Muddy River (泥の河, Kohei Oguri, 1981)

The post-war era refuses to die in Kohei Oguri’s heartbreaking exploration of childhood friendship and the costs of experience, Muddy River (泥の河, Doro no Kawa). Adapted from the novel by Teru Miyamoto and situating itself in the Osaka of 1956, Oguri’s realist drama takes place at a moment of transition not only in the life of the young hero but also of the nation which was at long last beginning to leave post-war privation behind thanks to increasing economic prosperity. Yet for men like young Nobuo’s father Shinpei (Takahiro Tamura), the traumas not only of the war itself but its aftermath will not be so easy to escape. 

A shy child who often wets the bed, 9-year-old Nobuo (Nobutaka Asahara) lives with his parents Shinpei and Sadako (Yumiko Fujita) above a small riverside noodle bar mainly frequented by sailors and workmen such as Shioda (Gannosuke Ashiya), a regular who pulls a horse and cart for a living. Nobuo can’t stop staring at Shioda’s ruined ear, presumably a battlefield injury though the avuncular gentleman tries to raise his spirits with false cheerfulness explaining that he’s seen the writing on the wall and the days of cart pullers are coming to an end. He jokes about giving his horse to Nobuo as a pet though obviously he has no need for or ability to keep a horse, explaining that he’s going to buy a second-hand truck so he won’t be left behind in the race for modernity. Unfortunately, however, as Nobuo follows him out Shioda’s cart gets stuck in the mud. Somewhat bluntly he violently beats the horse to make him free it, but the cart ends up blocking the bridge and the horse is spooked by oncoming traffic. Crushed by his falling load, Shioda is pulled under the wheels and killed, his hopes for the future dashed while his wife and child are left without economic support. 

Emulating the visual imagery of silent cinema, Oguri frames this sequence perfectly with an inescapable anxiety that captures the inevitability of the moment. This is Nobuo’s first glimpse of death, running confused back to his father to tell him that the cart man’s dead, Shinpei at first not quite comprehending but later reflecting that he was like him another casualty of the post-war era as if his death were merely delayed remembering that he’d once said the war had already killed him and so he’d never die again. On an awkward train journey Shinpei opens a newspaper and reads that “the post-war period is over”, but of course for him it isn’t and perhaps never will be. Reflecting on the last 10 years of his life, he wonders if it was worth it, there must be many people who think it would have been better to die in the war than suffer as they did afterwards. Young Nobuo, born to him in his 40s, is his only achievement. Sadako meanwhile harbours her own guilt in feeling as if she wronged another woman with whom Shinpei had previously been involved after the war by stealing him away and building this life together in burned out Osaka which, while far from perfect, is comfortable enough and happier than most. 

That Nobuo learns for himself when he befriends another boy staring at the abandoned cart. 9-year-old Kiichi (Minoru Sakurai) and his sister Ginko (Makiko Shibata) live on a houseboat recently moored opposite, something which Nobuo finds unusual and mysterious but not itself bad. Still innocent and too young to have incorporated moral judgement, Nobuo simply befriends the other boy bonding over a strange tale of a monstrous carp in the river though perhaps also feeling sorry for him on noticing his ragged clothes and the holes in his shoes. On visiting their houseboat, he only hears only the voice of Kiichi’s mother Shoko (Mariko Kaga) a mysterious disembodied presence who lives in a separate area of the boat accessible only via a different entrance. When she instructs Kiichi to give him some raw sugar and tell him not to come back too often, he takes it that he’s unwanted later confused when his father tells him that it’s fine for his new friends to visit but he shouldn’t go near the boat after dark. 

Understanding people, neither Shinpei or Sadako, instantly grasping the situation, reject the family because of the stigma of sex work realising that people do what they have to to survive and in any case it isn’t the children’s fault or responsibility. On hearing Kiichi enthusiastically singing an old imperial song about losing friends in Manchuria, Shinpei begins to feel a kinship with his late father as another old soldier claimed by the muddy river of the post-war society. Like the cart man, and an old fisherman Nobuo witnessed “disappear” from his boat never to be seen again, he was simply a casualty of the times one of many unable to enter the new society promised by rising economic prosperity. Shinpei fears he may also be one of these men, left behind unable to break free of wartime survivor’s guilt and the traumas of what came afterwards. He also disappears from his son’s life abruptly and without warning if only temporarily, but accidentally deserts him at the time he needs him most allowing his fragile new friendship to fracture as the two boys fatefully return to the boat after dark and Nobuo encounters a loss of innocence on several levels Kiichi realising that something is now broken between them. 

Something is perhaps broken in the times, the end of Nobuo’s childhood coinciding with the the dawning of a new era free of post-war privation but one that also threatens to leave those who can’t catch up to it behind Kiichi’s boat bound for further down the river while Nobuo remains firmly on land his own foundation perhaps more secure now that his father has exorcised some of guilt over the recent past. Shot with a nostalgic realism in black and white and in academy ratio, Oguri’s quietly devastating drama sets one boy’s loss of innocence against the lingering affects of another as the adults all around him struggle to acclimatise themselves to a changing society but all he sees is the muddy river flowing past him taking his friend away because he saw something he shouldn’t have leaving him with nothing but sorrow and loneliness on the other side of an unbreachable divide. 


Muddy River screens at the BFI on 12/23 December as part of BFI Japan.

