Keiko (Claude Gagnon, 1979)

Keiko DVD coverThe Art Theatre Guild of Japan found itself in an awkward position in the late ‘70s. The kind of politically charged art cinema which had been its mainstay throughout the ‘60s was now out of fashion in the post-Asama Sanso world. The studio was then looking for new, young, dynamic voices who could potentially have something equally new and radical to offer to the the mid-’70s Japanese cinema scene which increasingly leaned towards the populist. That is perhaps how they came to work with émigré French Canadian filmmaker Claude Gagnon, distributing his independently produced debut feature Keiko. Gagnon’s film was nothing if not atypical of the time, dealing with the relatively taboo subject of female sexuality and the patriarchal society and doing it with a lens influenced more by European arthouse and New American cinema than by that of Japan or by the avant-garde movement which had forged ATG’s central ethos.

As the title implies, the tale revolves around the titular Keiko (Junko Wakashiba) – a 23-year-old office worker preoccupied with her lack of romantic success. Hoping to find a potential boyfriend, she spends her evenings in cafes, often staying until closing before going home alone. Embarrassed to still be a virgin at 23, she invites her old high school teacher (married with two children) out for a drink and they wind up in a love hotel but if Keiko thought losing her virginity would give her more confidence in dating she couldn’t be more wrong.

Soon enough she ends up in another “relationship” with a guy she meets in cafe but it’s obvious to everyone but Keiko that he is just using her for sex. Masaru (Takuma Ikeuchi), a photographer, constantly talks about himself and his work, refusing to go “out” on dates and preferring to simply arrive at Keiko’s flat and then leave again once he gets what he came for, claiming that his “mother” is waiting up for him at home. Eventually Keiko’s suspicions get the better of her and she finds out he is already married with children. The affair ends, leaving Keiko resentful and broken hearted. She drifts into a relationship with a colleague (Toshio Hashimoto) who is nice enough but Keiko isn’t really interested in him. Then something unexpected happens – a drunken experience with a female colleague leads to the most fulfilling and happiest period of her life but she is also plagued by calls from home about arranged marriages and “settling down”.

Told from Keiko’s perspective, Gagnon’s film paints a bleak picture of female existence in ‘70s Japan. Keiko’s office lady job is only really a stop gap ahead of a marriage and even at 23 she’s beginning to panic about finding a husband before her father finds one for her. She is shy and demure, modest and innocent as her society demands her to be, but she is also lonely. The camera finds her sitting alone at tables meant for four, the bars and cafes often completely empty save for her as they approach closing time. Keiko waits until the last minute, telling the girl behind the counter that she’s nothing much to do at home, but there’s nothing much to do in the bar either and she simply sits there all alone not talking to anyone, waiting for someone to take an interest only they rarely do.

Following the first few unsuccessful encounters with men, Keiko is initially confused by the unexpected interest from female colleague Kazuyo (Akiko Kitamura). Kazuyo, free spirited and independent, is perhaps portrayed more stereotypically with her short hair and tendency to dress in an overtly “masculine” fashion outside of work but few seem to have picked up on these seemingly “obvious” clues and she remains free to live her life in the way in which she chooses. Unlike Masaru who left in the middle of the night, Kazuyo is still around the next morning and not only that, she offers to cook breakfast and even takes a trip to the pharmacy to pick up some aspirin for Keiko’s sore head. Somewhat mystified by the whole affair and Kazuyo’s kindly consideration the morning after, Keiko tells her it might be better to forget about what happened the night before which Kazuyo again accepts without rancour.

Touched by all this maturity, Keiko begins to look at Kazuyo differently, and eventually decides to take a chance on something different. Before long they’ve taken an apartment together a little way out of town and begun building a life for themselves. Kazuyo is thinking about the future – she wants to start her own business and wants Keiko to help her, but the need for additional capital has her staying out evenings working in bars to earn extra money while Keiko is still getting letters from home about marriages.

