Woman of Design (その場所に女ありて, Hideo Suzuki, 1962)

“This job poisons you and deprives you of your youth” according to conflicted ad-exec Ritsuko (Yoko Tsukasa) trying her best to make it in the still very male world of adverting. A snapshot of the city in the early ‘60s, Hideo Suzuki’s workplace melodrama Woman of Design (その場所に女ありて, Sono Basho ni Onna Arite) considers the changing position of women through the eyes of four friends working at the same company, each facing challenges mainly at the hands of useless men while trying to claim a space for themselves as individuals but discovering that they are still subject to a binary choice when it comes to deciding their romantic futures. 

A woman of around 30, Ritsuko has worked her way up to a fairly senior position at Nishigin Advertising which at least appears to be a fairly progressive company run by a compassionate boss who treats his employees equally with respect for all. Nevertheless, Nishigin is very interested in its bottom line especially as the company is apparently not doing so well to the extent that they’ve unfortunately had to cut back on their “entertainment” budget which is apparently how they win and keep clients. A new opportunity has presented itself in the chance to win a contract with a pharmaceuticals company to market their brand new drug aimed at “revitalising” the lives of the over 40s. Unfortunately, they have a rival in the form of Daitsu and suave adman Sakai (Akira Takarada) who appears to have pipped Ritsuko to the post in “seducing” their sleazy PR guy.

Though focussed on her career and somewhat resistant to romance, Ritsuko finds herself attracted to Sakai if eventually wondering if he’s only using her for inside info on Nishigin which she doesn’t directly give him but their relationship does perhaps soften her attitude. Sakai’s minor betrayal in poaching the head of their art department will eventually destroy any genuine feelings they may have had for each other while leaving Ritusko painfully aware of her vulnerabilities as a female employee and of the costs of her momentary decision to break with her long-held determination to keep her professional and private lives entirely separate, admitting that her relationship with Sakai may have been a mistake but refusing to resign because of it. Meanwhile, the boss of the pharmaceuticals company with whom she seems to be on good terms tries to blackmail her into attending an omiai meeting implying he’ll be much more likely to give them the contract if she goes. Not that they necessarily mean she should give up her career, but even Ritsuko’s colleagues seem to be keen that she get married, shocked that she might determine to remain single for the rest of her life. 

That’s exactly the decision her friend Yuko (Akemi Kita) has made, dedicating herself to her career but also moody and embittered. In fact though it is no way explicit, Yuko is strongly coded as a lesbian with a possible crush on friend and colleague Mitsuko (Kumi Mizuno), herself in a difficult position apparently pushed into debt because of an attachment to a no good man whose hospitals bill she has been paying. Ritsuko’s deskmate Hisae (Chisako Hara), meanwhile, is a divorcee wondering what she’s going to do when her ex, whom she’s still hung up on, stops paying alimony, and her sister is forever badgering her for money because her brother-in-law is an irresponsible layabout who can’t hold down a steady job and has no real intention of doing so. “Men who live off women are the worst” Yuko exasperatedly exclaims thoroughly fed up with the bunch of two bit louses who seem to have ruined the lives of all her friends. 

It’s not difficult to understand why Ritsuko may be ambivalent about marriage, but even at work she’s not free of selfish, entitled men who routinely take credit for her work. Sleazy college Kura (Tsutomu Yamazaki) from the art department is forever sucking up to her only to attempt rape while discussing work at her apartment, later brushing the affair off while talking to a female colleague by affirming that older women aren’t his thing anyway. He also undercuts her by visiting the client himself to discuss ideas and changes. Kura later wins a big design prize in part thanks to the slogan Ritsuko came up with only to annoy his colleagues by implying he handled the whole campaign single-handedly. Meanwhile, though in some ways progressive her bosses are conservative when it comes to the business, shutting down the art director’s suggestion of running with an out of the box campaign (the sexier ad featuring a muscular man in his briefs which he later sells to Sakai is the one which ends up winning). Tsuboichi (Jun Hamamura) and Kura perhaps too feel constrained by a top down hierarchal structure which frustrates innovation and in their own ways rebel, but as Ritsuko later makes plain in her speech to the boss if she wants to keep her position she has to play by the rules. “Life’s short. Especially for a woman. We have no room for mistakes” as Yuko cheerfully agrees.

