A Chain of Islands (日本列島, Kei Kumai, 1965)

nihon retto posterKei Kumai made just 19 films films in his 40 year career, but even since his earliest days he ranked among the most fearless of directors, ready to confront the most unpleasant or taboo aspects of contemporary Japan. His first film, The Long Death, interrogated wartime guilt through drawing inspiration from a real life 1948 mass poisoning case in which materials manufactured in a Manchurian lab may have led to the deaths of post-war civilians. Having begun in this possibly controversial vein, Kumai pressed on with 1965’s A Chain of Islands (日本列島, Nihon Retto, AKA The Japanese Archipelago) which he set in 1959 as Japanese youth protested the renewal of the ANPO treaty which placed Japan under the military protection of the American Armed forces in return for allowing the presence of those forces on Japanese soil.

Despite the contemporary setting Kumai opens with a explanatory voice over detailing the depth of the American military presence and the function of the CID which exists solely to investigate crimes committed by American servicemen. The CID is staffed by both Americans and Japanese nationals who, the voiceover explains, often feel conflicted in stepping onto American soil each morning as prolonged exposure gradually erodes their sense of difference and finally of “Japaneseness”. Akiyama (Jukichi Uno) is a translator/investigator at CID and he’s about to be handed an unusual request from his boss – reopen a cold case from the previous summer in which an American Sergeant was found floating in Tokyo bay. Akiyama’s new boss was a friend of the late soldier and would like to know what happened.

Akiyama’s investigations lead him down a dark path of corruption, murder, conspiracy, and governmental complicity. Beginning to investigate the case, Akiyama discovers that nothing is quite as it seems. A couple of policeman from the original investigation arrive to help him and echo their frustrations with the way the case was handled. Despite the police investigation, the American authorities did their best to interfere – commandeering the body and claiming jurisdiction in contravention of Japan’s standing as a sovereign nation. The Americans are no longer occupying forces but honoured guests who should obey international protocol in cases like these, but they rarely do. Despite the existence of the CID, crimes by American servicemen are generally covered up as the military insists the matter will be dealt with internally only for suspects to be suddenly “transferred” overseas.

Sgt. Limit was, however, one of the good ones and Akiyama’s investigation seems to point towards a murder and cover up instigated because Limit had got too close to the truth in investigating a sudden flood of counterfeit cash. The Americans, to the surprise of all, are only the middle man in the grand conspiracy which leads right back to the dark heart of Japan and the vast spy networks operated during the militarist era. As might be expected, these valuable networks are left wide open with the collapse of Japanese fascism but are perfectly primed to facilitate widespread crime spanning the Asian world and all with the tacit approval of the American and Japanese states.

Kumai also implicates the spy ring in a series of “mysterious” rail incidents, but makes sure to reserve some of his ire more the more usual injustices. Akiyama is caring for his young nephew whose father was killed in mining explosion which has claimed the lives of nearly every young man in the village leaving his sister unable to cope with her children alone. He is also battling a personal tragedy which is intensely connected to his decision to join CID which is currently inundated with cases of rape and murder in which American servicemen are implicated. The “foreign” becomes suspect but mostly for its hypocrisy as in the Catholic priest who becomes a major suspect in subverting the legitimate devotion of a Godly woman who only sought to live under the Christian teachings of love and kindness, while the American forces claim to stand for honour and justice but actively facilitate organised crime at an interstate level to further the progress of Capitalism whilst also facilitating civil unrest in volatile nations for financial and political gains.

That all of this happens immediately before the renewal of the ANPO treaty is no coincidence and Kumai even includes aerial footage of the mass protests filling the streets around the Diet building as the youth of Japan question why their nation has seen fit to make itself so complicit in the questionable foreign policy of another country. The outcome looks bleak for our protagonists who discover themselves to be mere pawns at the mercy of greater forces which cannot be circumvented or denied, but just as it all looks hopeless a new hope arises. Pledging to fight harder and continue the work which has been started, those left behind dedicate themselves to equipping the young with the tools to build a happier, fairer world in contrast to the one they seem primed to inherit from those who should know better. The final sequence shows us a young woman walking gloomily past the Diet building which seems to be looming over her as a veritable symbol of oppression but then her face brightens, her step quickens and she leaves the Diet far behind to walk forward towards the work which awaits her. 