Opening sequence

Fancy Dance (ファンシイダンス, Masayuki Suo, 1989)

Thematically speaking, the films of Masayuki Suo have two main focuses either dealing with esoteric ways of life in contemporary Japan such as sumo wrestling in Sumo Do Sumo Don’t, ballroom dancing in Shall We Dance?, and geisha in Lady Maiko, or pressing social issues such the operation of the justice system in I Just Didn’t Do It or euthanasia in A Terminal Trust. After making his debut with pink film Abnormal Family: Older Brother’s Bride, Suo’s first mainstream feature Fancy Dance (ファンシイダンス) belongs to the former category as a Bubble-era punk rocker finds himself entering a temple to honour a familial legacy. 

As the film opens, Yohei (Masahiro Motoki) is onstage singing a very polite and respectable version of a classic song, Wakamonotachi (lit. the young), made popular as the theme to a television drama in the mid-1960s, before suddenly turning around, the other half of his head already shaved continuing with the same song but now in an anarchic punk rock arrangement. The son of Buddhist temple, he is expected to become a monk and take over the family business but he’s also a young man coming of age in the ultra-materialist Bubble era raised in the city and with little inclination towards the ideals of Zen. In fact, we learn he’d long resisted the idea of entering a monastery and has only recently given in intending to stick it out for a year in order to please his parents and then return to to his Tokyo life. 

His hair reflects an inner duality, torn between his duty to take up Zen and his desire for personal freedom. Yet as he’s repeatedly told by his razor-wielding office lady girlfriend Masoho (Honami Suzuki), in the end he’s going to have to choose which from her point of view means choosing between her and the temple. Though there is obviously no prohibition on monks getting married, Yohei is the son of a monk after all, girlfriends are one of many things not really allowed during his initiatory period though as we’ll see the monastic life is often more about knowing how to game the system than it is about actually sticking to the rules. It’s a minor irony that temples, Buddhist or Shinto, are actually one of the most lucrative businesses in Japanese society and despite apparently rejecting material desire many monks are fantastically wealthy. Yohei’s fellow noviciate Eishun (Hikomaro) is dropped off by a young woman in a bright red sports car who turns out to be the daughter of a monk, Eishun only entering the temple to please her family so that he can marry her, committing himself out of love but also admitting it’s nice work if you can get it. 

Yohei’s brother Ikuo (Ken Ohsawa) is also fine with the idea of becoming a monk, describing it perhaps surprisingly as an “easy life”. Ikuo’s presence is initially a little irritating to Yohei, he only agreed because he was under the impression Ikuo had also declined to enter the temple and feels that he’s been tricked when he could have just let him train to take over the family “business”. The treatment they receive is often surprisingly harsh with a high level of physical violence administered by their superiors, in particular the more experienced Koki (Naoto Takenaka) who has it seems figured out how to break the rules in an acceptable fashion carrying on a secret romance with a young woman who often attends the temple while visiting hostess bars in the town in disguise, wearing a wig to cover his distinctive monastic hairstyle. Meanwhile, even the supposedly austere master of asceticism Shoei (Miyako Koda) has a secret stash of sweets in their room. The message seems to be that once you “graduate” from the junior ranks you too are free to interpret the tenets of a Zen life however you see fit. 

Yet despite himself, Yohei comes to appreciate the trappings of monasticism most particularly in its graceful movements and the aesthetic quality of the outfits. The temple may not be free of the consumerist corruptions of the Bubble era, but perhaps there is something it for a man like Yohei, a different kind of “freedom” than he’d envisioned but freedom all the same even within the constraints of a superficial asceticism. Masoho meanwhile rejects her own fancy dance in refusing to play the part of the conventional office lady no longer smiling sweetly cute and invisible but dressing in her own individual style and defiantly taking command of the room. The strains of Wakamonotachi recur throughout hinting at Yohei’s youthful confusion as he tries to decide on his path in or out of the temple while finding himself “swimming in a sea of desire between Masoho and Zen”, perhaps concluding that his own endless journey has only just begun.


Fancy Dance streams in the US Dec. 3 to 23 alongside Suo’s 2019 Taisho-era drama Talking the Pictures as part of Japan Society New York’s Flash Forward series.

Wakamonotachi TV drama theme by The Broadside Four (1966)

Music video for the updated theme from the 2014 TV drama remake (known as All About My Siblings) performed by Naotaro Moriyama

The New Morning of Billy the Kid (ビリィ★ザ★キッドの新しい夜明け, Naoto Yamakawa, 1986)

“Isn’t this style called surrealism?” a little girl asks, watching a WWII GI giving John Ford’s Monument Valley a post-modern makeover depicting John Lennon and a Martian in preparation for a live concert by hip girlband ZELDA. Arriving at the beginning of the Bubble era, Naoto Yamakawa’s 35mm commercial feature debut The New Morning of Billy the Kid (ビリィ★ザ★キッドの新しい夜明け, Billy the Kid no Atarashii Yoake) was the first film to be produced by the entertainment arm of department store chain Parco (along with record label Vap) which also distributed and draws inspiration from several stories by genre pioneer Genichiro Takahashi who at one point appears on screen proclaiming singer-songwriter Miyuki Nakajima, a version of whom appears as a character, as one of the three greatest Japanese poets of the age. What transpires is largely surreal, but also a kind of post-modern allegory in which the world is beset by the “anxiety and destruction” of salaryman society. 

