BFI Japan 2021 to Celebrate More Than 100 Years of Japanese Cinema

The Olympics may be over, but BFI’s long-awaited Japan season finally makes its way to the big screen this October with a vast programme spanning a century of cinema from early masterpiece Souls on the Road right up to a preview of Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s recent festival favourite Drive My Car.

Screening between 18 October and 30 November

Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)

EXTENDED RUN FROM FRI 29 OCT

Classic jidaigeki gets a post-war twist as a collection of down on their luck wandering samurai come to the rescue of peasants beset by bandits.

Also available on BFI Player

Souls on the Road (Minoru Murata, 1921)

FRI 22 OCT 18:00 NFT2 / SAT 30 OCT 15:30 NFT2

A landmark of early Japanese cinema directed by and starring Minoru Murata, Souls on the Road draws inspiration both from Gorky’s The Lower Depths and German novel Mutter Landstrasse, das Ende einer Jugend by Wilhelm August Schmidtbonn featuring four interconnected tales of mercy and and its absence. Review.

A Page of Madness (Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1926)

SAT 23 OCT 13:00 NFT2 / MON 15 NOV 20:50 NFT3

Teinosuke Kinugasa’s avant-garde masterpiece inspired by a story by Yasunari Kuwabata set in a rural psychiatric institution where a janitor attempts to secretly care for the wife his abuse drove into madness.

I Was Born, But… (Yasujiro Ozu, 1932)

SAT 23 OCT 15:00 NFT2 / SUN 28 NOV 14:45 NFT1

Early silent classic from Yasujiro Ozu in which the faith of two young boys in their salaryman dad is shaken when they spot him humiliating himself for his boss’ benefit. Review.

Also available on BFI Player

Our Neighbour, Miss Yae (Yasujiro Shimazu, 1934) + intro by season co-programmer Alex Jacoby*

SUN 24 OCT 12:40 NFT2 / MON 1 NOV 18:15 NFT2*

Cheerful talkie from Yasujiro Shimazu centring on the close relationship between two suburban families which is disrupted first by the unexpected return of a married daughter and then by the spectre of political destabilisation. Review.

Humanity and Paper Balloons (Sadao Yamanaka, 1937)

SUN 24 OCT 18:10 NFT2 / TUE 2 NOV 20:45 NFT2

The final film from Sadao Yamanaka who sadly died a year later on the Manchurian front after losing his military exemption, Humanity and Paper Balloons chronicles everyday despair in an impoverished street in Edo. Review.

Fallen Blossoms (Tamizo Ishida, 1938) + intro by Japanese film scholar Alejandra Armendáriz-Hernández*

SUN 31 OCT 13:00 NFT3 / WED 3 NOV 18:20 NFT2*

Based on a play by Kaoru Morimoto, Tamizo Ishida’s all-female drama situates itself in a Kyoto geisha house during the Boshin War.

The Life of Matsu the Untamed (Hiroshi Inagaki, 1943)

TUE 26 OCT 20:40 NFT2 / SUN 7 NOV 11:40 NFT2

Director Hiroshi Inagaki later remade this film as The Rickshaw Man in 1958 starring Toshiro Mifune and Hideko Takamine. Nevertheless this original take on the life of an impoverished rickshaw driver who becomes a surrogate parent to a fatherless little boy is often regarded as the better of the two.

Children of the Beehive (Hiroshi Shimizu, 1948) + intro by season co-programmer Alex Jacoby*

MON 25 OCT 20:45 NFT1* / MON 8 NOV 18:10 NFT2

Closely associated with the cinema of children, Hiroshi Shimizu’s post-war independent film follows a series of war orphans and the demobbed soldier guiding them towards a new Japan. Review.

My Love Has Been Burning (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1949)

FRI 5 NOV 18:30 NFT2 / MON 15 NOV 17:40 NFT1

The third in Mizoguchi’s series of films focussing on female emancipation, My Love Has Been Burning stars Kinuyo Tanaka in a biopic of Meiji-era feminist Eiko Hirayama. Review.

Early Summer (Yasujiro Ozu, 1951) + intro by Professor Alastair Phillips, University of Warwick*

MON 18 OCT 14:30 NFT3 / TUE 19 OCT 20:35 STUDIO / WED 20 OCT 17:50 NFT3 / THU 4 NOV 18:00 NFT2 / THU 18 NOV 20:30 NFT3* / SUN 21 NOV 11:30 NFT1

Second in the “Noriko Trilogy”, Early Summer stars Setsuko Hara as a woman who resists arranged marriage but scandalises her family when she accepts a proposal from the mother of the widower living next-door.

Also available on BFI Player

The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice (Yasujiro Ozu, 1952) 

MON 18 OCT 18:10 NFT2 / WED 20 OCT 20:40 NFT2 / THU 21 OCT 14:40 STUDIO / MON 8 NOV 14:30 NFT2 / TUE 23 NOV 14:30 NFT3

Marital crisis in the younger generation provokes an epiphany in the life of an unhappily married woman in Ozu’s wry exploration of the meaning of wedded bliss. Review.

Also available on BFI Player

Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953)

MON 18 OCT 20:20 NFT3 / THU 21 OCT 14:30 NFT1 / SAT 13 NOV 14:10 NFT1 /TUE 30 NOV 14:00 NFT3

Post-war classic in which an old couple from the country make a rare trip to the city to see their grown up children but are disappointed to discover that they don’t have much time for them.

Also available on BFI Player 

Love Letter (Kinuyo Tanaka, 1953) + intro by Irene González-López, co-editor of ‘Tanaka Kinuyo: Nation, Stardom and Female Subjectivity’*

SAT 6 NOV 12:30 NFT2 / SUN 21 NOV 14:40 NFT1*

Landmark directorial debut from actress Kinuyo Tanaka scripted by Keisuke Kinoshita and starring Masayuki Mori as an embittered war veteran making a living writing letters on behalf of illiterate women to the GIs who left them behind while fixating on the supposed betrayal of his first love (Yoshiko Kuga) who married someone else and later became the mistress of an American soldier. Review.

An Inn at Osaka (Heinosuke Gosho, 1954) + pre-recorded intro by Professor Hiroshi Kitamura, College of William & Mary

SAT 6 NOV 15:30 NFT2 / SUN 21 NOV 18:00 NFT1

A demoted salaryman begins to find a new sense of solidarity with his fellow humans while staying in a bustling Osaka boarding house in a characteristically bittersweet drama from Heinosuke Gosho. Review.

Godzilla (Ishiro Honda, 1954)

SUN 7 NOV 16:20 NFT3 / TUE 23 NOV 20:40 NFT2

Ishiro Honda’s landmark monster movie needs no introduction, advancing a strong anti-nuclear message as a giant sea lizard is awoken from its slumber by human violence and goes on a grumpy rampage through contemporary Tokyo.

Sansho Dayu (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1954)

MON 8 NOV 20:40 NFT1 / SUN 28 NOV 18:20 NFT1

Mizoguchi’s Heian-era tale follows two aristocratic children who are captured by bandits and sold into slavery while trying to unite with their exiled father.

Marital Relations (Shiro Toyoda, 1955) + pre-recorded intro by Professor Hideaki Fujiki, Nagoya University 

SUN 7 NOV 18:20 NFT2 / THU 25 NOV 18:00 NFT2

Adaptation of the novel by Sakunosuke Oda in which the married son of a wealthy family (Hisaya Morishige) takes up with a geisha (Chikage Awashima) but struggles to adapt to his life without money or status. Review.

She was Like a Wild Chrysanthemum (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1955)

TUE 9 NOV 18:20 NFT2 / TUE 30 NOV 20:40 NFT1

An old man meditates on lost love on visiting his rural hometown in Kinoshita’s tale of heartbreak and social rigidity. Review.

