Black Hair (검은 머리, Lee Man-hee, 1964)

Black Hair 1964 posterFilm noir can be the most contradictory of genres. A moralistic world filled with immortality, fatalism mixed with existential angst, and a rage against society which is always tinged with a resignation to living on its margins. Genre in Korean cinema has always been a little more fluid than elsewhere and Lee Man-hee’s seminal crime thriller Black Hair (검은 머리, Geomeun Meori) is also a melodrama – the story of a self loathing man committed to his own arbitrary codes, and a woman he expects to pay the price for them.

In a brief prologue that has little to do with the ongoing narrative, ruthless gangster Dong-il (Jang Dong-hui) extorts a corrupt CEO by blackmailing him over some illicit smuggling. Meanwhile, across town, the gangster’s wife, Yeon-sil (Moon Jeong-suk), meets with a man, Man-ho (Chae Rang), in a hotel room. She’s come to pay him off, hoping it will be for the last time but Manh-ho, an opium addict, knows he’s onto an endless cash cow and refuses to put an end to their “arrangement”. Sometime ago, Man-ho raped Yeon-sil and has been blackmailing her for money and sexual favours ever since. Yeon-sil threatens to tell her husband and the police and suffer the consequences, but Man-ho knows she won’t. Dong-il’s gang have a strict rule about adultery and if Yeon-sil trusted him enough to believe he would believe her about the rape, she would have told him already.

Another goon hides behind a screen, snapping photos of Yeon-sil and Man-ho which he later passes on to Dong-il. The boss is shocked and shaken. He knows he has to enforce the rules he himself set down for the gang, but he never expected them to cost him his wife. Eventually Dong-il orders an underling to slash Yeon-sil’s face with a broken bottle, after which she is exiled from the gang. Anyone who tries to repair her scars or help her in any other way will be treated as an enemy.

At this point the narrative splits as Yeon-sil is cast down into a sleazy underworld, living with her blackmailer who pimps her out as a common streetwalker and then steals all her money to spend on drugs and booze. She pines for her husband whom she has been prevented from seeing, longing to at least explain why she did what she did and ensure he knows that her heart has always been with him. Dong-il, by contrast, is going to pieces – his gang no longer respect him, he feels guilty about the way he treated his wife, and he has no idea where to go from here.

Unlike other films of the era or film noir in general, Lee’s world view is non-judgemental in its treatment of the respective paths of Yeon-sil and Dong-il. Yeon-sil is left with no choice than to enter into a life of casual prostitution and the film forgives her for this – the fault is that of Dong-il and Man-ho rather than her own. Having been horribly scarred, she wears her hair longer on one side to hide her disfigurement but is constantly reminded of her emotional damage through its physical manifestation and the reactions it often elicits. Picking up a client in the street, she’s threatened with violence and cruel words for having “deceived” him when he catches sight of her disfigured face. A passing taxi driver witnesses the attack and challenges the man so Yeon-sil can escape. The cabbie then hires her and they spend the night together in a nearby brothel. He surprises Yeon-sil by being entirely unfazed about her facial scarring, offering to help her get it treated if that’s what she wants, and making it clear he would like to spend more time with her off the clock.

Yeon-sil’s life is completely controlled by her triangular relationship to the three men – her unforgiving husband Dong-il, the cruel and venal Man-ho, and the good and decent cab driver. After meeting the cabbie, Yeon-sil tries to see Dong-il again but his boys stop her. They say they’ll take her to see him, but really they’re planning quite another destination. Luckily, in a staggering coincidence, they’re spotted by the taxi driver who once again saves Yeon-sil, taking her home to stay with him and proposing they embark on a more formal relationship.