Yet even within that, Ritsuko manages to redefine her boundaries, making it clear that she won’t be doing the omiai. She does not, however, reject marriage entirely only state that “I will get married only when I feel the time is right”, for the moment at least entirely focused on her career. Though the future may have looked gloomy, the crisis passes and the mood brightens significantly with the news that another company is about to officially announce the launch of a long-rumoured anti-ageing cream which provides another potentially lucrative campaign opportunity for Nishigin and of course for Ritsuko should she win it. Having opened with a series of still frames followed by hazy footage of a sea of workers wandering towards their offices on an overcast morning, Suzuki closes in the twilight with the three ladies leaving the office, their friendship solidified as they head off to celebrate renewed hope for the future bolstered by a sense of female solidarity.


A Woman’s Place (女の座, Mikio Naruse, 1962)

“A woman’s life is so dreary” laments a disappointed woman as she sits awkwardly at a funeral in Mikio Naruse’s A Woman’s Place (女の座, Onna no Za, AKA The Wiser Age). What exactly is “a woman’s place” in the changing post-war society? The continuing uncertainties of the age begin to burrow into the Ishikawa household as it becomes plain that the house is already divided, in several senses, as daughters and sons find themselves pulled in different directions, each of them perhaps banking on an inheritance to claim a different future. 

As the film opens, the sons and daughters of the Ishikawa family have been sent telegrams to come home at once because dad is at death’s door. Thankfully, that turns out to be premature. All he’s done is put his back out overdoing it in the garden by trying to lift a big rock in defiance of his age. Oldest daughter Matsuyo (Aiko Mimasu), who runs a boarding house, is quite put out to have rushed over for nothing, but everyone is obviously relieved that there turned out to be nothing to worry about after all. Widowed daughter-in-law Yoshiko (Hideko Takamine) realises that she needs to wire Michiko (Keiko Awaji) who moved to Kyushu when she got married that there’s no need to come, but she later turns up anyway along with her goofy husband Masaaki (Tatsuya Mihashi), claiming they’ve decided to make the trip a kind of honeymoon though it seems obvious to everyone that there must be reasons they seem intent on overstaying their welcome. 

“They depend on us, everyone does when they return home” mother/step-mother Aki (Haruko Sugimura) chuckles as Matsuyo and only remaining son Jiro (Keiju Kobayashi) pocket some paper towels from the family shop on their way out. Everyone is indeed depending on the family, not least for a clue as to where they stand as much as for a permanent place to return to. Three daughters of marriageable age still live at home. The oldest, Umeko (Mitsuko Kusabue), the daughter of patriarch Kinjiro’s (Chishu Ryu) first wife, has renounced the possibility of marriage and has made a career for herself as an ikebana teacher, a traditionally respectable occupation for “independent” women. In her 30s, she has become cruel and embittered, sniping at her sisters and always smirking away in a corner somewhere being aggressively miserable (nobody in the family seems to like Umeko very much, but still they accept her). Later she offers a sad, surprisingly romantic explanation for her decision in her unrequited love for a middle school classmate who died in the war, but is in someway revived by an unexpected attraction to a young man Matsuyo brings to the house who claims to be the infant boy Aki was forced to give up when she left her former husband’s family and married Kinjiro. 

The unexpected reappearance of Musumiya (Akira Takarada) destabilises the family across several levels, firstly in highlighting Aki’s awkward status as a second wife and step-mother to the two oldest children, and then by inciting a false romantic rivalry between the widowed Yoshiko and the unmarried Umeko. Umeko at one point cruelly describes Yoshiko as the only “outsider” in the household, viewing her connection to them now that her husband has died solely through the lens of being the mother of the only male grandchild, Ken (Kenzaburo Osawa). Yoshiko, only 36 years old, is repeatedly urged to remarry, but she like Aki would be forced to leave Ken behind if she did, though he is now a teenager and perhaps old enough not to feel abandoned. Ken in fact joins in encouraging his mother to find a second husband, but partly because she is always nagging him to study harder (something which will have have tragic, unexpected consequences). Yoshiko’s “place” in the household is therefore somewhat liminal, part of the family and yet not, because her status depends on solely on her relationships to others rather than blood. 