Early Spring (Yasujiro Ozu, 1956)

TUE 19 OCT 14:30 NFT2 / WED 20 OCT 20:15 STUDIO / THU 21 OCT 17:40 NFT2 / SAT 20 NOV 15:20 NFT3 / TUE 23 NOV 17:40 NFT2

An example of a darker Ozu, Early Spring finds the relationship between a young couple (Ryo Ikebe & Chikage Awashima) strained by the duplicities of the salaryman dream as the husband is drawn into an affair with a woman at the office (Keiko Kishi).

Also available on BFI Player

Night Drum (Tadashi Imai, 1958)

WED 10 NOV 20:50 NFT2 / TUE 16 NOV 18:15 NFT2

The life of a loyal retainer (Rentaro Mikuni) is thrown into chaos by rumours that his wife (Ineko Arima) has betrayed him with a travelling musician (Masayuki Mori) in Tadashi Imai’s tense social drama co-scripted by Kaneto Shindo & Shinobu Hashimoto. Review.

Throne of Blood (Akira Kurosawa, 1957) + Inside Cinema: Akira Kurosawa*

MON 18 OCT 20:35 STUDIO / TUE 19 OCT 18:10 NFT1 / THU 21 OCT 20:45 NFT1 / WED 27 OCT 20:30 NFT2* / FRI 12 NOV 14:15 NFT3* / SAT 27 NOV 20:45 NFT1

Akira Kurosawa’s take on Macbeth starring Toshiro Mifune as the ambitious lord and Isuzu Yamada as his steely wife.

Also available on BFI Player

Yojimbo (Akira Kurosawa, 1961) + Inside Cinema: Akira Kurosawa*

TUE 19 OCT 20:45 NFT1 / THU 21 OCT 17:50 STUDIO / FRI 19 NOV 14:30 NFT1* / SUN 28 NOV 12:00 NFT1*

Toshiro Mifune stars as a wandering ronin finding himself in the middle of a turf war.

Also available on BFI Player.

Harakiri (Masaki Kobayashi, 1962)

WED 10 NOV 17:45 NFT2 / TUE 16 NOV 20:30 NFT2

Powerful drama decrying samurai hypocrisy starring Tatsuya Nakadai as a ronin who requests permission to commit seppuku in the courtyard of a lord as an act of revenge for the forced suicide of his adopted son.

Elegant Beast (Yuzo Kawashima, 1962) + pre-recorded intro by Professor Yuka Kanno, Stanford University

WED 17 NOV 20:50 NFT3 / SAT 27 NOV 18:10 NFT1

Dark, claustrophobic farce from Yuzo Kawashima in which a family of dubious morality is outsmarted by a sophisticated schemer (Ayako Wakao). Review.

An Actor’s Revenge (Kon Ichikawa, 1963) + intro by Jennifer Coates, The University of Sheffield*

WED 20 OCT 14:15 NFT1 / THU 11 NOV 20:40 NFT3 / SAT 20 NOV 12:40 NFT3

Kazuo Hasegawa returns to the role of Yukinojo in Kon Ichikawa’s remake of the classic tale as a successful onnagata attempts to take revenge for the deaths of his parents. Review.

Yearning (Mikio Naruse, 1964)

FRI 12 NOV 18:20 NFT2 / SUN 14 NOV 18:20 NFT3 / FRI 26 NOV 21:00 NFT1

Melodrama scripted by Zenzo Matsuyama and starring Hideko Takamine as a war widow who patiently rebuilt and maintained her husband’s family grocery shop for 18 years only for her sister-in-laws to force her out in order to turn it into a supermarket, while her much younger brother-in-law suddenly confesses his lifelong love.

Tokyo Olympiad (Kon Ichikawa, 1964 )

SAT 20 NOV 16:40 NFT2 / WED 24 NOV 18:30 NFT2

Kon Ichikawa’s documentary capture of the 1964 Olympics.

Onibaba (Kaneto Shindo, 1964)

FRI 19 NOV 20:50 NFT2 / TUE 30 NOV 18:00 NFT1

An old woman (Nobuko Otowa) finds herself sinking to depths of inhuman depravity in a desperate need to survive in Kaneto Shindo’s grim fable of feudal Japan. Review.

Also available on BFI Player 

J-HORROR WEEKENDER

Ring (Hideo Nakata, 1998) 

FRI 29 OCT 18:10 NFT2

A single-mother (Nanako Matsushima) begins investigating claims that teenagers are dying seven days after watching a creepy VHS tape in Hideo Nakata’s seminal piece of J-horror adapting the novel by Koji Suzuki.

Also available on BFI Player 

Dark Water (Hideo Nakata, 2002)

FRI 29 OCT 20:30 NFT2

A woman in the midst of a divorce and custody battle is haunted by the spectre of a lonely child in Hideo Nakata’s adaptation of the Koji Suzuki novel. Review.

Cure (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 1997) 

SAT 30 OCT 18:00 NFT2

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s noirish horror starring Koji Yakusho as a detective investigating a series of bizarre murders.

Pulse (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2001)

SAT 30 OCT 20:40 NFT2

Death is eternal loneliness in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s tech-fearing horror classic starring Kumiko Aso as a young woman investigating the suicide of a close friend. Review.

Also available on BFI Player 

Audition (Takashi Miike, 1999) 

SUN 31 OCT 15:20 NFT3

Takashi Miike’s deceptive drama begins as a gentle romcom before edging slowly towards the horrific as a widower (Ryo Ishibashi) takes his his friend’s advice and sets up a fake audition to find the perfect wife but ends up finding something quite different.

Also available on BFI Player

Ichi the Killer (Takashi Miike, 2001) 

SUN 31 OCT 18:00 NFT3

Takashi Miike’s adaptation of the manga by Hideo Yamamoto in which a sadistic yakuza footsoldier (Tadanobu Asano) pursues a repressed psychopathic killer (Nao Omori).

Preview: Drive My Car (Ryusuke Hamaguchi, 2021) 

MON 15 NOV 19:40 NFT1

A stage actor and director (Hidetoshi Nishijima) attempting to come to terms with the death of his unfaithful wife casts her lover in his upcoming multi-lingual production of Uncle Vanya while developing a relationship with the reticent young woman driving his car in Hamaguchi’s adaptation of the Haruki Murakami short story.

Screening between 1 and 31 December

(Exact screening dates TBC)

Woman of the Dunes (Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1964)

A bug collector (Eiji Okada) eventually comes to appreciate his new life of simplicity after being trapped in a hole in the sand with a mysterious woman (Kyoko Kishida) in Teshigahara’s adaptation of the Kobo Abe novel.

Also available on BFI Player

Pale Flower (Masahiro Shinoda, 1964)

Visually striking noir from Masahiro Shinoda starring Ryo Ikebe as a recently released yakuza who enters a destructive relationship with a female gambler (Mariko Kaga).

A Fugitive From the Past (Tomu Uchida, 1965)

A fugitive murderer (Rentaro Mikuni) attempts to forge a new identity for himself in the post-war society but discovers the past is not so easily buried in a late career masterpiece from Tomu Uchida. Review.

Tokyo Drifter (Seijun Suzuki, 1966)

Visually striking, surreal yakuza movie from Seijun Suzuki starring Tetsuya Watari as a yakuza targeted by a rival outfit after his own gang is disbanded.

Woman of the Lake (Kiju Yoshida, 1966)

Yoshishige (Kiju) Yoshida’s adaptation of Yasunari Kawabata’s The Lake starring Mariko Okada as an adulterous woman blackmailed by a third party over nude photos taken by her lover.

Silence Has No Wings (Kazuo Kuroki, 1966)

The first feature from continually underrepresented director Kazuo Kuroki, Silence Has No Wings follows a caterpillar from Nagasaki to Hokkaido.

Death By Hanging (Nagisa Oshima, 1968)

Brechtian drama from Nagisa Oshima in which a Korean student is hanged but survives having lost his memory. Unsure of the ethics of re-executing a man who cannot acknowledge his crimes because he does not remember them, the prison staff proceed to act them out.

Funeral Parade of Roses (Toshio Matsumoto, 1969)

Toshio Matsumoto repurposes Oedipus Rex to explore the impossibilities of true authenticity in an anarchic voyage through late ’60s counterculture Shinjuku. Review.

