Warm Current (暖流, Yasuzo Masumura, 1957)

Never one to tread the beaten path, Yasuzo Masumura studied film abroad in Italy before, perhaps counter intuitively, entering the Japanese studio system apprenticing at Daiei where he’d remain until its bankruptcy in the early ‘70s forced him into freelancing. His 1957 debut Kisses was a response to the taiyozoku or sun tribe craze of nihilistic youth movies though it was in its own way quietly hopeful and even sweet, at least in contrast to some the more cynical views of romance which colour some of the director’s later work, but again despite being positioned as precursor to the New Wave is also very much in the classical tradition if owing something to contemporary European art house. Masumura’s second film Blue Sky Maiden continued in the same vein, an ostensibly cheerful take on Sirkian melodrama in which the plucky heroine finds self-actualisation while dealing with her difficult family history. Warm Current (暖流, Danryu), meanwhile, builds on the same Sirkian foundations, remaking a popular weepy which had proved a big hit for Kozaburo Yoshimura 20 years earlier, but further undercutting it with a sense of ironic inconsequentiality as the heroes engage in a background battle for the post-war future. 

The film opens with a suicide, a nurse discovered dead on a bench after apparently having poisoned herself. She is, however, not the focus of the story and all too quickly forgotten in favour of the return of Keiko (Hitomi Nozoe), the daughter of the hospital’s director who has until recently been studying abroad. She’s come to the hospital because she has a piece of a sewing needle somehow embedded in her finger which needs rather more treatment than one might expect. Anyway, while there she attracts the attentions of handsome doctor Sasajima (Ryuji Shinagawa) and meets up with old schoolfriend Gin (Sachiko Hidari) who has since become a nurse. The problem is that the hospital is in big financial trouble and Keiko’s father Shima (Toranosuke Ogawa) is secretly terminally ill with cancer. He brings in Hibiki (Jun Negami), a pharmaceuticals executive he’s been supporting as a favour to his late father, as a consultant to streamline the business, while sidelining his rather feckless son Yasuhiko (Eiji Funakoshi), an orthopaedics doctor who might be assumed to take over were he not so entirely useless. 

Introduced rather late, Hibiki is positioned almost as a villain, a destabilising force within this very bourgeois world of the hospital determined to strip it of the corrupt entitlement of the surgical class. To that extent, he comes in like a new broom to apply modern business thinking to the ancient art of medicine but does so with rather old-fashioned ideas of gratitude and loyalty to Shima, always acting in the best interests of the family while positioning himself as a servant retainer. This the minor conflict that defines his complicated relationship with the equally confused Keiko who too has returned from abroad with taste for Western individualism but is uncertain how to live her life as a woman in still conservative Japan. All her friends ask her about blue-eyed boyfriends, and though it seems that she is immediately smitten with Hibiki she quite rudely dismisses him for his slightly condescending manner later remarking that she was turned off by a sense of his overconfidence. 

Keiko tells her father she’s no plans to marry and has come back to Japan intending to continue her studies. For his part, Shima is all for a woman working but not as he puts it if it causes her to become a “brainy spinster”. Eventually courted by Sasajima she finds herself torn, even as he tells her that, unexpectedly, he has no issue with her desire to work or study were she to become his wife, uncertain in her attraction to Hibiki while drawn back towards conservatism in knowing that her father favours marriage and that Sasajima is her class-appropriate match. Despite his own attraction to her, Hibiki says nothing even on hearing of her engagement precisely because of this increasingly outdated sense of social inferiority. Meanwhile, he remains seemingly oblivious to the fact that Gin, who like him is a war orphan, has fallen in love with him which is why she continues to help him as a “spy” within the hospital. 

In response to her war trauma, Gin has developed the habit of laughing loudly, an especially unusual trait in a generally reserved culture, and often remarks on her own “stupidity”, the childlike excitability which so clearly positions her as a mirror to the elegant Keiko. Yet the push and pull between the two women has little rancour in it, save that Gin is already aware that Sasajima was responsible for the suicide of the nurse on the rooftop but has chosen not to say anything hoping they’ll marry and Hibiki will be hers. As Keiko later discovers, Sasajima is fairly brazen in his “modernity”, having lived with an aspiring model who declines to marry him because it would adversely affect her career but has no problem with him marrying someone else confident that their physical relationship will continue. Sasajima turns up while Keiko is visiting her, but calmly sits down on the bed and explains that he essentially plans to have two wives, the model for the bedroom and Keiko to be his companion of the mind. He brands her vulgar and small-minded in her conservatism when she proves unconvinced, laying bare an essential misogyny when he echoes that brainy women are “boring”, which is why he “needs” the model to satisfy himself sexually. Nevertheless, Keiko is not that kind of “modern” and in any case not so in love with Sasajima nor deluded enough to think she needs him to agree to his arrangement. 

