Bronze Magician (妖僧, Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1963)

Even when you’re the empress, a woman has little freedom. Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Bronze Magician (妖僧, Yoso) is loosely based on a historical scandal concerning Nara-era empress Koken/Shotoku and a Rasputin-like monk, Dokyo, who unlike his counterpart in the film, eventually tried to seize the throne for himself alone only to have his ambitions frustrated by the empress’ death and the fierce resistance of her courtiers. As the title implies, Kinugasa is more interested in Dokyo than he is in the perilous position of Nara-era women even in power, painting his fall from grace as a Buddhist parable about a man who pays a heavy price for succumbing to worldly passions. 

As the film opens, Dokyo (Raizo Ichikawa) emerges from a shallow cave amid many other caves after meditating for 10 years during which he reached a higher level of enlightenment and obtained mystic powers. Now he thinks it’s time to continue the teachings of departed mentor Doen and use his abilities to “actively do good and save the masses”. Before that, however, he does some not quite Buddhist things like turning a rat into a living skeleton, and twisting a snake into a tangle. In any case, he begins roaming the land, miraculously healing the sick. While reviving a thief who had been killed by samurai after trying to make off with a bird they shot, Dokyo is spotted by a retainer of the empress who brings news of his miracles back to her closest advisors. 

Empress Koken (Yukiko Fuji), in the film at least, was a sickly child and even after ascending the throne has often been ill. She is currently bedridden with a painful respiratory complaint that is giving her servants cause for concern. None of the priests they’ve brought in to pray for her (apparently how you treat serious illness in the Nara era) has been of much use. The empress’ steward Mabito (Tatsuya Ishiguro) orders that Dokyo be found and brought to the palace to see if he can cure Koken, which he does while stressing that he’s helping her not because she’s the empress but in the same way as he would anyone else. 

As might be expected, the empress’ prolonged illness has made her a weak leader and left the door open for unscrupulous retainers intent on manipulating her position for themselves. There is intrigue in the court. The prime minister (Tomisaburo Wakayama) is colluding with a young prince to depose Koken and sieze power. Left with little oversight, he’s been embezzling state funds to bolster his position while secretly paying priests to engineer Koken’s illness continue. Dokyo’s arrival is then a huge threat to his plans, not only in Koken’s recovery and a subsequent reactivation of government but because Dokyo, like Koken, is of a compassionate, egalitarian mindset. She genuinely cares that the peasants are suffering under a bad and self-interested government and sees it as her job to do something about it, which is obviously bad news if you’re a venal elite intent on abusing your power to fill your pockets while the nation starves. 

As the prime minister puts it, however, the empress and most of her courtiers are mere puppets, “naive children”. At this point in history, power lies in the oligarchical executive who are only advised by the empress and don’t actually have to do what she says. As she is also a woman, they don’t necessarily feel they have to listen to her which is one reason why the prime minister assumes it will be easy to manoeuvre the young prince toward the throne. Koken’s short reign during which she overcame two coups is often used to support the argument against female succession because it can be claimed as a temporary aberration before power passed to the nearest male heir. Nevertheless, Koken tries to rule, even while she falls in love with the conflicted Dokyo. Her right to a romantic future, however, is also something not within her control. Many find the gossip scandalous and use it as an excuse to circumvent her authority, especially after she gives Dokyo an official title which allows them to argue she has been bewitched by him and he is merely manipulating her to gain access to power. 

Dokyo, meanwhile, is in the middle of a spiritual crisis. After 10 years of study he as reached a certain level of enlightenment and attained great powers which he intended to use for the good of mankind. He is happy to discover that Koken is also trying to do good in the world but she is, ironically, powerless while the elitist lords “indulge in debauchery”, abusing their power to enrich themselves while the people starve. He begins to fall in love with her but the palace corrupts him. He accepts a gift of a beautiful robe despite his vows of asceticism, and then later gives in to his physical desire for Koken only to plunge himself into suffering in the knowledge that he has broken his commandments. He loses his magic, but chooses to love all the same while rendered powerless to hold back Koken’s illness or to protect her from treachery. 

The pair mutually decide they cannot “abandon this happiness”, and Dokyo’s fate is sealed in the acceptance of the extremely ironic gift of golden prayer beads which once belonged to Koken’s father. He is reborn with a new name in the same way as the historical Koken was reborn as Shotoku after surviving insurrection, embracing bodily happiness while attempting to do good but battling an increasing emotional volatility. The lords continue to overrule the empress’ commands, insisting that they are really commands from Dokyo, while Dokyo’s “New Deal” involving a 2 year tax break for impoverished peasants finds support among the young radicals of the court who universally decide that they must stand behind him, protecting the ideal even if they are unable to save the man.

This troubles the elders greatly. Declaring that Dokyo has used “black magic” to bewitch the empress, they determine to eliminate him, but Dokyo never wanted power. “Power is not the final truth” he tells them, “those blindly pursuing status and power only destroy themselves”. Yet Dokyo has also destroyed himself in stepping off the path of righteousness. He damns himself by falling in love, failing to overcome emotion and embracing physical happiness in this life rather than maintaining his Buddhist teachings and doing small acts of good among the poor. Nevertheless, he is perhaps happy, and his shared happiness seems to have started a compassionate revolution among the young who resolve to work together to see that his ideal becomes a reality even in the face of entrenched societal corruption.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Flame of Devotion (執炎, Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1964)

Koreyoshi Kurahara, like Seijun Suzuki, began his career at Nikkatsu mostly working on its youth-orientated commercial cinema only to end up being fired for producing films deemed too “arty” for the studio’s target audience such as his 1967 Mishima adaptation, Thirst for Love. Released the same year as Black Sun, 1964’s Flame of Devotion (執炎, Shuen) is in someways a much more subdued affair, a fairly atypical melodrama critiquing not only the destructive legacy of war but also a cultural insistence on stoical endurance in the face of emotional difficulty which is itself the mark and enabler of militarism. 

