Puppets Under Starry Skies (星空のマリオネット, Hojin Hashiura, 1978)

Puppets under starry skies posterThe youth movie had been the populist rebellion against the stately Japanese cinema of the golden age, but many of its representative directors had quickly tired of the restrictive studio system. Some had decamped into the “independent” arena which offered relative artistic freedom if without the resources and financial rewards of the commercial sector. The Art Theatre Guild had provided a valuable outlet for experimental film since it began to shift from distribution of foreign films into production of Japanese language art movies, but paradoxically the early 1970s saw it shift again as the studio’s “arthouse” aims fell by the wayside and more conventional youth films made a gradual return. Puppets Under Starry Skies (星空のマリオネット, Hoshizora no Marionette), the first of three films directed by Hojin Hashiura for ATG (aside from an earlier 16mm independent effort, the only films Hashiura would ever make), is very much a youth movie in the new ATG mould which is to say its tone is one of sadness rather than anger as its protagonists find themselves adrift in the changing 1970s society, unable to find their place in the world their parents have been building for them.

Hideo (Yoichi Miura), leader of small biker gang, is best friends with Hiroshi (Kazuhito Takei) – an effeminate young man from a wealthy family who likes to wear makeup and dress in (slightly) flamboyant outfits. The trouble starts when Hideo picks a fight with a rival gang boss and then charges in for a rematch to avenge his honour only to be set on by thugs, stabbed, and beaten so badly he winds up in hospital for over a week. Humiliated, Hideo loses all his gang member friends with only Hiroshi sticking by him. Later he takes up with a local bar girl, Akemi (Ako), who has a promiscuous past and is already pregnant with another man’s child. Together the three attempt to find a way forward into a more conventional adulthood but struggle to find a place for themselves within a rigidly conformist society which has already rejected them.

Parental disconnection seems to be a recurrent theme in the lives of each of the troubled youngsters. Hideo lost his mother young, not long after they’d moved into the town from the mountains. Never having been able to come to terms with his mother’s death he has a difficult relationship with his father and takes out his frustrations through meaningless violence and male posturing. Akemi too has a difficult family background but this time with a single mother who is a former sex worker turned publican. Working in a local bar (not her mother’s) Akemi is harassed by the customers but is well known for being open to casual sex, suffering a degree of social stigma both because of her liberated attitude and because of her mother’s former profession.

Hiroshi’s problems are perhaps of a different order. From an “elite” family, he feels himself entirely disconnected from normal family life and has been raised in an atmosphere of cold austerity rather than parental love. Hiroshi believes this is partly because he has “bad blood” and is cursed beyond redemption. He is not his father’s biological son but the child of a sperm donor enlisted to ensure an heir for his father’s bloodline. Hiroshi, however, is gay and will not be able fulfil the purpose he was born for, at least not in the way that was expected of him. He is also effeminate, something of which his family do not approve, and feels himself excluded from mainstream society because of his sexual orientation. To combat his feelings of intense alienation, Hiroshi has become a drug user, sniffing glue in order to send himself on psychedelic trips to outer space in which he merges with the deep blue vacuum free of all worldly concerns.

Hideo too gets in on the glue sniffing act but feels himself becoming one with the river of life and death, feeling it flow through him as he flows with it. The river itself, and the idea of passive resignation that comes of simply allowing oneself to float, becomes a grim symbol of the futility that faces Hideo as he struggles to reassemble an identity in a world which consistently denies him one. The future looks bleak for each of our protagonists, the only one with any sense of hope once again investing it in the system which has already betrayed her – the family. Youth looks for new models, new standards by which to live, but does not find them. Puppets of fate, the trio dance under starry skies until the sun comes up and they realise that the day holds nothing for them except the nihilistic desire for its end.


Cyclops (キュクロプス, Norichika Oba, 2018)

Cyclops still 1Though Japanese cinema is no stranger to noir, the genre has perhaps failed to gain the foothold it occupies in overseas. Nevertheless, noir is where Norichika Oba aims to take us in his second feature as an ex-con emerges from prison with only one thing on his mind – revenge. The poetically titled Cyclops (キュクロプス) is heady noir filled with unreliable narratives, not least that coming from our foggy headed protagonist, in which the sands of truth are constantly shifting beneath our feet. Then again, perhaps the truth is better off buried. Clarity delivers its own burdens.

14 years ago Shinohara (Mansaku Ikeuchi) went to prison for the murder of his wife, Akiko (Ako). He was discovered cradling her lifeless body in a hotel room covered in blood next to the body of another man – Tezuka, a politician, thought to be her lover. After his business went under Shinohara started to drink, heavily. At the time of the incident he was an alcoholic and claims to have no memory of anything prior to discovering his wife’s body owing to being in a state of permanent inebriation. He is sure, however, that he would never have hurt her and denies all the charges. Nevertheless, he’s spent the last 14 years in custody keeping his head down and is about to be paroled. Which is where Matsuo (Kouzou Satou) comes in. A sergeant on the original case, Matsuo has long been harbouring feelings of guilt over the way the affair was handled and claims to have discovered the identity of the “real” killer – a petty yakuza called Zaizen (Hikohiko Sugiyama) who was after the politician and offed Akiko to tie up loose ends. The law can no longer help in this case, but Matsuo suggests Shinohara pursue his own justice and put an end to the matter in the old fashioned way.

What ensues is a complicated cat and mouse game as Shinohara, a bruiser with a prison education in street violence, prepares to take on a vicious and vindictive mob boss who he believes took his wife’s life on a whim to further his own career. Matsuo teams him up with one of Zaizen’s guys, Nishi (Yu Saito), who supposedly wants to do “the right thing” in training a rookie to take out his boss. Meanwhile, Shinohara has also gotten himself into trouble by visiting a local bar named Galatea which is run by a mama-san who looks exactly like Akiko and is also under threat from Zaizen and his collection of sleazy henchmen.

Of course, nothing is quite as it seems and Shinohara, perhaps naively trusting almost everyone he comes into contact with, is left with no clear indication of who he should believe and which story is likely to be the most “true”. Lying back on a jetty under the pale white moon, he thinks he sees the image of his wife, ghostly yet dressed in a fiery red which reflects back on him, bathing his face. Shinohara has a series of nightmares or perhaps flashbacks in which he relives the murder, seeing the killer remove his balaclava but imagining a different face every time.

The title of the film comes from a painting in the bar which is inspired by Greek mythology and features a scene of the giant cyclops Polyphemus hovering behind a mountain while his unrequited object of affection, Galatea, hides herself below. Haru (Ako), the bar’s mama-san, aligns herself with Galatea as a woman trapped between conflicting emotions and effectively held prisoner by her own inertia, longing for escape but unwilling to accept it. Shinohara, at this point sporting an eyepatch and likened to the quasi-stalker giant, wonders if the cyclops has in some way forgotten what it was he was looking in the first place and is simply wandering without aim or purpose. Shinohara has indeed forgotten many things, holding the key to his own salvation all along but proving slow to realise the extent to which he is being misused.

Yet for all his talk of vengeance, Shinohara remains a good and kind man who wants to protect the innocent even while punishing the guilty. Adopting a stray dog, perhaps out of identification with its lonely existence, Shinohara’s humanity begins to resurface enabling him to form an oddly genuine friendship with Nishi even whilst suspecting that he is not all he seems. The bad guys get what’s coming them, but it’s forgiveness that eventually saves the day as the two men find a kind of brotherhood born of mutual understanding and respect. Freedom is won and then given away freely as the cyclops regains his sight, learning to look within for the key to all mysteries while walking a dark and dangerous path towards salvation.


Screened at Nippon Connection 2018.