Gin meanwhile echoes something of the model’s passive resignation when she too declares that she doesn’t care if Keiko marries Hibiki because she’s certain he’s supposed to be with her in the end because they are “alike”. There is no class conflict between them, and as they are both war orphans they share a sense of displacement in the post-war society. Unlike Keiko Gin is open in her feelings, declaring her love for Hibiki even chasing after him at the station and calling out across the ticket barriers that she’ll wait forever even if she only becomes his mistress. Earlier on, Keiko had been reading a foreign romance about a woman courted by two men she was unable to choose between only making up her mind when one of the men’s accent slipped, but in essence it’s Hibiki who finds himself torn if earnestly, thinking himself in love with Keiko but prevented from pursuing her because of his class anxiety rather than attracted to her precisely because of her class standing and everything it represents which is in a sense the target of his “revolutionary” reforms at the hospital. Tempted, he is eventually pulled back towards the side of “passion”, won over by Gin’s slightly scary if unwavering love for him. 

Yet this is no grand weepy, just the romantic confusion of three young(ish) friends who eventually find direction in their lives as mediated through “love”. Keiko reassumes her stance as a thoroughly modern woman, explaining to her rather naive mother that Yasuhiko, who has wrested control of the estate away from Hibiki, is not capable of looking after them even if he had the desire and so she intends to work, apologising to her father for her intention to become a “brainy spinster” after all. Hibiki loses out in the hospital too which is quickly retaken by the same corrupt forces Shima brought him in to combat. “I understand a woman’s feelings” Hibiki somewhat patronisingly claims as a result of his experiences, immediately proving that he doesn’t in misreading Keiko’s intentions while she, ironically, claims that she is no longer afraid of being overwhelmed by male authority. Unable to change their respective futures, the only option that remains is to abandon them for new ones of their own making but this is far from a tragedy, merely the ironic fate of the post-war generation remaking itself in real time, letting the door close behind them as they walk away from the irredeemably corrupt. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Temptation (誘惑, Ko Nakahira, 1957)

Ko Nakahira made his name with the seminal Sun Tribe movie Crazed Fruit, a nihilistic tale of bored, affluent post-war youth. Released a year later, Temptation (Yuwaku), adapted from a novel by Sei Ito, is in some ways its inverse pitting a melancholy widower harping on dreams of lost love against his relentlessly practical daughter for whom “Sex is life. Art is money” but finding in the end perhaps more commonality than difference save for the fact the youth of today may have no real dreams to betray. 

Now 55 years old, Sugimoto (Koreya Senda) is the proprietor of the Sugimoto Dried Goods store in upscale Ginza. Father to an only daughter, Hideko, now that his wife has passed away he finds himself carried back towards the past and is planning to turn the upstairs space in the store into a small gallery. For her part Hideko (Sachiko Hidari) and her coterie of artist friends are hoping to convince him to allow them to exhibit in the gallery for cheap, but he, slightly more conservative in his old age, views them all as low class Bohemians and fails to understand why Hideko hangs out with them in the first place. He has, it seems, an internal conflict symbolised by the beret he’s taken to wearing in which he is unable to let go of the broken dreams of his youth when he was a struggling artist forced to give up his first love, Eiko (Izumi Ashikawa), because he had no money or prospects while she eventually consented to an arranged marriage.  

The world of 1931 being very different, Sugimoto and Eiko never did anything beyond holding hands (later a key plot point), though in her parting letter she laments that she regrets not having let him kiss her and mildly berates him for not having been more forceful. A slightly uncomfortable sentiment, but diffidence seems to be the force defining Sugimoto’s life. At the store he finds himself dissatisfied with his senior salesgirl Junko (Misako Watanabe) whose brusque manner with customers and refusal to wear makeup he fears are harming sales, but is unable to say anything until his rather half-hearted attempt to talk to her provokes a mutual misunderstanding, he thinking she may be anxious about being fired and she wondering if he’s about to make a proposal. 

For unclear reasons, Junko seems to have a crush on Sugimoto, something which becomes a minor problem when he also becomes a target for Kotoko (Yukiko Todoroki), a middle-aged woman/insurance agent from Hideko’s floral arrangement class. Privy to their interior monologues, we can hear the two women squaring off against each other, Junko complaining that Kotoko is “meddling, talkative, and fat”, while Kotoko fires back that Junko wears “no makeup at all and is so stuck up” as they glare at each other through the shop window. Yet it’s not Sugimoto who eventually provokes a change in Junko, but another eccentric, struggling artist, Sohei (Shoji Yasui), who bluntly tells her that she is pretty and so should put some makeup on to bring it out. 

Junko later characterises this intervention as an act of salvation that sees her re-embrace her femininity, not only wearing makeup and having her hair styled but beginning to talk warmly with customers, improving the business but ironically giving Sugimoto the mistaken idea her friendly new demeanour may be partly for his benefit. For his part, Sohei, an unkempt artist suffering a seemingly permanent lice infestation, claims not to have cared very much about money or possessions which led him to accidentally abuse the generosity of his artist friends but has now been awakened, it seems, to a kind of consumerist mentality thanks to the interest of Junko and recognition of his art when some of Sugimoto’s old friends (well known artists Taro Okamoto, Seiji Togo, and critic Kimihide Tokudaiji) praise his paintings on seeing them in the gallery leading to them fetching a high price from prominent collectors. 