A comprehensive overview of the 1960 ANPO protests.

A Woman in the Typhoon Area (颱風圏の女, Hideo Oba, 1948)

vlcsnap-2017-12-14-23h50m20s302Setsuko Hara acquired the nickname “the eternal virgin” from her fans inspired by the genial ingenue roles she was most associated with especially in her long career with Yasujiro Ozu in which she often played a reluctant daughter finally getting married (though only at the end of the picture). The nickname took on something of an ironic quality after her abrupt retirement from the acting world in which, rather than getting married, she remained single and locked herself away in her quaint little house in Kamakura, refusing all subsequent requests relating to showbiz. Woman in the Typhoon Area (颱風圏の女, Taifuken no Onna) is a rare entry in her filmography in which she plays completely against type (and does so brilliantly) as a damaged, brassy, and sensual woman caught up in a storm of her own as the sole female between a gang of vicious smugglers and a nerdy group of weather scientists marooned on an island by a typhoon.

As the film opens, the smugglers have been spotted by the coastguard and are engaged in a lengthy firefight trying to escape. Eventually they manage to evade government forces, but they’re way off course and running out of fuel while one of their number is also badly injured. Luckily they eventually run into an island which is home to a Japanese weather station. Unfortunately, the weather station has received a telegram from the coastguard and works out who the smugglers are. There isn’t enough fuel or food for the smugglers to steal and escape, but even if there were the approaching typhoon means it would be unwise to try.

The set-up is uncannily close to that of John Huston’s Key Largo, released the same year, though the tiny band of smugglers is nowhere near as intimidating as Edward G. Robinson’s band of thugs, nor are they particularly emblematic of a persistent lingering threat of fascism in the rise of bullies making their way through fear. What the smugglers are is mildly pathetic and intensely self interested. The weather station staff, government officials, are the good guys but they’re also easily cowed by three men (and a sympathetic/indifferent woman) with a single gun. The major conflict is over control of the radio which the smugglers have temporarily broken in fear of someone calling the coastguard. The weathermen want to repair it because it’s imperative they let the surrounding area know that a dangerous typhoon is on the way.

Like many films of the immediate post-war era, the central theme is one of the common good vs selfish interest. The radio operator, Amano (Jun Usami), is determined to act for “the common good” and is confident that he is the sort of person who will do the “right” thing at the right time. The smugglers don’t particularly care if a lot of people end up dying because they weren’t warned about the storm as long as they don’t get caught by the coast guard. For Kijima (So Yamamura), the boss of the smugglers, all that matters is strength – a strong man will never kneel but Amano would kneel if it meant he could get up later and do the right the thing even if it then costs him his life.

Where gangster narratives are often about surrogate families, the band of smugglers actively rejects familial bonds and only maintains cohesion through shared suspicion. Kuriko (Setsuko Hara) is Kijima’s girl, but Kataoka (Isao Yamaguchi) continually goes behind his boss’ back to seduce her finally even attempting rape. Though second mate Yoshii (Eijiro Tono) may seem more loyal, he too holds little love for his boss and will betray him if he thinks Kijima no longer strong enough to rule. Trapped within the claustrophobic environment of the weather station, the gang destroys itself in petty rivalries and long standing suspicions. Kijima was right when he said you couldn’t trust anyone on a ship, but he can’t trust his guys on land either.

The war is an obvious and recurrent theme but Kuriko’s troubles were only exacerbated rather than caused by it. An abandoned child, she recounts eating cold rice with strangers at 11 and it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to figure out what she means when she says she remembers the name of her first man but not his face. Kuriko is a good girl turned bad by persistent social indifference and subsequent trauma experienced as a nurse in frontline field hospitals. She’s distant and embittered, living as a man on ship, dressing in slacks and shirts and chain smoking her life away. Trapped in the station and exposed to the “goodness” of Amano she starts dressing in more feminine fashions and reconsidering her gangster lifestyle. Though she starts to change, helps the weather station to save the locals, it’s clear that it’s already too late for her to save herself other than through a final act of sacrifice in service of a new ideal and an old love.