Told entirely from Keiko’s perspective, Gagnon’s script veers away from its most interesting questions – why someone would willing abandon the greatest happiness they have ever felt and are certain they ever will feel to succumb to societal pressure to conform. Keiko’s oppression is almost taken as read, a constant background presence that never thinks to explain itself. Yet she is a grown woman (as she tries to point out to her father) who could simply have refused to take phone calls or answer letters. She has the power to say no to an arranged marriage, even if she perhaps does not have the power to live openly with Kazuyo as a married couple might. The film offers few explanations why she continues to placate a father she doesn’t like very much who lives a long way away save for leaving it at a need to be accounted “successful” in the eyes of society even if that conventional “success” is destined to make her very unhappy.

Gagnon’s approach is informed by European arthouse and to a lesser extent by contemporary New American cinema in attempting to create a kind of cinematic naturalism that exists in direct contrast to the expressive acting styles often found in more populist entertainment. He demonstrates the inertia of Keiko’s life by capturing her stillness, the scenes remain the same – only the outfits have changed. The camera pulls away from her as if it’s almost painful to do so, emphasising her loneliness and isolation as she remains trapped and alone in a society which abhors individualism but in reality cares little for individuals. The conformist society and its entrenched patriarchal social codes conspire to destroy happiness in order to maintain “stability”, condemning each to a particularly individual kind of misery from which it seems impossible to escape.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

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.


Double Suicide at Sonezaki (曽根崎心中, Yasuzo Masumura, 1978)

Love Suicides at Sonezaki posterAfter spending the vast majority of his career at Daiei, Yasuzo Masumura found himself at something of a loose end when the studio went bankrupt in the early ‘70s. Working as a freelance director for hire he made the best of what was available to him, even contributing an instalment in former Daiei star Shinataro Katsu’s series of period exploitation films, Hanzo the Razor: The Snare. There is, however, a particular shift in the famously fearless director’s point of view in these later films as his erotically charged grotesquery begins to soften into something more like an aching sadness in the crushing sense of defeat and impossibility which seems to consume each of his heroes. Maintaining the contemporary groove of Lullaby of the Earth – an uncharacteristically new age inflected tale of a naive orphan from the mountains tricked into the sex trade through a desire to see the sea, Double Suicide at Sonezaki (曽根崎心中, Sonezaki Shinju, AKA Love Suicides at Sonezaki / Double Suicides of Sonezaki, Double Suicide in Sonezaki) is a melancholy exploration of the limitations of love as a path to freedom in which the demands of a conformist, hierarchical society erode the will of those who refuse to compromise their personal integrity on its behalf until they finally accept that there is no way in which they can possibility continue to live inside it.

Ohatsu (Meiko Kaji), the geisha, has fallen in love with a client – Tokubei (Ryudo Uzaki), who is a humble man taken in by an uncle with the intention that he take over his soy-sauce shop. No longer the relationship between a prostitute and a customer, Ohatsu refuses to take Tokubei’s money which begins to cause friction with her “master” at the brothel to whom she still owes a significant debt. Tokubei does not possess the resources to redeem her, nor is he ever likely to. Matters are forced to a crisis point when each of them is offered what would usually be thought the best possible option for their respected social paths. Tokubei is offered the hand in marriage of his aunt’s niece and the chance to set up his own shop in Edo but it isn’t what he wants because he wants Ohatsu. Similarly, Ohatsu is sought by a wealthy client who wants to buy her and take her home as a mistress – she tries to refuse but has to play along given her relative lack of agency, longing to be with Tokubei or no one at all. Tokubei is thrown out by his uncle for refusing the marriage and finds himself the difficult position of having to reclaim dowry money from his greedy step-mother only to be conned out of it by an unscrupulous “friend”, Kuheiji (Isao Hashimoto), who later frames him to make it look like Tokubei cheated him. Beaten and ostracised, Tokubei sees no escape from his shame other than through an “honourable” death and Ohatsu sees no life for herself without her love.