This is more of a problem than it seems for Dong-il’s guys who now fear their boss will find out they tried to kill his wife in an effort to wake him up from his ongoing existential malaise. The rules of the gang are tough and clear – adultery is not permissible, no woman is allowed to leave, no exceptions are to be made. Dong-il, however, is beginning to rethink the code he himself designed. A conversation with his childhood nanny throws up a number of interesting questions. She blames herself for giving Dong-il “evil” milk which has led to his spiritual corruption, though Dong-il later tells Yeon-sil that he did not choose evil so much evil chose him. He created these “evil” gang rules, but failed to live up to them in continuing to feel attached to Yeon-sil – he feels he must punish himself for the “sin” of being unable to forget her and abide by his own honour system which he now feels to be pointless and arbitrary. Effectively issuing himself a death sentence, Dong-il changes tack confirming that he has, in a sense, chosen evil even if it was a “choice” of refusing to resist the path set down for him. Suddenly realising the emotion he felt for Yeon-sil was love, he is struck by a terrible feeling of loneliness. 

As in much of Lee’s work, Yeon-sil and Dong-il are trapped by their own society and belief systems and finally perhaps by feeling. Yeong-sil is frequently captured behind bars or caught in a window, imprisoned within the frame as she tries to reconcile herself to her precarious position, daring to hope for a new, decent life with the good hearted taxi driver while also mourning her love for Dong-il and living with the humiliation caused to her by Man-ho. Lee’s structure is sometimes unclear as he introduces a fairly pointless subplot about the taxi driver’s modern woman little sister who has moved out to be independent but works in a hostess bar, inhabiting the same sleazy world as Yeon-sil and Dong-il, only more innocently, but never does much with it beyond contrasting the lives of the two women who occupy slightly different generations and have very different options open to them. There’s a fatalism and inevitability in the way Yeong-sil and Dong-il live their lives to which the taxi driver and his sister do not quite subscribe but Lee breaks with the genre’s trademark pessimism to offer the glimmer of a bittersweet ending and the chance of a new beginning for the much abused Yeon-sil now freed of her dark associations.


Black Hair is the second in The Korean Film Archive’s Lee Man-hee box set which comes with English subtitles on all four films as well as a bilingual booklet. (Not currently available to stream online)

Flora on the Sand (砂の上の植物群, Ko Nakahira, 1964)

© 1964 Nikkatsu CorporationDespite being among the directors who helped to usher in what would later be called the Japanese New Wave, Ko Nakahira remains in relative obscurity with only his landmark movie of the Sun Tribe era, Crazed Fruit, widely seen abroad. Like the other directors of his generation Nakahira served his time in the studio system working on impersonal commercial projects but by 1964 which saw the release of another of his most well regarded films Only on Mondays, Nakahira had begun to give free reign to experimentation much to the studio boss’ chagrin. Flora on the Sand (砂の上の植物群, Suna no Ue no Shokubutsu-gun), adapted from the novel by Junnosuke Yoshiyuki, puts an absurd, surreal twist on the oft revisited salaryman midlife crisis as its conflicted hero muses on the legacy of his womanising father while indulging in a strange ménage à trois with two sisters, one of whom to he comes to believe he may also be related to.

After a brief prologue in which our hero, cosmetics salesman Ichiro Igi (Noboru Nakaya), imagines a scenario for a novel in which a dying husband becomes so jealous of the man that may succeed him in his wife’s life that he sets about plotting to make her the weapon of that very man’s destruction, Igi heads to his regular barber and longtime family friend where he takes the time to probe him about his late father’s womanising habits. Igi’s father died young at only 34 for years of age, three years younger than the age Igi is now. His father’s spitting image, Igi cannot help seeing him everywhere he goes and feels unable to evade his ongoing influence, almost as if he were possessed by his father’s (un)departed spirit.

The major preoccupation Igi has is that his wife (Yukiko Shimazaki) may have slept with his father before they were married while she was just a teenager. The barber tells him he’s pretty sure not, but Igi cannot let the idea go and repeatedly brings it up with his wife, creating discord in the family home. Meeting a precocious schoolgirl at the Marine Tower one evening, Igi finds himself taking her to a hotel and deflowering her even though she begins to resist him at the last minute. The girl, Akiko (Mieko Nishio), then makes a strange request of him – she wants Igi to seduce and “hurt” her older sister Kyoko (Kazuko Inano) whose sanctimonious attitude she can no longer stand. Igi does indeed visit the bar where Kyoko works as a hostess and embarks on an intense affair with her but Akiko’s pleas to “hurt” her sister are complicated by Kyoko’s masochistic tendencies and Igi’s descent into a kind of madness.