Only 70 minutes long Woman in the Typhoon Area is a taught, tense character piece which doesn’t quite manage to make the most of its intensely claustrophobic settings but still manages to reinforce its central message of selfishness being bad and altruism good. Hara is a revelation in such an unusual role, stealing each and every scene in steely uncertainty, giving the impression of a woman whose ongoing fall is as much a willing act of self harm as it is a natural consequence of her impossible circumstances.


Clothes of Deception (偽れる盛装, Kozaburo Yoshimura, 1951)

「偽れる盛装」(C)KADOKAWA1951

「偽れる盛装」(C)KADOKAWA1951Japan at a crossroads. East/West, past/future becomes a conflict between Kyoto and Tokyo in Yoshimura’s exploration of two women pulled in surprisingly contradictory directions in the new post-war world, Clothes of Deception (偽れる盛装, Itsuwareru Seiso). Working from a script by Kaneto Shindo, Yoshimura frames his tale as one of progress and resistance but the divisions are not as simple as they first seem. Machiko Kyo turns in another wonderfully nuanced performance as a Kyoto geisha trapped by the unchanging nature of her city yet yearning for an end to its slavish devotion to tradition.

Kumicho (Machiko Kyo) is the daughter of a longstanding geisha house currently operated by her mother. Though working as a geisha, Kumicho is not universally popular with the older generation thanks to her money first attitude which sees her prioritise earnings potential through having an unlimited number of clients rather than relying on a single patron. Kumicho is tough where geishas are generally soft and accommodating. She doesn’t take orders or nonsense from anyone, not least her push over of a mother.

Kumicho’s sister, Taeko (Yasuko Fujita), is not involved in the geisha trade and has a regular office job in the local tourist office. Unlike Kumicho, Taeko is mild mannered and reserved, dressing in regular Western fashions and travelling everywhere by bicycle. Taeko is engaged to a colleague, Koji (Keiju Kobayashi), who just happens to be the adopted son of another geisha house run by a woman with a long standing grudge against her mother.

Kyoto, a former capital, is famous for its historical qualities – a living museum to old-time Japan, but as a friend visiting from Tokyo points out perhaps that’s not altogether a good thing. Unlike Tokyo, Kyoto escaped much of the wartime destruction allowing it to be seen as a symbol of cultural resilience but lack of destruction also robs of it the chance for rebirth. History has survived, but so have lots of “tired old ideas”, according to Taeko’s friend Yukiko who urges her to forget the stagnant city and head for pastures new in Tokyo where the exciting post-war future is already underway.

Those old fashioned ideas are embodied within the rigid codes of the geisha world which Kumicho, on the surface the more traditional of the sisters but in actuality less so, has been breaking. Kumicho cares about money and she cares about survival which has made her unsentimental. Despite being involved in the “traditional” Kyoto occupation with all of its elegance and complicated ritual, Kumicho is a modernist who secretly hates the trade and holds each of her customers in deep contempt. Thus she thinks her mother, Kiku (Hisako Takihana), is a soft touch for continuing to bankroll the feckless son of her former lover, but is as heartbroken as anyone when one of the geishas becomes gravely ill. Kumicho’s manner maybe brash and brassy but her heart is as warm as her mother’s who continues to visit the widow of her former patron and makes sure the sickly geisha is cared for properly without resenting either the costs involved or the loss of earnings.

Taeko’s engagement to Koji opens up old wounds and exposes the less genial side of geishadom in the grudge bearing rivalry of Kiku and Koji’s mother Chiyo (Chieko Murata). Chiyo tries to put the kibosh on Taeko’s marriage as a way of getting back at Kiku, claiming that Taeko simply isn’t good enough for her son, but her authority is also dependent on those tired old ideas of hierarchy and filial piety. Koji, an adopted child, feels himself beholden to his mother’s needs in having been raised exclusively to fulfil them and vacillates in indecision regarding his marriage. Spineless and cowardly, Koji cannot find the strength to tell his mother no but also refuses to definitively break things off with Taeko.