Inspired by Chikamatsu’s world of double suicides, Masumura adopts a deliberately theatrical method of expression in which the cast perform in a heightened and rhythmic style intended to evoke the classical stage of Japan. Yet he also makes a point of scoring the film with contemporary folk and jazz as if this wasn’t such an old story after all. Times may be more permissive, but perhaps there’s no more freedom in love than there ever was and the pure dream of happiness in romantic fulfilment no more possible.

The forces that keep Tokubei and Ohatsu apart are only partly those unique to the feudal world – debt bondages and filial obligations being much weakened if not altogether absent in the post-war society, but are almost entirely due to their lack of individual agency and impossibility of freeing themselves from the various systems which oppress them. Tokubei is a poor boy from the country whose father has died. He has been taken in by an uncle and trained up as an heir – something he is grateful for and has worked hard to repay, but will not sacrifice his individual desire in order to accept the path laid down for him.

Ohatsu, in a more difficult position, is oppressed not only by her poverty but by her gender. Sold to a brothel she is subject to debt bondage and viewed only as a commodity, never as a person. When she intervenes to stop Tokubei being beaten by Kuheiji’s thugs, her patron panics but only because he will lose his money if she is “damaged”. Similarly, the brothel owner complains for the same reason after some ruckus at the inn. Neither of them are very much bothered about Ohatsu in herself but solely in her functionality as tool for making money or making merry respectively.

“Money is better, money means everything” claims Tokubei’s angry step-mother and she certainly seems to have a point as both of our lovers struggle through their lack of it. In the end it’s not so much money but “shame” which condemns them to a sad and lonely death as they realise they can no longer live with themselves in this cruel and unforgiving world which refuses them all hope or possibility for the future. An honourable man, Tokubei cannot live with such slander – men die for honour, and women for love, as Ohatsu puts it. Ironically enough there was a chance for them but it came too late as Kuheiji’s machinations begin to blow back on him and Tokubei’s uncle begins to regret his overhasty disowning of his nephew, but the world is still too impure for such pure souls and so they cannot stay.

Unlike some of Masumura’s earlier work, there’s a sadness and an innocence implicit in Double Suicide at Sonezaki that leaves defiance to one side only to pick it up again as the lovers decry their love too pure to survive in an impure world. The world does not deserve their love, and so they decide to leave it, freeing themselves from the “shame” of living through the purifying ritual of death. Softer and sadder, the message is not so far from the director’s earlier assertions save for being bleaker, leaving no space for love in an oppressive and conformist society which demands a negation of the soul as the price for acceptance into its world of cold austerity. 


Opening (no subtitles)

Empire of Kids (ガキ帝国, Kazuyuki Izutsu, 1981)

Empire of Kids posterJapan in 1981 was a vastly different place than the Japan of 1967. Rising economic prosperity had produced an amiable social calm in which desire for conventional success and increasingly aspirational consumerism had replaced the firebrand need for social change which had defined the previous decade. Filmmaker, film critic, and sometimes outspoken TV personality Kazuyuki Izutsu was presumedly not a huge fan of consumerism and for this, his first “mainstream” film made for ATG, retreats back to the Osaka of 1967 in which petty street punks lamented their lack of opportunities by banding together and battling for control of their respective neighbourhoods like boys in the schoolyard only armed with knives and filled with nihilistic desperation.

The film opens with our “hero”, Ryu (Shinsuke Shimada), being released from juvie after presumably getting into trouble for his petty punk antics. Waiting for him are his two best friends – soulful zainichi Korean Ken (Cho Bang-ho), and rockabilly Chabo (Ryusuke Matsumoto). Ryu is released alongside another boy, Ko (Takeshi Masu), whom he tries to recruit into their mini gang but quickly becomes an enemy, teaming up with the boys’ rivals – the Hokushin Alliance, while also becoming a potential rival for Ryu’s old girlfriend with dancing dreams, Kyoko (Megumi Sanuki). The boys, still in their last year of high school, become obsessed with trouncing their competition, proving their manhood on the streets while asserting their rightful place as the dominant forces in their native area, but as it increases in intensity the game becomes frighteningly serious and its dangers all too apparent.

