Kagemusha (影武者, Akira Kurosawa, 1980)

“The shadow of a man can never stand up and walk on its own” a shadow warrior laments, wondering what happens to the shadow once the man is gone. Set at the tail end of the Sengoku era, Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha (影武者) charts the transformation of a man reborn as someone else and discovers that he’s better at playing the role he’s been assigned than the man who was born to play it only to fall victim to his own hubris and self-delusion. 

The nameless hero (Tatsuya Nakadai) is a lowborn thief sentenced to death only to be reprieved thanks to his uncanny resemblance to the local lord, Takeda Shingen (also Tatsuya Nakadai), whose double he must play if he’s to keep his life. The shadow objects to this characterisation, outraged that a man who has killed hundreds and robbed whole domains dares to call him a scoundrel. Shingen agrees he too is morally compromised. He banished his father and killed his own son but justifies it as a necessary evil in his quest to conquer Japan hoping to unify it bringing an end to the Warring States period and ensuring peace throughout the land. 

The shadow goes along with it, but does not really realise the full implications of his decision. He tries to smash a giant urn hoping to find treasure to escape with, but is confronted by a corpse bearing his own face. Shingen has been killed by an enemy sniper in an act of hubris sneaking around a castle under siege hoping (not) to hear the sound of a flute. Before passing away, Shingen instructs his men to keep his death a secret for three years, retreating to defend their own domain rather than conquer others. But there are spies everywhere and news of his apparent demise soon travels to the allied Oda Nobunaga (Daisuke Ryu) and Tokugawa Ieyasu (Masayuki Yui), his rivals for the potential hegemony over a unified Japan. The shadow Shingen must keep up the pretence to keep the dream alive and protect the Takeda Clan from being swallowed whole by the advance of Nobunaga. 

Shingen had been the “immoveable mountain”, the solid force that anchors his troops from behind but also an implacable leader famed for his austerity. The shadow Shingen is almost caught out by the honest reaction of his grandson and heir Takemaru (Kota Yui) who immediately blurts out that this man is not his grandfather because he is no longer scary, while he’s also bucked by Shingen’s horse who in the end cannot be fooled. His retainers wisely come up with a ruse that he’s too ill to see his mistresses lest they realise the thief’s body does not bear the same scars even as everything about him from the way he talks and moves and laughs is different. Yet in his sudden conversion on witnessing Shingen’s funeral on lake Suwa and resolving that he wants to do something to serve the man who saved his life, the shadow proves an effective leader who earns the trust and affection of his immediate retainers but is equally struck by their sacrifice as they give their lives to protect him. 

Meanwhile, his illegitimate son Katsuyori (Kenichi Hagiwara), skipped over in the succession, complains that he can never emerge from his father’s shadow emphasising the ways in which the feudal order disrupts genuine relationships between people and bringing a note of poignancy to the connection that emerges between the shadow Shingen and little Takemaru otherwise raised to perpetuate that same emotional austerity. Hoping to eclipse his father, Katsuyori too experiences a moment of hubris, successful in his first campaign but then over ambitious, forgetting his father’s teachings and walking straight into a trap only to be defeated by Nobunaga’s superior technology. 

Nobukado (Tsutomu Yamazaki), Shingen’s brother and sometime shadow, remarks that he hardly knew who he was once his brother was gone, and wonders what will become of the shadow once the three years are up. In a sense, the thief is already dead. As Nobukado puts it, it’s as if Shingen has possessed him, his confidence in his alternate persona apparently solidified by the victory at Takatenjin castle. But the sight of so many dead seems to unnerve him in the hellish spectacle of death that is a Sengoku battlefield knowing that these men died if not quite for him than for his image. When he attempts to mount Shingen’s horse, it’s either born of hubristic self-delusion in wanting to prove that he truly has become him, or else a bid for freedom and to be relieved of his shadow persona. Either way, he becomes a kind of ghost, once again watching his men from behind but this time invisibly and powerless to do anything but watch as they are massacred by Nobunaga’s guns. 

Earlier on he’d had a kind of nightmare, painted in surrealist hues by Kurosawa who conjures battlegrounds of angry reds and violent purples along with ominous rainbows, seeing himself dragged down into the water by Shingen’s ghost which he has now seemingly become. In the end all he can do is accept his fate in a final act of futility running defenceless towards the enemy line and reaching out to retrieve his banner from its watery fate only to be carried past it on a current of red. “I’m not a puppet, you can’t control me” the thief had said, but in the end just like everyone else he was powerless, another casualty of the casual cruelties and meaningless struggles of the feudal order. 


Kagemusha screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 11th & 31st January 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Seven Days War (ぼくらの七日間戦争, Hiroshi Sugawara, 1988)

“What’s wrong with a little happiness?” one of the “eight heroes” of Aoba Jr. High Class 1-A asks, retreating from the duplicitous adult world into a teenage paradise. Another Kadokawa teen movie, Seven Days War (ぼくらの七日間戦争, Bokura no Nanoka-kan Senso) adapts the first in a series of Kadokawa novels by Osamu Soda and situates itself very much in the throws of the Bubble era in which the young rail not only against a rigid, conformist society but familial disappointment and the enduring legacy of the authoritarian past. 

According to the principal’s assembly speech, at Aoba Jr. High the motto for the day is “intellect, morality, and physique”. While he’s busy talking, another teacher, Yashiro (Shiro Sano), is patiently going through students’ bags and confiscating things he doesn’t like, even such innocent items as hairbrushes lest they should be used “to attract boys” rather than to maintain one’s appearance as the school would doubtless wish seeing as we later see the same teacher taking a ruler to make sure all the girls’ skirts are at regulation length. A boy late for assembly is also taken to task over his hair, accused of having had a perm and physically dragged towards a water butt by violent P. E teacher Mr. Sakae (Yasuaki Kurata) who later beats another overweight student for not performing well enough on the monkey bars. 