Shinobugawa (Kei Kumai, 1972)

Two dejected youngsters (Go Kato & Komaki Kurihara) find new strength to embrace post-war freedom in the power of loving and being loved in Kei Kumai’s delicate romance. Review.

In The Realm of the Senses (Nagisa Oshima, 1976)

Inspired by the notorious story of Sada Abe, Oshima’s controversial drama sees two lovers retreat from an increasingly authoritarian society into a private world of self-destructive eroticism.

The Demon (Yoshitaro Nomura, 1978)

A single-mother (Mayumi Ogawa) leaves her three children with their married father (Ken Ogata) when he stops supporting them financially but his wife (Shima Iwashita) is far from happy about the situation in Yoshitaro Nomura’s shocking psychological drama adapted from the novel by Seicho Matsumoto.

The Man Who Stole the Sun (Kazuhiko Hasegawa, 1979)

(C) Toho 1979

’70s pop icon Kenji Sawada stars as a nerdy high school science teacher belittled by his students and the wider society around him but plotting revenge by building a mini atom bomb in his apartment. Review.

Muddy River (Kohei Oguri, 1981)

Two children living by the river in post-war Osaka become friends but their innocent connection is disrupted by the muddiness of life in Kohei Oguri’s moving drama.

Fire Festival (Mitsuo Yanagimachi, 1985) 

A stubborn lumberjack’s refusal to sell his land to developers set on building a marine park sets him at odds with his community culminating in a fiery act of violence in Mitsuo Yanagimachi’s ’80s indie drama.

Tampopo (Juzo Itami, 1985)

Juzo Itami’s comedy classic starring his wife Nobuko Miyamoto as the titular Tampopo, a recent widow struggling to run a small ramen bar eventually rescued by Tsutomu Yamazaki’s wandering truck driver ramen master. Review.

The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (Kazuo Hara, 1987)

Kazuo Hara’s landmark documentary following confrontational Pacific War veteran Kenzo Okuzaki. Review.

Also available on BFI Player

Black Rain (Shohei Imamura, 1989)

Drama centring on the survivors of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. A young woman living with her uncle and aunt finds her marriage prospects all but ruined because of her presence in the city when the bomb was dropped but later bonds with a young man suffering from wartime PTSD.

Moving (Shinji Somai, 1993) 

Shinji Somai’s moving youth drama in which a young girl (Tomoko Tabata) struggles to come to terms with her parents’ impending divorce.

Love Letter (Shunji Iwai, 1995)

Much loved ’90s romantic melodrama from Shunji Iwai starring pop star Miho Nakayama in dual roles as a young woman struggling to move on after the sudden death of her fiancée, and an old classmate of his who happened to share the same name.

Shall We Dance (Masayuki Suo, 1996)

An unexpected ’90s international hit later remade in Hollywood, Shall We Dance? stars Koji Yakusho as a dejected middle-aged man having achieved the salaryman dream but found it unfulfilling discovering a new lease on life after taking up ballroom dancing.

Suzaku (Naomi Kawase, 1997)

Naomi Kawase’s fictional feature debut follows the disintegration of a small family after a railway threatens their rural way of life.

After Life (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 1998)

Hirokazu Kore-eda ponders the meaning of life as the recently deceased are invited to re-create their favourite memory as film before moving on. Review.

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Ryusuke Hamaguchi, 2021)

A triptych of romantic tales from Ryusuke Hamaguchi in which a young woman realises her friend is unwittingly dating her ex, a student attempts to seduce a professor, and two women connect through an instance of mistaken identity.

SCREENING AT BFI IMAX: Akira (Katsuhiro Otomo, 1988)

Katsuhiro Otomo’s seminal anime adaptation of his own manga is set in a dystopian Tokyo of 2019 in which a delinquent biker ends up with superpowers after crashing into a recently released test subject from a government lab.

Battle Royale (Kinji Fukusaku, 2000)

A group of teens is sent to an island where they are told to kill each other off until there is only one survivor in this zeitgeisty adaptation of the cult novel by Koushun Takami which would become the final film directed by Battles Without Honour and Humanity’s Kinji Fukasaku.

Also available on BFI Player 

Talks

BFI Japan runs October to December 2021 at BFI Southbank and selected partners across the country. For the full details on this and other BFI seasons be sure to check out the BFI’s website where you can also find a link to BFI Player. You can also keep up with all the latest news by following the BFI on TwitterFacebookInstagram, and YouTube.

Equinox Flower (彼岸花, Yasujiro Ozu, 1958)

Japanese golden age cinema is famed for its centring of female stories, but while it’s true that many of Yasujiro Ozu’s family dramas revolve around a young woman’s feelings towards marriage, the perspective is often surprisingly male. Equinox Flower (彼岸花, Higanbana), his first film in colour, marks something of a change in direction in its spirited defence of the young, but at heart is still a story as much about impending old age, the responsibilities of fatherhood, and changing times as it is about contemporary family dynamics or female agency. 

The father in question, Hirayama (Shin Saburi), is a high ranking executive with two daughters. The older, Setsuko (Ineko Arima), is working at another company, and the younger, Hisako (Miyuki Kuwano), is still in school. Marriage is on his mind because he’s just attended the wedding of an old school friend’s daughter at which he gave a speech, with his wife Kiyoko (Kinuyo Tanaka) sitting awkwardly next to him, describing the arranged marriage he had with her as “pragmatic, routine” while he envies the young couple’s “fortunate opportunity” to indulge in romance. He and Kiyoko idly discuss the idea of Setsuko’s marriage, it seems as if there is a promising match on the horizon, with Hirayama conflicted while Kiyoko is very much in favour of doing things the traditional way. She’s already mentioned it to her daughter, but all she does is smile demurely which seems to provoke different interpretations from each of the parents. 

While thinking about all of that, Hirayama receives a visit from an old friend who was a notable absence at the wedding asking him to check up on his daughter Fumiko (Yoshiko Kuga) who ran away from home two months ago to live with a musician after he tried to veto her intention to marry without consulting him. Hirayama is sympathetic, perhaps thinking his friend has acted foolishly and pushed his daughter away. After visiting the bar where she works, he comes to the conclusion that as long as she’s happy with her choice then everyone else should be too. That all goes out the window, however, when a young man, Taniguchi (Keiji Sada), visits him unexpectedly at work and asks for permission to marry Setsuko. Hirayama quite rudely asks him to leave and then irritatedly talks the matter over with Setsuko before petulantly refusing his consent, not because he objects to Taniguchi, but because he is hurt on emotional level that she hadn’t talked to him about this first (not least so that they stop worrying about arranging a marriage) while resentful that she’s gone behind his back and undercut his patriarchal authority. 

In addition to the changing nature of family dynamics, Hirayama is perhaps conscious of his advancing age, feeling himself increasingly obsolescent and therefore additionally wounded by this assault on his authority as a father. The generation gap, however, is all too present. Both Setsuko and Fumiko feel as if they simply cannot talk to their parents because they wouldn’t listen and will never understand. Yukiko (Fujiko Yamamoto), the daughter of another friend, feels something similar in her exasperation with her well-meaning single mother who keeps hatching plans to set her up with various men she isn’t interested in. Intellectually, Hirayama sides with the young, envying them their freedoms and advising Yukiko firstly not to marry at all, and then encouraging her desire to resist arranged marriages despite trying to foist them on his own daughters. 

Even Kiyoko eventually describes her husband’s continuing petulance as “inconsistent”. It seems obvious that Kiyoko is siding with her daughter, immediately taking a liking to Taniguchi who politely brought her home after she stormed out following an argument with her father, but she continues to behave as a “good wife” should, politely minding her husband while gently hoping that he will eventually come round. Only once pushed does she try to explain to him, again politely, that he’s being selfish and unreasonable, but he continues on in resentment while causing his daughter emotional pain simply for trying to find her own happiness rather letting him decide for her. Kiyoko is afraid that if it carries on like this, then Setsuko will, like Fumiko, eventually leave and they’ll lose her completely, something which Hirayama either hasn’t fully considered or is actively encouraging through his petulance. 

