Bakumatsu Taiyoden (幕末太陽傳, Yuzo Kawashima, 1957)

bakumatsu taiyoden posterMany things were changing in the Japan of 1957. In terms of cinema, a short lived series of films known as the “Sun Tribe” movement had provoked widespread social panic about rowdy Westernised youth. Inspired by the novels of Shintaro Ishihara (later a right-leaning mayor of Tokyo), the movement proved so provocative that it had to be halted after three films such was the public outcry at the outrageous depictions of privileged young people indulging in promiscuous sex, drugs, alcohol, and above all total apathy – frivolous lives frittered away on self destructive pleasures. The Sun Tribe movies had perhaps gone too far becoming an easy source of parody, though the studio that engineered them, Nikkatsu, largely continued in a similar vein making stories of youth gone wild their stock in trade.

Yuzo Kawashima, a generation older than the Sun Tribe boys and girls, attempts to subvert the moral outrage by reframing the hysteria as a ribald rakugo story set in the last period of intense cultural crisis – the “Bakumatsu” era, which is to say the period between the great black ships which forcibly re-opened Japan to the outside world, and the fall of the Shogunate. The title, Bakumatsu Taiyoden (幕末太陽傳), literally means “legend of the sun (tribe) in the Bakumatsu era”, and, Kawashima seems to suggest, perhaps things now aren’t really so different from 100 years earlier. Kawashima deliberately casts Nikkatsu’s A-list matinee idols – in particular Yujiro Ishihara (the brother of Shintaro and the face of the movement), but also Akira Kobayashi and familiar supporting face Hideaki Nitani, all actors generally featured in contemporary dramas and rarely in kimono. Rather than the rather stately acting style of the period drama, Kawashima allows his youthful cast to act the way they usually would – post-war youth in the closing days of the shogunate.

They are, however, not quite the main draw. Well known comedian and rakugo performer Frankie Sakai anchors the tale as a genial chancer, a dishonest but kindly man whose roguish charm makes him an endearing (if sometimes infuriating) character. After a post-modern opening depicting contemporary Shinagawa – a faded red light district now on its way out following the introduction of anti-prostitution legislation enacted under the American occupation, Kawashima takes us back to the Shinagawa of 1862 when business was, if not exactly booming, at least ticking along.

Nicknamed “The Grifter”, Saiheiji (Frankie Sakai) has picked up a rare watch dropped by a samurai on his way to plot revolution and retired to a geisha house for a night of debauchery he has no intention of actually paying for. Though he keeps assuring the owners that he will pay “later” when other friends turn up with the money, he is eventually revealed to be a con-man and a charlatan but offers to work off his debt by doing odd jobs around the inn. Strangely enough Saiheiji is actually a cheerful little worker and busily gets on with the job, gradually endearing himself to all at the brothel with his ability for scheming which often gets them out of sticky situations ranging from fake ghosts to customers who won’t leave.

Saiheiji eventually gets himself involved with a shady group of samurai led by Shinshaku Takasugi (Yujiro Ishihara) – a real life figure of the Bakumatsu rebellion. Like their Sun Tribe equivalents these young men are angry about “the humiliating American treaty”, but their anger seems to be imbued with purpose albeit a destructive one as they commit to burning down the recently completed “Foreign Quarter” as an act of protest-cum-terrorism. The Bakumatsu rebels are torn over the best path for future – they’ve seen what happened in China, and they fear a weak Japan will soon be torn up and devoured by European empire builders. Some think rapid Westernisation is the answer – fight fire with fire, others think showing the foreigners who’s boss is a better option (or even just expelling them all so everything goes back to “normal”). America, just as in the contemporary world, is the existential threat to the Japanese notion of Japaneseness – these young samurai are opposed to cultural colonisation, but their great grandchildren have perhaps swung the other way, drunk on new freedoms and bopping away to rock n roll wearing denim and drinking Coca Cola. They too resent American imperialism (increasingly as history would prove), but their rebellions lack focus or intent, their anger without purpose or aim.

Kawashima’s opening crawl directly references the anti-prostitution law enacted by the American occupying forces – an imposition of Western notions of “morality” onto “traditional” Japanese culture. In a round about way, the film suggests that all of this youthful rebellion is perhaps provoked by the sexual frustration of young men now that the safe and legal sex trade is no longer available to them – echoing the often used defence of the sex trade that it keeps “decent” women, and society at large, safe. Then again, the sex trade of the Bakumatsu era is as unpleasant as it’s always been even if the familiar enough problems are played for laughs – the warring geisha, the prostitute driven in desperation to double suicide, the young woman about to be sold into prostitution against her will in payment of an irresponsible father’s debt, etc. One geisha has signed engagement promises with almost all her clients – it keeps the punters happy and most of them are meaningless anyway. As she says, deception is her business – whatever the men might say about it, it’s a game they are willingly playing, buying affection and then seeming hurt to realise that affection is necessarily false and conditional on payment of the bill.   

Playing it for laughs is, however, Kawashima’s main aim – asking small questions with a wry smile as Saiheiji goes about his shady schemes with a cleverness that’s more cheeky than malicious. He warns people they shouldn’t trust him, but in the end they always can because despite his shady surface his heart is in the right place. Warned he’ll go to hell if he keeps on lying his way though life, Saiheiji laughs, exclaims to hell with that – he’s his own life to live, and so he gleefully runs away from the Bakumatsu chaos into the unseen future.


