The Ballad of Narayama (楢山節考, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1958)

ballad of narayama kinoshita 1958 posterMany naughty children running low on filial piety have probably been told the folktale about a man who took his son along when he abandoned his senile father on a mountain to die only to have his son later do the same thing to him. In Japan, the mythical practice of “obasute” or “ubasute” is a kind of Logan’s Run equivalent in which elderly people elect to remove themselves from society in order to reduce the burden on the young. The Ballad of Narayama (楢山節考, Narayama-bushi Ko) has, perhaps, taken on an additional degree of pathos in ageing Japan in which many elderly people find themselves metaphorically cast out from a society in which they have become the majority, but the idea of “obasute” is intended to be a lesson to the young to treasure their elders and accept the responsibility to care for those who can no longer care for themselves in the knowledge that they too will one day be old.

Keisuke Kinoshita is sometimes criticised for his supposed sentimentalism but his central concern was always in the redemptive power of the relationships between people, that there is always kindness even in the worst of circumstances and that this is enough for hope to survive. In telling the sorry tale of Narayama in which those of over 70-years-of-age are forced into a ritual suicide by social convention, Kinoshita opts for alienation in deliberately shifting into a theatrical register inspired by kabuki featuring obvious studio sets, stylised action, and traditional narration, but his decision to pull back makes the message all the more painful, as does the insistence on the timelessness of his tale.

Long ago in the distant feudal past, 69-year-old Orin (Kinuyo Tanaka) knows that it will soon be time for her widowed son, Tatsuhei (Teiji Takahashi), to carry her to Narayama where she hopes to die of exposure in the New Year snows. She has made her peace with this, it is the will of the gods and she has no call to disobey. Her son, however, is distraught to think of the time he will be expected to carry his elderly mother to a remote spot in the mountains and leave her there, alone, to die of cold and starvation. When a messenger arrives from Orin’s home village to propose a match for Tatsuhei, a recently widowed woman of exactly the same age – Tama (Yuko Mochizuki), Orin is overjoyed – she can go to Narayama without fear or worry, her son and grandsons will be looked after even after she is gone.

The tradition began because the villages in this region are extremely poor. Tatsuhei and Orin will be enjoying their one and only bowl of white rice for the year in celebration of Bon. Orin’s self-centred grandson Kesakichi (Danko Ichikawa) has made up a horrible song about his grandma in which he criticises her for still having all her own teeth at 70 – implying that, as she is not malnourished enough to have lost them, she must have been greedy and taken more than her fair share of food. Unable to bear such reproach, Orin smashes out her own front teeth to better conform to the conventions of her society and make herself a more acceptable sacrifice to the gods as a good and pious woman.

This early horrific act is perhaps the key in illuminating Kinoshita’s gentle critique of social conformity as a tool of social control – something which had become increasingly apparent during the militarist era. Orin, a kind and decent woman, is herself complicit in this abhorrent custom – her acceptance of it is part of her goodness, a sign of her altruistic self-sacrificing nature, but her own unwillingness to challenge the darker aspects of the society in which she lives leads only to their perpetuation and an ongoing descent into unkindness and cruelty.

Tatsuhei, a good and pious son, cannot reconcile himself to his mother’s fate, while his own son, Kesakichi, openly mocks his grandmother for not going sooner and Kesakichi’s pregnant girlfriend (Keiko Ogasawara) looks on enviously at the extra beans on offer if there were one less mouth to feed. Old and bent, Orin still plays a vital part in her community – she harvests the rice while Kesakichi lounges in trees, and she alone knows the best place to catch trout, a valuable skill in a village where food is scarce. Despite the possibility for disaster, Orin and Tama bond instantly as kindred spirits, both kind people in an often unkind world. It’s to Tama that Orin finally divulges her knowledge – something the village will be poorer for when she is gone, having passed her familial responsibilities to another woman and seen her son happily settled with a perfectly suited second wife.

When Tatsuhei returns, broken, after having performed the dreaded ritual he watches his own cruel son laughing and joking from within their shared home, caring only for himself and his easy pleasures. Tama, equally upset over the loss of Orin with whom she had bonded as mother, tries to comfort her husband but is eventually overcome by the tragedy of life, taking comfort only in the fact that, when they are 70, she and Tatsuhei will climb Narayama together.