In the end the conclusion he comes to is that the parents will eventually have to give way or risk losing their children entirely. He tells both Fumiko and Yukiko that all parents want is for their children to be happy and so nothing else matters, but struggles to put his advice into practice when it comes to his own daughter. Like pretty much everyone in an Ozu film, Hirayama is a good, kind person, even if one struggling against himself as he contemplates a loss of authority, a change in standing, and the difficulty of dealing with complex emotions as a man in a patriarchal society. Predictably, it’s women who essentially bully him into making better decisions, Yukiko “interfering” in the nicest of ways, while his wife makes it clear that though she thinks he’s wrong she will continue to stand by him if only in the hope he will eventually see the light. “Life is absurd, we’re not all perfect” he admits, only later realising how his stubborn foolishness may have caused unnecessary suffering to those he loves the most.


Currently streaming in the UK via BFI Player as part of Japan 2020. Also available to stream in the US via Criterion Channel.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (虎の尾を踏む男達, Akira Kurosawa, 1952)

Like many directors of his age, Akira Kurosawa began his career during the war sometimes working on what were effectively propaganda films yet perhaps attempting to skirt around the least palatable implications of the task at hand. The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (虎の尾を踏む男達, Tora no O wo Fumu Otokotachi) is an example of just that, repurposing a well known historical incident from its noh and kabuki roots and subtly undercutting it with a dose of irreverent humour unwelcome to those who liked historical tales because of their nationalistic connotations. This was not, however, the reason the film found itself out of favour so much as an ironically personal issue in which Kurosawa had apparently irritated one of the censors by pointing out his ignorance of cultural tradition leading him to conveniently leave Tiger’s Tail off the list of titles in production resulting in the American Censors rejecting it for being an unknown, illegal film which is why it languished on the shelf for seven years after filming was completed in 1945. The Americans may not have liked it much either given their aversion to period drama which they feared encouraged the kind of thinking incompatible with the democratic era, but like many of Kurosawa’s samurai dramas it has a rather ambivalent attitude to feudal loyalty both admiring of nobility and despairing of its austerity. 

Set in the late 12th century, the action takes place during a period of warfare in which warrior Yoshitsune (Iwai Hanshiro X) has returned a victory for his brother, the ruler. His brother Yoritomo, however, feels as if his victory has perhaps been too good and he is therefore a threat to him. Yoritomo accuses his brother of sedition and puts a purge in motion, leaving Yoshitsune with no option other than to flee. With six of his best retainers, he escapes dressed as an itinerant Buddhist monk and tries to make his way to neutral territory in the North. To get there, however, they need to pass through a series of checkpoints which is why they’re currently accompanied by a cheerful fool in the form of a lowly porter (Kenichi Enomoto) supposedly guiding them along a secret path through mountain forests. 

The porter is a new addition to the story added by Kurosawa for reasons of expediency and comic relief, yet his intrusion is also one which deeply angered the more nationalistic of the censors who resented the director’s irreverence towards a key historical event. Like many other of Kurosawa’s bumbling peasants, he’s both contemptuous and in awe of the world of the samurai, offering down to earth common sense takes on the politics of the day. He has already heard all about the Yoritomo/Yoshitsune drama and recounts it in the manner of a soap opera, quite reasonably asking if a quarrel between brothers could not have been sorted out with a good old-fashioned private fist fight rather than a state mandated manhunt which is also quite inconvenient for ordinary people in addition to being somewhat heartless. 

The samurai, not wanting to break cover, can only look sad and lament the cruelty of their codes, yet it’s precisely in the subversion of their ideology that they are able to escape. They have already transgressed, some with shaved heads and all already in the clothes of a monk. The porter looks at Yoshitsune, apparently a successful warrior, and remarks on his delicate physique and seeming femininity. Eventually he says too much, realises that the men are the fugitives everyone’s looking for and is suddenly afraid, forgetting for the moment that they need him to get out of the woods and knowing that samurai think nothing of killing “insignificant nobodies” like him. Nevertheless they do not kill him, but on hearing that there are lookouts on the horizon aware of Yoshitsune’s presence, they ask their lord to change places with a peasant, wearing his worn out clothes and carrying his heavy pack though the weight of it perhaps betrays him. As the porter points out, he does not have the look of a man used to trekking through the mountains and his delicate legs are already shaking under the unfamiliar strain. 

When the band is intercepted by loyal retainer Togashi (Susumu Fujita) who has been instructed to stop all priests in case Yoshitsune comes his way, Benkei (Denjiro Okochi), a real monk if also a warrior with a talent for bluff, manages to talk his way out of Togashi’s questioning, improvising an entire prospectus on the spot to convince him that they really are collecting money to repair a temple, quickly explaining that his robes are ornate because even ascetics have fashion sense. It’s not entirely clear if Togashi simply believes him, or if he too is wilfully subverting the code having recognised Yoshitsune and decided to help him escape. Might that not, in a certain sense, be the better way of serving a lord, preventing him from making a huge and painful mistake in killing his own brother out of a misplaced sense of paranoia? 

In any case, Benkei talks his way out of trouble only for a minor retainer to intervene, insisting that the porter is too pretty and bears a striking resemblance to Yoshitsune. Reacting quickly again, Benkei does the unthinkable. He strikes his lord and loudly berates him as if he really were a lazy porter failing in the duties for which he has been paid. The real porter becomes upset, placing himself in between Benkei’s staff and Yoshitsune’s body, either out of empathetic identification or horror in the betrayal of feudal loyalty. Benkei knows he must now be believed, no one would ever do what he has done because it is a complete and total negation of the samurai code. Yet in breaking it he saves his lord, which is all that really matters. Yoshitsune later forgives him, because he is a good lord after all and how could he not. But as Benkei was keen to keep pointing out, this isn’t the only checkpoint they must pass and their journey is without end, all they can do is “continue without rest”, taking this brief moment of unexpected levity provided by apology wine from Togashi and the hilarious antics from the porter before setting off once again. As for the porter, he is soon abandoned, left on one side of the samurai divide as the curtain closes on this brief strange tale. 


Currently streaming in the UK via BFI Player as part of Japan 2020. Also available to stream in the US via Criterion Channel.

The Lady and the Beard (淑女と髭, Yasujiro Ozu, 1931)

Yasujiro Ozu has sometimes been dismissed as middle of the road, particularly by the young radicals of the post-war generation who saw his, by then, rather conservative films as a symbol of everything they sought to reject in their national cinema. They may in some senses have had a point and, in 1931’s The Lady and the Beard (淑女と髭, Shukujo to hige), Ozu does indeed show us that the middle of the road might be the best place to be as his basically good yet rigidly traditionalist hero is cajoled towards modernity but ultimately rejects its extremes in pulling a “modern girl” back towards the path of righteousness. 

Recent graduate Okajima (Tokihiko Okada) is a kendo enthusiast with a rather unsettling beard which he has long refused to shave. Other than his strangely close friendship with nobleman Teruo (Ichiro Tsukida), he appears to have been rejected by mainstream society because of his odd appearance and socially awkward behaviour. Teruo invites him to his sister’s birthday party without bothering to ask her and consequently scandalises all of her friends who vow to humiliate Okajima as soon as he arrives. Okajima, however, has no idea he is being made fun of. He declines the invitation to dance with the young women in the modern fashion but volunteers to do a dance on his own, prancing about with a fan and waving his sword around in an unexpected display of traditional performance. When Teruo and his sister return after having a private argument, the party is ruined. All the girls have left, for reasons which Okajima seems not to understand. 

He is at least, however, chivalrous. Spotting a young woman in kimono being mugged in the street by a modern girl, he wades in to help, earning her eternal admiration while fending off the other members of the modern girl’s gang with his kendo skills. His heroism further pays off when he discovers that the woman he saved, Hiroko (Hiroko Kawasaki), is a typist at an office where he is interviewing for a job. Hiroko is able to explain to him that the reason he was turned down, despite the fact that the boss also had a big bushy beard, was his facial hair so he should try shaving it off. 