It’s small wonder the kids want to rebel. Eight of the boys in Yashiro’s class suddenly disappear one day, seceding to form their own society hiding out in a disused factory. Discovered and questioned, their only demands are to have the bad teachers fired and for all the students to be treated equally, but as expected their requests fall on deaf ears. Mindful of the school’s reputation, the principal tries to calm the anxious mothers but his underling, Nozawa (Yasuo Daichi), cooly absolves himself of all responsibility insensitively telling the parents that their children’s actions are obviously a reflection of poor parenting rather than a reaction to conditions at the school. 

As crude as that sounds, it’s accidentally echoed in another of the children’s demands in that they reject the idea that “children are robbers of parents’ lives”. Many of them are dealing with some degree of familial discord, often caused by the socio-economic stresses of the Bubble era in which everyone works all the time. The parents of ringleader Eiji (Kenichiro Kikuchi) are always arguing because his father is never around to help out at home, claiming that his golf weekends etc are essential work activities while his mother complains she’s worn out expected to handle the domestic responsibilities all alone. The broody Hiroshi (Toshitada Nabeshima) resents his mother for never being home, forever off working and communicating with him largely through answerphone messages. Nakao (Ken Ohsawa), the most studious of the boys, complains that he doesn’t really like the subjects he’s forced to study and only goes to cram school to please his parents. Hitomi (Rie Miyazawa), a female student who ends up joining the group later, is often left to her own devices with her father away working in Mexico and her mother always off “playing golf” which she seems to suspect is a euphemism for some other activity. 

What the kids want is to be free to be themselves, rejecting the salaryman straitjacket the mainstream world seems to be preparing for them. This being 1988, it goes without saying that the older teachers were children themselves during wartime and the legacy of militarism seems to have endured in their extreme love of order and discipline which has also infected the slightly younger and especially scary Yashiro. The wartime echoes are driven home by the very random find of a WWII tank for some reason hidden in the factory which the kids eventually repurpose and weaponise as part of their resistance, fortifying their hideout with a series of otherwise non-lethal booby traps to keep the authorities out even after the principal orders armed troops in. In the final confrontation, Nozawa turns up wearing a WWII German uniform only to be humiliatingly defeated by one of the gang’s Mousetrap-esque devices. 

Their rebellion, however, remains temporary and goodnatured, culminating in a beautiful fireworks display that has the adults admiring their artistry, while they later appear dressed once again in their school uniforms apparently considering their next revolutionary act. A Bubble-era time capsule, Seven Days War has much in common with other ‘80s kids movies, but positions its contemporary teens at the intersection of the authoritarian past and the consumerist present each of which conspire to rob them of their freedom but in their own way fighting back for their right to be themselves in a still conformist society.


Music video (no subtitles)

You’ll Fall For Me (君は僕をスキになる, Takayoshi Watanabe, 1989)

Two mismatched friends find themselves caught up in an ironic love square in Takayoshi Watanabe’s infinitely charming Christmas rom-com, You’ll Fall for Me (君は僕をスキになる, Kimi wa Boku wo Suki ni Naru). A bubble-era nonsense comedy filled with surreal humour and zany gags along with genuine heart, the film pits friendship against love but not only of the romantic kind as the two women each consider acts of selflessness in knowing that pursuing, or preventing the other from pursuing, their romantic destiny will necessarily cause each of them pain. 

Beginning in the summer the film opens with a bizarre incident in which mousy pudding-obsessed librarian Tomoko (Yuki Saito) thinks she sees her neighbour across the way, Chika (Kuniko Yamada), jump off the roof of a nearby building only it turns out to be a strange practical joke. Chika certainly has a flair for the dramatic along with an unusual personality that has made her something of an outcast at her office job while even her friendship with Tomoko seems somewhat one-sided with her constant refrains of “you’re my best friend!” which are generally met by a blunt reply from Tomoko of “we’re not friends”. In any case, Chika’s current dilemma is that she doesn’t have a date lined up for Christmas Eve and thinks she’s jinxed because she always seems to get dumped right before the big day, while Tomoko is rather shy and it seems had no expectations of getting a boyfriend anyway. 

Their prospective suitors are a couple of salarymen, the feckless son of a CEO, Kyosuke (Masaya Kato), and his nerdy best friend Junpei (Senri Oe) who like Tomoko is a spectacles wearer. The pair have a typical meet cute when they bump into each other at a crossing and knock each other’s glasses off, each ending up with the wrong pair and not realising until it’s too late. Meanwhile, at the office, Kyosuke is being pressured by his father (Jo Shishido) to embrace adult responsibility and meet a prospective candidate for an arranged marriage who looks suspiciously like Chika though Kyosuke never looks at the photo. To get him off his back, he says he’s dating a woman from the company. Because he’s just that popular, a stage event is organised at which Kyosuke is supposed to announce who it is he has his eye on but he scandalises just about everyone by naming Chika who wasn’t really in the running. 

In the opening scenes, however, the guys had been indulging in a bit of 80s excess dribbling champagne from a helicopter some of which had rained down on Tomoko as if anointing her from above. She ends up having a second meet cute, this time with Kyosuke, who accidentally hypnotises her to think she’s a dog leading her to then attack him. A similar thing happens to Chika who is looked after by Junpei after having too much to drink on a date with Kyosuke at a nightclub where Tomoko had also agreed to go on an awkward date with Junpei. Inconveniently, the entirely mismatched Kyosuke ends up falling for the mousy charms of Tomoko who at this point doesn’t know that he’s “dating” Chika.