Izutsu’s film fits comfortably into the “delinquent” genre but perhaps takes its cues from the Hollywood cinema of alienation more than the tough guy antics of the youth movie past. From Chabo’s bright red jacket and neatly greased quiff, the starting point is Rebel Without a Cause as these otherwise not too bad kids struggle with their place in the world, unable to see a clear path and direction for themselves in the society of 1967 which seemed both frustratingly open and closed to unremarkable lower middle-class boys. Ryu’s brother is going to give up football to go to cram school so he doesn’t end up like Ryu, while Ryu has taken to reading brain training books to try and get back on the academic path to success which he fears may have already passed him by. Ken, idly talking of the future, can’t see much beyond winding up in the yakuza, opening a bowling alley, or maybe becoming a comedian (this is Osaka after all). None of these guys is going to university or getting a salaryman job, they know not much awaits them outside of low-paid manual work, marriage, children, family and death, so they take their frustrations out on each other playing at gangsterism out on the streets.

For Ryu, Ken, and Chabo the reasons for their violence are “honourable” – they want to keep their local space local and are committed to defending it from the “external” threat of the shadier street punks from uptown. Apparently from stable economic backgrounds, the boys’ acts of street justice have no particular economic component, in contrast to those of the Hokushin Alliance which positions itself as a yakuza training school with a brutal hazing regime for new recruits and a business plan which involves hunting young women and trapping them through rape and blackmail to force them into prostitution. 

Aside from lack of direction, Ken – the most introspective of the boys, also has to deal with the constant threat of discrimination due to his roots as an ethnic Korean living in Japan. One of the reasons he hates the Hokushin Alliance and distrusts some of the other gangs is that they deliberately target Koreans in racially motivated attacks. One of his old friends, Zeni (Masaaki Namura), is a member of an all Korean street gang which attempts to defend itself against the strong anti-Korean sentiment out on the streets but finds itself outgunned by the sheer weight of numbers. Ken speaks Korean openly with his friends (even when there are non-Koreans close-by) and has no interest in hiding his ethnic identity even if he uses his Japanese name in his every day life, while Ko (whom we later realise is also ethnically Korean) hides his ethnicity completely and subsumes himself into the Hokushin with a view to finally joining the yakuza even whilst knowing that the gangs he has joined are extremely prejudiced against “foreigners” and Koreans in particular. Ken would never out someone deliberately, but finds Ko’s attitude difficult to stomach, not only in his willingness to hide his roots to fit in with gangster thugs, but in his willingness to persecute his own in order to do it.

The atmosphere that surrounds the boys is one of intense futility. They fight each other pointlessly, like children in the playground, and it’s all fun and games until someone reaches for a knife. Petty disputes quickly escalate when the yakuza gets itself involved in children’s games – an assault rifle, after all, has little place in a kids’ disco where teenagers come to drink Coca Cola and slow dance to a terrible covers band singing the “uncool” music of the day. Despite the melancholy air of frustration and inevitability, Empire of Kids (ガキ帝国, Gaki Teikoku) adopts the otherwise warm and nostalgic tone of the Japanese teen movie, embracing the typically Osakan need for spiky comedy even as our guys fall ever deeper into the hole their society has cut out for them. There are few rays of sunshine to be found here, friendships are broken, trusts betrayed, and futures ruined but then again, that was only life, in Osaka, in 1967.


Distant Thunder (遠雷, Kichitaro Negishi, 1981)

distant thunder dvd coverBy 1981 Japan’s economic recovery was more or less complete and the consumerist future had all but arrived. Based on the novel by Wahei Tatematsu, Distant Thunder (遠雷, Enrai) is the story of impending doom staved off by those clinging fast to the their ancestral traditions even whilst the modern world threatens to engulf them. Kichitaro Negishi already had a long career directing Nikkatsu’s Roman Porno, but made his mainstream debut with this quietly affecting social drama for Art Theatre Guild which relies on the strong performances of its cast to convey the subtitles of youth caught between past and future.

