Crossroads (十字路, Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1928)

Does it matter what path you take when none lead out of the darkness because all the world is dark? The heroine of Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Crossroads (十字路, Jujiro) eventually finds herself faced with this dilemma after a series of betrayals born of male failure place her into an impossible, infinitely ironic situation. Following his avant-garde masterpiece A Page Madness, Kinugasa heads in more straightforwardly melodramatic direction if maintaining the same expressionist aesthetic, but the world is still itself “mad” and inescapably so even as it prepares to swallow itself whole. 

Okiku (Akiko Chihaya), an earnest young woman, lives in a small room on the second floor of a squalid tenement building, captured in all of its grotty detail by Kinugasa’s manically wandering yet claustrophobic camera, with her brother Rikiya (Junosuke Bando). She supports the pair of them through seamstressing and doing other odd jobs, while Rikiya has become a devotee of the red light district and developed an infatuation with Oume (Yukiko Ogawa), the proprietress of an archery parlour. So enamoured of her is he that he declares his intention to fight for her love, literally, and is badly beaten by a samurai rival. He steals the ornate kimono his sister had been preparing for a client and hands it to Oume only to reencounter the samurai who tears it in two and hits him on the head, throwing ashes into his eyes causing him to believe that he is blind. Rikiya embarrasses himself by crying out for a sign of love from Oume while clinging to another woman. Humiliated and unable to see, he bumps back into his rival and slashes at him with a sword. Someone shouts “murderer” and Rikiya stumbles out of the tavern and back to his sister believing he has killed someone while the samurai is in fact perfectly fine, merely having another joke at his expense. 

The “joke” will have profound consequences, not only for Rikiya but for his devoted sister. Now entirely unsupported by her feckless brother and in fact burdened by him as he adjusts to his unsighted life, Okiku is determined to keep him safe from punishment for his legal transgression. This becomes another minor problem in their lives as a mysterious bogus policeman (Ippei Soma) with missing front teeth has begun hanging out in their front room for otherwise unexplained reasons, hinting that he knows all about Rikiya’s crime but offering to “protect” him from the authorities for the right price or a suitable alternative. Meanwhile, a doctor has also suggested that Rikiya’s eyes might be healed if he had money to heal them. An old hag having worn out a young woman she was exploiting for sex work is in search of a replacement and thinks Okiku fits the bill. She resists, but is at a loss as to how to find money both for the policeman and for her brother’s eyes. 

Old hag aside, all of Okiku’s problems are born of male failure. Her feckless brother has drawn her into his foolish romantic fancy, allowing himself to be swept away sold on the false promises of the Yoshiwara. Questioned by another patron, Oume reveals that she liked Rikiya but is turned off by “persistent” men. She enjoys the attention she gets, not to mention the gifts, but is not interested in the kind of relationship which limits her freedom. The archery parlour itself is a carnivalesque world of giddy madness, a permanent party town filled with maniacal laughter and the false jollity of those trying to escape despair through mindless hedonism. Rikiya is blind to his delusion and has no idea he has been trapped. Unlike Oume, Okiku is a pure soul and unable to manipulate male interest for her own ends. She finds herself caught between the old hag and the bogus policeman trying to protect the brother who made no attempt to protect her, even hiding in a cupboard when he suspected that his attacker had followed him home. 

Exploited from every possible angle, the siblings have nowhere left to turn but to each other. “If only I could live with you like this all my life” a chastened Rikiya exclaims, adding “I will take you, sister, wherever I escape” when the scene is ironically mirrored yet returning once again to Oume only to realise the degree to which he had been blinded by love even as he could see. Not even fraternal bonds are strong enough to survive the storm of human selfishness. Kinugasa conjures a world of spiralling madness in which cruelty and indifference are the only constants. It doesn’t matter which way you go, the destination is the same. 