While the film presents an interesting picture of women in the workplace at the height of the bubble era, it also subtly undermines the prevailing consumerist culture of the age while preserving the romanticisation of Christmas. They two women each want to find a boyfriend to spend Christmas Eve with partly for reasons of social status and partly because they are simply quite lonely, Chika in particular very invested in her friendship with Tomoko while she, much more introverted, seems continually exasperated but despite herself allows Chika to dominate her existence. After becoming aware of their romantic conflict, the two women end up spending Christmas Eve together at a nice restaurant prioritising friendship over romance until one of them realises the other is unhappy and after discovering a note from their suitor asking them to meet in a local park chooses to spend the rest of the evening alone so her friend can go get her man. 

Then again, there’s a clear idea that Tomoko in particular is undergoing a kind of transformation signalling her shift away from Junpei by deciding to get contacts, putting on lipstick, and dressing in a slightly less mousy fashion while Chika’s attempt to become the sort of woman that Kyosuke would date by dressing and acting more like the other women in the office largely backfires. Meanwhile Kyosuke and Junpei are also changing, Kyosuke giving up his womanising ways and becoming more serious in his pursuit of Tomoko while Junpei comes to appreciate the vulnerable force of nature that is Chika. The film takes its title from Kyosuke’s attempt at hypnotising Tomoko into falling in love with him only to find that he’s the one who’s fallen under her spell as they move towards the anticipated Christmas Eve climax accompanied by the now classic song by Tatsuro Yamashita. Faced with the choice, the women do indeed choose friendship over love but discover that it isn’t really a choice at all because they both just want their friend to be happy even if it means a lonely Christmas for themselves as the ironic role reversal of the closing coda makes clear.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Tatsuro Yamashita – Christmas Eve

The Shootout (凶弾, Toru Murakawa, 1982)

The seishun eiga or youth films of the 1960s often had an ambivalent attitude to rebellious youngsters who for various reasons were not able to accommodate themselves to the times in which they lived, but few were prepared to ask real questions about society’s responsibility towards young people in difficult situations who had often been let down by the same state institutions which only sought to demonise them. Based on a story by Hiroshi Fukuda which was inspired by a real life ferry hijack which outraged the nation when the police opted to shoot the teenage hijacker dead, Toru Murakawa’s The Shootout (凶弾, Kyodan) stars the nephew of 60s youth movie king Yujiro Ishihara and places the blame firmly at the door of the police and other public services whose gradual and needless escalation of events leads only to tragedy. 

Teenagers Hideo (Yoshizumi Ishihara), Numa (Masato Furuoya), and Soichi (Tatsuo Yamada) met in reform school and have become something like brothers. All of them either never knew their parents or lost them young and have developed a healthy distrust of authority thanks to their experiences. As the film opens, the boys run cheerfully through the streets of a small rural town headed to the mountains where they play with a shotgun Hideo inherited from his late father. While driving back the boys pick up a distressed young woman, Hiromi (Mio Takaki), running barefoot through the pouring rain, but soon come to the attention of a pair of bored policemen the older of whom has a definite problem with the “unreliable” youth of the day and all their “sissy” music. They pull car over for speeding which is a problem not only because Soichi has been drinking, but because it is also not his car. He took the neighbour’s when his was taken away and it’s been reported stolen. 

While the younger policeman processes Soichi, the older one decides to kick off after finding the shotgun, banging Hideo’s head against the side of the car and then attacking Numa with a police truncheon when he asks him politely to stop before punching him in the face and kneeing him in the stomach though at this point neither of the boys has made any attempt to resist. Continuing to kick him on the ground, the policeman tells Numa that he should have more respect for his parents which is something of a sore spot because Numa was a foundling raised in the care system. Snapping, Numa hits the policeman over the head with the shotgun leaving him crawling on the muddy ground in danger of drowning while having suffered a serious head injury. 

This is first of many needless escalations that the boys encounter. The policeman was not really interested in serving the law, only in validating his authority and in reality little better than a thug himself. If he had not needlessly inflicted violence on the two young men, which is in itself an act of extreme entitlement given his age and fitness level compared to that of two physically fit teenage boys, none of the succeeding action would have taken place. The boys feel that they are unfairly victimised and are understandably mistrustful of the police because as they say even when they are doing their best to adhere to the rules of mainstream society they are written off as reform school boys not least by the police who have already decided that they are innately bad and must be guilty of whatever it is they are accused. 

The boys find the same thing when they decide to turn themselves in after a few days on the run and go to their social worker for help. The social worker lives in a temple and first seems as if he’s going to help when they explain and ask him to mediate for them with the police who they fear will not listen to the real story, but it soon becomes clear that he only wants to help Hideo who is the grandson of a diplomat and a promising student while foundling Numa is according to him unsalvageable. If only the social worker had been prepared to listen to them, the hijacking would never have happened. All the boys ever ask for is that someone pay attention to their side of things, honestly without prejudice, but all they’re ever told is that the word of a reform school boy is worthless which really begs the question of what the reform school is for in the first place. 

Then again there are a handful of sympathetic officers including one in charge of the original incident who makes it clear to his men that they should not be judging the suspects on their backgrounds while another (Kunie Tanaka) who was responsible for arresting Hideo when he killed his sister’s no good violent boyfriend during a fight reflects that he had beautiful eyes for a murderer and has come to question the nature of contemporary policing feeling perhaps that boys like these deserve help rather than punishment. The only person who does make an effort to listen is the fatherly captain of the ferry which Hideo ends up hijacking (Tomisaburo Wakayama) who seems to be getting through to him only to have his progress undermined by the police who again only want to preserve their own authority. 

