The Empty Table (食卓のない家, Masaki Kobayashi, 1985)

The Empty TableJapanese cinema of the 1980s is marked by an increasing desire to interrogate the idea of “the family” in an atmosphere of individualist consumerism. Yoshimitsu’s Morita’s The Family Game had blown the traditional ideas of filial piety and the primacy of the patriarch wide open in exposing his ordinary middle-class family as little more than a simulacrum as its various members sleepwalked through life playing the roles expected of them free of the true feeling one would expect to define familial bonds. A year later, Sogo Ishii’s The Crazy Family took a different, perhaps more positive approach, in depicting a family descending into madness through the various social pressures of maintaining a conventional middle-class life in the cramped environment of frenetic Tokyo. Masaki Kobayashi, unlike many of his contemporaries, was not so much interested in families as in individuals whose struggles to assert themselves in a conformist society became his major focus. The Empty Table (食卓のない家, Shokutaku no nai Ie) is not perhaps “a family drama” but it is, if indirectly, a drama about family and the ways in which the wider familial context of society at large often seeks to misuse it.

Set in 1973, The Empty Table is also among the earliest films to tackle the aftermath of the 1972 Asama-Sanso Incident. For ten days in February, the nation watched live as the police found themselves in a stand off with five United Red Army former student radicals who had taken the wife of an innkeeper hostage and holed up in a mountain lodge, refusing to give themselves up to the police. The discoveries surrounding the conduct of the United Red Army which had descended into a cult-like madness involving several murders of its members (including one of a heavily pregnant woman) shocked the nation and finally ended the student movement in Japan.

Kidoji (Tatsuya Nakadai) is the father of one of the student radicals, Otohiko (Kiichi Nakai), who took part in the siege. In Japanese culture, it’s usual for the parents of a person involved in a scandal to come forward and offer an official apology to the nation on behalf of the their children. During the siege itself the family had also been weaponised as mothers, particularly, were enlisted to shout from outside the inn, offering poignant messages intended to get their sons to give themselves up and come home. Kidoji, unlike the other fathers (one of whom hanged himself in shame), refuses his social obligation on the grounds that the actions of his grownup son are no longer his responsibility. 

As a scientist, Kidoji is used to thinking things through in rational terms and outside of Japan his logic may seem unassailable – after all, it is unreasonable to hold the conduct of a family member against an otherwise upright and obedient citizen. In Japan however his actions make him seem cold and unfeeling, as if he has disowned both his son and his position as the father of a family with whom rests ultimate responsibility for those listed on his family register. This way of thinking may be very feudal, but it is the way things work not just in the late 20th century, but even in the early 21st.

Kidoji’s refusal to do what is expected of him eventually leads to the crumbling of the family unit. Far from the cheerful scene we see of Kidoji, his wife, and their three children seated around a dinner table in celebration, the family now eat separately and Kidoji returns home to cold meals and an empty table. Kidoji’s wife, Yumiko (Mayumi Ogawa), has had a breakdown and had to be hospitalised, while his daughter Tamae (Kie Nakai) is forced to break off her engagement only to resort to underhanded methods to be allowed to marry the man she loves. While Otohiko languishes in prison, only his younger brother Osamu (Takayuki Takemoto) remains at home.

Kobayashi’s central concern is the conflict in Kidoji’s heart as he faces a choice between maintaining his principles and saving his family pain. It’s not that Kidoji feels nothing – on the contrary, he is profoundly wounded by all that has happened to him, but ironically enough, puts on the face society expects but does not want in maintaining his composure in a situation of extreme difficulty. Kidoji’s deepest anxieties rest in the need to “take responsibility”, something he must do in acknowledging that it’s not his son’s disgrace which has destroyed his family but his own rigidity in refusing to bend his principles and obey social convention. What Kidoji wants is for his son to take responsibility for his own choices as an individual rather than expecting his family to carry his load for him. He must, however, also take responsibility for the effect his choices have had on others, including on his family, and accept his role both as an individual and as a member of a society with rights and obligations.