Younger than Kumicho and a part of the “modern” world thanks to her regular office job in the tourist office, Taeko is comparatively more socially conservative reacting with horror when the increasingly strained Koji makes desperate, aggressive advances towards her whilst refusing to confirm his intention to marry against his mother’s wishes. Taeko and Koji have imprisoned themselves within Kyoto’s oppressive system of social codes in refusing to seize their chance of individual happiness and stride forward into the bright future being offered everywhere else except in the unchanging city.

Kumicho’s machinations eventually land her in hot water when an obsessed client ruins himself and then turns violent, demonstrating the less publicised dangerous side of life in the geisha trade. Kyoto, with all of its elegant refinement, can still be a place of rancour and regret where decades old grudges and more recent resentments threaten to disturb the peace. Kumicho’s innovations have shown up the geisha trade for what it is through her thoroughly unsentimental seduce and discard philosophy but she is, if nothing else, essentially truthful in her “modern” desire to call a spade a spade. The old ways are changing, though perhaps not fast enough. Kyoto, with its rigidity and stagnation is eventually rejected as Kumicho, unable to extricate herself, makes sure that her sister is first in line for all the opportunities the new world has to offer – by sending her to Tokyo, the capital of the future.


Screened at BFI as part of the Women in Japanese Melodrama season.

Latitude Zero (緯度0大作戦, Ishiro Honda, 1969)

latitude zero1969. Man lands on the moon, the cold war is in full swing, and Star Trek is cancelled prompting a mass write-in campaign from devoted sci-fi enthusiasts across America. The tide was also turning politically as the aforementioned TV series’ utopianism came to gain ground among liberal thinking people who rose up to oppose war, racial discrimination and sexism. It was in this year that Godzilla creators Ishiro Honda and Eiji Tsuburaya brought their talents to America with a very contemporary take on science fiction in Latitude Zero (緯度0大作戦, Ido Zero Daisakusen). Starring Hollywood legend Joseph Cotten, Latitude Zero gives Jules Verne a new look for the ‘60s filled with solid gold hotpants and bulletproof spray tan.

International scientists Dr. Ken Tashiro (Akira Takarada) and Dr. Jules Masson (Masumi Okada) are in the middle of a bathysphere alongside American reporter Perry Lawton (Richard Jaeckel) when a volcano suddenly erupts. Rescued by a passing sub, the team soon notice there’s something very strange about this serendipitous crew. To begin with, the doctor treating their injuries is a svelte young blonde woman in a skimpy outfit, and then there’s that plaque on the bridge which says the boat was launched in 1805, and why won’t Captain McKenzie (Joseph Cotten) tell them which country this very expensive looking rig belongs to?

All these questions will be answered in due course but the major revelation concerns the futuristic city of Latitude Zero – a secret underwater world where top scientists and other skilled people who have been “disappeared” from the surface conduct important research free of political constraints. Despite the peace and love atmosphere, Latitude Zero is not without its villains as proved by exile Malec (Cesar Romero), McKenzie’s arch nemesis who has set out to kidnap a prominent Japanese scientist before he can make his way to the city. Malec is hellbent on taking McKenzie down and has drifted over to the scientific dark side by conducting brain transplant experiments to create his own army of bizarre creatures to do his bidding.

There may be a cold war going on but Latitude Zero is more or less neutral when it comes to its position on science and scientists though when push comes to shove it leans towards negative. Malec, played by Batman’s Ceasar Romero, is a moustache twirling villain of the highest order who will even stoop to transplanting the brain of his own lieutenant into a lion as well as making other strange creatures like giant rats and weird bats to try and destroy McKenzie’s enterprises yet those enterprises are the entire reason for the existence of Latitude Zero. Towards the end of the adventure, Lawton points out to McKenzie that his world is essentially selfish, stealing all the best minds for his underwater paradise and secreting their discoveries away rather than sharing them with the the surface. McKenzie sympathises but deflects his criticism with the justification that mankind is currently too volatile and divided to take part in his project, though they do try to drip feed the essentials all in the name of making the world a better place.

Lawton further shows himself up by trying to loot Latitude Zero which has an abundant supply of diamonds it barely knows what to do with. What is does with them is experiment – jewels are worthless baubles here, the value of the diamonds is purely practical. Similarly, they have a taste for solid gold clothing which might explain the skimpiness of their outfits were it not for the fact the precious metal holds no other value than being stylish.