Comparing the ferryjacking to the 1972 Munich terrorist attack, which seems rather hyperbolic even though the situation is obviously dangerous given the hostage taker is an emotionally volatile teenage boy with at this point two powerful firearms, the police and Coast Guard determine that killing him is likely the only solution. Obviously never having studied much about hostage negotiation, they surround the boat when it stops to refuel pushing Hideo further into a corner and increasing the likelihood that he may end up feeling out of options and decide to take everyone else with him when he goes. From the police’s point of view, perhaps that adds an extra justification to their clear determination to kill when the implication is that to them boys like Hideo are just a threat to be neutralised, another powder keg reform school boy who would have caused trouble eventually. 

That the public do not agree with the police’s actions perhaps says something about contemporary social attitudes, that in general people do not want to live under such rigid authoritarianism and could see that Hideo was merely a frightened boy who could have been talked down if again someone, other than the captain who did his best to save him, had been prepared to listen rather than once again needlessly escalating the situation to preserve the image of police authority. On the flip side, we’re also shown that the shooting has an adverse effect on the remorseful police sniper who is also at a moment of emotional strain caring for a wife dying of a brain tumour at only 25. Reminiscent of Rebel Without a Cause, The Shootout like its heroes has a healthy distrust of authority figures but also a small faith in the wider public while asking serious questions about the way society treats those who are often the most in need of care and protection. 


The Surrogate Woman (씨받이, Im Kwon-taek, 1986)

“They seem to live for honouring the dead” the bemused heroine of Im Kwon-taek’s Surrogate Woman (씨받이, Ssibaji) explains to her visiting mother of the noble society she has been unwittingly plunged into but still struggles to understand. A condemnation both of a society which continues to value sons over daughters and of the absurdity of ancestral rites along with the hierarchies of the feudal order, Kwon’s impassioned historical drama speaks directly to the contemporary era in which in many ways nothing has changed.

In any case, Ok-nyeo (Kang Soo-yeon) is fated to become a surrogate woman. As the woman who seems to be in charge in a small community ensconced in a valley which from a certain vantage point seems to resemble female genitalia explains, surrogate mothers who bear daughters are expected to raise them themselves but the children are considered undesirable for marriage and generally end up becoming surrogate mothers themselves. Ok-nyeo’s mother had not wanted such a fate for her daughter, but is in the end powerless to prevent it especially given the allure of the generous payment promised on the birth of a male child. Ok-nyeo thinks she can endure anything for the promise of a comfortable life afterwards but is simply too young and naive to understand the emotional consequences of her decision, that her child will be removed from her seconds after birth and handed to another woman to raise. 

The situation is not much better for the wife who is made to feel as if she has failed in not having conceived a child during her 12 years of marriage. Both she and the grandmother who is so insistent on ensuring the existence of a male heir now that her husband has died and their only son is childless, express anxiety about Ok-nyeo’s youth, as did the women in the village, fearing that at 17 she is not yet physically or emotionally mature enough to bear a healthy child. The man they sent to select her seems to have done so out of personal preference, explaining that of all the women he picked a virgin though this raises several practical issues given the nature of surrogacy. Even so there is something quite perverse in the fact that it is the grandmother, the wife of a noble family of Confucianist scholars, who is actively participating in this system that renders women little more than wandering wombs now that she has the only real power that she will ever experience in her life as a widow turned head of household. 

On the other hand, it’s clear that this isn’t an ideal arrangement for the man either. The husband, Sang-kyu, is reluctant. He thinks it’s morally wrong and against his Confucianist philosophy while he is also attached to his wife and has no desire to sleep with other women. Nevertheless, he becomes attached to Ok-nyeo to a degree that is regarded as inappropriate by his family members and advisors, sneaking out to sleep with her for reasons other than conceiving an heir. When Ok-nyeo becomes pregnant they send him away to a temple in an attempt to sever their emotional connection, though he immediately sleeps with her again on his return despite the fact that she is already pregnant. For this transgression, Ok-nyeo’s mother is beaten while Ok-nyeo herself had earlier been punished for seducing him though she is completely confined to a single room for the entirety of her stay at the house lest anyone find out the embarrassing secret that the family have hired a surrogate. 

While Ok-nyeo and Sang-kyu make love in the bushes, drunken men from the party he’d been attending have a dull conversation about the nature of ancestral rites which is in its own way transgressive as they ask themselves where these ancestral spirits actually are, trying to make sense of what the rituals are for and what they mean but emerging with only confusion for they are largely meaningless. They praise women for rescuing the ancestral tablets at the expense of their children and constantly incur vast expense sacrificing food for those who can no longer eat. As someone remarks, the dead dislike their world and long to stay in ours but the living hardly live at all and spend all their time in service of those who are no longer here. All of it, this vast system that traps women like Ok-nyeo along with men like Sang-kyu the Confucian scholar, stems from this desire to placate departed souls at the expense of those still breathing. 

Yet Ok-nyeo is almost like a ghost herself, an invisible presence locked up in a backroom concealed as a dirty secret. Her mother reminds her that Sang-kyu is an aristocrat and she is not, they do not really regard her as human and what she is is stabled like a horse brought for mating to be taken home once the foal is born. They snuck her in by night and will insist that she leaves in darkness mere hours after her son’s birth. Meanwhile, she will be tortured by her captors who burn her stomach and force her to drink strange potions in the name of having a son. Sang-kyu too is forced to drink deer blood to improve his manliness while Ok-nyeo is advised to stare at the moon to the point of dizziness. She perhaps falls for Sang-kyu because he is her only real human contact though it appears they never actually speak to each other, while he discovers a kind of liberation in the permission to dispense with the sublimation of his sexual desire normally demanded by his Confucianist teachings. 