The beard is a symbol not only of Okajima’s traditional mindset but of a certain kind of masculinity which might not be welcome in the modern world. Teruo tries to defend it to his sister by showing her portraits of various great men from the past who all had facial hair while Okajima claims that his is inspired by Abraham Lincoln and is intended to put women off so that he doesn’t get distracted from becoming a great man himself. Okajima’s robust masculinity, avoidance of women, and intense friendship with Teruo, anxious should he get the wrong idea about women in his apartment, might hint at another possibility, but that soon goes out the window when he sheds the beard and instantly becomes irresistible to women. Not only is he developing a romantic relationship with the homely, traditional Hiroko but also becomes attractive to Teruo’s sister Ikuko (Toshiko Iizuka) and the modern girl Satoko (Satoko Date). 

Both Hiroko and Ikuko are attracted to Okajima because of his traditional masculinity in his capacity to protect them. Ikuko, rejecting a suitor who eventually exposes a problematic side to male dominance, tells him that she won’t consider anyone who’s not skilled in kendo because she is looking for a protector. He reminds her that’s what the police and the law are for, so she tells him fair enough, she’ll marry a policeman. Modernity codes “protection” into the system, depersonalised and in other ways perhaps problematic, where traditionalism relies on access to male strength. Ikuko disliked Okajima when he had a beard, but secretly desires those very qualities the beard was set to represent. 

Satoko, meanwhile, the modern girl, rejected Okajima because of his bizarre appearance while he rejects her for the same reason in a mirroring of the various ways we are the image we present. Kimono’d Hiroko is good, modern girl Satoko is bad. Even after shaving his beard, Okajima remains an undercover traditionalist, wearing his kendo clothes under his suit and chivalrous to the end. Not recognising him and possibly in the pay of Teruo trying to put his sister off marriage, Satoko seduces the clean shaven Okajima while he rejects her advances but tries to “save” her from an excess of modernity by getting her away from the gang. She fancies herself in love with him, but what he does is free her from the false image of the modern society to give her back the true freedom of her own agency. In the end he chooses the classically nice, middle of the road option in remaining with Hiroko who loved him with beard and without rather than modern girl Satoko or snooty aristocrat Ikuko. You trim it but it just keeps growing back, the final title card adds, but the message seems to be that too much of one thing be it nationalistic conservatism or hedonistic modernity is no good. The middle way it is, slow and steady and as wholesome as could be.


Currently streaming in the UK via BFI Player as part of Japan 2020. Also available to stream in the US via Criterion Channel.

What Did the Lady Forget? (淑女は何を忘れたか, Yasujiro Ozu, 1937)

Japan was in a precarious position in 1937. Ozu’s What Did the Lady Forget? (淑女は何を忘れたか, Shukujo wa Nani wo Wasureta ka) was released in March of that year but by July the Second Sino-Japanese War would be in full swing and on the home front increasing censorship would render this kind of inconsequential comedy a much less easy sell. True enough, the film includes no “patriotic” content though it does eventually reinforce a set of patriarchal values in the remasculinisation of a henpecked husband while quietly sniggering at a new bourgeois social class.

The drama unfolds in the home of a medical professor, Komiya (Tatsuo Saito), and his austere wife Tokiko (Sumiko Kurishima). The couple have no children and mostly lead separate lives. Tokiko spends her days with two close friends, widowed single-mother Mitsuko (Mitsuko Yoshikawa), and wealthy older woman Chiyoko (Choko Iida) who is married to her husband’s friend, Sugiyama (Takeshi Sakamoto). The three women gossip about the usual things from fancy department store kimonos to new ways to laugh so you don’t get wrinkles along with the bizarrely difficult maths problems Mitsuko’s son has been studying in preparation for middle-school that none of them can answer. To help with the embarrassingly taxing homework, Tokiko offers to find a tutor, press-ganging her husband’s best student, Okada (Shuji Sano), into spending time with Mitsuko’s son Fujio (Masao Hayama) though it turns out that he too, a college graduate, is unable to solve these middle-school level problems. 

The real drama occurs when the couple’s neice, Setsuko (Michiko Kuwano), whom Tokiko had described as “proper” and “wholesome” rocks up from Osaka having become the epitome of a modern girl. Setsuko’s arrival further strains the Komiyas’ already fraying relationship as her surprising habits which include driving, smoking, drinking, and hanging out with geisha, continue to exasperate her aunt whose main objection to all of those things is that they aren’t appropriate because Setsuko is not yet married. To get away from his nagging wife who forces him to go golfing as usual when he doesn’t really want to, Komiya stashes his clubs with Okada and goes to a bar in Ginza where he meets Sugiyama who has also been forced outside by his wife. Sugiyama really does go golfing, promising to mail a previously written postcard to Tokiko on Komiya’s behalf, while he is eventually joined by Setsuko who has tracked him down to the bar despite being told to stay home and mind the house (the Komiyas have two live-in maids so the instruction seems unnecessary at best).  

As a “modern gal” Setsuko has some strangely old fashioned ideas even as she behaves like a 1930s ladette, striding around like man while drinking, smoking, and generally being almost as intimidating as Tokiko just in a more likeable fashion. Setsuko finds Komiya’s deferral to his wife embarrassing, encouraging him to be more masculine and stand up for himself even advising that he use violence to reassert his position as the man of the house. He seems uncomfortable with the idea but eventually does just that after a climactic argument once his lying about the golf and Setsuko’s nighttime adventures have been exposed. Caught in a moment of frustration, he slaps Tokiko across the face, leaving her to retreat in shock apparently “beaten”. The thing is, however, Tokiko likes it. She sees his slapping her as a sign of his love, as if she’s been needling him all this time in hope of a reaction while frustrated that perhaps he doesn’t care for her. Once he hits her, the marriage is rebalanced and repaired with traditional gender dynamics restored. She becomes more cheerful and deferent to his male authority, he acknowledges that he enabled her “arrogance” with his weakness as a man.  

Setsuko however, continues to shout at her uncle, disappointed that he apologised for his reaction and accusing him of giving away the victory he’d just won. He tells her that he’s simply using reverse psychology because wives like to believe they’re in charge and in the main it’s best to let them. Setsuko seems satisfied, but jokes with her new love interest Okada that he better not use reverse psychology on her. Or, he can, but she’ll just use reverse reverse psychology to get the upper hand, which perhaps undercuts the central message in praise of traditional gender roles. Nevertheless, What Did the Lady Forget? is full of Lubitschy late-30s charms from an unexpected sighting of real life star Ken Uehara at the Kabuki to Setsuko’s movie magazines featuring Marlene Dietrich and repeated references to Frederich March and William Powell proving that Ginza is open even in 1937, while the Komiya household descends into an oddly peaceful harmony of delayed marital bliss. 


Currently streaming in the UK via BFI Player as part of Japan 2020. Also available to stream in the US via Criterion Channel.

Boiling Point (3-4X10月, Takeshi Kitano, 1990)

The heroes of Takeshi Kitano’s films are often gentle men, capable of great tenderness but also filled with quietly mounting rage permanently on the brink of explosion. Everyone perhaps has their Boiling Point, the straw that breaks the camel’s back and sends it careering towards a self-destructive attempt at restitution. “Boiling Point”, however, has absolutely nothing to do with the original Japanese title (3-4X10月) which references the score on the board at a baseball game and the originally scheduled month of the film’s release, October (it was later moved up to September making the whole thing even more meaningless). This perverse randomness was apparently another minor win for Kitano who had scored a critical hit with his debut feature Violent Cop but had struggled to convince the team around him to embrace his unconventional vision. Working with greater independence, Kitano minimises camera movement in favour long takes with static camera which perfectly compliment his deadpan sense of the absurd. 