Beginning at the end, Kurahara opens with a small collection of men and women in mourning clothes walking towards a memorial service, later followed by an elegant young woman in western dress who has just arrived by train. Today marks the seventh anniversary of the death of a young woman, Kiyono (Ruriko Asaoka), who drowned herself after learning that her husband would not return from the war. The action then jumps back 20 years to a much more peaceful time in which the 10-year-old Kiyono first encountered the 12-year-old Takuji, before shifting to the more recent past in which the youngsters fell in love, overcame many hardships, and married only to be torn apart by war. 

The love story is complicated by the fact that Kiyono is a resident of a small and secretive village who claim to be descendants of the legendary Heike. Kiyono is a mountain woman, and Takuji (Juzo Itami) is a man of the sea, the son of a fishing village expected to take over the family business. When he first re-encounters Kiyono in his late teens, Takuji is in the process of finding wood to carve his own boat with dreams of sailing it all around the world. A mountain man advises him of a shortcut home, which brings him to Kiyono’s village where he serendipitously stops to ask for water and is invited inside. Kiyono insists on walking him back to the beach where she makes plain that she remembers him as the boy from all those years ago though he is now a man. She declares that she loves the sea, because it is big, manly, and also kind, abruptly stripping off and jumping in much to Takuji’s surprise. He waits for her on the beach every day after that, and the couple fall in love but the spectre of war is already upon them. Takuji has to leave for his mandatory military service and they are parted for the first time. 

Unable to see him off on the train because she would be ashamed to become emotional in front of so many people, Kiyono for the first time laments that she is not a strong woman. She sees this quality in herself as a failing and is constantly upbraided for it by the women around her who are quick to point out that the ability to bear all is a woman’s sorry duty. They see her as being too soft for the world, or perhaps merely too uninhibited, her mother lamenting that she always preferred the sea to the mountains which is perhaps why they finally agreed to allow her to leave the village and marry Takuji though no woman had ever married an outsider before. 

Yet Kiyono is a strong woman just in a different way. We were torn apart by a single order, Kiyoko laments, but when Takuji is injured she travels to the navy hospital to visit him and fiercely resists the doctor when he advises amputating Takuji’s leg. Though she is warned that the wound may become infected and Takuji may not survive, she is adamant that she will nurse him back to health herself and in fact does just that. To keep him safe from the war, Kiyono convinces Takuji move into an isolated cottage in the mountains where they can live together without being bothered by anyone else. She helps him learn to walk again, ignoring the advice of Takuji’s cousin Yasuko (Izumi Ashikawa) as a medical doctor that she is being reckless with Takuji’s health in boldly stating that she only wants the Takuji from before, not one damaged by war. But her devotion is a double edged sword, once he is healed, Takuji can be drafted again. She starts to regret her decision to oppose amputation.

The villagers, meanwhile, who had abandoned their initial scepticism to see Kiyono as a fine wife, now think her selfish and neurotic. They wonder why Takuji has not been to see his mother who is seriously ill, and for their own benefit want him to return so that he can communicate with the government who have requisitioned too many of their ships and left them unable to work. Kiyono has tried to create a space of her own into which the war may not enter, as if she were living in hiding. Nevertheless it is true that once Takuji makes the decision to leave the mountain the spell is broken, the war takes him, and there’s nothing Kiyono can do but “endure”. 

One of the ironic gifts brought to Kiyoko in the mountain is a Heike mask designed to contain all the pain and bitterness of a woman watching her husband march away to war. Yasuko, worried for her own husband, wonders if men and women are really so different. Kiyoko ironically replies that the men marching off to battle have an oddly beatific look, as if they too are in some way “enduring” in conforming to an idea of manliness though they too must be afraid, but if a woman looks that way it means she has gone mad. It’s the look that Kiyono herself eventually has, taking on the appearance of the mask, when her spirit is broken and she enters a kind of fugue state suspecting that Takuji will not return. 

Old women watching the few remaining men being recalled to the front remark on the cruelty, that they’re only going there to die because it’s quite obvious that the war is lost. It’s war which has divided the mountain and the sea, destroyed a fated a love, and created so much suffering. In an earlier time, Kiyono’s “devotion” might indeed have been seen as selfish, a desire to isolate herself and the man she loved and keep him from his duty because of her own pain. Now however, her tale is only tragedy. Not so much a woman driven mad by an excess of emotion, as a country by the lack of it.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Late Autumn (秋日和, Yasujiro Ozu, 1960)

“It’s people who complicate life. Life itself is surprisingly simple” according to a puffed up old man having just hugely overcomplicated an admittedly delicate situation in Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Autumn (秋日和, Akibiyori). A reinterpretation of his classic Late Spring, Late Autumn once again stars Setsuko Hara but this time as a widowed mother far more enthusiastic about marrying off her only daughter while enduring the sometimes unwelcome assistance of a group of middle-aged men stepping into the decidedly female realm of matchmaking and of course concluding that they are doing a fantastic job. 

The action opens at the seventh memorial service for Akiko’s (Setsuko Hara) late husband, Miwa, attended by his three old high school friends, Taguchi (Nobuo Nakamura), Hirayama (Ryuji Kita), and Mamiya (Shin Saburi) who’s turned up fashionably late in the hope of skipping most of the sutras. At the refreshments afterwards, talk turns to the marriage of Miwa’s daughter Ayako (Yoko Tsukasa) who is now 24 which is actually edging towards the late side by the standards of the time. The three old men offer to help find prospective matches with Taguchi instantly proposing an acquaintance to which Ayako smiles demurely but is later relieved to discover is already taken. Mamiya too has a lead, a nice young man from his office, Goto (Keiji Sada) who graduated from a good university and is not bad looking either. Though Akiko is excited, she’s surprised to discover that her daughter wants to shut the offer down immediately before even exchanging photos. She feels she’s not ready for marriage and is happy the way things are. Of course, if she fell in love it might be a different matter, but to her mind there’s no rush to get married just for the sake of it. 

