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)

The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice (お茶漬けの味, Yasujiro Ozu, 1952)

Famously, many of Yasujiro Ozu’s films end with a young woman getting married and the emotional desolation that it provokes in those left behind. Ozu, unlike some of his contemporaries, generally comes down on the side of marriage. His heroines always succumb, rarely finding independence or resignation and settling for a second choice even if their first proved unavailable. The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice (お茶漬けの味, Ochazuke no Aji), however, takes him in a slightly different direction in asking what, if anything, is to blame when a marriage is unhappy, repurposing the arranged married debate to perhaps imply that wedded bliss is less about romance than it is about endurance and mutual understanding. 

Taeko (Michiyo Kogure), a middle-aged woman, consented to an arranged marriage to Mokichi (Shin Saburi) at the usual age but seems to feel little more than contempt for him. A friend from school, Aya (Chikage Awashima), invites her on an impromptu trip to an onsen and for reasons not entirely clear, Taeko feels she has to lie rather than simply telling Mokichi that she would like to go away with a friend for a couple of days. Aya encourages her to spin a tale that her niece, Setsuko (Keiko Tsushima), who often stays with them in the city, has been taken ill and is in need of urgent care, but the plan is foiled when she swans into their home right as rain before Aya could give her instructions. Caught on the hoof, Taeko is forced to improvise that a different friend is ill, the four women eventually heading off on a girls’ trip leaving Mokichi at home alone and apparently none the wiser. 

Perhaps surprisingly, Mokichi turns out to be a kind and considerate, if perhaps dull, kind of man. We later discover that he knew all along that Taeko was lying but thought it wasn’t worth making a fuss over. He makes a point of chatting with the maid, asking after her family and is apparently well acquainted with her circumstances. Unlike other men, he doesn’t spend his time out drinking or gambling or even overworking, coming home to read instead, but still Taeko is put out when she phones him at work to kickstart the onsen plan and discovers his desk to be empty. It turns out that he met up with the younger brother of an old friend killed in the war who had asked for his help with a recruitment exam. Non-chan (Koji Tsuruta), as everyone calls him, is a cheerful sort guy who openly admits he wears army surplus suits and likes to eat in restaurants which are “good and cheap”, all of which suits Mokichi much better than his wife’s rather more sophisticated tastes. The younger man is quick to introduce him to the pleasures of the age including bicycle racing and pachinko parlours which is where he runs into an old army buddy, Hirayama. 

While Taeko and her old friends break into a rendition of a song from their student days with Setsuko looking on in minor confusion, Mokichi sits around a small table with Hirayama and an equally out of place Non-chan recalling his glory days in Singapore and singing old army songs. They are each, in their own and infinitely parallel ways, mourning the promise of their youth. Taeko’s friends, Aya and Takako, have an equally cynical view of marriage. Takako’s husband has gone to Paris and she, it seems, couldn’t be happier with her newfound freedom, while Aya runs a small boutique and regards hers as little more than a necessary inconvenience. When the ladies take in a baseball game, Aya is surprised to spot her sports-hating husband on the bleachers apparently escorting a woman she recognises from a nearby bar, but she isn’t in any way jealous or angry merely amused and planning to use it as extra leverage to persuade him to buy her a new kimono despite the fact that we later see him asking her for money (which she snatches back as punishment). 

Despite all of that however Taeko’s tragedy maybe that somewhere deep down she wanted her marriage to work. Her open contempt for Mokichi, likening him to a big fat carp and referring to him as “Mr. Bonehead” in assuming he is stupid enough to believe all her lies, annoys the otherwise modern Setsuko who sees their unhappy union as definitive proof that arranged marriages do not work. Interrogated by her exasperated niece who was sure her aunt would support her in her resistance to her parents’ matchmaking, Taeko claims that she is happy and perhaps she is even if in her unhappiness, but Setsuko’s unexpected seizure of her agency though rudely walking out on the omiai brings her own marriage to a crisis point. Mokichi cannot quite say so but tacitly supports Setsuko’s desire to decide her own romantic future even if he disapproves of her irresponsible rudeness to her prospective suitor. “Forcing her to marry against her will would just create another couple like us” he eventually explains to Taeko in boldly saying that which should not be said. 

It would be easy to think that the problem is Taeko and Mokichi simply aren’t suited. There is an obvious class difference that seems to be a continuing problem for the snooty Taeko. It annoys her that he insists on pouring his miso soup into his rice bowl which she feels is common, like his cheap cigarettes and preference for third class rail travel. He explains that it’s not that he’s cheap, simply that these are the things he likes, that he’s familiar with, that make him feel relaxed. Their upbringings are different. Taeko feels relaxed in first class because that’s how she’s always travelled and she likes the finer things because they reassure her in her status. That might be one reason they occupy different areas of a shared home, he with a traditional futon in a tatami mat room, she in a well appointed Western-style boudoir even as she exclusively wears kimono. 

Yet the problem isn’t that they like different things so much as an essential misconnection. Without perhaps knowing, Taeko is so filled with resentment over her lack of control of her romantic destiny that she’s never warmed to her husband or felt secure in her marital home. It’s a cliche to say she doesn’t understand him, but perhaps she wanted something different to what she eventually got. A sudden crisis after the Setsuko episode sees Taeko make a temporary retreat only for Mokichi to be abruptly sent abroad. Sharing the homely comfort food of green tea poured over rice, she finally begins to understand that what she took for indifference was perhaps merely a different way of showing love. Mokichi really is a man who likes the simple things, affection without ceremony, like the flavour of green tea over rice. She knows that unlike Aya’s husband Mokichi will never betray or hurt her. He is infinitely “reliable” which might not sound romantic, but is perhaps the only solid basis for a successful marriage. 

That’s the advice she eventually offers to Setsuko, walking back on her commitment to arranged marriage, a “feudal” tradition she and all the other women had been determined to force onto her despite the fear and pain it caused them in their own youth and beyond, to remind her that marriage is for life. Find someone “reliable”. A flashy suit and a handsome face might look good now, but they might not in 20 years’ time. Setsuko has taken a liking to Non-chan who claims to be “reliable” but his taste for pachinko and bicycle races might suggest otherwise. In any case, after a heartwarming resolution that repairs the fractured marriage of Mokichi and Taeko, Ozu ends on a moment of cheeky ambivalence in which Non-chan says the wrong thing, upsetting Setsuko who retreats into a small hut. Non-chan repeatedly apologises and tries to enter, while she pushes him back out, neatly symbolising the arc of a marriage as an accidental battleground of intimacy though in this case one with a playful resolution. 