Souls on the Road (路上の霊魂, Minoru Murata, 1921)

vlcsnap-2017-12-09-00h26m35s417Minoru Murata was one of the most important figures in early Japanese cinema but as the majority of his 36 films are lost and he sadly died at the young age of 43 in 1937, his work has largely been over looked outside of scholarly circles. Starting his career as an actor in the “shingeki” movement which aimed to bring modern, naturalist theatre to Japanese stages, Murata first performed in Norimasa Kaeriyama’s “Pure Films” in 1918 before joining Shochiku’s acting school on the recommendation of playwright Kaoru Osanai. The “Pure Film” movement, like the Shingeki movement in theatre, sought to create a new more modern Japanese cinema as opposed to the overly theatrical, kubuki influenced productions of the time. Souls on the Road (路上の霊魂, Rojo no Reikon), an early directorial effort for Murata in which he also stars, was made for Shochiku and is very much influenced by the Pure Film Movement as well as foreign cinema from Europe and America.

The narrative of Souls on the Road is adapted from two foreign literature sources – Gorky’s play The Lower Depths and the German novel Mutter Landstrasse, das Ende einer Jugend by Wilhelm August Schmidtbonn. Influenced by the work of D.W. Griffith, Murata cuts between the stories of four interconnected groups of people – a failed violinist who returns home to his family with a wife and daughter in tow, two escaped convicts hiding out in the woods, the local master and his servants including a young woodcutter played by the director, and a wealthy young girl.

The central drama revolves around the musician who left home under a cloud to become a concert violinist in Tokyo but failed to make a success of himself. Despite having a fiancée at home, Koichiro (Denmei Suzuki) has married a Tokyo woman (Haruko Sawamura) and has a young daughter. Desperate and starving, the trio have made the snowbound journey back to Koichiro’s Hokkaido village largely on foot but Koichiro’s father (Kaoru Osanai) who is the master of a large estate refuses to help him. The former fiancée, Mitsuko (Ryuko Date), who is also Koichiro’s cousin, still lives with the master and is distressed by Koichiro’s return. Battling her own emotional pain, she wants to help Koichiro’s wife and daughter who are obviously in a bad way, but is also conditioned by the need to obey the master’s instructions even when they seem cruel and immoral.

Murata bookends the film with direct quotes – firstly from Gorky’s play and then from the Bible emphasising the need for human compassion. The master’s refusal to help his son is directly contrasted with the fate of the two convicts who cross Koichiro’s path in the forest. The two men originally try to rob Koichiro, but seeing that they too have nothing and the little girl is close to starving, the convicts give up their own food to help them. When they chance upon house they remain conflicted about trying to rob it – they don’t want to end up back in prison and they don’t want to steal but they are also starving and have no other options. The custodian of the house catches them in the act and enacts a sadistic punishment but later changes his mind and decides to help them.

Meanwhile, one of the master’s servants, a boy named Taro (played by director Minoru Murata), runs into the rebellious young mistress of a local estate (Yuriko Hanabusa) who dresses in a sailor suit and gleefully shoots her minder with an air gun to avoid having to go home. The young mistress strikes up a cross class friendship with Taro and invites him to the Christmas party she is organising at her mansion to which pretty much everyone is invited regardless of class origins or backgrounds. The young mistress’ “Christmas Party” might seem incongruous for a rural town in the Japan of 1921 and does indeed take on the trappings of Russian literature with the mummers and balalaika players replaced with traditional Yagibashi dancers, but the party itself seems to have no particular religious dimension as the young mistress dreams of being visited by Santa and a small shot of Mitsuko seeming to pray as Koichiro’s wife and daughter lie freezing in a barn is the only hint of a real presence of Christian thought outside of the overt references in the framing sequences and overall Christianising morality of the film as a whole.

Murata’s signature approach mixes an entrenched naturalism of location shooting and realistic performances with expressionistic techniques. Literally “souls” on the road, Murata introduces as series of ghosts using dissolves and superimpositions as the protagonists are haunted by alternate pasts and futures or even by themselves as Koichiro finds himself interrogated by the hopeful violinist who left with big dreams but has brought his wife and child to the brink of starvation and death from cold in a barn steps away from his childhood home. Somewhat heavy handed in its closing moments as Taro wonders what might have been if the master had been more forgiving and welcomed his son home instead of punishing him for leaving, and the young mistress wonders what might have happened to the convicts if the custodian had not taken pity on them, Souls on the Road is an early visionary masterpiece far ahead of its time which looks forward to a new kind of Japanese cinema.