The Ballad of Narayama (楢山節考, Shohei Imamura, 1983)

ballad of narayama imamura 1983 posterWhen Keisuke Kinoshita decided to dramatise The Ballad of Narayama (楢山節考, Narayama Bushiko), adapted from a recent novel inspired by the ancient legend of “ubasute”, he recast it is as myth – a parabolic morality play adopting the trappings of kabuki to tell a timeless tale of transience and sacrifice. As much as Kinoshita praised the heroine’s kindness and altruistic sense of duty, he also questioned her failure to question the cruel and arbitrary social codes which defined her life, sacrificing her deep familial love for the cold austerity of religious reward. Shohei Imamura, slightly younger than Kinoshita, had also read the novel when it came out though he was not sufficiently progressed in his career to have considered adapting it for the screen. Unlike Kinoshita’s highly stylised approach, Imamura opts for his trademark sense of realism, exposing nature red in tooth and claw as he attempts to restore rural earthiness to the rarefied cinema screen.

Deep in the mountains, a small village does what it can to survive in harsh terrain. 69-year-old Orin (Sumiko Sakamoto) is as strong as they come but she is preparing to meet her end. In the villages of these parts, men and women of 70 are carried by their children to summit of Mount Narayama where they are left as a sacrifice to the god, praying for snow to hasten an otherwise long and drawn out death. Orin’s husband disappeared 30 years ago, the laughing stock of the village for his sentimental aversion to carrying his own mother up the mountain, and her son, Tatsuhei (Ken Ogata) seems equally reluctant to accept that Orin will making her own journey as soon as the next snows arrive.

Existence is indeed cruel. The custom of “obasute” or “throwing away” one’s old people, originated because of a lack of food. There not being enough sustenance to support a large population, the old sacrifice themselves in the name of the young. Life is cheap and of little consequence. Tatsuhei’s simple-minded younger brother, Risuke (Tonpei Hidari), notices the body of a newborn baby emerging from the melting snow to the edge of his rice paddy but the sight does not disturb or sadden him – he is annoyed that someone has “dumped” their “rubbish” on his land. Baby boys, oddly, are worthless – just another mouth to feed until it becomes strong enough to work, but baby girls are a boon because they can be sold. Orin herself sold her baby daughter in desperation following a bad harvest, and when the salt seller calls in unexpectedly Orin is at pains to tell him they’ve still not made a decision as to whether to sell her granddaughter who has been left without a mother following the death of Orin’s daughter-in-law in a freak accident.

She needn’t have worried however because the salt seller is bringing good news – a new wife for Tatsuhei, meaning Orin can make her final journey with an unburdened heart knowing that the household will be taken care of. Tamayan (Aki Takejo), a kind and cheerful woman much like Orin herself, fits right in despite the objections of Tatsuhei’s teenage son, Kesakichi (Seiji Kurasaki), who has got his girlfriend pregnant and wants to “marry” her – bringing not one but two extra mouths into his household. Orin loves him dearly, but all Kesakichi can do is make fun of his granny for still having all her teeth and resentfully enquire if she isn’t needed somewhere up a mountain sometime about now.

Kesakichi’s coldness and selfishness is contrasted with the goodness and warmth of Orin and her son. Hardship, far from bringing people together in their shared struggle, has made beasts of all. Imamura splices in frequent shots of animals copulating or feasting on each other – rats gnawing on the body of a snake giving way to a snake swallowing the body of a twitching grey mouse. Yet it is nature that will win in the end. Early on the village men chase a hare in the snow, Tatsuhei shooting it dead, only for an eagle to swoop down and make off with the prize. On the mountain, strewn with bones, a host of flapping crows emerges from a battered rib cage. 

Catching a thief is no different to catching a hare. Convinced that the thief’s family is a curse on the village, the villagers determine that they must all be eliminated – the roots of a poisoned tree must be burned away. Breaking into the home, friends and former neighbours tie up and kidnap an entire family, burying them alive and then redistributing all their worldly goods in “recompense” for what they’d “lost”. The cycles of loss and redistribution continue, as Tatsuhei observes finding Orin’s belongings draped around other shoulders. Kesakichi, having lost one lover, quickly takes another forgetting the first while Tatsuhei struggles to come to terms with the loss of his mother and the knowledge that someday he too, and Kesakichi, and the sons of Kesakichi, will make this same journey to this same spot.