The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice is released on blu-ray in the UK on 18th May courtesy of BFI in a set which also includes an audio commentary by Tony Rayns. The first press edition also comes with a booklet featuring an essay by Tom Milne.

Short clip (English subtitles)

BFI Japan 2020 to Celebrate More Than 100 Years of Japanese Cinema

The Olympics may have been postponed and everything seems like it’s on pause, but the BFI’s planned mammoth Japan season is still doing all it can to make its way to us in the 2020 that never was. With the cinemas closed for the foreseeable future, the BFI will be making the first part of the season available online via BFI player with strands dedicated to golden age directors Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu as well as a series of classics including films by Mikio Naruse and Seijun Suzuki, cult movies, and the best in 21st century cinema. Once the BFI reopens, we can also look forward to some rarer treats from this century and the last.

BFI Player

A series of strands will begin streaming via BFI Player over a six month period beginning with Akira Kurosawa and Classics (11th May), followed by Yasujiro Ozu (5th June), Cult (3rd July), Anime (31st July), Independence (21st August), 21st Century (18th September), and J-Horror (30th October). Subscriptions to BFI Player are available for £4.99 p/m following a two week free trial.

Akira Kurosawa (11th May)

  • Seven Samurai – classic jidaigeki gets a post-war twist as a collection of down on their luck samurai come to the rescue of peasants beset by bandits.
  • Throne of Blood – eerie retelling of Macbeth starring Toshiro Mifune as the man who would be king and Isuzu Yamada as his ambitious wife.
  • Yojimbo – samurai western starring Toshiro Mifune as a ronin drifter wandering into a turf war.
  • Sanjuro – sequel to Yojimbo in which Mifune reprises his role as the titular Sanjuro as he helps some locals stand up to samurai corruption.
  • Rashomon – a series of witnesses provides contradictory accounts of the same event in an adaptation of the story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa starring Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyo, and Masayuki Mori.
  • The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail – comedic kabuki adaptation in which a samurai attempts to escape with his retinue after being betrayed by his brother by disguising himself as a monk.
  • Drunken Angel – post-war tragedy starring Toshiro Mifune at his most dashing as gangster dying of TB and Takashi Shimura as the compassionate yet alcoholic doctor trying to save him.
  • Stray Dog – a policeman (Mifune) and his partner (Shimura) scour post-war Tokyo for a missing gun.
  • Ikiru – existential drama starring Takashi Shimura as a civil servant reflecting on his life after discovering he has a terminal illness.
  • Hidden Fortress – two bumbling peasants agree to escort a general and a princess in disguise to safe territory in return for gold.
  • The Bad Sleep Well – contemporary take on Hamlet starring Toshiro Mifune as man enacting an elaborate revenge plot against the corrupt CEO who drove his father to suicide. Review.
  • Red Beard – humanistic drama starring Toshiro Mifune as a gruff yet compassionate doctor to the poor. Review.
  • Ran – King Lear relocated to feudal Japan.
  • Sanshiro Sugata Pt 1 & 2 – drama inspired by the life story of a legendary judo master.
  • The Most Beautiful – naturalistic national policy film from 1944 following the lives of female factory workers.
  • No Regrets for Our Youth – 1946 drama starring Setsuko Hara as a professor’s daughter who marries a radical leftist later executed as a spy.
  • One Wonderful Sunday – post-war drama in which an engaged couple attempt to have a nice day out in Tokyo for only 35 yen.
  • I Live in Fear – Toshiro Mifune stars as a factory owner so terrified of nuclear attack that he becomes determined to move his family to the comparative safety of Brazil while they attempt to have him declared legally incompetent on account of his intense paranoia.
  • The Lower Depths – 1957 adaptation of Gorky’s novel following the lives of a collection of people living in an Edo-era tenement.
  • High and Low – Toshiro Mifune stars as a wealthy man encountering a dilemma when his chauffeur’s son is kidnapped after being mistaken for his own.
  • Dodes’ka-den – Kurosawa’s first colour film exploring the lives of a collection of people living in a shantytown above a rubbish dump.

Classics (11th May)

  • Late Chrysanthemums – Naruse’s 1954 drama following the lives of four former geishas (played by Haruko Sugimura, Chikako Hosokawa, Yuko Mochizuki, and Sadako Sawamura) as they try to get by in the complicated post-war economy.  
  • Floating Clouds – Naruse’s 1955 romantic drama starring Hideko Takamine and Masayuki Mori as former lovers floundering in the post-war landscape. Review.
  • When a Woman Ascends the Stairs – Naruse’s 1960 drama starring Hideko Takamine as a widow turned Ginza bar hostess.
  • Onibaba – period horror from Kaneto Shindo in which a mother and her daughter-in-law survive by murdering samurai and selling their armour. Review.
  • Kwaidan – horror anthology from Masaki Kobayashi featuring adaptations of classic Japanese folktales.
  • Hana-Bi – noirish poetry from Takeshi Kitano as a former policeman takes on an unwise loan from yakuza to care for his terminally ill wife. Review.
  • Black Rain – Shohei Imamura’s 1989 drama set in the aftermath of the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima.
  • Branded to Kill – the anarchic 1967 hitman drama that got Seijun Suzuki fired from Nikkatsu.
  • Woman of the Dunes – Hiroshi Teshigahara’s adaption of the Kobo Abe novel in which a bug collector is imprisoned in a sand dune after missing the last bus home and being persuaded to spend the night in the home of a local woman.
  • After Life – poignant drama from Hirokazu Koreeda in which the recently deceased are permitted to recreate a favourite memory. Review.
  • Youth of the Beast – Seijun Suzuki drama starring Jo Shishido as a mysterious figure playing double agent to engineer a gang war. Review.
  • Gate of Hell – period drama starring Machiko Kyo as a loyal wife who tricks a man trying to kill her husband to have her for himself to kill her instead. Review.
  • Cruel Story of Youth – post-Sun Tribe youth drama from Shochiku directed by Nagisa Oshima. Review.
  • An Actor’s Revenge – Kon Ichikawa’s visually stunning tale of vengeance and madness. Review.

