The Swordsman and the Actress (大江戸千両囃子, Yasushi Sasaki, 1955)

Working mainly with Toei, singer Hibari Misora was able to carve out for herself a distinctive career as a tentpole movie star in the early post-war period. In contrast to other female stars of the day, Misora’s leading women are generally feisty and rebellious standing up against injustice in period films and contemporary dramas alike while she also made a point of subverting societal gender norms often crossdressing or playing with gender ambiguity. 1955’s The Swordsman and the Actress (大江戸千両囃子, Oedo Senryo Bayashi) meanwhile sees her taking a backseat to the main action but sowing the seeds for her later career as she stops a cruel samurai plot in its tracks and even gets to participate in the final showdown. 

The drama starts when young actress Koharu (Hibari Misora) misplaces her fan and is lent one by another performer which attracts the attention of bad samurai Shuzen Ogaki (Kyu Sazanaka) who recognises it as having once belonged to the Shogun. As it turns out, Koharu’s friend Hanji (Rentaro Kita) was gifted the fan by a childhood friend, a noble woman, Okyo (Keiko Yashioji), for whom he may have had feelings which would could never be returned seeing as he was the son of a maid. Having seen him in a play but feeling it would be inappropriate to meet, Okyo sent the fan in fondness but had not realised it to be valuable and is now in a difficult position as the Shogun will soon be visiting and if he does not see the fan will be offended. Shuzen wants the fan for himself to embarrass Okyo and her husband and advance his own position. Just as Okyo dispatches trusted retainer Gennojo (Chiyonosuke Azuma) to ask Hanji to return the fan, Shuzen sends in his goons killing Hanji but only after he manages to substitute a fake fan for the real one. 

What follows is a complicated game of find the lady as the fake fan and the real are swapped between Gennojo and Shuzen often via a pair of pickpockets, Oryu (Ayuko Saijo) and sidekick, who alternately help and hinder largely because Oryu develops a crush on the extremely disinterested Gennojo. As usual, Koharu is on the side of right trying to fulfil Hanji’s dying wish by returning the fan to Okyo before the Shogun’s New Year visit but is also on a side quest of her own in looking for her long lost sister. It would be tempting in a sense to view the fan as cursed as it indeed provokes nothing but trouble, not only getting Hanji killed and endangering the lives of Okyo and her son, but also provoking discord wherever it’s mentioned sending a pair of married shopkeepers into a blazing row when they realise their young son may have walked off with the priceless object (and later sold it so his mum can buy sake). 

In the quest for the fan, Koharu takes a backseat while Gennojo does most of the leg work played as he is by jidaigeki star Chiyonosuke Azuma with whom Misora would frequently co-star. Though there are hints of a romance it is not the main thrust of the drama considering Misora’s relative youth, though she does get to wistfully sing the title song several times over. Meanwhile the pair are finally joined by a late in the game appearance from veteran Ryutaro Otomo as a typically raucous ronin, Jubei, who steals the screen to such an extent it almost seems as if the film is part of a series revolving around his character who turns out to be another victim of Shuzen’s plot having been exiled from his clan supposedly for having turned down the advances of his now mistress Oren. “I, Fujisaki Jubei, may be unemployed but mine is still the sword of righteousness and it doesn’t like evil doers!” he snarls apparently quite fed up with samurai corruption. 

Sasaki certainly has a lot of fun with his fan swapping shenanigans, even going slightly experimental in an excuse to give Chiyonosuke Azuma a fan dance while throwing in additional comic relief from the bumbling pickpockets and some strangely comic death scenes but does not disappoint as the major heroes and villains reunite in the final showdown taking place as it does on stage and allowing Koharu’s troupe mistress to show off her sword skills while Oryu redeems herself and the evil samurai plot is finally defeated by the forces of righteousness. An anarchic affair, Swordsman and the Actress never takes itself too seriously but nevertheless sows the seeds for many of Misora’s subsequent adventures as she sets the world to rights again with the aid of her two complementary samurai sidekicks. 