Nevertheless, Yoshiko is clearly in charge as we witness all of the other women disturbing her while she’s cooking to enquire after missing items, whether the bath is ready, or to attend to something in the store. Umeko has built her own smaller annex on another part of the property and mostly keeps to herself, while the two younger daughters busy themselves with a series of romantic subplots. Despite her sister Matsuyo’s eye-rolling that she should “forget about working and get married”, Natsuko (Yoko Tsukasa) is trying to find another job after being laid off when the company she worked for went bankrupt. Her brother, meanwhile, is experiencing the opposite problem in that it’s impossible to find and keep delivery staff at his ramen shop and he desperately needs help because his wife is pregnant again. Natsuko is convinced to “help out” though it’s clear that working in a ramen shop wasn’t what she had in mind, but it does bring her into contact with an eccentric friend of her sister Yukiko’s (Yuriko Hoshi) while she works on the box office of a nearby cinema. 

A crisis occurs when Natsuko is presented with the prospect of an accelerated arranged marriage to a man who took a liking to her while working at the company which went bust and has since got a job which requires him to relocate to Brazil. The ramen shop guy, Aoyama (Yosuke Natsuki), meanwhile is also getting a transfer but only to the top of Mount Fuji. Natsuko is torn, but also wonders if Yukiko actually wants Aoyama herself and only tried to set them up as a sort of test. In any case, both of these younger women also feel that their “place” is defined by marriage and their status conferred by their husbands even if they are exercising a personal preference in their choice, Yukiko’s in romance while Natsuko’s is perhaps a little more calculation in that she knew and liked her suitor but would not go so far as to call it “love”. 

In her own strange way, Umeko may be the most radical of the women in that she has attempted to define her own place through rejecting marriage and making enough money to buy her own home (albeit still on the family property) in a kind of independence, later deciding that perhaps she does want marriage after all but only on her own terms. Unfortunately, she is drawn to Musumiya whose presence poses a threat to the family on several levels, the most serious being that he is quickly exposed as a conman guilting Aki into assisting him financially while also trying some kind of car sale scam on the smitten Umeko who wants to add to her independence through learning to drive. Musumiya, it seems, prefers Yoshiko and his affection may well be genuine, but she is trapped once again. While she and Aki privately express their doubts about Musumiya, they have no desire to hurt Umeko’s feelings and cannot exactly come out and say that he is no good seeing as he is Aki’s son. Yoshiko stoically keeps the secret, perhaps also attracted to Musumiya but loyal to the Ishikawas and wanting no trouble from such a duplicitous man. Still, Umeko regards Yoshiko’s attempts to discourage her as “jealousy” and wastes no time embarrassing them both in a nasty public altercation. 

While all of this going on, there has been some talk that the shop may be compulsory purchased to make way for an Olympic road, and each of the Ishikawa children is eagerly awaiting their share of the compensation money, not least Michiko and her feckless husband who turns out to have fled Kyushu after getting fired from his job for assaulting a client. The “heir”, technically is Ken as the only male grandchild and Yoshiko’s tenuous status in the household is entirely conferred on her as his mother. When that disappears, her “place” is uncertain. Most of the others are for kicking her out, she’s not a “real” member of the family and so deserves none of the money with only Natsuko stopping to defend her. But, as so often, the widowed daughter-in-law turns out to be the only filial child. Mum and dad feel themselves displaced in their own home, somehow feeling they must stand aside, but it turns out they have plans of their own and Yoshiko is very much included. They want to take her with them, and if one day she decides to marry again then that’s perfectly OK and they will even provide a dowry for her as if she were one of their own daughters. 