“The value of a work of art hinges on whether or not it sells” one of Hideko’s friends points out while she adds “We should be proud that art is profitable”, a sentiment that hugely offends Shohei (Ryoji Hayama), the beret-wearing leader of another artist circle the gang enlist to help them pay for the rental of the gallery. Though he concedes to Hideko’s argument that her father’s gallery is a business enterprise, not a charity, Shohei is somewhat horrified by the casual equation of art and commerce, shocked that the girls view their flower arranging as a practical more than an aesthetic skill. Still, in another irony it turns out that his talent is for business rather than art, shrewdly steering Sohei’s success rather than his own when it’s clear his work is the standout in the gallery. Just like Sugimoto had, he eventually resolves to give up his artistic dreams after falling in love with Hideko, planning to marry into her family and take over the Sugimoto store. She meanwhile, had described him as not good marriage material, “no poor painters for me, only rich men” but is apparently in favour of his selling out if only in that it ironically makes him more himself. 

As we discover there are more than a few reasons besides the beret that Sugimoto keeps feeling Shohei reminds him of someone else even as he finds himself wary of him, pointlessly trying to set Hideko up with someone more “suitable” just as she makes a point of inviting a series of alternative widowed, middle-aged ladies to the gallery opening not so much because she particularly objects to Kotoko but she’s worried her dad might get bamboozled into something without properly surveying his options. While Sugimoto remains maudlin and filled with regret though perhaps putting the past aside through a symbolic act of closure, the youngsters are cheerfully cynical, practical in the way the older generation are always telling them to be but are perhaps disappointed in them for not having dreams or aspirations beyond those of claiming or maintaining or their chosen status in life. “Art is money” Hideko is fond of saying, and it’s true enough in so much as money is an art and the one which seems at least to have captivated the post-war generation eagerly awaiting the advent of the consumerist revolution. 


Tokyo Twilight (東京暮色, Yasujiro Ozu, 1957)

Closely associated with the family drama, Yasujiro Ozu is perhaps the most socially conservative of golden age directors. Unlike Naruse or Mizoguchi, he cheerfully reinforces patriarchal social norms and foregrounds the paternal experience while upholding the primacy of the traditional family in a rapidly modernising society. In his later career he’d come to sympathise more strongly with the young, but 1957’s Tokyo Twilight (東京暮色, Tokyo Boshoku), perhaps his bleakest take on familial failure, is essentially a treatise on the legacy of corrupted motherhood and rebuke to growing post-war freedom in which a young woman is made to feel that her future is impossible because of maternal betrayal while her sister is forced back into an unhappy marriage to an abusive husband in order to avoid the same fate befalling her own daughter. 

Unlike most Ozu families, the Sugiyamas do not seem to be particularly happy in each other’s company, living in superficial politeness rather than true intimacy. This may partly be because the sisters had a brother who passed away young in a mountain climbing accident, but it also seems that Mr. Sugiyama (Chishu Ryu), though kind and polite, is a typically authoritarian, distant father. Oldest daughter Takako (Setsuko Hara) has returned home declaring herself unable to go on living with her professor husband Numata (Kinzo Shin) who, she says, has become increasingly erratic, taking out his petty professional disappointment on their small daughter Michiko whom he seems to resent. Younger sister Akiko (Ineko Arima) meanwhile is sullen and introverted. Unmarried, she lives at home and is studying to become a stenographer. 

As we later discover, the girls’ mother Kikuko (Isuzu Yamada) left the family during the war after falling in love with the junior officer Mr. Sugiyama enlisted to look in on the family while he was away in Seoul. Akiko was only three when their mother left and barely remembers her. Takako attributes her wayward behaviour to “loneliness”, that she has been forever corrupted through never knowing a mother’s love. Mr. Sugiyama admits he tried his best, but both agree that children need two parents and no matter how much he wants to a father cannot make up a mother’s share. 

This atmosphere of alienation is perhaps why Akiko feels as if she has no one to turn to in her own moment of maternal crisis. She has become pregnant by her college student boyfriend who has been avoiding her and even has the audacity to ask if the baby’s his when Akiko finally manages to pin him down. Trying to borrow money for an abortion, Akiko visits her aunt who declines to give it to her without knowing why, eventually turning to a family friend who apparently provides no questions asked. The woman at the clinic assumes she is a bar girl, as does a policeman who eventually “arrests” her for loitering in a sleazy cafe where her boyfriend has obviously stood her up which is quite openly being used as a place for men to pick up call girls. All of this contributes to Akiko’s increasing sense of shame and worthlessness. She sees herself as a fallen woman, convinced that she is all her mother’s child contaminated by her “bad blood” which makes a conventionally successful life as an ordinary wife and mother an impossibility. 

Akiko’s aunt wants to set her up with arranged marriage matches, but Akiko declares she has no intention of marrying or having children. Without knowing anything of Akiko’s circumstances, Takako assumes this is because of her obviously unhappy marriage, trying to convince her sister that there are plenty of happy couples she is merely unlucky. Mr. Sugiyama attempts to talk to his son-in-law but finds him strange and indifferent, offering treatises on familial love while implying that he has little of it. He regrets pressuring Takako to marry him when he knew that she preferred someone else while Takako is once again haunted by the spectre of corrupted maternity in her mother’s decision to leave the family for emotional fulfilment and is fearful of making the same mistake creating another troubled daughter just like Akiko in denying her a father’s love (which seems a moot point given that Numata does not care for the child). 