Yasujiro Ozu (5th June)

  • I Was Born, But… – 1932 silent in which two little boys have a hard time accepting that their dad has an inauthentic work persona. Review.
  • Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice – 1952 drama starring Shin Saburi and Michiyo Kogure as an unhappily married couple. Review.
  • Tokyo Story – 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.
  • Good Morning – consumerist comedy in which two little boys go on a pleasantries strike to get their parents to buy them a TV.
  • Late Autumn – drama in which a young widow tries to marry off her daughter with the help of old friends from college. Review.
  • An Autumn Afternoon – Ozu’s final film stars Chishu Ryu as an ageing widower preparing to marry off his only daughter. Review.
  • Early Summer – a family’s attempt to marry off a daughter is frustrated when they realise she is carrying a torch for the widower next door.
  • Equinox Flower – drama of generational conflict in which an authoritarian father is forced to accept his daughter’s right to choose her own husband without asking for his advice or consent.
  • Late Spring – classic in which a young woman’s close relationship with her widowed father leaves her reluctant to marry.
  • Dragnet Girl – silent crime film starring Kinuyo Tanaka as a gangster’s moll who decides to reform after meeting the sister of a new gang member.
  • Walk Cheerfully – silent crime film in which a gangster wants to go straight after falling for an ordinary girl.
  • I Flunked, But… – silent college comedy.
  • Days of Youth – two students compete for the affections of the same girl.
  • Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth? – tragedy enters a carefree college existence when a naive young man games the system to offer all his friends jobs after inheriting his father’s company.
  • Woman of Tokyo – silent drama in which a student is devastated to learn that his older sister is not a translator as he thought but works as a bar hostess to finance his education.
  • Early Spring – rare Ozu drama exploring the taboo of an extra-marital affair.
  • Tokyo Twilight – grown up sisters reunite with the mother who abandoned them as children to run off with another man.
  • That Night’s Wife – 1930 crime drama in which a man is hunted by police after resorting to robbery to pay for his daughter’s medication.
  • The Lady and the Beard – 1931 comedy in which a traditionally minded man’s refusal to shave off his beard makes it difficult to move on with his life.
  • A Mother Should Be Loved – a young man discovers the woman who raised him is not his birth mother.
  • The Only Son – drama in which a mother visits her grown-up son and is disappointed to learn he has a wife and child he never told her about.
  • What Did the Lady Forget? – a modern girl visits her professor uncle but is disturbed to see him henpecked by his traditionalist wife.
  • Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family – a widow discovers that her grown up children are unwilling to support her and their younger sister when their father suddenly dies leaving them deep in debt.
  • There Was a Father – a father’s attempts to do the best for his son perpetually keep them apart.
  • A Hen in the Wind – a returned soldier struggles to accept his wife’s decision to resort to prostitution to pay for a doctor to save their son’s life in Ozu’s atypically dark post-war drama.

Cult (3rd July)

  • Gushing Prayer – pink film from Masao Adachi dramatising despair in the wake of the failure of the student movement.
  • Inflatable Sex Doll of the Wastelands – pink film in which a hitman is brought into contact with the yakuza who killed his girlfriend while looking for kidnapped woman.
  • Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss – first in the Stray Cat Rock series starring Akiko Wada and Meiko Kaji.
  • Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion – Meiko Kaji stars as a woman falsely imprisoned.
  • Lady Snowblood – Meiko Kaji stars as a young woman seeking revenge against the men who raped her mother.
  • Orgies of Edo – three tales of Genroku decadence from Teruo Ishii. Review.
  • House – surreal horror from Nobuhiko Obayashi in which a high school girl takes some friends to visit her aunt but ends up in a colourful nightmare world.

Anime (31st July)

  • Summer Wars – Mamoru Hosoda’s breakthrough feature follows the summer adventures of maths genius and moderator of online world Oz Kenji Koiso as he is unexpectedly invited on a trip with his crush, Natsuki, only to be expected to play the part of her fake fiancé whilst also dealing with a vast internet-based conspiracy.
  • The Girl Who Leapt Through Time – Mamoru Hosoda’s loose sequel to the much-loved novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui.
  • Wolf Children – touching animation from Mamoru Hosoda in which a single-mother raising two children alone must comes to terms with the different paths her children take.
  • Ghost in the Shell – Mamoru Oshii’s iconic adaptation of the Shirow Masamune manga in which a cybernetic ally enhanced policewoman hunts a hacker known as the Puppet Master.
  • Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence – sequel to the original Ghost in the Shell set in the Hong Kong of 2032.

Independence (21st August)

  • Funeral Parade of Roses – Toshio Matsumoto’s avant-garde take on Oedipus Rex.
  • Tetsuo: The Iron Man – surrealist body horror from Shinya Tsukamoto.
  • Maborosi – a young widow struggles to come to terms with the apparent suicide of her husband in Hirokazu Koreeda’s debut feature.
  • Sawako Decides – an aimless young woman struggles to find direction in her life in an early comedy from Yuya Ishii starring Hikari Mitsushima.
  • Getting Any? – zany pop culture comedy from Takeshi Kitano in which a man goes to great lengths to get a car solely so he can have sex in it. Review.
  • The Woodsman and the Rain – comedy from Shuichi Okita in which a film director bonds with a lonely lumberjack while shooting a zombie movie.
  • Love Exposure – 4-hour epic from Sion Sono in which the son of a priest becomes obsessed with upskirt photography.
  • The Mourning Forest – a bereaved mother bonds with the elderly resident of a care home where she works in an award winning drama from Naomi Kawase.
  • A Scene at the Sea – poetic drama from Takeshi Kitano about a deaf refuse collector who becomes fixated on surfacing. Review.
  • Dangan Runner – three men ricochet towards an inevitable ending in the debut feature from SABU. Review.
  • Zigeunerweisen – surreal drama from Seijun Suzuki starring Yoshio Harada as a nomad on the run after being suspected of seducing and killing the wife of a fisherman.
  • Shinjuku Triad Society – sleazy ’90s noir from Takashi Miike in which a mixed race policeman goes up against a Taiwanese gang over to discover his younger brother has joined them as a rookie lawyer. Review.
  • Violent Cop – a rogue cop attuned to the ways of violence abandons all pretence of civility in pursuit of justice but encounters only nihilistic futility in Kitano’s Bubble-era noir. Review.
  • Boiling Point – a disaffected young man finds himself on a self-destructive mission of vicarious vengeance but struggles to escape his sense of inferiority in Kitano’s deadpan exploration of explosive repression. Review.
  • Sonatine – tired of the life, a veteran gangster ponders retirement but knows his brief island holiday is only a temporary respite from his nihilistic life of violence in Kitano’s melancholy existential drama. Review.
  • A Lonely Cow Weeps at Dawn – pink film from Daisuke Goto in which a woman impersonates her senile father-in-law’s long gone favourite cow and allows him to milk her.