He also relegates himself to a supporting role unseen on screen for over half of the running time. Our hero is small town loser Masaki (Yurei Yanagi) who we first meet hiding in a toilet during an amateur baseball game in which he is desperate to play but strikes out when given the opportunity in the first of many petty humiliations. He has been taken under the wing of the team’s coach, Iguchi (Taka Guadalcanal), a former yakuza attempting to go straight by running a dive bar, and has a part-time job at a petrol station. Masaki perhaps images himself as something greater, as evidenced by his extremely cool motorcycle jacket and bike, but is a dreamer at heart, nervous and tongue-tied, unable to unlock his hidden potential. Even he has a boiling point, however, which is later hit when he gets into an altercation with a teddy boy yakuza at the garage who starts a pointless argument about being kept waiting, pulling the old trick of goading Masaki into fighting back to get leverage over their shop and begin extorting it. Masaki has just got his boss into trouble through losing his cool, but is ironically offered a job by a visiting thug jokingly admiring his fighting prowess. 

Iguchi meanwhile is a man divided, permanently on the brink of boiling over. When some irritating sophisticates “ironically” visit his bar clutching their designer handbags and holding their noses, he’s obliged to be nice to them but he simply can’t. Unable to bear their snotty arrogance, he glasses one of the women on the way back from the bathroom and throws the whole gang out. The yakuza has it seems been reawakened, and though he was reluctant before, he to decides approach his old boss, Otomo (Hisashi Igawa), on Masaki’s behalf. The reception he receives is not as he expected. Iguchi is reminded that he chose the civilian life and being a yakuza isn’t a part-time job, you can’t just pick it back up again when it suits you. Not being able to help Masaki is another small humiliation, one he perhaps intends to overcome through turning violence on an old underling who disrespected him in refusing the customary deference. Predictably, it backfires, you can’t be half a yakuza after all. Iguchi is completely finished, boiling with rage but too humiliated to do much about it other than vow revenge by going to Okinawa to buy a gun in order to put an end to the lot of them. To protect his mentor, an oddly yakuza-esque gesture, Masaki volunteers to go in his stead, dragging his catcher friend Kazuo (Duncan) along for the ride. 

A complicated liminal space, Okinawa is both an enticing holiday destination and source of political contention thanks to the controversial presence of the US military bases. It’s indeed corrupt foreign influences who can provide our guys with guns, but Okinawa is also a place slightly out of time, trapped in the Showa-era past while the rest of Japan has already transitioned to an economically prosperous mid-Bubble Heisei. Consequently, these are Showa-era yakuza with fancy outfits and sunshades hanging out in neon-lit bars with butterflies on the walls. Uehara (Takeshi Kitano) is in the process of being humiliated in front of his gang for supposed embezzlement of collective funds. He too wants a gun to enact his revenge, something which he fantasises about in an eerie and fatalistic flash forward. Before that, however, he’s befriended our guys and taken quite a liking to Kazuo, hinting a latent homosexuality in another example of the unwelcome association of queerness and savagery often seen in yakuza movies. Uehara has a girlfriend but treats her with utter contempt, insisting that she sleep with his underling only to punish her for it afterwards and take over halfway through to rape him. In fact all of his subsequent sexual actions are rapes, his assaults on women cold and mechanical as if purely performative, implying that it is his repressed homosexuality which underpins the sense of humiliation that fuels his violence and his cruelty. 

Unlike Uehara and Iguchi, our guys have not even one foot in the yakuza world and despite their ingenious plan to get the guns on the plane have no idea what they’re going to do with them, marching all the way over to Otomo’s before realising they don’t know anything about the use of firearms with the consequence that they become useless lumps of metal in their hands. They are boys playing gangster out of a misguided ideal of heroic nobility in their desire to avenge Iguchi who by all accounts is still sulking alone at home. This is their greatest and final humiliation, failing as men in front of men. Yet, their friendship perhaps survives, patched up in silence over shared ice lollies. Even so, Masaki is about to boil over, travelling towards a split second moment of fiery self-destruction and misdirected rage. But then Kitano pulls the rug out from under us again. Was this all a dream after all, grim wish-fulfilment from a repressed young man longing to burn out bright, or perhaps a lengthy vision of the kind visited on Uehara which would at least explain Kitano’s many non-sequitur cuts and ellipses? Who can say, but the humiliating sense of impossibility is all too real for those unable to take a swing at life’s many opportunities.


Boiling Point is the second of three films included in the BFI’s Takeshi Kitano Collection blu-ray box set and is accompanied by a new audio commentary by Little White Lies’ David Jenkins, plus a featurette recorded in 2016. The first pressing includes a 44-page booklet featuring a piece on Boiling Point from Mark Schilling, an essay on Violent Cop by Tom Mes, an introduction to Kitano’s career & writing on Sonatine by Jasper Sharp, an archival review by Geoff Andrew, and an appreciation of Beat Takeshi by James-Masaki Ryan.

The Takeshi Kitano Collection is released 29th June while Violent Cop, Boiling Point, and Sonatine will also be available to stream via BFI Player from 27th July as part of BFI Japan.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (戸田家の兄妹, Yasujiro Ozu, 1941)

Yasujiro Ozu made only two films during the height of the war. After being drafted for the second time in 1943, he famously sat out the main action from the relative safety of Singapore where he was able to indulge his love of Hollywood cinema to an extent impossible in Japan. Somewhat surprisingly, 1941’s Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (戸田家の兄妹, Toda-ke no Kyodai) does not seem to fit the censor’s ideal in that it contains little to no patriotic content and never mentions the war save for presenting the idea of “Manchuria” as a place to start again free of burdensome codes of social oppression but, crucially, embraces classic ideas of filial piety which is presumably how it came to be approved by the powers that be. 

Shortly after the Toda family gathers for the first time in quite a while to celebrate Mrs. Toda’s (Ayako Katsuragi) 61st birthday, Mr. Toda (Hideo Fujino) drops dead of a heart attack and it is discovered that the family firm is near bankruptcy. The large, Western-style mansion where the family photo so recently took place will have to be sold and Mrs. Toda and her unmarried daughter Setsuko (Mieko Takamine) will have to move in with one of the married children. 

Like the later Tokyo Story, Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family concerns itself with the failure of filial piety in an increasingly corrupt society. Multigenerational homes might once have been a cultural norm, but perhaps it’s understandable that few people might be excited about the prospect of their mother suddenly moving in with them especially as the traditional Japanese house is not designed with personal space in mind. Power dynamics seem to be the problem at the first home where daughter-in-law Kazuko (Kuniko Miyake) makes no secret of the fact that the two women are in the way. She resents having to shift everything around and reorder her home to give them space upstairs, complains about their noisy pet bird, and is then put out when Setsuko and her mother fail to greet her guests even though she specifically asked them to absent themselves in order to avoid meeting them. 

At the next home, however, it’s more a question of maternal heirarchy. Daughter Chizuru (Mitsuko Yoshikawa) has two children and the oldest, her son Ryokichi (Masao Hayama), is very attached to his grandma, so much so that he confides in her about skipping school because he got into a fight and is worried about reprisals. Chizuru’s main objection to them moving in had been that it might distract Ryokichi from his studies, and it’s clear that she finds it difficult to assert her own maternity with her mother hovering in the background. She accuses Mrs. Toda of interfering by keeping her promise to Ryokichi and not telling her about skipping school, making it impossible for them to keep living in the same house. 

Rather than descend on the home of the last daughter, Ayako (Yoshiko Tsubouchi), who is hurt but perhaps relieved to hear they won’t be living with her, Mrs. Toda and Setsuko decide to move into a dilapidated summer house the family thought too worthless to sell. They are now thoroughly marginalised, living in a literal half-way home having lost their position in society. Setsuko, naive but earnest, is the keenest to adapt to her circumstances. Her best friend Tokiko (Michiko Kuwano) is from an “ordinary” family and tries to point out, as nicely as possible, that Setsuko is going to find it much more difficult than she thinks to move beyond her privilege. Aware of her precarious circumstances, she expresses the intention to work but is quickly shut down by Chizuru who finds the idea highly offensive and in fact embarrassing. She urges her to think about a socially advantageous marriage instead.  