Neither woman is able to escape paying for their mother’s transgression. Akiko is punished firstly for embracing her sexuality and secondly for the rejection of motherhood in choosing to have an abortion. Alone and humiliated by her unreliable boyfriend, she is denied the opportunity to start over, while Takako meditates on female failure and believes that her only option is to live in misery with a cruel and narcissistic husband because that is the “proper” thing to do and the only way to bring her daughter up “right”. The absent mother, meanwhile, is denied reconciliation and left only with the painful separation from her daughter who finally rejects her in order to reclaim the image of the good wife and mother by returning to her unhappy home. Bleak as it is, all of this is presented as a kind of happy ending in that it restores the idea of the traditional family, increasingly threatened by post-war modernity, to its original primacy. We leave with Mr. Sugiyama rehiring his maid and heading cheerfully back to the male world of work, making the fresh start that his daughters have been so cruelly denied.  


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

The Ghost of Kasane (怪談かさねが渕, Nobuo Nakagawa, 1957)

“Fear the hatred of the dead!” a blameless slain wife exclaims after being cruelly cut down by her deluded husband in Nobuo Nakagawa’s tale of karmic vengeance, The Ghost of Kasane (怪談かさねが渕, Kaidan Kasane-ga-fuchi). Then again, though cleaving close to the standard formulas of the ghost movie not to mention the famous tale, these fatalistic, generationally twinned tales of ghostly revenge have an oddly imprecise quality in which it is the innocent who are eventually made to suffer, caught between concentric circles of guilt and retribution. 

The tale opens in 1773 with a blind masseur/money lender, Soetsu (Yoji Misaki), leaving his home on a snowy day hoping to catch venal samurai Shinzaemon (Akira Nakamura) at home. Shinzaemon and his wife are hospitable, but a conflict soon breaks out during which Shinzaemon accuses the old man of disrespecting him as a samurai and generally getting above himself as a mere member of the peasant class. All Soetsu has done is politely ask for the money he’s owed while making it clear that Shinzaemon’s attempts to give him the run around are wearing thin, but he ends up with a nasty gash on his face after the enraged samurai throws a pot at him. Driven into a frenzy by this unwelcome class-based anxiety, Shinzaemon slashes Soetsu with his sword and kills him, instructing a servant to stuff his body in a case and dump it in Kasane swamp. Soetsu, however, does not rest easy, returning to taunt him, eventually causing him to murder his wife by mistake and thereafter drawing him to his death by drowning in the very swamp where he dumped the body. 

20 years later in Edo, Soetsu’s daughter Rui (Katsuko Wakasugi) has become a successful shamisen teacher, while Shinkichi (Takashi Wada), the orphaned son of Shinzaemon, was taken in by a merchant family who continue to treat him as a poor relation. While having internalised a servant mentality that ironically inverts his father’s anxiety in his samurai status, Shinkichi has fallen in love with the daughter of the house, Hisa (Noriko Kitazawa), who is about to be betrothed against her will to the horrible son of local merchants, Seitaro (Shuji Kawabe). Rui, meanwhile, an older unmarried woman, is desperate to fend off the violent attentions of rough ronin Omura (Tetsuro Tanba), eventually convincing herself she is in love with the mild-mannered Shinkichi who might well think a rebound relationship is a good idea if it clears the way for Hisa’s inevitable marriage. 

Oddly enough and somewhat incomprehensibly, it’s Rui who becomes the target of her father’s curse, perhaps for her unwitting affection for the son of the man who killed him though it seems insufferably cruel that a father would involve his own child, not to mention the blameless infant of his murderer, in his bid for vengeance from beyond the grave. For his part, Shinkichi pays a heavy price for his unmanly diffidence, brave enough neither to say no to Rui or to run away with Hisa, simply passive if kind in the face of mounting impossibilities. Yet as much as it’s her father’s resentment that causes her downfall, struck by the pluck from the shamisen which scars her face to mirror his, she adds her own share in the wrath of a woman scorned dragging Shinkichi towards the lake for his inability to let go of his love for Hisa.

Old Soetsu might have a right to be vengeful, but his curse has collateral damage, enacted on women in order to target men as in Shinzaemon’s unwitting murder of his wife and Shinkichi’s accidental violence against Hisa at the instigation of Rui. Only the two old servants are left behind to make peace and tell the story, united by their respective positions rather than divided by their conflicting affiliations. Studio-bound yet filled with a series of supernatural tricks, Nakagawa’s atmospheric adaptation of the classic tale once again features the bug-eyed deformity of the scorned female ghost as Rui’s initial injury eventually balloons as her “sickness” intensifies, later finding time to turn her rage on Omura who was not, it has to be said, on the original list of victims being simply an embodiment of the cruelty of the age. Nakagawa ends, however, not with darkness but with light, freeing the souls of the troubled lovers from the gloom of earthly torment in urging them to leave their hatred behind and return to Buddha in eternal peace. 


Inn of the Floating Weeds (浮草の宿, Seijun Suzuki, 1957)

Another of Nikkatsu’s crime inflected pop song movies, Inn of the Floating Weeds (浮草の宿, Ukigusa no Yado) makes space for the singer of the song which gives the film its name, Hachiro Kasuga, but only in a minor role as a supportive friend. Directed by Seijun Suzuki under his birth name Seitaro (he’d change it to Seijun for Underworld Beauty the following year), the film is in some ways typical of his early work as a B-movie director at the studio but nevertheless displays flashes of his later brilliance in its unconventional composition and wistful sense of irony. 