Musical clip (no subtitles)

The Big Boss (暗黒街の顔役, Kihachi Okamoto, 1959)

By 1959, Japan was well on the way towards economic recovery but this transitionary period brought with it its own dilemmas and particularly for those whose main line of business had in a sense depended on instability and desperation. The first of Kihachi Okamoto’s early crime capers, The Big Boss (暗黒街の顔役, Ankokugai no kaoyaku) finds the yakuza at just this moment of crisis, prescient in a sense in perhaps prematurely implying that post-war gangsterdom was already on its way out. 

The film opens, however, with a piece of yakuza thuggery as a mysterious man guns down an industrialist before barreling down the stairs and into a waiting car occupied by getaway driver Mineo (Akira Takarada) who is inconveniently spotted by a passerby, 16-year-old ramen restaurant waitress Kana (Rumiko Sasa). As we discover, Mineo is the younger brother of veteran gangster Ryuta (Koji Tsuruta), a middle-ranking member of the newly rebranded, rapidly corporatising yakuza outfit Yokomitsu Trading who seem to specialise in legal debt collection and running the entertainment district. Torn between their desire for a degree of legitimacy and their thuggish instincts, Yokomitsu have evidently knocked off a rival using an external hitman but now have a problem on their hands especially as Mineo has apparently embarked on a career as a singer in a teen jazz bar located in the same area as Kana’s restaurant which is at the very least unwise. 

Mineo is in many ways the “innocent” seen in many other similarly themed yakuza dramas, still too young to have been corrupted by the underworld and only an accomplice in the crime for which he is being asked to pay. He wants to get out of the yakuza life and sees singing as his escape route, adopting the persona of “Eddie Mineo” and styling himself as a teen idol in the vein of the rock ’n roll American pop culture which seems to be dominiating the late ‘50s youth scene. Yet Okamoto is also clearly evoking the world of Hollywood crime cinema, the environment open and dusty while everyone seems to drive massive Cadillacs and his gangsters behave much more like those in American movies than traditional yakuza even as the traditional yakuza is also changing. 

“I can’t stand it anymore” Ryuta finally exclaims, “There’s neither righteousness nor rules among mobsters”, tipped over the edge by the gang’s plan to kill the teenage witness. He wants out too, but considers himself already too far gone while pulled in two directions in his desire to save both his brother and his young son who has a lame leg and is being cared for in a hospital. Ryuta wears his wedding ring throughout though there’s no mention of what happened to his wife, while he’s also pulled between two potential love interests in the sympathetic doctor who cares for his son, Sumiko (Yumi Shirakawa), and the brassy cabaret girl, Rie (Mitsuko Kusabue), who does her best to save him, but in the end is never very much interested in either of them. He’s constantly haunted by his crimes, knowing what happens to yakuza who fall from grace in his murder of a man who limped and walked with a crutch just like his son. 

The clan are also planning to off a former foot soldier, Ishiyama, who in fact commits suicide immediately after his release from prison realising the futility of his position. Ishiyama’s suicide note directly references that of notorious post-war gangster Rikio Ishikawa whose life inspired Kinji Fukasaku’s Graveyard of Honor 15 years later “I took too big a gamble. lt’s a big laugh. It’s been a thirty year long spree.“ Ryuta realises there’s no way out of his life of crime, but finds himself conflicted even in his desire to ensure his brother and son remain free of it. His sense of futility is however wider, witnessing the death and decline of the traditional yakuza in itself the film climaxing in a moment of yakuza apocalypse as those apparently sick and tired of violence and intimidation finally fight back making it clear that organised crime is no longer welcome in the increasingly prosperous society. 