Unlike other subsequent US co-productions such as Fukasaku’s Virus, Latitude Zero was filmed in English with the Japanese cast providing their own English language dialogue (with various degrees of success). A second cut running fifteen minutes shorter was later prepared for the Japanese market with the entire cast dubbed back into Japanese and dropping McKenzie’s often unnecessary voice over. Given a relatively high budget, Honda and Tsuburaya once again bring their unique production design to life with intricate model shots and analogue effects complete with a selection of furry monsters even if they’re operating on a level that owes much more to Star Trek than Godzilla. It’s all very silly and extremely camp but good clean fun with a slight layer of political subversiveness which displays a noted ambivalence to the neutrality of utopia even whilst hoping for the day when the world will finally be mature enough to pursue its scientific destiny without polarised politics getting in the way.


Original trailer (English version)

Battle in Outer Space (宇宙大戦争, Ishiro Honda, 1959)

battle in outer spaceIshiro Honda returns to outer space after The Mysterians with another dose of alien paranoia in the SFX heavy Battle in Outer Space (宇宙大戦争, Uchu Daisenso). Where many other films of the period had a much more ambivalent attitude to scientific endeavour, Battle in Outer Space paints the science guys as the thin white line that stands between us and annihilation by invading forces wielding superior technology. Far from the force which destroys us, science is our salvation and the skill we must improve in order to defend ourselves from hitherto unknown threats.

In 1965 Japan is a hit in space. Having launched their first space station, things are going well but after it is destroyed by flying saucers there is cause for concern. The problem intensifies as strange events occur across the Earth with bridges suddenly collapsing, boats being lifted from the sea and the waters of Venice conspiring to drown the town. World leaders gather in Tokyo to come up with a plan but one of the scientists’ key assets, Iranian professor Dr. Ahmed, is possessed by the Natalians via their high-tech remote control radio waves and procedeeds to do their dirty work for them. The Natalians will settle for nothing less than enslavement of the entire planet and have even set up a base on the moon to make it happen! Time to put those shiny new spaceships to good use!

Scientists may be the heroes of this particular story but the scientific basis for their actions is just as silly as your average B-movie. According to our top professor, the Natalians’ anti-gravity shenanigans can be put a stop to by means of a freeze ray – gravity is, of course, caused by the movement of atoms which is impeded by cold hence the freeze ray. A likely story, but it’s the best they’ve got. The other major problem is that the Natalians are able to possess various people and force them to do their bidding, apparently through “radio waves”. Less about the enemy within, the possibility of becoming a Natalian sleeper agent is more plot device than serious philosophical discussion.

Battle in Outer Space is, in this sense at least, one of the most straightforward of Toho’s B-movie leaning SFX extravaganzas. There is little hidden message here bar the importance of international collaboration as the whole world comes together to fight the alien threat – Middle Eastern and Indian scientists are at the forefront of research and Japan leads the charge flanked by Americans one side and Russians on the other.

Our intrepid band of scientists are the vanguard sent to see off the Natalian threat by jetting off into space and fighting them in their own territory. Honda and Tsuburaya outdo themselves with the special effects which are pretty astounding for 1959 making use of large scale models and matt painting. The scientists travel to the moon to look for the Natalians’ base only to encounter them in space and engage in exciting dogfight. Eventually landing they meet the Natalians face to face and discover they are very tiny and sort of cute but also hellbent on enslaving the Earth. Engaging them in a firefight using heat rays and laser guns, the scientists manage to escape but the Natalian threat follows them all the way back to Tokyo. In true Toho fashion, buildings are destroyed and people knocked flying as the Natalians take the city but our brainy scientists have thought of that and so the aliens have a whole barrage of heat ray guns to welcome them to Earth.

