The Wandering Princess (流転の王妃, Kinuyo Tanaka, 1960)

Wandering Princess posterAs in her third film, The Eternal Breasts, Kinuyo Tanaka’s fourth directorial feature, The Wandering Princess (流転の王妃, Ruten no Ouhi), finds her working with extremely recent material – in this case the memoirs of Japanese noblewoman Hiro Saga which had become a bestseller immediately after publication in 1959. Tanaka’s filmic adaptation arrived mere months later in January 1960 which was, in an ironic twist, a year before the real life tale would meet something like the conventional romantic ending familiar from classic melodrama. Nevertheless, working with Daiei’s top talent including Kon Ichikawa’s regular screenwriter (and wife) Natto Wada, Tanaka attempts to reframe the darkness of the preceding 20 years as the defeat of compassionate idealism at the hands of rigid austerity and unstoppable oppression.

Tanaka opens with a scene taking place in 1957 which in fact depicts a somewhat notorious incident already known to the contemporary audience and otherwise unexplained on-screen in which the older Ryuko (Machiko Kyo) tenderly bends over the body of lifeless schoolgirl. The camera then pulls back to find another girl in school uniform, Ryuko, twenty years earlier. A young woman with innocent dreams, Ryuko’s life encounters the usual kind of unwelcome disruption in the unexpected arrival of a marriage proposal but this is no ordinary wedding. Ryuko, as the oldest daughter of a prominent noble family, has been selected as a possible bride for the younger brother of the former Qing emperor now installed as the symbolic leader of the Japanese puppet state of Manchuria. Against the odds, Ryuko and her new husband Futetsu (Eiji Funakoshi) are well matched and endeavour to build a happy home together just as they intend to commit themselves to the creation of a new nation born from the twin legacies of the fallen Chinese empire and the resurgent Japan.

Foregrounding Ryuko’s experience, the film does its best to set “politics” aside but the inescapable truth is that each of our protagonists is a prisoner of the times in which they live. The second scene finds Ryuko in 1937 as an innocent schoolgirl gazing at the young men in uniform as they march past her. She remains out of step with them, walking idly and at her own uneven rhythm while they keep rigorous and seemingly unstoppable time. The family are understandably wary of the implications of the marriage proposal, especially as it comes with a military escort, with Ryuko’s beloved grandmother the only one brave enough to ask to see whoever’s in charge of this outrage only to be told that their fates are in the hands of the nebulous concept known as “army” which knows no individual will.

Assured by her family that the decision rests with her, Ryuko consents – not only to becoming a stranger’s wife (which would have been her fate in any case) but to being a kind of ambassador, the presentable face of imperial ambition. On her marriage she’s presented with a deep red cheongsam and continues to dress in Chinese fashion for remainder of her life in Manchuria where she learns to speak Mandarin and devotes herself to becoming as Chinese as it’s possible to be. Meanwhile, her husband Futetsu busies himself with a complementary desire to become Japanese, intensely worried that the sometimes degrading treatment he and his family receive is exclusively caused by his problematic nationality. When their daughter, Eisei, is born, the couple determine to raise her as the child of a new world, the embodiment of idealised cultural integration.

The world, however, is not so kind and the blunt force of militarism continues to present a barrier to familial harmony. Futetsu is prevented from seeing his brother by the officious forces of the military police while the lonely, paranoid “emperor” suspects that Ryuko is nothing more than a Japanese spy sent to undermine his rule. Ryuko was sent to Manchuria to be the bridge between two cultures. Her, in a sense, feminine energy which attempts to build connection through compassion and understanding is consistently contrasted with the prevailing male energy of the age which prizes only destruction and dominance. Filled with the naivety of idealism, she truly believes in the goodness of the Manchurian project and is entirely blind to the less altruistic actions of her countrymen engaged in the same endeavour.

Confronted by some children in a park while pushing the infant Eisei in a pram, Ryuko is identified as a Japanese woman by her accent while conversing in Mandarin. She assures the children that Eisei is Manchurian like them, and that seeing as she married a Manchurian she is now too despite her Japanese birth. The kids are satisfied, so much so that they warn her that some Manchurians were killed recently in this park by Japanese soldiers, adding a mild complaint that it upsets their parents when Japanese people come to their restaurant and leave without paying. Mortified, Ryuko decides to use some of her (meagre) resources to buy all of the kids and everyone else in the park some sweets from a nearby stand, fulfilling her role as a Japanese ambassador even while insisting that she is a proud citizen of the newly born state of Manchuria.