Beginning with the painting by Paul Klee which gives the film its name, Nakahira asks us to imagine what would happen if a large dash of red were suddenly to appear, disrupting the comforting harmony of Klee’s perfectly matched colours. The discomforting redness does dutifully appear as strangely shaped squares on the canvas but the symbolic value of the colour is felt throughout the black and white narrative from the dark stain of Akiko’s broken maidenhead to the affectation of her lipstick and constant references to red seas and suns.

Though Igi’s world may have seemed just as perfectly ordered as Klee’s painting from the outside, his constant preoccupations with his father become the disruptive influence which leads to all of the redness later leaking in. Haunted by his father as he is, seeing his face everywhere from train windows to the barber shop mirror, Igi’s attempt at a plot for a murder mystery takes on a strangely Oedipal quality as we begin to wonder if it’s his father rather than Igi himself who has assumed the role of the “protagonist”, leaving a time bomb for his wayward son, the inheritor of his woman, just as Igi laid out in his prologue. Bizarre reality or another symptom of Igi’s increasingly fractured mind, the plot seems likely to succeed at least in a sense as Igi declines into a dishevelled mess, prone to hallucinations and uncertain visions.

Nakahira gives us several of these as Igi panics and struggles with a key only to open a door into bright white light and nothingness or another in which he and Kyoko dine in an empty restaurant which is suddenly filled with the noisy chatter of other diners. Strange touches such as the German beerhall with a Spanish guitarist, or the odd peepshow in which Igi and his two friends take on the appearance of demons or impassive Buddhist statues thanks to the light reflected into their eyes, add to the unbalanced atmosphere as do the frequent closeups of lips and hands, and the symbolic value of seeds never meant to be planted which nevertheless flower at an unintended moment. Shooting in black and white, Nakahira begins with a colour sequence featuring the abstract artwork with occasional flashes of colour as well as voice over and occasional intertitle-style captions adding to the absurdist atmosphere.

A surreal and complex psychological exploration of sex, power, obsession, identity, and legacy Flora on the Sand finds Nakahira flexing his experimental mussels for a drama rife with ambiguity and strangeness. Sadly this brand of innovation was not entirely welcome at Nikkatsu head offices and so he found himself left out in the cold eventually ending up in Hong Kong making action movies for Shaw Brothers. Despite some later success at international festivals, Nakahira’s work remains sadly neglected but the unusual degree of sophistication and almost playful atmosphere seen in Flora on the Sand make him worthy of attention as more than just an almost was of the rising New Wave.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017.

Oh, Bomb! (ああ爆弾, Kihachi Okamoto, 1964)

vlcsnap-2016-07-12-23h44m56s789Being stood up is a painful experience at the best of times, but when you’ve been in prison for three whole years and no one comes to meet you, it is more than usually upsetting. Sixth generation Oyabun of the Ona clan, Daisaku, has made a new friend whilst inside – Taro is a younger man, slightly geeky and obsessed with bombs. Actually, he’s a bit wimpy and was in for public urination (he also threw a firecracker at the policeman who took issue with his call of nature) but will do as a henchman in a pinch. Daisaku wanted him to see all of his yakuza guys showering him with praise but only his son actually turns up and even that might have been an accident.

His mistress has moved on, his wife got religion, and the clan has gone legit and formed a corporation. That last bit might have been OK except Daisaku isn’t the president, he’s the Chairman, and the new top dog is a pen obsessed political candidate who runs under the slogan that pens can save Japan and violence is the enemy! Taro and Daisaku come up with a way to get revenge on the usurper by sneaking a bomb into one of his beloved writing implements but it’s far from plain sailing in this typically anarchic Okamoto world.