21st Century (18th September)

  • Still the Water – island coming of age drama from Naomi Kawase. (not included in subscription, £3.50 to rent)
  • Sweet Bean – a dorayaki salesman bonds with an old woman who helps him improve his bean paste in Naomi Kawase’s moving drama.
  • Nobody Knows – siblings are left to fend for themselves when their mother abandons them in Hirokazu Koreeda’s gritty drama.
  • Still Walking – Hirokazu Koreeda’s moving depiction of a typical family. Review.
  • Cold Fish – Sion Sono’s gory serial killer drama inspired by a real life incident.
  • Tokyo Tribe – a rap musical manga adaptation from Sion Sono.
  • Mitsuko Delivers – a heavily pregnant woman returns to her home town and proceeds to solve everyone’s problems in Yuya Ishii’s cheerful comedy.
  • For Love’s Sake – musical manga adaption celebrating the Showa era songbook from Takashi Miike.
  • Journey to the Shore – haunting romantic drama from Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Review.
  • Creepy – Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s eerie mystery drama. Review.
  • The Lust of Angels – edgy train groping drama from Nagisa Isogai.
  • Harmonium – a family is torn apart by unexpected tragedy when a face from the past pays a visit in Koji Fukada’s probing drama. Review.
  • Departures – a cellist accidentally takes a job as a traditional mortician but keeps his new occupation a secret in this Oscar-winning drama from 2008.

Early films 1894-1914 (12th October)

The BFI will also be showcasing restored gems from their archive featuring footage of turn of the century Japan.

  • Japanese Dancers (1894) – rare footage of Japanese women performing an imperial dance.
  • Ainus of Japan (1913) – footage depicting the indigenous people of Hokkaido.
  • Japanese Festival (1910) – footage of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Yokohama Harbour
  • Shooting the Rapids on the River Ozu in Japan (1907) – 1907 river journey.

J-Horror (30th October)

  • Ring – a deadly curse is transmitted via videotape in Hideo Nakata’s J-horror classic.
  • Dark Water – 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.
  • Audition – Takashi Miike’s deceptive drama begins as a gentle romcom before edging slowly towards the horrific.
  • Gozu – truly strange yakuza horror comedy from Takashi Miike.
  • The Happiness of the Katakuris – Takashi Miike’s strangely cheerful musical take on the Korean film The Quiet Family.
  • Battle Royale – controversial drama from Kinji Fukasaku in which high school students are shipped to a remote island and forced to fight to the death.
  • Tetsuo II: Body Hammer – sequel to Shinya Tsukamoto’s cyberpunk body horror.
  • Pulse – death is eternal loneliness in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s tech fearing horror classic. Review.
  • Cure – Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s noirish horror starring Koji Yakusho as a detective investigating a series of bizarre murders.
  • Kuroneko – ghost cat film from Kaneto Shindo.
  • Snake of June – erotic drama from Shinya Tsukamoto in which a mysterious man targets a repressed woman and forces her to engage in illicit sex acts.

BFI Southbank

The season will continue at the BFI Southbank once the venue reopens.

  • Golden Age – season programmed by Alexander Jacoby and James Bell showcasing Japanese cinema from the 1930s to the 60s including work by Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, Mikio Naruse, and Akira Kurosawa, and starring Kinuyo Tanaka, Setsuko Hara, Hideko Takamine, and Toshiro Mifune.
  • Radicals and Rebels – also curated by Alexander Jacoby and James Bell, the Radicals and Rebels strand focuses on film after 1964 from the New Wave to the genre classics of the ’90s including work by Seijun Suzuki, Nagisa Oshima, and Kiju (Yoshishige) Yoshida.
  • 21st Century – contemporary classics co-presented by Japan Foundation and curated by Junko Takekawa.
  • Anime – major two month season curated by Justin Johnson and Hanako Miyata showcasing modern masters such as Satoshi Kon, Mamoru Oshii, Makoto Shinkai, Mamoru Hosoda, and Naoko Yamada.

For the full details on this and other BFI seasons be sure to check out the BFI’s official 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 Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.

Sweet Dream (迷夢 / 미몽, Yang Ju-nam, 1936)

Sweet Dream still 2The picture one gets of the 1930s is largely one of fear and oppression, especially in Korea under the increasingly brutal Japanese colonial regime, but then it was also a time of intense social flux in which the continuing influence of Western culture and the effects of the great depression placed the traditional way of life into question. 1936’s Sweet Dream (迷夢 / 미몽, Mimong, lit. “delusion”) is, at the time of writing, the oldest extant sound film, and perhaps attempts to kick back against the “corruptions” of the modern age in telling a tragic story of ruined motherhood in which a young woman’s desire for material wealth and a social freedom eventually draws her to her doom.

Our “heroine” is Ae-soon (Moon Ye-bong), a married wife and mother who resents the restrictive nature of her life and attempts to escape it through embracing the “modern” hobby of shopping – with her husband’s money of course, while neglecting her young daughter Jeong-hee (Yoo Seon-ok) whom she perhaps sees as a symbol of the forces which make her a prisoner of her own home. It’s on a shopping trip that she begins her descent into ruin when she’s spotted by the extremely suspicious-looking Chang-geon (Kim In-gye) who swipes her handbag while she’s busy wrapping up purchases only to give it back to her as a kind of meet cute. Nevertheless, Ae-soon is smitten, especially as she believes that Chang-geon is extremely wealthy. Kicked out by her husband for her increasingly unacceptable behaviour, Ae-soon moves in with Chang-geon at his hotel and embarks on the fun loving and fancy free life of her dreams.

As might be expected, the film does not end there and Ae-soon will pay for her “selfish” choice to pursue pleasure in her own life rather than channelling all of her hopes and desires into her family as a woman is expected to do. Truth be told, Ae-soon is not a particularly sympathetic woman, especially as her husband Seon-yong (Lee Keum-ryong) is portrayed as kind, sensitive, and devoted to his daughter who is clearly his primary point of concern in his dealings with his wife. It is therefore difficult to sympathise with her dissatisfaction in her married life which, externally at least, appears comfortable, stable, and close to the ideal that many young women would hope for in a society which continues to favour arranged marriage.