“We have many children but they only think of themselves” Kinjiro laments, “let’s not worry about them and live peacefully by ourselves”. It’s easy to see their decision as a strategic retreat, as if they’re being left behind by a future they cannot be a part of, but it’s also in some ways an escape from the increasingly selfish post-war society. Yoshiko may not have actively chosen her “place” but she does at least have one and reserves the right to choose somewhere else in the future. The older Ishikawas choose to be happy on their own, freeing their children and giving them their blessing so long as they’re “doing their best”. It’s a strangely upbeat conclusion for a Naruse film, if perhaps undercut with a mild sense of resignation, but nevertheless filled with a hope for a happier future and an acknowledgement that “family” can work but only when it is defined by genuine feeling and not merely by blood. 


The Last War (世界大戦争, Shue Matsubayashi, 1961)

As The Last War (世界大戦争, Sekai Daisenso) points out, by 1961 16 years had passed since the end of World War Two during which Japan had begun to rebuild itself, heading into a period of unprecedented economic prosperity with the Olympics already on the horizon. But the early 1960s were also a time of increased international tension as the Cold War mounted and many in Japan feared being pulled into another conflict especially with the Korean War not quite so much in the distant past. Toho had become the home of special effects cinema and such films were often coloured with strong messages of peace and social responsibility as humanity banded together to combat an existential threat be it a giant monster or mad scientist. The Last War is no different in that regard, but sadder in showing us that the end of the world may come suddenly and without warning and that if we for a second become complacent it could already be too late to stop it. 

Patriarch Mokichi (Frankie Sakai) has made a decent life for himself after the war working as a driver. His wife, Oyoshi (Nobuko Otowa), is in poor health and he dreams of buying a house by the sea where she can live in comfort. Meanwhile, they have a grownup daughter, Saeko (Yuriko Hoshi), born before the war, and two much younger children, a girl, Haru, and boy, Ichiro. They are a very happy, very ordinary family who are beginning to think that their days of hardship are finally behind them and they have escaped the war’s shadow. The only note of potential conflict lies in the fact that Saeko wants to marry a family friend, Takano (Akira Takarada), a sailor, and is afraid of Mokichi’s reaction, especially as he keeps trying to set up matches for her. 

In fact, having lived through the war Oyoshi and Mokichi are certain that nothing like that is going to happen again, even if the younger generation is filled with anxiety. “Who could ever profit from the destruction of the Earth?” Mokichi not unreasonably asks, signalling his newly consumerist world view. Mind you, he adds, everyone knows the alternative to calamity is hard work, “you have to work hard for peace”. 

Mokichi has indeed been working hard, but has perhaps begun to neglect other areas of his life in his desire to become rich even if that desire is only to make his family more comfortable and give his children better opportunities than he had. Brought over to see a new TV set now on sale, he scoffs that he already has one, “Who needs a second TV?” he asks, but on hearing the news that tensions are rising because a military plane has gone down off the coast of Africa, his first thought is to get on the phone to his broker and junk his real estate stocks for shares in aeronautics. Mokichi is unconvinced by an old man selling potatoes on their street who apparently lost everything in Hiroshima and has since become a devoted Christian donating most of his profits to anti-nuclear charities, describing him as just “showing off”, firmly believing that nothing like that is ever going to happen again. “I cannot accept it” he says, “what would be the point of the aspirations of humble folk like us if we’re all destined to go poof into extinction?”.  

As the only nation to have directly experienced nuclear war, the intense fear of its recurrence is indeed understandable. If a nuclear war escalates, it will be the end of everything. All human endeavours over thousands of years will be mere dust. There will be no weddings, no births, no graduations, no grand discoveries, just nothing. When the bomb does indeed hit, the scenes of devastation must have proved extremely traumatic for many in the audience as buildings crumble ominously, the sky turns a fiery red, the streets run with lava, and we can see the outlines of charred bodies lying among the wreckage. The tip of the Diet building sits neatly atop the rubble as if in rebuke of the political failures which, despite the best efforts of the Japanese politicians who make an effort to govern responsibly and are honest with the electorate while advocating strongly for peace through diplomatic channels, have led to the literal end of the world. “You have to work hard for peace” the closing title card reminds us. “We can stop this before it happens, but we have to work together”. “I won’t let you destroy our happiness” Mokichi had screamed at the void, but in the end he was powerless. All it takes is a minor slip, and the world as we know it will cease to be.