Company man Shunji (Hideaki Nitani) gets into a fight during which Shida, a high ranking executive at Marubishi construction, is stabbed to death. Shunji is kicked into the water and left for dead, while his fiancée, Kozue (Hisano Yamaoka), pines for him at a nearby bar. Five years later Shunji resurfaces hoping to reunite with Kozue after having fled to Hong Kong and taken a job at a shipping company. At the bar, however, he discovers a woman that looks exactly like his lost love but turns out to be her younger sister, Mio (also played by Hisano Yamaoka), the bar’s madam and apparently the mistress of Murayama (Toru Abe), the current head of Marubishi. 

Shunji’s survival and subsequent reappearance is inconvenient for everyone so it’s no surprise that Murayama wants to have him bumped off, but Shunji is determined to stay and find out what’s happened to Kozue who, according to her sister, went missing in suspicious circumstances three years earlier while desperately searching for Shunji. 

Haunted by memories of lost love, Shunji finds himself drawn to the mysterious Mio who closely resembles her sister, while pulled towards a nexus of criminal activity unwittingly positioned between Murayama’s Marubishi and the avaricious interests of his American colleagues operating out of Hong Kong. Indeed, Shunji has himself it seems taken on an alternate identity as Hong Konger Kang Ho-chun, interpreter to the mysterious Mr. Green (Harold Conway). Perhaps still naive, Shunji appears to be unaware of his boss’ shadiness, warned off by good Samaritan Haruo (Hachiro Kasuga) who rescues him after he’s beaten up by Marubishi goons and allows him to rest in his apartment where he’s nursed back to health by his cheerful kid sister Yuri (Ikuko Kimuro). 

The strange goings on on the Saganmaru perhaps testify to an ambivalence with Japan’s new globalising presence which echoes through Nikkatsu’s “borderless” action dramas. Mr. Green is certainly not on the level, later revealed to be involved with drug smuggling through Marubishi and employing a large number of Chinese stewards (he operates out of Hong Kong after all) which plays into a sense of Sinophobia common across the series. The major problem, however, is Murayama whom Shunji later learns tried to assault Kozue after he left and may be connected with her disappearance. Perhaps trying to warn him off, Mio fires back at Shunji that this all his own fault, that Kozue couldn’t live with the knowledge he was a murderer and in the end he broke her heart, while he meekly protests his innocence and vows revenge on Murayama.

Meanwhile, he’s pulled back towards innocence by Haruo and his relentlessly cheerful sister who has obviously taken a liking to him. Mio, echoing the femme fatale, remains enigmatic, concealing key information about her sister, later confessing that she too has been desperate for vengeance but fears that Murayama has grown too powerful. Haruo, singing the mournful song about past regrets and lost love, observes from the sidelines trying to decide if Shunji is rotten inside or merely in danger of being swallowed by a vortex of crime and violence. 

Yet, as it so often is, the gangster world is in danger of collapse, destroying itself through internecine power struggles and petty betrayals. Murayama thinks he’s the top dog but there’s always someone agitating from below. Shunji, didn’t kill Shida, and maybe he’s close enough to finding out who did, clearing his name while figuring out what happened to Kozue, but in someways it hardly matters because the true battle is for the future, not the past. Like the singer of the song, he reflects on what a fool he’s been, resolving to put the past aside as he walks towards a less complicated future and an eventual return to a compassionate and forgiving society.


Title song by Hachiro Kasuga

Danger Stalks Near (風前の灯, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1957)

Keisuke Kinoshita is often regarded as a sentimentalist but he wasn’t completely immune to bitterness and cynicism as many of his farcical comedies bear out. Danger Stalks Near (風前の灯, Fuzen no Tomoshibi) begins in serious fashion as a trio of young toughs set on burgling the home of an elderly woman they assume has money but quickly descends into absurd dark humour as we discover there’s just as much money-grubbing thievery going on inside the house as out.

Two street toughs bully a nervous young man who needs money to get back to the country into joining them in a plot to rob a suburban house owned by a mean old woman whom they assume must be hiding a serious amount of cash inside. Having watched the place before, they know that it’s generally just housewife Yuriko (Hideko Takamine), her young son Kazuo (Kotohisa Saotome), and grumpy grandma Tetsu (Akiko Tamura) at home during the day after husband Kaneshige (Keiji Sada) has gone to work at his lowly job as a shoe salesman. Today, however, their aspirations towards crime will be thwarted because it’s all go at the Sato residence – flouncing lodgers, sisters with issues, tatami repair men, and mysterious faces from the past all mean that today is a very bad day for burglary but a very good one for entertainment.

Kinoshita deliberately upsets the scene by casting familiar actors Hideko Takamine and Keiji Sada in noticeably deglammed roles – she with a ridiculous pair of large round glasses and he with a giant facial mole designed to make them look “ordinary” but accidentally drawing attention to their star quality in the process. The Satos are, however, a very ordinary family in that they’re intensely obsessed with money and with their own precarious status in the improving but still difficult post-war economy. Tetsu is Kaneshige’s step-mother which is perhaps why he urges his wife to put up with her tyranny seeing as Tetsu is old and will probably not be around much longer, which means it’s just a waiting game until they inherit the house. Whatever else she may be, Tetsu is a mean old woman whose only hobbies are penny pinching and occasional trips to the cinema where she watches heartwarming dramas about filial piety. Her haughty attitude is perhaps why the crooks assume there is cash in the house but sometimes mean people are mean because they really don’t have money rather than just being stingy by nature.

