Phoenix (不死鳥, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1947)

“Life is about facing your loneliness” according to the heroine of Keisuke Kinoshita’s Phoenix (不死鳥, Fushicho), a woman who’s known her share of suffering but has learned to endure. She knows not only war widows are lonely, and she’s not the only war widow, so she’s doing her best to be as happy as one can be under the circumstances. As much about its nation’s rebirth from the ashes, Phoenix is also quietly subversive in its critique of outdated social conventions and enthusiasm for a woman’s right to seek her independence rather than rely on the support of the traditional family. 

In 1947, Sayoko (Kinuyo Tanaka) is a much loved daughter-in-law and mother to Ken, who is about to celebrate his fourth birthday. She takes care of the household and looks after the numerous Yasaka siblings while putting up with her sometimes grumpy father-in-law (Isamu Kosugi) who harshly scolds little Ken when he throws a stone through the side window but feels guilty about it afterwards and vows to come home with sweets to make it up to him. Life with the Yasakas is peaceful and happy, though the present crisis, which isn’t really a crisis so much as a matter for consideration, is the potential marriage of younger son Yuji (Akira Yamanouchi) who has been wanting to marry his girlfriend Yoko but had been worried both that his parents would object to him trying to choose his own bride without their input, and that bringing another young woman into the house as a new wife might be insensitive, leaving Sayoko feeling sad and unwelcome. 

Yuji’s mother tells him that he doesn’t need to worry on either point, she and his father have long been in favour of the marriage which hints at something of a sea change in contemporary social attitudes. In Sayoko’s flashbacks to her early courtship, we see Shinichi (Keiji Sada), her later husband, bring her to his family home with the intention of introducing her to his parents as his future bride, but his father won’t even see her, loudly shouting that Shinichi should immediately ask her to leave. His objections are largely feudal in nature, Shinichi is the oldest son and his marriage is therefore of great importance to the family name. Not only does he not know anything about Sayoko, whom he basically calls a loose woman for daring to date while in high school, but he deeply resents that Shinichi has gone behind his back, defied his authority, and tried to arrange his own marriage without his father’s input. 

Despite the clear intention of the pair to continue their association with or without his consent, Mr. Yasaka continues to object. Shinichi insists that “nothing can separate us” despite knowing that he has already enlisted for the army and will shortly be leaving for the war. Sayoko holds the line, resisting even when her father dies and pushy relatives try to railroad her into an arranged marriage which will benefit them financially, and supporting her younger brother who is spared the war but only because he is already in the later stages of incurable TB.

Mr. Yasaka’s objections gain more weight with the war’s intensity. With her brother on his deathbed, he turns up to ask Sayoko not to see Shinichi on his brief leave before he’s shipped abroad during which they plan to get married because he thinks it’s irresponsible for his son to marry a woman knowing there is a good chance he will leave her a widow. Overwhelmed by the scale of her tragedies, Sayoko has had enough, rounding on Mr. Yasaka and letting him know that his concerns are moot because every healthy young man is in the same position and if he’d only given up his stubborn insistence that Shinichi has wronged him by undercutting his authority and given his consent to their marriage at any point during the last six years he wouldn’t have had to come here on this day with her brother dying in the next room to tell her that she shouldn’t marry the man she loves because her marriage is somehow his decision to make. 

Mr. Yasaka is clearly moved by Sayoko’s distress, moving to comfort her but then withdrawing and getting up to leave without saying anything. Petitioned again by Sayoko’s faithful housekeeper, he catches sight of the blooming flowers Sayoko has grown in adversity and is minded to reconsider. Several years later we can see that Mr. Yasaka has grown fond of Sayoko and his grandson even if he has a bit of temper, while she is very happy as a member of their family and not at all minded to remarry despite their desire for her to lead a fulfilling life. That is, as she tells Yuji encouraging him not to feel bashful about his bride, not because of a romantic notion of faithfulness or being hung up on old memories, but for the practical reason that she has nowhere else to go, or at least she is certain there is nowhere where she would be so happy. Later, however, she hopes to open a shop of her own and strive for her independence together with her son rather than remaining dependent on her husband’s family or marrying again for practical rather than emotional reasons.

Shinichi had been fond of talking about the life they’d lead once the war was over, that they’d only be apart for a few years and then never again, but the war stole their future from them as it did for so many other young people whom the film was doubtless intended to comfort. Nevertheless, Sayoko is forever telling people how happy she is. Mr. Yasaka seems to have relented, is going to let his younger son marry a woman of his choosing, and the younger siblings are all bright and cheerful. The future looks rosy, and Sayoko is going to do her best to enjoy it, striving for independence in a now less restrictive society. 