Dance with Me (ダンスウィズミー, Shinobu Yaguchi, 2019)

Dance With Me posterYou might be rich and successful, but are you really being true to yourself? The heroine of Shinobu Yaguchi’s latest comedy Dance With Me (ダンスウィズミー) thinks that she is, cynically rolling her eyes at her colleagues mooning over the cute new boss but jumping at the opportunity to join his elite team. Meanwhile, she’s ignoring her family, has few friends, and seems distinctly uptight. Is there more to Shizuka (Ayaka Miyoshi) than meets the eye, or is she really destined for the life of a dull office drone?

Everything starts to change for her one day when she’s bamboozled into looking after her teenage niece and decides to take her to a weird theme park she noticed on a flyer that got stuck to her shoe. It’s there, in Fortune Land, that Shizuka ends up visiting a shady hypnotist named “Martyn” (Akira Takarada) who offers to give her niece some treatment so she can perform to her full potential in an upcoming high school musical. This comes as news to Shizuka, because they were just mocking the art of the musical on the bus, but when she steps out to answer her phone she notices the cheapo ring Martyn gave her on the way in won’t come off. Sure enough, his “treatment” seems to have worked, only on the wrong person. Now whenever Shizuka hears any kind of music at all she can’t resist breaking into song and dance like the heroine of an old Hollywood musical.

It seems in her youth Shizuka loved singing and dancing, but a traumatic bout of stage fright put her off for life. While her family are all cheerfully energetic and easy going, she is uptight and reserved. Now a middle-rank executive at a top rated company, she’s dedicated herself to achieving the idealised image expected of female businesswomen – elegant, professional, and above all quiet. Her new affliction is therefore a major problem, as she proves to herself by breaking into song during an important meeting with the magic Mr. Murakami (Takahiro Miura) who might be able to take her career to the next level.

Luckily, the incident isn’t really quite so bad as she thought seeing as Murakami’s business idea was a little left of centre so her strange behaviour looked like an unusual pitching technique that makes her seem an attractive asset to Murakami’s new team which is currently a member down after the last girl took too much vacation time and then quit. Offered the post, Shizuka asks for a week’s grace and determines to track down Martyn so he can undo the hypnotism, but Martyn is currently on the run from loan sharks so it’s going to be more difficult than she thought.

Forced to sell all her worldly possessions to make up for a restaurant she accidentally trashed, Shizuka takes to the road armed only with her niece’s piggy bank and accompanied by Martyn’s former shill, Chie (Yu Yashiro). Despite herself, she begins to shake off her carefully crafted corporate persona and open herself up to the pleasures of music and movement, freeing both her body and her mind. Her total opposite, Chie is a laidback woman who loves to have a good a time and doesn’t generally think too much beyond the present moment. Though obviously very different and united only by their quests to track down Martyn, the two women develop an awkward friendship in which they begin to see their own flaws as reflected in each other and shift into the centre as they learn to work together while chasing Martyn all the way to Hokkaido.

A chance encounter with a crazy hippie singer-songwriter (Chay) who claims she broke up with her last band because she couldn’t bear to hide from herself anymore pushes Shizuka (whose name literally means “quiet”) into a reconsideration of her life choices, feeling that perhaps she was wrong to reject the frightened little girl she was so completely out of embarrassment and insecurity, wilfully suppressing her sense of fun and freedom for the safety and security of corporate button-down respectability. As the mental health specialist she visited in hope of a cure suggested, maybe the reason she was so suggestible is that, deep down, she always wanted to sing and dance anyway. A musical celebration of the pleasure of living life to its fullest, Dance With Me is a cheerful exploration of one woman’s gradual emergence from emotional repression into a richer, fuller existence as she rediscovers her essential self through the medium of song and dance.