Okamoto casts his ironic tale as a musical, cartoon style slapstick comedy with frequent digressions into musical interludes which take inspiration both from Hollywood movie musicals and classical Japanese drama. Daisaku may only have been inside for three years but he’s a man out of time with behaviour and attitudes more suited to the pre-war world than the modern era. Consequently he often breaks into theatrical rhythms inspired by noh or kabuki with their characteristic chant style recitative and stylised movements. Younger characters sing in the vernacular of the day with Taro and Daisaku’s son belting out a popular hit, and the office workers suddenly breaking into a musical set piece themed around the idea of overtime in which the men and women of the office bicker about balancing the books. Similarly, the would be mayor, Yato, takes his cues from ‘20s gangsters so he naturally dances the charleston before breaking into a tango when he gets some unwelcome news.

Rhythm is the key as the film continues to respond to its various musical fluctuations in highly stylised approach which takes advantage of Okamoto’s innovative editing techniques. Apparently inspired by a Cornell Woolrich story, this is nominally a noir inflected crime story of an ousted gangster trying to rub out his rival and get his old life back, but Okamoto neatly deconstructs the genre and turns it inside out with a hefty serving of irony on the top. Daisaku is an old guy and his era has passed, but Yato isn’t real enough to represent the future either which seems to either belong to bumbling bomber Taro, or Daisaku’s hardworking and straightforward son.

The plot to blow up Yato using his favourite prop becomes progressively more ridiculous as the pen ends up everywhere but where it’s supposed to be and threatening to explode at any second (to great comic effect). Things get even darker when Yato is talked into considering the orchestration of an “accident” for his mayoral rival involving a golf ball which once again causes everyone a lot of bother (though not the kind that was intended).

Daisaku has brought some of his old fashioned habits out of jail with him, quickly corrupting his old friend the chauffeur (who ultimately proves incorruptible even if grateful to have been reminded of the happiness he already shared with his wife, poverty or no) and allowing Taro and his crazy bomb plots access to the criminal mainstream, but ultimately he proves more of a loveable rogue living in the past than a criminal mastermind. Yato, by contrast, is a darker figure with his hypocritical campaign slogans and lack of personal integrity. Daisaku may be deluded in many ways but he never pretends to be anything other than he is, unlike the would be dictator.

Filled with Okamoto’s idiosyncratic touch of absurd irony, Oh, Bomb! (ああ爆弾, Aa Bakudan) is one of his most amusing and formally ambitious pieces of work. Mixing classical theatrical techniques with modern movie musicals, jazz rhythms, expressionist sets and unpredictable editing, he once agains creates a crazy cartoon world in which anything is possible but somehow it’s all quite good natured even when you’re talking about bank robbery and possible assassination plots. Hilarious fun but also intricately constructed, Oh, Bomb! ranks among Okamoto’s most charming masterpieces and is urgently in need of a reappraisal.


 

Sannin Yoreba (三人よれば, Toshio Sugie, 1964)

vlcsnap-2016-06-02-01h37m01s384Hibari, Chiemi and Izumi reunite in 1964 for another tale of musical comedy and romantic turmoil in Sannin Yoreba (三人よれば). Beginning as teenagers in So Young, So Bright and Romantic Daughters before progressing to the beginning of their adult lives in On Wings of Love, the girls are all grown up now so the plot of Sannin Yoreba centres around the eternal conflict in the youth of every young woman in ‘60s Japanese cinema – marriage!

At the beginning of the film the three girls are intrigued and excited to receive a call from their old high school teacher who has recently retired. Meeting up to go visit her, the girls relive some old memories with the help of a few repurposed scenes from So Young, So Bright spliced in plus a few additional bits so that it looks like Izumi was also a classmate with them (in the movie she played an apprentice geisha Chiemi and Hibari met in Kyoto) as well as replacing the actress who played the teacher with the woman we’re about to meet. The trio even sing the title song to the first film, Janken Musume, as they drive over to their teacher’s house.