Hardship, far from bringing people together in the famous harmony that Japanese society praises itself for, has forced them apart, infected them with a sense of mutual distrust and a them or us mentality. Orin feeds the senile old man cast out from his own unfeeling family, but she also urges him towards making a sacrifice of himself on Narayama, genuinely believing that both of their existences have become inappropriate, a greedy usurpation of time which rightfully now belongs to others. Kinoshita respects Orin for her stoicism and righteousness, but pities her for the cruelty of the world in which she lived and was so powerless to resist that it never occurred to her that she should. There is a painful sensitivity around those who willingly went to their deaths in service of something they believed to be right because their society said it must be so, never daring to consider the ways in which their society may be mistaken.

Heavily stylised and markedly experimental for a mainstream Shochiku melodrama of the late 1950s, Kinoshita’s The Ballad of Narayama is a heartrending tale of transience and inevitability, but it’s also one of the various ways a stringent society erodes the bonds between people. The intense love of Tatsuhei for his mother is destroyed by a terrible custom that no one is brave enough to defy, leaving the family rudderless and the village poorer for having been robbed not only of Orin’s wealth of experience but of her warmth and kindness. Kinoshita ends on an ambiguous image showing us the modern train station which stands on the former village of “Obasute”, demonstrating the passage of time and arrival of “modernity” but also that ancient customs are never quite as “ancient” as they seem.


Scene from near the end of the film (English subtitles)

Forever With You (그대와 영원히 / 그대와永遠히, Yu Hyun-mok,1958)

Forever with you posterBest remembered for his 1961 feat of neorealist social drama Aimless Bullet, Yu Hyun-mok was one of the early masters of Korea’s golden age who sought to bring a degree of intellectual rigour and formal experimentation to a medium which often favoured the populist or propagandist. He did, however, have to start somewhere and the earliest surviving film in Yu’s filmography is indeed a melodrama though one perhaps a little to the side of the norm and with an axe to grind as regarding economic equalities and the demands of spiritual morality, even if he is forced to retreat to entrenched social codes in the closing moments.

The camera pans over a city filled with rooftops and eventually lingers on a group of children playing quietly by a wall. Panning over the wall which is exceedingly high, Yu reveals the children to have been playing on the other side of a prison where Gwang-pil (Lee Ryong), an inmate, is about to be released after 10 years inside. All things considered, Gwang-pil does not seem to be a hardened criminal and is optimistic for the future, intending to go straight and hoping to reconnect with the childhood sweetheart he believes is still waiting for him in the outside world though they have not seen each other since Gwang-pil made an ill-advised escape attempt and got his sentence increased a number of years. He recounts all of this to another inmate who is happy for him, broadly, but not quite convinced Gwang-pil is going to make it in the regular world.

Switching to a lengthily flashback, Yu allows Gwang-pil to recount the circumstances which landed him in jail, which also gives the director a chance to engage with his socio-political concerns. 10 years previously, Gwang-pil was a happy young man from an exceptionally poor village who was best friends with Ae-ran (Do Kum-bong). Ae-ran works in a bakery to help support her family, and often walks home with Gwang-pil which is one of the few times they have to be together. A happy day at the beach sees them building sandcastles and dreaming of the life they will one day live with a house and children of their own, only to see all their dreams washed away by a sudden outbreak of rain. In desperate need of money both to support himself and his bedridden mother and to impress Ae-ran, Gwang-pil starts hanging round with delinquents and picking pockets. Though Gwang-pil wants to give back some of the money they stole fearing the woman they took it from is also poor and cannot spare it, he goes along with the delinquents’ plan to rob a nearby US army depot. The others get away but Gwang-pil is arrested and sent to prison.

The first and foremost motivator for Gwang-pil’s descent into criminality is poverty and familial breakdown. His father was a gambler who left his mother flat, while she has become bedridden and is dependent on her teenage son for financial support. With no real jobs available in the town and no prospect of a way out through education, Gwang-pil is seduced by crime despite having no real aptitude for it. The other motivator, if indirectly is Ae-ran or, more specifically, jealous insecurity related to the harmonica playing delinquent Dal-soo (Choi Nam-hyun). Too poor to afford a harmonica of his own, Gwang-pil fears losing Ae-ran to a flashier guy and so he picks pockets to buy her fancy treats little realising all she wants is his time – something he will rob her of by getting himself sent to prison.