Skewing darker in tone than Okamoto’s subsequent entries into the “ankokugai” or “underworld” series, The Big Boss is lighter on his characteristically absurdist sense of humour but does feature a little of the exaggerated, cartoonish violence otherwise his hallmark while adding a note of irony as in his use of a sign outlining the numbers for police and ambulance or the sight of a bunch of children playing with guns while a hitman has a go on the swings. There is perhaps a sense of resistance to the conventionality of the material or that his relative inexperience, this being only his third film (the first two both romantic comedy vehicles for Izumi Yukimura) prevented him from fully embracing his anarchic spirit but The Big Boss nevertheless sows the seeds of his later career in its insistence on the absurdity of violence. 


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Mother (おかあさん, Mikio Naruse, 1952)

The hahamono or mother movie is a mainstay of post-war cinema, obsessed as it is with self-sacrificing maternity. Mikio Naruse, however, is not a name you’d expect to see associating itself with the genre and his 1952 film Mother (おかあさん, Okaasan), adapted from a child’s essay, is indeed subtly subversive, transgressively questioning the institution of motherhood itself while ostensibly remaining faithful to genre norms even as it makes an accidental villain of its teenage heroine who closes the film plaintively praying for her mother’s happiness having not so long ago shut down perhaps her only real hope of achieving it. 

The Fukuhara family ran a successful laundry before the war, but these days father Ryosuke (Masao Mishima) works at a factory and is nicknamed Papa Popeye by his kids because of his finely tuned muscles born of a lifetime training the iron. Matriarch Masako (Kinuyo Tanaka) and 18-year-old daughter Toshiko (Kyoko Kagawa), our narrator, help the family finances by running street food stalls, while oldest son Susumu (Akihiko Katayama) has become ill with a lung complaint caused by poor conditions at the wool factory where he was working. In addition to youngest daughter Chako who is still in school, the family has also taken in little Tetsu (Takashi Ito) the son of Masako’s sister Noriko (Chieko Nakakita) who is now a widow recently repatriated from Manchuria. 

Like many films of the occupation period, the family at the centre of Mother is determined to rebuild, pinning all their hopes on being able to renovate their home in order to be able to reopen the laundry. The war is very much a background presence but its influence is still deeply felt not least in the ruins and devastation glimpsed around the house and the constant references to loss and widowhood which seem to plague Masako, so many women having lost sons and husbands in the conflict. The tragedy is that Masako will eventually in one sense or another lose all her children by the end of the picture, Susumu succumbing to his illness after having discharged himself from hospital out of guilt and loneliness missing his mother, Chako eventually taken in by wealthier relatives who lost their son in the war, Tetsu soon to be retrieved by his mother, and Toshiko herself clearly heading towards marriage with the cheerful and surprisingly progressive baker Shinjiro (Eiji Okada) with whom she has become close. 

Perhaps surprisingly Toshiko seems remarkably immature for her age, her voiceover taken as it is from a child’s essay has a slightly stilted quality that nevertheless makes plain her poor grasp of the adult world and most particularly the reality of her mother’s life. Masako later tells us that she started working at 14 and continued until she married at not so much older than Toshiko is now despite later stating that Toshiko is too young to marry only to find her self shocked when confronted by the sight of her in a wedding dress stifling a brief wave of despair that her daughter may soon be a wife. Originally complaining about not being able to take dressmaking classes like some of the other girls, Toshiko belatedly swears to help support the family firstly to prevent Chako going to stay with relatives and secondly because her boyfriend inadvertently gives her the impression there’s truth in a local rumour that her mother plans to remarry following her husband’s death from overwork and poverty with a friend of their father’s who’s been helping them out in the shop, “Uncle POW” Mr. Kimura (Daisuke Kato). 

Shinjiro is quick to tell her that she’s being unreasonable. In the modern world parents shouldn’t be expected to sacrifice their personal desires for their children, her mother is also a woman and has the right to pursue happiness in marrying again if she chooses. On the other hand, there is nothing particularly concrete between Masako and Mr. Kimura besides a genial domesticity, the rumour is partly local wishful thinking in knowing that remarriage is sensible economic choice and the pair seem well suited. Toshiko objects strongly to the idea out of fear, jealousy, and outdated moralising resenting her mother for betraying her father’s memory but also fearing further changes in her familial relationships in an already uncertain world. 