But few of them acknowledge the cruelty with which Ok-nyeo and the surrogate women are treated, the pain and despair her mother had tried to warn her of. Ok-nyeo had said anything was worth the price of 10 fields, but soon cries out that she’d give them all up for her son unable to accept that the boy will never be hers for to be a surrogate woman is to be denied one’s own existence. Caught in the night, she can only stare back through the fog as the carriage departs forever separating her from her child and the man she had unwisely come to love. As the closing titles explain, returning to the funereal scenes with which the film had opened, Ok-nyeo has become a victim of a society that prizes sons over daughters as have so many women like her even centuries later in which enlightenment has brought little freedom for those oppressed by class and patriarchy.


The Surrogate Woman screened as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Trailer (no subtitles)

My Neighbor Totoro (となりのトトロ, Hayao Miyazaki, 1988)

© 1988 Studio Ghibli

“Trees and people used to be good friends” explains a father to his little girls newly arrived in the idyllic countryside of post-war Japan seeking respite from the destructive modernity that has made their mother ill. Released alongside the harrowing wartime drama Grave of the Fireflies, My Neighbor Totoro (となりのトトロ, Tonari no Totoro) is a charming tale of childhood adventure if not quite without its shades of darkness in which two sisters embrace the wonder of the natural world while trying to come to terms with mortality and the uncertainties of adulthood. 

Satsuki (Noriko Hidaka) and her younger sister Mei (Chika Sakamoto) have moved into a large, ramshackle house in a rural village on the outskirts of Tokyo for the benefit of their mother’s health while she remains in hospital a few miles away. Living with their cheerful father (Shigesato Itoi), a professor in the city, the girls rejoice in exploring their new environment learning of the dust bunnies that inhabited their home before they moved in. An old lady from the village (Tanie Kitabayashi) who’s come to help keep house until the girls’ mother returns home explains that she could see the “soot spreaders” too when she was a child but presumably not anymore. The idea that the soot speakers will soon move on appears to make the sisters sad, and everyone including the parents is quite excited about the idea of living in a “haunted house” even if it’s one that rattles a little in the wind. It’s younger sister Mei who later follows the trail of acorns that mysteriously appear in their home and encounters a series of strange forest creatures she names “Totoro” that eventually introduce the girls to a parallel world of magic and fantasy. 

Their father probably doesn’t believe them, but indulges the girls’ stories and adventures while encouraging them to embrace a sense of wonder in their environment along with something deeper and older than contemporary modernity. “You probably met the king of this forest” he explains to Mei, pausing to offer a word of thanks to the ancient tree he says first drew him to the house that will be their new family home. Whether Totoro is “real” or simply a childish fantasy he helps the sisters escape their anxiety over their mother’s absence, not least by introducing them to new life in the seeds the girls plant in their garden and patiently wait to grow. The oldest, Satsuki, is perhaps a little more aware, worried that her father might not have told her everything about her mother’s condition and processing the idea that there is a possibility she won’t come home to them. She wants to protect her sister from the same fears but perhaps can’t, eventually losing her patience with her and instantly regretful when Mei goes off in a huff and gets lost.

There is darkness in the village too, a floating sandal in a nearby lake giving rise to fears that a child may have fallen in and drowned, but there’s also the gentle strength of the community in the kindly old lady and her shy grandson Kanta (Toshiyuki Amagasa) along with all the other villagers who come out in force to look for Mei fearing she may have tried to visit her mother at the hospital on her own. The old lady prays furiously while muttering Buddhist sutras and it’s probably not a coincidence that Mei sits by a row of Jizo statues after realising that she’s lost not knowing what to do. The girls are always careful to offer thanks at the Jizo shrine just as their father thanked the tree though it’s Totoro and the Catbus that eventually bring them back together echoing a sense that in a just world kindness will always be repaid. 

The countryside is in many ways closer to that just world, largely free of the evils of modernity such as the pollution of industry that has corrupted the cities. Technology is often unreliable, dad’s train is late, telegrams bring bad news, and telephone calls result in anxious waits, but life in the village is peaceful and happy and the people help each other when times are hard. It may be an idealised vision of rural living, but there’s no denying its appeal. Evoking a sense of nostalgia in its beautifully painted backgrounds, Miyazaki’s gentle drama is like much of his work an advocation for the importance of nature as a source of healing but equally for wonder in the fantastical adventures of two little girls finding strength and possibility in the heart of the forest.


My Neighbor Totoro screens on 35mm at Japan Society New York on Nov.4 as part of the Monthly Anime series. Japan Society will also be hosting a talk with puppet artist Basil Twist on Nov. 10 delving behind the scenes of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s currently running stage adaptation.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Images: © 1988 Studio Ghibli

The Island Closest to Heaven (天国にいちばん近い島, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1984)

On its publication in the mid-1960s, Katsura Morimura’s autobiographical travelogue The Island Closest to Heaven (天国にいちばん近い島, Tengoku ni Ichiban Chikai Shima) became something of a publishing phenomenon and is credited with creating a romanticised image of the Pacific islands in the post-war Japanese imagination. Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1984 film adaptation in fact prominently features adverts for the UTA New Caledonia tour and acts as something like a tourist information video showcasing the idyllic island scenery and well appointed resort accommodation if also later featuring the decidedly less well appointed establishments on the other side of town where the locals live and and work. 

It is however first and foremost a vehicle for Kadokawa idol star Tomoyo Harada who had made her debut in Obayashi’s The Little Girl Who Conquered Time and was now onto her third lead having starred in Curtain Call earlier in the year which Haruki Kadokawa had directed himself. As such, the film is only loosely based on Morimura’s novel, recasting the heroine as a recently bereaved 16-year-old embarking on a coming-of-age adventure while travelling overseas looking for herself and a sense of the safety and stability she experienced before her father’s death. 