Kidoji’s refusal to apologise on behalf of his son looks to the rest of society like an abnegation of his paternal authority, and without paternal authority the family unit crumbles like a feudal household whose lord has been murdered. Yet Kidoji, like many of Kobayashi’s heroes, refuses to compromise his principals no matter how much personal pain they eventually cause him. Where the rules of society make no sense to him, he will ignore (if not quite oppose) them, remaining true to his own notions of moral righteousness.

In many ways, Kidoji is the archetypal Kobayashi hero – standing up to social oppression and refusing to simply give in even when he knows how beneficial that may be to all concerned. He is also, however, just as problematic in allowing his family to continue suffering in preservation of his personal beliefs. Kobayashi’s final feature film, The Empty Table is extremely dated in terms of shooting style with its overly theatrical dialogue and frequent use of voice over and monologue which were long out of fashion by the mid-1980s. Kobayashi does, however, return to the more expressionist style of his earlier career, moving towards an etherial sense of poetry as his hero contemplates his place in a society which often asks him to behave in ways which compromise his essential value system. The family, broken as it is, is also (partly) mended once again as Kidoji begins to reconcile his various “responsibilities” into a more comprehensive whole as he prepares to welcome a new generation seemingly as determined to live in as principled and unorthodox a way as he himself has.


Lost Chapter of Snow: Passion (雪の断章 情熱, Shinji Somai, 1985)

Lost-Chapter-of-Snow-Passion dvd coverShinji Somai’s work is most closely identified with depictions of contemporary young people who meet their approaching adulthood with an almost nostalgic melancholy but in Lost Chapter of Snow: Passion (雪の断章 情熱, Yuki no Dansho: Jonetsu), he takes things one step further as his orphaned heroine moves through dependence to independence and finally assumes her own identity. Based on a novel by Marumi Sasaki, Lost Chapter also fits neatly into the idol movie subgenre, starring the then popular singer and actress Yuki Saito who sings frequently throughout the film and provides the end titles theme Jonetsu (Passion).

As the film opens, seven year old orphan Iori (Mami Nakazato) has been adopted by the wealthy but cruel Naba family who regard her as a slave, to be beaten, humiliated and pressed into service. One day, an employee of Naba’s, Yuichi (Takaaki Enoki), visits and witnesses Iori’s cruel treatment at the hands of oldest sister Sachiko (Kyoko Fujimoto), immediately taking her home to live with him. The situation is difficult, especially as Iori’s past has led her to be wary of new connections, and her sudden arrival has also placed a strain on Yuichi’s engagement to a girl still living in Tokyo far away from snowy Sapporo. Ten years pass and Iori (Yuki Saito) has become a happy, healthy high school girl but the resurfacing of the Naba sisters in her life is to have profound consequences when one of them is murdered and Iori finds herself regarded as a prime suspect.

Embracing its almost Dickensian roots, Lost Chapter’s most obvious theme is the place, or displacement, of the orphaned within Japanese society which places the family above all else. Iori’s origins are never mentioned beyond her early life in an orphanage, but even when Yuichi brings her home the first words the housekeeper offers are that a discarded child like Iori maybe trouble, assuming that she is the result of a “loose woman’s” weakness and irresponsibility. The Nabas, who are a thoroughly unpleasant bunch ruled over by older sister Sachiko, have adopted her despite being an already large family but raising a lonely child in love was not their aim so much as getting a kitchen maid they wouldn’t have to pay. Iori is sent out on pointless errands through the snow and freezing air only to fear she will be beaten for having drunk the juice she was sent to buy on Sachiko’s behalf. This fate is not unique to Iori as she discovers when Daisuke (Kiminori Sera), a friend of Yuichi’s who has become like a second father to her, reveals his orphan past as a poor relation sheltered by family members but not quite embraced by them.

