion against the antagonistic capitalism of the post-war society. “Do you think we have to hate each other?” Gondo asks him, but Ginjiro has no answer only his intense resentment for everything he represents.

The “hell” that Gondo inhabits is a backstreet wasteland peopled by the hopeless. Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai), the earnest policeman, follows him through thronging clubs and on into “dope alley” where Ginjiro picked up his accomplices so desperate to escape their suffering that they’d agree to help him kidnap a child. Though it costs him his job, Gondo decision to do the right thing makes him a national hero, the working class millionaire who mows his own lawn and can still knock up a pair of shoes should the occasion call while women across the country decide to boycott the company in protest at his treatment. Ginjiro can only howl like a caged animal while facing a death sentence for the coldblooded murder of his accomplices. The light bouncing off his mirrored sunshades gives him an eerie supernatural quality, a demon arising from depths of hell to wreak havoc in heaven but finding only infinite tragedy in the contradictions of the consumerist post-war society.


High and Low screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 19th January 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Japan Society New York to Host Seijun Suzuki Centennial Feb. 3 – 11

In collaboration with The Japan Foundation, Japan Society New York will be marking the 100th anniversary of late director Seijun Suzuki’s birth with a mini retrospective featuring six of his films from across his career each screening from imported 35mm prints.

Feb. 3, 7pm: Kagero-za

Yusaku Matsuda stars as a confused playwright drawn to a woman who may be a ghost in Suzuki’s hallucinatory Taisho-era drama adapted from a story by Kyoka Izumi.

Feb. 4, 5pm: Satan’s Town / Love Letter

Early Nikkatsu crime feature Satan’s Town hints at the future direction of Suzuki’s career in its dark humour and anarchic use of freeze frame while charting a gang boss’ attempts to set up a new heist after getting out of prison only to find his scheme undermined by the competing desires of his gang of thieves. Satan’s Town screens with the short kayo or ballad film Love Letter starring singer Frank Nagai as a performer whose pianist makes a new discovery when she attempts to visit her lover with whom she has been corresponding by mail after he moved to the wilderness.

Feb. 4, 8pm: Tokyo Drifter

Avant-pop gangland drama starring Tetsuya Watari, who also performs the opening ballad, as a recently released yakuza trying to start again but immediately drawn back into underworld intrigue as his old associates attempt to knock him off.

Feb. 10, 7pm: Carmen from Kawachi

(c)1966 Nikkatsu Corporation
(c)1966 Nikkatsu Corporation

Surreal picaresque inspired by Bizet’s Carmen following a naive young woman’s flight to the city where she progresses through a series of exploitative jobs and disappointing relationships before regaining a sense of confidence and independence.

Feb. 11, 7pm: A Tale of Sorrow and Sadness

Suzuki’s comeback after being fired by Nikkatsu is a surreal media satire inspired by Ikki Kajiwara’s sports manga in which a fashion studio wanting to compete with a rival who’ve just made a top Russian gymnast their brand ambassador decide to create a homegrown star by grooming a promising golfer. Events take a darker turn when her newfound fame attracts the attentions of a psycho housewife stalker from the conservative upper middle class neighbourhood her bosses have chosen for her new home.

The Seijun Suzuki Centennial runs at Japan Society New York, Feb. 3 – 11. Tickets priced at $15 / $12 students & seniors, and $10 Japan Society Members are on sale now via the official website while you can also keep up with all the year-round events by following Japan Society Film on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

Ramayana: The Legend of Prince Rama (ラーマーヤナ ラーマ王子伝説, Ram Mohan, Yugo Sako, Koichi Sasaki, 1992)

Raised in a Buddhist temple after an early orphanhood, documentary filmmaker Yugo Sako became a great devotee of Indian culture and apparently fell in love with the story of the Ramayana while filming a documentary for NHK, later reading as many as 10 different translations of the classic legend in Japanese. Certain that only animation could do justice to this epic tale of gods and demons, he proposed adapting it in the style of Japanese anime which was then gaining in popularity all over the world. 

It was though a somewhat sensitive topic. Following a minor misunderstanding concerning Sako’s documentary, complaints were submitted to the Japanese Embassy on behalf of religious organisations who objected to the film on the grounds that it was inappropriate for a Japanese company to adapt their national epic, that their culture was being misappropriated and that they worried the animation format may damage the ethics of the tale. Working with veteran director Ram Mohan, Sako had wanted to make the film in India with Indian animators but given all the difficulties he faced eventually decided to produce it in Japan bringing Mohan and other consultants with him to advise the Japanese animation team how best to reflect the local culture. 

Starring a cast of Indian actors, the film was released first in an English-language audio version only later dubbed into Hindi. In essence it follows Prince Rama (Nikhil Kapoor), the seventh of Lord Vishnu’s 10 incarnations and the first son of a good king, Dasharatha (Bulbul Mukherjee), who rules the happy and prosperous kingdom of Ayodhya. Rama is first called on to deal with a cannibalistic mother and son demon tag team terrorising the local forest but must then tackle the evil demon king Ravana (Uday Mathan) who kidnaps his beautiful wife, Sita (Rael Padmasee), in an attempt to intimidate him during a particularly low point in which he has been exiled to forest for 14 years because of some otherwise fairly gentle palace intrigue. Perhaps surprisingly, each of Rama’s three brothers are also goodhearted and righteous, possessing no desire to unseat him or usurp the throne for themselves despite the machinations of some around them. Rama is also well loved by his people who can see that he is a righteous person prepared to risk his life killing demons to protect them. 