Shojiro (Shin Saburi), the youngest and as yet unmarried son, urges her to do something much the same at the film’s conclusion but also offers his sister the freedom to fulfil herself outside the home by accompanying him to the land of the possible, Manchuria. Previously regarded as a feckless failure, Shojiro decided to take up the opportunity to make something of himself in Japan’s new colonial endevour. On his brief return to mark the first anniversary of his father’s passing, he appears in a China-style suit and fiercely takes his siblings to task for their disrespect of his mother. It has to be said, however, that he does not particularly take Mrs. Toda’s feelings into account and foregrounds his own duty of filial piety in insisting that she live with family rather than alone excluding the possibility that she too may prefer her freedom. In any case, it’s freedom he dangles before Setsuko in suggesting that in Manchuria you can do as you please without needing to worry about what others think. He offers her the possibility of marriage, but also of working and a kind of independence which is bound within the family. For herself, Setsuko wants to bring Tokiko too, positing a possible arranged match between her friend and her brother which other members of the family may find inappropriate in its transgressive breach of the class divide. 

The family is both dissolved and restored as the three Todas prepare to remove themselves from a corrupted Japan for, ironically, a new start in the home of old ideas, China, where there is both the promise of modernity and all the “good” aspects of the traditional, to whit filiality. Fulfilling the censors demands in subtly criticising the decadent, selfish, and hypocritical lifestyles of an impoverished nobility while presenting Manchuria as an opportunity remake a better, purer (and subversively progressive) Japan through imperialist pursuits, Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family offers an ambivalent portrait of contemporary Japanese society in which the young save themselves but only by saving their parents first. 


Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family is available on blu-ray in the UK as part of the BFI’s re-release of Tokyo Story in its recent 4K restoration which also includes an introduction to Tokyo Story from Tony Rayns, and Talking with Ozu: a tribute to the legendary director featuring filmmakers Lindsay Anderson, Claire Denis, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Aki Kaurismäki, Stanley Kwan, Paul Schrader and Wim Wenders. The first pressing also comes with a booklet featuring an essay by Professor Joan Mellen, archival writing by John Gillett and Lindsay Anderson, and a biography of Yasujiro Ozu by Tony Rayns.

It is also available to stream online via BFI Player as part of the BFI Japan Yasujiro Ozu collection.

Titles and opening (no subtitles)

Late Autumn (秋日和, Yasujiro Ozu, 1960)

“It’s people who complicate life. Life itself is surprisingly simple” according to a puffed up old man having just hugely overcomplicated an admittedly delicate situation in Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Autumn (秋日和, Akibiyori). A reinterpretation of his classic Late Spring, Late Autumn once again stars Setsuko Hara but this time as a widowed mother far more enthusiastic about marrying off her only daughter while enduring the sometimes unwelcome assistance of a group of middle-aged men stepping into the decidedly female realm of matchmaking and of course concluding that they are doing a fantastic job. 

The action opens at the seventh memorial service for Akiko’s (Setsuko Hara) late husband, Miwa, attended by his three old high school friends, Taguchi (Nobuo Nakamura), Hirayama (Ryuji Kita), and Mamiya (Shin Saburi) who’s turned up fashionably late in the hope of skipping most of the sutras. At the refreshments afterwards, talk turns to the marriage of Miwa’s daughter Ayako (Yoko Tsukasa) who is now 24 which is actually edging towards the late side by the standards of the time. The three old men offer to help find prospective matches with Taguchi instantly proposing an acquaintance to which Ayako smiles demurely but is later relieved to discover is already taken. Mamiya too has a lead, a nice young man from his office, Goto (Keiji Sada) who graduated from a good university and is not bad looking either. Though Akiko is excited, she’s surprised to discover that her daughter wants to shut the offer down immediately before even exchanging photos. She feels she’s not ready for marriage and is happy the way things are. Of course, if she fell in love it might be a different matter, but to her mind there’s no rush to get married just for the sake of it. 

Generally speaking, it’s other women who mostly enforce these restrictive patriarchal social norms, after all a daughter’s marriage is ironically the one area of a woman’s life over which she usually has total control. In this case, however, Ayako’s marriage becomes a kind of hobby for three eccentric old men who each have problems of their own they don’t seem to be in a big hurry to deal with. They each have a latent crush on Akiko from their youth though it was obviously Miwa who later married her. Hirayama is widowed with a teenage son, but Mamiya and Taguchi have wives and daughters of their own, Taguchi’s already married but apparently experiencing frequent bouts of “frustration” with her husband, and Mamiya’s still in school, while their wives are fully aware of their lingering affections for Akiko but mostly content to laugh at their ridiculousness. They are all certain that Ayako “needs” to get married as soon as possible and that they are “helping” her towards “happiness” though what they’re mostly doing is a father knows best routine in which they resolutely ignore her repeated desire for things to go on as they are until she decides that they shouldn’t. 

Ayako isn’t interested in arranged marriage, but does become interested in Goto after accidentally meeting him at Mamiya’s company and then discovering they have a mutual friend, all of which makes their relationship both “arranged” and “not”, giving Mamiya cause to think he’s responsible when he’s really just incidental. Thinking things aren’t moving fast enough, the guys decide the problem is Akiko and if they can persuade her to remarry then Ayako will be less reluctant to leave home. Their behaviour is in fact quite manipulative, something they are later called out on by Ayako’s feisty friend Yuriko (Mariko Okada) who is also trying to help but determined to do it in a less problematic way. The gang’s suggestion to Ayako that her mother is considering remarriage when in fact she had no such intentions at all places a rift between the two women with Ayako left feeling hurt and betrayed, as if her mother has offended her father’s memory and done something improper behind her back. 

Ayako is not alone in her lingering prejudice against second marriage even if Yuriko tries to explain to her that she’s being unreasonable. Hirayama too originally objects to the gang’s plan to get him to marry Akiko on the grounds that it would be “immoral” to marry his old friend’s wife, but is brought round when he puts the idea to his son and finds him wildly enthusiastic if only in part because he’s already thought ahead to his own marriage and is worried his dad will want to live with them and that would inconvenient for everyone. When it comes to Akiko’s marriage, there seems to be more wiggle room. Everyone wants her to be “happy” and so there’s a greater freedom to explore various options while completely ignoring her preference to remain a widow. As we see from Akiko’s life, she is already financially independent and really has no “need” to remarry unless she happened to fall in love though she remains attached to her husband’s memory. As she later confesses to Ayako, she has no desire to “climb that mountain” again, and in fact will be happier living in freedom as an independent woman. 

As so often, however, while remarriage is optional marriage is not. Ayako has to marry, she never really has the option to remain single even that was what she wanted. She falls in love with Goto and indeed wants to marry him if perhaps worried about leaving her mother behind, making the three old men partially correct in their conviction that her reluctance was more anxiety than it was opposition. Unfortunately, their “success” emboldens them towards the next match and possibly more unhelpful meddling, complicating what should be simple with their increasingly outdated ideas fuelled by a desire to rebel against their sense of impending obsolescence. “In marriage you just give up” an exasperated wife admits, but wouldn’t it be something if you didn’t have to?


Late Autumn is currently streaming on BFI Player as part of the BFI’s Japan season.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Onibaba (鬼婆, Kaneto Shindo, 1964)

How do you go on living in a world turned upside-down? It may be the central theme of post-war cinema, but few have tackled it in such a direct if allegorical way as Kaneto Shindo, repurposing a Buddhist parable about the perils of duplicity as lesson in the dangers of the age, defined by a cruel hunger which could not be satisfied by bread alone even if there were bread to satisfy it. Onibaba (鬼婆), as the title implies, makes a villainess of an old woman driven to extremes by her chaotic times, but perhaps suggests that the times make villains of us all.