Kinoshita’s secondary concern had been with the cruelty of the custom and the mechanisms of social conformity which enforced it, but Imamura almost seems to be in agreement with the villagers, finding horror but also beauty in the sacrifice of Orin who accepts her fate with transcendent beatification and willingly sacrifices herself to the mountain gods. The world is cruel, and tender. A son’s acceptance of his mother’s sacrifice becomes the greatest expression of a love he must destroy by honouring.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

P. P. Rider (ションベンライダー, Shinji Somai, 1983)

PP rider posterDespite a brief resurgence following a retrospective at Tokyo Filmex followed by another at Edinburgh International Film Festival, Shinji Somai remains frustratingly underrepresented in the West. Though his career is more varied than most give him credit for, encompassing the melancholy pink film Love Hotel and masculinity drama The Catch among others, Somai is justifiably most closely associated with his youth films. Running from the artier Typhoon Club and The Friends to the rabidly populist in the Kadokawa idol movies Sailor Suit and Machine Gun and Tokyo Heaven, Somai’s work is unique in managing to catch hold of a zeitgeist, capturing the essence of the contemporary teenager more or less in the way they saw themselves rather than the way they were generally seen by adults. Like many Japanese teen movies of the ‘80s, the world of P.P. Rider (ションベンライダー, Shonben Rider) is essentially a safe one – our three protagonists get themselves mixed up in some dark and shady business but they are never afraid, do not lose heart, and face danger with only contempt and determination.

Somai opens with one of his trademark long takes which whirls around from two suspicious looking yakuza types to a bunch of kids playing around in the school swimming pool. One of the kids, a rotund boy who goes by the nickname Debunaga (he has the rather pretentious name of Nobunaga Deguchi, “Nobunaga” being the first name of a historical tyrant) is being a bit of a twit and having a go at one of our heroes – JoJo (Masatoshi Nagase). Debunaga (Yoshikazu Suzuki) then tries to “drown” JoJo’s friend Jisho (lit. Dictionary) (Shinobu Sakagami), before the third member of the trio arrives – an androgynous girl who goes by the name of Bruce (Michiko Kawai). Bruce neatly dispatches the petty high school punks while a teacher, Arane (Hideko Hara), attempts to shift some bosozoku who’ve invaded school property.

Meanwhile, the petty yakuza get on with their plan. They’ve come to kidnap Debunaga – his pharmacist dad apparently has a sideline in drug dealing, but before they can grab him, Debunaga is kidnapped by entirely different kidnappers! Our three heroes, JoJo, Jisho, and Bruce are very annoyed about this because they didn’t get a proper chance to get even with Debunaga. Accordingly, they decide the best way to make use of their summer holiday is to rescue him themselves and make sure they get their revenge before the kidnappers do him in.

P.P. Rider means exactly you think it means, except it doesn’t quite mean anything at all aside from perfectly capturing the strange mix of childish jokes and serious crime that defines the movie’s tone. The atmosphere is absurd and ironic, the kids distrust adult authority and attempt to define their own nascent personalities by effectively rejecting them – using nicknames, dressing in highly codified ways, and either conforming to or subverting social codes as they see fit. Amusingly enough, the trio take a brief pause in the middle of their quest to get haircuts and change outfits, after which they emerge dressed in each other’s clothes as if implying they are almost interchangeable. 

In keeping with most Japanese youth dramas, parents are an entirely off screen presence. Adult input comes from two very different directions (plus the occasional interventions of bumbling beat cop Tanaka) – a down-at-heels yakuza called Gombei (Tatsuya Fuji), and the kids’ teacher, Arane. Gombei, a drug addled gangster, is hardly an ideal role model (especially when he tries to drown Bruce and attacks Jisho with a samurai sword), but he does eventually take the kids under his wing with JoJo picking up the classic deputy role in learning the yakuza ropes. Arane, by contrast begins by letting them down. Harried by the bosozoku she tells the kids to buzz off when they try to talk to her, telling them that she’s off to hot springs town Atami and they’d best come back next term. Nevertheless she eventually becomes an integral part of their group, assisting in the quest and helping to rescue Debunaga while the strange finale plays out before her impassive eyes.

The kids didn’t really want to save Debunaga, and are conflicted when they eventually locate him, but in the end it’s friendship which wins out as they each celebrate their various roles in the successful rescue whilst lamenting the relative lack of care they’ve received from adults and authority figures aside from Arane and Gombei. Absurdist and ironic, P.P. Rider is a strange children’s odyssey in which the adolescent teens head out on a dark and dangerous adventure but live in the relative safety of the world and so nothing very bad is going to happen to them despite the terrible things they eventually witness. Classical long takes jostle alongside Somai’s mobile camera, random intertitles, and frequent breaks for pop music (this is an idol movie after all) in a frenzy of post-modern gags but somehow it all just works, and does so with wit and charm.


Opening scene (no subtitles)

Interview with actor Masatoshi Nagase from the Tokyo Filmex screening in 2011 (Japanese only, no subtitles)

Michiko Kawai’s main titles song – Watashi, Takanna Koro

The Little Girl Who Conquered Time (時をかける少女, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1983)

Little Girl Who Conquered TImeThe Girl Who Leapt Through Time is a perennial favourite in its native Japan. Yasutaka Tsutsui’s original novel was first published back in 1967 giving rise to a host of multimedia incarnations right up to the present day with Mamoru Hosoda’s 2006 animated film of the same name which is actually a kind of sequel to Tsutsui’s story. Arguably among the best known, or at least the best loved to a generation of fans, is Hausu director Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1983 movie The Little Girl Who Conquered Time (時をかける少女, Toki wo Kakeru Shoujo) which is, once again, a Kadokawa teen idol flick complete with a music video end credits sequence.

As in the novel, the story centres around regular high school girl Kazuko Yoshiyama (Tomoyo Harada). She has two extremely close male friends (generally a recipe for disaster, or at least for melodrama but this is not that kind of story) – Horikawa and Fukamachi, and one Saturday while all three are charged with cleaning up the schoolroom, Kazuko ventures into the science lab where she sees a beaker on the floor emitting thick white smoke which smells strongly of lavender causing her to pass out. Everyone seems to think it’s either hunger, anaemia, or that old favourite “woman’s troubles” but from this day on Kazuko’s life begins to change. The same day repeats itself over and over again with minor differences and Kazuko also begins to experience multilayered dreams in which her friends are in some kind of peril.

Tsutsui’s original novel was a Kadokawa Shoten property (though first published 15 years previously) which made it a natural fit for the Kadokawa effect so when legendary idol master Haruki Kadokawa found an idol he was particularly taken with in Tomoyo Harada the stars aligned. Obayashi set the story in his own hometown, the pleasantly old fashioned port village of Onomichi, which adds a nicely personal feel to his take on the original story. Although The Little Girl Who Conquered Time is an adaptation of a classic novel, many of Obayashi’s regular concerns are present from the wistful tone to the transience of emotion and the importance of memory.

Kazuko is another of Obayashi’s young women at a crossroads as she finds herself wondering what to do with the rest of her life. The original timeline seems to point to a romance and possibly a life of pleasant, if dull, domesticity with one of her best friends but with this time travelling intrusion everything diverges. Though assured that she will not remember most of the strange events that have been happening to her, something of her adventures seems to have stuck in Kazuko’s mind even if she couldn’t quite say why. Much to the consternation of her mother, Kazuko’s purpose in life begins to lean to towards the scientific rather than the romantic, almost as if she’s waiting for the return of someone whom she has no recollection of having met.

Obayashi once again uses conflicting colour schemes to anchor his story. Beginning with black and white as Kazuko has her first encounter with someone she’s known all her life under the brightly shining stars, he gradually re-introduces us to the “real” world through sporadically adding colour during her bus ride home to her small town which does have a noticeably more old fashioned aesthetic when compared to Tokyo set features of the era. The effects are highly stylised and very much of their time including the celebrated time travel sequence which has Kazuko framed by a neon blue halo. The most touching sequence occurs near the end of the film in which Kazuko crosses paths with a familiar face that she doesn’t quite recognise, the camera perspective actively changes physically pulling us away from the encounter until Kazuko turns around and walks away in the opposite direction and into yet another empty corridor.

Tomoyo Harada developed into a fine actress with a long standing and successful career in both television and feature films as well as releasing a number of full length albums. As is usual with this kind of film she also sings the theme tune which has the same title as the movie though in an unusual movie Obayashi includes a music video retelling of the events of the film over the end credits featuring all of the cast helping Harada to perform the song with silly grins on their faces all the way through. Harada proves herself much more adept at convincingly carrying a feature length movie than some of her fellow idols but the same cannot be said for many of her co-stars though she is well backed up by established adult cast members including Ittoku Kishibe as Kazuko’s romantically distressed teacher.

The Little Girl Who Conquered Time is first and foremost a Kadokawa idol movie and has all the hallmarks of this short lived though extremely successful genre. Necessarily very much of its time, the film has taken on an additional layer of nostalgic charm on top of that which has been deliberated injected into it. Nevertheless, in keeping with Obayashi’s other work The Little Girl Who Conquered Time has a melancholic, wistful tone which is sentimental at times but, crucially, always sincere.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

And here’s the famous music video for the title song (which is of course sung by Tomoyo Harada herself). English Subtitles!

Detective Story (探偵物語, Kichitaro Negishi, 1983)

Dective Story 1983Yusaku Matsuda became a household name and all round cool guy hero thanks to his role as a maverick private eye in the hit TV show Detective Story, however despite sharing the same name, Kichitaro Negishi’s Detective Story movie from 1983 (探偵物語, Tantei Monogatari) has absolutely nothing to with the identically titled drama series. In fact, Matsuda is not even the star attraction here as the film is clearly built around top idol of the day Hiroko Yakushimaru as it adapts a novel which is also published by the agency that represents her and even works some of her music into the soundtrack.

As far as plot goes, Detective Story is the kind of good natured, innocent crime thriller that has all but disappeared since the 1980s. Yakushimaru plays teenage student Naomi who is due to move to America to be with her father in the very near future. However, Naomi is an inquisitive, mildly rebellious sort with a habit of sneaking out of her room through the window despite the fact that no one is preventing her simply leaving through the front door. Consequently someone or other has hired a detective, Tsujiyama (Matsuda), to keep an eye on her. This he does pretty well until he puts a stop to Hiroko making a huge mistake with a fellow student in a love hotel. Though Naomi is very not happy about a creepy old guy following her about everywhere, she gradually gets used to it and when Tsujiyama’s ex-wife gets caught up in a hotel room murder case, Naomi gets the inspiration to embark on some detective work of her own.

Despite the shadiness of the world that rich girl Naomi is about to get embroiled in, the film maintains a bright and cheerful tone – perhaps because of Naomi’s own straightforward innocence. Even if she very nearly falls for the advances of an obvious creep (seriously, the guy actually borrows money from his “girlfriend” ? right in front of Naomi to take her out on a date, after which he tries to persuade her to join him in a love hotel), Naomi’s teenage spunkiness largely keeps her out of trouble for the rest of the movie which sees her getting mixed up with nightclubs, showgirls and yakuza. Somehow there is very little feeling of actual danger in the film leaving this all feeling like the kind of thing that happens to Naomi all the time and is simply just one last adventure before she heads off to America.

It must have been something of a coup to get arguably the biggest movie star of the day, Yusaku Matsuda, to play second fiddle in a mainstream teen idol movie especially as his other film choices of the time seem to indicate a desire to get away from his tough guy persona into more dramatic roles. Tsujiyama is cool presence in his stylish brown suit, smoking away in the shadows content to simply keep watch. He’s the omniscient type who always seem to have a plan in motion yet it’s Naomi herself who takes the lead here, solving the case whilst saving Tsuijiyama and his damaged show girl of an ex-wife in the process.

As is common with these kinds of stories there is a light romantic subplot which is a little unseemly when you consider Yakushimaru was only 19 at the time and her character around the same age whereas Matsuda was already in his 30s. This plot strand is played a little strangely throughout the film with a tacked on airport gate conclusion which dissolves itself almost straightway but does play into the film’s coming of age themes as Naomi develops greater sense of herself as an adult woman rather than a reckless teenager.

Detective Story is no lost classic, it’s very much of its time and has perhaps faded a little as has the fame of its tentpole star. That said it’s a perfectly enjoyable cute teen idol detective story which overall succeeds in doing exactly what it sets out to do even if it proves a little dull in the execution. An interesting watch for fans of its two stars Hiroko Yakushimaru and Yusaku Matsuda and even for its director Kichitaro Negishi who has gone on to win some later critical acclaim particularly with the prestige drama Villon’s Wife in 2009, Detective Story is perhaps not worth an all night stakeout but at least warrants a cursory investigation.