Iori’s poor treatment at the Naba’s is offered as a possible motive for the murder of Hiroko (Mai Okamoto) – younger sister to Sachiko and a student in the same class as Iori. Hiroko is fairly depressed and a flighty girl, still cruel and eager to show off in front of her former step-sister with a lengthy dance sequence offered in front of the hottest boys at school. When she dies suddenly, all evidence points to a cup of coffee Iori tried to take her in kindness but even if it wasn’t Iori who plotted to kill her, Hiroko’s death is still firmly linked to her family’s cruel superiority.

The strain of the investigation plays on Iori’s mind, forcing her into a deeper consideration of her place within Yuichi’s household especially as she’ll soon be approaching the crossroads of adulthood and will need to decide whether to go on to university or leave Yuichi’s house to be independent. In the housekeeper’s mind, staying at “home” is not an option once she could, theoretically, support herself but Yuichi and Daisuke may feel quite differently about this damaged little girl they once took in and are still in the process to turning into a fine young woman. Yuichi’s housekeeper has a choice metaphor regarding Yuichi’s intentions in rescuing Iori – pointing to a withered flower, she suggests that Iori was a thirsty seed that Yuichi has been patiently watering in order to see the flowers bloom, but this way of viewing the situation places a further wedge between Iori and Yuichi who is still seeing his fiancée in Tokyo while Iori’s feelings about the father figure who raised her but is also still a handsome, kind, and youngish man have begun to become confused.

Falling into shojo romance territory, Lost Chapter does indeed become a slightly uncomfortable romantic tale in which a young woman falls in love with her “father” and he with her though, as they aren’t blood related, it can still be depicted as sweet and innocent rather than a tale of long term grooming and inappropriate power structures. Yuichi, though obviously a kind and socially minded young man, is nevertheless as “irresponsible” as he’s branded in his neglect of his longterm fiancée (who later makes an embarrassing first visit in nine years to Yuichi’s home to ask Iori to back off and finally declare herself grown up so she and Yuichi can marry), and later positing of Iori as some kind of pet project in his determination to have her graduate university – a feather in his cap rather than a stepping stone to a middle-class life for his precious daughter.

Known for his long, roaming, handheld takes Somai opens with a 14 minute seemingly unbroken, dreamlike sequence recounting Iori’s life with the Nabas and her eventual rescue. Somai’s camera pans around a series of snow trenches, placing a phone call from Tokyo right inside the icy space alongside a hidden violin player scoring the action. Shot with the random, etherial quality of memory mixed with dream, this first sequence gives way to a more conventional main body even if Somai maintains his preference for long takes filled with surprising pans and unexpected entrances into the frame. There are great moments of tenderness and warmth in Iori’s story, brought to life by Somai’s noticeably expressionist techniques, but there’s pain and darkness too as death and suicide lurk in the background, ready to strike at any moment. A beautifully surreal, theatrical exploration of a standard coming of age tale Lost Chapter is both shojo romance at its most controversial and a fine showcase for a popular idol shining in a leading role.


Originally released as a double header with Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Four Sisters.

14 minute long take intro (no subtitles)

Yuki Saito singing Jonetsu on a Japanese TV show presumably around the time of the film’s release.

Oar (櫂, Hideo Gosha, 1985)

oar posterUntil the later part of his career, Hideo Gosha had mostly been known for his violent action films centring on self destructive men who bore their sadnesses with macho restraint. During the 1980s, however, he began to explore a new side to his filmmaking with a string of female centred dramas focussing on the suffering of women which is largely caused by men walking the “manly way” of his earlier movies. Partly a response to his regular troupe of action stars ageing, Gosha’s new focus was also inspired by his failed marriage and difficult relationship with his daughter which convinced him that women can be just as devious and calculating as men. 1985’s Oar (櫂, Kai) is adapted from the novel by Tomiko Miyao – a writer Gosha particularly liked and identified with whose books also inspired Onimasa and The Geisha. Like Onimasa, Oar also bridges around twenty years of pre-war history and centres around a once proud man discovering his era is passing, though it finds more space for his long suffering wife and the children who pay the price for his emotional volatility.