In the contemporary world of 1981, 23-year-old Mitsuo (Toshiyuki Nagashima) is a tomato farmer stubbornly hanging on to his family’s ancestral land which happens to be inconveniently placed in the middle of a modern housing complex. Women from the estate sometimes pop round to ogle Mitsuo under the pretext of buying super fresh tomatoes. Mitsuo is happy for them to enjoy the fruits of his labour, but refuses to accept them as “neighbours” lamenting the death of the village in which he grew up.

It transpires that Mitsuo’s father (Casey Takamine) sold off most of the farmland without consulting the rest of the family and used the proceeds to open a bar with the hostess he ran off with. Mitsuo hasn’t forgiven him for this and continues to work the tomatoes alone while his older brother is married and living a modern salaryman life in the city. At 23 it’s high time Mituso got himself a wife, but a flirtation with a barmaid, Kaede (Rie Yokoyama), who claims to be a divorced single parent proves diverting enough for the time being. Mitsuo knows being a farmer’s wife is no prize, so when his mother comes up with a possible match Mitsuo thinks it’s worth a try even if she’s probably none too pretty.

An old soul in many ways, Mitsuo wants to hang on to his family’s farm despite the constant offers he gets from salesmen at the door who want him to sell. Where once there was a village, now there are high rise apartment blocks. Mitsuo misses the world he grew up in where farmers helped each other out in difficult times and wandered in and out of each other’s houses like one big happy family. Not content with ruining his own, it’s also this wider concept of community as family that Mitsuo’s father has ruined for him in rejecting his traditional responsibilities for the irresponsible pleasures of taking up with a fancy woman and starting again as a bar owner.

Sadly, the bar hostess really does seem to love Mitsuo’s feckless father, perhaps seeing him as her last chance for happiness. Kaede, by contrast, is looking for something far less permanent. She claims to be divorced but is married to a mild-mannered man (Keizo Kanie) with a tattoo poking out of his collar who accepts her need for new conquests but would rather they not become regular arrangements. Kaede whips up more potential destruction when she comes between Mitsuo and his childhood best friend, Koji (Johnny Okura), who also likes her and has been led to believe Kaede’s relationship with Mitsuo was not altogether consensual. Meanwhile, Mitsuo’s blind date went far better than expected and it looks like he’s on course to find a wife in petrol station assistant Ayako (Eri Ishida).

Ayako, like Mitsuo, is a more old fashioned sort though she’s no prude and is of an earthier yet somehow “purer” nature than the comparatively urban Kaede. Mitsuo finds himself pulled in different directions – Ayako and the tomato farm, or the freely given pleasures of Kaede who threatens to burn everything to the ground with her mysterious, self destructive lifestyle. Mitsuo doesn’t want to be like his dad – a philanderer who runs out on his responsibilities and makes a fool of himself in the process, cosying up to local politicians and playing fast and loose with the law, but he’s late to see the danger a woman like Kaede might cause him. His friend, Koji, is not quite so perceptive and naively falls for her charms. Mitsuo knows deep down that his friend has in a sense saved him from making a ruinous life decision and helped him rediscover the happiness of his traditional, simple way of life.

Filming in 4:3, Negishi’s camera is soft and unobtrusive yet pointed, capturing the minor details of the everyday with a poetic beauty. Filled with realistic detail and anchored by strong performances, Distant Thunder is both a picture of innocents battling the inevitable death of their way of life with determination and purity, and a document of changing times in which the confusions of the modern world threaten to destroy those who cannot reconcile themselves to their fated paths.


Short clip from the ending (English subtitles)

Death at an Old Mansion (本陣殺人事件, Yoichi Takabayashi, 1975)

death at an old mansion posterKousuke Kindaichi is one of the best known detectives of Japanese literature. There are 77 books in the Kindaichi series which has spawned numerous cinematic adaptations as well as a popular manga and anime spin-off starring the grandson of the original sleuth. Sadly only one of Seishi Yokomizo’s novels has been translated into English (The Inugami Clan which has the distinction of having been filmed not once but twice by Kon Ichikawa), but many Japanese mystery lovers have ranked his debut, The Murder in the Honjin, as one of the best locked room mysteries ever written. Starring Akira Nakao as the eccentric detective, Yoichi Takabayashi’s Death at an Old Mansion (本陣殺人事件, Honjin Satsujin Jiken) was the first of three films he’d make for The Art Theatre Guild of Japan and updates the 1937 setting of Yokomizu’s novel to the contemporary 1970s.