What Ae-soon wants is something which a woman is not allowed to have – freedom. Then again, the film asks us to set aside the natural desire to be free and see Ae-soon’s refusal to conform as a corruption born of excess modernity. Rather than abandon her home to pursue a career or a dream, Ae-soon leaves in pursuit of a man and even then she pursues him not for reasons of love or desire but greed. No sooner has Ae-soon begun to discover that Chang-geon is not all he claimed to be than she’s planning the next conquest in chasing a famous dancer she quite liked the look of at the theatre the previous evening when Chang-geon skipped out to meet a “business associate” leaving her feeling neglected. Unable to chase material success off her own bat, she chases it through men by using her sexuality which places her at the wrong end of just about every social code going even while she herself continues to abide by the tenets of those social codes by remaining in a monogamous relationship with Chang-geon which is in reality not so different from her marriage save for the absence of her daughter, the fact they live in a serviced hotel, and the illusion of having more money and with it more social power.

Ae-soon is no Nora. Her decision to abandon her daughter isn’t born of a sudden awakening to the destructive effects of patriarchy (which the film otherwise belittles in its casting of Ae-soon’s dissatisfaction as a dislike of housework), but of “mistaken” ambition which, paradoxically, she pursues through trading up her sexual partners in order to increase her material wealth and social standing. Ae-soon rejects her maternity and with it her daughter because she wishes to assert her own identity and finds it impossible to maintain both within the society in which she lives, but allowing a woman to reject the ideas of home and family, as Ibsen had done 50 years previously, is too dangerous an idea for the Korea of 1936 and so Ae-soon’s “sweet dream” is in effect a siren song which will lead her down a dark path towards the only redemption possible for a woman who has betrayed the very idea of what society believes a woman to be.

Strangely enough, Sweet Dream was commissioned as a public information piece sponsored by the Choman Traffic Office as the first “traffic film” intended to increase awareness of traffic safety which is why the subject features so prominently throughout culminating the heavily foreshadowed traffic accident that provokes Ae-soon’s reawakening to her latent maternity. Understandably unhappy, the sponsors requested that the next traffic film be “more cheerful and artistic” yet what could be more symbolic (except perhaps a train) of the dangers of modernity than a speeding motorcar? Ae-soon should perhaps have learned to look both ways and cross when the going’s clear, but then again the film seems to insist that the safest place for her to be is inside the cage, that the only path to “happiness” lies in learning to accommodate oneself within its confines as any attempt to deviate from the accepted course will lead to disaster not only for the individual but for society as a whole.


Sweet Dream was screened as part of the Early Korean Cinema: Lost Films from the Japanese Colonial Period season currently running at BFI Southbank. It is also available as part of the Korean Film Archive’s The Past Unearthed: the Second Encounter Collection of Chosun Films in the 1930s box set, as well as online via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube channel.

Early Korean Cinema: Lost Films from the Japanese Colonial Period

hurrah-for-freedom-poster.jpgClassic Korean cinema is making a long awaited return to the BFI this February with a fantastic season of rarely screened (and sadly just rare) films produced during the Japanese colonial period.

Crossroads of Youth + season introduction

crossroads of youthThe oldest extant Korean film, Crossroads of Youth follows the adventures of a young man who travels to the city to find work after his arranged marriage falls through only to fall for a girl who is about to be sold to a money lender in payment for a debt.

The screening will be preceded by an illustrated lecture from the Korean Film Archive’s Chung Chong-hwa. As at the screening at the Barbican back in 2012, the silent film will be screened in the original fashion with live music and performances and narrated by a byeonsa.

Sweet Dream + Fisherman’s Fire

 The Korean Film Archive’s Chung Chong-hwa will introduce the films at the Friday 15th screening.

sweet dream still 1Acclaimed film editor Yang Ju-nam made his directorial debut with 1936’s Sweet Dream – a melodrama revolving around a vain housewife who abandons her daughter and moves in with a lover at a hotel after her husband throws her out.

fisherman's fire still 1Co-produced by Shochiku and supervised by Yasujiro Shimazu, Ahn Cheol-young’s Fisherman’s Fire follows the melancholy fate of fisherman’s daughter In-soon who is faced with being sold in payment of a debt but escapes to Seoul only to wind up being forced to become bar girl.

Military Train + Volunteer + intro by Baek Moonim, Yonsei University

military train still 1The only film directed by Suh Kwang-je, Military Train is also accounted as the first pro-Japanese government film, which is a fairly unfortunate legacy whichever way you look at it. Intended to boost recruitment, the film follows two best friends and roommates whose lives are disrupted when one is approached by resistance agents seeking info about the military train.

volunteer still 1Another recruiting film, Anh Seok-young’s Volunteer follows a poor farm boy who is thrown off his land and resents his meagre prospects. He sees entry to the Japanese army, which has recently relaxed regulations to allow Korean men to join, as a path to making something of himself…

Tuition

tuition largeOne of the many films inspired by a child’s essay Tuition is a mildly subversive propaganda melodrama about a little boy struggling to pay his school fees who goes on a perilous adventure when his grandma is taken ill. Full review.

Spring of the Korean Peninsula + discussion

spring of the korean peninsula still 1The directorial debut of Lee Byung-il (The Love Marriage), Spring on the Korean Peninsula (adapted from Kim Seong-min’s award winning 1936 novel Artists of the Peninsula) follows a young film director struggling to film a new version of the Chun-hyang story. When he loses his lead actress, he hires his friend’s little sister but then makes a disastrous choice to facilitate his artistic dreams.

The screening will be followed by a panel discussion featuring Korean film scholars Baek Moonim (Yonsei University), Lee Hwa-jin (Inha University) and Chung Chong-hwa (Korean Film Archive), and chaired by season co-curator Kate Taylor-Jones.

Hurrah! For Freedom

hurrah freedom still 1Sadly incomplete and, ironically enough, a victim of censorship in the Park Chung-hee era, Hurrah! for Freedom (also known as Viva Freedom!) is the appropriately titled first film to have been released after the liberation and follows a betrayed resistance fighter who escapes from Japanese capture and hides out in a nurse’s apartment while covertly continuing his resistance activities.

Early Korean Cinema: Lost Films from the Japanese Colonial Period runs at the BFI Southbank from 7th February. Tickets are currently on sale to members with public sales beginning on 15th January.

Of Love & Law (愛と法, Hikaru Toda, 2017)

of love and law posterIn Japan the nail which sticks out is hammered down. Conformist societies promise mutual support, but all too often only when it suits the collective – those not deemed part of the club are wilfully left to fend for themselves with the dangled promise of readmission if one promises to reform and abide by the rules. We first met the couple at the centre of Hikaru Toda’s Of Love & Law in her previous documentary, Love Hotel, which documented their struggles with discrimination in frequently being turned away by establishments who did not wish to rent a room to two men. A same sex married couple in Japan’s second city of Osaka, Kazu and Fumi run their own law firm and operate under the mission statement of representing those who often find themselves without a voice in a culture which favours silence.

