Four Sisters (姉妹坂, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1985)

Four SistersNobuhiko Obayashi takes another trip into the idol movie world only this time for Toho with an adaptation of a popular shojo manga. That is to say, he employs a number of idols within the film led by Toho’s own Yasuko Sawaguchi, though the film does not fit the usual idol movie mould in that neither Sawaguchi or the other girls is linked with the title song. Following something of a sisterly trope which is not uncommon in Japanese film or literature, Four Sisters (姉妹坂, Shimaizaka) centres around four orphaned children who discover their pasts, and indeed futures, are not necessarily those they would have assumed them to be.

Yasuko Sawaguchi plays the third oldest sister and more or less protagonist of the story, Anzu, who is facing a very common teenage dilemma in that there are two boys (best friends) both interested in her and she can’t decide if she likes both, one, or either of them. Eventually, Yuzuki (Ichirota Miyakawa) wins out leaving his friend Oba (Toshinori Omi) depressed and on the sidelines. However, Yuzuki is from a wealthy family and it was intended he marry a cousin so his mother does some digging and discovers more about Anzu than Anzu knew about herself.

As it turns out, the four sisters are not actually related by blood as only one was the biological child of the goodhearted couple who raised them. Unfortunately, the children’s adoptive parents died in a car accident leaving their birth daughter, Aya (Misako Konno), as a kind of maternal figure to Akane (Atsuko Asano), Anzu, and Ai (Yasuko Tomita) though Akane was the only one old enough to remember their lives before coming to live with Aya and her family. The rediscovery of the truth knocks both younger girls for six, especially as Anzu’s birth mother has reappeared and presents an existential threat to their insular family of four.

Set once again set in a peaceful, countryside town, Four Sisters revisits many of Obayashi’s constant concerns in its evocation of memory, mislaid truth, and the need to come to terms with the past in order to go on living in the present. The four young women are each very different, but bound tightly together by their shared experience, including the recent loss of their parents. Anzu’s discovery threatens to destroy the family firstly through the exposure of a lie (or, what is really an omission of truth), and secondly to speed up the inevitable fracturing as she begins to seek a new life and eventually family of her own. Though Akane has been able to forge a career for herself (less pleasant part-time work aside), she rightly points out that in becoming their maternal figure, Aya has in a sense lost or rejected the opportunity to pursue her own happiness. The sisters’ bond is tight and near unbreakable, but it’s also, in a sense, constraining.

Obayashi begins the picture with in a polaroid-like frame in which the two boys declare their intentions to duel for Anzu’s affections. As the film moves on, Obayshi returns to these intertitle-like captions particularly in bookending the various seasons throughout which the film turns. Though not as radically as in some of his other work, Obayashi once again uses colour filtering as a highlighting tool which is most obvious towards the end as the edges of the screen start to blur, greying out everything other than our central heroines. However, other sequences take place in a noticeably expressionist environment with extreme colour contrasted backgrounds and unreal, star filled skies and Obayashi also allows the real world weather with its storms and raging rivers to dictate the mood.

Four Sisters is, at heart, a family drama though one seen through a slightly distorted mirror. The four girls are indeed a unit which would inevitably have to split or stagnate in the normal order of things but the bonds are strong enough to withstand the unusual amount of pressure placed on them, enabling the sisters to move on with their individual lives whilst remaining close. Obayashi keeps things relatively low key (by his own standards) but gently builds a melancholy, nostalgic tone filled with loss and regret yet also with hope for the future. Beautifully shot, with Obayashi’s characteristically unusual use of imagery and wistful, ethereal atmosphere Four Sisters may not be among the director’s most experimental efforts but does provide a warm tale of love lost and gained in the lives of four ordinary women.


 

Panic High School (高校大パニック, Sogo Ishii, 1978)

Panic High SchoolSogo (now Gakyruu) Ishii was only 20 years old when Nikkatsu commissioned him to turn his smash hit 8mm short into a full scale studio picture. Perhaps that’s why they partnered him with one of their steadiest hands in Yukihiro Sawada as a co-director though the youthful punk attitude that would become Ishii’s signature is very much in evidence here despite the otherwise mainstream studio production. That said, Nikkatsu in this period was a far less sophisticated operation than it had been a decade before and, surprisingly, Panic High School (高校大パニック, Koukou Dai Panic) neatly avoids the kind of exploitative schlock that its title might suggest.