Unsubtitled trailer:

and here’s a video of Hiroko Yakushimaru singing the (very catchy) title song at a concert celebrating the 35th anniversay of her film debut (video has a bit about the concert at the beginning, fastfoward to 1:13 for the song only)

 

The Family Game (家族ゲーム, Yoshimitsu Morita, 1983)

TFG_DVD_jk_ol“Why do we have to make such sacrifices for our children?”. It sounds a little cold, doesn’t it, but none the less true. Yoshimitsu Morita’s 1983 social satire The Family Game (家族ゲーム, Kazoku Game) takes that most Japanese of genres, the family drama, and turns it inside out whilst vigorously shaking it to see what else falls from the pockets.

The “ordinary” middle class Numata family consists of the salaryman father Kosuke, the regular housewife mother Chikako and their two sons – older brother Shinichi and younger brother Shigeyuki. Right now the focus of attention is very much on Shigeyuki as he approaches the difficult period of sitting entrance exams for high school. To be frank, Shigeyuki’s prospects are dismal. He ranks near the bottom of the class and though certainly bright has little interest in studying. Therefore, the family have decided to bring in a home tutor to help boost his grades. They’ve already tried several to no avail but have high hopes for Mr. Yoshimoto, a local university student, but little do they know that he’s going to end up teaching each of them a little more than they cared to learn.

Morita breaks down the modern family into its component parts and finds only archetypes representing the kinds of roles which are rigidly enforced by Japan’s conformist society. Let’s start with the “father” who is supposedly the head of the household yet barely has anything at all to do with it. He believes his role is simply to go to work and shout commands which his “family” are supposed to follow unquestioningly. His realm is everything outside the house, everything inside is the responsibility of his wife and he won’t in any way get involved with that. When he has a problem with the kids (and this problem will only be that they aren’t performing to expectation), he will tell his wife and she is expected to take care of it on her own. Of course, his authority is hollow and dependent on his family falling in with his preconceived ideas of their “individual” roles.

The wife, then, is more or less a glorified housekeeper in charge of domestic arrangements and expected to remain within the home. Barked at by her husband and treated like a servant by her own children, her existence is often a fairly miserable one. She remarks that she wishes she’d had her children later – there were so many things so wanted to do that now are denied her because she’s forced to “play the role” that’s expected of her as a wife and mother.

Of the two kids, the older brother, Shinichi, starts the film as the one who plays his pre-ordained role to the level that’s expected of him. He’s a bright boy who studies hard and got into the top high school no problem. As the film goes on and everyone’s obsessed with Shigeyuki, Shinichi’s mask begins to drop as he encounters various typically teenage phenomenons which interfere with his role as over achieving big brother.

Shigeyuki, however, refuses to play the game at all. He just does not care. He loves to get under people’s skin and takes pleasure in annoying or outsmarting them such as when he cons his mother into letting him skip school (his pancreas hurts!) which she lets him do probably knowingly because she’s still playing her role as the worried mother. Finally he only begins to study when he realises it annoys a fellow pupil when his grades improve.

When tutor Yoshimoto enters the picture he tears a great big hole through the centre of this perfect family photo. He starts by behaving very strangely with Mr. Numata by grabbing his hand and calling him “father” whilst leaning in far too close for a casual acquaintance. Similarly when he first meets Shigeyuki he leans right in and then remarks that he has “a cute face”. He proceeds to invade Shigeyuki’s physical space by regularly touching him to a degree which is odd for a teacher/pupil relationship and is almost a prelude to molestation. When Shigeyuki tries to troll him by filling pages of his notebook with the same word over and over again, Yoshimoto reacts coolly before punching him in the face. From now on, when Shigeyuki isn’t pulling his weight, he’ll get a bloody nose.

Gradually Yoshimoto begins to take over the parental roles of the household firstly by instigating the masculine discipline through violence that Mr Numata is never there to deal out as well as offering the original role of teacher/mentor which might ordinarily be found in a grandfather or uncle. Later he usurps the big brother’s place by trying to talk frankly about sex and teaching Shigeyuki how to defend himself against playground bullies which also helps the boy cement a friendship with a sometime rival. Finally, he takes on the maternal mantle too when Mrs Numata asks him to go down to the school and talk to Shigeyuki’s teachers on her behalf. By the time that his original mission is completed he’s well and truly infiltrated the household allowing him to, literally, overturn its sense of stability.