Battle in Outer Space might not have an awful lot going on in the background, but it makes up for it with sheer spectacle both in its effects and in production design. The Natalians are a scary bunch, until you actually meet them, but this time science is on our side as the good guys manage to figure out a way to save the Earth rather than destroy it through fear and angst. In the end it is determination and togetherness which finally lets the Natalians know humanity is not a good prospect for colonisation, only by coming together and making the best of their collective strengths is humanity able to triumph over a superior force – sadly a still timely lesson.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Night Drum (夜の鼓, Tadashi Imai, 1958)

night-drumThe works of Chikamatsu Monzaemon continue to have a large influence over Japanese drama even if not as frequently and directly adapted as they were in the immediate post-war period. Famous for tales of tragic love suicides and romantic heroes who risk all in the service of deep emotion, Chikamatsu’s works perhaps found even greater resonance in the turbulent years in which individual freedom and adherence to tradition found themselves in even greater conflict than ever before. Tadashi Imai makes the most of Chikamatsu’s melancholy fatalism to take a sword to the samurai order itself with all of its arcane rules and the essential hypocrisy which underlines its cruelty.

Hikokuro Ogura (Rentaro Mikuni) has been in Edo for a year with the shogun and is now on his way home. Stopping at an inn, he has a low level argument with his brother-in-law who warns him the men are getting restless and need to blow off some steam – preferably with some sake. Hikokuro is in charge of the purse strings and knows all of this pageantry costs money the clan do not quite have – hence, he’s reluctant to fritter it away on alcohol no matter how much the men might resent him for it.

That’s not to say Hikokuro is a particularly officious person, he’s kind and cheerful by nature but also tired and eager to get home after such a long time away. His wife, Otane (Ineko Arima), is very happy to see him but something seems different about her and there’s a tension in the air among some of the other women. It seems, there are rumours about Otane and a travelling musician (Masayuki Mori) who frequented the house during the summer while Hikokuro was away. Rumours are often just that, especially in these petty circles of nobility, but female adultery is punishable by death and so is not something to be gossiped about idly.

Night Drum (夜の鼓, Yoru no Tsuzumi) begins with the ominous sound of the drum itself, beating out the inevitably tragic fate of all concerned with a melancholy fatality. The tale proceeds in a procedural fashion as the authorities become involved, hearing witness testimonies and trying to discover if there could be any truth at all in these unpleasant rumours. Matters are further complicated by the pecuniary difficulties the clan currently finds itself in – the elders are half hoping it is true because it would be a good excuse to expel the Ogura household and thereby save the money which goes on its upkeep. They are aware, however, that they’re talking about the life of a previously unblemished woman as well as the ruin of her extended family.

The life of a retainer is not as easy as it sounds and we’re constantly reminded of just how much money is necessary to keep up appearances. The clan authorities are dismayed when they hear of Otane earning money on the side through needlework though other retainers are quick to confess their wives also help out – they just can’t survive on such meagre stipends. Each lord is required to hire servants as befits their status but they aren’t given the money to do so. Hikokuro is also required to serve the shogun in Edo every other year for at least twelve months meaning Otane is left alone at home with almost nothing other than her needlework to do except wait patiently for her husband’s return.

Given these circumstances, it’s easy to understand how such pernicious rumours might begin. The sole basis of the evidence seems to rest on a tip off that Otane is thought to have been alone in a room with a man who is not her husband. That she may be put to death solely for the crime of sharing the same space as someone of the opposite sex seems extreme, but this is the feudal world where rules and propriety are all. The men can cavort with geishas to their heart’s content, but Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion.

The action unfolds piecemeal as each of the various witnesses offers their testimony of events. Given the gravity of the situation, few are eager to recount their suspicions – especially the other women who fear the rumour may be true but are also unwilling to believe it. Hikokuro does not want to believe it either but faced with such convincing, if circumstantial, evidence doubt creeps into his mind and finds an anchor in Otane’s guilt ridden behaviour. Ironically, this entire situation developed only because of Otane’s attempts to avoid it – remaining at an inn rather than travelling with a man on the road only for one of her husband’s friends to attempt to rape and blackmail her. Having had far too much to drink in an attempt to steel her nerves and cover up the embarrassing assault, Otane finds herself at the mercy of man who should have known better than to take advantage of another man’s wife in such a moment of weakness.