However, once they get there the nostalgic mood begins to dissipate as they realise their teacher has ulterior motives for inviting them. It seems, now that she’s retired, she’s opened a dating agency and wants to introduce our still single ladies to a few “eligible bachelors”. Horrified, the girls each quickly claim to have serious boyfriends already even though Hibari is the only one actually in a relationship. The teacher seems satisfied but invites them all back beaus in tow to give her final verdict. Thus begins the complicated road to true love for our musically inclined heroines.

It’s been seven years since the last Sannin Musume movie and truth to tell things have moved on the meantime leaving the Hollywood inspired musical glamour looking a little old fashioned. Much of Sannin Yoreba is a nostalgia fest despite the fact that it hasn’t really been all that long. Harking back to the first film by singing the title song and reusing the high school era footage seems primed to pull the similarly aged ladies of the audience back to screens across the country.

Sannin Yoreba has the fewest musical sequences and steers clear of large scale production numbers in favour of smaller solo showcases for the leading ladies. There’s more of a blur here into what are really fantasy sequences again taking place as the girls daydream or worry about various things – Chiemi at her place of work (in the production booth of a TV studio), Izumi in her salon, and Hibari at a bar after having a serious argument with her fiancee (once again played by Akira Takarada). That said, the girls end up at a theatre again as they did in the first two movies where they watch themselves perform a tripartite musical set piece which splits off into individual numbers for each one of them. A kind of Chaplin meets Marx Brothers meets Easter Parade theme, the girls dress up as tramps wandering through Times Square where they spot adverts for various shows which inspire their routines including Madame Butterfly where Chiemi plays both the captain and the geisha, and a bullfighting bolero number with Hibari giving it her full on Zorro.

Once again its an elegantly put together fluff fest intended to showcase the entertaining personalities of the three leading ladies who are now some of the biggest performing stars in post-war Japan. As usual the girls have great chemistry together and make a convincing group of lifelong friends whose relationship transcends that of any potential romance on offer. The movie ends with a wedding and another musical finale which incorporates three all three singers so, as expected, everything works out OK in the end which is mostly what people what from a cosy musical comedy starring three giants of the entertainment world. It may be a little sluggish in places and lacks the absurd comedic touch of the earlier movies, but Sannin Yoreba is a welcome return for the idol supergroup even if this kind of movie was evidently on its way out by the mid 1960s.


This is the last of the Sannin Musume movies  😦

Nothing from the film but here’s a video of the three girls some years later singing one of the songs which crops up throughout the movies:

Gate of Flesh (肉体の門, Seijun Suzuki, 1964)

nikutai_no_mon_2_film-1600x900-c-defaultWhat are you supposed to do when you’ve lost a war? Your former enemies all around you, refusing to help no matter what they say and there are only black-marketers and gangsters where there used to be merchants and craftsmen. Everyone is looking out for themselves, everyone is in the gutter. How are you supposed to build anything out of this chaos? Perhaps you aren’t, but you have to go one living, somehow. The picture of the immediate post-war world which Suzuki paints in Gate of Flesh (肉体の門, Nikutai no Mon) is fairly hellish – crowded, smelly marketplaces thronging with desperate people. Based on a novel by Taijiro Tamura (who also provided the source material for Suzuki’s Story of a Prostitute), Gate of Flesh has its lens firmly pointed at the bottom of the heap and resolutely refuses to avert its gaze.

A nervous young woman, clearly tired, starving and alone wanders through a marketplace in desperation before a yakuza offers to buy her something to eat. She is wary but has little choice. Soon after she meets toughened prostitute Sen who is the de-facto head of a small group of streetwalkers committed to supporting and protecting each other. They have few rules but the biggest one is no giving it away for free. Maya joins their “merry” band and things are going OK for them until they make the fateful decision to take in a wounded ex-soldier on the run from the American military police. Shin puts a great big wedge between the members of the group, deepening the cracks which were present all along. Sure enough, Maya starts to fall for this damaged man threatening to fall foul of the gang’s single taboo. When you’ve lived like this, without hope, without a future, can you ever go back to being a “real human being” ever again?