The war between Gwang-pil and Dal-soo over possession of Ae-ran will occupy the rest of the film though Ae-ran, like many women in the golden age of Korean cinema, is left with little choice of her own other than to continue suffering. When Gwang-pil gets out of jail it’s one of the other delinquents who meets him – Sang-moon (Choi Myung-soo) has become a priest, in part out of remorse for what happened to Gwang-pil and regret over his criminal past. Sang-moon is determined to help Gwang-pil repair his life but knows finding out what happened to Ae-ran is going to break his heart and send him spiralling into a nihilistic whirlpool of despair. Ae-ran has married Dal-soo who chose the path of crime and still operates a dodgy hostess bar as a front for his gangster activities.

Gwang-pil is just as upset and angry as Sang-moon feared. So much so that he completely misses how miserable Ae-ran is in her marriage and that her daughter, Eun-joo, is nine years old meaning she was conceived before he went to prison. Obsessed with his own pain, anger, and self loathing he fails to see anything other than his ruined hopes and commits himself only to further ruination through drink and the attentions of the manager at Dal-soo’s bar which are not altogether as one might assume them to be.  Only too late does he begin to grasp the real situation but is still too wounded to process it fully. Dal-soo, knowing Ae-ran has never loved him and wondering if her decision to become his wife has been a long form act of revenge, sets a plan in motion to remove his rival from the scene while Gwang-pil also longs for revenge against the man who has stolen everything from him.

Dal-soo and Gwang-pil square off, leaving Ae-ran whose health is so poor and nerves so fragile that she has virtually lived in hospital for the last few years, to suffer alone with only the austere comfort of Sang-moon’s priestly ministrations. Wanting to be “a good wife” she stands by Dal-soo but fears for Gwang-pil, not only for his life but also for his soul lest he fall back into criminality in the shock and hopelessness of her betrayal. Her situation is impossible and the strain of it difficult to bear. She hates her husband and blames herself for the fate of her one true love but has no recourse other than to continue suffering or die. In keeping with the story’s melodrama origins, Ae-ran pays a heavy price for her “weakness”, as does Dal-soo, leaving only the priest and the wronged man behind, strengthened by the need to care for the daughter he never knew he had.

Far from the rigour and furious intent of Aimless Bullet, Forever with You (그대와 영원히 / 그대와永遠히, Geudaewa yeongwonhi) is a much more modest effort even among studio pictures from 1950s. Largely filmed on set with low production values, Forever With You does allow Yu a degree of formal experimentation as he makes frequent use of pans and zooms more commonly seen in the films of 20 years later and occasionally gives in to ostentation as in his expressionist spinning shot of Gwang-pil and a bar girl dancing as he attempts to lose himself in abandon, or an overhead view of a gangster meeting. In the end Gwang-pil comes to himself too late, only realising his foolishness just as he loses everything that mattered to him but Yu changes track, gives him hope again in the prospect of a new beginning, learning to live for others in purehearted sincerity whilst walking away proudly into the harshness of the post-war world.


Available on DVD as part of the Korean Film Archive’s Yu Hyun-mok boxset. Also available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s official YouTube Channel.

The Boy Who Came Back (踏みはずした春, Seijun Suzuki, 1958)

the boy who came back posterSeijun Suzuki may have been fired for making films that made no sense and no money, but he had to start somewhere before getting the opportunity to push the boat out. Suzuki’s early career was much like that of any low ranking director at Nikkatsu in that he was handed a number of program pictures often intended to push a pop song or starring one of the up and coming stars in the studio’s expanding youth output. The Boy Who Came Back (踏みはずした春, Fumihazushita Haru, AKA The Spring that Never Came) is among these early efforts and marks an early leading role for later pinup star Akira Kobayashi paired with his soon to be frequent leading lady, Ruriko Asaoka. A reform school tale, the film is a restrained affair for Suzuki who keeps the rage quelled for the most part while his hero struggles ever onward in a world which just won’t let him be.

Keiko (Sachiko Hidari) is a conductress on a tour bus, but she has aspirations towards doing good in the world and is also a member of the volunteer organisation, Big Brothers and Sisters. While the other girls are busy gossiping about one of their number who has just got engaged (but doesn’t look too happy about it), Keiko gets a message to call in to “BBS” and is excited to learn she’s earned her first assignment. Keiko will be mentoring Nobuo (Akira Kobayashi) – a young man getting out of reform school after his second offence (assault & battery + trying to throttle his father with a necktie, time added for plotting a mass escape). Nobuo, however, is an angry young man who’s done all this before, he’s not much interested in being reformed and just wants to be left alone to get back to being the cool as ice lone wolf that he’s convinced himself he really is.