Beginning at the end, Kindaichi (Akira Nakao) arrives at a country mansion with a sense of foreboding which borne out when he realises that the young lady he’s come to see, Suzu (Junko Takazawa), has died and he’s arrived just in time to witness her funeral. It’s been a year since he first met her, though he did so under less than ideal circumstances. As it happened, Suzu’s older brother, Kenzo (Takahiro Tamura), was married to a young woman of his own choosing, Katsuko (Yuki Mizuhara), despite strong familial opposition. On the night of their wedding, the couple were brutally murdered inside a private annex to the main building. The doors were firmly locked from the inside and there was no murder weapon on site. The only clue was bloody three fingered handprint made by someone wearing the “tsume” or picks used for playing the koto. Kindaichi, already a well known private detective, was summoned to investigate because of a personal connection to Katsuko’s uncle, Ginzo (Kunio Kaga).

The original novel was published in 1946 and it has to be said, some of its themes make more sense in the pre-war 1937 setting than they do for the comparatively more liberal one of 1975 though such small minded attitudes are hardly uncommon even in the world today. The Ichiyanagi family live on a large family estate (apparently not the “Honjin” – a resting place for imperial retinues in the Edo era, of the title but the ancestral association remains) and enjoy a degree of social standing as well as the privilege of wealth in the small rural town. Katsuko, by contrast, is from a “lowly” family of well-to-do farmers – mere peasantry to the Ichiyanagis, many of whom believe Kenzo is making a huge and embarrassing mistake in his choice of wife. Kenzo, a middle-aged scholar, has shocked them all with his sudden determination to marry, not to mention his determination to break with family protocol and marry beneath him.

Japanese mysteries are much less concerned with motive than their Western counterparts, but class conflict is definitely offered as a possible reason for murder. Other clues have more menacing dimensions such as the repeated mentions of a scary looking three fingered man who apparently delivered a threatening letter to the mansion on the night of the murder, and Suzu’s constant questions about her recently deceased cat who liked to listen to her play the koto. Suzu is 17 but has some kind of learning difficulties and is arrested in a childlike state of innocence which leads her to utter simple yet profound words of wisdom whilst also believing that her recently deceased cat, Tama, is some kind of god. Suzu’s “innocence” is contrasted with her brother’s coldhearted rigidity in which he’s described as a sanctimonious snob who believes himself above regular folk and treats his servants with contempt. This same rigidity in fact aligns him with his sister as both share an “atypical” way of thought and behaviour. Kenzo’s unexpected romance turns out not to be middle-aged lust for domination but an innocent first love arriving at 40 with all the pain and complication of adolescence.

Kindaichi arrives to solve the crime and makes an instant partner of the police inspector in charge who’s glad to have such esteemed help on such a difficult case. Putting two and two together, Kindaichi soon comes up with a few ideas after rubbing up against a mystery novel obsessed suspect and numerous red herrings. Once again coincidence plays a huge role, but the business of the murder is certainly elaborate given the pettiness of the reasoning behind it. Takabayashi never plays down the typically generic elements of this classic mystery, but adds to them with eerie, occasionally psychedelic camera work, shifting to sepia for imagined reconstructions and making use of repeated motifs from the fire-like imagery of the water wheel to a shattered photo of Kenzo shot through the eye. Strangely framed in red and gold the murder takes on a theatrical association that’s perfectly in keeping with its well choreographed genesis, and all the more chilling because of it. A satisfying locked room mystery,  Death at an Old Mansion is also a tragedy of out dated ideals equated with a kind of innocence and purity, of those who couldn’t allow their dreams to be sullied or their name besmirched. Perhaps not so different from the world of 1937 after all.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Third Base (サード, Yoichi Higashi, 1978)