Generally speaking, it’s other women who mostly enforce these restrictive patriarchal social norms, after all a daughter’s marriage is ironically the one area of a woman’s life over which she usually has total control. In this case, however, Ayako’s marriage becomes a kind of hobby for three eccentric old men who each have problems of their own they don’t seem to be in a big hurry to deal with. They each have a latent crush on Akiko from their youth though it was obviously Miwa who later married her. Hirayama is widowed with a teenage son, but Mamiya and Taguchi have wives and daughters of their own, Taguchi’s already married but apparently experiencing frequent bouts of “frustration” with her husband, and Mamiya’s still in school, while their wives are fully aware of their lingering affections for Akiko but mostly content to laugh at their ridiculousness. They are all certain that Ayako “needs” to get married as soon as possible and that they are “helping” her towards “happiness” though what they’re mostly doing is a father knows best routine in which they resolutely ignore her repeated desire for things to go on as they are until she decides that they shouldn’t. 

Ayako isn’t interested in arranged marriage, but does become interested in Goto after accidentally meeting him at Mamiya’s company and then discovering they have a mutual friend, all of which makes their relationship both “arranged” and “not”, giving Mamiya cause to think he’s responsible when he’s really just incidental. Thinking things aren’t moving fast enough, the guys decide the problem is Akiko and if they can persuade her to remarry then Ayako will be less reluctant to leave home. Their behaviour is in fact quite manipulative, something they are later called out on by Ayako’s feisty friend Yuriko (Mariko Okada) who is also trying to help but determined to do it in a less problematic way. The gang’s suggestion to Ayako that her mother is considering remarriage when in fact she had no such intentions at all places a rift between the two women with Ayako left feeling hurt and betrayed, as if her mother has offended her father’s memory and done something improper behind her back. 

Ayako is not alone in her lingering prejudice against second marriage even if Yuriko tries to explain to her that she’s being unreasonable. Hirayama too originally objects to the gang’s plan to get him to marry Akiko on the grounds that it would be “immoral” to marry his old friend’s wife, but is brought round when he puts the idea to his son and finds him wildly enthusiastic if only in part because he’s already thought ahead to his own marriage and is worried his dad will want to live with them and that would inconvenient for everyone. When it comes to Akiko’s marriage, there seems to be more wiggle room. Everyone wants her to be “happy” and so there’s a greater freedom to explore various options while completely ignoring her preference to remain a widow. As we see from Akiko’s life, she is already financially independent and really has no “need” to remarry unless she happened to fall in love though she remains attached to her husband’s memory. As she later confesses to Ayako, she has no desire to “climb that mountain” again, and in fact will be happier living in freedom as an independent woman. 

As so often, however, while remarriage is optional marriage is not. Ayako has to marry, she never really has the option to remain single even that was what she wanted. She falls in love with Goto and indeed wants to marry him if perhaps worried about leaving her mother behind, making the three old men partially correct in their conviction that her reluctance was more anxiety than it was opposition. Unfortunately, their “success” emboldens them towards the next match and possibly more unhelpful meddling, complicating what should be simple with their increasingly outdated ideas fuelled by a desire to rebel against their sense of impending obsolescence. “In marriage you just give up” an exasperated wife admits, but wouldn’t it be something if you didn’t have to?


Late Autumn is currently streaming on BFI Player as part of the BFI’s Japan season.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Onibaba (鬼婆, Kaneto Shindo, 1964)

How do you go on living in a world turned upside-down? It may be the central theme of post-war cinema, but few have tackled it in such a direct if allegorical way as Kaneto Shindo, repurposing a Buddhist parable about the perils of duplicity as lesson in the dangers of the age, defined by a cruel hunger which could not be satisfied by bread alone even if there were bread to satisfy it. Onibaba (鬼婆), as the title implies, makes a villainess of an old woman driven to extremes by her chaotic times, but perhaps suggests that the times make villains of us all.

Deep in the war-torn country of 14th century Japan the imperial capital of Kyoto has been razed, a horse is said to have given birth to a cow, and the sun rose black in the sky leaving day as black as night. With farmers dragged away from their fields to fight in a war they barely understand on behalf of distant lords, the grain basket of the nation is close to empty. An old woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) have learned to make ends meet by hunting battle-weary samurai, stripping them of their armour, and throwing their bodies into a gigantic pit sitting right in the middle of the tall grass like a gravitational black hole of human compassion. The old woman has been patiently waiting for the return of her son, Kichi, who was taken away by the samurai, certain that everything is going back to normal when the war is over. Kichi, however, will not be returning. Hachi (Kei Sato), another young man from the village taken along with him, brings the sad news that the old woman’s son was beaten to death by a mob of farmers much like herself resentful of the war’s intrusion onto their land. 

Everything becomes food, Hachi explains, a sentiment extremely familiar to those who lived through the chaos of the immediate post-war era. Pointing at a baseline problem in the feudal economy, the war starves the poor and makes the wealthy hungry. The fields run wild with no men to tend them, as if symbolising the madness of the times. Lost in the tall grass, samurai and peasant alike search for an exit but are drawn only towards that black pit of human cruelty, more beasts than men driven by the need to survive alone. 

Without her son, the old woman is unable to farm, and without her daughter-in-law she is unable to survive through killing. She knows that these are times without feeling and that if Kichi will not return there is no reason for her daughter-in-law to stay. Ushi (Taiji Tonoyama), the broker for the looted samurai armour, makes an indecent proposal of extra millet for sexual favours but the old woman defiantly turns him down, perhaps not quite realising the offer was likely not intended for her. Which is to say that Hachi is not the only man in town, but is perhaps the only “desirable” one. Such desires that there are apparently cannot be satisfied by a crusty old man like Ushi, but are there all the same. Hachi presents a triple threat. The old woman knows her survival depends on the younger one, but also that she has no means to keep her now that her son is dead. She offers Hachi her body instead but he, as she did Ushi, baulks at the idea of slaking his lust on such an old woman. 