Made to appeal to young men, The Boy Who Came Back has a strong social justice theme with Keiko’s well meaning desire to help held up as a public service even if her friends and family worry for her safety and think she’s wasting her time on a load of ne’er do wells. Apparently an extra-governmental organisation, BBS has no religious agenda but is committed to working with troubled young people to help them overcome their problems and reintegrate into society.

Reintegration is Nobuo’s biggest problem. He’s committed to going straight but he’s proud and unwilling to accept the help of others. He turns down Keiko’s offer to help him find work because he assumes it will be easy enough to find a job, but there are no jobs to be had in the economically straightened world of 1958 – one of the reasons Keiko’s mother thinks the BBS is pointless is because no matter how many you save there will always be more tempted by crime because of the “difficult times”. When he calms down and comes back, agreeing to an interview for work at his mother’s factory Nobuo leaves in a rage after an employee gives him a funny look. There are few jobs for young men, but there are none for “punks” who’ve been in juvie. Every time things are looking up for Nobuo, his delinquent past comes back to haunt him.

This is more literally true when an old enemy re-enters Nobuo’s life with the express intention of derailing it. His punk buddies don’t like it that he’s gone straight, and his arch rival is still after Nobuo’s girl, Kazue (Ruriko Asaoka). If Nobuo is going to get “reformed” he’ll have to solve the problem with Kajita (Jo Shishido) and his guys, but if he does it in the usual way, he’ll land up right in the slammer. Keiko’s dilemma is one of getting too involved or not involved enough – she needs to teach Nobuo to fix his self image issues (which are largely social issues too seeing as they relate to familial dysfunction – a violent father and emotionally distant mother creating an angry, fragile young man who thinks he’s worthless and no one will ever really love him) for himself, rather than try to fix them for him.

A typical program picture of the time, The Boy Who Came Back does not provide much scope for Suzuki’s rampant imagination, but it does feature his gift for unusual framing and editing techniques as well as his comparatively more liberal use of song and dance sequences in the (not quite so sleazy) bars and cabarets that Nobuo and his ilk frequent. Unlike many a Nikkatsu youth movie, The Boy Who Came Back has a happy ending as everyone, including the earnest Keiko, learns to sort out their various difficulties and walks cheerfully out into the suddenly brighter future with a much more certain footing.


The Boy Who Came Back is the first of five films included in Arrow’s Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years. Vol. 1 Seijun Rising: The Youth Movies box set.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Room for Let (貸間あり, Yuzo Kawashima, 1959)

room for rent poster“Life is just goodbyes” exclaims a tenant of the small, rundown boarding house at the centre of Yuzo Kawashima’s Room for Let (貸間あり, Kashima Ari). Best remembered for his anarchic farces, Kawashima takes a trip down south to the comedy capital of Japan for an exploration of life on the margins of a major metropolis as a host of eccentric characters attempt to negotiate the difficult post-war economy, each in someway having failed badly enough to end up here. Though the setting is perhaps depressing, the lively atmosphere of the boarding house is anything but and the residents, depending on each other as a community of solidarity, know they have the ultimate resource at their disposal in the form of infinitely kind hearted, multi-talented fixer Goro Yoda.

Our introduction to the boarding house follows the passage of an outsider, Yumiko Tsuyama (Chikage Awashima) – a ceramicist who wants to make use of Goro’s printing facilities, but to find him she’ll first have to run the gamut of eccentric residents from the batty bee keeper to the geisha currently trying to fumigate one of her patrons by riding him around the room and the henpecked husband who responds to his wife’s frequent shouts of “Darling!” with a military style “yes, sir!”. On her way to Goro’s jam packed annex, Yumiko notices a room to let sign along with a kiln in the courtyard which catches her eye. Taking a liking both to the room and to Goro, Yumiko moves in and subsequently gets herself involved in the oddly exciting world of an old-fashioned courtyard standing on a ridge above a rapidly evolving city.

Played by well known comedian Frankie Sakai (who played a similar role in Kawashima’s Bakumatsu Taiyoden of two years earlier), Goro is an awkward symbol of post-war malaise and confusion. Goro, a jack of all trades, is the man everyone turns to when they run into a seemingly unsolvable problem, and Goro almost always knows a way to solve them (for a price). His sign in the marketplace proclaims that he speaks several languages and is available for tutoring students, he’s written “how to” books on just about everything you can imagine, he knows how to make the perfect cabbage rolls and konyaku, ghostwrites serial fiction, and runs a small printing enterprise, yet Goro is not a scholar, (licensed) lawyer, doctor, or successful businessman he’s a goodhearted chancer living on his wits. He runs away from success and eventually from love because he doesn’t think he deserves it due his continuing “fakery”.