Kochi, 1914 (early Taisho), Iwago (Ken Ogata) is a kind hearted man living beyond his means. Previously a champion wrestler, he now earns his living as a kind of procurer for a nearby geisha house, chasing down poor girls and selling them into prostitution, justifying himself with the excuse that he’s “helping” the less fortunate who might starve if it were not for the existence of the red light district. He dislikes this work and finds it distasteful, but shows no signs of stopping. At home he has a wife and two sons whom he surprises one day by returning home with a little girl he “rescued” at the harbour after seeing her beaten by man who, it seemed, was trying to sell her to Chinese brokers who are notorious for child organ trafficking.

Iwago names the girl “Kiku” thanks to the chrysanthemums on her kimono and entrusts her to his irritated wife, Kiwa (Yukiyo Toake), who tries her best but Kiku is obviously traumatised by her experiences, does not speak, and takes a long time to become used to her new family circumstances. Parallel to his adoption of Kiku, Iwago is also working on a sale of a girl of a similar age who ends up staying in the house for a few days before moving to the red light district. Toyo captures Kiwa’s heart as she bears her sorry fate stoically, pausing only to remark on her guilt at eating good white rice three times a day at Iwago’s knowing that her siblings are stuck at home with nothing.

Iwago’s intentions are generally good, but his “manly” need for control and his repressed emotionality proceed to ruin his family’s life. He may say that poverty corrupts a person’s heart and his efforts are intended to help prevent the birth of more dysfunctional families, but deep down he finds it hard to reconcile his distasteful occupation with his traditional ideas of masculine chivalry. Apparently “bored” with the long suffering Kiwa he fathers a child with another woman which he then expects her to raise despite the fact that she has already left the family home after discovering the affair. Predictably her love for him and for the children brings her home, but Iwago continues to behave in a domineering, masterly fashion which is unlikely to repair his once happy household.

Kiwa is the classic long suffering wife, bearing all of Iwago’s mistreatments with stoic perseverance until his blatant adultery sends her running from marriage to refuge at the home of her brother. Despite the pain and humilation, Kiwa still loves, respects, and supports her husband, remembering him as he once was rather than the angry, frustrated brute which he has become. Despite her original hesitance, Kiwa’s maternal warmth makes a true daughter of Kiku and keeps her bonded to the eldest and more sensitive of her two sons, Ryutaro, even if the loose cannon that is Kentaro follows in his step-father’s footsteps as an unpredictable punk. Her goodheartedness later extends to Iwago’s illegitimate daughter Ayako whom she raises as her own until Iwago cruelly decides to separate them. For all of Iwago’s bluster and womanising, ironically enough Kiwa truly is the only woman for him as he realises only when she determines to leave. Smashing the relics of his “manly” past – his wrestling photos and trophies, Iwago is forced to confront the fact that his own macho posturing has cost him the only thing he ever valued.

Gosha tones down the more outlandish elements which contributed to his reputation as a “vulgar” director but still finds space for female nudity and frank sexuality as Iwago uses and misuses the various women who come to him for help or shelter. More conventional in shooting style than some of Gosha’s other work from the period and lacking any large scale or dramatic fight scenes save for one climactic ambush, Oar acts more as a summation of Gosha’s themes up until the mid-80s – men destroy themselves through their need to be men but also through destroying the women who have little choice but to stand back and watch them do it. Unless, like Kiwa, they realise they have finally had enough.