When a strange samurai wanders into her hut and orders her at the point of his sword to lead him out of the tall grass a solution presents itself. The old woman lures him to the black pit and prises away the ornate oni mask which he claimed he wore to protect his beautiful face from the ravages of war. Despite the fact that the samurai appears to have suffered from some kind of aggressive skin disease, the old woman unwisely decides to put the mask on her own face, convincing her daughter-in-law that her relationship with Hachi is sinful and appearing out of nowhere dressed as a demon to remind her that she’s going to hell. The mask’s crazed expression becomes fused with her own face, cementing her transformation into a “demoness” which it seems had already begun with stretch of white disrupting the uniformity of her hair and the kabuki-esque exaggeration of her eyebrows. Running desperately through the tall grass she cries out that she’s human, but this world has made demons of them all. The black pit of hunger knows no fill, and there can be no satisfaction in a world so devoid of human feeling.


Onibaba is currently streaming on BFI Player as part of the BFI’s Japan season.

Original trailer (dialogue free)

Blood End (天狗党, Satsuo Yamamoto, 1969)

When the black ships appeared off the coast of Japan in 1853, it provoked a moment of crisis which eventually led to the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the Meiji Restoration. Between those two events however lay a period of intense confusion as several groups and movements attempted to lay claim to the future direction of the nation. Many, such as the legendary figure Sakamoto Ryoma, held that above all else Japan needed to Westernise as quickly as possible in order to defend itself against foreign powers now far more technologically advanced than the Japan which had attempted to hold back time for over 200 years. Others felt quite the opposite, that what was needed was an end to the corrupt rule of the Shogunate and the restoration of power to the emperor while expelling foreign influence and going back into isolation. 

Satsuo Yamamoto’s Blood End (天狗党, Teng-to) dramatises this debate through the melancholy tale of the Mito Rebellion as a brutalised peasant farmer is sucked in by the idea of revolution but eventually betrayed by it in discovering that the samurai, even revolutionary samurai, will never change. They may claim they want an end to the feudal caste system and to live in a world where all men are equal, but continue to feel themselves entitled to more equality than others and insist on deference from those they still believe to be inferior. 

The action begins with a scene familiar from many a jidaigeki in that a small farming community is being pressed to provide the usual amount of rice despite the failure of the harvest. Revolutionary yakuza Jingoza (Kanemon Nakamura) and egalitarian samurai Kada (Go Gato) stumble on the scene of a “stubborn” peasant being subjected to 100 blows as punishment for the village’s raising the unfairness of their situation with the local lord. Surviving his ordeal, Sentaro (Tatsuya Nakadai) asks only for water but is denied by his cruel samurai tormentor. Jingoza intervenes and offers him his flask along with some money by way of an apology on behalf of these savage nobles, a gesture for which Sentaro remains grateful. While many of his friends are exiled and lose their lands, Sentaro disappears from the village and becomes a yakuza himself, learning the art of the sword in preparation for his mission of revenge. 

Meeting Jingoza by chance, he takes the opportunity to thank him and agrees to transport some money back to his family in a nearby village while he engages in urgent business in the mountains. While there, Sentaro ends up defending Jingoza’s steely daughter Tae (Yukiyo Toake) who is running something like an orphanage for children rendered fatherless by the ongoing chaos. It’s at Tae’s that he ends up running into Kada, who is a member of revolutionary movement “Tengu-to”, named for the mythical ogres with long noses and bright red faces. Sentaro ends up joining the movement, but gradually discovers that Tengo-to is not all he thought it to be. In the modern parlance, many of their actions are terrorist, they care little for human life and have no issue with looting wealthy houses as they prove after helping Sentaro assassinate the man who beat him, killing the man’s wife and servants and making off with his money as “military funds”. Sentaro is shocked, but only manages to get some of the money for himself to take back to Tae as a way of making amends. He continues to associate with Tengu-to despite his growing disillusionment with their philosophy. 

The Mito clan were perhaps outliers in the great Bakumatsu culture war, running under the “Sonno Joi” banner but doing so alone and forcefully advocating that the emperor’s instruction to expel all foreigners with immediate effect be enforced. At least as far as Yamamoto’s revolutionaries go, they advocate for this not so much because they reject foreign influence but because they resent the country’s elites maintaining a stranglehold on the riches to be gained by foreign trade. Kada, however, claims to have a more revolutionary spirit in that he wants to improve conditions for farmers like Sentaro, protecting them from the “corrupt system” but he’s still a product of his society and finds the programming increasingly hard to break. Having recruited vast numbers of peasants to their cause and witnessing the failure of their campaign, the other leaders want to go to Kyoto to talk to the emperor but are embarrassed to go there in the company of so many men who are not samurai. The solution is that they simply kill them, because peasants aren’t really people anyway. 

Sentaro thought they were “doing something good for peasants and the poor”, but samurai will always be “samurai” and eventually they will betray him. He wavers when Kada and the others ask him to assassinate Jingoza because he’s gone over to the Westernising cause, and is half talked round by his insistence that he’s acting blindly without thinking far enough ahead but himself finds it hard to break with the idea that samurai are honest and know what they’re doing. 

Yamamoto is perhaps making a direct allusion to the imminent failure of the student movement in Japan which finds itself in much the same place as the Tengu-to, torn apart by infighting and increasingly corrupted by duplicitous dogma. Kada has a lot of fine ideas but he doesn’t act on them, doubling down on ruthlessness in complaining that Sentaro is too sentimental, insisting that emotion is the enemy. Sentaro, however, has figured out that the enemy is the sword and everything it represents. Jingoza’s “Restoration” is the one he should have been fighting for if he wanted to see a classless Japan, but the Tengu-to have misused his idealism for their own ends and turned him into a defender of his own oppression. Still, the Tengu-to are the ones who pay the price, their entreaties to the emperor falling on deaf ears with 353 retainers beheaded as punishment. Sentaro lives on, vowing he will never die, as he walks towards the “Restoration” of the future and away from the Blood End of an inherently corrupt insurrection. 