Yamakawa opens in black and white and in Monument Valley in which only the figure of a young man in a cowboy outfit is in vivid colour while a voiceover from the American President warns that a savage band of gangsters is currently holding the world to ransom. Yet “Monument Valley” turns out to be only an image filling the wall of Bar Slaughterhouse, the cowboy, Billy the Kid (Hiroshi Mikami) stepping out of the painting having lost his horse and apparently in search of a job. The barman (Renji Ishibashi) is reluctant to give him one, after all he has six bodyguards already ranging from the legendary samurai Miyamoto Musashi to an anthropomorphism of Directory Enquiries, 104 (LaSalle Ishii). Nevertheless, after threatening to leave (through the front door) Billy asks for a job as a waiter instead in return for food and board while collecting the bounty for any gangsters he kills in the course of his duties. 

The bar is in some senses an imaginary place, or at least a space of the imagination, the sanctuary of “construction and creation” where half-remembered pop culture references mingle freely. In that sense it stands in direct opposition to the salaryman reality of Bubble-era Japan where everyone works all the time and the only interests which matter are corporate. Billy takes a liking to a young office lady, “Charlotte Rampling” (Kimie Shingyoji), who complains that she’s overcome with a sense of anxiety in the crushing sameness of her life, often woken by the sound of herself grinding her teeth that is when she’s not too tired to fall asleep. The “gangsters” which eventually crash in (literally) are businessmen and authority figures, one revealing as he raids the till that he’s a dissatisfied civil servant who determined that in order to become the best of the salarymen you need an “interesting” hobby so his is being in a gang. Another later gives a speech remarking again on this sense of inner anxiety that in their soulless desk jobs they’re moving further and further away from this world of “creation and construction”, and that the sacrifice of their individuality has provoked the kind of violent madness which enables this nihilistic “terrorist” enforcement of the corporatist society against which Miyuki (Shigeru Muroi), another of the bodyguards dressed as a retro 50s-style roller diner waitress, rebels through her poetry. 

Envisioned as a single set drama (save the bookending Monument Valley scenes apparently filmed on location in Arizona) Yamanaka’s drama is infinitely meta, in part a minor parody of Seven Samurai featuring a Miyamoto Musashi inspired by Kurosawa’s Kyuzo who was himself inspired by Miyamoto Musashi as the seven pop culture bodyguards stand guard over a saloon-style cafe bar beset by the forces of “order” turned modern-day bandits intent on crushing the artistic spirit in order to facilitate the rise of a boring salaryman corporate drone society. Yet for all of its absurdist humour, Harry Callahan (Yoshio Harada) telling a strange story about being a race horse, there is something quietly moving in Yamakawa’s ethereal transitions, the camera gently pulling back as a little girl who wanted to travel is suddenly surrounded by snow or the face of anxious young office lady fading into that of a prairie woman telling a bizarre tale of her life with a venomous snake. Equally a vehicle for girlband ZELDA whose music recurs throughout, the first stage number a hippyish affair set in a summer garden and the second an emo goth aesthetic more suited to what’s about to happen, Yamakawa’s zeitgeisty, post-modern drama is an advocation for the importance of the creative spirit if in another meta touch itself a rebellion against the corporate and consumerist emptiness of Bubble-era Japan. 


The New Morning of Billy the Kid streams worldwide 3rd to 5th December with newly prepared English subtitles alongside two of Yamakawa’s earlier shorts courtesy of Matchbox Cine.

Original trailer (English subtitles available via CC button)

Miyuki Nakajima’s debut single, Azami-jo no Lullaby (1975)

ZELDA’s Ogon no Jikan

Taipei Story (青梅竹馬, Edward Yang, 1985)

“Just a fleeting hope. The illusion that you can start over” the hero of Edward Yang’s melancholy drama of the costs of modernity, Taipei Story (青梅竹馬, Qīngméizhúmǎ), eventually laments. Yang apparently chose the English title himself in a deliberate echo of Yasujiro Ozu’s equally pessimistic drama, yet the original title literally translated as “childhood sweethearts” also has its poignancy in hinting at the loss of innocence and hopeless impossibility of the fracturing love between its twin protagonists. 

Yang begins and ends in an empty room, for an empty room is always a possibility. As the film opens, high-flying career woman Chin (Tsai Chin) is buying her own apartment, already envisioning her life there in pointing out to her boyfriend Lung (Hou Hsiao-hsien) where they’ll put the TV and VCR so they can watch movies in bed hinting at a new level of consumerist success. More practically minded, he points out that the place needs a little work but Chin is confident she can manage it, saving up and paying in instalments having no immediate anxiety about her income. 

Yet Yang seems to suggest that this burgeoning economic powerhouse is built on shaky ground. The construction firm at which Chin works has recently been hit with a potential lawsuit about a lethal building error, while Chin’s mentor has already moved on and the firm has been bought up by another company presumably intent on some shady business of its own. This Chin discovers to her cost on hearing the not entirely unexpected news that the new bosses don’t understand her job title and want to demote her to the role of secretary which, she suspects, is just a way of pushing her to resign (which she then does). 

Shoddy business practices are also it seems responsible for her father’s present moment of financial insecurity though he only further alienates his daughter by talking entirely with Lung when the pair come to visit stopping only to ask awkward questions about marriage and children. Later we realise that part of Chin’s resentment towards her father is due to a long history of domestic abuse, her mother later crying silently prompting Chin to withdraw some of her savings something she would not have done had her father asked it. Yet Lung, old-fashioned in many ways and not least in his filiality, feels duty bound to help his not-quite father-in-law provoking a row between the pair when he gives him money he’d saved in the forlorn hope of going into business with his brother-in-law in America. 