Despite his minor shadiness, Goro’s kindness and sincerity stand in stark contrast to the evils of his age. Like Goro, many of the boarding house residents are trying to get ahead through somewhat unconventional means including the bawdy lady from upstairs whose main business is blackmarket booze, the peeping-tom street punk who peddles dirty pictures near the station, and the sad young woman working as an independent geisha (Nobuko Otowa) to save enough money to marry her betrothed whom she hopes is still waiting for her at home in her tiny village. That’s not to mention the mad scientist bee keeper who can’t help describing everything he sees in terms of bees and has attempted to turn their apian secretions into a cream which increases sexual potency, or the enterprising landlady who realises she could charge a few more pennies for patrons who want to sit in a fancy seat or watch TV while they eat dinner.

Yumiko isn’t the only outsider sending shockwaves through the community, a young student armed with a camera and the determination to avoid parental disapproval, intends to petition Goro to take his exams for him. The aptly named Eto (Shoichi Ozawa) is a dim boy with seemingly infinite wealth who’d rather scheme his way to the top than invest his energy in getting there the honest way. In this he’s the inverse of Goro whose simple sincerity and easy going nature are, it is subtly suggested, partly the reason he hasn’t made his way in the increasingly duplicitous post-war society. Goro does, however, give in to Eto’s nefarious plan even if it conflicts with his otherwise solid honour code which also sees him turn down the “opportunity” of sleeping with his neighbour’s seemingly insatiable wife in one of the stranger requests coming in to his do anything shop.

Kawashima’s true mastery lies not in the myriad moments of small comedy that pepper the main narrative, but in the glorious way he brings them all together as a perfectly constructed farce. The residents of the boarding house (one of whom is so proud of the “room to let” sign he made that he doesn’t want to rent the room because then he’d have to take the sign down) each face their own difficulties and disappointments but even when darkness creeps in (suicides, arrest, sexual assault, and animal cruelty all raising their ugly heads) the absurd positivity and warmth of these ordinary Osakans seems to be enough to combat it. Life may be a series of goodbyes, but it must still be lived, at least to the best of one’s ability.


 Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018.

Also screening at:

Bakumatsu Taiyoden (幕末太陽傳, Yuzo Kawashima, 1957)

bakumatsu taiyoden posterMany things were changing in the Japan of 1957. In terms of cinema, a short lived series of films known as the “Sun Tribe” movement had provoked widespread social panic about rowdy Westernised youth. Inspired by the novels of Shintaro Ishihara (later a right-leaning mayor of Tokyo), the movement proved so provocative that it had to be halted after three films such was the public outcry at the outrageous depictions of privileged young people indulging in promiscuous sex, drugs, alcohol, and above all total apathy – frivolous lives frittered away on self destructive pleasures. The Sun Tribe movies had perhaps gone too far becoming an easy source of parody, though the studio that engineered them, Nikkatsu, largely continued in a similar vein making stories of youth gone wild their stock in trade.

Yuzo Kawashima, a generation older than the Sun Tribe boys and girls, attempts to subvert the moral outrage by reframing the hysteria as a ribald rakugo story set in the last period of intense cultural crisis – the “Bakumatsu” era, which is to say the period between the great black ships which forcibly re-opened Japan to the outside world, and the fall of the Shogunate. The title, Bakumatsu Taiyoden (幕末太陽傳), literally means “legend of the sun (tribe) in the Bakumatsu era”, and, Kawashima seems to suggest, perhaps things now aren’t really so different from 100 years earlier. Kawashima deliberately casts Nikkatsu’s A-list matinee idols – in particular Yujiro Ishihara (the brother of Shintaro and the face of the movement), but also Akira Kobayashi and familiar supporting face Hideaki Nitani, all actors generally featured in contemporary dramas and rarely in kimono. Rather than the rather stately acting style of the period drama, Kawashima allows his youthful cast to act the way they usually would – post-war youth in the closing days of the shogunate.

They are, however, not quite the main draw. Well known comedian and rakugo performer Frankie Sakai anchors the tale as a genial chancer, a dishonest but kindly man whose roguish charm makes him an endearing (if sometimes infuriating) character. After a post-modern opening depicting contemporary Shinagawa – a faded red light district now on its way out following the introduction of anti-prostitution legislation enacted under the American occupation, Kawashima takes us back to the Shinagawa of 1862 when business was, if not exactly booming, at least ticking along.