Short clip from near the beginning of the film (no subtitles)

Tampopo (タンポポ, Juzo Itami, 1985)

tampopo posterSome people love ramen so much that the idea of a “bad” bowl hardly occurs to them – all ramen is, at least, ramen. Then again, some love ramen so much that it’s almost a religious experience, bound up with ritual and the need to do things properly. A brief vignette at the beginning of Juzo Itami’s Tampopo (タンポポ) introduces us to one such ramen expert who runs through the proper way of enjoying a bowl of noodle soup which involves a lot of talking to your food whilst caressing it gently before finally consuming it with the utmost respect. Ramen is serious business, but for widowed mother Tampopo it’s a case of the watched pot never boiling. Thanks to a cowboy loner and a few other waifs and strays who eventually become friends and allies, Tampopo is about to get some schooling in the quest for the perfect noodle whilst the world goes on around her. Food becomes something used and misused but remains, ultimately, the source of all life and the thing which unites all living things.

Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki), a middle-aged man with a fancy hat, and his truck mate Gun (Ken Watanabe), younger, tight white jeans and colourful neckerchief, have become ramen experts thanks to their road bound life. Taking a break during a heavy rain storm, the pair run into a little boy being beaten up by three others and, after scaring the assailants off, escort him into the ramen restaurant where he lives with his widowed mother, Tampopo. Goro and Gun get the stranger in town treatment, but decide to sit down and order a bowl each anyway before a getting into a fight with another diner. Despite her skills as a home cook, Tampopo’s ramen is distinctly second-rate which explains why her business isn’t taking off. Goro and Gun spend some time helping her figure out where she’s going wrong leading Tampopo to beg them to stay, or at least come back when they have time, and teach her what it takes to make the perfect bowl.

Essentially a hybrid between a western and a sports movie, Tampopo has its fair share of training montages as the titular heroine tries to improve her stamina by taking intensive runs, carrying heavy pots of water from one place to another, and constantly trying get her cooking time down to three minutes. The lone woman on the “ranch” that is her restaurant, Tampopo may not be contending with boisterous cattle, threatening neighbours, or disapproving townsfolk but she is being mentored to become her own master as much as anything else. Goro is her strong and silent teacher, but, like Shane, he’s a man not meant to be tied down and is essentially teaching her how to survive alone however painful it may be for him to leave.

This is a fairly radical idea in and of itself. Tampopo’s goal is not another marriage and a man to mind the ranch, but the creation of a successful business which will support both herself and her son built on genuine skills and a lot of hard work. Goro, a ramen aficionado, takes charge but ropes in a few other “experts” to help him including a ramen loving former doctor now living on the streets, the private chef of a wealthy man the gang saved when he almost choked on mochi, and the guy Goro fought with in the beginning who also happens to be a childhood friend of Tampopo nursing a lifelong crush on her.  From each of these men, as well as friendly (or not) rivalry with local competitors, Tampopo learns everything she needs to succeed including the confidence in herself to carry it through.

Whilst Tampopo and co. are busy figuring out the zen of ramen, Itami wanders off for a series of strange vignettes examining more general attitudes to food beginning with Koji Yakusho’s white suited, cinephile gangster who vows bloody murder on anyone daring to eat noisy snacks during the movie. The gangster and his moll eventually retreat to a hotel room where they find new and actually quite strange ways of using food to enhance their pleasure but their story leads us to others in the hotel from a young man stuck in a business meeting who shows up his less cultured colleagues with his culinary knowledge and either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that you’re supposed to order the same as your boss lest you be implying his choice of dish is “wrong”, to a group of young women taking a class in the proper way to eat spaghetti. The instructor (played by veteran actress Mariko Okada), goes to great lengths to explain that it’s considered very uncouth to make any kind of noise whilst eating pasta, only for a westerner of undisclosed nationality to loudly slurp his noodles half way across the room.

While these two episodes showcase the ridiculousness of food etiquette, others take a more surreal direction such as in the strange episode of an old lady who likes to sneak into the local supermarket and torment the clerk by squeezing the fruits, cheeses, and pastries while he chases her round the shop. Here appetites are to be indulged, even if they’re strange, rather than suppressed in favour of someone else’s idea of the proper way to behave. Yet that doesn’t mean that food is something throwaway, to be consumed without thought – in fact, it’s the opposite as Goro’s tutelage of Tampopo shows. Skills alone are not enough, achieving the zen of cookery is a matter of touch and sensitivity, of shared efforts and interconnected strife. Like a dandelion blowing in the wind, Tampopo’s ramen shop gives as it receives, generously and without pretension.