In this her otherwise saccharine closing monologue in which she looks on as her mother plays with Tetsu and wonders if she’s really “happy” achieves its final irony, transgressively undercutting the primacy of the self-sacrificing mother to question the ideology of motherhood itself when it requires women to sacrifice their lives and desires in service of an ideal of “family”. Nevertheless, Mother is among the most ostensibly cheerful of Narusean dramas in the gentle comedy and naturalistic depiction of a warm and loving family committed to compassion, kindness, and mutual support as pathways towards a better post-war future.  


Mother is currently available to stream in the US via Criterion Channel

The Rose on His Arm (太陽とバラ, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1956)

In the mid-1950s, a minor moral panic took hold over the so-called “Sun Tribe” movies which, inspired by the novels of Shintaro Ishihara, depicted a world of crazed abandon in which a collection of bored rich kids lost themselves in the hedonistic pursuits of sex and drugs rejecting the stability the wartime generation had striven so hard to create for their children. Shochiku, at that time the home of polite melodrama, nevertheless attempted to get in on the youth movie boom mostly through commissioning a series of young directors such as Kiju Yoshida and Nagisa Oshima in the hope that they could speak directly to their generation. Meanwhile, the by that point well-established Keisuke Kinoshita also made his own, perhaps surprising, take on the genre with The Rose on His Arm (太陽とバラ, Taiyo to Bara), a youth movie melodrama which nevertheless anticipated the questions others were beginning to ask about the Sun Tribe movies in their very particular view of contemporary class dynamics. 

Our hero, Kiyoshi (Katsuo Nakamura), is like the (anti-)heroes of the post-Sun Tribe youth movies, a poor boy turned delinquent out of a sense of frustrated hopelessness. Quitting one job after another solely because the work is boring, he spends most of his days hanging out at the beach with other no good kids robbing unsuspecting bathers. Kiyoshi’s sense of inferiority is compounded by the fact that his mother (Sadako Sawamura) works as a maid for a wealthy family while making ends meet by crafting paper flowers by night. The young master of the house where his mother works, Masahiro (Akira Ishihama), never misses a chance to lord his wealth over him but later co-opts Kiyoshi into his group of wealthy friends as a source of entertainment (and because his delinquent friend, Yamanaka (Tamotsu Tamura), begins supplying them with drugs).

“I screwed up my life because I was poor, what’s your excuse?” Kiyoshi eventually asks an indifferent Masahiro after beginning to see him for what he is. Like the hero of Punishment Room, Kiyoshi’s internalised resentment is partly down to a paternal failure in that he is deeply ashamed of his late father who died, his mother claimed, saving him but also in the course of his activities as a black marketeer in which he’d forced his son to be complicit. The family had apparently tried to make a life for themselves in the new colonies, in this case Palau, but of course had to return to Japan and were then penniless. People did what they had to do, but no one trusts a black marketeer and it seems to be a stain Kiyoshi (whose name means “pure”) cannot wash off. As a poor boy with no education or prospects, he knows all that awaits him is drudgery, so why not make a fast buck stealing purses at the beach rather than slave away at the factory for a week making less than Masahiro gets in pocket money from his factory owner father? 

Convincing himself he’s no good, Kiyoshi consistently sabotages opportunities but resents himself for doing so. He begins to buckle down at the factory but quickly becomes “bored” and starts taking advantage of his supportive floor manager while sucked into Masahiro’s hedonistic lifestyle even after it becomes obvious that he’s keeping him around to be some kind of hired goon, good for punching other pasty rich boys and hooking him up with underworld thrills. Masahiro is a delinquent because his life is too easy, he has no economic imperative to be responsible and will most likely go to college and then either take over the factory or walk into a lucrative salaryman job. Kiyoshi is a delinquent because he’s desperate and has no other means of living. 