Cruel Story of Youth (青春残酷物語, Nagisa Oshima, 1960)

More interested in politics than cinema and never quite at home in the studio system, Nagisa Oshima began his career at Shochiku as one of a small group of directors promoted as part of the studio’s effort to reach a youth audience they feared their particular brand of inoffensive melodrama was failing to capture. Like The Sun’s Burial, Cruel Story of Youth (青春残酷物語, Seishun Zankoku Monogatari) is a nihilistic tale of a fracturing society, but it also looks forward to Night and Fog in Japan in its insistence that youth itself is a failed revolution and this generation is no more likely to escape existential disappointment than the last. 

The film opens with teenager Makoto (Miyuki Kuwano) and her friend Yoko (Aki Morishima) trying to get free rides from skeevy middle-aged men rather than having to pay for a cab. As you might expect, that’s a fairly dangerous game and while it might be alright while there’s two of you, as soon as Yoko has been dropped off, the driver changes course and suggests going for dinner only to park in front of a love hotel and try to drag Makoto inside. Luckily, or perhaps not as we will see, she is “rescued” by young tough Kiyoshi (Yusuke Kawazu), a student and angry if politically apathetic young man. Struck by his manly white knight act, Makoto takes a liking to Kiyoshi but he too later rapes her under the guise of satisfying her curiosity about sex to which he attributes her ride hailing activities. After this violent genesis, they fall in “love” but continue to struggle against an oppressive society.

We assume that the “cruel story of youth”, and it is indeed cruel, that we are witnessing is that of Makoto and Kiyoshi, but it’s also that of her slightly older sister Yuki (Yoshiko Kuga) and her former lover Akimoto (Fumio Watanabe) who has become a conflicted doctor to the poor betraying himself by financing the clinic through charging for backstreet abortions. Yuki complains to her apathetic father that they were strict with her in her youth, that she’d get a hiding just for coming home after dark, whereas Makoto can stay out all night and not get much more than a stern look. Her father explains that times were different then, “We thought we had new horizons. We started again as a democratic nation, and it was a responsibility that went hand in hand with freedom. What can I say to this girl today?” admitting both the failures of the past and the mistaken future of a society that actively resists change. 

Yuki and Akimoto were part of the post-war resistance, left-wing students like the older generation of Night and Fog in Japan, who’d actively fought for real social change but had seen that change elude them. Yuki, we hear, left Akimoto for an older man but perhaps now regrets it along with her half-finished revolution. She may not approve of her sister’s choices, but she also on some level admires her for them or at least for the strength of her rebellion even if it will ultimately be as fruitless as her own. “This is a cruel world and it destroyed our love” Akimoto laments, mildly censuring the youngsters in suggesting that his love was pure and chaste because they vented their youthful frustrations through political action whereas this generation is already lost to the mindless hedonism of unbridled sexuality. 

He forgives them, because he feels that their plight is a direct result of his failure to bring about the better world, but there is also a suggestion that it is a lack of political awareness which is somehow trapping the young. Oshima cuts from footage of the April Revolution in Korea which is described as a “student riot” in the news to a protest against the Anpo treaty at which Kiyoshi and Makoto look on passively from the sidelines. “I think taking part in the demonstrations is stupid”, Makoto’s friend Yoko tells a prospective boyfriend, “why don’t we think about getting married instead?”, drawing a direct line between social conservatism and political inaction. 

Makoto and Kiyoshi rebel by using, or to a point not using, their bodies as a direct attack on the society. Following their rather odd and troubling meeting, the pair earn their keep through repeating the experience. Makoto picks up men who will inevitably have an ulterior motive, and Kiyoshi rescues her, extorting money from their targets. Yet it is Kiyoshi who is forced to prostitute himself, gaining financial support as a gigalo kept by a wealthy middle-aged housewife who is just as sad and defeated as Yuki and Akimoto, dissatisfied with the path her life has taken and in her case attempting to escape it through passion and control exerted over the body of a young man. Though the consequences of a becoming a kept man may be different than those Makoto would face should the less “nice” delinquents get their hands on her, they do perhaps fuel his sense of violent emasculation which he channels into a pointless act of revenge against the society in the form of its most powerful, wealthy middle-aged men whose misogyny he claims to abhor while simultaneously mirroring and directly exploiting.

“Someone needs to be responsible” a strangely sympathetic policeman insists, chiding Kiyoshi that at heart he’s just a petty criminal who liked having money no matter how he might have tried to dress it up. “You’re just like them, you’re a victim of money too”, he adds correctly diagnosing the flaws of an increasingly consumerist society. Only, no one takes responsibility. Kiyoshi’s lady friend pulls stings. It turns out her husband does business with Horio, one of Makoto’s pick ups who despite being nice and kind still had his way with her and then reported Kiyoshi for extortion. Akimoto explained that their failures would drive them apart, but Kiyoshi swore they’d always be together only to wonder if in his love for her the only thing to do is save Makoto from his corrupting influence though she does not want to leave him. We won’t be like you, Kiyoshi countered, because we have no dreams with which to become disillusioned. But youth itself is a failed revolution, and the force which destroys them is perhaps love as they meet their shared destinies at the hands of an increasingly cruel society.


Cruel Story of Youth is currently streaming on BFI Player as part of the BFI’s Japan season.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Old Potter (독짓는 늙은이, Choi Ha-won, 1969)

“The man of the house shouldn’t covet and touch what belongs to others even if he is starving to death” laments an old potter admonishing his well-meaning son but also commenting on the folly of his life. A melancholy tale of illusionary futures, Choi Ha-won’s The Old Potter (독짓는 늙은이, Dokjitneun Neulgeuni) is a deeply felt meditation on loneliness and regret as a wandering son finally comes “home” to look for himself in the ruins of his family which seems to have existed as briefly as a dream. 

The young man (Kim Hee-ra), apparently from a nearby village, is a wandering soul struck by the familiar sight of traditional pots which he has not seen in some years seeing as he has just returned from the war. Stepping into a house he finds it not quite as empty as he thought and strikes up a conversation with an elderly gentleman (Heo Jang-gang) who invites him to stay the night among a small community of beggars congregating around a disused kiln. The old man tells him that he comes here every 15th day to spend time with a late friend of his, Song (Hwang Hae), to whom he seems to feel some sort of debt. 

Back in the 1920s, Song, the old potter, joked that he was married to his pots, living a lonely life devoted to his craft. One winter he happened upon a young woman collapsed in the snow, rescuing her and nursing her back to health in his shack. The young woman, Ok-soo (Yoon Jeong-hee), does not exactly fall in love with him but is grateful and, it turns out, has nowhere else to go and so the pair marry. The potter becomes a father to a son, Dang-son, at the age of 61. For seven years, the family is perfectly happy. Old Song truly loves the young Ok-soo and takes good care of her. He is a kind man and patient father keen to pass on his skills to his young son. 

And then, a strong and handsome young man arrives. He is is Sok-hyun (Nam Gung-won), Ok-soo’s first love for whom she left her family, heading off to look for him but fainting in the snow where she was rescued by Song. When Song’s friend made fun of him for washing Ok-soo’s clothes in a nearby stream and prompted him to ask her to stay, he said he’d let her go if that was what she chose, and to that extent he’s true to his word. Having overheard the couple talking and realised their past relationship, he says nothing but silently hopes that Ok-soo will choose to stay with them. 

Ok-soo meanwhile is torn. Her old lover has returned, the man she’d been searching for, but he’s come at an inconvenient time when she is now a wife and a mother with a settled home. She is not unhappy with the potter who, though elderly, is kind and has always taken care of her and their son, but she’s drawn back towards passion and romance with Sok-hyun who is young and strong, able to split logs with a single blow. Song hears the sound of the axe echoing in his mind as a grim reminder that Sok-hyun is everything he is not – young and handsome and full of life. He can offer only the warmth of their home and the feeling of duty towards family as reasons for Ok-soo to stay, but knows in his heart that she will choose the love of her youth over the security they have built together. 

Song’s late life happiness is shattered like one of his imperfect pots. He cautions his son that one should not covet things which belong to others as if blaming himself for daring to “borrow” Ok-soo all these years when she “belonged” to someone else. He gives Dang-son another pottery lesson which is really life philosophy, explaining that it’s fire that makes the pot, not the man. A man is made by the fires he endures, and perhaps, Song starts to think, he should give in and allow Dang-son to be adopted by a noble family so that he might live an easier life as a gentleman rather than struggle here with him with no real hope for the future seeing as all his pots are cracked. 

Of course, as we already know, the sad young man who returned from the war is Dang-son, so perhaps Song’s choice did not buy him the easy life that he hoped it would. Meanwhile, the old man explains that Ok-soo later returned and bitterly regretted her choice, begging to be told where Dang-son had been taken, but the old man turned her away which is why he feels so guilty. “I deserve the severest punishment as a woman who deserted her husband and son” Ok-soo laments, having spent the last 20 years trying to atone for her decision to choose passion over her maternal responsibility. Song’s brief moment of happiness left him unable to return to his cold and lonely life as the master potter, his hopes shattered by life’s imperfections. Fire has shaped them all, but after it’s cooled all that remains is bitter regret for the frustrated desires of youth and a painful longing for forgiveness. 


The Old Potter is available on English subtitled DVD courtesy of the Korean Film Archive in a set which also includes a bilingual booklet featuring an essay by director Choi Ha-won on the making of the film as well as writing by film critic Kim Jong-won. It is also available to stream online via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

Funeral Parade of Roses (薔薇の葬列, Toshio Matsumoto, 1969)

“The spirit of an individual reaches its absolute through infinite negation” according to the title card which concludes Toshio Matsumoto’s anarchic voyage through the counter culture underworld of late ‘60s Tokyo, Funeral Parade of Roses (薔薇の葬列, Bara no Soretsu). Repurposing Oedipus Rex as mediated through Pasolini as an exploration of the crushing impossibility of true authenticity, Funeral Parade of Roses is also an atypical portrait of a city in transition. Like many a post-war melodrama, it’s a story of Tokyo bar hostesses only we find ourselves not in the comparatively upscale Ginza where unlucky women dream of escape into more conventional lives, but the grungier Shinjuku in which those who have no desire to attain conventionality, of that kind at least, have found a kind of freedom to become their truer selves. 

Our hero, Eddie (Peter), is something of an ephebe pursuing his destiny as a “gay boy” (cross-dressing bar hostess) at bar Genet where he has entered a relationship with the much older proprietor, Gonda (Yoshio Tsuchiya), who is growing tired of his current lover, Leda (Osamu Ogasawara), the bar’s mama-san. At the risk of mixing our metaphors, or at least allegories, in Greek mythology Leda was the mother of Helen of Troy, raped by Zeus in the guise of a swan. In any case, the primary crisis is one familiar from any other bar girl drama where Leda might be the melancholy heroine, facing the tragedy of her fading youth and an increasingly uncertain future. We see Eddie leave an apartment arm in arm with Gonda, a hearse passing ominously in front of them, while Leda looks on with scorn perching in front of a street corner convenience store to confirm that her suspicions are in fact correct. 