Available now in the UK/US courtesy of Criterion Collection!

Original 1985 trailer (English subtitles)

Love Hotel (ラブホテル, Shinji Somai, 1985)

love-hotelShinji Somai is not particularly well known outside of Japan but where his work is celebrated it’s mostly for his youth films of teen alienation and pop culture cool. Released in the same year as his iconic Typhoon Club, Love Hotel (ラブホテル) seems like something of an aberration in Somai’s career which leans towards the melancholic rather than the passionate. Somai had begun his working life apprenticing with Nikkatsu during their Roman Porno years and Love Hotel is, in someways, a return to this genre but is only accidentally a “pink film”, produced with Director’s Company and later acquired by the pink film giant. As such it contains a number of explicit sex scenes but maintains Somai’s characteristic long takes and contemplative approach rather than adhering to the often formulaic nature of the Roman Porno.

Failed businessman Muraki (Minori Terada) returns one day to find his office full of gangsters in the middle of raping his wife. Distraught, his first thought is suicide but then he decides on a little roundabout revenge before he goes. Dressed in a dark suit and sunglasses like some ‘60s Nikkatsu bad guy, Muraki holes up in a love hotel and calls down for a girl. “Yumi” (Noriko Hayami) arrives not long after. Handing the girl a vast sum of money, Muraki then instructs her to close her eyes because he’s also brought “a present”. He handcuffs her and reveals his true purpose by tearing off her clothes, tying her up and fitting her with a vibrator. He’s going to kill himself tonight, but he doesn’t want to go alone. In the end, he can’t go through with it, something in Yumi’s face changes his mind and he leaves her there, tied up and handcuffed.

Two years later, Muraki has divorced his wife (apparently to keep her safe from the yakuza who are still after him for his debts) and is now living an intentionally dull life as a taxi driver. One fateful day he runs into Yumi again, only she’s no longer “Yumi” but “Nami”, an office lady at a top company. Eventually recognising each other, the pair are each forced to face the circumstances surrounding the traumatic night of two years previously but doing so means risking everything they have now.

Love Hotel is a film of seeing and not seeing, of looking and refusal to look. The film opens with a semi-explicit sexual scene in which Muraki’s wife is raped by a loanshark in which we watch both Muraki’s horrified expression and the act itself by means of a well positioned mirror. Somai repeats the mirroring motif throughout the film both by showing us Nami repeatedly caught in mirrors and by the obvious tripartite glass arrangement of the love hotel’s headboard. Both Muraki and Nami have elements of themselves at which they’d rather not look but the ever present mirrors constantly prompt them into areas of self-reflection, ironically possible only by looking at the other.

Where Muraki has chosen a life of austerity, separating from his wife who nevertheless continues stopping by to look after him in all of the wifely ways, Nami has tried and failed to put her traumatic past behind her by hopping into the consumerist revolution. Having supported herself through prostitution as a student, she’s managed to swing a pretty good job at top company only to find herself “prostituted” again through an ill-advised affair with her married boss. After his wife finds out and Nami loses her job and the entire life she’d begun to build for herself, she tries to call her former lover for consolation only to have him cruelly hang up on her. Nami continues her lamentations to the alarming trill of the dial tone in a heartbreaking moment of true loneliness.

Left with nothing else, the pair decide to revisit their unfinished love hotel business but their much more normal encounter changes each of them in different ways. It’s clear something has passed between the two, but Muraki’s final glance into the mirror perhaps shows him something he’d rather not have seen. Nami’s face, like Yumi’s face, may well have been “angelic” but cannot “save” Muraki in the same way twice – or at least, not in the way the restored Nami would have liked to save him. Dark, melancholy and fatalistic, Somai’s stab at Roman Porno is a sad tale of frustrated love, destroyed by the use and misuse of bodies speaking against each other and becoming a barrier to true connection. The Love Hotel is a place romance goes to die, and what the pair of damaged lovers at the centre of his noir-tinged tale of despair find there is only emptiness and pain devoid of any sign of hope.