Titles and opening (no subtitles)

Thirst for Love (愛の渇き, Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1967)

(C) Nikkatsu 1967

Thrill for love posterIf The Warped Ones showed us a hellish, uncivilised world in which people acted on their base desires with little thought for others, Thirst for Love (愛の渇き, Ai no Kawaki) shows us the opposite as desire repressed eats away at those unable to find fulfilment in their assigned social roles. Koreyoshi Kurahara’s swirling artistry may have proved too much for studio bosses at Nikkatsu (Thirst for Love would be the last film he’d make as a regular director for the studio), but it finds a perfect match in the florid world of Yukio Mishima.  A tale of inequalities and misunderstandings, the rarefied atmosphere of Thirst for Love is just as “warped” as that of Nikkatsu’s gritty youth dramas in which desire and gratification become tools of currency in a grand game of wounds given and received.

Our heroine, Etsuko (Ruriko Asaoka), is a young widow living with her late husband’s family. Following the death of her husband, Etsuko has become the mistress of the family’s tyrannical patriarch, Yakichi (Nobuo Nakamura) – a successful businessman apparently forced out of the company he founded and into an early retirement. Yakichi resents the rest of his family whom he regards as feckless freeloaders. Oldest son Kensuke (Akira Yamanouchi) is a part-time classics professor and full-time neurotic intellectual. He and his wife Chieko (Yuko Kusunokiare unable to have children of their own (something else that annoys Yakichi), while daughter Asako (Yoko Ozono) has come back to her family home following a divorce with two children in tow. The family are all “aware” of the strange dynamic between Yakichi and his daughter-in-law but are too polite to bring it up. Nevertheless, Kensuke also has a thing for Etsuko which Chieko is aware of but not particularly worried about because she really does respect and trust her husband.

Etsuko is not particularly interested in Kensuke. There’s nothing he could really offer her. Though she keeps up a pretence of happiness with her current living standards, even going so far as to write a fake diary expressly intended for Yakichi to read, Etsuko feels nothing but contempt for and boredom with the emotionally cold and controlling family patriarch. Her faith in human emotions is low, but still she feels desire. When the teenage gardener Saburo (Tetsuo Ishidate) catches her admiring a beautiful statue and remarks on Etsuko’s own beauty, he puts untoward ideas in her head.

Even in the post-war world, women like Estuko have little agency. After her husband died, she could have stuck it out alone – found a job, supported herself. She could have remarried or perhaps have received financial support from the family while living alone, but she’s chosen to remain with them even given her somewhat degrading role as her father-in-law’s mistress-cum-plaything. When Saburo tells her she is beautiful he oversteps the established laws of class separation and Etsuko is too clever not to know how clichéd her new found lust for a peasant boy really is but she can’t unsee his broad shoulders and muscular frame or the sweat that crowds his brow as he labours on her behalf.

She begins making coy overtures which Saburo, unwittingly or otherwise, deflects. The situation is complicated by another woman, Miyo (Chitose Kurenai), who may or may not be something like Saburo’s girlfriend though as we will later find out, Saburo is a typically immature young man who regards his relationships with women as essentially inconsequential. Deferent towards his mistress, he demands to be released from her cruel games. Yet Etsuko had hardly realised that’s what they were. She cannot simply voice her desire or make her interest plain. Hers is not the first move to make. Several times Etsuko comes close to crossing a line but she always pulls back – inflicting necessary suffering on herself through her inability realise her desires.

Suffering, in a sense, becomes the point and almost a bizarre source of pleasure. In a climactic moment of drunken dinner party truthfulness, Kensuke attempts to apologise for a potentially destructive speech by revealing that he meant to smash everything to bits but has only succeeded in destroying himself. Etsuko too means to hurt others, partly as a kind of revenge, but in truth only to increase her own suffering. Her plan stumbles when she realises that Saburo is and always has been entirely indifferent towards her. He saw her as the mistress of the manor, an elegant and attractive woman, but felt no more desire for her than for any other. As he puts it, they live in different worlds – she is nothing to him, and nothing she does can change that. Etsuko has only destroyed herself, a self-immolation of repressed desire which threatens to burn the world with its ferocious intensity.

If Etsuko is to free herself from the burden of her need, she will pay a heavy price to do so. Kurahara shifts into an avant-garde register more in keeping with the more or less contemporary work of Kiju Yoshida in his anti-melodrama phase, but Kurahara’s approach is, in keeping with the source material, altogether less serious, fully embracing the melodramatic but taking pains to underpin it with deeply felt emotion. Asaoka excels as the neurotic housewife driven slowly mad in a stultifying, moribund household where she is forced to submit to the sexual whims of her bossy father-in-law and has little more to occupy her time than walking the dog and dreaming of a roll in the hay with the not yet 20 gardener.