Morita’s screenplay is witty affair full of one liners and humour born of unusual frankness. Family is a fake concept which forces each of its members into predefined roles and is largely divorced from genuine feeling. What matters is the appearance of normality and the acquisition of status – i.e getting into the better university, not so much as a path to success but as a way of avoiding the embarrassment of not getting there. An absurdist social satire, The Family Game is a biting critique of the social mores of the early 1980s which punches a gaping hole through the foundation of traditional Japanese society.


 

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (戦場のメリークリスマス, Nagisa Oshima, 1983)

Merry-Christmas-Mr-Lawrence-images-832f3814-1564-403a-a98a-313c5bb99deOf all the post-war Japanese filmmakers, the one who liked to twist the knife the most was surely Oshima. No subject too taboo, no pain too raw – he liked to find the sore spot and poke at it a little, if only in the hope of encouraging an accelerated healing, albeit one which would leave a scar to remind you that once you suffered. With Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (戦場のメリークリスマス, Senjou no Merry Christmas) he takes an unflinching look at the treatment of Japan’s prisoners of war and contrasts the Japanese forces with the different attitudes of the (mostly) British soldiers held within the walls of the camp.

Based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Laurens Van der Post, The Seed and the Sower, much of the action takes place in a prisoner of war camp run by the Japanese in Java in 1942. The titular Lawrence (Tom Conti) is one of the British prisoners here but unusually speaks fluent Japanese as he lived in Japan for a time before the war. The camp is run by Captain Yonoi (played by Ryuichi Sakamoto who also composes the music for the film) but largely ministered over by the more sadistic Sergeant Hara (played by Takeshi Kitano in an early straight acting role and billed here solely as “Takeshi”). Things kick off once Yonoi is called away to help preside over a military trial for a “difficult” prisoner who refuses to talk. However, Yonoi is somewhat taken aback by the upright soldier he discovers there. Celliers (played by David Bowie) is sentenced to death only to have the firing squad deliberately miss before he’s transferred to Yonoi’s camp.

As expected the conditions at the camp are not particularly pleasant. The first scene we’re treated to is Lawrence being called to witness an altercation where a Korean/Japanese soldier is accused of raping a Dutch internee. Hara taunts both of them with homosexual slurs and berates the Dutchman for not having resisted strongly enough. Kanemoto, the accused man, has obviously been badly beaten and is eventually ordered to commit seppuku which he eventually tries to do at that very moment by impaling himself on a bayonet. Seppuku is not something to be taken so lightly though so he’ll be patched up now for a ritual suicide later to be witnessed by the wronged parties (whether they wish to watch or not). Homosexuality, or more precisely, homosexual acts, are not to be tolerated among prisoners even if Hara later protests that samurai are not afraid of “queers” whilst insinuating that the majority of Englishman are gay anyway.

Latent homosexuality continues to be an ongoing theme throughout the film. The attraction between Yonoi and Celliers passes beyond simple admiration or even fascination. There don’t seem to be any other particular reasons for Yonoi to continue trying to protect Celliers as he does when he saves him from the firing squad and later allowing him a greater degree of freedom than other prisoners. Both men feel themselves prisoners of their respective social systems – Yonoi as the cold hearted samurai, efficient and unfeeling, yet with an intellectual core and a conflicted heart, and Celliers as a man desperately trying to atone for having once betrayed someone he deeply cared for in a misguided attempt to fit in. That said, both men are on opposite sides of a war and in any case that kind attraction stands against both of their countries’ current social customs. Again, a man is betrayed by a kiss and another man pays an extraordinarily high price leaving the other powerless to save him.

As Lawrence says there are no winners here, wars are just men doing what they thought was right at the time even if they really know that every one of them is wrong. The Japanese are rigid, repressed and anxious whereas the British are obsessed with honour in other ways and lean more towards the side of pragmatism when the going gets tough. A Japanese soldier may prefer to die, even going so far as to commit suicide, rather than subject themselves to the humiliation of having been captured alive. A British soldier will accept becoming a prisoner but largely because he believes he has a duty to live on and serve to the best of his capacity. Once captured, his duty is to try and escape to return to fight and die for King and country until the bitter end.

What both sides have in common is the dehumanisation of its troops. When it comes down to it one man is as good as another. If a radio has been smuggled into the camp someone must be punished for that action, the exact identity of the perpetrator becomes almost an irrelevance. Likewise, if a war has been lost, someone must pay for wrongful acts committed by the losing side even if his actions are no worse than those of any other soldier.