Masters of Cinema release trailer (English subtitles)

The Shape of Night (夜の片鱗, Noboru Nakamura, 1964)

(C) Shochiku 1964Despite having two films nominated for a best foreign language Oscar and a handful of foreign festival hits under his belt, Noboru Nakamura has been largely forgotten by Western film criticism though a centennial retrospective of three of his most well regarded films at Tokyo Filmex in 2013 has helped to revive interest. The Shape of Night (夜の片鱗, Yoru no Henrin), Nakamura’s 1964 Shochiku melodrama focussing on the suffocating life of a young woman pulled into the Tokyo red light district, was one of the three newly restored films featured and was also screened in Berlin and Venice to great acclaim. Making full use of its vibrant colour palate, The Shape of Night paints its city as a constant tormentor filled with artificial light and false promises.

As we meet her, melancholy street walker Yoshie (Miyuki Kuwano) has been trapped in her dead end existence for six years and has lost all hope of living a “normal” life filled with love and happiness. A chance encounter with a supercilious client, Fujii (Keisuke Sonoi), prompts her into a series of recollections in an effort to explain exactly how it was she ended up in such a sorry state. As the eldest daughter of a poor family Yoshie left school early to work in a factory (making those neon tubes you see everywhere) while supplementing her income by working as a barmaid (not a hostess, just a girl behind the bar). Just shy of her 20th birthday, she meets a handsome “salaryman”, Eiji (Mikijiro Hira), who starts coming to the bar regularly to see her. The pair became a couple, and then lovers, and then cohabiters, but Eiji isn’t a “salaryman” so much as a low level gangster with a gambling problem whose street name is “princess”. Continual losses put Eiji in a tight spot with his crew and he begins borrowing money from Yoshie before asking her to prostitute herself to get him out of a hole. Thinking it will just be a one time thing, Yoshie resolves to make a sacrifice for her man but, of course, it wasn’t a one time thing.

Yoshie’s story is a sadly familiar one – an innocent woman duped by a duplicitous man whose empty promises aim to mask his continued fecklessness. Eiji, despite his smart suits and coolly confident attitude, is unlikely to make much of himself in the yakuza world yet is as tied into its hellish system of loyalty and reciprocity as Yoshie is in her non-marriage to the man she thinks she loves. Seeking constant approval, Eiji thinks nothing of living off a woman and his childishly excited smile on re-entering the apartment after Yoshie has sacrificed herself to save his face is a grim reminder of his priorities. When pleading doesn’t work Eiji turns violent, prompting Yoshie to finally consider leaving him but she’s too late – the yakuza world has already got its hooks into her and any attempt to escape will be met with terrifying resistance.

Fujii may seem as if he presents another option for Yoshie, a chance for a better, kinder existence but he too is merely another man trying to tell her how she should live her life. Hypocritical at best (as he freely admits), Fujii pays Yoshie to “ease his sexual urges” but expresses disgust and disapproval of her lifestyle and seeks to “save” her from her life of humiliating immorality, “purifying” her just like the dam he is building is supposed to do to the Sumida river. Fujii’s obvious saviour complex is worrying enough in itself though there is also the additional worry of what his “salvation” may entail if Yoshie decides to make a break from her yakuza chains and run off to the comparative safety of provincial Hokkaido. Fujii may claim to have fallen in love with her, but so did Eiji and who’s to say Fujii’s idea of wedded bliss will be any better than Eiji’s brutal reign as a common law spouse.

The situation is further complicated by Eiji’s gradual shift from a violent, overbearing, abusive boyfriend to a genial figure of gentle domesticity and what that shift later provokes in Yoshie. Rendered physically impotent by an incident during a gang fight, Eiji is literally and figuratively emasculated. Though his sudden inability to satisfy Yoshie originally provokes his jealously, it soon robs him of his violent impulses and turns Eiji into a willing housewife who dutifully does the couple’s washing and prepares the meals much to Yoshie’s consternation. This transformation is what finally kills her love for him, but still Yoshie cannot find it in herself to sever her connection with the man who has been the cause of all her suffering. Not quite hate or loathing, Yoshie’s burned out love has become a burden of care as she finds herself duty bound to look after a man she now believes incapable of looking after himself.

While Yoshie and Eiji sit in a bar one night after “work”, the television plays a report featuring the sad news of the death of a female student at the ANPO demonstrations. Prompting Yoshie to exclaim “what is ANPO anyway?”, the news report lays bare just how isolated her life as become – as all of Tokyo is aflame with with righteous indignation and the streets are filled with the largest protest in living memory, Yoshie is trapped in her tiny neon world which promises so much and delivers so little.

Nakamura makes fantastic use of sound design to capture Yoshie’s interior world – the background music rising over the droning voice of a boring client who hasn’t quite made up his mind, the radio cutting out at intense moments of violence, the terrible clanging of Eiji’s geta on the iron staircase which leads to his flat. Fading into blue dissolves of memory, Nakamura makes a hellish wonderland of nighttime Tokyo whose flashing neon lights, crowded bars and oddly darkened streets turn it into a prison of dubious delights. Finally making a drastic decision, Yoshie attempts to free herself from her burdens and sever the chains which bind her to her misery but in cutting the cord she finds the knots tightening, realising she will never be released from the source of all her suffering.


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