Nevertheless the Manchurian project is doomed to fail, the kind of idealism fought for by Ryuko and Futetsu crushed under the boot of militarism. Despite everything, Ryuko still wants to be the bridge if only to prevent a catastrophe of this kind happening again (while perhaps refusing to engage with some of the reasons it happened in the first place) but in Eisei’s eventual death, foreshadowed in the melancholy opening, a deeply uncomfortable implication is made that the kind of cross-cultural harmony that Ryuko dreams of may not be viable. In contrast to the salaciously reported real life events (somewhat alluded to by presence of a schoolboy’s cap next to the body) which hinted at a suicide pact or murder, Ryuko attributes Eisei’s decision to end her life to an inability to reconcile her twin heritage coupled with the heavy burden of being the last descendent of the Qing Dynasty. Despite this minor misstep of tying the fate of Eisei to the failure of the Manchurian dream and the loss of its misplaced idealism, Ryuko ends her account on a hopeful note in admiring the flowers she planted finally in bloom and looking forward to a more hopeful age governed by warmth and compassion rather than violence and austerity.


The Wandering Princess was presented by Japan Foundation London as part of a series of events marking the publication of Tanaka Kinuyo: Nation, Stardom and Female Subjectivity.

Odd Obsession (鍵, Kon Ichikawa, 1959)

odd-obsessionJunichiro Tanizaki is widely regarded as one of the major Japanese literary figures of the twentieth century with his work frequently adapted for the cinema screen. Those most familiar with Kon Ichikawa’s art house leaning pictures such as war films The Burmese Harp or Fires on the Plain might find it quite an odd proposition but in many ways, there could be no finer match for Tanizaki’s subversive, darkly comic critiques of the baser elements of human nature than the otherwise wry director. Odd Obsession (鍵, Kagi) may be a strange title for this adaptation of Tanizaki’s well known later work The Key, but then again “odd obsessions” is good way of describing the majority of Tanizaki’s career. A tale of destructive sexuality, the odd obsession here is not so much pleasure or even dominance but a misplaced hope of sexuality as salvation, that the sheer force of stimulation arising from desire can in some way be harnessed to stave off the inevitable even if it entails a kind of personal abstinence.

Our narrator for this sardonic tale is an ambitious young doctor, Kimura (Tatsuya Nakadai), who opens the film in an unusually meta fashion with a direct to camera address taking the form of a brief lecture on the decline of the human body (which begins at age ten and then gets progressively worse). Kimura reminds us that we too will grow old, but his warning is intended less to engender sympathy for the elderly patriarch who will become our secondary protagonist than it is to raise a grim spectre of the inescapability of death.

The story Kimura wants to tell us of a man who fought against senility centres on antiques expert and respected cultural critic Kenmochi (Ganjiro Nakamura). Advanced in years, Kenmochi is beginning to feel the darkness encroaching along with the desire to resist it through restored virility. For this reason, he’s been making regular appointments at Kimura’s clinic which he keeps secret from his wife who would be unhappy to know he’s been getting mysterious injections to help with his sex drive but which also come with a number of side effects including dangerously raising his blood pressure.

Eventually Ikuko (Machiko Kyo), Kenmochi’s slightly younger wife and mother of his grown up daughter Toshiko (Junko Kano), does indeed find out though what she does not appear to know is that Kenmochi has also been drugging her so that he can take photos of her naked body and enjoy his rights as her husband without her needing to be 100% present at the time. Kenmochi’s plan is to lure Kimura into having an affair with his wife so that the resultant jealousy will stimulate his system, staving off senility and other unwelcome effects of ageing. This would be strange enough on its own were it not that Kenmochi has also been trying to set up a marriage between Toshiko and Kimura who are already engaged in a discreet affair.

In contrast with the source material which takes the form of a number of diary entries providing differing perspectives on events, the film takes the point of view of the cynical and morally bankrupt doctor Kimura who feels himself above this “pathetic” old man with his sexual preoccupations and diminished prospects. As the narrator, Kimura evidently believes himself in control but Ichikawa is keen to play with our sense of the rules of storytelling to show him just how wrong he could be. Intrigue is everywhere. Kenmochi may think he’s using all around him in a clever game to prolong his own life but he’s entirely blind to a series of counter games which may be taking place behind his back.

Sex is quite literally a weapon – aimed at the heart of death. Kimura recounts a dream he sometimes has in which he is shot through the heart in an arid desert, only for this same scene to invade the mind of a paralysed Kenmochi on gazing at the naked body of his wife. The marriage of Kenmochi and Ikuko has apparently been a cold (and perhaps unhappy) one with Kenmochi berating his wife for remaining “priest’s daughter” all these years later, prudish and conventional. Nevertheless, Ikuko – the kimonoed figure of the traditional Japanese wife, subservient yet mysterious and melancholy, becomes the central pivot around which all the men turn, eclipsing her own daughter – a Westernised, sexually liberated young woman rendered undesirable in her very availability. Kimura is not quite the destructive interloper of Pasolini’s Theorem so much as he is a “key” used by Kenmochi to “unlock” a hidden capacity within himself but one which, as it turns out, opens many doors not all of them leading to intended, or expected, destinations.

Ichikawa continues with a more experimental approach than was his norm following the bold opening scene in which Kimura directly addresses the audience with a straight to camera monologue. A pointed symbolic sequence of a train coupling, freeze frames, dissolves and montages add to his alienated perspective as he adopts Kimura’s arch commentary on the ongoing disaster which is the extremely dysfunctional Kenmochi family home. Middle class and well to do, the Kenmochis’ lives are nevertheless empty – the house is mortgaged and the beautiful statues which taunt Kenmochi with their physical perfection have all already been sold though Kenmochi refuses to let the buyer take them home. Old age should burn and rave at close of day, but as the beautifully ironic ending makes plain it will be of little use, death is in the house wearing an all too familiar face which you will always fail to recognise.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017.

Opening scene (no subtitles)

Her Brother (おとうと, Kon Ichikawa, 1960)

ototoPerhaps oddly for a director of his generation, Kon Ichikawa is not particularly known for family drama yet his 1960 effort, Her Brother (おとうと, Ototo), draws strongly on this genre albeit with Ichikawa’s trademark irony. A Taisho era tale based on an autobiographically inspired novel by Aya Koda, Her Brother is the story of a sister’s unconditional love but also of a woman who is, in some ways, forced to sacrifice herself for her family precisely because of their ongoing emotional neglect.

Oldest daughter Gen (Keiko Kishi) is still in school though she’s more or less running the household seeing as her invalid step-mother (Kinuyo Tanaka) spends most of her time bedridden with rheumatism and the rest of it pontificating about religion and listening to her poisonous friend (Kyoko Kishida) who likes to stir up trouble in this already difficult family environment. Gen’s father (Masayuki Mori) is a well known writer who needs a lot of quiet time for his work. As fathers go he’s very laid back and content to think his kids will be OK because they’re his kids, which isn’t to say he doesn’t care but he’s not exactly present most of the time. It’s no surprise then that care of the family’s youngest, Hekiro (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), has largely fallen to his sister. Where Gen is naturally responsible and practically minded, Hekiro is reckless and always in search of adventure. Eventually this lands him in trouble when he gets involved with a bad crowd but whatever his family might have been feeling towards him, everything changes once they discover that he’s facing a serious illness.

Because of the family’s odd arrangement, Gen has become almost a maternal figure towards Hekiro despite only being a couple of years older than he is. In fact, the pair have an almost comically childish physical fight at one point which is quite undignified considering their ages, especially when it involves staining their tatami mat floor with a puddle of bright red ink. Gen does her best but like her father she more often than not lets Hekiro off the hook by bailing him out, much of the time with her own rather than her father’s money. Not having the kind of authority a parent, uncle, or aunt might have all she can really do is ask him to think about behaving better, but Hekiro constantly pushes the boundaries to get a more concrete form of attention than his sister’s well meaning attempts to help are able to provide.

Hekiro’s stunts  eventually threaten to pull his sister into his darkening world, especially when a man claiming to be a detective starts more or less stalking Gen before pulling her into a shrine on the pretext of talking about her brother’s case before trying to have his wicked way with her. Luckily Gen is saved by a flock of geese cunningly released by some of her brother’s friends which gives her enough time to escape and finally get rid of the odious little man.

Similarly, Hekiro deliberately introduces his sister to the local pool hall. Though Gen seems to enjoy the game and is even good at it, she quickly realises she’s been brought as a sort of guarantor for her brother’s mounting debts. Add in other expensive and dangerous hobbies like his boat habit (he can’t swim) and it’s not surprising everyone’s had enough of Hekiro before he’s even left school. When he has an accident which results in the death of a horse (again, very expensive), it does at least lead him to reflect on the negative effect his actions can have on those around him, even if all he wanted and continues to want is an escape from his boring and miserable family life.

Even Hekiro’s illness fails to arouse very much in the way of concern from his well meaning father and grumpy step-mother who is hellbent on marrying Gen off against her wishes. Gen is, again, the only one to nurse Hekiro in hospital, managing the household as well as looking after her brother on his sickbed. When the illness becomes more serious it provides a last opportunity for the family members to bond and make amends for the various ways they’ve failed each other. The step-mother’s visit is not as altruistic as it seems when it transpires she’s only really come to “convert” Hekiro to her religion, but she begins to feel something more for him on believing that Jesus has already saved him thanks to his outwardly calm and polite manner. The final irony is that the idealised family is only born as it is destroyed, Gen puts her pinny back on and takes the reins from her stepmother who is presumably headed straight back to bed.

Gen’s devotion can’t save her brother either from himself or his fate and it may even be the end of her too. Vowing never to marry and rising from her own sickbed stopping only to instruct her stepmother to rest, she’s very clearly chosen her path even if Ichikawa’s camera and musical cues seem to find the ironic comedy of the situation rather than the sadness of her possibly tragic plight. Ichikawa and his cinematographer invented a whole new technique for this picture – the bleach bypass, which appropriately robs the environment of its vibrancy, dulling even bright colours with a sort of heavy leaded effect perfectly reflecting Hekiro’s increasingly depressed mindset as he reflects on being someone who has no firm anchor or place to feel at home. A strange, comically melancholic piece, Her Brother is a characteristically sideways swipe at the family drama from the master of irony though one which does not altogether escape his taste for the sentimental.


Original trailer (not subtitles)