Yet the lesson he learns through his journey to defeat Ravan’s darkness once and for all while rescuing Sita, is that it’s more important to be a good person than it is to be a good warrior. He laments that so many have lost their lives in this “avoidable war” and dreams of the day such sacrifices will no longer be necessary while even Sita begins to feel guilty on realising that people from a series of different kingdoms have died to win her freedom. Rama earns the censure of his brother Lakshman (Mishal Varma) when he suggests burning the bodies of fallen soldiers on both sides together, reflecting that they are all the same now and were so even before they died as were the creatures of the mountains and the sea. 

Even so, the difference is stark between the gloomy and ominous castle where Ravan holds court and the bright and airy chambers of government in Dasharatha’s home. The animation style is strongly reminiscent of the contemporary work of Studio Ghibli particularly in its depictions of the natural world along with the various demons with whom Rama comes into conflict which may not be surprising given that several key members of the creative team were Ghibli alumni. Yet it also reflects its Indian influences, featuring a soundtrack of traditional music along with several songs performed in sanskrit, musical sequences otherwise not generally a feature of this kind of animation in Japan. Epic in nature, it also employs the voice of a storyteller to fill in the blanks as Rama progresses from one adventure to the next while chasing his quest to free the world from darkness and war as represented by venal Ravan who is not above using trickery to disadvantage his foes nor wilfully sacrificing the lives of his men. Sadly, given the controversy which surrounded it, the film struggled at the box office and was largely relegated to a handful of festival screenings before being rediscovered by its intended audience after India’s Cartoon Network began regularly screening it finally allowing the film to take its place in animation history.


Ramayana: The Legend of Prince Rama screens at Japan Society New York on Jan. 20 as part of the Monthly Anime series.

Restoration trailer (Japanese narration, English voice track)

Dodes’ka-den (どですかでん, Akira Kurosawa, 1970)

By the late 1960s, Akira Kurosawa was in the midst of a creative crisis having spent two years working on the Japanese segments of the Hollywood war film Tora! Tora! Tora before he was eventually let go by the parsimonious US producers who feared he was spending too much money and making too little progress. Meanwhile, the studio system which had supported his career was collapsing and could no longer offer the kinds of budgets necessary for his personal brand of epic cinema. Teaming up with Masaki Kobayashi, Kon Ichikawa, and Keisuke Kinoshita, he formed the Club of the Four Knights production company but the first and only film they produced, Dodes’kaden (どですかでん), was not perhaps the kind of film many were expecting.

Inspired by a novel by Shugoro Yamamoto, the film like The Lower Depths focuses on a small community living in a slum only in this case on the edge of the modern city. Shot in classical 4:3, it was also Kurosawa’s first foray into colour and makes the most of his painterly eye with its surrealist backdrops and exaggerated sunsets. Once again there is the feeling that these people are already dead or trapped in a kind of purgatory unable to escape their desperate suffering, the slum as much of a mindset as a physical place. “Life is nothing but pain to me” one man claims, stating his hope that he die as quickly as possible while relating the sad story of his life: falling into depression when his sons were killed in the war and losing his wife, business, and finally home to the Tokyo air raids. Yet he is reminded that his family live on in him as long as he does and to kill himself is to kill them too, rediscovering a desire to survive even in his suffering. 

Another man, Hei (Hiroshi Akutagawa), dresses in a soldier’s uniform and wanders around like a zombie with, as one person puts it, the eyes of a dead man. Later a woman comes to find him, but he is seemingly unable to reawaken himself and move on from his trauma, now numbed to life, an already spent force. A young woman, Katsuko (Tomoko Yamazaki), is little different. Never speaking she has been raised by her uncle who begins sexually abusing her while her aunt is in hospital. She says that she wants to die, stabbing the only boy who showed her kindness because she feared he’d forget her. 

These people have largely been forgotten, living almost in another era and entirely cut off from mainstream society in a kind of etherial purgatory. Like the residents of The Lower Depths, a degree of fantasy is necessary for their survival a case in point being that of a beggar and his son who live an abandoned car and fantasise about the kind of house they’d build, a vast modernist building in white with a swimming pool. Like Katsuko, the boy is let down by his father who remains the car and sends him out to beg for food, telling him off when he lights a fire to boil fish as the man at the sushi shop had told him to do insisting, with disastrous results, that as it’s pickled it doesn’t need to be cooked. The furthest out of the residents, the pair have an almost grotesque appearance, their faces tinged with a morbid green. 

But then the couples living at the centre seemed to have found an antidote to despair in a surreal process of wife swapping now unable to remember whose husband is whose despite being neatly colour coded in matching outfits. A man with a nervous tic defends his grumpy yet fiercely loyal wife, and another man raises several children who may not be biologically his but are loved all the same. The old man who acts as a kind of confidant giving out advice and settling disputes through benevolent trickery has evidently learned how to live in this world and gets by as best he can while the son of the melancholy woman who runs the tempura stall drives an imaginary train through the slum the rhythm of which gives the film its name in its slow and certain progress towards nowhere at all. Heartbreakingly there are moments where the young man can hear the train in the distance, but it remains forever out of reach. Dodes’kaden didn’t do very well at the box office or with critics, its lack of success of cited as a factor in Kurosawa’s attempt to take his own life the following year, yet had perhaps set him on a new artistic course of colour and light which would define the further direction of his later career.


Dodes’ka-den screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 15th & 16th January 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.