Meanwhile he resents his mother’s love, shamed, in more than one sense, by her continuing industry. She often tells him the story of how he fell ill on Palau only to make a miraculous recovery after which she collapsed into a rose a garden. To spite her, Kiyoshi gets the titular rose tattooed on his arm, something which forever marks him out as a ne’er do well in conservative Japanese society, all but guaranteeing he’ll never get an honest job (he even has to cover the tattoo with bandages in public places to avoid causing offence). Eventually he takes drastic action to end his sense of hopelessness, pursuing what is strangely a darker yet more romantic destiny than that of his post-Sun Tribe compatriots in taking a poetic stand, paper rose in hand, defying his despair only through embracing it. 


The Rose on His Arm is currently available to stream in the US via Criterion Channel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

BFI re-release trailer (English subtitles)

Early Spring (早春, Yasujiro Ozu, 1956)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Beast Shall Die (野獣死すべし, Eizo Sugawa, 1959)

“He’s not a beast. No, he’s a robot. A machine created by a modern, twisted society” according to a frustrated policeman acknowledging that a sociopathic killer is going to get away with his crimes because when it comes right down to it he’s just that good. Eizo Sugawa’s The Beast Shall Die (野獣死すべし, Yaju Shisubeshi) is the first of several adaptations of the hardboiled novel by Haruhiko Oyabu, Sugawa would himself direct a “sequel” 15 years later while a better-known version would prove a hit for Toru Murakawa in 1980 with action star Yusaku Matsuda in the leading role, and a two-part V-cinema adaptation would follow in 1997. The 1959 edition however is very much an expression of the anxiety of its times, a slightly reactionary take on the post-Sun Tribe phenomenon hinting at a generational divide between the nihilistic, hyper individualist post-war generation and their confused though morally compromised forbears. 

As the film opens, three policemen meet in a pub one of whom proudly shows off a Robby the Robot toy he’s picked up for his young son and is intending to give him on returning home from work. Sadly, however, Okada (Akira Sera) will never make it home because, for largely unexplained reasons, he is shot dead by nihilistic American literature student Date (Tatsuya Nakadai) who bundles the body into the boot of a car which he then simply abandons. Date never reveals much of a motive for this first murder, but he does later use Okada’s warrant card and service weapon to facilitate later crimes. 

The problem, at least for earnest policemen Kawashima (Eijiro Tono), a veteran cop and father of seven, and idealistic rookie Masugi (Hiroshi Koizumi) who is engaged to barmaid Yoko (Yumi Shirakawa) but drags his feet over the marriage because of his precarious life as a law enforcement officer, is an ideological divide within the contemporary police force. “Investigations are about science. And science is the best” according to their boss, reflecting a new faith in forensics prioritising physical evidence from the crime scene over a policeman’s intuition. From a modern perspective, this seems to be the right call though Kawashima and Masugi appear to find it both restrictive and mildly insulting as if their experience on the job now counts for nothing. They also worry that such rigid thinking prevents thorough investigation, and they might have a point in the boss’ continued insistence that the crimes must be down to “gang activity” even though the evidence clearly points at someone connected to the university or perhaps a disgruntled salaryman with access to the uni gun club. 

Kawashima and Masugi lament that they feel powerless to act because they don’t have the right to arrest someone on the basis of a “hunch”, and the film seems to agree with them as Date continues to commit his crimes unbothered by law enforcement though really who wants to live in such an authoritarian society that the police can haul you in solely because they think there’s something odd about you and “feel” you must be guilty of a crime even in the absence of conclusive evidence? Nevertheless it’s precisely these ideological divides that Date wilfully exploits while planning his hits, his second targets also reflecting the continuing Sinophobia of post-war cinema in impersonating a police officer to rob, but interestingly not kill, a pair of Chinese gangsters running an illegal gambling racket. 