Opening scene (no subtitles)

Masterfully constructed one take final scene (dialogue free)

Miss Lonely (さびしんぼう, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1985)

Miss LonelyMiss Lonely (さびしんぼう, Sabishinbou, AKA Lonelyheart) is the final film in Obayashi’s Onomichi Trilogy all of which are set in his own hometown of Onomichi. This time Obayashi casts up and coming idol of the time, Yasuko Tomita, in a dual role of a reserved high school student and a mysterious spirit known as Miss Lonely. In typical idol film fashion, Tomita also sings the theme tune though this is a much more male lead effort than many an idol themed teen movie.

Obayashi begins with an intertitle-like tribute to a “brusied, brilliant boyhood” before giving way to a wistful voiceover from the film’s protagonist Hiroki Inoue (played by frequent Obayashi collaborator, Toshinori Omi). His life is a fairly ordinary one of high school days spent with his two good friends, getting up to energetic mischief as teenage boys are want to do. The only thing that’s a little different about Hiroki is that his father is a Buddhist priest so he lives in the temple with his feisty mother who is always urging him to study more, and he’ll one day be expected to start training to take over the temple from his father (he has no particular aversion to this idea).

Hiroki’s big hobby is photography and he’s recently splashed out on a zoom lens but rarely has money for film to put in the camera so he’s mostly just playing around, accidentally spying on people. The main object of his interest is a sad looking high school girl who spends her days playing the piano. Hiroki, as an observer of human nature, has decided that she must be just as lonely as he is and has given her the name of “Miss Lonely”. It comes as a shock to him then that a very similar looking sprite appears, also called “Miss Lonely” and proceeds to cause havoc in his very ordinary life.

Although the film is filled with Obayashi’s trademark melancholy nostalgia, there is also ample room for quirky teen comedy as the central trio of boys amuse them selves with practical jokes. The best of these involves a lengthly sequence with the headmaster’s prized parrot which he has painstakingly taught to recite poetry. On being sent to clean up the headmaster’s office after misbehaving in class, the boys quickly set about teaching it a bawdy song instead causing the poor bird to hopelessly mangle both speeches into one very strange recitation. This comes to light when the headmaster attempts to show off his prowess with the parrot to an important visitor but when the mothers of the three boys are called in to account for their sons’ behaviour, they cannot control their laughter. That’s in addition to a repeated motif of the boys’ teacher’s loose skirt always falling off at impromptu moments, and a tendency to head off into surreal set pieces such as the anarchic musical number which erupts at the stall where one of the boys works part time.

Miss Lonely herself appears in a classic mime inspired clown outfit, dressed as if she’d just walked out of an audition for a Fellini film. To begin with, Hiroki can only see Miss Lonely through his camera lens, but she quickly incarnates and eventually even becomes visible to others as well as Hiroki himself. Past and present overlap as Miss Lonely takes on a ghostly quality, perhaps reliving a former romance of memory which may be easily destroyed by water and is sure to be short lived. Love makes you lonely, Hiroki tells us, revelling in the failure to launch of his first love story. Though, if the epilogue he offers us is to be believed, perhaps he is over romanticising his teenage heartbreak and is heading for a happy ending after all.