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence proves a beautifully sad condemnation both of the rigidity of war, of men who think they’re acting in righteousness when the very idea is the one which causes them to act unjustly, and of repressive social systems in general. Lawrence acts as the voice of reason whilst all the while admitting that he himself is also “wrong” and forced into certain actions and modes of behaviour with which he does not necessarily agree. Both of these empires are on the verge of crumbling, all this death and cruelty will prove to have been for nothing. War is a fruitless tragedy in which there are no winners, only losers on every side. “There are times when victory is very hard to take”, victors too need to abide by their own sense of decency without being swayed by vengeance masquerading as righteousness.


Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence is available with English subtitles on blu-ray as part of The Criterion Collection in the US (and was previously released on blu-ray in the UK from Optimum/Studiocanal but appears to be currently out of print).

(That final voice over is needlessy creepy, isn’t it?)

 

Ryuji (竜二, Toru Kawashima, 1983)

ryujiWhen you learn someone has died, suddenly everything they have ever done becomes tragic. No matter how old they were, this fact remains. Ryuji is a film which is always going to be overshadowed by the fact that its leading actor and screenwriter sadly passed away at the extremely young age of 33 from a terminal illness only days after the film’s release.  Well, in actuality, the film was only “released” in a very limited sense, perhaps no one really had the heart to go on with it. However, it left its mark on all who saw it and eventually became a cult hit and influential classic on VHS. On paper, its tale is conventional – an existential yakuza drama about a man torn between conflicting desires and his own nature but on film, it’s something else.

In fact, the film takes its time about setting its scene as Ryuji goes about his regular yakuza business of beatings and whoring but eventually things come to a crisis as he becomes a father and winds up in prison. His dutiful wife pulls some strings to get him out. However, when released, she explains that she only got the money from her father for a divorce as he wasn’t going to bail out a yakuza. After kicking up a fuss (literally) Ryuji realises his wife is just too good for a yakuza’s moll, so he sends her and their daughter back to his father-in-law. The fact is, Ryuji misses them. He’s tired. Of the life, of the violence, of the threat. He’s ready to try something more ordinary if it means he can go back to his wife and his child. Living honestly is hard too, though. Physically exhausting, and much less financially comfortable. Things are going well, for a time, before a familiar face from the past appears and the ghost of the old Ryuji begins to rise up again.

In many ways, Ryuji is caught in a confused cycle of frustration. He’s a violent man, a yakuza, but one who’s becoming bored with the constant threat and violence inherent in his world. He misses his wife and daughter but he doesn’t know of a path that leads back to them. Eventually he starts walking, unsure of where he’s headed and once he’s home he feels at peace, at last. However, such peace is not meant to last, the past will not let you rest. Old friends turn up one after the other, your decision to help them or not will carry more weight than you first realise. After these cracks appear, the old Ryuji, filled with rage and violence, bubbles to the surface. In the end, you can’t evade your nature, you’re either one thing or something else and however much you long to be the other thing, it can’t be done.

Shoji Kaneko was a talented stage actor who was looking for a cinematic epitaph. He wrote the script, played the leading role and brought the production together. He temporarily joined a real gang to learn just what it’s like to be a yakuza and brought some of his existential despair to his on screen persona. Ryuji is a hard man and a bruiser yet often tender with his wife and cute little girl (played by Kaneko’s real life daughter in another moment of filmic symmetry). He has to decide which side of himself is the one he values most and the film’s final scene is one of the most heartbreakingly moving in all of cinema. The sound disappears entirely, sentiment is conveyed by look alone and a man makes an irrevocable decision that is instantly understood even the absence of words.

If it be not now, yet it will come – the readiness is all. There is actually very little death in Ryuji considering it’s a yakuza picture (if an unconventional one) but the spectre of endings is hovering all around. Knowing what it’s impossible not to know, it’s hard not to read that ever present threat of eclipse into every scene. Ryuji’s decision is a permanent one, taken once it defines everything. Kaneko was also a father with a young daughter facing the end of his life, also weak but tender. Graceful yet robust, Ryuji’s story is one of a man who couldn’t reconcile the two sides of himself into something whole and so sacrificed the things he wanted most. Beautifully made and perfectly realised, Ryuji is a film that should have been more widely appreciated and now, perhaps, will finally be accorded the respect it deserves.