Tokyo Bordello (吉原炎上, Hideo Gosha, 1987)

yoshiwara-enjoHideo Gosha maybe best known for the “manly way” movies of his early career in which angry young men fought for honour and justice, but mostly just to to survive. Late into his career, Gosha decided to change tack for a while with a series of female orientated films either remaining within the familiar gangster genre as in Yakuza Wives, or shifting into world of the red light district as in Tokyo Bordello (吉原炎上, Yoshiwara Enjo). Presumably an attempt to get past the unfamiliarity of the Yoshiwara name, the film’s English title is perhaps a little more obviously salacious than the original Japanese which translates as Yoshiwara Conflagration and directly relates to the real life fire of 1911 in which 300 people were killed and much of the area razed to the ground. Gosha himself grew up not far from the location of the Yoshiwara as it existed in the mid-20th century where it was still a largely lower class area filled with cardsharps, yakuza, and, yes, prostitution (legal in Japan until 1958, outlawed in during the US occupation). The Yoshiwara of the late Meiji era was not so different as the women imprisoned there suffered at the hands of men, exploited by a cruelly misogynistic social system and often driven mad by internalised rage at their continued lack of agency.

Opening with a voice over narration from Kyoko Kishida, the film introduces us to the heroine, 19 year old Hisano (Yuko Natori), as she is unwillingly sold to the red light district in payment for her father’s debts. After a strange orientation ceremony from the Yoshiwara police force where one “kindly” officer explains to her about the necessity of faking orgasms to save her stamina, Hisano is taken to the brothel which is now her home to begin her training. Some months later when Hisano is due to serve her first customer, she runs from him in sheer panic, leaping into a lake where a young Salvation Army campaigner, Furushima (Jinpachi Nezu), tries and fails to help her escape.

Taken back to the brothel and tied up in punishment, Hisano receives a lesson in pleasure from the current head geisha, Kiku (Rino Katase), after which she appears to settle into her work, getting promoted through various ranks until she too becomes one of the top geisha in the area. Sometime later, Furushima reappears as a wealthy young man. Regretting his inability to save her at the river and apparently having given up on his Salvation Army activities, Furushima becomes Hisano’s number one patron even though he refuses to sleep with her. Though they eventually fall in love, Hisano’s position as a geisha continues to present a barrier between the pair, forcing them apart for very different reasons.

Despite having spent a small fortune accurately recreating the main street of the Yoshiwara immediately prior to the 1911 fire, Gosha is not interested in romanticising the the pleasure quarters but depicts them as what they were – a hellish prison for enslaved women. As Hisano and Furushima later reflect, the Yoshiwara is indeed all built on lies – a place which claims to offer freedom, love, and pleasure but offers only the shadow of each of these things in an elaborate fake pageantry built on female suffering. Hisano, like many of the other women, was sold to pay a debt. Others found themselves sucked in by a continuous circle of abuse and exploitation, but none of them are free to leave until the debt, and any interest, is paid. Two of Hisako’s compatriots find other ways out of the Yoshiwara, one by her own hand, and another driven mad through illness is left alone to die like an animal coughing up blood surrounded by bright red futons in a storage cupboard.

As Kiku is quick to point out, the Yoshiwara is covered in cherry blossoms in spring but there is no place here for a tree which no longer flowers. The career of the courtesan is a short one and there are only two routes forward – become a madam or marry a wealthy client. Kiku’s plans don’t work out the way she originally envisioned, trapping her firmly within the Yoshiwara long after she had hoped to escape. Hisano is tempted by a marriage proposal from a man she truly loves but finds herself turning it down for complicated reasons. Worried that her lover does not see her as a woman, she is determined to take part in the upcoming geisha parade to force him to see her as everything she is, but her desires are never fully understood and she risks her future happiness in a futile gesture of defiance.

Defiance is the true theme of the film as each of the women fight with themselves and each other to reclaim their own freedom and individuality even whilst imprisoned and exploited by unassailable forces. Hisano, as Kiku constantly reminds her (in contrast to herself), never accepts that she is “just another whore” and therefore is able to first conquer and then escape the Yoshiwara even if it’s through a second choice compromise solution (albeit one which might bring her a degree of ordinary happiness in later life). Land of lies, the Yoshiwara promises the myth of unbridled pleasure to men who willingly make women suffer for just that purpose, further playing into Gosha’s ongoing themes of insecurity and self loathing lying at the heart of all physical or emotional violence. Though the ending voiceover is overly optimistic about the climactic fire ending centuries of female oppression as the Yoshiwara burns, Hisano, at least, may at last be free from its legacy of shame even whilst she watches the object of her desire destroyed by its very own flames.