third posterJapanese cinema of the 1970s is a highly charged affair. Stories of alienated youth and nihilistic denials of future possibility predominate as the (usually) male protagonist assesses his place within a rigid and conformist society and often comes to the conclusion that there is none for him. While political turmoil continues to undermine these deeply held values of social conformity and passive acceptance, young men suffer individually and in private until, that is, they find themselves punished by society for the transgressions it causes them to commit. Scripted by Shuji Terayama and adapted from a novel by Haku Kenjo, Yoichi Higashi’s Third Base (サード, Third) is the story of one such young man who has found himself confined to a reformatory with no hope for the future and no direction in which to run.

Seno (Toshiyuki Nagashima), known as “Third”, is an inmate at Kanto – Asahi Reform School. Like most of the other boys, Third is in for violent crime – in his case, murder, and is not exactly a model pupil. In fact, he’s currently in solitary after fighting with another boy who spat in his soup. Though the atmosphere of the school is severe with an emphasis on slightly militarised discipline, it is also progressive and geared towards finding out why these young men came to exhibit such unwelcome behaviours and how they might be able to overcome them. Hence, the fight is not only punished with solitary confinement but a group discussion among all present during which both Seno and the other boy are encouraged to recognise the various ways in which they are both at fault.

A strange thought experiment in Seno’s diary causes mild alarm to one of the staff at the school. “The connection between a car and a spring – which goes around more?” – the doctor is confused by this unusual sentence but on being asked to elaborate Seno makes clear he’s talking about a wind up car. When you wind it up the wheels go round but if you hold the spring the car will turn, and if you hold the car the spring will turn. This is the relationship Seno was puzzled by – which one is turning the other. The doctor draws the conclusion that the “spring” is juvenile delinquency and the car is society, but Seno insists he’s just talking about a toy car.

Yet there is something in it. Some of the boys are inside because of economic oppression, entering lives of crime through lack of other options but there are also upperclass boys in here too who have never been hungry and have no reason to steal. Another of the staff tells a disinterested Third about a relative of his who ended up in a reform school despite coming from an “elite” home. The boy claims he rebelled because “there is no such thing as equality – it is simply a word to make people feel better”. His crimes were intended to expose a societal lie. Likewise, the boy turned the same logic on murder claiming that wars and genocide were abhorrent, but individualist murders were “beautiful”. A short while later the young man took his own life – presumably something the reform school staff are eager Third does not do.

Suicide is a choice which is presented to Third – when one of the other boys runs off during outdoor labour, he hangs himself in the woods rather than try to escape. Third’s nickname is inspired by his position on the baseball field – third base, which he says he played neither well or badly. It is also an ironic comment on his existence in which he is neither one thing nor another, at odds in the free world and among those other outsiders imprisoned in the reformatory. Yet suicide is an idea Third rejects. Considering the other boy’s fate, Third feels himself to be running in “another direction”, wanting to live but not knowing how. A recurrent dream finds him on the baseball field, running the bases only to find there is no home plate. What Third wants is to locate his home base, to finally find his place in the world where he can belong and be accepted, but until he knows where it is he’ll just be running without aim or purpose.

Running in his mind, Third is imprisoned but only through his confinement does he learn to find the world “beautiful”. His cellmate has a similar thought but confesses he’s begun to find his hope “boring”, that freedom only inspires hopelessness. It’s this sense of ennui and apathy which pushes these young men towards violence and frustration, unable to find a more productive way to propel themselves forward and getting stuck at the bottom of the pile in a society which tries to straightjacket them into lives which are both undesirable and unattainable. Running still, Third does seem to have found a potential solution in instructing his breathless running mate to move at his own pace – embracing individualism over social conformity. Nevertheless, home base seems an elusive destination and Third will be a longtime running if ever he really does find his place in an essentially uncaring society.


Original trailer (no subtitles)