Deep in the war-torn country of 14th century Japan the imperial capital of Kyoto has been razed, a horse is said to have given birth to a cow, and the sun rose black in the sky leaving day as black as night. With farmers dragged away from their fields to fight in a war they barely understand on behalf of distant lords, the grain basket of the nation is close to empty. An old woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) have learned to make ends meet by hunting battle-weary samurai, stripping them of their armour, and throwing their bodies into a gigantic pit sitting right in the middle of the tall grass like a gravitational black hole of human compassion. The old woman has been patiently waiting for the return of her son, Kichi, who was taken away by the samurai, certain that everything is going back to normal when the war is over. Kichi, however, will not be returning. Hachi (Kei Sato), another young man from the village taken along with him, brings the sad news that the old woman’s son was beaten to death by a mob of farmers much like herself resentful of the war’s intrusion onto their land. 

Everything becomes food, Hachi explains, a sentiment extremely familiar to those who lived through the chaos of the immediate post-war era. Pointing at a baseline problem in the feudal economy, the war starves the poor and makes the wealthy hungry. The fields run wild with no men to tend them, as if symbolising the madness of the times. Lost in the tall grass, samurai and peasant alike search for an exit but are drawn only towards that black pit of human cruelty, more beasts than men driven by the need to survive alone. 

Without her son, the old woman is unable to farm, and without her daughter-in-law she is unable to survive through killing. She knows that these are times without feeling and that if Kichi will not return there is no reason for her daughter-in-law to stay. Ushi (Taiji Tonoyama), the broker for the looted samurai armour, makes an indecent proposal of extra millet for sexual favours but the old woman defiantly turns him down, perhaps not quite realising the offer was likely not intended for her. Which is to say that Hachi is not the only man in town, but is perhaps the only “desirable” one. Such desires that there are apparently cannot be satisfied by a crusty old man like Ushi, but are there all the same. Hachi presents a triple threat. The old woman knows her survival depends on the younger one, but also that she has no means to keep her now that her son is dead. She offers Hachi her body instead but he, as she did Ushi, baulks at the idea of slaking his lust on such an old woman. 

When a strange samurai wanders into her hut and orders her at the point of his sword to lead him out of the tall grass a solution presents itself. The old woman lures him to the black pit and prises away the ornate oni mask which he claimed he wore to protect his beautiful face from the ravages of war. Despite the fact that the samurai appears to have suffered from some kind of aggressive skin disease, the old woman unwisely decides to put the mask on her own face, convincing her daughter-in-law that her relationship with Hachi is sinful and appearing out of nowhere dressed as a demon to remind her that she’s going to hell. The mask’s crazed expression becomes fused with her own face, cementing her transformation into a “demoness” which it seems had already begun with stretch of white disrupting the uniformity of her hair and the kabuki-esque exaggeration of her eyebrows. Running desperately through the tall grass she cries out that she’s human, but this world has made demons of them all. The black pit of hunger knows no fill, and there can be no satisfaction in a world so devoid of human feeling.


Onibaba is currently streaming on BFI Player as part of the BFI’s Japan season.

Original trailer (dialogue free)

Cruel Story of Youth (青春残酷物語, Nagisa Oshima, 1960)

More interested in politics than cinema and never quite at home in the studio system, Nagisa Oshima began his career at Shochiku as one of a small group of directors promoted as part of the studio’s effort to reach a youth audience they feared their particular brand of inoffensive melodrama was failing to capture. Like The Sun’s Burial, Cruel Story of Youth (青春残酷物語, Seishun Zankoku Monogatari) is a nihilistic tale of a fracturing society, but it also looks forward to Night and Fog in Japan in its insistence that youth itself is a failed revolution and this generation is no more likely to escape existential disappointment than the last. 

The film opens with teenager Makoto (Miyuki Kuwano) and her friend Yoko (Aki Morishima) trying to get free rides from skeevy middle-aged men rather than having to pay for a cab. As you might expect, that’s a fairly dangerous game and while it might be alright while there’s two of you, as soon as Yoko has been dropped off, the driver changes course and suggests going for dinner only to park in front of a love hotel and try to drag Makoto inside. Luckily, or perhaps not as we will see, she is “rescued” by young tough Kiyoshi (Yusuke Kawazu), a student and angry if politically apathetic young man. Struck by his manly white knight act, Makoto takes a liking to Kiyoshi but he too later rapes her under the guise of satisfying her curiosity about sex to which he attributes her ride hailing activities. After this violent genesis, they fall in “love” but continue to struggle against an oppressive society.

We assume that the “cruel story of youth”, and it is indeed cruel, that we are witnessing is that of Makoto and Kiyoshi, but it’s also that of her slightly older sister Yuki (Yoshiko Kuga) and her former lover Akimoto (Fumio Watanabe) who has become a conflicted doctor to the poor betraying himself by financing the clinic through charging for backstreet abortions. Yuki complains to her apathetic father that they were strict with her in her youth, that she’d get a hiding just for coming home after dark, whereas Makoto can stay out all night and not get much more than a stern look. Her father explains that times were different then, “We thought we had new horizons. We started again as a democratic nation, and it was a responsibility that went hand in hand with freedom. What can I say to this girl today?” admitting both the failures of the past and the mistaken future of a society that actively resists change. 

Yuki and Akimoto were part of the post-war resistance, left-wing students like the older generation of Night and Fog in Japan, who’d actively fought for real social change but had seen that change elude them. Yuki, we hear, left Akimoto for an older man but perhaps now regrets it along with her half-finished revolution. She may not approve of her sister’s choices, but she also on some level admires her for them or at least for the strength of her rebellion even if it will ultimately be as fruitless as her own. “This is a cruel world and it destroyed our love” Akimoto laments, mildly censuring the youngsters in suggesting that his love was pure and chaste because they vented their youthful frustrations through political action whereas this generation is already lost to the mindless hedonism of unbridled sexuality. 

He forgives them, because he feels that their plight is a direct result of his failure to bring about the better world, but there is also a suggestion that it is a lack of political awareness which is somehow trapping the young. Oshima cuts from footage of the April Revolution in Korea which is described as a “student riot” in the news to a protest against the Anpo treaty at which Kiyoshi and Makoto look on passively from the sidelines. “I think taking part in the demonstrations is stupid”, Makoto’s friend Yoko tells a prospective boyfriend, “why don’t we think about getting married instead?”, drawing a direct line between social conservatism and political inaction. 

Makoto and Kiyoshi rebel by using, or to a point not using, their bodies as a direct attack on the society. Following their rather odd and troubling meeting, the pair earn their keep through repeating the experience. Makoto picks up men who will inevitably have an ulterior motive, and Kiyoshi rescues her, extorting money from their targets. Yet it is Kiyoshi who is forced to prostitute himself, gaining financial support as a gigalo kept by a wealthy middle-aged housewife who is just as sad and defeated as Yuki and Akimoto, dissatisfied with the path her life has taken and in her case attempting to escape it through passion and control exerted over the body of a young man. Though the consequences of a becoming a kept man may be different than those Makoto would face should the less “nice” delinquents get their hands on her, they do perhaps fuel his sense of violent emasculation which he channels into a pointless act of revenge against the society in the form of its most powerful, wealthy middle-aged men whose misogyny he claims to abhor while simultaneously mirroring and directly exploiting.

“Someone needs to be responsible” a strangely sympathetic policeman insists, chiding Kiyoshi that at heart he’s just a petty criminal who liked having money no matter how he might have tried to dress it up. “You’re just like them, you’re a victim of money too”, he adds correctly diagnosing the flaws of an increasingly consumerist society. Only, no one takes responsibility. Kiyoshi’s lady friend pulls stings. It turns out her husband does business with Horio, one of Makoto’s pick ups who despite being nice and kind still had his way with her and then reported Kiyoshi for extortion. Akimoto explained that their failures would drive them apart, but Kiyoshi swore they’d always be together only to wonder if in his love for her the only thing to do is save Makoto from his corrupting influence though she does not want to leave him. We won’t be like you, Kiyoshi countered, because we have no dreams with which to become disillusioned. But youth itself is a failed revolution, and the force which destroys them is perhaps love as they meet their shared destinies at the hands of an increasingly cruel society.


Cruel Story of Youth is currently streaming on BFI Player as part of the BFI’s Japan season.

Original trailer (no subtitles)