Nicknamed “The Grifter”, Saiheiji (Frankie Sakai) has picked up a rare watch dropped by a samurai on his way to plot revolution and retired to a geisha house for a night of debauchery he has no intention of actually paying for. Though he keeps assuring the owners that he will pay “later” when other friends turn up with the money, he is eventually revealed to be a con-man and a charlatan but offers to work off his debt by doing odd jobs around the inn. Strangely enough Saiheiji is actually a cheerful little worker and busily gets on with the job, gradually endearing himself to all at the brothel with his ability for scheming which often gets them out of sticky situations ranging from fake ghosts to customers who won’t leave.

Saiheiji eventually gets himself involved with a shady group of samurai led by Shinshaku Takasugi (Yujiro Ishihara) – a real life figure of the Bakumatsu rebellion. Like their Sun Tribe equivalents these young men are angry about “the humiliating American treaty”, but their anger seems to be imbued with purpose albeit a destructive one as they commit to burning down the recently completed “Foreign Quarter” as an act of protest-cum-terrorism. The Bakumatsu rebels are torn over the best path for future – they’ve seen what happened in China, and they fear a weak Japan will soon be torn up and devoured by European empire builders. Some think rapid Westernisation is the answer – fight fire with fire, others think showing the foreigners who’s boss is a better option (or even just expelling them all so everything goes back to “normal”). America, just as in the contemporary world, is the existential threat to the Japanese notion of Japaneseness – these young samurai are opposed to cultural colonisation, but their great grandchildren have perhaps swung the other way, drunk on new freedoms and bopping away to rock n roll wearing denim and drinking Coca Cola. They too resent American imperialism (increasingly as history would prove), but their rebellions lack focus or intent, their anger without purpose or aim.

Kawashima’s opening crawl directly references the anti-prostitution law enacted by the American occupying forces – an imposition of Western notions of “morality” onto “traditional” Japanese culture. In a round about way, the film suggests that all of this youthful rebellion is perhaps provoked by the sexual frustration of young men now that the safe and legal sex trade is no longer available to them – echoing the often used defence of the sex trade that it keeps “decent” women, and society at large, safe. Then again, the sex trade of the Bakumatsu era is as unpleasant as it’s always been even if the familiar enough problems are played for laughs – the warring geisha, the prostitute driven in desperation to double suicide, the young woman about to be sold into prostitution against her will in payment of an irresponsible father’s debt, etc. One geisha has signed engagement promises with almost all her clients – it keeps the punters happy and most of them are meaningless anyway. As she says, deception is her business – whatever the men might say about it, it’s a game they are willingly playing, buying affection and then seeming hurt to realise that affection is necessarily false and conditional on payment of the bill.   

Playing it for laughs is, however, Kawashima’s main aim – asking small questions with a wry smile as Saiheiji goes about his shady schemes with a cleverness that’s more cheeky than malicious. He warns people they shouldn’t trust him, but in the end they always can because despite his shady surface his heart is in the right place. Warned he’ll go to hell if he keeps on lying his way though life, Saiheiji laughs, exclaims to hell with that – he’s his own life to live, and so he gleefully runs away from the Bakumatsu chaos into the unseen future.


Masters of Cinema release trailer (English subtitles)

Rusty Knife (錆びたナイフ, Toshio Masuda, 1958)

rusty knife posterPost-war Japan was in a precarious place but by the mid-1950s, things were beginning to pick up. Unfortunately, this involved picking up a few bad habits too – namely, crime. The yakuza, as far as the movies went, were largely a pre-war affair – noble gangsters who had inherited the codes of samurai honour and were (nominally) committed to protecting the little guy. The first of many collaborations between up and coming director Toshio Masuda and the poster boy for alienated youth, Yujiro Ishihara, Rusty Knife (錆びたナイフ, Sabita Knife) shows us the other kind of movie mobster – the one that would stick for years to come. These petty thugs have no honour and are symptomatic parasites of Japan’s rapidly recovering economy, subverting the desperation of the immediate post-war era and turning it into a nihilistic struggle for total freedom from both laws and morals.

Public support is, largely, behind this new force of order as seen in the local uproar when top gangster Katsumata (Naoki Sugiura) is arrested in connection with an assault. Things being what they are, Katsumata is soon released to laugh at law enforcement from a safe distance but the past is coming for him. Some years ago Katsumata killed a local councillor, Nishida (Ikunosuke Koizumi), and made it look like suicide but three guys from a local gang saw him do it. He paid them to keep quiet, but now one of them feels like talking and thinks Katsumata might like to pay a little more to reseal the deal.