Nevertheless, Tetsu’s iron grip is slowly destroying the family unit. Kaneshige (whose name ironically means “money multiplying” and uses a rather pretentious reading for his name kanji which are often misread by the postman etc) sneaks home to tell his wife he’s won second place in a competition, worrying that if Tetsu finds out she’ll expect her share of the prize money. The old woman is so mean that she even keeps her own stash of eggs in her personal cupboard along with tea for her exclusive use and takes the unusual step of locking the doors when Yuriko is out running errands because she feels “unsafe” in her own home – an ironic state of mind once we discover how exactly Tetsu was able to buy this house as a lonely war widow in the immediate aftermath of the defeat.

Tetsu is, in a fashion, merely protecting her status as matriarch in oppressing daughter-in-law Yuriko by running down her every move as well as those of her sisters whom she criticises for being dull despite their “cheerful” names but also chastises for lack of traditional virtues. Sakura (Toshiko Kobayashi) pays a visit to the Satos because she needs help – her husband has been accused of embezzlement, but is also hoping Yuriko is going to feed her in return for help with domestic tasks only the pair eventually fall out over a missing 30 yen and some crackers. Meanwhile, second sister Ayame (Masako Arisawa) also turns up but with a “friend” (Yoshihide Sato) in tow whom she hopes can become their new lodger after they ended up throwing the old one out because she burned a hole in the tatami mat floor through inattentive use of an iron. Neither Tetsu nor Yuriko could quite get their head around previous tenant Miyoko’s (Hiroko Ito) liberated, student existence of rolling in late after dates and lounging around reading magazines but a male lodger wasn’t something they had in mind either.

Persistent economic stressors have begun to wear away at family bonds – Tetsu is not a nice old woman, but it probably isn’t nice to be living in a house where you know everyone is just waiting for you to die. At least little Kazuo is honest enough to admit he only likes grandma when she gives him candy. Yuriko seems to be a responsible figure for both her sisters, but resents their relying on her for money while enjoying the various gifts they bring to curry favour including a large amount of fish cake from the prospective lodger/Ayame’s intended (if he doesn’t wind up being swayed by the dubious charms of the seductive Miyoko who insists on sitting in her empty room for the rest of the day because she already paid today’s rent). Meanwhile, Yuriko’s attempt to palm off a pair of unwanted tall geta that were a “present” from Kaneshige’s boss (who also heard about the prize money) leads to an accusation of attempted murder as if she hoped Tetsu might topple to her death after trying them on! The burglars have wasted all day sitting outside watching the ridiculous comings and goings as they bide their time waiting to strike only for the police to arrive on a completely unrelated matter. Turns out, inside and outside is not so different as you might think in a society where everything is a transaction and all connection built on mutual resentment.


Titles and opening scene (no subtitles)

Ghost in the Well (怪談番町皿屋敷, Toshikazu Kono, 1957)

Ghost in the Well poster 2Love across the class divide threatens to overthrow the social order. Inspired by the classic folktale Bancho Sarayashiki, Ghost in the Well (怪談番町皿屋敷, Kaidan Bancho Sarayashiki) is indeed the story of a haunting though perhaps not altogether of the kind you might be expecting. This is a tale of romance, but also one of impossible love in which the only possible union is in death. The pure love of a servant girl is deemed incompatible with the oppressive world of samurai honour, and so she must die, but her lord cannot survive it. He cannot reconcile himself to having chosen to preserve his honour, his status, his lineage at the cost of her life and his love.

Rowdy samurai Harima (Chiyonosuke Azuma) loves making trouble in the streets. As the lord’s bannerman he knows he has a degree of status and likes to throw his weight around in the yoshiwara, much to the lord’s consternation. Harima has also taken a fancy to one of his maids, Okiku (Hibari Misora), who continues to reject his advances despite returning his affections because she knows the class difference makes a legitimate relationship between them impossible and a dalliance with her lord means losing the opportunity to marry anyone else. Harima tells her that there’s no such thing as status when it comes to love and that he doesn’t think of her as a passing infatuation. Eventually Okiku gives in and a kind of promise is made between them.

Nevertheless, it’s a promise which can’t be kept. The Aoyama family is in trouble and the obvious answer is to make a good match for Harima that will restore both status and wealth. When one of Harima’s friends is ordered to commit seppuku for the exact same petty punk antics Harima gets up to all the time matters come to a crunch. To keep him safe, Harima’s uncle arranges a marriage with an influential family. Harima tries to refuse but he too is more or less powerless even if he weren’t torn between the obligation to his samurai code and his illicit love for servant girl whom he would never be permitted to make his wife. To cement the match, Harima’s uncle has prepared 10 precious plates as a dowry, but Okiku, catching sight of Harima’s bride-to-be, drops one and breaks it in two. Her fate is sealed. Harima draws his sword on her and she backs away, eventually falling into the well and dying there.

The broken plate is, of course, a symbol of their broken covenant but also of Okiku’s shattered dreams as she watches a beautiful but haughty woman steal away her last hope of happiness solely through the accident of noble birth. As her friend tells her, a commoner cannot become the wife of a samurai and all Okiku can do is resign herself to her unhappy fate. Having broken the plate, however, all is lost. The men of the household admit their responsibility for entrusting the entirety of their future to a mere slip of a girl in the middle of intense heartbreak, but Okiku cannot go unpunished and Harima must claim his new life by destroying his past love.

Harima does what he’s supposed to do, if in passion and half by accident. Yet the marriage remains broken, the family in jeopardy, and Harima without hope of future. The ghost of Okiku, real or imagined, haunts him while he remains guilt ridden and filled with regrets. Despite his rowdiness and manly pride, he chose his samurai honour and condemned his one true love to a lonely death. Her love has, however, survived and resurrected her not as a demon of vengeance come to lead him to his doom but as a lovelorn woman keen to remind him of the promise he made and broke but which might be mended.

Harima pays for his transgressions, though more as a mischievous samurai who allowed his over inflated ego to convince him he had the right to oppress his fellow retainers than as a man who caused the death of an innocent woman, first by corrupting her and then by the same rigidity which has led to his present predicament. There can be no “love” in a such a society, let alone the love of a bannerman and a servant girl. Theirs is a blood wedding, uniting them in death, consumed by the impossibilities of the samurai era. At only 45 minutes, Ghost in the Well is perhaps a slight retelling of the tale and somewhat in imbalanced in its presentation of the fates of the two lovers but is nevertheless a refreshingly romantic take on an often dark story in which a scorned woman’s vengeance is reframed as a powerful condemnation of an oppressive society.


The Deep Blue Sea (青い海原, Tsuneo Kobayashi, 1957)

Deep Blue Sea posterHibari Misora turned 20 in 1957, but she’d already been working for eight years and was well on her way to becoming one of the most successful stars of the post-war era. The Deep Blue Sea (青い海原, Aoi Unabara) is one of her earliest grown up musical dramas and finds her sharing the bill with another of the biggest acts of the day in Hachiro Kasuga who, despite being stuck in second lead limbo, does the bulk of the musical heavy lifting. It also sees her star opposite an actor who would become her frequent leading man which might come as something of a surprise to those most familiar with his later work – Ken Takakura, then very fresh faced and playing the juvenile lead.

The action begins with Takakura’s Ken as the stranger who walks into town. In fact he’s not that much of a stranger – he runs into an acquaintance, Saburo (Hachiro Kasuga), right away, but he’s come on a mission. He’s looking for the friend of a man who died in an accident on his boat in order to give him a photograph and some money he’d saved for the daughter he had to leave behind. Before any of that happens, however, he ends up in a meet cute with Misora’s Harumi who manages to tip a whole bucket of water over him, and then later a jug of beer when he fetches up at the bar where she works (and where Saburo is a regular). As coincidence would have it, the man Ken is looking for also lives at the bar and is actually Harumi’s father. Harumi never knew she was adopted and is stunned when she overhears the conversation between the two men but decides to go on pretending not to know anything.

The real drama revolves around a lecherous gangster, Sakazaki (Isamu Yamaguchi), who is having an “affair” with the owner of the bar where Harumi and her dad live. He’s taken a liking to Harumi who wants nothing to do with him, but when her dad gets into an accident and needs money for medical treatment, Saburo makes a deal and unwittingly gives him an additional angle to start railroading Harumi into his arms.

Director Tsuneo Kobayashi would later be best known for genre pieces and tokusatsu. Besides some quite beautiful and unusually convincing work with backdrops, there are no shocks or special effects in Deep Blue Sea but there is plenty of music, most of it sung by Hachiro Kasuga with Misora taking centre stage for a few solo numbers of her own as well as humming an odd tune here and there. Despite not being an integrated musical (all of the songs have a diegetic genesis) and in contrast with many of Misora’s films, The Deep Blue Sea is otherwise a fairly typical musical drama in which the songs drive the narrative rather than being an aside to it.

It does however begin to blur genres, shifting into familiar Toei territory with the introduction of the sleazy yakuza tough guys who are willing to go to quite a lot of trouble to ruin the life of an ordinary girl like Harumi. The central romance follows a familiar pattern as Ken comes to care about Harumi and her dad through his connection with her birth father and becomes their noble protector, while Saburo, who’d silently harboured a crush on Harumi all along hovers sadly on the sidelines, wanting to support his friends in their romantic endeavour but also somewhat grateful when Ken decides to sacrifice himself on Harumi’s behalf. Ken’s sacrifice, however, doesn’t entirely work – you can’t get rid of men like Sakazaki through honest or logical ways and simply paying them off is never enough, in fact it might just make everything worse.

The Deep Blue Sea may be a little darker than most musical romances with its seedy port town setting, gangsters, smuggling action, and the constant sense of things always floating away with the boats that come and go, but in true musical fashion it all works out in the end. Despite learning that she is adopted and that a wealthier blood relative was keen to take her in, Harumi chooses to stay with her adopted father, steadfastly choosing real feeling over blood ties or pragmatic concerns – unlike the greedy bar owner who steals the money her father left her, or the nefarious gangster who tries to manipulate her into giving up her principles and stepping into his world of betrayal and avarice. As usual for a Toei film, the forces of good (for a given definition of “good”) eventually triumph and the bad pay for all their mistakes while the merely unlucky accept their fates with good grace and resolve to make the most of new opportunities. It may not have made any great waves, but The Deep Blue Sea is cheerful and fun and chock full of post-war humanism as the noble Ken comes to the rescue of the goodhearted Harumi and her steadfast father to stand up against the forces of corruption.


Some of Hibari’s musical numbers (no subtitles)

Eight Hours of Terror (8時間の恐怖, Seijun Suzuki, 1957)

(C) Nikkatsu 1957

Eight Hours of Terror poster 2Mr. Thank You meets The Lady Vanishes? Seijun Suzuki’s early slice of claustrophobic social drama Eight Hours of Terror (8時間の恐怖, Hachijikan no Kyofu) is another worthy example Japanese cinema’s strange obsession with buses, transposing John Ford’s Stagecoach to the Japanese mountains as a disparate collection of travellers is forced onto a perilous overnight journey in the hope of making their city-bound connection. Shooting in academy ratio and with a mix of studio shot interior action and on location footage, Suzuki keeps the tension high but maintains his detached sense of humour, finding the comedy in the petty prejudices and selfish preoccupations which take hold when civilisation is abandoned and bandits run free.

When a typhoon causes a landslide and halts the trains, the anxious travellers in a small mountain town are left with the choice of waiting until the tracks are clear or piling into a rundown rail replacement service and driving through the mountains overnight to meet their Tokyo-bound connection set to leave at midday. They are warned that there has recently been a bank robbery and the police have issued a general alert for loose bandits. Those whose journey is not “urgent” might do better to wait, but the bus is the only solution for anyone wanting to get back to the city in good time.

Tense as Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, the bus journey throws together a group of people who would never normally keep company with each other and largely have no interest in bonding in their shared hardship. Businessmen moan endlessly about potentially missed meetings while student radicals ironically mirror them, giving mini lectures on leftwing politics to a disinterested audience and trying to raise rousing choruses of Russian folk songs to lift the spirits of the masses. Meanwhile, a suicidal mother with a young baby sadly bides her time, a pan pan makes the best of a bad situation, an elderly couple frets anxiously about making it back to the city to see their seriously ill daughter, and a policeman escorts a man arrested for the murder of his former wife and her new husband.

The spectre of the war haunts them all – almost like a fare-dodging stowaway concealed somewhere on the back of the bus. The driver lost his son and grandchildren in Manchuria, the nervous lingerie salesman claims to have led a motorised brigade but is constantly terrified by every little set back, and the convict turns out to be a former army doctor battling some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder coupled with intense rage and regret for his post-war fate. The student radicals regard the presence of the bandits as a symptom of social breakdown (a narrative they can get behind in the general failures of capitalism) while the fat cat CEO and his ridiculously bejewelled wife angrily bark at the young men who can’t find work in the struggling post-war economy, attributing their economic difficulties to pure laziness and failure to slot into to the demands of a conformist society.

The twin dramas revolve around the intertwined fates of the young woman and her baby, and the bank robbers who eventually turn up and hijack the bus. Despite a need to pull together in the face of adversity, many of the passengers are content to ignore the pain and suffering of those around them in order to achieve their own selfish goals. The lingerie salesman, panicked by the delay, attempts to drive the bus over a rickety bridge the driver is currently checking for safety at the risk of everyone’s lives. Meanwhile the woman and her baby are missing. Later found seriously ill, the woman recovers but the baby struggles. The pan pan, who becomes the de facto leader of group, suggests getting the convict, a former doctor, to treat the baby but not everyone is happy about uncuffing a potential killer even if it means life and death for an innocent child. Similarly, after the pan pan helps to despatch one of the hijackers, many of the passengers want to drive off and leave her behind with only the convict eventually coming to her rescue. Despite all she’d done for them, the passengers reject her once again when directly confronted by the taboo nature of her work as a prostitute at the American bases after someone steals her purse and finds a picture of a black GI inside the fold.

The world outside the bus is changing. The pan pan fears for her future now the occupation is coming to an end, as do some of the young men who’d relied on the presence of the American troops for their employment. The CEOs and lingerie salesmen of the world are content to remain within their own bubbles, ignoring everyone else they protect their elitist status while the idealistic student activists are perhaps no better – they too want to take the hijackers’ ill gotten gains and repurpose them for social good by getting more leftists elected to parliament. The convict and the pan pan are the kindest and the most human, finding an unexpected bond in their shared humanism while the aspiring actress finds joy in treating everything like a fantastic adventure only to give up on her dreams of stardom after realising she’d be forced to kiss a bunch of guys she didn’t like in order to achieve them.

Mixing studio shot rear projection and location shooting of the bus making its precarious journey along winding mountain roads, Suzuki keeps the tension high as the passengers bicker and bond, eventually banding together despite themselves in order to despatch the final bandit who finally takes care of himself. Things do, however, end by going back to normal. Crisis averted, the same old prejudices return as soon as “civilisation” reappears on the horizon. 


Available as part of Arrow’s Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years Vol. 2 Border Crossings box set.

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)