Opening at a local Pride event, the camera attempts to capture some talking heads but no one will bite. Asked for comments, the visitors each refuse to show their faces, revealing that they aren’t fully out, fearing that it might cause problems for them at work, or just embarrassed to go on the record about something so taboo. Though the law practice is not limited to representing LGBT issues, they are clearly a key concern to Fumi and Kazu who spend their “free” time engaging in outreach projects trying to foster a little more education and understanding of sexual minorities. Kazu brings this home when he tells his own coming out story in which his stunned mother exclaimed that she’d never heard of anything like this and therefore could not understand it. The problem wasn’t prejudice, it was ignorance mixed with fear.

Ignorance mixed with fear could equally well describe most of the cases brought against Kazu and Fumi’s clients. The protagonist of the second strand – artist and mangaka Rokudenashiko whose legal troubles even made the foreign press, attributes many of these issues to an inability to “read the air” or aquedately understand the unspoken rules of society and then silently abide by them. The law firm makes a point of defending those who have chosen to fly in the face of social convention, flying a flag for the freedom of choice in a society which often deliberately suppresses it.

The freedom of choice is certainly a key issue for the teacher suing the Osakan school that fired her for refusing to stand for the national anthem. Arguing that standing when one is forced to stand is hardly a declaration of patriotism and fearing the lurch to the right which has made even implicit indifference to the Imperial family a hot button issue, the teacher puts her foot down but finds that few will listen. Similarly, Rokudenashiko finds herself arrested for obscenity regarding her vagina themed artwork while the court undermines its own argument by accidentally proving that her work has socio-political merit.

Yet Rokudenashiko and the teacher have each, in a sense, made a firm decision to challenge the intransigence of their society, hoping to prevent a further decline even if not overly hopeful of improvement. Other clients on the roster include a fair few who are accidentally undocumented through no fault of their own thanks to Japan’s arcane and idiosyncratic legal system which makes it difficult to register births of children born out of wedlock or in difficult family circumstances meaning that youngsters sometimes grow up without the proper papers leading to problems with accessing education, employment, healthcare and welfare provisions. Getting someone a birth certificate who doesn’t currently “exist” can prove a taxing ordeal, especially as government officials often regard children born to “immoral” women as “unworthy” of care or attention.

Getting a call from the mother of a victim, Fumi is shocked when she makes a point of enquiring about the nationality of the perpetrator. He is unsurprised but disappointed in witnessing the various ways one oppressed person (both the victim and plaintiff are from impoverished, single parent backgrounds) can turn their oppression back on others as an odd kind of social revenge. Luckily, however, there are good people everywhere such as the fine young man Fumi and Kazu end up temporarily fostering after his care home is unexpectedly closed down. Kazuma accepts their relationship without a second thought, enjoys learning to cook from Fumi and blends right into Kazu’s extended family who each seem as warm and accepting as the couple themselves. Family is not about a register, it’s having a place to go where they’ll always take you in. Fumi doesn’t trust society because society shirks its responsibilities, but thankfully there are those who know better and continue on in hope tempered with patience.


Screened at BFI Flare 2018.

Wedding Ring (婚約指環 (エンゲージリング), Keisuke Kinoshita, 1950)

(c) Shochiku Co., Ltd

wedding ring still 2Many things have changed in the post-war world, but not everything and even with the new freedoms there are some lines which cannot be crossed. Keisuke Kinoshita made his career considering where these lines are and examining the lives of those who find themselves standing in front of them. Starring the veteran actress Kinuyo Tanaka who also produces the film, and the very young and fresh faced Toshiro Mifune, Wedding Ring (婚約指環 (エンゲージリング), Konyaku Yubiwa (Engagement Ring)) is a classic melodrama filled with forbidden love, repressed passion, and societal constraints but Kinoshita brings to it his characteristic humanity expressing sympathy and understanding for all.

Noriko (Kinuyo Tanaka) has been married seven years but her husband, Michio (Jukichi Uno), was drafted shortly after the wedding and was not repatriated until two years after the war ended. A year after he returned, Michio fell ill and has been on extreme bed rest ever since. After her father-in-law’s retirement and her husband’s illness, running of the family jewellery store fell to Noriko and so she spends the week in Tokyo taking care of business and comes back to the seaside fishing village of Ajiro where Michiro lives for the benefit of his health at the weekends. Consequently, though the couple care for each other, the marriage has never really been given the chance to take hold and they remain more companions or good friends than husband and wife.

Things change when Michio gets a new physician, Dr. Ema (Toshiro Mifune), who literally falls into Noriko’s lap during a packed bus ride from the station. Where Michio is sickly and weak, Ema is physically imposing and in robust health. Ema lives in the peaceful resort town of Atami which is on the train route from Ajiro to Tokyo meaning that Noriko and Ema sometimes wind up on the same train, developing an obvious attraction to each other which they both know to be impossible but cannot bring themselves to abandon.

In many ways Noriko is the archetypal post-war woman – strong and independent she runs the family business singlehandedly and lives alone in the city while her husband remains in the country busying himself with writing poetry. Despite the difficult circumstances, Noriko is not particularly unhappy save being unfulfilled and perhaps craving the physical intimacy her husband can no longer offer her. Her first meeting with Ema brings something in Noriko back to life as she swaps her dowdy, dark coloured suits for looser, more colourful clothing and walks with a new found spring in her step.

This change in his wife has not escaped the attention of Michio who astutely notices that she seems to be “glowing” – a development he silently attributes to the presence of Dr. Ema. Michio does his best not to resent the doctor but internalises a deep seated feeling of guilt and inadequacy as he realises that he can no longer provide what his wife needs and has become an obstacle to her happiness. A sensitive man apparently marked by his wartime experiences, Michio is angry and jealous but also resents himself for feeling that way, deepening his depression and conviction that he is nothing but a burden to his wife who deserves a full marriage with a man who can satisfy all of her needs and desires.

Desire is certainly something Noriko feels as she gazes at Ema’s powerful hands, broad shoulders, and athletic physique. Clasping his sweaty jacket to her breast in desperation eventually gives way to accidentally bold physical contact as hands catch hands and Noriko finds herself caressing Ema’s shoulder as he prepares to dive back into the sea dressed only in his woollen trunks. Ema feels the same attraction but also understands that it cannot be, not least because he is Michio’s physician and has begun to have idle fantasies of being unable to save him, freeing Noriko from her unfulfilling marriage so they can finally be together. Both sensible people, Noriko and Ema are eventually able to discuss their feelings and social responsibilities in a mature fashion, agreeing that they cannot act on their desires even if they find them hard to relinquish.