Make no mistake, this is a ruined world. Almost post-apocalyptic, it’s populated by the starving and the desperate. The sweet potato seller is king here – the working girls are depicted like packs of rabid animals, descending on any passing male ready to extract any amount of loose change which they immediately run out to thrust into the hands of anyone who has food. The great horror is hunger.

The other great horror is, of course, violence and particularly male violence against women. Maya is assaulted early on and a truck carrying two army officers and a priest tries to make a quick escape after noticing her lying wounded by the roadside. The Americans aren’t going to help her, she’s just another raped Japanese woman after all, but the priest stops and offers another kind of salvation shining from his dangling crucifix. He repeatedly turns up later and tries to convince Maya to come back to church but you can’t live on a communion wafer alone and eventually Maya puts a definite end to the idea of any kind of religious solution to her predicament.

Sex is business for the woman under Sen’s command. They sell their bodies, hence the prohibition on giving them away. Breaking the rules will get you cruelly beaten and humiliated before being thrown out of the group and it’s near impossible to survive alone. The other women have all been injured by the war, they’re all among those left behind. One of them, Machiko, stands a little to the side as a middle class war widow rigidly sticking to her kimono and dreaming of becoming someone’s wife again. Needless to say, she and Sen do not always see eye to eye as Machiko’s desire to return to a more innocent age conflicts with Sen’s hard nosed pragmatism.

This is Japan in defeat. The girls live in a warren of ruined buildings haunted by visions of the past. Shin has returned from the war to a land devoid of hope. He’s a broken man and, as the woman have been “reduced” to prostitution, he has been “forced” into crime. There aren’t any real people here anymore, just animals willing to do whatever it takes just to stay alive.

When Suzuki was given this assignment, they wanted him to make a soft-core exploitation pic full of the sleazy lives of the red light district. Suzuki doesn’t give them that, he gives them another round of beautifully composed, surrealist social commentary in which the downtrodden citizens of Japan are defeated for a second time by the corrupting influences of the American occupation. The final shot of the ascendant Stars and Stripes flapping in the wind while the Japanese flag lies drowned in the muddy river speaks for itself and though Suzuki shows us those defiantly trying to live his prognosis for them is not particularly hopeful. He uses multiple exposure here more than in any other film as the past continues to haunt the traumatised populace in quite a literal way where one scene of degradation leads on to another. Extended metaphor, surrealist examination of the post-war world and also the low level exploitation feature Suzuki was hired to direct (albeit in more ways than one) Gate of Flesh proves one of his most complicated and accomplished features even given his long and varied career.


Gate of Flesh is available with English subtitles on R1 DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Manji (卍, Yasuzo Masumura, 1964)

8127Ur2xnXL._SL1500_For arguably his most famous film, 1964’s Manji (卍), Masumura returns to the themes of destructive sexual obsession which recur throughout his career but this time from the slightly more unusual angle of a same sex “romance”. However, this is less a tale of lesbian true love frustrated by social mores than it is a critique of all romantic entanglements which are shown to be intensely selfish and easily manipulated. Based on Tanizaki’s 1930s novel Quicksand, Manji is the tale of four would be lovers who each vie to be sun in this complicated, desire filled galaxy.

The story begins with a framing sequence in which Sonoko sits down with a male mentor to recount her sorry tale from some later vantage point. As she would have it, she was an unfilled, unhappy housewife taking a series of art classes when the principal of the college notices that the face in her sketch of the Goddess of Mercy doesn’t look much like the model. Her drawing is good though so he asks her why she gave her drawing a different face and who it might belong to. She tells him it’s merely an ideal and isn’t based on any real person. However, it does look quite like another, very beautiful, pupil at the school – Mitsuko, and a rumour quickly starts that the two women are lovers. Though barely knowing each other before, the pair laugh it off and decide to become friends anyway. Gradually, something more than friendship begins to grow but not everyone is being honest with each other and the added complication of the men in their lives is set to make the road even harder for Sonoko and Mitsuko’s love affair than it might otherwise be.

Sonoko narrates things from her perspective, though you get the feeling she may not be a completely reliable narrator. She seems shy, innocent, wounded though she speaks of her great tragedy with ease and a surprising frankness considering its sensitivity. The object of her obsession, Mitsuko, by contrast plays the innocent but also seems to know perfectly well what she’s doing. Manipulative in the extreme she plays each of the other three lovers off against each other in an attempt to become the centrifugal force in each of their lives. All things to all people, Mitsuko doesn’t seem to know what she wants, other than to be adored by anyone that’s around to adore her.

At the beginning of the film Mitsuko reveals that she’d been involved in marriage negotiations with a young man from a high profile family and she believes the rumours at the art school were started deliberately to try and disrupt her matrimonial ambitions. Sure enough that liaison falls through but she neglected to mention that she also has another fiancee, the slimy Watanuki, that she longs to be rid of but can’t seem to shake off. After Sonoko finds out about Watanuki, Mitsuko feigns not only a pregnancy but a bloody miscarriage to get her female lover to return to her. However, Watanuki fights back by trying to form a bilateral alliance with Sonoko to ensure Mitsuko doesn’t suddenly take up with a third party – he even gets her to sign a contract saying that she’ll help get Mitsuko to marry him and in return he won’t interfere with the two women’s relationship even once they’re married.

Sonoko’s husband completes the quartet, becoming increasingly frustrated by his wife’s infatuation with another another woman, her coldness towards him and her growing boldness. She labels Kotaro cold and passionless and claims never to have enjoyed any of their married life together. She’s also been taking illegal birth control medication to avoid having children with him. Trying to be an understanding husband, Kotaro also ends up tangled in their web of desire after being seduced by Mitsuko. For a time, the three form an unlikely romantic trio (with Watanuki hanging around disdainfully on the edges) though even between the three of them petty jealousies sap their strength and keep them all guessing as to the exact motives of the other pair.

Just like the four pronged arms of the manji itself, our four lovers lie in a tangled and twisted crisscross of desire, each trying to eclipse the other in the eyes of the radiant Mitsuko. Anything but merciful herself, she adeptly plays on the insecurities of the others to keep them all dancing along to her tune. This is not a story of true love, but of misused desires, almost of the inverse of love where lust becomes a weapon of control and self satisfaction. Even at the end, Sonoko can’t decide if she’s been saved or betrayed and if what happened to her was love or a kind of madness. Whatever it was, each has paid a high price for their selfish pursuit of romance or dominance or whatever Mitsuko really represents for them (clearly not the reincarnation of the Goddess of Mercy after all). Years ahead of its time and still just as dark and fascinating as it always was, Manji is a sadly universal tale of the destructive power of love that plays almost like a ghost like story and is likely to haunt the memory long after the screen falls dark.


Manji is available with English subtitles on R2 UK DVD from Yume Pictures.

Kwaidan (怪談, Masaki Kobayashi, 1964)

tumblr_ly5zbgdNH61rn3yrmo1_1280Kwaidan (怪談) is something of an anomaly in the career of the humanist director Masaki Kobayashi, best known for his wartime trilogy The Human Condition. Moving away from the naturalistic concerns that had formed the basis of his earlier career, Kwaidan takes a series of ghost stories collected by the foreigner Lafcadio Hearn and gives them a surreal, painterly approach that’s somewhere between theatre and folktale.

The first tale, Black Hair, is the story of an ambitious young samurai (Rentaro Mikuni) who abandons his one true love to marry a wealthy woman and advance his career. However, his second marriage is far from happy and he begins to appreciate just what it is he’s cast aside. Eventually returning home he meets his former wife again and harbours the desire to start afresh. However, when the sun comes up all is not as it seems.

Tale two, The Woman of the Snow, begins when two woodsmen are caught in a blizzard and a mysterious woman appears to suck one of them dry of blood. She spares the other, Minokichi (Tatsuya Nakadai), because she’s moved by his youth but she instructs him never to reveal the events of that evening or she will return to finish what she started. Minokichi returns home and meets another mysterious woman who later becomes his wife and bears him three children but will he remember to keep his secret even from the love of his life?

The third tale is perhaps the most famous, Hoichi the Earless, and features the sad tale of a blind biwa player (Katsuo Nakamura) whose storytelling ability is so great that the dead themselves petition him nightly to recount their story. Eventually the head monk finds out and disapproves of Hoichi’s dealings with the supernatural so the monks paint sutras all over his body to protect him from the malevolent spirits. However, like achilles and his vulnerable heel, they forget to paint Hoichi’s ears…

The fourth tale, A Cup of Tea, is a little more whimsical and opens with a framing sequence lamenting the fact that some ancient tales were never finished for one reason or another. The tale within the tale features a samurai who keeps seeing a face appear in his tea. Obviously this is quite disturbing, but eventually he just decides to drink it anyway only for the owner of the face to suddenly appear and complain about soul having been stolen.

Like all good fables the stories each have a moral to offer but also, crucially, paint the protagonists as victims of circumstance more than rash or unwise people. The samurai feared poverty so he abandoned his love in search of riches only to discover he’d been chasing the wrong kind of dreams. Minokichi momentarily forgot himself, perhaps entrapped by the Snow Woman’s final trick, Hoichi just wanted to play his biwa but his desires were frustrated by the powers at be who further mess things up for him by botching the sutra application. The protagonist of A Cup of Tea does choose to drink the tea himself but the resultant madness is not something that could ever have been reasonably expected. These are worlds of spirits where the doorway to the supernatural is always ajar, waiting for some ordinary person to tumble through accidentally.

Though employing slightly different styles for each of the four segments, Kobayashi sets his stage with a deliberately theatrical, almost hyperreal set design. Obviously shot on a soundstage, the tales take on the feeling of stories which have been told and retold, replayed countless times across the great theatre of life. Black Hair steers closest to a traditional kabuki play, an effect aided by Toru Takemitsu’s more traditional score but The Woman of the Snow gives way to intense color play full of cold blue ice vistas mixed with impressionistic, passionate red skies. Hoichi’s tale begins with an overlay of a scroll painting recounting the famous The of the Heike of which Hoichi sings his song. Full of epic battle scenes, ghostly apparitions and a whole load of biwa music, this segment is the lengthiest but also the meatiest when it comes to subtext. The final tale by contrast is much more straightforward and brings a little chanbara exuberance to the otherwise heavy atmosphere though it does leave us with one of the most haunting images in the entire film.

Kwaidan may look like an exercise in style for Kobayashi – it was also his first colour picture and he makes full use of that aspect of the film. However, that isn’t to say he’s abandoned his recurrent concerns. The people in the stories are all ordinary, they’re flawed but they aren’t evil. The samurai comes closest to bringing his fate on himself when he makes the selfish decision to abandon his loving wife for money and status though he pays a heavy price when he finally realises his foolishness. Minokichi’s crime is a loss of faith of perhaps of having doubted the truth of his tale in itself. In the end, he simply forgot his promise rather than making a conscious decision break it like the samurai. Hoichi is something of a passive player here as his blindness renders him unable to understand his plight – he is unable to keep his promise to the fallen samurai firstly because of the physical toll it’s taking on him and secondly as he’s prevented by his superiors. The protagonist of the final tale simply gives in to temptation and then to madness perfectly symbolising human weakness. Kobayashi maybe more artful here than acerbic but his bleak view of human nature still wins out. However, what Kobayashi crafted in Kwaidan is a beautiful, dreamlike canvas of supernatural visions which continue to dazzle in their artistry long after the screen has gone dark.


Kwaidan is available on blu-ray in the US from Citerion and on DVD in the UK from Eureka Masters of Cinema.