Woman in Witness Protection (マルタイの女, Juzo Itami, 1997)

woman in witness protection posterJuzo Itami’s fearless taste for sending up the contradictions and hypocrisies of his home nation knew no bounds, eventually bringing him into conflict with the very forces he assumed so secure it was safe to mock – his 1992 film Minbo led to brutal attack by a gang of yakuza unhappy with how his film portrayed the world of organised crime. Woman in Witness Protection (マルタイの女, Marutai no Onna), continuing the “Woman” theme from previous hits A Taxing Woman and the more recent Supermarket Woman, would be Itami’s final feature as he died in mysterious circumstances not long after its completion and like Minbo it touched an open nerve. In 1997, crazy cult violence was perhaps no laughing matter nor as ridiculous as it might have seemed a few years earlier, yet Itami makes the actions of brainwashed conspirators the primary motivator of a self-centred actress’ gradual progress towards accepting the very thing his previous films might have satirised – her civic duty as a Japanese woman.

Itami breaks the film into a series of vignettes bookended by title cards beginning with the first which introduces us to our leading lady – Biwako Isono (Nobuko Miyamoto). Biwako is currently in rehearsals for an avant-garde play about giving birth (“a woman’s moment of glory”) during which she reduces her assistant to tears prompting her resignation, decrying Biwako’s self-centred bitchiness as she goes. Chastened, Biwako spends the evening doing vocal exercises outside her apartment which is how she comes to witness the botched murder of a lawyer by a crazed cultist (Kazuya Takahashi) during which she is almost murdered herself and only survives because the killer’s gun jams. As the only witness Biwako suddenly becomes important to the police which works well with her general need for attention but less so with her loathing for hassle. Seeing as Biwako is a famous actress, her involvement also precipitates increased press interest for the murder and accidentally threatens the ongoing police investigation not least because Biwako likes to play up for the camera and isn’t quite sure how best to deal with her divided responsibilities. With the killer still at large, the police decide to give Biwako protection in the form of two detectives – Chikamatsu (Yuji Murata), a cultured man who’s a big fan of Biwako’s stage career, and Tachibana (Masahiko Nishimura), a rather stiff gentleman who never watches films and rarely indulges in entertainment.

Bringing up cult violence in 1997 just two years after Japan’s only real terrorist incident perpetrated by a crazed cult, might be thought taboo but taboo was not something that Itami had ever run away from. Crazed cults had also popped up during A Taxing Woman’s Return though back then they mostly represented the hypocrisy of the new yakuza as a front for organised crime that thought nothing of bleeding vulnerable people dry while feeding them a lot of semi-religious claptrap to make them feel a part of something bigger while the bubble economy continued its puffed up attempts to make them feel inadequate. This time around our cultists are less well drawn but clearly a collection of unlucky people duped into believing the strange philosophies of the “Sheep of Truth” which teach that the world can only be saved by its followers dividing the world into white sheep and black sheep. Like the policeman and later Biwako, the killer believes he is only doing “that which must be done” in the best interests of the world. He is unaware of the cult’s shadiness and shocked when their lawyer threatens his family in an effort to convince him not to talk once the police have managed to break his programming, ironically through exactly the same methods – manipulating his feelings towards his wife and son.

The cult is however merely background to Biwako’s ongoing character drama. Despite experiencing emotional trauma from witnessing a murder and then being threatened herself, Biwako enjoys being the centre of the attention with the police as well as the warm glow she feels in being able to help them with their enquiries, but balks at the additional hassle of having to be involved in the trial (even if she would be given quite a sizeable platform as a witness in a high profile court case). She resents having the two policemen follow her around – especially as she has quite a busy schedule which includes an affair with her married manager. Nevertheless she gradually allows them into her life with Tachibana even making his stage debut as spear carrier in a production of Anthony and Cleopatra. Tachibana’s steadfast defence of her person even at the risk of his own life begins to teach Biwako a few things about civic responsibility and the importance of duty, even if her final moment of realisation is another of her staged set pieces in which she conjures a poignant monologue from the accidentally profound mutterings of Tachibana, a little of Cleopatra, and the earlier line from the maternity play repurposed as she affirms that testifying against the cultists will be her “moment of glory”.

Rather than end on Biwako’s sudden moment of enlightenment, Itami cuts to an ironic epilogue in which a police detective watching the movie we have just seen complains about its authenticity while emphasising that no one in protective custody has ever been attacked. A little tongue in cheek humour from Itami that is followed by the more usual disclaimer before the credits resume, but perhaps anticipating another dose of controversy from both law enforcement and cult devotees. Lighter in tone and noticeably less surreal than some of Itami’s earlier work, Woman in Witness Protection is the story of a vacuous actress learning the purpose of her stage as her particular brand of artifice meets that of the less innocently self-centred cultists head on and eventually becomes the best weapon against it.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

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)

The Little House (小さいおうち, Yoji Yamada, 2014)

the-little-houseIf there is a frequent criticism directed at the always bankable director Yoji Yamada, it’s that his approach is one which continues to value the past over the future. Recent years have seen him looking back, literally, in terms of both themes and style with remakes of films by two Japanese masters – Ozu in his Tokyo Story homage Tokyo Family, and Kon Ichikawa in Her Brother. While he chose to update both of those pieces for the modern day, 2008’s Kabei sent him back to the traumatic years of militarism and warfare for a story of maternal sacrifice and national tragedy. The Little House (小さいおうち, Chiisai Ouchi) brings this recent meandering around the past full circle with its deliberately Ozu-esque aesthetic and flashback tale of atonement as one woman leaves the truth she could never bear to speak on paper as a last dying confession.