Kurahara paints her world as one of sensations – the blood that becomes both symbol of life and death, the symbolic pleasures of a pomelo, and the fearsome flapping of chickens even as their throats are slit. Shifting to still frames for moments of high emotion – much as Shinoda had done in the finale of With Beauty and Sorrow two years before, Kurahara mixes ironic voiceover with intertitles and unexpected editing choices to capture the flightiness of Etsuko’s mind but he allows himself one luxury in letting her leave to a bright red sky, a woman on fire thirsting for love.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Sting of Death (死の棘, Kohei Oguri, 1990)

Sting of DeathKohei Oguri’s The Sting of Death (死の棘, Shi no Toge) won the prestigious jury prize at the Cannes film festival in 1990 but has since passed into obscurity. Adapted from the “I Novel” by Toshio Shimao, Sting of Death is an absurdist, caustic look at a collapsing marriage beset by difficulties on all sides as the pair try to navigate the confusing post-war society.

Toshio and Miho are a married couple with two young children. Miho has recently discovered that her husband has been carrying on with a neighbour for quite some time and is uncertain how to deal with this unexpected revelation. The film opens with a serious marital argument which is almost chilling in its calmness. Toshio is sorry, he doesn’t intend to leave his marital home and pledges to stop seeing this other woman – he’ll stay in 24/7 and not even go out without his wife and children if it means he can defend his family. Miho is definitely not happy with this compromise but accepts it and the couple attempt to get back to a kind of normality. However, the peace does not last long as Miho becomes increasingly depressed and paranoid before hurtling headlong into a nervous breakdown.

The “I Novel” is an integral part of Japanese literature and has often provided the basis for many of the country’s prestige films even though its specific style is a necessarily literary one which is hard to dramatise on screen. The genre is centred around the ideas of naturalism and the main tenet is that the writer is recounting real events from the world he sees around him, though perhaps through a thin veil of fictionalisation. That said, it’s never quite “autobiography” and it may sometimes be better to think of them as “hyperreal” rather than just naturalistic.

Oguri attempts to evoke this strange sense of uncanniness by opting for an ethereal, dreamlike tone akin to avant-garde or absurdist theatre. The couple speak to each other in a slightly heightened, deliberate manner, often posed unnaturally facing away from each other literally divided by the film’s framing. Toshio is also haunted by visions from his wartime service somewhere in the pacific where he seems to have received some kind of stomach injury. Emerging from a cave he suddenly sees saluting soldiers, or remembers a passing religious ceremony as if the past is always with him like a Fury tormenting his mind.

The Sting of Death is very close to the experiences of the author who uses his own name for that of the protagonist and that of his own wife for the central female character, Miho. Shimao’s own wife became seriously mentally ill during their marriage eventually having to be admitted to a hospital where Shimao took the unusual step of living with her. Though this uncommon gesture is widely praised as displaying his deep love for his wife, it was in part born of guilt as he believed he had caused her distress through his frequent infidelities, just as Toshio does in the film.

The couple live together in a perpetual nightmare world. Though Miho exclaims at one point that they both need to do their best now for their children they both consider suicide more than once, alternately saving or frustrating one another. They both suffer, they both try to go on but Miho’s position becomes increasingly difficult leading to a period of mental decline which climaxes in a strangely humorous yet violent episode in which she tries to exact revenge on her husband’s mistress only to be offered a lesson in civility – “I don’t know what’s going on here but none of us have the right to act like savages”, says the perfectly genial other woman (the silent casualty in all of this).

Oguri shoots the majority of the film in near darkness, as if the couple are enveloped in a night without end. They haunt each other like living ghosts, emerging from shadows moving slowly like those without hope or purpose. Oguri adds to the surreal, dreamlike atmosphere by sticking to static camera shots filled with strange tableaux and little discernible action. The film paints a bleak picture of marriage and the family unit as the central couple remain locked in an odd game-like battle of suffering while their two innocent children look on helplessly. A strange and beguiling film, The Sting of Death pulls no punches when it comes to describing the way in which adults wound each other with childish games but is also filled with quite beautiful, if sometimes unsettling, iconography.


The Sting of Death is available with English subtitles on R3 Hong Kong DVD as part of Panorama’s Century of Japanese cinema collection.

Opening scene of the film (unsubtitled)