Once childhood friends and now seeking a new start, the couple begin to dream of a new life though as Lung later says, America, like marriage, is not a panacea. Chin is in a sense torn between past and future neither of which have much possibility, in a committed relationship with Lung yet jealous over his past with a mutual childhood friend, and also carrying on an affair with an unhappily married man at work. A high-flying executive and independent career woman, she is determined to keep moving forward while Lung is stuck in the past hung up on baseball glory and morally righteous to a fault, helping out Chin’s feckless father while knowing it will do no good while his attempt to help a friend sort out his complicated family life leads only to tragedy. It’s obvious that he does not fit in with Chin’s yuppie friends, one particularly obnoxious male colleague describing him as having the face of a yam farmer and needling him to the point that it eventually leads to an altercation in a karaoke bar. Chin doesn’t seem particularly upset about the fight, comforting Lung as he confesses that he ends up in fights in order to stick up for himself or else because of his love of justice, but continues hanging out with her unpleasant friend for otherwise unclear reasons. 

But it’s less a love of justice than frustrated masculinity that eventually seals Lung’s fate, unwisely picking a fight with a young tough not so much in order to protect Chin as to preserve his own sense of wounded male pride. Realising the futility of his situation, he is unable to move forward into the new society, whereas Chin eventually finds herself substituting his role as her former mentor shows her around a potential new office space just as she had him her apartment envisioning how they will exist within it, where their offices will be along with the state of the art computer room. “It’s actually nice here,” she assures her, “now we have a big American company right in our hometown. Why go abroad?”. Yet Chin perhaps remembers her dejected colleague lamenting that all the new buildings look the same and he can’t even remember which ones he worked on so anonymous has the landscape become. In this Taipei story, the city is devoid of life or character a highly corporatised arena of increasingly dehumanising capitalism where everyone dreams of escape abroad to America or Japan, yet all Chin can do lowering her sunshades is to gaze from the window of her new office onto the lonely streets below and ask herself where it is she thinks she’s going. 


Taipei Story streamed as part of this year’s Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Dust in the Wind (戀戀風塵, Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1986)

Geographical dislocation and changing times slowly erode the innocent love of a young couple in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s nostalgic youth drama, Dust in the Wind (戀戀風塵, Liànliàn Fēngchén). Hoping for a better standard of life, they venture to the city but discover that the grass is always greener while their problems largely follow them and the young man finally alienates his childhood love with his stubborn male pride, imbued with a general sense of futility in the inability to better himself because of the constraints of a society which is changing but unevenly and not perhaps in ways which ultimately benefit. 

Opening with a long POV shot of a train emerging from darkness into the light, Hou finds Wen (Wang Chien-wen) and Huen (Xin Shufen) travelling home from school she bashfully admitting that she didn’t understand their maths homework while he automatically shoulders the heavy rice bag her mother has asked her to collect on the way. Their relationship is indeed close and intimate, almost like a long-married couple, yet there’s also little that tells us they are romantically involved rather than siblings or merely childhood friends. Given his family’s relative poverty and the lack of opportunities available in the village, Wen decides not to progress to high school but move to Taipei in search of work while studying in the evenings. Some time later Huen joins him, but they evidently struggle to reassume the level of comfort in each other’s company they experienced at home, Wen permanently sullen and resentful while Huen perhaps adapts more quickly to the rhythms of urban life than he expected if also intensely lonely and fearful, no longer confident in his ability and inclination to care for her. 

Huen clearly envisions a future for the both of them of conventional domesticity, eventually writing to Wen after he is drafted for his military service that a mutual friend spared the draft because of a workplace injury is moving back to his hometown to get married and is planning to sell off land to build houses one of which will be for them. But Wen is still consumed with resentment, frustrated that he can’t make headway in Taipei and in part blaming Huen for highlighting his failure while also holding her responsible when the motorbike he’d been using for work as a delivery driver is stolen after he gives her a ride to town to buy presents for her family. They only seem to speak through the bars of a small window in the basement tailoring room where Huen works as if something is always between them while she complains of her loneliness, Wen apparently ignoring her for long stretches of time while studying for exams though ultimately electing not to apply for colleges. While he’s away in the army, Huen’s letters to him become increasingly infrequent until Wen’s start coming back return to sender, the other soldiers mocking him for his devotion to his hometown girlfriend while suggesting that she has most likely moved on, a supposition which turns out to be correct in the extremely ironic nature of her new suitor. 

Yet it’s not quite true that everything is rosy in the country and rotten in the city. On a visit home, Wen overhears his father and some of the other coal miners discussing a potential strike action feeling themselves exploited and under appreciated, while later that evening a group of boys who also left for Taipei lament their circumstances afraid to explain to their parents that things aren’t going well and that they’ve been physically abused by their employers. Ironically enough it’s Wen who can’t seem to gel with city life, becoming frustrated by Huen’s ability to go with the flow having a minor patriarchal tantrum when she accepts a drink from his male friends at a going away party for a man about to enlist. She responds by voluntarily removing her shirt for an artist friend to decorate, staring at him with scorn while waiting around in her vest. In the village everyone is disappointed, feeling as if Huen has betrayed Wen in failing to fulfil their romantic destiny though it is often enough he who has alienated her in his prideful stubbornness, continually cold towards her, leaving her lonely and afraid. Had they stayed, perhaps they would have married, had children, grown old and done all the expected things together and in that sense “modernity” has indeed come between them but then again they were children and what teenage lovers don’t assume they’re “supposed” to be? “What can you do?” come the words from stoical granddad (Li Tian-lu), explaining that his transplanted potatoes haven’t fared well in the recent storm. 

While Wen’s father can only lament the toll changing political realities took on his future prospects, literally moving rocks around in drunken bouts of frustrated masculinity, Wen must struggle with his familial legacy while wondering if perhaps it’s better in the village after all ensconced in the beautiful rural landscape far from the consumerist corruptions of increasing urbanity. But then according to granddad, the potatoes only accept the nutrient when severed from the vine, much harder to look after than ginseng, apparently. You have to wander in order to find a home, life is hard everywhere, sometimes painful and disappointing, but what can you do? Like dust in the wind, try your best to ride it out.


Dust in the Wind streams in the UK 25th to 31st October as part of this year’s Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.

Trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

To Sleep So as to Dream (夢みるように眠りたい, Kaizo Hayashi, 1986)

“I feel so well, as though I am dreaming” a ghostly old woman exclaims, having dealt with her unfinished business or perhaps merely becoming one with the silver screen. Released in 1986 but set ostensibly sometime in the 1950s and recalling the golden age of the silent movie, Kaizo Hayashi’s postmodern odyssey To Sleep So as to Dream (夢みるように眠りたい, Yumemiru Yoni Nemuritai) sends a pair of detectives on the hunt for a missing reel, voyaging through an ethereal dreamscape of mysterious magicians, kidnap and conspiracy, in search of the solution to the “Eternal Mystery”. 

Opening in total darkness, Hayashi pans across to a gas lamp and then to the figure of a woman watching a silent film projected on a screen in her living room. We see only her gloved hands, one wearing an ostentatious ring, somewhere between Miss Havisham and Norma Desmond, while the movie seems to be part of an early serial revolving around the Black Mask ninja who is trying to rescue the kidnapped Bellflower (Moe Kamura) only the princess always seems to be in another castle, as detectives Uotsuka (Shiro Sano) and his sidekick Kobayashi (Koji Otake) will discover. In any case, the film bursts into flames and dissolves at the moment of climax just as Black Mask confronts the kidnappers and declares the mystery “solved”. The old lady, Madame Cherry-blossom (Fujiko Fukamizu), then telephones the Uotsuka Detective Agency and requests their help with a kidnapping, sending her manservant Matsunosuke (Yoshio Yoshida) to the office with a tape recording of the kidnappers’ message which includes the clues to a scavenger hunt the pair must solve if they are to arrive at the drop off point with the money in order to retrieve Bellflower. 

Filming in black and white and in academy ratio, Hayashi maintains a silent film aesthetic adding selected sound effects but rendering all dialogue other than recordings as intertitles. We hear the phone ring and the radio playing, but “live” human speech is presented only as text save for that of the Benshi who appears at the film’s conclusion though even he may also be “on tape”. Meanwhile, he adds in random gags at the guys’ expense such as the “hardboiled” detective’s obsession with hard boiled eggs, while his sidekick Kobayashi is forever riding a rocking horse in the corner of their office while wielding a lasso and wearing a cowboy hat. A live chicken completes the home on the range feel while a series of horse shoes decorate the wall. The two men feel as if they emerged from a 20s noir farce, their slapstick antics eventually leading to a confrontation in which Kobayashi proves himself an unexpectedly skilled martial artist.  

Their world is already absurd even as they head into the abstract in order to chase Bellflower while, just like Black Mask, the kidnappers leave them irritating messages at each checkpoint revealing another clue and that the ransom has now doubled. They are plagued by a series of magicians who turn up in different guises from a man performing a kamishibai version of the Black Mask story for children to some guys running a shell game and posing as a trio of “scientists” led by Prof. Jerowski “of the British Empire” showing off their new gyroscope technology. Yet it’s no coincidence that the kidnappers go by the name Pathé & co, having essentially trapped Bellflower inside the celluloid realm and refusing to set her free. 

While Uotsuka falls for the beautiful, elusive image of Bellflower who begs to be released from “this endless story”, fantasy and reality begin to merge as he finds himself cast in the role of Black Mask. The ironically named “Endless Mystery” is a film with no end, the apparently incomplete debut of a faded star not so much ready for her closeup but desperate for closure and the release of her younger self from 50 years of torment in the reassurance that Bellflower will certainly be rescued by Black Mask at the film’s conclusion which is, after all, how such serials are supposed to end. While others slip ghostlike into the darkness, Uotsuka is left behind another prisoner of cinema chasing the romance of the silver screen yet finally saving his princess by extracting her from it. Operating on several levels, Hayashi expertly recreates both the grainy serials of the early silent era and crafts an absurdist, postmodern homage to its more recognisable evolution as his detective becomes wilfully lost in the labyrinths of cinema. 


To Sleep So as to Dream streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Restoration trailer (no subtitles)

Robinson’s Garden (ロビンソンの庭, Masashi Yamamoto, 1987)

By 1987 Japanese society was at the height of Bubble-era consumerism. Everything was bright and exciting, money flowed freely, and everyone worked all the time. Meanwhile, there was also a flourishing of avant-garde subcultures among young people who actively rejected the salaryman straitjacket and sought for more individualistic freedoms in their lives. Masashi Yamamoto had begun his career with explorations of counter-culture life such as his 1982 debut Carnival of Night but shifts into a more metaphysical gear with his trippy 1987 tale of nature’s revenge and the costs of life in a solo commune, Robinson’s Garden (ロビンソンの庭, Robinson no Niwa). 

Two years later, Junichi Suzuki would also draw inspiration from the tale of Robinson Crusoe in the Bubble-era farce Robinson on the Beach which is in many ways an inversion of Robinson’s Garden in which a low-level salaryman’s life is upended when he wins a brand new house in the suburbs but becomes the subject of class-based resentment from his bosses while expected to play act the “model family” as part of the developer’s ideal homes marketing campaign. Kumi (Kumiko Ohta) by contrast is a floating bohemian living at the beginning of the film in a multi-cultural commune and supporting herself by selling drugs of which she is also a user. Drunk and stumbling around in the darkness, she accidentally comes across an abandoned industrial complex and is bewitched by the garden growing inside its walls as nature begins to reclaim its own. Selling most of her possessions in a yard sale, she leaves the commune and begins squatting in the factory attempting to return to the land by growing her own produce and living entirely alone. 

The bohemian, internationalist Tokyo that Kumi inhabits stands in direct contrast to that often seen in contemporary mainstream cinema, her eventual decision to leave this globalised communal society for ultra isolationism an intense irony. Then again, there is something of a negative judgement towards the aimless way she lives her life which extends to the wider world around her. Meeting up in a cafe with a friend recently released from prison, an extremely drunk man continues to have significant difficulty understanding where he is and what’s going on eventually picking up a table but unsure what to do with it. She and her friends are often described, and sometimes describe themselves, as “wacko” in their attempts to live outside of accepted social norms and it’s when Kumi invites her friends into her new private utopia that it first begins to betray her as a prayer circle and a pointless argument somehow provoke a mass brawl while Kumi remains on her sun lounger feeling the first pangs of an illness which will continue to plague her throughout the rest of the film. 

This may in part be down to a strange painting placed on her wall by an intruder, but nature also begins to take against her best efforts as the seasons change and her large crop of cabbages, for some reason all she appears to plant, is destroyed by heavy rainfall which later leads to flooding. Best friend Maki (Cheebo) ventures into a basement and finds tree roots growing through it, listening intently to rumbling behind a wall she attributes to the presence of the subway but is later implied to echo the scrabbling of a ghostly otter looking for its family. A casual boyfriend who stays the night appears to have an episode of mental instability while exploring as if the environment has driven him mad while Kumi becomes progressively sicker with debilitating stomach pains and fever. 

Yet the only lesson that we see her learn is that we are not the masters of our environment. With her help, nature gradually reclaims this previously industrial space filling halls with flowers and covering the walls with greenery. Even her pink moped lies rusty and half-buried while she furiously digs a hole with seemingly no way of climbing out unassisted. Meanwhile, a mean little girl that for some reason always hung around the factory, even at one point eating KFC in the rain, flies a model aeroplane around a sacred tree and trashes a toy birdcage as if playing in the ruins of a post-industrial world. Called to something older and earthier, Kumi retreats fully from the highly corporatised, consumerist society of the Bubble era but the jury seems to be out on whether her experiment in isolationism is success or failure. Yamamoto’s famous distain for logical narrative progression lends an absurdist air to Kumi’s continuing desire to return to the garden but captures the mystifying allure of nature in all its ethereal, if perhaps sinister, glory. 


Robinson’s Garden streams in the US until Sept. 2 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Restoration trailer (no subtitles)

Amagi Pass (天城越え, Haruhiko Mimura, 1983)

There’s no statute of limitations on guilt an ageing policeman laments in Haruhiko Mimura’s adaptation of the Seicho Matsumoto mystery, Amagi Pass (天城越え, Amagi-Goe). Co-produced by Yoshitaro Nomura and co-scripted by Tai Kato, Amagi Pass arrives at the tail end of the box office dominance of the prestige whodunnit and like many of its kind hinges on events which took place during the war though in this case the effects are more psychological than literal, hinging on the implications of an age of violence and hyper masculinity coupled with sexual repression and a conservative culture. 

In a voiceover which doesn’t quite open the film, the hero, Kenzo (Mikijiro Hira / Yoichi Ito), as we will later realise him to be, likens himself to that of Kawabata’s Izu Dancer though as he explains he was not a student but the 14-year-old son of a blacksmith with worn out zori on his feet as he attempted to run away from home in the summer of 1940 only to turn back half-way through. In the present day, meanwhile, an elderly detective, Tajima (Tsunehiko Watase), now with a prominent limp, slowly makes his way through the modern world towards a print shop where he orders 300 copies of the case report on the murder of an itinerant labourer in Amagi Pass in June, 1940. A wandering geisha was later charged with the crime but as Tajima explains he does not believe that she was guilty and harbours regrets over his original investigation recognising his own inexperience in overseeing his first big case. 

As so often, the detective’s arrival is a call from the past, forcing Kenzo, now a middle-aged man, to reckon with the traumatic events of his youth. Earlier we had seen him in a doctor’s office where it is implied that something is poisoning him and needs to come out, his illness just as much of a reflection of his trauma as the policeman’s limp. Flashing back to 1940 we find him a young man confused, fatherless but perhaps looking for fatherly guidance from older men such as a strange pedlar he meets on the road who cheekily shows him illustrated pornography, or the wise uncle who eventually tricks him into buying dinner and then leaves. His problems are perhaps confounded by the fact that he lives in an age of hyper masculinity, the zenith of militarism in which other young men are feted with parades as they prepare to fight and die for their country in faraway lands. Yet Kenzo is only 14 in 1940 which means he will most likely be spared but also in a sense emasculated as a lonely boy remaining behind at home. 

He tells the wise man who later tricks him that he’s run away to find his brother who owns a print shop in the city because he hates his provincial life as a blacksmith, but later we realise that the cause is more his difficult relationship with his widowed mother (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) whom, he has recently discovered, is carrying on an affair with his uncle (Ichiro Ogura). Returning home after his roadside betrayal he watches them together from behind a screen, a scene echoed in his voyeuristic observation of the geisha, Hana (Yuko Tanaka), with the labourer plying her trade in order to survive. Described as odd and seemingly mute, the labourer is a figure of conflicted masculinity resented by the other men on the road but also now a symbolic father and object of sexual jealously for the increasingly Oedipal Kenzo whose youthful attraction to the beautiful geisha continues to mirror his complicated relationship with his mother as she tenderly tears up her headscarf to bandage his foot, sore from his ill-fitting zori, while alternately flirting with him. 

Yet his guilt towards her isn’t only in his attraction but in its role in what happened to her next even as she, we can see, protects him, their final parting glance a mix of frustrated maternity and longing that has apparently informed the rest of Kenzo’s life in ways we can never quite grasp. Amagi Pass for him is a barrier between youth and age, one which he has long since crossed while also in a sense forever trapped in the tunnel looking back over his shoulder towards Hana and the labourer now on another side of an unbreachable divide. The policeman comes like messenger from another time, incongruously wandering through a very different Japan just as the bikers in the film’s post-credit sequence speed through the pass, looking to provide closure and perhaps a healing while assuaging his own guilt but finding only accommodation with rather than a cure for the traumatic past. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Neither Seicho Matsumoto’s original novel or the film adaptation are directly related to the well-known Sayuri Ishikawa song of the same name released three years later though the lyrics are strangely apt.

The Story of a Man Among Men (修羅の群れ, Kosaku Yamashita, 1984)

The ninkyo eiga, chivalrous tales of noble gangsters standing up for the little guy with decency and honour, had been Toei’s mainstay throughout the 1960s but a decade later the image of righteous yakuza had been well and truly imploded by the advent of the jitsuroku or “true account” movie which drew inspiration from real life tales of post-war gangsterdom using voiceover narration and onscreen text for added authenticity as it proved once and for all that there was no “honour and humanity” to be found in the gangster life only nihilism and futility. Still, the ninkyo, like many of its heroes, proved hard to kill as 1984’s Story of a Man Among Men (修羅の群れ, Shura no Mure) perhaps proves. A throwback to an earlier era with its infinitely noble hero and unexpectedly if not quite happy then defiantly positive ending, Kosaku Yamashita’s manly drama nevertheless adopts some of the trappings of the jitsuroku in its infrequent use of voiceover and emphasis on concrete historical events. 

The hero, Ryuji Inahara (Hiroki Matsukata), is like many heroes of post-war gangsterdom an orphan though his story begins in the mid-1930s as he’s recruited by a friendly yakuza at a karate dojo. As his teacher explains, Ryuji has already been offered a job with the police but given the chance to join the other side instead immediately agrees, explaining that his life’s ambition has been to gain revenge against the force that ruined his father and destroyed his family, gambling. He chooses to do this, however, not by destroying gambling dens everywhere but by becoming a gambler himself determined to be a winner which is, it seems, a textbook example of having learned the wrong lesson. Still, his noble gangster cool stands him in good stead in the yakuza world where he quickly earns the loyalty of other men, rapidly advancing up the ranks to head his own gang by the crime heyday of the mid-1950s. 

As the title implies, this is a story of a man, a very manly man, among other men. The gangster world is intensely homosocial and founded on ideas of brotherhood and loyalty. Thus, Ryuji finds a surrogate father figure in fellow gangster Yokoyama (Koji Tsuruta) who constantly gives him advice on what it is to be a proper man. “Don’t be a fool, don’t be too smart, and most of all don’t be half-hearted” he advises, later adding “you can’t be a man if you’re dirty about money”, and “taking action isn’t the only way to be a man. It takes a man to have patience.” (this last one as Ryuji hotheadedly discharges himself from hospital to get revenge on a punk who got the jump on him outside a shrine). To be a man, Ryuji intervenes when he sees some less than honourable young toughs hassling an old couple running a dango stand at the beach and the young woman from the caramel stall next-door, throwing his entire wallet on their counter to make up for the damage in what will become something of a repeated motif. His manliness earns him the eternal devotion of the young woman, Yukiko (Wakako Sakai), who eventually becomes his devoted wife against the will of her concerned mother who is nevertheless brought round on realising the love she has for him because of his intense nobility. 

Indeed, Ryuji lives in a noble world. He’s a gambler by trade but only because he hates gambling and is trying to best it. He doesn’t participate in the seedier sides of the yakuza life such as drugs or prostitution and is also in contrast to jitsuroku norms a humanist who defiantly stands up against racism and xenophobia, taking another gambler to task for using a racial slur against a Korean opponent while opting to befriend the “foreign” gangs of Atami when eventually put in charge of the lucrative area rather than divide and conquer. This is apparently a lesson he learned from his flawed but goodhearted father who hid a Korean man and his daughter from the pogroms after the 1923 earthquake because “we’re all the same human beings”. Spared the war because of an injury to his trigger finger, Ryuji kicks off against an entitled son of a gang boss for acting like a slavedriver while working at a quarry but earns only the respect of his superiors further enhancing his underworld ties because of his reputation as a standup guy willing to stand up to oppression. 

Such an intense sense of uncomplicated righteousness had perhaps been unseen since the ninkyo eiga days, and Ryuji’s rise and rise does in that sense seem improbable as his goodness only aids his success earning him the respect of over 1000 foot soldiers even as he finds himself in the awkward position of having to exile one of his most trusted associates for getting too big for his boots and disrespecting the yakuza code. His children also suffer for their connection to the gangster underworld, but are reassured that their father is a good man if with the subtle implication that he has damned them as his father did him. Shot with occasional expressionist flourishes such as crashing waves or a midnight sky, A Story of a Man among Men is not free from manly sadness and indeed ends on the sense of a baton passing from one era to another but does so with an unexpected sense of moral victory for its righteous hero who vows to bring his manly ideas with him into a new age of gangsterdom. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (新蜀山劍俠, Tsui Hark, 1983)

“I never imagined that the righteous would not only refuse to unite, but also be incapable of action” laments a reluctant soldier realising there are no heroes coming to the rescue in Tsui Hark’s SFX-laden fantasy wuxia, Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (新蜀山劍俠). Inspired by the work of Huanzhulouzhu (Li Shoumin), Tsui’s feudal fable marked a departure from the more “realistic” swordplay movies which were popular at the time harking back to an earlier era of fantastic adventures which drew inspiration from traditional Chinese folklore. It was also, however, an attempt to prove that Hong Kong could rival Hollywood in the post-Star Wars world, blending what might now be viewed as fairly camp but then cutting-edge special effects with classic wuxia action. 

Accordingly, after a brief voice over, Tsui opens with a world in chaos in which several factions are currently vying for hegemony over the hotly contested, mystical and mountainous terrain of Shu. Lowly retainer Ti Ming-Chi (Yuen Biao) has been tasked with delivering a message regarding troop movements to his superiors, but there is a difference of opinion in the chain of command as to whether to attack by land or sea. Placed in an impossible position, Ming-Chi eventually sees himself pledge to obey both captains, only for infighting to emerge within the group forcing him to flee for his life which is how he encounters “Fatty” (Sammo Hung Kam-Bo), a soldier from a rival faction and discovers, quite ironically, that they are from neighbouring villages which makes their rivalry all the more ridiculous. In the course of his attempt to escape, Ming-Chi falls into a mountain crevasse and finds himself entering a mysterious cave which takes him to another world in which he becomes similarly embroiled in a war against the evil Demon Cult which apparently practices child sacrifice and then uses the bones as a kind of magical armour. 

A reluctant soldier, Ming-Chi finds himself captivated by the “Great Hero” Ting Yin (Adam Cheng Siu-Chow) and determines to become his disciple while the pair form an uneasy alliance with a pair of similarly matched Buddhist monks, master Hsiao Yu (Damian Lau Chung-Yan) and his assistant I-Chen (Mang Hoi), also hot on the trail of the Demon Cult. Finding this world also confusing, he is nevertheless reassured by I-Chen’s simple explanation “they’re bad, we’re good” as the two masters face off against the Demon Lord, but comes to discover it’s not quite all as black and white as it seems and this world too is torn apart by chaos and disorder because “the hearts of men are so corrupt.” Ming-Chi begs Ting Yin to use his “peerless martial arts skills” to “save mankind”, but Ting Yin cynically tells him his best course of action is to retreat into the mountains and avoid human society because “neither you nor I have the ability to bring about change”. 

Yet Ming-Chi remains pure of heart, certain that “as long as everyone puts in the effort, peace can be restored under heaven”. “Teach me martial arts and once I’ve mastered it, I can fight oppression, help the weak, and save the masses” he pleads, but Ting Yin once again refuses him. In fact, in one of the later SFX sequences, Ting Yin will “transfer” his martial arts knowledge near instantly via a laying on of hands assisted by some elaborate prosthetics which see Ming-Chi’s body warp and bubble to accept it. Nevertheless, the lesson that Ming-Chi begins to learn, bonding with fellow assistant I-Chen who ignored his master’s petty parting words to bid him goodbye to hope they meet again along the way, is that the masters care only for themselves and are no better than the warring nobles from his own lands, obsessed with their rival sects and ideologies. If they want to save the world they’ll have to save themselves through mutual solidarity in pursuit of their goal, tracking down a pair of mystical swords which are the only way to end the demonic threat for good. 

There might of course be an added dimension to this allegory in the Hong Kong of 1983 which is perhaps also beginning to feel like disputed territory coveted by duplicitous elites who fight amongst themselves while ordinary people suffer, but Tsui is in any case more interested in zany action and excuses to employ zeitgeisty special effects making full use of the technology of the day from lasers to animation along with in-camera stunts to recreate his epic fantasy world in which old men can keep evil at bay for as long as 49 days using nothing but their powerfully hairy eyebrows and a fancy mirror. With small roles for Brigitte Lin and Moon Lee as an ice queen with a warm heart presiding over an all female palace and her spiky guard respectively, Tsui’s bonkers fairytale moves on at a glorious, confusing pace but is nevertheless filled with warmth and humanity as the goodhearted heroes attempt to head off the folly of war with human solidarity. 


Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain streams in the UK 9th to 15th February as part of Focus Hong Kong

Eureka release trailer (english subtitles)