Rather than wedding ring, the Japanese title of the film more accurately refers to an engagement ring. Noriko’s wedding ring never comes off, but the engagement ring with its large stone comes to represent her shifting allegiances. Discovering the ring abandoned on the dresser, Michio begins to understand he is losing his wife to the strapping young doctor whose healthy, powerful body he cannot help but envy. The camera seeks out Noriko’s hand, with or without the shiny diamond of the engagement ring, quickly signalling the current direction of her desires.

Michio, who cannot give full voice to his emotions, expresses himself through tanka poetry, something which the equally sensitive doctor can also understand and later makes use of himself in communicating the inexpressible delicacy of his feelings to the married woman with whom he has fallen in love. Torn between love and duty, Noriko and Ema battle their mutual passion while Michio battles his sense of self and feelings of ongoing inadequacy but Kinoshita refuses to condemn any of them, rejecting an angry showdown for a nuanced consideration of personal desire versus social responsibility. The conclusion may be conservative, but the journey is not as the trio eventually part friends even if with lingering sadness in accepting the choice that has been made and resolving to move forward in friendship rather than rancour.


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

Opening scene (no subtitles)

Tears and Laughter: Women in Japanese Melodrama

blue sky maiden stillRunning at BFI Southbank through October and November, Tears and Laughter: Women in Japanese Melodrama aims to showcase the changing roles of women in Japanese cinema in the pre-war and post-war eras through a series of films starring some of the best known actresses of the time including Ayako Wakao (who features on the poster in her first role working with director Yasuzo Masumura in Blue Sky Maiden), ’30s megastar and later director Kinuyo Tanaka, Ozu’s muse Setsuko Hara, Rashomon’s Machiko Kiyo, wife and muse of Kiju (Yoshishige) Yoshida Mariko Okada,  and the iconic Hideko Takamine who began as a child star and went on to work with most of the age’s finest directors.

Season Introduction: Women in Japanese Melodrama

The season will kick off with an introductory lecture on 17th October featuring contributions from Alexander Jacoby and Alejandra Armendáriz-Hernandez who will discuss some of the actresses featured in the season.

Osaka Elegy + Women of the Night

osaka elegyStarring Mizoguchi’s frequent leading lady Isuzu Yamada, Osaka Elegy centres on a switchboard operator who finds herself trapped in a ruinous relationship with her boss in an effort to save her father who has ruined himself through gambling debts.  16mm. Now screening on blu-ray due to poor quality of 16mm print.

women of the night stillWomen of the Night, completed in 1948, will screen along side Osaka Elegy (1936) and stars Kinuyo Tanaka in a tale of two sisters trying to survive in the ruined Osaka one of whom is a war widow and the other dangerously involved with a drugs smuggler. 35mm.

Wedding Ring

(c) Shochiku Co., LtdKinuyo Tanaka also stars in Keisuke Kinoshita’s 1950 melodrama Wedding Ring. Starring opposite Toshiro Mifune, Tanaka plays a housewife who travels back and fore from the seaside, where her sickly husband convalesces, to Tokyo where she runs her family’s jewellery store. A chance encounter with a strapping doctor (Mifune) on a train has unforeseen consequences as the pair grow closer and the husband begins to realise that he cannot provide the happiness his wife is seeking. 35mm.

Clothes of Deception

「偽れる盛装」(C)KADOKAWA1951Clothes of Deception is directed by Kozaburo Yoshimura who was the subject (along with Kaneto Shindo) of the BFI’s previous Japanese director retrospective in 2012 in which the film was also screened. Rashomon’s Machiko Kyo stars opposite Yasuko Fujita as a geisha in Kyoto’s historic Gion district whose life contrasts strongly with that of her sister who works for the tourist board. 35mm.

The Mistress (aka Wild Geese)

toyoda wild geese still 1Shiro Toyoda’s melodrama stars Hideko Takamine as a divorced woman who becomes the mistress of an elderly money lender to support her father but dares to dream of a happier future after falling for a young student. 35mm.

An Inlet of Muddy Water

inlet of muddy water still 2Tadashi Imai’s adaptation of a number of stories by 19th century writer Ichiyo Higuchi came top in Kinema Junpo’s best of list for 1953 and features three stories of women suffering at the hands of men. 35mm.

The Eternal Breasts

eternal breasts still 1Kinuyo Tanaka, one of Japan’s great actresses, was not the nation’s first female director as she is sometimes described, but she was the first to have a career as a film director. The Eternal Breasts is Tanaka’s third directorial effort (following Love Letter and The Moon has Risen) and tells the story of tanka poet Fumiko Nakajo who passed away from breast cancer in 1954 at only 31 years old. 35mm.

Floating Clouds 

floating clouds still 1Hideko Takamine and Masayuki Mori play two former lovers cast adrift in the new post-war world world where their love is both impossible and impossible to escape. Naruse’s melancholy melodrama is the story of a woman who strives for self-determination while chasing a man who craves only respectability, as trapped and confused as her still divided nation. 35mm.

Elegy of The North

elegy of the north stilll 1Masayuki Mori stars again in another romantic melodrama this time for Heinosuke Gosho (Where Chimneys are Seen), opposite Yoshiko Kuga who falls for Mori’s conflicted architect as an escape from her moribund marriage while Mori’s wife, played by Mieko Takamine, is having an affair with a young student. 16mm.

Tokyo Twilight

tokyo twilight still 1Among the darkest of Ozu’s post-war movies, Tokyo Twilight is a less forgiving family drama in which Setsuko Hara plays the older of two sisters who has returned home from a failing marriage with her little girl in tow only to find out that her unmarried student younger sister is facing an unwanted pregnancy. 35mm.

The Blue Sky Maiden (aka The Cheerful Girl)

blue sky maiden still 2Blue Sky Maiden, Masumura’s second film, is his first in colour and his first to star the radiant Ayako Wakao who would later become something like his muse. Light and bright and youthful, Blue Sky Maiden is not without the Masumura bite in its tale of an illegitimate child deposited in her cowardly father’s home and among his unpleasant family but bearing all of her sorrows with a cheerful determination which resolutely refuses to allow them to rob her of her happiness. 35mm.

An Affair at Akitsu (aka Akitsu Springs)

akitsu springs still 1Soon after An Affair at Akitsu, also known as Akitsu Springs, Mariko Okada would marry the film’s director, Kiju (Yoshishige) Yoshida, and the pair would go on create a series of “anti-melodramas” which adopted typical melodrama storylines but shot them in a deliberately detached manner. An Affair at Akitsu is Yoshida’s attempt at Shochiku’s most representative genre but, aided by the astonishing performance of Okada, he conjures a deeply felt meditation on post-war malaise as its lovers find themselves unable to escape the false paradise of Akitsu Springs. 35mm.

