Keiko (Claude Gagnon, 1979)

Keiko DVD coverThe Art Theatre Guild of Japan found itself in an awkward position in the late ‘70s. The kind of politically charged art cinema which had been its mainstay throughout the ‘60s was now out of fashion in the post-Asama Sanso world. The studio was then looking for new, young, dynamic voices who could potentially have something equally new and radical to offer to the the mid-’70s Japanese cinema scene which increasingly leaned towards the populist. That is perhaps how they came to work with émigré French Canadian filmmaker Claude Gagnon, distributing his independently produced debut feature Keiko. Gagnon’s film was nothing if not atypical of the time, dealing with the relatively taboo subject of female sexuality and the patriarchal society and doing it with a lens influenced more by European arthouse and New American cinema than by that of Japan or by the avant-garde movement which had forged ATG’s central ethos.

As the title implies, the tale revolves around the titular Keiko (Junko Wakashiba) – a 23-year-old office worker preoccupied with her lack of romantic success. Hoping to find a potential boyfriend, she spends her evenings in cafes, often staying until closing before going home alone. Embarrassed to still be a virgin at 23, she invites her old high school teacher (married with two children) out for a drink and they wind up in a love hotel but if Keiko thought losing her virginity would give her more confidence in dating she couldn’t be more wrong.

Soon enough she ends up in another “relationship” with a guy she meets in cafe but it’s obvious to everyone but Keiko that he is just using her for sex. Masaru (Takuma Ikeuchi), a photographer, constantly talks about himself and his work, refusing to go “out” on dates and preferring to simply arrive at Keiko’s flat and then leave again once he gets what he came for, claiming that his “mother” is waiting up for him at home. Eventually Keiko’s suspicions get the better of her and she finds out he is already married with children. The affair ends, leaving Keiko resentful and broken hearted. She drifts into a relationship with a colleague (Toshio Hashimoto) who is nice enough but Keiko isn’t really interested in him. Then something unexpected happens – a drunken experience with a female colleague leads to the most fulfilling and happiest period of her life but she is also plagued by calls from home about arranged marriages and “settling down”.

Told from Keiko’s perspective, Gagnon’s film paints a bleak picture of female existence in ‘70s Japan. Keiko’s office lady job is only really a stop gap ahead of a marriage and even at 23 she’s beginning to panic about finding a husband before her father finds one for her. She is shy and demure, modest and innocent as her society demands her to be, but she is also lonely. The camera finds her sitting alone at tables meant for four, the bars and cafes often completely empty save for her as they approach closing time. Keiko waits until the last minute, telling the girl behind the counter that she’s nothing much to do at home, but there’s nothing much to do in the bar either and she simply sits there all alone not talking to anyone, waiting for someone to take an interest only they rarely do.

Following the first few unsuccessful encounters with men, Keiko is initially confused by the unexpected interest from female colleague Kazuyo (Akiko Kitamura). Kazuyo, free spirited and independent, is perhaps portrayed more stereotypically with her short hair and tendency to dress in an overtly “masculine” fashion outside of work but few seem to have picked up on these seemingly “obvious” clues and she remains free to live her life in the way in which she chooses. Unlike Masaru who left in the middle of the night, Kazuyo is still around the next morning and not only that, she offers to cook breakfast and even takes a trip to the pharmacy to pick up some aspirin for Keiko’s sore head. Somewhat mystified by the whole affair and Kazuyo’s kindly consideration the morning after, Keiko tells her it might be better to forget about what happened the night before which Kazuyo again accepts without rancour.

Touched by all this maturity, Keiko begins to look at Kazuyo differently, and eventually decides to take a chance on something different. Before long they’ve taken an apartment together a little way out of town and begun building a life for themselves. Kazuyo is thinking about the future – she wants to start her own business and wants Keiko to help her, but the need for additional capital has her staying out evenings working in bars to earn extra money while Keiko is still getting letters from home about marriages.

Told entirely from Keiko’s perspective, Gagnon’s script veers away from its most interesting questions – why someone would willing abandon the greatest happiness they have ever felt and are certain they ever will feel to succumb to societal pressure to conform. Keiko’s oppression is almost taken as read, a constant background presence that never thinks to explain itself. Yet she is a grown woman (as she tries to point out to her father) who could simply have refused to take phone calls or answer letters. She has the power to say no to an arranged marriage, even if she perhaps does not have the power to live openly with Kazuyo as a married couple might. The film offers few explanations why she continues to placate a father she doesn’t like very much who lives a long way away save for leaving it at a need to be accounted “successful” in the eyes of society even if that conventional “success” is destined to make her very unhappy.

Gagnon’s approach is informed by European arthouse and to a lesser extent by contemporary New American cinema in attempting to create a kind of cinematic naturalism that exists in direct contrast to the expressive acting styles often found in more populist entertainment. He demonstrates the inertia of Keiko’s life by capturing her stillness, the scenes remain the same – only the outfits have changed. The camera pulls away from her as if it’s almost painful to do so, emphasising her loneliness and isolation as she remains trapped and alone in a society which abhors individualism but in reality cares little for individuals. The conformist society and its entrenched patriarchal social codes conspire to destroy happiness in order to maintain “stability”, condemning each to a particularly individual kind of misery from which it seems impossible to escape.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

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.


 

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!