Dance with Me screens in New York on July 19 as the opening night gala of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Playlist:

Tonight -Hoshi no Furu Yoru ni- (Kumiko Yamashita, 1991)

ACT-SHOW (Spectrum, 1979)

Happy Valley (Orange Pekoe, 2002)

Neraiuchi (Linda Yamamoto, 1973)

Yume no Naka e (Yosui Inoue, 1973)

Toshishita no Otoko no Ko (Candies, 1975)

Wedding Bell (Sugar, 1981)

Time Machine ni Onegai (Sadistic Mica Band, 1974)

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)

Ironfinger (100発100中, Jun Fukuda, 1965)

Ironfinger posterBy 1965, Japan was back on the international map as the host of the last Olympics. The world was opening up, but the gleefully surreal universe of Toho spy movies isn’t convinced that’s an entirely good thing. Jun Fukuda had begun his career at Toho working on more “serious“ fare but throughout the 1960s began to lean towards comedy of the absurd, slapstick variety. 1965’s Ironfinger (100発100中, Hyappatsu Hyakuchu) boasts a script by Kihachi Okamoto – Okamoto might be best remembered for his artier pieces but even these are underpinned by his noticeably surreal sense of humour and Ironfinger is certainly filled with the director’s cheerful sense of cartoonish fun with its colourful smoke bombs, cigarette lighters filled with cyanide gas, and zany mid-air rescues. The English title is, obviously, a James Bond reference (the Japanese title is the relatively more typical “100 shots, 100 Kills”) and the film would also get a 1968 sequel which added the spytastic “Golden Eye” (though it would be given a more salacious title, Booted Babe, Busted Boss, for export). Strangely the unlikely villains this time around are the French as Tokyo finds itself at the centre of an international arms smuggling conspiracy unwittingly uncovered by a “bumbling vacationer”.

We first meet our hero as he’s writing a postcard to his mum in which he details his excitement in thinking that he’s made a friend of the nice Japanese man in the next seat seeing as he’s finally stopped ignoring him. When they land in Hong Kong, our guy keeps shadowing his “friend” until he decides to ask him about “Le Bois” to which his “friend” seems surprised but is gunned down by bike riding assassins before he can answer though he manages to get out the word “Tokyo” before breathing his last. Picking up his friend’s passport and swanky hat, our guy becomes “Andrew Hoshino” (Akira Takarada) – a “third generation Japanese Frenchman” and “possibly” a member of Interpol.

The bumbling “Andy”, who can’t stop talking about his mother and is very particular about his hat (for reasons which will become clear), is obviously not all he seems. Despite his penchant for pratfalls and cheeky dialogue, he also seems to be a crack shot with a pistol and have an ability to talk himself out of almost any situation – at least with the aid of his various spy gadgets including his beloved cigarette lighter and a knife concealed in his wristwatch for cutting himself free should he get tied up. Andy “said” he was just here on holiday, but are all those postcards really for his dear old mum waiting for him in Paris or could they have another purpose? Why is he so keen on finding out about “Le Bois” and why does he always seem to end up at the centre of the action?

These are all questions which occur to one of his early antagonists – Yumi (Mie Hama), the ace explosives expert who often feels under-appreciated in the otherwise all male Akatsuki gang. Apprehending Andy, Yumi originally falls for his bumbling charm only to quickly see through his act and realise she might be better hedging her bets with him – hence she finally teams up with Andy and straight laced streetcop Tezuka (Ichiro Arishima) who’s been trying to keep a lid on the growing gang violence between the Aonuma who now run the town and the Akatsuki who want to regain control. Andy doesn’t much care about sides in a silly territorial dispute, but it might all prove helpful in his overall mission which is, it turns out, very much in keeping both with that of the gang-affiliated Yumi and law enforcement officer Tezuka.