Leda is or will be the victim of Eddie’s quest for a place of his own, displaced within a world of displacement. She will eventually find her own kind of escape, dressed in a wedding dress and surrounded by white roses but drenched in romantic tragedy. Eddie meanwhile is plagued by visions of a traumatic past and a feeling of alienation. “I feel abandoned by life” he later complains to a counter culture friend, Guevara (Toyosaburo Uchiyama), who has adopted a strange fake beard in addition to his fake name. In the gallery in which Eddie meets him, a record is playing to remind us that we are each wearing a mask and that perhaps our mask may fit us so comfortably that we have forgotten the shape of our own face. We can never be sure if we are seeing those in front of us as they truly are or merely observing the masks they have chosen to wear. Beneath one mask may lie another, and another, into infinity hiding even from ourselves our truest identity in the truest form of loneliness.

Eddie too is searching for himself, though the implication that his present persona is just that may be an uncomfortable one. To undercut it, Matsumoto frequently breaks the fourth wall to interview some of his non-professional actors and other men in the street in this particular corner of Shinjuku. They tell him that perhaps they don’t have a “reason” for becoming a “gay boy”, only that it’s who they are and have always been and in that it makes them happy (aside from one self contradictory woman who gives answers only filled with nihilistic despair). The central thesis, however, is that an identity only reaches its absolute through its own negation, which is to say that Eddie must destroy himself to become himself. Something which he perhaps does on learning the ironic truth to which he was blind that has led him towards his grim destiny. 

A film critic making an unexpected, meta appearance talks to us of the “cursed destiny of man” while Eddie walks through a burial ground sinking into the sea and casually wishes that the whole country would sink to the bottom of the ocean. A student protestor justifies his use of violence as an essential good because it works towards the end of violence and not its perpetuation, but Eddie’s violence solves nothing and eventually becomes an act of self harm that propels him towards his nihilistic destiny. Yet this is a violent age in which opposition is the only sign of life. Eddie rebels against himself to rebel against the society, a rose wounded by his own thorns, whose only refuge lies in the artifice which mirrors authenticity. 


Funeral Parade of Roses is released on blu-ray in the UK on 18th of May courtesy of the BFI in a new 4K restoration. The set also includes an audio commentary by Chris D, the original Japanese trailer plus the US trailer for the 2017 restoration, and eight Toshio Matsumoto shorts including Nishijin (1961), The Song of Stone (1963), Ecstasis (1969), Metastasis (1971), Expansion (1972), Mona Lisa (1973), Siki Soku Ze Ku (1975) and Atman (1975). The two-disc edition also comes with a 34-page booklet featuring essays by Jim O’Rourke, the BFI’s Espen Bale, Hirofumi Sakamoto with Hiroshi Eguchi, and Koji Kawasaki.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Last War (世界大戦争, Shue Matsubayashi, 1961)

As The Last War (世界大戦争, Sekai Daisenso) points out, by 1961 16 years had passed since the end of World War Two during which Japan had begun to rebuild itself, heading into a period of unprecedented economic prosperity with the Olympics already on the horizon. But the early 1960s were also a time of increased international tension as the Cold War mounted and many in Japan feared being pulled into another conflict especially with the Korean War not quite so much in the distant past. Toho had become the home of special effects cinema and such films were often coloured with strong messages of peace and social responsibility as humanity banded together to combat an existential threat be it a giant monster or mad scientist. The Last War is no different in that regard, but sadder in showing us that the end of the world may come suddenly and without warning and that if we for a second become complacent it could already be too late to stop it. 

Patriarch Mokichi (Frankie Sakai) has made a decent life for himself after the war working as a driver. His wife, Oyoshi (Nobuko Otowa), is in poor health and he dreams of buying a house by the sea where she can live in comfort. Meanwhile, they have a grownup daughter, Saeko (Yuriko Hoshi), born before the war, and two much younger children, a girl, Haru, and boy, Ichiro. They are a very happy, very ordinary family who are beginning to think that their days of hardship are finally behind them and they have escaped the war’s shadow. The only note of potential conflict lies in the fact that Saeko wants to marry a family friend, Takano (Akira Takarada), a sailor, and is afraid of Mokichi’s reaction, especially as he keeps trying to set up matches for her. 

In fact, having lived through the war Oyoshi and Mokichi are certain that nothing like that is going to happen again, even if the younger generation is filled with anxiety. “Who could ever profit from the destruction of the Earth?” Mokichi not unreasonably asks, signalling his newly consumerist world view. Mind you, he adds, everyone knows the alternative to calamity is hard work, “you have to work hard for peace”. 

Mokichi has indeed been working hard, but has perhaps begun to neglect other areas of his life in his desire to become rich even if that desire is only to make his family more comfortable and give his children better opportunities than he had. Brought over to see a new TV set now on sale, he scoffs that he already has one, “Who needs a second TV?” he asks, but on hearing the news that tensions are rising because a military plane has gone down off the coast of Africa, his first thought is to get on the phone to his broker and junk his real estate stocks for shares in aeronautics. Mokichi is unconvinced by an old man selling potatoes on their street who apparently lost everything in Hiroshima and has since become a devoted Christian donating most of his profits to anti-nuclear charities, describing him as just “showing off”, firmly believing that nothing like that is ever going to happen again. “I cannot accept it” he says, “what would be the point of the aspirations of humble folk like us if we’re all destined to go poof into extinction?”.  

As the only nation to have directly experienced nuclear war, the intense fear of its recurrence is indeed understandable. If a nuclear war escalates, it will be the end of everything. All human endeavours over thousands of years will be mere dust. There will be no weddings, no births, no graduations, no grand discoveries, just nothing. When the bomb does indeed hit, the scenes of devastation must have proved extremely traumatic for many in the audience as buildings crumble ominously, the sky turns a fiery red, the streets run with lava, and we can see the outlines of charred bodies lying among the wreckage. The tip of the Diet building sits neatly atop the rubble as if in rebuke of the political failures which, despite the best efforts of the Japanese politicians who make an effort to govern responsibly and are honest with the electorate while advocating strongly for peace through diplomatic channels, have led to the literal end of the world. “You have to work hard for peace” the closing title card reminds us. “We can stop this before it happens, but we have to work together”. “I won’t let you destroy our happiness” Mokichi had screamed at the void, but in the end he was powerless. All it takes is a minor slip, and the world as we know it will cease to be.