Chopin also becomes a repeated motif in the film, bringing our trio of lovesick teens together with his music and adding to their romantic malaise with his own history of a difficult yet intense relationship with French novelist George Sand. There’s a necessarily sad quality to Hiroki’s tale, an acceptance of lost love and lost opportunities leaving their scars across otherwise not unhappy lifetimes. Set in Obayashi’s own hometown Miss Lonely takes on a very heartfelt quality, marking a final farewell to youth whilst also acknowledging the traces of sadness left behind when it’s time to say goodbye.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

And here’s idol star Yasuko Tomita singing the title song on a variety show from way back in 1985

Four Sisters (姉妹坂, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1985)

Four SistersNobuhiko Obayashi takes another trip into the idol movie world only this time for Toho with an adaptation of a popular shojo manga. That is to say, he employs a number of idols within the film led by Toho’s own Yasuko Sawaguchi, though the film does not fit the usual idol movie mould in that neither Sawaguchi or the other girls is linked with the title song. Following something of a sisterly trope which is not uncommon in Japanese film or literature, Four Sisters (姉妹坂, Shimaizaka) centres around four orphaned children who discover their pasts, and indeed futures, are not necessarily those they would have assumed them to be.

Yasuko Sawaguchi plays the third oldest sister and more or less protagonist of the story, Anzu, who is facing a very common teenage dilemma in that there are two boys (best friends) both interested in her and she can’t decide if she likes both, one, or either of them. Eventually, Yuzuki (Ichirota Miyakawa) wins out leaving his friend Oba (Toshinori Omi) depressed and on the sidelines. However, Yuzuki is from a wealthy family and it was intended he marry a cousin so his mother does some digging and discovers more about Anzu than Anzu knew about herself.

As it turns out, the four sisters are not actually related by blood as only one was the biological child of the goodhearted couple who raised them. Unfortunately, the children’s adoptive parents died in a car accident leaving their birth daughter, Aya (Misako Konno), as a kind of maternal figure to Akane (Atsuko Asano), Anzu, and Ai (Yasuko Tomita) though Akane was the only one old enough to remember their lives before coming to live with Aya and her family. The rediscovery of the truth knocks both younger girls for six, especially as Anzu’s birth mother has reappeared and presents an existential threat to their insular family of four.

Set once again set in a peaceful, countryside town, Four Sisters revisits many of Obayashi’s constant concerns in its evocation of memory, mislaid truth, and the need to come to terms with the past in order to go on living in the present. The four young women are each very different, but bound tightly together by their shared experience, including the recent loss of their parents. Anzu’s discovery threatens to destroy the family firstly through the exposure of a lie (or, what is really an omission of truth), and secondly to speed up the inevitable fracturing as she begins to seek a new life and eventually family of her own. Though Akane has been able to forge a career for herself (less pleasant part-time work aside), she rightly points out that in becoming their maternal figure, Aya has in a sense lost or rejected the opportunity to pursue her own happiness. The sisters’ bond is tight and near unbreakable, but it’s also, in a sense, constraining.

Obayashi begins the picture with in a polaroid-like frame in which the two boys declare their intentions to duel for Anzu’s affections. As the film moves on, Obayshi returns to these intertitle-like captions particularly in bookending the various seasons throughout which the film turns. Though not as radically as in some of his other work, Obayashi once again uses colour filtering as a highlighting tool which is most obvious towards the end as the edges of the screen start to blur, greying out everything other than our central heroines. However, other sequences take place in a noticeably expressionist environment with extreme colour contrasted backgrounds and unreal, star filled skies and Obayashi also allows the real world weather with its storms and raging rivers to dictate the mood.

Four Sisters is, at heart, a family drama though one seen through a slightly distorted mirror. The four girls are indeed a unit which would inevitably have to split or stagnate in the normal order of things but the bonds are strong enough to withstand the unusual amount of pressure placed on them, enabling the sisters to move on with their individual lives whilst remaining close. Obayashi keeps things relatively low key (by his own standards) but gently builds a melancholy, nostalgic tone filled with loss and regret yet also with hope for the future. Beautifully shot, with Obayashi’s characteristically unusual use of imagery and wistful, ethereal atmosphere Four Sisters may not be among the director’s most experimental efforts but does provide a warm tale of love lost and gained in the lives of four ordinary women.