In the prologue sequence which opens the film, shot with a muted, pink-tinted colour filter, a younger Mari sits on the edge of a bridge with her father holding her from behind. As both she and her father are dressed in yukata, as are others who pass them on the bridge, we can assume that it is summer and possibly around the time of Bon festival which adds an extra degree of poignancy to their conversation in which her father quietly clearly anticipates his own death. He tells her about a distant island far to the south and close enough to Heaven for God to call on where it is always warm and sunny and the people always happy. Mari asks for the name of the place and is told it is called New Caledonia, possibly a name her father picked out of the air without thinking but becomes to her a symbol of the bond that existed between them and place she must visit now that her father is no longer physically present in her life. 

What she’s looking for is in a sense a path back to her father or at least a means a coming to terms with his absence. Her mother (Kayo Matsuo) may appear somewhat indifferent, but it’s clear that it’s a kind of pride she feels in her daughter’s first steps into adulthood knowing that she has raised a determined young woman if one with her head in the clouds like her father. Her sentiment is later echoed by an older woman (Nobuko Otowa) who has come to New Caledonia in order to make peace with the death of her husband 39 years previously when his submarine was sunk during the war, stating that all these years later her abiding memory is pride that she fell in love with someone she could be proud of. “Love is the story of your whole life” she tells Mari, who is herself just beginning to understand that life is a process of love and loss as she searches for her island and eventually finds it in the eyes of a local boy who yearns for an island far to the north where it’s always bright and sunny and the people are always happy. 

Mari’s interactions on the island are torn between two men, the young Taro (Ryoichi Takayanagi) who is fascinated by the idea of Japan where his grandfather first came from to dig nickel, and a much older man, Yuichi (Toru Minegishi), who seems to be arrested, stuck on the island and unable to move forward with his life because of a youthful broken heart. Mari reminds him of the young woman he loved and lost, trying to recapture the magic with a moment that seems to reference Jules Verne’s The Green Ray, but of course failing to do so. There is something uncomfortable in their relationship given that Mari is only 16 and this man is perhaps already in his 40s, yet her decision to leave the safety of the tour group and venture astray with him to find what she is looking for rather than what the tour guide wants to show her demonstrates her independent spirt and impending adulthood in taking an active control over her life and future. 

In this way the island is a liminal space in more ways than one, symbolically connecting the mortal world and the other while allowing Mari to transition into adulthood as symbolised by her return home now no longer wearing her glasses in having opened her eyes to a fuller reality. Nevertheless, the film does follow the line of the book which is very of its time in its presentation of the indigenous community which is bound up with the idea of a smiling island people lazing in the sun of a tropical paradise while possessing profound spiritual knowledge. Mari’s literal coming of age is symbolised by a fever she endures after being stung by a sting ray, coming to during a tribal dance and then collapsing again to awaken as if reborn into adulthood.  

After this transition it’s implied that her relationship with Taro will have to end, that this brief summer adventure like so many in Obayashi’s films was just about making memories to carry forward in the further course of life. But then as her seemingly unburdened tour group friend had pointed out, Mari found Taro by chance twice before and so may someday find him again just as Mari’s intervention has earned Yuichi and his first love a second chance no longer so enthral to the illusionary power of the green ray but making choices informed by the realities of love that may still be “romantic” if no longer quite so naive. Shifting into a more contemplative register than other similarly themed Kadokawa idol movies, The Island Closest to Heaven is one of Obayashi’s most straightforward features save for its brief use of colour filters in the opening and closing scenes and the lengthy title sequence which draws inspiration from classic Hollywood melodrama, but engages with some of his key themes in the romantic nostalgia of love and loss as his heroine comes to a new understanding of herself while bidding goodbye to the past. 


The Island Closest to Heaven is released on blu-ray on 17th October courtesy of Third Window Films as part of the Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 80s Kadokawa Years box set alongside School in the Crosshairs, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, and His Motorbike, Her Island.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Theme song performed by Tomoyo Harada

Sweet Home (スウィートホーム, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 1989)

A documentary film crew hoping to discover long-hidden frescos by an artist with a tragic history find themselves on a quest to resurrect the traditional family in unlikely horror comedy Sweet Home (スウィートホーム). Written and directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, the film shares many of the hallmarks of his later career in his preoccupation with what lurks in the shadows, yet produced by Juzo Itami who also stars and apparently reshot some scenes himself it also mines a deep seam of ironic humour harking back to classic serials and contemporary kids adventures in the same way as Hiruko the Goblin among others would do just a few years later. 

This strain of irony is perceptible in the opening scenes in which producer Akiko (Nobuko Miyamoto) appears in an elegant ’40s-style outfit more in keeping with an archeological dig than a haunted house adventure, her later attire strongly recalling that seen in Indiana Jones. The gang are waiting by their military-style jeep seemingly in the middle of a sandstorm while chief producer Kazuo (Shingo Yamashiro) is busy at the municipal office trying to get permission to enter the Mamiya Mansion which has been shut up for the last 30 years since the death of legendary artist Ichiro Mamiya who is the subject of their documentary. A diffident man as his daughter jokes, Kazuo finds it difficult to make headway until a slightly more cynical employee takes over the negotiations and hands over the key with the rationale that they’ll either find out the house isn’t haunted after all in which case they can turn it into a museum, or that they’ll get some tidy publicity out of the horrifying deaths of all concerned. 

A western-style gothic mansion, the house is itself as imposing as it is ominous even without swirling mists or hovering gloom. Once inside the crew find what they’re looking for, a beautiful fresco with the title “home sweet home” painted in a corner. All we’re told about Ichiro is that he died in the house, but when all is said and done he, like Kazuo, is not terribly important and it is not his death which has cursed the mansion but that of his wife. The sweet home the couple had dreamed of was coming to fruition with the long-awaited birth of a child whose life was to inspire frescos on the remaining walls only tragedy struck. As a toddler the child somehow climbed into the furnace and was burnt alive when his unknowing mother ignited it. She then went mad, kidnapping other children and apparently burning them so her child would not be lonely before eventually throwing herself in too.