A Bonanza (노다지, Chung Chang-wha, 1961)

Chung Chang-wha is best remembered as a pioneer of Korean action cinema, eventually travelling to Hong Kong to direct martial arts movies with Shaw Brothers. 1961’s A Bonanza (노다지, Nodaji) arrives at a moment in which melodrama was the predominant genre and does in a certain way conform to contemporary tastes in its strong message of familial responsibility and reconciliation, but is also influenced by European and American crime cinema adding a touch of noir to its clearly delineated worlds of rich and poor which the hero has, perhaps incorrectly, attempted to cross through abandoning his social responsibilities to chase fortune in the wilderness. 

First on the scene, however, is lonely sailor Dong-il (Hwang Hae) who has returned to Busan after a six month voyage. He tries to visit his mother who is working in a restaurant, but finds her cold and unreceptive. We learn that prior to becoming a sailor, he’d been unemployed and embarrassed not to be able to support his ageing mother as a son should. Dong-il’s father apparently went off to the mountains to look for gold 20 years ago and hasn’t been heard from since. His mother has remarried and his step-father appears not to like him very much, so Dong-il’s longed for familial reconciliation seems unlikely to take place. Angrily leaving the restaurant, he punches an old hobo in the street in frustration. 

Unbeknownst to him, the man, Wun-chil (Kim Seung-ho), is like his father a prospector only apparently a lucky one. After 20 years living “like an animal” in the mountains, he’s struck gold and a lot of it. Wun-chil sells some of the gold to an unscrupulous dealer who immediately cheats him and turns out to be partly responsible for the marriage of the woman he loved to a much wealthier man, and thereafter sets about living as a member of the elite, taking a room at a plush hotel the staff didn’t even want to let him into after taking one look at his mountain man attire. A lengthy flashback informs us that after getting his heart broken, Wun-chil married a woman who was fond of him on the rebound but he never loved her and so the marriage floundered while he became a drunk dependent on his wife’s labour picking coal at the railway. Eventually he decided to leave for the mountains with Dong-il’s dad Dal-su (Heo Jang-gang), leaving his wife and baby daughter Yeong-ok (Yun In-ja) behind. Dal-su passed away shortly after they found the gold together and so Wun-chil is keen to track down Dong-il to ensure he gets his dad’s share of the money while also hoping to reunite with Yeong-ok. 

The gold becomes a corrupting influence in Wun-chil’s life. He has been away 20 years and no longer has any friends while those he makes after becoming rich cannot exactly be trusted. The unscrupulous jeweller has him splashed all over the papers where he talks about his desire to find Dong-il and Yeong-ok, causing a series of imposters to appear claiming to be the long lost children as well as one fake detective offering to find them. When Dong-il eventually finds Wun-chil himself, Wun-chil has all but given up and chosen to self isolate to protect himself from the virus of greed and so doesn’t believe Dong-il is who he says he is. 

Meanwhile, he’s consumed by a sense of guilt and regret in his abandonment of his family and failure as a man to behave honourably towards the woman that he married. We discover that the motivation for Dal-su and Wun-chil to go into the mountains was less economic than romantic. Dal-su’s wife had apparently left him and he hoped to win her back after getting rich, while Wun-chil was still smarting from the loss of the woman he loved to a wealthier man and thought he could gazump him by happening on a gold mine. On his deathbed, Dal-su is sure his fate is payback for the abandonment of his family, while Wun-chil’s guilt runs still deeper. His wife was eventually killed in a rail accident while he was away, leaving Yeong-ok all alone, eventually taken in as a servant and exploited by a wealthy family. Wun-chil came and got her back, but was unable to care for her, eventually tying her to a tree and walking off which is why he has no idea if she is alive or dead. 

Yeong-ok (Um Aing-ran) appears to have survived but has been further corrupted as a member of a vicious street gang, seducing men in the street and then mugging them at knife point but beholden to her boss, Hwang Hog (Park No-sik), who more or less owns her in return for the investment he has made in feeding her. In the course of her activities she encounters Dong-il who heroically fends off her attempt to rob him and prompts her into a reconsideration of her way of life. The youngsters hit it off and begin to fall in love, especially once they discover their shared trauma as children essentially abandoned by irresponsible fathers who ran off to look for gold and never came back. 

Of course, their tripartite destinies eventually converge as the gang sets its sites on Wun-chil’s millions while he starts to reflect on the meaninglessness of wealth when you actually have it. He finds himself wandering down to the railway tracks and observing the other women working there in memory of his late wife, slipping a bundle of notes inside the blanket of a baby on its mother’s back and handing more cash to those he passes on his way. That does not mean, however, that he’s willing to surrender his gold which is why he kicks off when he discovers the map to the mine and all his money has been stolen from the hotel. Culminating in a tense shootout between the righteous forces of Dong-il picking up his father’s gun, a regretful Wun-chil hoping to reunite with Yeong-ok, and the gang he hopes to free her from, the battle is not so much over the money but for Wun-chil’s frustrated paternity. Vanquishing the greedy, the family is in a sense restored as Wun-chil vows to become a “good father” to Yeong-ok, embracing Dong-il as a potential son-in-law as the kids support the wounded patriarch back towards civilisation and a presumably happier future. 


A Bonanza is available on DVD courtesy of the Korean Film Archive in a set which also includes a bilingual booklet featuring writing by Park Sun-young (Research professor, Center for Korean History at Korea University). It is also available to stream online via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.