Oiran parade scene (dialogue free)

Actress (映画女優, Kon Ichikawa, 1987)

actressKon Ichikawa was born in 1915, just four years later than the subject of his 1989 film Actress (映画女優, Eiga Joyu) which uses the pre-directorial career of one of Japanese cinema’s most respected actresses, Kinuyo Tanaka, to explore the development of Japanese cinema itself. Tanaka was born in poverty in 1909 and worked as a jobbing film actress before being “discovered” by Hiroshi Shimizu and becoming one of Shochiku’s most bankable stars. The script is co-written by Kaneto Shindo who was fairly close to the action as an assistant under Kenji Mizoguchi at Shochiku in the ‘40s before being drafted into the war. A commemorative exercise marking the tenth anniversary of Tanaka’s death from a brain tumour in 1977, Ichikawa’s film never quite escapes from the biopic straightjacket and only gives a superficial picture of its star but seems content to revel in the nostalgia of a, by then, forgotten golden age.

The film begins with the young Tanaka awaiting a visit from her mentor, Hiroshi Shimizu (Toru Watanabe), whom her family are keen to thank for bringing them all to Tokyo away from their life of hardship. Although everyone is very happy for Tanaka’s success, there is shadow hanging over the party in the form of missing oldest brother Ryosuke who went on the run to avoid the draft and has not been heard of since.

Shimizu gives Tanaka (Sayuri Yoshinaga) her first roles at Shochiku where she becomes a contract player but is put out when another director, Heinosuke Gosho (Kiichi Nakai), wants to give her a leading role. Overruled by studio bosses, Shimizu becomes increasingly jealous of Tanaka’s career – a situation which is further complicated by the couple’s growing romantic entanglement which sees them living together in an unofficial marriage allowing Tanaka to continue acting. However, Shimizu continues to meddle in Tanaka’s professional life whilst also continuing his hard drinking, womanising playboy lifestyle. The couple eventually divorce but reunite from time to time on the film set.

Vowing never to marry again, the rest of Tanaka’s life is dedicated to acting and sees her working with some of the best directors of the age including Ozu (Shigemitsu Ogi) and later Mizoguchi (Bunta Sugawara). It is Tanaka’s professional and personal relationship with Mizoguchi which occupies the second half of the film. Judging by the first experience on the now lost Woman of Osaka in 1940, you wouldn’t think the two would ever wish to work together again though they eventually completed fifteen films together over the next fifteen years.

Mizoguchi’s process is completely different from any other Tanaka had worked with. Rather than meeting to rehearse and discuss the work, Mizoguchi abruptly sends her a lifetime’s supply of books about bunraku and changes the script that she has painstakingly committed to memory with on set rewrites communicated via a large blackboard he expects the actors to read from. Exasperated, Tanaka finally asks him for actual direction but he coldly states that she’s the actress and her acting is not part of his job description. Mizoguchi and Tanaka are very different people but each driven and ambitious so their frequent locking of horns produces a fiercely creative collaboration in which each was able to find worth even if it was frequently difficult.

The film ends around the time of Life of Oharu which would mark the final time the pair would work together. In terms of the film’s narrative, this unspoken development is foreshadowed by the idea that the two artists are heading in different directions but in the real world the reasons are a little less clear. Tanaka became the second woman to direct a feature film with Love Letters in 1953 which was even featured at Cannes, but for reasons unknown Mizoguchi attempted to block her access to the Director’s Guild of Japan, effectively ending both their friendship and any professional relationship. Ironically enough, Actress seems to imply that Tanaka’s desire to direct may have been inspired by Mizoguchi and his all powerful on set status prompting her to wonder how he does it, and, perhaps how she could do it too.

Ichikawa weaves the history of Japan through its cinema into the narrative to recount the changing tastes of the eras as naturalism came in and out of fashion and Japanese films began to experience international as well as domestic acclaim. Skipping huge portions of time to focus on the two directors – Shimizu and Mizoguchi, Ichikawa avoids mentioning Tanaka’s post-war visit to America which had a profound impact on her later career, not only in what she learned there but also in the extremely hostile reception she received on returning home. The main takeaway from his depiction of Tanaka is a woman ahead of her time, independent and headstrong, willing to work hard to achieve the things she wanted to achieve even if flying in the face of social convention though it makes no particular judgement on her character other than in her success as an actress.

Taking on the conceit of being a film about film, Ichikawa’s sets are theatrical, creating a deliberately artificial, half unreal world. This also extends into the scriptwriting which is extremely talky and more like a stage play than film, offering pointed, long stretches of monologuing which are already far away from the more naturalistic approach of early talking cinema. Characters have improbable, exposition filled conversations in which they each tell each other things they already know for the audience’s benefit – an effect which enhances the overall theatricality, but does draw attention to itself and eventually becomes wearing. Ichikawa’s picture of Tanaka is one of steely determination and of a woman ahead of her time, but even if Actress proves less than enlightening regarding its subject it does help to shed some light on both classic Japanese cinema and that of the late 1980s.