Perhaps uncomfortably, Sweet Home leans in to the kind of maternal questioning common to the genre as it considers the formation of a new family in the awkward romance between the shy widower Kazuo who has brought his teenage daughter Emi (Nokko) along on the job, and capable producer Akiko who is repeatedly questioned about marriage, children, and the reasons she currently has neither of them. Keying in to the terror of the house, Emi reveals that as she grows older the memories of her birth mother begin to fade to the extent that she can barely make out her outline, envisioning her merely as an indistinct light. She is prepared to accept Akiko as second mother, offering her the dress which her own mother used to wear only for Akiko to diffidently refuse on the grounds that the dress should be worn by Emi as her mother would have wanted perhaps hinting at the way Emi often treats her father as a clueless child in need of mothering himself. 

Nevertheless, it’s the dress of maternity that Akiko must finally put on in order to claim the maternal space in venturing back into the haunted house in order to save Emi from becoming another playmate for Mrs Mamiya’s child. Rather than Kazuo, who proves rather ineffectual, she is guided by a weird old man, Yamamura (Juzo Itami), from the petrol station who apparently knows all about fighting ghosts but bluntly tells her she has no chance of success because she is not a mother herself and cannot understand the pain of a mother who has lost a child nor the magnetic pull between a childless mother and motherless child. In order to defeat the vengeful spirit, Akiko must fully embrace the role of the mother, easing the spirit’s pain with maternal compassion in returning to her what was lost. Her child restored to her, the spirit takes on the appearance of the Holy Mother ascending to Heaven bathed in golden light lifting the shadowy gloom that cursed the house. 

Even so there is something insidious in the fact that as Yamamura says if you attempt to fight shadow with light all you get is more of the same, the crew trapped in the house with no means of defence against the encroaching darkness. This unknown, shadowy sense of threat, of being swallowed by darkness, is a key harbinger of a Kurosawa’s signature style as well as a clear evocation of the gothic dread focused on the house with the ironic failure of the “sweet home” dream which is in essence what Akiko, Kazuo, and an Emi are chasing as they try to escape the haunted mansion. Ironically enough, Sweet Home has become best remembered for fathering a video game which eventually led to the Resident Evil series while Kurosawa himself has all but rejected the film claiming Itami’s later interventions undercut his directorial vision. Featuring effects work by Dick Smith, the horror is visceral and disturbing at one point a man’s face melting, his skin slipping from his bones, while the score is cheerfully whimsical in keeping with the absurd lightness of tone that recalls classic teen adventures before heading into the fable-like conclusion in which Akiko must wrest her surrogate child from a vengeful spirit through maternal exchange. Having served its purpose the mansion implodes, freeing not only the spirits trapped inside but the new family now freed of the weight of traditional mores to embrace their new connection founded on love and empathy rather than duty or convention.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Mercenaries from Hong Kong (獵魔者, Wong Jing, 1982) [Fantasia 2022]

A former mercenary’s bid for revenge having failed in his responsibilities soon goes awry in Wong Jing’s third directorial feature Mercenaries from Hong Kong (獵魔者). As is constantly pointed out to the hero, perhaps he’s not so different from his target with his very selective brand of justice and morality. After all maybe the difference between medicine smuggler and drug trafficker is largely semantic and taking revenge after the fact hardly makes up for the failure to protect the innocent from a world you’ve helped create. 

Li Lok (Ti Lung) is a pretty big figure on the underworld scene and as the ultra macho title sequence reveals a former mercenary who served in Vietnam. In the daring opening scene he sneaks into a gang hideout disguised as a telephone repairman and takes out a gangster in the middle of drugging a young woman whom he and his friend intend to rape and then murder. But Li Lok isn’t here to save the girl and in fact he doesn’t. He’s there because the gangster has done this kind of thing before and the previous victim was his 15-year-old niece whose care he had been entrusted with by his late brother before he passed away. Later one of his comrades will make a similar request of him and he will fail again apparently taking little stock of his responsibilities. 

Nevertheless, having knocked off the gangster annoys local big boss Shen who intends to have Li Lok eliminated but Hong Kong’s richest woman Ho Ying (Candice Yu On-On) convinces him not to because she has a job for Lok assassinating a top Thai assassin who killed her father and is now apparently blackmailing her with a cassette tape full of corporate secrets. All Lok needs to do is round up a posse and head to Cambodia where “the devil” Naiman (Ching Miao) is hiding out, kidnap him, and retrieve the tape to receive a massive life-changing payout while permanently getting Shen off his back. It all sounds like a pretty good deal to Lok along with the former buddies he recruits to join him who are all trapped in desperate poverty one with a sick little girl who desperately needs a kidney transplant. 

This is a Wong Jing film and perhaps there’s no need to dig too deeply into it, but there is something in the power Ying wields over Lok and his team by virtue of her wealth and privilege that speaks to the city’s growing inequality though it’s also true that perhaps the guys have all fallen low through their mercenary choices and are now unable to get a foothold in the contemporary society without resorting to crime. Yet perversely, Ying leverages Lok’s chivalrous sense of honour as part of her plan playing damsel in distress rather than dangerous femme fatale while he assumes he’s on a righteous mission planning to turn Naiman over to the authorities rather than just killing him while little caring that his actions threaten to destabilise an already chaotic situation in Cambodia. 

When one of the sworn brothers of the gangster that Lok killed in revenge is killed coming after him even after the truce, Lok is irritated that he died unnecessarily as if it offends his sense of justice that this man was not protected better by Shen. Yet as Naiman keeps pointing out to him, he’s no saint and perhaps no different. He could have saved the girl in the gang hideout but chose not to, escaping by jumping out of a window onto a van waiting below and riding off on a motorcycle (which is admittedly impressive). He claims to hate drug dealers but profited off war and misery in smuggling medicines across the border from Thailand into Cambodia even if he could tell himself he was running a kind of humanitarian service. Meanwhile Ying who is obviously involved in something shady if she’s dealing with people like Lok and his team, paying for their weapons and equipment which presumably includes the series of identical outfits the guys sport like some violent middle-aged boy band, wins an Outstanding Woman award and ironically pledges to use some of her wealth to fund community-based anti-drug programs. 