After the death of his great-aunt Taki (Chieko Baisho), who never married and has no other family besides himself, his sister, and father, Takeshi (Satoshi Tsumabuki) discovers a biscuit box with his name on it filled with keepsakes and the conclusion of a kind of autobiography he’d been encouraging Taki to write in the last few months of her life. Cutting back and forth between the contemporary interactions of the older Taki and her great-nephew, and the younger Taki’s (Haru Kuroki) life as a Tokyo maid from the mid-1930s to the end of the war, The Little House takes its cues from The Go Between as an innocent bystander becomes the unwilling guardian of a secret the holding of which will prove to be a lifelong burden.

An 18 year old girl in 1935 from a poor family in Japan’s frozen North, Taki’s options are few – early marriage, geisha house, or maid. All things considered, maid is the best option and Taki is thrilled to be travelling to the big city with all of its untold excitements. After a spell working for a famous novelist, Taki becomes the housekeeper of the “Little House” – a curiously cute Western style cottage with a bright red roof out in the suburbs. Her mistress, Tokiko (Takako Matsu), is an oddly flighty woman, fiercely independent of spirit but living within the confines of her time. Crisis approaches the family not with the onset of war but with the arrival of Mr. Hirai’s sensitive, artistic, colleague, Shoji (Hidetaka Yoshioka), whose softly spoken ways quickly find their way into Tokiko’s heart.

In fact, The Little House, is not a million miles away from an expansion of a similar narrative device previously employed in Kabei but this time Tokiko is no pillar of strength, singlehandedly upholding the traditionally saintly virtues of the Japanese mother but a flesh and blood woman caught in the storm of a turbulent era. Taki becomes our passive observer as she sits, almost invisibly, in the corner of every scene, unwilling chaperone or accidental accomplice. As she witnesses the growing attraction between Tokiko and Shoji begin to spark into something more dangerous she finds herself conflicted, not knowing the best way to help her mistress. Should Tokiko be discovered, it wouldn’t just be a scandal leading to the end of a marriage, but considering the stringency of the times the outcome could be far more serious for all concerned.

When Takeshi eventually meets Tokiko’s son Kyoichi (Masakane Yonekura), he echoes many of the older Taki’s sentiments but adds that it was an era in which everyone was “forced to make an unwilling choice”. Taki finds herself forced to choose between action and inaction and does something she thinks is for the best, but is then forced to live with the suffering of wondering if she did the right thing.

The film does not seem entirely clear on her motives for her choice – it half commits to a possible love triangle between Taki, Tokiko, and Shoji by emphasising Taki and Shoji’s shared Northern roots and by Shoji’s subsequent inclusion of both women in his artwork. Taki, however, seems to be looking more to her mistress than her suitor, wanting nothing other than to stay in the Little House with Tokiko and Kyoichi for evermore. A later scene featuring a “mannish” university friend of Tokiko seems to reinforce the directions of Taki’s unspoken desire, though if her declaration of loyalty to the Little House following a disastrous marriage proposal was intended to voice it, it falls on deaf ears.

This being the case, Taki and Shoji become almost mirrors of each other – each somehow on pause, still living inside the Little House long after it ceased to exist. The loss of the Little House is not just the destruction of a building but the obliteration of everything it stood for, not only in terms of Taki’s investment in the family who live there, but in its evocation of early Showa dreams, individuality and innocence.

As the well educated Takeshi points out, Taki’s memories are often too rosy to tally with the history books, but even given the grimness of the times as they seem in hindsight, she has a right to the romanticism of her youth. The increasingly difficult political circumstances rarely impinge on the female centred domestic environment, but are made felt firstly through the husband’s toy business which begins by chasing the Chinese market and then is reduced to making wooden toys only and trying to marry off its eligible employees to woo more investment, and through the family’s excitement about the upcoming Tokyo Olympic games which are subsequently canceled. Tokiko’s later exclamation of “Isn’t it awful everything’s disappearing” does not just refer to the sudden absence of luxury from soaps to previously ordinary foodstuffs, but to her whole bourgeois way of life suddenly brought crashing down by a series of events she has no control over.

Yamada channels Ozu with initially distracting obviousness both in the contemporary and period sequences, matching his famous compositions from the straight to camera dialogue to the mid level tatami mat view and propensity for shooting through corridors and doorways. The world of the Little House is a curiously artificial one as Yamada shoots on an obvious stage set complete with tiny twinkling lights for stars which both looks forward to the artwork at the film’s conclusion and signals its nature as an unreal, constructed, environment existing only within Taki’s memory. Were it not that the Ozu compositions creep into the contemporary sequences, it could almost be read as a representation of Takeshi’s internal dramatisation of Taki’s memoirs as mediated through classic cinema.

The Little House is, indeed, resolutely old fashioned. Far too subtle for its own good, The Little House is an exercise in restraint in which the central love triangle never even hits the simmer, let alone the boil. Given the well trodden nature of the narrative, even the most inattentive viewer will have correctly guessed the big reveal well before Takeshi puts two and two together, rendering the final explanatory segment entirely redundant. Never quite as affecting as it would like to be, The Little House is a muted experience, perpetually pulling back each time it approaches doing something more interesting with its material. Nevertheless, it does provide an interesting perspective on its period setting as its collection of tragically romantic heroes march forward blindly into a maelstrom of oncoming destruction.


HK trailer (English/traditional Chinese subs)