Original trailer (traditional Chinese subs only)

The Drifting Classroom (漂流教室, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1987)

Drifting ClassroomNobuhiko Obayashi may have started out as an experimental filmmaker and progressed to a lengthy narrative film career but he remains best known for his “what the hell am I watching?” cult classic Hausu. Aside from his 1983 take on The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, very little of his other work has travelled outside of Japan. In the case of 1987’s The Drifting Classroom (漂流教室, Hyoryu Kyoshitsu), this is doubly surprising firstly because it’s based on a hugely popular manga by the godfather of horror comics Kazuo Umezu and secondly because it’s set in an international school so around 80% of the dialogue is in English.

Obayashi jettisons most of Umezu’s original plot which involves an ordinary Japanese school being suddenly and mysteriously uprooted from its city centre location leaving only a gaping hole to mark its place. This time our hero is Shou – a teenage boy who has recently returned from living in LA and is attending Kobe International School until his Japanese improves enough to get into a normal establishment. Having lived abroad for so long, Shou is a totally Americanised boy with a rebellious, individualistic streak and just wants to hang out with his cool American pals rather than study like his parents want him to do so he can get a foot on the all important ladder of the Japanese educational system. Consequently he argues with his mother and says some very harsh things which leads to her telling him to get out and not to bother coming back – sentiments which both are about to spend the rest of their lives regretting.

Right before taking the register some weird shit goes down and there’s an intense storm which fills most of the school building with sand. Looking out of the windows, everything seems to have become desert. The kids and the two remaining teachers think about what to do and settle on practical things like rationing the food and water left in the school canteen. Back in Kobe, there’s just a giant hole in the ground and a whole lot of confusion….

For some reason, Obayashi decided to set the story in an international school which means that most of the dialogue is in English (though judging by the accents and languages there are some Europeans and students from other parts of Asia around too). This is the single worst decision of the adaptation as the dialogue, which is overly silly to begin with, is offered in stilted, halting tones by its disappointing child actors with the native English speakers not doing very much better than the Japanese kids who are at least trying their best. Perhaps for these reasons (or just out of operational necessities) the film is entirely shot in non-sync sound and the dubbing never quite links up either.

It almost seems as if Obayashi is targeting an overseas audience as his tone is very much indebted to ‘80s kids’ movies with its cast of slightly plucky (sometimes irritatingly so) youngsters trying to solve the mystery of their own disappearance. However, it doesn’t seem as if the film was ever released outside of Japan (where it has never even been released on DVD) despite the presence of one time American star Troy Donohue leaving the strange Americanisms as a sort of exotic plot element with no real resolution.

Though the story seems to be aimed at older children with the usual themes of perseverance in times of adversity and the importance of teamwork and friendship, there are a few scary moments including a psycho style gag where a teacher’s head spins round before dissolving into sand. However, the majority of the special effects are extremely unconvincing resembling an ‘80s kids TV programme with a host of matte paintings, bad green screen, early digital effects and even some tokusatsu style people in rubber suits playing strange cockroach-like monsters. Arguably the best of these is the friendly creature who hangs round with the kids from school and most closely resembles a disgruntled potato with legs (but may actually be giving the most accomplished performance in the entire film).

All of this could have added to the film’s kitsch, “bad movie” vibe but Obabyashi opts to get serious every now and then and ruins everyone’s fun in the process. Weirdly, everyone just seems to accept the “timeslip” argument right away as if that’s a perfectly normal thing that happens every now and then like sinkholes or spontaneous human combustion – there’s even a geologist (?) being interviewed on the news who just says “yes – it is probably a timeslip” when asked to provide some “scientific commentary” on the disappearance of the school children. Completely bizarre but not in a very interesting way, The Drifting Classroom is a misfire on all levels neither making a good adaptation of its source material or an entertaining movie in its own right. Camp classics enthusiasts or Obayashi fanatics only.


The Drifting Classroom was also adapted into a TV drama in 2002 under the title of Long Love Letter which is much better than this movie.

A short scene from the film starring its best character whom I have decided to name “Spuddy” (English dialogue):

Law of Desire

Pedro Almodvar’s 1987 movie, Law of Desire, is a deeply felt meditation on the nature of love and longing which still manages to pack in all of the director’s usual flair and wit. A film director gets picked up in a disco by an unhinged fan whilst his boyfriend is on holiday. He tries to break off with guy 2 because he’s really in love with guy 1, but guy 2 has quite considerable problems. Also add into the mix the director’s trans-sexual sister and the little girl she’s become defacto guardian of and you end up with quite a complicated set of situations. Fantastic!