There isn’t much substance in Ironfinger, but then there isn’t particularly intended to be. There is however a mild degree of international anxiety as our heroes become, in a sense, corrupted by French sophistication whilst “relying” on “Interpol” to solve all their problems (“Interpol” is frequent presence in Toho’s ‘60s spoofs providing a somewhat distant frontline defence against international spy conspiracies). Fukuda keeps things moving to mask the relative absence of plot as the guys get themselves into ever more extreme scrapes before facing certain death on a mysterious island only to save themselves through a series of silly boys own schemes to outwit their captors. Perhaps not as much fun or not quite as interesting as some of Toho’s other humorous ‘60s fare, Ironfinger is nevertheless a good old fashioned espionage comedy filled with zany humour and a cartoonish sense of the absurd.


Akira Takarada shows off his French

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)

A Sparkle Of Life (燦燦 さんさん, Bunji Sotoyama, 2013)

sparkle-of-lifeAs Japan’s society ages, the lives of older people have begun to take on an added dimension. Rather than being relegated to the roles of kindly grandmas or grumpy grandpas, cinema has finally woken up to the fact that older people are still people with their own stories to tell even if they haven’t traditionally fitted established cinematic genres. Of course, some of this is down to the power of the grey pound rather than an altruistic desire for inclusive storytelling but if the runaway box office success of A Sparkle of Life (燦燦 さんさん, Sansan) is anything to go by, there may be more of these kinds of stories in the pipeline.

77 year old Tae (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) lost her husband some years ago after nursing him through a long illness. Spotting a pretty wedding dress in a shop window and examining the adverts on the outside, Tae ventures in and attempts to sign up with the matchmaking service which so prominently promises a happy ending at its doorway. The clerk is surprised, to say the least, after realising that Tae is not a pushy relative trying to find a spouse for an unmarried son or daughter but is seeking someone to brighten her remaining days. Now that she is totally free, Tae just wants to feel her heart flutter again and perhaps enjoy the warm glow of companionship one last time.

Looking it up on the computer, Ayako (Kanami Tagawa) – the assistant dealing with Tae’s application, is surprised to find there are a number of older men already on the books. Accordingly, she sets Tae up with some of the more promising candidates though it seems that men don’t really change all that much and not all of them are exactly after “a relationship” after all. Eventually Tae hits it off with a charming older gentleman, Yuichiro (Gaku Yamamoto), who seems to be everything she wants in a partner but there’s something else that seems to be keeping them apart.

Just as Ayako originally reacted with mild horror on learning that Tae herself was seeking a romantic partner, not everyone approves of her decision. Tae’s longtime friend (the best friend of her late husband), Shinji (Akira Takarada), is strangely angry and somewhat resentful though, predictably, he has reasons which are more personal than social or moral when it comes right down to it. Tae’s family, finding out by accident after letting themselves into her home while she’s out, are also outraged. Getting over the shock, Tae’s son announces that he supposes it’s OK for her to think about getting remarried but finds the idea of using a dating service embarrassing and orders her to stop right away.

Like Tae’s son, many people try to infantilise Tae and her friends, relegating them to a kind of second childhood now that their working or family lives have ended. Running into her friends from the Sunny Day Club, Tae is exasperated by their game of throwing hoops which, as Shinji says, they used to enjoy as children. Tae may be older but she still wants more out of life than being handed a juice box and told to sit in the corner while the grownups talk.

Dating is, however, harder with so much already in the past. Yuichiro may describe his relationship with Tae as being like a second stab at first love but with everything so different than it was before the situation presents its own set of difficulties. The essential problems are, of course, the same though Tae’s longed for second chance for love may have been right by her side all these years only too bound up with duty and tradition to have made his feelings plain.

Bunji Sotoyama’s approach is tailor made for his target audience but the warm and gentle atmosphere coupled with the often laugh out loud humour is sure to appeal to all age groups. Tae’s quest for love and determination to enjoy the time she has left to the fullest despite what anyone else might have to say about it is a quiet but firm bid for freedom and individual happiness in old age rather than the unwelcome relegation to the world of second childhood otherwise offered to women in Tae’s position. A comedic tale of late life love, A Sparkle of Life is a lesson in realising you only see the fireworks once it begins to get dark but that only makes them all the more precious.


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

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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.


 

A Woman’s Story (女の歴史, Mikio Naruse, 1963)

woman's storyMikio Naruse made the lives of everyday women the central focus of his entire body of work but his 1963 film, A Woman’s Story (女の歴史, Onna no Rekishi), proves one of his less subtle attempts to chart the trials and tribulations of post-war generation. Told largely through extended flashbacks and voice over from Naruse’s frequent leading actress, Hideko Takamine, the film paints a bleak vision of the endless suffering inherent in being a woman at this point in history but does at least offer a glimmer of hope and understanding as the curtains falls.

We meet Nobuko Shimizu (Hideko Takamine) in the contemporary era where she is a successful proprietor of a beauty salon in bustling ‘60s Tokyo. She has a grown up son who works as a car salesman though he’s often kept out late entertaining clients and has less and less time for the mother who gave up so much on his behalf. Her life is about to change when Kohei (Tsutomu Yamazaki) suddenly announces that he wants to get married – his lady love is a bar hostess to whom he’s become a knight in shining armour after saving her from a violent and persistent stalker. Needless to say, Nobuko does not approve both for the selfish reason that she isn’t ready to “lose” her son, and because of the social stigma of adding a woman who’s been employed in that line of work to the family.

All of this is about to become (almost) irrelevant as tragedy strikes leaving Nobuko to reflect on all the long years of suffering she’s endured up to this point only to have been struck by such a cruel and unexpected blow. An arranged marriage, her husband’s infidelity, the war which cost her home, possessions and also the entirely of her family, and finally the inescapable pain of lost love as the man who offers her salvation is quickly removed from her life only to resurface years later with the kind of pleasantries one might offer a casual acquaintance made at party some years ago. Life has dealt Nobuko a series of hard knocks and now she’s become hard too, but perhaps if she allows herself to soften there might be something worth living for after all.

Women of a similar age in 1963 would doubtless find a lot to identify with in Nobuko’s all too common set of personal tragedies. They too were expected to consent to an arranged marriage with its awkward wedding night and sudden plunge into an unfamiliar household. Nobuko has been lucky in that her husband is a nice enough man who actually had quite a crush on her though there is discord within the household and Nobuko also has to put up with the unwelcome attentions of her father-in-law. This familial tension later implodes though fails to resolve itself just as Japan’s military endeavours mount up and Nobuko gives birth to her little boy, Kohei. Husband Kouichi becomes increasingly cold towards her before being drafted into the army leaving her all alone with a young child.

All these troubles only get worse when the war ends. Though Kouichi’s former company had been paying his salary while he was at the front, they care little for his widow now. Left with nothing to do but traffic rice, Nobuko comes back into contact with her husband’s old friend, Akimoto (Tatsuya Nakadai), who wants to help her but is himself involved in a series of illegal enterprises. Nobuko is molested twice by a loud and drunken man who accosts her firstly on a crowded train (no one even tries to help her) and then again at a cafe where she is only saved by the intervention of Akimoto, arriving just in the nick of time. Nobuko sacrifices her chances at happiness to care for Kohei, caring about nothing else except his survival and eventual success.

Of course, Kohei isn’t particularly grateful and feels trapped by his mother’s overwhelming love for him. Nobuko’s sacrifices have also made her a little bit selfish and afraid of being eclipsed in the life of her son. It’s easy to understand the way that she later behaves towards Kohei’s new bride, but if she wants to maintain any kind of connection to the son that’s become her entire world, she will need to learn to allow another woman to share it with her.

Naruse is a master at capturing the deep seated, hidden longings that women of his era were often incapable of realising but A Woman’s Story flirts with melodrama whilst refusing to engage. The awkward flashback structure lends the film a degree of incoherence which frustrates any attempt to build investment in Nobuko’s mounting sorrows, and the voiceover also adds an additional layer of bitterness which makes it doubly hard to swallow. This is in no way helped by the frequently melodramatic music which conspires to ruin any attempts at subtlety in favour of maudlin sentimentality. The endless suffering of mid-twentieth century women is all too well drawn as grief gives way to heartbreak and self sacrifice, though Naruse does at least offer the chance to begin again with the hope of a brighter and warmer future of three women and a baby building the world of tomorrow free of bombs and war and sorrow.