Hearing Date’s back story, we realise that society has in a sense warped him in witnessing an injustice done to his father which later led to his suicide while his mother was apparently engaging in an affair with the man who framed him. He strongly argues that the only response to the “chaos, madness, and contradictions” of the modern society is to “show our beastly nature”, wilfully abandon humanistic morality and conventional civility in favour of an individualistic satisfaction of one’s personal desires above all other concerns. Date is certainly an amoral man who has no problem with sacrificing those he determines to be lesser beings for his own gain, but as even Masugi reveals his thinking may not be out of line with that of his generation. Many people are driven to murderous rage, he argues, but do not act on it because of a social taboo. 

As the film opens, a group of left-wing students is holding a rally in support of the anti-ANPO protests ahead of the treaty’s imminent renewal, though the professors mock them from inside insisting that their politics is not genuine only a reflection of the despair they feel in their society knowing that even if they graduate all that awaits them are low-level salaryman jobs with little promise of advancement. Those who can’t even manage that, they joke, turn to academia. Date’s professor (Nobuo Nakamura) affects sympathy with his poverty but also wilfully exploits him, getting him to do translations of novels which will later be published under his own name while it seems to be an open secret that he owes much of his success to the fact that he married into a prominent family which allowed him to spend five years studying abroad in America. 

Meanwhile, his students philosophise on the psychology of crime insisting that a “robotic, truly ruthless personality” can only come from a “mechanistic society like the US” while Japanese criminals are generally “emotional” in that crimes are committed because of “love affairs, resentment, finances”, “petty humanistic motives” which society can easily understand if not exactly condone. Date, admittedly a student of American literature with his eyes firmly set on going abroad, entirely disproves this theory. His crimes appear to be dispassionate and committed largely for practical reasons, the later ones at least with money as the motive even if he also derives a thrill from his amoral rebellion against the system. His poverty is offered as a justification yet we also see him abuse and manipulate those weaker than himself, humiliating an old lady trying to sell flowers in the bar where Yoko works while later talking a fellow student suffering with TB and unable to pay his tuition into helping him commit a robbery. 

Perhaps in someways uncomfortably in continuing a motif associating homosexuality with sadistic criminality, it’s also heavily implied that Date is bisexual, encountering an effeminate young man on the street with whom it is clear from their conversation he has previously been intimate to later use him as cannon fodder when engaging in a firefight with Chinese gangsters, while there is also an obvious homoerotic charge to his relationship to the student who later becomes a temporary accomplice. His relations with women are somewhat caddish and perfunctory, his sometime girlfriend Tae (Reiko Dan) telling the police that Date is a player who only sleeps with the same woman three times before becoming bored with her. Date’s attitude, though interestingly enough not his crimes, may reflect a societal misogyny, impoverished medical student Tae later refused access to the morgue because it’s not something a woman should see, though Tae herself later claims that it’s Date’s coldness and cruelty that draw her to him. Seemingly unable to feel genuine emotion for others, it nevertheless appears that Date is in a sense moved enough by Tae’s ability to embrace his inner darkness to eventually decide to alleviate her poverty on realising he no longer needs his ill-gotten gains because he’s secured his passage to America through more legitimate means. 

A reaction to the post-Sun Tribe sense of moral panic about disillusioned post-war youth, The Beast Shall Die suggests that for the moment at least those like Date are in an unassailable position thanks to an overly liberal justice system as the two policemen lament their inability to prevent his escape through judicial means while turning their attention to Tae though there’s no real way they can know that Date gave the stolen money to her rather than taking it with him or depositing it in some other location even if she’s walking around with an ugly handbag that might be full of cash. Alternating between an acceptance of Date’s nihilistic, crypto-fascist philosophy in implying that those who obey the rules of civility are doing so solely because they are too weak to break them, and advocating for a more authoritarian society in which policemen are free to act on their “hunches”, Sugawa’s take on Oyabu’s hard boiled tale of societal corruption and warped post-war morality has its reactionary qualities even as it ends on a note of ambiguity that implies order will eventually triumph though not, it seems, today. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Equinox Flower (彼岸花, Yasujiro Ozu, 1958)

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Repast (めし, Mikio Naruse, 1951)

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

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

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

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

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

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