Li Lok may in a sense emerge victorious but also exactly where he started in failing to protect an innocent girl from a mercenary world. The Cantonese title might more literally be something like Devil Hunters, but Lok and his guys are certainly a mercenary bunch desperate to escape their poverty and hopelessness even if they may stand for a kind of justice and honour in brotherhood. This being a Wong Jing film there is plenty of crass humour including some that is very of its time along with gratuitous sex and female nudity but also a series of incredibly impressive action scenes and a bleaker than bleak conclusion which may suggest that the Loks of the world will be unable to protect the next generation from the violence they themselves have unleashed. 


Mercenaries from Hong Kong screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

House on Fire (火宅の人, Kinji Fukasaku, 1986)

In the closing scene of Kinji Fukasaku’s 1986 literary drama House on Fire (火宅の人, Kataku no hito), the hero plays a game he’s designed with his children titled “too heavy to bear” in which they each climb on his back waiting to see which if any of them can prove too much for the paternal shoulders. In recent years Fukasaku has become most closely associated with his late career international hit Battle Royale but prior to that his name had been almost synonymous with the genre he helped to consolidate, the jitsuroku gangster picture. Like the later A Chaos of Flowers, however, House on Fire is a subdued literary drama though one set largely in a more recent past revolving around conflicted author’s paternal anxiety and inspired by the autobiographical fiction of Kazuo Dan who might be best known outside of Japan for having penned the novel which inspired Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Hanagatami

Like many similar literary endeavours of the time, House on Fire revolves around a conflicted writer’s affair with a much younger woman. Though set mainly in the 1950s, the film opens with a prologue set 40 years earlier in which the young Kazuo witnesses the breakdown of his parents’ marriage as his father abruptly leaves the family while his mother (played by Dan’s real life daughter Fumi Dan) later leaves him too after falling in love with a young student. As an older man (Ken Ogata) he feels he understands, though as a young boy all he felt was resentment. It’s this central conflict that consumes him as he contemplates embarking on an affair, knowing that he’s betraying his own wife and children in the same way that his father had him and his mother. He explains that this is partly because of a distance that has arisen in his relationship with his second wife Yoriko (Ayumi Ishida) following a family tragedy in which his second son Jiro was left with brain damage after contracting meningitis, Yoriko retreating grief-stricken into obsessive religious practice praying for a miracle he does not believe will come. 

Typical of the “I Novel” Kazuo funnels all of this inner conflict into a serialised novel including all the salacious details of his subsequent affairs. The first of these is with a young actress, Keiko (Mieko Harada), who came to him with a letter of recommendation hoping to get his support and advice on embarking on a career in Tokyo. It seems clear that what Kazuo is attracted to is youth while what he fears is an ending, an anxiety which overshadows his romance while he continues to neglect his responsibilities as a husband and father leaving Yoriko to cope alone looking after the other children while caring for their disabled son. Learning of the affair she temporally leaves the family in much the same way his mother had, yet rather than accept his responsibility for the children Kazuo promptly abandons them too retreating to a hotel to write while leaving Jiro’s nurse and the housekeeper in sole charge of the family home. 

It may be true in a sense that if he lived as a regular family man he’d have nothing to write about, but as much as Kazuo agonises over the possibilities of making Keiko mother to his children he knows he cannot marry these two desires as simply as swapping one woman for another. Just as he had, his eldest son Ichiro born to his first wife comes to resent him, breaking in to the flat he shares with Keiko and smashing the place up to make plain his sense of hurt and betrayal. Yet Kazuo seemingly cannot reconcile his passionate desires with his familial responsibilities while consumed by guilt in his failure to live up to an inner ideal. The only conclusion he comes to is that he is illequipt to understand the complicated relationships between men and women, looking back on his parents’ romance and reflecting that they run from love so great it makes you want to die to hate so strong it makes you want to kill. 

Meanwhile, he circles around three women from the capable if strangely mysterious Yoriko who insists that she knows everything he does, to the petulant Keiko and carefree Yoko (Keiko Matsuzaka), a melancholy bar hostess who accompanies him on a trip around Japan while trying to decide whether to accept an offer of marriage from a wealthy old man. In contrast with the maternal Yoriko, both Keiko and Yoko present a less complicated vision of typical femininity each lively and childlike but both ultimately wanting something Kazuo can’t give them because to him the relationships are transitory. Yoko understands this the best even if Kazuo’s assertion that he enjoys being with her because she never asks him difficult questions speaks volumes about his own insecurity, enjoying the journey while coming to her own realisations in ultimately opting for a kind of stability in a loveless marriage. An essentially passive figure, Kazuo is abandoned by all three women as they exercise a romantic freedom he didn’t really consider they had with Yoriko finally deciding to return but defiantly redefining the terms of their relationship as she does so. 

With this the family is in a sense repaired, Yoriko reminding him that she knows everything he does while he is forced to acknowledge that he is lucky his family will have him back even as he plays the “too heavy to bear” game with his children as pregnant as it is with his internal failures as a husband and father. A minor meditation on the changing social mores of the post-war society and the inner turmoil of a man caught between them, Fukasaku’s distanced approach undercuts the sense of melancholy in the otherwise conservative conclusion as Kazuo both resists his self-characterisation as a feckless and weak willed man and embraces it in his imperfect determination to reintegrate himself into a quietly smouldering home. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)