One stupid mistake born of alcohol, loneliness, and a series of male betrayals is enough to bring down the social order all on its own. Rentaro Mikuni plays the part of the previously affable wounded spouse with an exceptional level of nuance as he accepts his part in his wife’s downfall thanks to the the circumstances of their lives which have kept them apart and left her at the mercy of untrustworthy lords. There is anger here, and shame, but there is still love too which only makes the inevitable outcome all the more painful for everyone concerned. Hikokuro plays the part he’s expected to play, but it pains him and you can’t wipe a slate clean with blood. Imai has his eyes firmly on the civilised society with all of its rigid yet often cruel and unfair rules for living. Shot with a kind of hypnotic dreaminess in which each of our unfortunate players is swept along by events they are powerless to influence, Night Drum beats out the death knell of those who allow their individual desires to overwhelm their “civilised” conformity but it does so with a rhythm that is filled with anger rather than sorrow, for those who are forced to leave half their lives unlived in maintenance of the very system which oppresses them.


 

Whistling in Kotan (コタンの口笛, Mikio Naruse, 1959)

vlcsnap-2016-08-03-02h37m50s119The Ainu have not been a frequent feature of Japanese filmmaking though they have made sporadic appearances. Adapted from a novel by Nobuo Ishimori, Whistling in Kotan (コタンの口笛, Kotan no Kuchibue, AKA Whistle in My Heart) provides ample material for the generally bleak Naruse who manages to mine its melodramatic set up for all of its heartrending tragedy. Rather than his usual female focus, Naruse tells the story of two resilient Ainu siblings facing not only social discrimination and mistreatment but also a series of personal misfortunes.

Masa and Yutaka are a teenage brother and sister living with their alcoholic father who has been unable to get things together since their mother passed away. They also have their grandmother and cousin, but otherwise they’re pretty much fending for themselves. At school, both children are shunned and picked on by some of their classmates solely for being Ainu. When one girl reports that her purse has gone missing, she immediately points to Masa and though another girl defends her, the obvious racial overtones continue to get to her. Similarly, Yutaka finds himself getting into trouble with one of the other boys after he beats him on a test. Yutaka pays a heavier price (at least physically) but both children are left wondering about their place in the world and what the future might hold for them.

Masa’s bright hope revolves around her art teacher who draws a picture of her at a local watering hole which he intends to enter into a competition. The teacher has his sights firmly set on a career as an artist in Tokyo but like everyone else’s dreams, it proves harder to realise than he might have hoped. Perpetually left behind, Masa’s dreams crumble too as do those of her friend who has her romantic hopes crushed firstly by her well meaning grandmother and then secondly by an unexpectedly racist action by someone who had always been seen as a friend. If all of these difficulties weren’t enough, fate is about to deal Masa and Yutaka a very cruel blow indeed which leaves them at the mercy of an evil uncle worthy of any Dickens novel.

Like much of Naruse’s work, the outlook is extremely bleak. The children face such a hopeless future that the most they can do is affect a kind of false cheerfulness to try and raise their spirits. Masa and Yutaka are both mistreated by the general population, leaving them with a lingering sense of anger and resentment towards those that seem incapable of treating them like regular human beings. Their cousin, Koji, has apparently come to the conclusion that he has to stand up against such mistreatment, however, the ultimate harm that is done to the pair is done by a member of their own family acting with total disregard their feelings and wellbeing. At this point Koji reconsiders and says he understands now that it isn’t about Ainu or Japanese, there are just awful people everywhere. An odd, if depressingly stoic, late in the game plea for empathy and tolerance, this ironically positive statement sits very well with Naruse’s general feelings on human nature.

Whistling in Kotan is not one of Naruse’s more subtle efforts. The tone is relentlessly bleak as the children experience ever more degrading treatment solely because of their ethnic group. Even their supposed ally eventually turns on them exposing the last lingering threads of prejudice among even those who portray themselves as forthright liberals. The message is one of forbearance and patience, that times have changed and will change more but that one has to grin and bear it while they do. Pragmatic as that is, it does let society of the hook when it comes to the refusal to acknowledge and deal with consistent prejudice. Filled with Naruse’s sense of despair, Whistling in Kotan is an uneven yet interesting exploration of this sensitive subject though perhaps undoes much of its good work with its ambiguous and often blunt approach to the material.