The Shape of Night

Shape of the night still 1Recently restored, Noburu Nakamura’s The Shape of Night stars Miyuki Kuwano as a young woman forced into prostitution by a no good boyfriend. 35mm.

Tears and Laughter: Women in Japanese Melodrama runs at BFI Southbank from 17th October to 29th November and tickets are already on general sale.

 

West North West (西北西, Takuro Nakamura, 2015)

This area has a weird magnetic field, claims one of the central characters in Takuro Nakamura’s West North West (西北西, Seihokusei), it’ll throw you off course. Barriers to love both cultural and psychological present themselves with almost gleeful melancholy in this indie exploration of directionless youth in modern day Tokyo. Three young women wrestle with themselves and each other in a complex cycle of interconnected anxieties as they attempt to carve out their own paths, each somehow aware of the shape their lives should take yet afraid to pursue it. The Tokyo of West North West is one defined by disconnection, loneliness and permanent anxiety but it is not the city which is the enemy of happiness but an internal unwillingness to find release from self imposed imprisonment.

After beginning with the twilight scene of a city in fog, Nakamura cuts to Iranian student Naima (Sahel Rosa) leaving the visa bureau with something on her mind. An attempt to call a friend strikes out when she discovers her with her fellow Chinese students busily chatting away in a language she does not understand. Taking refuge in a coffee shop, Naima spots another similarly depressed woman silently crying at a table in the very back corner.

Striking up a conversation, the two women unexpectedly begin a tentative friendship but Kei (Hanae Kan) has problems of her own. Trapped in a toxic relationship with fashion model Ai (Yuka Yamauchi) whose possessive, jealous, and entirely self-centred behaviour have turned her into a nervous wreck, Kei is acutely preoccupied with her lack of forward motion, feeling as if she’s just been somehow pushed out into the world with no clear idea of what it is she’s supposed to be doing.

Kei and Naima have much more in common than it might at first seem. Culturally displaced, Naima is at odds with her surroundings despite her native level language abilities but she finds a kind of ally in the taciturn Kei when an emotional outburst in the cafe causes commotion with an unpleasant fellow customer who objects either to the “inappropriate” loudness of her phone call or that it’s in another language. Naima is a retiring sort and mortified to have caused a fuss but Kei, coming to her rescue, is bored with accepting other people’s intolerance. Having felt so alone, pushed away from her only other real friend by an impenetrable barrier of culture and language, someone arriving and actively taking her side is an almost miraculous development.

Bonding instantly in their shared melancholy, the two women share a deepening sense of recognition as Naima begins spending more time with Kei, sleeping on her sofa and getting her to look after the pet bird which she refuses to name so that it will hurt less when they are eventually forced to part. Kei’s prejudices and preconceptions are pushed by Naima’s fierce attachment to her religion, but her eventual decision to casually state that she has a girlfriend meets with only mild surprise rather than rejection or moral questioning. Attempting to clarify Kei’s vague reply, Naima asks directly if Kei is a “lesbian” only for her to irritatedly deny the label – it’s just that she only falls in love with women, she says. Naima’s reasoned response that that’s pretty much the definition of “lesbian” leads to Kei quickly exiting the scene in confusion, not wanting to pursue this line of thought any further though it perhaps sends Naima in exactly the opposite direction.

Kei’s intense insecurity regarding her sexuality is one reason she seems to find it so hard to break things off with high maintenance girlfriend Ai despite her obvious unhappiness with the relationship. Ai, a low level fashion model, has a series of intense insecurities of her own though these have less to do with sexuality and more with power and control. Having realised that Kei is not as attached to her as she is to Kei, Ai’s jealous rages have Kei in a permanent state of fear from which she attempts to hide at a local pool only to have a full blown panic attack on receiving an unexpected phone call from her girlfriend.

An awkward hospital waiting room conversation with Ai’s mother explains much of her behaviour as she begins to lay out the various failings of her child and desire for her to give up modelling and live a “normal” life. Ai had not shared the fact that her lover was another woman, leaving her mother to feign politeness even whilst feeling he need to voice her “disgust” that her child had “these kinds of feelings”. Indifferent to Kei’s ongoing discomfort, Ai’s mother has a few home truths for the woman who’s corrupted her daughter, advising her to break up with Ai as soon as possible seeing as the relationship is doomed to failure.

In principle, Ai’s mother might have offended Kei but she has to concede that she has a point. Kei is not happy with Ai, but Ai will not let her go. Ai’s jealousy is both the catalyst and barrier for Kei’s growing feelings for Naima as she seeks a kindred spirit and gentle soul in refuge from Ai’s emotional violence. An awkward dinner party between the two makes plain the degree to which they are ill suited when Ai berates the sullen Kei for a lack of emotional readability ironically missing that Kei needs someone to understand her feelings instinctively – a level of connection on which self-centred Ai is ultimately unwilling to engage.

Ai’s attempt to warn off Naima in a worryingly threatening “stay away from my girl” speech eventually forces her to confront her own feelings and what exactly Kei is to her. Both women are repeatedly asked to provide a definition of their relationship, faltering each time, but Naima’s crisis runs deeper as she’s forced to confront herself on a more profound level. A group job interview provokes an unexpected moment of introspection as she’s cruelly asked what exactly she’s learned during her time in Japan and is thrown into silence before admitting that she does not know. Naima may indeed have learned or perhaps confirmed a few things about herself, but if she has she is still unable to accept them.

Beautifully played by Sahel Rosa, Naima’s isolation is palpable in her pain filled eyes and longing looks as she finds herself captivated by the more certain yet diffident Kei. Hanae Kan’s Kei is equally trapped within herself, essentially kind yet reserved, afraid to break things off with the controlling Ai yet confused by her growing feelings for the increasingly conflicted Naima. Returning to the fog filled cityscape, Nakamura leaves things as he finds them, refusing resolution as each of the central characters compromises themselves in one way or another, settling for something that seems “right” but feels essentially wrong. The melancholy greyness of a wintery sunset descends once again, leaving each of the three women rudderless but with an added burden of self knowledge tinged with regret and sorrow.


Reviewed at BFI Flare 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

If you happen to understand either Japanese or German there’s an interesting video interview with director Takuro Nakamura produced for the Munich Film Festival: