Untamagiru (ウンタマギルー, Go Takamine, 1989)

“My country is not part of America or Japan! I am a child of Ryukyu!” the hero of Go Takamine’s musical fable Untamagiru ( ウンタマギルー) finds himself shouting after having unexpectedly acquired godlike powers and used them to aid the Independence Movement. Apparently inspired by a legendary local figure, Takamine’s quasi-musical like his earlier Paradise View finds the Okinawan islands at a turning point considering three possible futures: to maintain the status quo under American rule, to return to Japanese sovereignty, or finally to acquire their independence though the last of these seems to be nothing more than an idealistic pipe dream. 

Takamine begins and ends with the same scene changing only the location and the identity of a key player while the hero, Giru (Kaoru Kobayashi), drives a tiny truck in a small circle to turn the grinder that presses the sugarcane. Giru is however mainly casting looks at Mare (Chikako Aoyama), the voluptuous daughter of his taskmaster boss Nishibaru, as she languishes under a small shelter smoking pigweed from a shisha pipe. Giru later finds the courage to ask her to accompany him to a beach party, which she does, the pair sneaking off to a secluded cove near the forest where they make love. The problem is that, as Giru discovers, Mare is actually an anthropomorphised pig that Nishibaru was raising as a wife for the Forest God so now Nishibaru has it in for him. Framed for starting a fire at the plantation he’s encouraged to flee to the forest by his sister, Chiru (Jun Togawa), who has a knack for animal dream divination, and is aided by a tree spirit whose child he once saved who grants him special demi-god powers that enable him to survive the curse which otherwise falls on all who sleep with Mare. 

It’s these new powers which give Giru a new sense of possibility allowing him to become a kind of Robin Hood playing both sides off against each other from the middle of the forest, pinching meat from Japanese companies and redistributing it to the local community, and pilfering weaponry from the American bases to give to the independence movement. The two sides are represented in the two respective bosses, the blind and castrated Nishibaru, and the American commissioner Kamajisar who as Chiru puts it cares for animals more than people but is also seen injecting himself with the blood of dogs and pigs. “I am absolute” Kamajisar insists, claiming that Okinawa is a possession of the American military pointing out that 90% of the population feels themselves to be different from the Japanese while simultaneously describing the possibility of independence as nothing more than a fairytale. 

Yet Untamagiru comes to represent the face of rebellion, resisting not just political oppression but social and economic in targeting Japanese businesses and redistributing their goods to the local poor becoming a folk hero in the process. Not everyone is as immediately happy about this, the owner of the brothel where his sister works asking him to stop giving money to the poor because their business can’t cope with the sudden demand while she personally looks down on their new clientele and fears they’re damaging her upscale brand. Even so even Untamagiru eventually falls victim to his own hubris, struck down while ironically enough agreeing to play himself in a traditional stage performance inspired by his life and deeds leaving only the idea of himself behind as a kind of talisman for those who had in him found a sense of hope and possibility. 

Then again could all of this have been a dream? “Poor people are terrible, aren’t they? They’ll even try to steal the end of people’s dreams” turncoat Utou chides Giru on catching him napping assuming that he dreams of Mare though her words have a degree of sense to them in the elliptical passage of time in which we move from one “dream” to another just as Okinawa itself shifts between two states, two different rulers, and finds itself in the middle once again driving round in circles looking at something it wants but can’t have and in the end it seems may be destroyed out of spite. A magical realist fable filled with its own strangeness in its dream divinations, ethereal forest deities, shapeshifting pigs, and the constant refrains of the barbershop band who narrate the whole show with caustic wit through traditional Okinawan musical performance Takamine’s oneiric tale ends in symbolic apocalypse, “From now on Okinawa is Japan”. 


Untamagiru screens at Japan Society New York May 21 at 7pm as part of Visions of Okinawa: Cinematic Reflections

Paradise View (パラダイスビュー, Go Takamine, 1985)

“We’ll all be Japanese soon, so why don’t you marry one?” suggests the mother of a young woman on the eve of Okinawa’s reversion to Japan after three decades under American administration, having taken advice from a shamaness overly worried about her children’s “mixed blood” but assured that a union between her daughter and a Japanese man “would be fine”. Her daughter, however, is not so sure yet equally afraid to voice her concerns while lacking confidence in the local man she loves who has “lost his spirit”, become obsessed with black thorn ants, and begun eating soil. 

As Reishu (Kaoru Kobayashi) tells us, he’s been feeling listless lately and has come to the beach to gather sea salt in the hope that it will perk him up as it has before, Takamine’s camera catching him a lonely figure on the shore. Meanwhile, a funeral procession creeps into the frame and is eventually disrupted when one of the coffin bearers is bitten by a snake which had been hiding in the open casket that in any case contains only bones presumably about to undergo the bone washing ritual common on the islands. “The funeral’s ruined! Our ancestors will never forgive us!” the bitten man laments as the others try to get back on track. Casting the spectre of death over the proceedings, the funeral procession along with Reishu’s desire to find salt to cure his depression is also an early statement of intent from Takamine capturing the unique cultural character of a typical island village as distinct from that of the Japanese mainland to which it is to be “returned”. 

Reishu’s listlessness is itself perhaps also a reflection of the island’s liminal status caught between Japan and the US in a moment of transition. As he tells his grandmother, he’s quit his job at the American army base fearing that as the Vietnam War is drawing to a close and Okinawa is to be returned to Japan there won’t be much work on offer highlighting the extent to which the local area has been economically dependent on the Americans and their foreign policy in Asia. Later we see some of the village men handling weapons smuggled off the American base which they intend for the Okinawan independence movement but which later end up causing self-destructive tragedy. As for Reishu his new business plan involves buying an amphibious vehicle which is in one sense an attempt to hedge his bets, somewhere between being unable to make a choice and avoiding having to make one. 

Paradoxically, Mr. Ito (Haruomi Hosono) the Japanese language teacher to whom Nabee, who is love with Reishu and in fact pregnant with his child, is to be married is described as “more Okinawan than we are” by one of her brothers and both scandalises and confuses a local bar owner over his desire to perform an outdated wedding ritual she fears is unduly sexist and possibly for that reason no longer regularly performed by the local community. Ito speaks somewhat wistfully of the spiritual effect the Okinawan jungle has on him and says he fears being rejected by the vegetation if he does not make sure the ritual is done properly. Bearing all this in mind, there’s something a little uncomfortable in his desire to marry a simple Okinawan village girl which remains in its own way a small act of colonialism even as Nabee’s mother and brothers pressure her to accept the proposal as if a union with the new ruling power would help “purify” their family as the shamaness had suggested. 

What seems clear is that Nabee does not even really know Ito and is not in favour of marrying him, the proposal must have come by arrangement which does not otherwise seem to be the prevailing culture in the village. On discovering Nabee’s pregnancy, her mother encourages her to marry Ito anyway and discretely have an abortion after the ceremony but on the other hand the pregnancy itself is not a major issue as it might have been on the mainland though they worry what Ito might have thought about it. Both friends with Reishu, neither of the brothers quite has the courage to challenge him on his relationship with their sister the calmer of the pair later explaining that he can’t blame him because he was only messing around. As another villager tries to explain to a migrant from the mainland, the islands have a much looser idea of sexual propriety in which young people are free to be friendly with each other with no particular seriousness attached, while the mainlander is concerned and anxious on hearing one of the brothers repeatedly state he could kill Reishu for what he’s done only to be told he didn’t mean it literally and is probably just very annoyed with him to the point of mild physical violence. 

Meanwhile, Chiru (Jun Togawa), a rural girl working as a maid, has also taken a liking to Reishu and is deeply worried for his safety having had a dream in which she saw a dog eat his soul which in their culture suggests he may soon be “spirited away”. Later he finds himself literally on the run after having been arrested when the independence movement storm the police van on which he’s being transported to rescue their comrades, another prisoner who waited patiently rather make his escape shot for his pains. Having lost his spirit he becomes increasingly listless, eating soil while wandering the forest without direction and vulnerable to the rainbow pigs who are it seems the real masters of this space. At the last point we see him, he’s staggering towards a fork in the road, heading towards what Nabee’s mother had described as a historical turning point, but seemingly choosing neither direction. With a dream-like, magical realist quality aided by Hosono’s etherial score and frequent use of traditional Okinawan folksong while spoken largely in the disappearing Okinawan language, Takamine’s laidback epic is a defiant evocation of local culture at a point of transition caught between two states while attempting to take hold of itself. 


Paradise View screens at Japan Society New York May 13 at 7pm as part of Visions of Okinawa: Cinematic Reflections. It is also available to stream in the US May 14 to June 3.

Images: © Osamu Muranaka

Girls’ School (女子學校, Mimi Lee, 1982)

The intense friendship between two young women is placed in jeopardy when a rumour begins to circulate that they are more than friends in Mimi Lee’s subversive 1982 drama Girls’ School (女子學校, nǚzǐ xuéxiào). The film’s educational framing may ensure that it can only reinforce the contemporary social codes of the repressive martial law era in insisting the two women must be guided back towards he “correct” path, but otherwise affords them a genuine sympathy that undercuts the sense of moral censure while simultaneously rooting the source conflict in the rejection and frustrated longing that provoke only pettiness and jealousy. 

Chia-Lin and Chih-Ting have been best friends all the way through school and are more or less inseparable but the transgressive intensity of their relationship has also isolated them from their classmates some of whom, such as Chun-Hsueh, feel rejected and excluded. Possibly with a high degree of projection, it’s Chun-Hsueh who first starts the rumour that the two young women are “lesbians” only later admitting to the teacher Mr. Mei, informed via a note from class monitor Yu-Liang who has a crush on him, that she doesn’t quite understand what the word means or what saying it might mean not only for Chia-Lin and Chih-Ting but for the other girls and indeed for the school’s reputation. In reprimanding her, Mr. Mei accuses Chun-Hsueh of casting a dark shadow over the hearts of her previously innocent classmates now corrupted with the ugliness not only of her lie but the topic of homosexuality which he and the rest of the educational body view as something shameful and taboo. 

Reminiscent of William Wyler’s The Children’s Hour, the reason the rumour takes hold may be that there is a grain of truth in it in the burgeoning feelings between the two women yet in keeping with the social attitudes of the time the main interest is in proving that it isn’t true with each keen to clear their name of such vicious slander while the other girls frequently describe them as “disgusting”. Even so, the unfairness of their separation and the obviously strong feelings between the two women cannot help but evoke sympathy while Chih-Ting, the bolder of the pair, continues to insist that they’ve done nothing wrong even as Chia-Lin is overwhelmed by the pressure all around them suggesting that they might be better to simply “keep our friendship in our hearts” shamed into repressing their true feelings by an oppressively judgmental society. 

Then again, the film also succumbs to a series of uncomfortable stereotypical tropes in rooting Chih-Ting’s potential lesbianism in her tomoboyishness having been raised by a single father and longing for maternal affection. Having been abandoned by her mother she also feels emotionally rejected by her father who has a gambling problem and rarely returns home while further rejection by Chia-Lin at the instigation of her sister who is also a teacher at their school herself nursing a broken heart after her longterm boyfriend married someone else leaves her feeling like a “monster”, constantly asking herself “what’s wrong with me?” while wondering why others treat her like a “poisonous sore”. This sense of rejection and frustrated longing is the primary motivator for the actions of all, Chun-Hsueh starting the rumour because she wanted to be included in the girls’ friendship and Yu-Liang reporting it because she wanted to curry favour with Mr. Mei after seeing him scrunch up and bin a love letter while quite obviously smitten with Chia-Lin’s sister Miss Yang. 

Mr. Mei is clearly in a difficult position and often trying to do the right thing, admitting to Chih-Ting that the teacher’s don’t know how to help them, but also somewhat insensitive while like others overly mindful of the school’s reputation rather than girls’ fragile emotions never quite considering that the intensity of their feelings and the pressure placed upon them could lead them to harm themselves or else endanger their mental health. It is then a little uncomfortable that the resolution lies in Chih-Ting who had previously professed to hate everyone except Chia-Lin undergoing a softening in which she becomes “more cheerful and mature”, eventually re-embraced by the same classmates who shunned her now satisfied the rumour isn’t true while Chih-Ting has quite literally sacrificed a part of herself to be accepted by a society whose acceptance she had been insistent was unnecessary. The starkness of her conversion along with the subversive quality of the melancholy love song which recurs throughout may attack the underlying homophobia in supporting the truth of the feelings between the two women but leaves them with little possibility for emotional authenticity in an overly conservative society. 


Girls’ School screened as part of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022

Restoration trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

Crazy Thunder Road (狂い咲きサンダーロード, Sogo Ishii, 1980)

If you’re pushed out of the only group you’ve ever belonged to, where is it that you’re supposed to go? Produced as a graduation film, Sogo (now Gakuryu) Ishii’s second feature, Crazy Thunder Road (狂い咲きサンダーロード, Kuruizaki Thunder Road) captures a sense of youthful alienation in an age of prosperity in following in essence two men who choose to leave a group to which they have devoted their lives each for different reasons but both discovering that their new paths lead them nowhere but nihilistic despair. 

After a brief opening sequence foreshadowing the conclusion in which a ruined motorcycle lies abandoned amid the smoke of a volcanic explosion, the main action begins with the abdication of the previous leader of the Maboroshi biker gang, Ken (Koji Nanjo), who feels he’s aged out of the bosozoku lifestyle and hopes to settle down with his barmaid girlfriend Noriko (Michiko Kitahara). The Maboroshi gang is about to join an alliance with two other local outfits, Dokuro and Gaya, to put an end to the internecine street violence. Young hothead Jin (Tatsuo Yamada) decides he wants no part of this soft and cuddly version of the biker life and abruptly leaves with three of his friends to start his own gang, Maboroshi Kamikazes, declaring that his old outfit should now consider him an enemy.  

The problem is that system doesn’t like it if you step out of place and so the Elbou Alliance doesn’t really like it that Jin wouldn’t join, capturing and killing one of his friends to make a point. The more he tries to claim his independence, the more he is forced to realise that he is an ineffectual leader and being outside the group makes him vulnerable. His four guys are no match for the combined forces of three gangs which is one reason he later finds himself joining a new outfit, an ultra-nationalist militarist biker gang operated by former Maboroshi founder Takeshi (Nenji Kobayashi) who turns up in full infantry gear singing an imperial song, only to again become disillusioned because a life of order and austerity is the very opposite of everything he wanted which would be control and agency over his own life. 

In another way, that might what Ken wanted too but he doesn’t find it either and in the film’s hyper masculine worldview he appears weakened in his choice. An entirely passive figure, he is even seen wearing a pretty pinny while helping Noriko out at the bar otherwise usually looking blank or sullen like a man half alive who’s already given up on life. To ram the point home we discover at the film’s conclusion that Noriko eventually leaves him essentially for not being manly enough now that he’s left the biker subculture though her new squeeze is clearly a yuppie salaryman which itself points to a paradigm shift in contemporary visions of masculinity. 

Meanwhile, we’re suddenly presented with a new challenger, Shigeru (Masashi Kojima), who began as a shy foot soldier lead away by Jin but later finding a home with the nationalists, becoming Takeshi’s lover after Jin rejects the rigidity of militarism. Shigeru promises to protect both the town and Takeshi in an expression of the archetypal vision of masculinity as a protector, but love is it seems incompatible with this way of life in which strength is the only thing that matters. Ken loses Noriko because his desire to escape a life of violence renders him unmanly, while love doesn’t save Shigeru either because in the hyper masculine world in which he lives attachment is never anything other than weakness. 

Literally maimed by his failed attempt at dominance, Jin is cast out further into the post-war industrial wasteland where he encounters a teenage boy selling drugs and an old man weapons implying that the mediation of death has shifted with the generations only to be undercut with another piece of shocking and random violence that reminds us of the arbitrary meaninglessness of these petty struggles for dominance. True freedom, the film implies lies only in death, Jin the ultimate outsider a man who cannot be part of any group and must always remain outside of the pack while it remains impossible to survive alone. Set in the near future inches closer to an apocalypse, Ishii’s proto-cyberpunk aesthetic owes as much to The Warriors as it does to Mad Max painting pre-bubble provincial Japan as a post-war wasteland inhabited only by the hopeless perpetually fighting over the scraps of an increasingly prosperous but oppressively conformist society. 


Crazy Thunder Road is released on UK blu-ray on Feb. 21 courtesy of Third Window Films in an edition which includes an audio commentary by Tom Mes and video essay on jishu eiga by Jasper Sharp.

Trailer (English subtitles)

An Autumn’s Tale (秋天的童話, Mabel Cheung, 1987)

Cherie Chung and Chow Yun-fat find love in exile in Mabel Cheung’s charming New York rom-com, An Autumn’s Tale (秋天的童話). Penned by Alex Law, Cheung’s breezy chronicle of love and handover anxiety is subtle and sophisticated romance for grownups finding its youthful heroine stepping into herself in stepping away from home springboarding from emotional heartbreak into personal growth while beginning to fall for her equally lost and hoplelessly diffident yet larger than life new city neighbour. 

After two years of patient saving, Jennifer (Cherie Chung Chor-hung) is finally heading to New York to reunite with hometown boyfriend Vincent (Danny Chan Pak-keung) and study acting in the city. Her mother has put her in touch with a distant relative who is apparently a former sailor turned big man in Chinatown nicknamed “Figurehead” (Chow Yun-fat) who’s agreed to pick her up from the airport and sort her out with a flat. What Jennifer hasn’t disclosed is that she hasn’t told Vincent she’s coming and plans to surprise him when he returns from a baseball game in Boston. When she arrives, however, she discovers not only that Figurehead has somewhat misrepresented his level of success but that Vincent is seeing someone else and places little value on their past relationship, viewing his hometown girlfriend as childish and unsophisticated now he’s a big city guy changed by his new environment but not for the better. 

Jennifer’s culture shock on arriving in late 80s New York is instantly apparent as “Figgy” takes her back to the rundown Chinatown slum where he is living to a flat which looks like no-one’s been up there in 20 years, still has a gas-operated refrigerator, and is filled with the last tenant’s abandoned belongings. Perhaps bearing out the realities of the international dream, Figgy has obviously been telling everyone back home how great his life is in New York and how well he’s been doing for himself while living aimlessly in the city spending his days drinking, gambling, and fighting paralysed by anxiety and too frightened to move forward. Even so he does his best to help Jennifer adjust to life in New York, helping her fix up the apartment and trying to be sympathetic after witnessing her brutal breakup with the no-good Vincent.

Then again, “We belong to two different worlds” she eventually reflects in trying to decide not only if she’s fallen in love with Figgy or he her but if he’s really got longterm potential. She says he makes her feel free, but as she becomes more used to life in New York and less afraid of its differences she grows eager to see the rest of the world while Figgy, 10 years older, claims he’s seen it all already and has no real desire to go anywhere anymore. To him, everything in New York is just an inferior version of something they already had in Hong Kong, broadway musicals are “yankee opera”, pizza is “yankee pancakes”, the music of Americana street musicians is “yankee tunes” that remind him of a Chinese funeral march. While he works in a Chinese restaurant for Chinese people, Jennifer gets a job at an upscale place going by the name “Big Panda” run by a sleazy friend of woman she babysits for that is intent on selling a Westernised idea of China to the locals. Trying to play the big shot in his ill-fitting suit, Figgy doesn’t even understand the menu or the extortionately priced itemised bill presented to him in English but recklessly throws $20 bills at the tip-happy waiter. His only dream is to open a small restaurant on a pier overlooking the ocean that Jennifer convinces him to name “Sampan” like the boat but also in honour of his English name, Samuel Pang. While Jennifer continues to move forward, Figgy remains diffident, too afraid to voice his feelings and consumed by a sense of under-confidence that leaves him unable to pursue either his dream or innocent love. 

To put it bluntly it’s the 33-year-old Figgy who is not really ready for serious romance while through her failed relationship with Vincent and growing experience of independent city living Jennifer is beginning to figure out what it is she wants out of life and out of love. Their romance can’t blossom until they meet each other as equals, Figgy finally pulling himself together and gaining the confidence to chase both love and his dreams. A beautifully understated, naturalistic romance with an ending to rival Comrades Almost a Love Story, An Autumn’s Tale is also love letter to the city of New York with all of its danger and possibility as two lost youngsters learn to find a home in each other while discovering the courage to become themselves.


An Autumn’s Tale screens at the BFI 25th January as part of Focus Hong Kong

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Writhing Tongue (震える舌, Yoshitaro Nomura, 1980)

Yoshitaro Nomura is best known for his crime films often adapted from the novels of Seicho Matsumoto though his filmography was in fact much wider than many give him credit for. Even so, 1980’s Writhing Tongue (震える舌, Furueru Shita) may seem an odd entry adapted from the semi-autobiographical novel by Taku Miki exploring the psychological torment of the parents of a little girl who contracts tetanus while innocently playing near a pond. Like the following year’s Call From Darkness, Nomura’s intense drama eventually shifts into the realms of psychedelia in the father’s strange fever dreams while lending this harrowing tale of medical desperation the tones of supernatural horror. 

When five-year-old Masako (Mayuko Wakamori) seems to be under the weather, her mother Kunie (Yukiyo Toake) takes her to the hospital but is told by the disinterested doctor that she simply has a cold. This is a little surprising seeing as Masako’s main complaint is she that cannot open her jaw, probably the best-known indication of tetanus infection which is after all not so rare as to be easily missed by a medical professional. Still worried, Kunie keeps taking her daughter back especially once her leg becomes twisted leaving her struggling to walk, but the doctors that she sees don’t really listen to her, even implying that Masako is having some kind of early life breakdown because her father, Akira (Tsunehiko Watase), is overly strict with her. This may be in part because Masako, perhaps in fear, keeps saying that she could walk or open her mouth if she wanted but is choosing not to. In any case the true diagnosis is only discovered after the couple manage to get a referral from a friend to a larger hospital where the veteran professor (Jukichi Uno) quickly overrules his junior’s lack of concern to have Masako admitted right away later explaining that tetanus is a difficult disease to treat and unfortunately has a high mortality rate. 

The treatment dictates that Masako receive as little stimulation as possible, lying in an entirely dark room with minimal noise so as to avoid the violent convulsions that accompany overstimulation and cause her to bite her tongue. As Akira later puts it, all they can do is wait trapped alone in the dark and tiny room with Masako entirely powerless to help her and with little knowledge of what exactly is going on. Meanwhile, despite having been repeatedly reassured that the disease is not transmitted in that way, Akira is convinced he may have contracted tetanus after being bitten by Masako while trying to prise open her jaw. Kunie too later worries that she also has tetanus, the pair of them sucked into a claustrophobic world of isolation and medical paranoia in which they are unable to sleep or find relief while watching over their daughter. 

Some time later, Akira begins having bizarre psychedelic dreams recalling the time when he too was hospitalised as a child having contracted blood poisoning, remembering his own fear and confusion on being forced to endure “red injections” which he feared would “turn the whole world red” while the hieroglyphics he and his wife have been using to record Masako’s seizures dance before his eyes. He dreams of crows and blood rain while Kunie goes quietly out of her mind at one point threatening the sympathetic Doctor Nose (Ryoko Nakano) thinking it might be kinder to stop the treatment and let her daughter escape this excruciating pain. The utter powerless with which the couple are faced is filled with almost supernatural dread as if Masako had been possessed by some terrible evil, Akira attempting to speak directly to the bacteria asking them why it is they’re trying to colonise his daughter’s body and if they realise that in killing her they kill themselves too.

“It’s odd, our life. It’s so fragile” Akira sighs. All of this happened because of a tiny cut on a little girl’s finger the kind not even quite worth putting a plaster on and yet she might die from it. Convinced they all may die, Akira tells his wife to go home and put their affairs in order while she is so traumatised that she becomes unable to re-enter the room paralysed not out of physical disability but mental anguish. When Masako’s condition finally improves, Akira can hear his daughter crying that she’s frightened reminding him that he can never really understand the way she suffered through this terrible disease while all he could do was watch. A truly harrowing depiction of the hellish psychological torment of serious illness, Nomura’s occasionally psychedelic drama lays bare the fragility of life in a world of constant and unexpected dangers. 


Trailer (no subtitles)

Black Rain (黒い雨, Shohei Imamura, 1989)

Caught in a moment of transition, post-war Japan struggles to free itself from the lingering feudal legacy and the trauma of the immediate past in Shohei Imamura’s contemplative adaptation of the novel by Masuji Ibuse, Black Rain (黒い雨, Kuroi Ame). As many things change others stay the same, the Shizuma family burdened not only by the anxiety of a ghostly illness symptomless until it isn’t and the unfair prejudice of a wounded society, but the pressure of outdated patriarchal social codes along with a sense of filial failure in the inability to protect their ancestral estate. 

Imamura opens on the fateful morning the atomic bomb struck Hiroshima, voiceovers from 20-year-old niece Yasuko (Yoshiko Tanaka) and her uncle Shigematsu (Kazuo Kitamura), a soldier severing at a factory in the city, detailing what they were doing on that very ordinary day. What unfolds is a scene of hell, the train Shigematsu is riding on blown apart while he crawls free and tries to look for his wife, Shigeko (Kazuo Kitamura), packing up their house preparing for evacuation, eventually reuniting with Yasuko who had come into town to find them. Hoping to get to the factory, they make their way past charred and hideously warped bodies, a woman cradling her carbonised infant, a little boy overjoyed to have found his big brother only to go unrecognised because his face is melted away while skin hangs painfully from his forearms and fingertips. The brother only accepts him after checking his belt which has somehow miraculously survived. The trio eventually make it to comparative safety at the factory with relatively few injuries, only later learning of the implications of having been in such close proximity to the blast. 

Jumping ahead five years, the Shizumas are living quite comfortably in their ancestral home on a mountain estate largely spared the post-war agricultural land reforms because of its location, though Shigematsu attributes his mother’s dementia to an inability to accept the changing times not only their loss of a semi-aristocratic status but the essential failure of having proved unable to protect their ancestral lands. His immediate problem is however the marriage of the now 25-year-old Yasuko. We see him triumphantly leave a doctor’s office with a certificate stating that Yasuko is in good health he hopes will reassure her current suitor’s family in the face of persistent rumours that she too was a direct victim of the “flash”, rather than an indirect victim simply of the rain which Shigematsu mistakenly believes to have been less dangerous. 

At 25 this is Yasuko’s last chance, she’s aged out of the arranged marriage market. She has also had a promising job offer from the local post office but is minded to turn it down in the hopes of being married. Taking the post office job may be the most sensible option, but it also seems like defeat, an acceptance that she is unfit for marriage and a clear sign that Shigematsu and Shigeko have failed in their patriarchal duties to ensure that Yasuko finds a good husband and will be well looked after for the rest of her life. In this age, it is difficult for a woman to support herself alone even leaving aside the social stigma of being an unmarried woman. A marriage is therefore also a job, and the families fear one Yasuko may not be able to perform if as the rumours suggest her exposure to radiation may have left her unable to bear children. The situation is further complicated seeing as Shigematsu and Shigeko were not able to have children of their own, and with Yasuko’s mother Kiyoko having died young Yasuko is the last of the Shizuma line even if she technically may not bear their name. 

Lost in old memories and mistaking Yasuko for her mother, grandma (Hisako Hara) may have it right when she tells her not to marry for marriage only leads to death. Yet in an odd way, Yasuko’s liminal status perhaps grants her the right to turn away from these old-fashioned patriarchal expectations in making her own decision not marry even if she orients herself back towards the filial in requesting to stay with the aunt and uncle who raised her in order to care for them should they suddenly begin to experience symptoms of their exposure to “the flash”. Shigematsu continues to treat the notion of radiation sickness with an almost supernatural mentality, convinced that having seen the light or not is all that matters constantly trying to provide evidence that Yasuko was not there when the bomb went off while ignoring her exposure to the black rain which fell afterwards even while himself filled with the anxiety of not knowing if he may someday become ill even if he and Shigeko are in otherwise good health. 

He watches friends with secondary exposure become ill and die before him, recalling being asked to read sutras for the dead in the aftermath of the bomb though feeling himself unqualified, while some in the village perhaps jokingly accuse them of playing on their status as bomb victims as if they are merely lazy rather than actively sick. Meanwhile, across the way a young man with intense PTSD suffers flashbacks every time he hears an engine running and is compelled to throw himself in front of it as if it were an enemy tank. Yuichi (Keisuke Ishida) is ironically enough “a veteran of the suicide squad”, otherwise alright if fragile spending his days carving Buddhist Jizo statues may of which have grotesque, anguished expressions in contrast to the comforting, almost cute faces such statues usually bear. Just as the wider society distances itself from the survivors of the bomb, so they reject men like Yuichi. When Yuichi’s mother comes to propose an unlikely marriage between the two lonely youngsters who have become close after bonding through their shared anxieties, Shigematsu is offended, resenting the implication that they must believe Yasuko is a poor catch if daring to suggest she marry a man of a lower social class who is also in need of assistance in living with his mental illness. 

Yet her marriage continues to weigh heavily on Shigeko’s mind, feeling as if she has failed the Shizuma family in being unable to provide an heir and subsequently failing to secure a match for Yasuko. It is perhaps this anxiety that finally makes her ill, taking strange medicines provided by a dubious Shinto priestess who tells her it’s all her own fault for not being able to visit Kiyoko’s grave because someone has to stay at home to look after grandma. Only Shigematsu sees the writing on the wall, advising Yasuko that after grandma dies she should sell the estate and take the money as her dowry freeing her from the feudal and familial legacy and giving her permission to move into the modern post-war future even as she begins to doubt that the future has a place for her. 

Shooting in black and white and in a much more classical style than that which is found in his other work, Imamura adopts the aesthetics of Golden Age cinema to comment on the contemporary era now perhaps feeling itself sufficiently distanced from the toxicity of wartime trauma, suggesting that the entire society is in a sense soaked in black rain its inability to confront the recent past a poison slowly eating away at its foundations. “An unjust peace is better than a just war” Shigematsu is fond of saying, quoting Cicero dismayed by the heated geopolitical debates he hears on the radio he uses to set the clock, his friend dying without ever really understanding why the bomb was dropped, why on Hiroshima, why at that particular moment. Imamura denies us closure too, leaving on a note of anxiety if tempered with an all but forlorn hope for signs of a miracle on the horizon that the sickness can be healed and a better world will someday arrive.


Black Rain screens at the BFI on 28th December as part of BFI Japan and is also available on blu-ray as part of Arrow’s Imamura boxset or to stream in the UK via Arrow Player

Kekkon Annai Mystery (結婚案内ミステリー, Yoshikuni Matsunaga, 1985)

Selected via a talent competition held in conjunction with the search for a new actress to play the leading role in Kosei Saito’s Ninja Wars, Noriko Watanabe became the second of the new “Sannin Musume” alongside the future star of The Little Girl Who Conquered Time, Tomoyo Harada, and Kadokawa’s top idol Hiroko Yakushimaru. Her career with the studio was however comparatively short-lived affording her only three leading roles before she eventually left the agency and went independent after turning down a lead in Koibitotachi no Jikoku because of its explicit nude scenes. Again adapted from a novel by Jiro Akagawa, Kekkon Annai Mystery (結婚案内ミステリー) was her final leading performance as a Kadokawa idol (though she would also play a supporting role in Obayashi’s His Motorbike, Her Island) and saw her playing a slightly more mature role as a young woman working for a matchmaking agency who finds herself mixed up in a country house mystery after accepting an unusual proposal from a client. 

At 19, Hiroko (Noriko Watanabe) is the sole employee at the Fukada Marriage Consultation Agency owned and operated by her boss Mr. Fukada (Bengal). As we first meet her she’s deep undercover at a rival firm which has already shifted into a new era of computer-assisted matchmaking whereas Mr Fukada prefers to do things the old-fashioned way which is presumably why he has no business. It comes as something of a shock therefore when he receives a call from Mrs. Sekine (Aiko Nagayama), the temporary CEO of a major company who apparently wants to find a match for her son Masakazu (Ken Watanabe) who is shortly to return after graduating from Harvard in order to take over the family business following the death of his father six months previously. At the initial consultation, however, Mrs Sekine scandalises Mr Fukada by immediately selecting Hiroko as a potential bride. Seeing as it’s only an initial meeting, which would earn them a bonus payment, Hiroko agrees but when they drive out to the Sekines’ creepy gothic mansion in the middle of nowhere they discover all is not quite as it seems. Masakazu has a fiancée already, but unfortunately she was involved in a traffic accident and is currently in hospital which is a problem because for undisclosed reasons they need to hold the wedding right away. Hiroko is to act as a proxy seeing as no-one who’ll be coming to the ceremony has met Masakazu’s girlfriend and so will be none the wiser. 

Perhaps somewhat naively, Hiroko agrees and ends up staying in the house posing as Masakazu’s intended which includes sharing a room. Briefly shifting genres, a training montage sees Hiroko undertaking a crash course in how to be posh, adopting the correct deportment, using cutlery elegantly, and learning to walk downstairs in massive heals or up while wearing an inconveniently long dress. Which is all to say, the fabulously wealthy inhabit a different world of which Hiroko was hitherto ignorant. This is further brought home by the apparent cracks in the foundations of the Sekine family which is also a corporate entity with the other board members largely favouring other candidates more closely connected to the themselves to take over as chairman while apparent liability uncle Masao (Tamio Kawaji), whose creepy crossbow-carrying young son Mamoru is for some reason being raised by Mrs Sekine, is in some kind of trouble with yakuza loansharks. The other main issue is that Mrs Sekine is a second wife and longtime mistress of the late CEO. Masakazu was born out of wedlock and Mrs Sekine will do anything and everything she can to ensure he assumes his birthright. 

Counter-intuitively succession intrigue has little to do with the central mystery which begins to unravel when Hiroko is attacked on the eve of her wedding by a strange woman who had previously tried to warn her off Masakazu and kills her in self-defence. The body, which we can identify as that seen buried in the snow in the solarised green-tinted opening sequence, is taken care of by Mrs Sekine’s right hand man Kinoshita (Hayato Tani), but Hiroko begins to have her doubts after catching sight of a woman who looks exactly like the one she killed at the local ski resort. 

“Rich people are like that. They’d lie about anything in order to keep their wealth” Hiroko is told, realising she may be at the centre of an infinitely complex plot and becoming aware of Mrs Sekine’s tendency to throw money at people to get them to play along with her plans. Like any good gothic mystery, however, the house holds a dark secret in a hidden room which perhaps hints at the corruptions of the Bubble era along with those of the super rich elite and the undue pressure it puts on its young while uncomfortably suggesting that Mrs Sekine herself is the source of the corruption in her attempt to integrate into a higher social class into which she was not born. Atmospheric in its chilling vistas of the freezing snow, Kekkon Annai Mystery’s twisting tale of greed and manipulation may end in tragedy but ironically lives up to its name as its heroine finds a potential match in her accidental co-conspirator. 


Fire Festival (火まつり, Mitsuo Yanagimachi, 1985)

By 1985 the Japanese economy was approaching its zenith yet along with increasing economic prosperity had come social change of which small-town Japan was either casualty or sacrificial victim. “Nigishima will stay as it is” declares the last holdout of an increasingly obsolete way of life in Mitsuo Yanagimachi’s intense modernity drama, Fire Festival (火まつり, Himatsuri), a manly mountain man and animalistic force of nature by several metrics unsuited to life in the contemporary society into which he is ultimately unable to progress. 

There are many things which it seems have not changed in Nigishima for generations, one being the animosity between the cohorts of its bifurcated community, those who live by land and those who live by sea. Rural depopulation may have forced them to come closer but it has also increased their sense of mistrust while both industries continue to suffer in an economy which no longer prizes their humble rural output. Despite being catapulted into a promised modernity by the advent of the railway to great fanfare in 1959, it now seems that Nigishima cannot survive without a new road which could be paid for by the development of a marine park only mountain man Tatsuo (Kinya Kitaoji) owns the property right in the middle of the earmarked area and has hitherto refused to sell further increasing the tension between the two communities. 

Tatsuo is thought of, and thinks of himself, as a big man in the area quite literally it seems as part of the reason he enjoys this status is down to his being unusually well-endowed. He believes himself to have a special relationship with the mountain goddess, often joking to the other men about having a sexual relationship with her while sometimes describing her as his girlfriend. Several times he is mistaken for an animal, firstly by the boatman bringing his childhood sweetheart and sometime mistress Kimiko (Kiwako Taichi) back to the island who assumed he was a monkey crawling along the cliff edge thoughtlessly throwing rocks at them, while he often gambols through the forest whooping like some kind of Tarzan. Entirely unreconstructed, his worldview is patriarchal and misogynistic. All of his banter with the other men is sexual, constantly referring to his penis while greeting his friends with lewd hand gestures thrusting his fist into his pocket as if waving with an erection. The cure for offending the goddess he tells his young protege Ryota (Ryota Nakamoto) is to drop his trousers and display his manhood, Tatsuo strangely believing this would appease her for taking wood from a sacred tree or killing without permission. 

Smearing the blood of a sacrificial animal over his chest and forearms he dedicates the death to the goddess, a gesture he will repeat in the film’s violent and tragic conclusion yet there is also arrogance in his conduct as if he believes himself above natural law, protected as the goddess’ favourite even as he describes himself as “suffocated” by the women in his life from his mother and five older sisters all of whom indulge him to his wife, kids, and mistresses. He has trained his dogs to hunt wild boar without the use of guns in a method he admits even other hunters describe as “cruel” while breaking a local taboo shooting monkeys in the forest well aware of nature red in tooth and claw. As such, there is little nobility to be seen in his determination to preserve this already obsolete way of life. His virility maybe contrasted with that of the ageing land broker Yamakawa (Norihei Miki) and his failed attempts to bed sex worker Kimiko who tricks him into paying off her debts, but he at least knows the way the wind is blowing explaining to her that towns such as Nigishima survive only through things like marine parks or hotels or even nuclear power plants. Without the road, the town will die. 

Yet in 1959 they were told the railway would save them and it seems it did not. Tatsuo’s love making with Kimiko in a boat borrowed from a treacherous fisherman who later agrees to sail it transgressively into sacred waters is intercut with memories of the rail line’s opening ceremony, two teenagers who might have been them or at least of around the same age ride an elephant on the jetty while the townspeople arrange themselves into the formation of the character for “celebration” captured by the aerial photographer above. For Tatsuo as a boy, was this a rebirth of Nigishima or the beginning of its demise as the coming modernity began to eat away at its foundations? 

The fire festival is “for men”, according to Tatsuo, “to drive out evil spirits”, his manliness getting the better of him as he disrupts the proceedings to attack a man he accuses of having brought “false fire”. These are the lessons he teaches to surrogate son Ryota whose devotion to him borders on the homoerotic, Tatsuo cradling him during the climactic rain storm and he seeming to develop a fascination for Kimiko as a kind of indirect fixation. Ryota has learned Tatsuo’s chauvinism mimicking his lewd hand gestures and swaggering walk, his cruelty in sacrificing 1000 yen to trick Yamakawa into injuring his hand in a bear trap, and his arrogance ensuring that his problematic masculinity will survive into another generation presumably no more capable of halting the march of modernity than he has been. Tatsuo poisons the waters with fuel oil which as one of the greek chorus of fish wives points out does not catch fire, Tatsuo himself smouldering until an inevitable explosion. Receiving some kind of epiphany during a mystical congress with the goddess in the middle of a storm, he knows what he must do and accepts that he cannot progress into the modern society. Smoulderingly intense in its small-town animosity and primeval sensibilities, Yanagimachi’s poetic tragedy of futility and the broken promises of a badly distributed modernity may accept the the sacrifice but mourns it all the same. 


Fire Festival screens at the BFI on 20/27 December as part of BFI Japan.

Clip (English subtitles)

Choji Snack Bar (居酒屋兆治, Yasuo Furuhata, 1983)

Beginning his career at Toei, Yasuo Furuhata is most closely associated with tough guy action films forging a strong and enduring relationship with the genre’s key star Ken Takakura through their work on the New Abashiri Prison series. From the late ‘70s however he began to transition further towards the realms of manly melodrama with a series of films which often starred Takakura as a man struggling to adapt to life in modern Japan such as the guilt-ridden policeman of Station or the conflicted former yakuza of Yasha. Arriving between the two and adapted from a novel by Hitomi Yamaguchi, Choji Snack Bar (居酒屋兆治, Izakaya Choji) is in someways much the same casting a typically stoic Takakura as an intensely noble man whose values are increasingly at odds with the world in which he lives while shifting away from the realms of manly action towards a more somber contemplation of the broken dreams of post-war youth. 

Eiji (Ken Takakura), known to all as “Choji”, is a happily married father of two who gave up his job in shipping to open a bar selling small eats in a Hakodate. He and his wife Shigeko (Tokiko Kato) have been planning to expand the business by opening a larger location near the docks but Eiji is dragging his feet largely it seems because the place found for him by childhood friend Kawahara (Juzo Itami) is too close to another bar run by an old man who helped him when he first started out so he’s loathe to risk infringing on his livelihood. Meanwhile, the central drama in town in the mysterious disappearance of Choji’s childhood sweetheart, Sayo (Reiko Ohara), who married a wealthy ranch owner but has long been trapped in an unhappy marriage she has several times failed to escape. Sayo’s disappearance coincided with a fire at the ranch which is suspected to have been started deliberately the assumption being that Sayo is responsible. 

The ironic disappearance of Sayo forces Choji into a reconsideration of his life choices, something his middle-aged friends also find themselves experiencing if for various different reasons. Choji was once a high school baseball star dreaming of turning pro but his hopes were dashed after an injury forced him to leave the sport thereafter working in an office at the docks but later resigning rather than accept a promotion that would mean he’d suddenly be the boss to his former friends. The bar is his way of being his own man, no one’s boss but his own, though his decision was not universally respected among his friends and in fact came as something of a shock to Shigeko who consented to an arranged marriage partly in search of the typical salaryman life. Most of the other men in town, however, struggle to keep their youthful dreams alive or to find accommodation with the way their lives are now. Inoue (Eiji Misato), for example, is obsessed with cabaret singing, spending all his time in karaoke bars often wearing elaborate costumes and makeup. Childhood friend Iwashita (Kunie Tanaka) even wonders if he’s gone “mad” after taking him to task for neglecting his family on discovering that he’s converted a docked boat into a tiny private cabaret space complete with a sound system and lighting as well as a small seating area for spectators who presumably have not yet materialised. 

This is perhaps in a way a symbol in itself of Japan’s new economic prosperity, later thrown into stark contrast by Choji’s explanation that he and Sayo broke up because of their mutual poverty he nobly pushing her to marry a wealthy man so at least one of them could be happy. Happy is however something Sayo has never been, later paying a short visit to Choji during which she blames him for his “cowardice” suggesting that he is largely responsible for the misery of her life in failing to fight for their love, giving up too easily on a distant happiness which is something he later cautions a young baseball player not to do. The police meanwhile accuse him of complicity, implying the pair knew Sayo’s husband had TB and thought he’d die soon enough after which they’d inherit his money and stay together, consequently assuming the “arson” was an attempted murder. 

The irony is that Choji is far too noble to have ever considered such a thing, something demonstrated by his continuing righteousness in refusing to take up Kawahara’s offer of cheap and lucrative new premises because it would mean betraying his former mentor, refusing to condemn his former teacher’s shock marriage to a woman 30 years his junior, and eventually taking Kawahara to task for his callous comments over the death of friend’s wife. Rival cabbie Akimoto (Masao Komatsu) was forever joking that his wife would die before him and sleazily flirting with young women, but went into debt in order to buy her an elaborate funeral altar and is completely devastated by her loss while living with his three children in a noticeably rundown apartment. As Choji puts it, Kawahara’s broken dream is in no longer being the big boss among the boys as he was in their high school days, fuelling his sense of middle-aged male frustration into embittered drunken violence. Yet everyone is always telling Choji he is being unnecessarily “good”, that he should stop thinking about doing the right thing and put himself first by accepting the offer to relocate the bar because business is business. 

Sayo too is trapped in the past unable to accommodate herself with the way her life turned out, an ironic casualty of Choji’s goodness clinging to her broken dream of youth. These now middle-aged teens of the post-war era are in a sense victims of their age, denied the sense of possibility the youth of today might enjoy but equally unable to step fully into the contemporary era of economic prosperity which some feel has become increasingly amoral and unkind. Nevertheless, as Shigeko puts it “no one can take away what a person carries in their heart”, Choji manfully retaining his nobility while literally burning the image of the past but perhaps carrying it with him as the other men carry the shards of their broken dreams some with more nobility than others.  


Original trailer (no subtitles)