Chatty Tokyo thug Shima (Jo Shishido) gets pushed off a train for his pains but Katsumata is worried enough about the other two to send his guys out to make some enquires. He’s particularly worried about Tachibana (Yujiro Ishihara) – a “sleeping lion”, Tachibana is a hot head who’s now gone straight after coming out of jail for murdering a guy he thought was a direct cause of his girlfriend’s death. Luckily enough, Tachibana now runs a bar where he employs the other witness, Terada (Akira Kobayashi), to whom he acts as a stern big brother hoping to keep them both on the straight and narrow. Tachibana is unlikely to talk, he wants out of the gangster world for good, but Terada is young and ambitious with a girlfriend to impress. He takes more hush money from Katsumata, not realising what he’s getting himself into, and then lets it go to his head.

Tachibana is the rusty knife of the title. After letting his rage consume him in murdering a petty mobster in revenge for the rape of his girlfriend who later committed suicide, Tachibana has vowed to quell his anger and live a decent, peaceful life. Angry outbursts are, however, never far from the surface and following recent revelations, a rusty knife may find its cutting edge once again.

Keiko (Mie Kitahara), a customer at Tachibana’s bar, is making a documentary about violence in the city which coincidentally turns up a few clues as to Tachibana’s past, not to mention her own. The daughter of the murdered councilman, Nishida, and the niece of another powerful politician, Keiko is a figure of righteousness, charting her own course through the difficult post-war world and attempting to do so with dignity and elegance while refusing to abandon her sense of decency and compassion. Later a real life married couple, Kitahara and Ishihara were a frequent on screen romantic pairing though this time around the connection is more subtle as Keiko begins to sympathise with Tachibana’s plight and commits herself to saving him from destroying himself in becoming consumed by his barely suppressed rage.

Tachibana is indeed raging, though his rage is understandable. As someone later puts it “nothing in this city makes sense”. The systems are corrupt, the wartime generation continue to run the show and run it badly, or at least for their own ends, robbing youth of its rightful place at the forefront of economic recovery. Yet even if Ishihara is a symbol of youthful alienation, his rage is one which must be quelled. Even in this city where nothing makes sense, self control is one’s greatest weapon. If youth is to walk forward into the exciting post-war future, it will have to drop its rusty knives.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Elegy of the North (挽歌, Heinosuke Gosho, 1957)

elegy of the north posterHeinosuke Gosho is perhaps among the most neglected Japanese directors of the “golden age”. A pioneer of the “shomingeki”, Gosho’s work is marked by a profound humanism but also a refusal to reduce the complexity of human emotions to the superficially immediate. Elegy of the North (挽歌, Banka) takes him much further in the direction of standard melodrama than he would usually venture, echoing contemporary American or European romantic dramas filled with soaring scores and moments of intense emotion bridged by long periods of restraint and repression. Yet it is also among the most psychologically complex of Gosho’s narratives, telling stories of death and rebirth in place of the usual coming of age and first heartbreak for which the genre is so well loved. In Reiko (Yoshiko Kuga) he presents us with a heroine we can’t be sure we like and certainly are not intended to approve of even as we sympathise with her pain and long for an end to her (often self inflicted) suffering.

Walking along the smoking volcanic soil of frozen Hokkaido, Reiko offers us the first of many voiceovers in which she tells us about her left arm – withered and almost numb due to childhood arthritis. When her withered arm is bitten by a dog, Nellie, owned by a melancholy architect, Katsuragi (Masayuki Mori), she barely feels it but Katsuragi is mortified. “She’s never bitten anyone before”, he tells Reiko by way of explanation, “I’ve never been bitten before”, Reiko fires back but bitten she certainly has been. Captivated by the idea of Katsuragi, she doesn’t immediately take him up on the offer of coming to his house and possibly adopting a puppy but catches sight of him around town and then decides to pay him a visit. He isn’t in, but Akiko (Mieko Takamine), his wife, is. Reiko didn’t want to see Katsuragi’s wife so she makes a speedy escape.

Having caught sight of Akiko, Reiko is equally intrigued. Akiko, as Reiko discovers, is having an (unhappy) affair with a much younger medical student, Tatsumi (Fumio Watanabe). Failing to read the emotional landscape of this sorry scene, Reiko regards this information as a juicy piece of gossip in her ongoing campaign to win over Katsuragi. She spies on the lovers, childishly eavesdropping on them in a local cafe, even suddenly delivering their coffee for them so she can get a proper look at Akiko – not that she really sees her or the distraught look on her face, she merely observes her rival – the wicked woman who has betrayed her beloved Katsuragi.

Reiko is constantly berated by her father and grandmother for her unwomanliness. Compared with the typical Japanese woman of the time and particularly with the stoic yet miserable Akiko, Reiko can certainly be thought unusual. Dressing in androgynous loose trousers, polo neck jumper and overcoat, without makeup and with unkempt hair, her aesthetic is one of rambunctious child or rebellious teenager. Her habit of throwing out awkward, inappropriate questions at first seems like childish ineptness but later seems calculated to unbalance. She is often cruel, perhaps deliberately so, but then remorseful (if only for selfish reasons). Though Reiko seems to feel that it’s her disability that marks her out as an outcast, unfit for marriage or a “normal” life, her family appear much more concerned with her unconventional rejection of femininity in her boldness, masculine dress, and refusal to learn the traditionally feminine crafts of housework and cookery so necessary to becoming the ideal wife.

What Reiko sees in Akiko is an image of her idealised self – beautiful, poised, elegant, and the wife of Katsuragi. As part of her nefarious plan, Reiko decides to “befriend” Akiko while Katsuragi is away on a business trip. What she never expected is that she would come to genuinely care for both Akiko and the couple’s small daughter Kumiko (Etsuko Nakazato), making her position as a potential home wrecker impossible. Reiko’s father blames himself for her unwomanliness, having raised her alone after his wife died, denying her of a maternal influence from whom she would have learned all the essentials of femininity which she now seems to lack. Akiko, a few years older, becomes both friend and surrogate mother – Reiko even begins calling her “Mamma” just as Kumiko does. Akiko’s distant poise begins to thaw when Reiko crawls in through her door one night after contracting pneumonia. Nursing Reiko as a mother would brings the two women closer together but it also unwittingly drives them apart in deepening Reiko’s sense of guilt in being torn between two loves in the knowledge that she must destroy one of them or herself.

Akiko, the tragic heroine of the piece, remains a cypher precisely because of her adherence to the rules of traditional femininity. Reiko is first drawn to her because of her sad smile – something she later brings up again in their fiercely undramatic yet heartrending parting scene as Reiko tries to undo the harm she has just done only for Akiko to mildly reject her by instructing her that she needs to take better care of herself. Her relationship with Katsuragi appears to have floundered and, trapped in a lonely marriage, Akiko has found herself in an emotionally draining entanglement with a younger man whose life she fears she is ruining. Tatsumi, needled, is irritated by Reiko’s buzzing around Akiko, asking her an awkward question of his own in accusing her of being a lesbian, to which Reiko gives one of her infuriately barbed replies with “call it what you want”. Reiko’s intentions probably do not run that way (at least consciously), so much as she longs for the love and affection she missed out on after losing her mother at such a young age. Akiko, however, may see things differently. Her life appears lonely, and her friendship with Reiko, whom she brands “reckless yet somehow cheerful” (again, like an infuriating child), is one of its few bright spots. The betrayal is not so much that Reiko has slept with her husband, but that Reiko has deliberately ruined their friendship by exposing it as a cruel ruse in the most wounding of ways. The last time we see Akiko, she is wearing the necklace that Reiko gave to her – a sure sign that her final decision is, in someway, taken on Reiko’s behalf.

Reiko’s tragedy is that her intense self loathing which she attributes to her withered arm, leads her to suspect each act of kindness is only one of pity and that no one can truly love her, they’re just overcompensating because of her “deformity”. At the beginning of the film she asks herself if her mind is as warped as her body. Her actions are often “warped”, as in she works against herself and ultimately destroys the very thing she wanted most yet there is a kind of settling that occurs through her interactions with Akiko. In the final sequence, Reiko has shed her dowdy, dark coloured, worn trousers and jumpers for an elegant skirt and blouse, and has learned to accommodate a certain level of domesticity. Even if she is merely echoing Akiko, Reiko has at least attempted to move forward in exploring the areas of femininity she had hitherto rejected outright. That it is not to say her “unusual” nature is tamed in favour of conforming to social norms, merely that a side of herself which she had decided to keep locked has been opened up for examination (and may then be rejected with greater self knowledge). Elegy of the North lives up to its name in singing a long and painful song of mourning, but Gosho ends on a note of hopeful, in pained, optimism for his contrary heroine, literally forced to move past the scene of her crime towards a possibly happier future.


Screened at BFI as part of the Women in Japanese Melodrama season.