Back in 1977, though sadly little has changed in the intervening 40 years, schools are little more than pressure cookers slowly squeezing out every inch of individuality from the young people trapped within them as they cram for tests in subjects they might not actually understand. When a pupil commits suicide, the head master offers a few words of condolence over the tannoy system which the form tutor later backs up by emphasising that no one knows why the boy did this and that it probably has nothing at all to do with the school, exam pressure, or his performance in the recent mock exams. The school expect a line to be drawn here and for everyone to forget about it and get back to work.

However, when the teacher, Ihara, starts going on about the league tables suffering if the kids don’t buckle down some of them have had enough. One young man, Jono, looses it completely and takes a swing at the teacher only to miss and run out of the school in a panic. Whilst wandering around town he passes a gun shop and swipes a rifle before returning to the classroom and assassinating the maths tyrant. Not knowing what to do next, Jono hides out in the school building taking some of his friends hostage and then all hell breaks loose.

At its core, Panic High School is satire laying bare the crisis in Japan’s educational system which places undue emphasis on one particular set of exams which will determine the entirety of a person’s life. The teachers are cruel and heartless, little more than cogs in a machine. They don’t care about the kids, they only care about the statistics and the prestige associated with being the top high school in the area. All of these kids are bright, they already passed the stressful middle school entrance exams to get here, and the school just expects them to succeed but offers no support if they can’t.

Indeed, Ihara isn’t even teaching them anything. At the beginning of the film he asks a female student to solve an equation on the board. When she can’t, not only does he not explain the solution to her, he sends her outside adding to her original humiliation in front of the entire class and preventing her from actually learning how to solve the problem. When the next boy can’t solve it either he simply berates him for not studying, saying a “student at this high school should be able to solve this problem”. When the boy points out he did study but just doesn’t understand all he gets is abuse, no actual teaching at all.

Even when the police have been called, all anyone cares about is the reputation of the school. The headmaster keeps harping on about their status as the top school in the area and how “unfortunate” it would be if a student is killed inside the school – which is completely ignoring the fact that a teacher has already been murdered by a shotgun toting teenager right in the classroom. The police bungle the entire affair, starting by tearing apart Jono’s desk for clues including going right through his lunchbox and pointlessly cutting a hole in the bottom of his schoolbag. Bringing even more guns and riot police into the school to deal with one frightened boy who doesn’t want to shoot anyone else but is only trying to effect his escape (so he can take his entrance exams next year) is far from a good idea.

The kids are mad as hell and they aren’t going to take this anymore. The pressure is extreme and in the face of adult hypocrisy, it’s unsurprising that Jono and the other young people like him find themselves lashing out in extreme ways. Their teachers see them only as products, or even as components in the building of a “future” but never as people. Even if some of them start out wanting to help Jono, by the end even a teacher is trying to grab a gun screaming “That kid! I hate him now – I’ll kill him, he’s abandoned the most important thing – his education! He should never have come here in the first place!” putting the blame firmly on the boy and not on the system. In fact, the other teachers are busy in a huddle talking about how this is going to raise questions about the educational establishment and how they intend to mitigate that (they do not intend to address the “problems” in themselves).

While not as loud or as dynamic as some of Ishii’s later work, Panic High School displays much of his punkish sensibility even if it takes a form closer to ‘70s youth drama complete with all the zooms, whips and pans associated with the exploitation era. However, perhaps because Ishii’s own age is so close that of his protagonists the film is firmly on the side of youth. Far from a “youth in crisis” film, Panic High School places the blame firmly at the feet of the system which forces its young people into extreme and absurd situations. Notably different from Ishii’s later work in terms of tone and style, Panic High School is nevertheless an impressive studio debut feature and a strong indicator of the director’s continuing preoccupations.


Climatic scene from towards the beginning of the film (unsubtitled)