Cupola, Where the Furnaces Glow (キューポラのある街, Kirio Urayama, 1962)

(C) Nikkatsu 1962

cupola-poster-e1539038053246.jpgThe “shomin-geki” is generally associated with naturalistic depictions of the lives of “ordinary people”, but in reality most often focuses on the polite lower middle classes – white collar workers, shop keepers, small business holders etc, in short the sort of people who aren’t wealthy but aren’t starving either and generally live in moderate family homes rather than tenements or cramped apartment blocks. Blue collar lives are a less frequent sight on screen – something director Kirio Urayama seems to highlight in his mildly exoticised opening which introduces us to Kawaguchi, Saitama, a small town across long bridge not so far from Tokyo.

Unlike the bustling city still fighting its way back from post-war privation, Kawaguchi is a “town of fire and sweat” where the landscape is dominated by the “cupolas” of the title (Cupola, Where the Furnaces Glow , キューポラのある街, Cupola no aru Machi, AKA Foundry Town). Rather than the beautiful architectural domes the name might imply, these cupolas are the industrial kind – chimneys from the 500 foundries which are the area’s dominant economic force. There is, however, trouble in that the steel industry has been decline since the immediate post-war heyday and increasing automation is changing the face of working life.

Our heroine, Jun (Sayuri Yoshinaga), is a young woman with post-war ambitions trapped in the depressing blue collar world of Kawaguchi. She’s currently in her last year of middle school and is determined to carry on to high school and perhaps even beyond, but the family is poor and her father, Tatsugoro (Eijiro Tono), has just lost his job at the local steel works. The family’s neighbour, Katsumi (Mitsuo Hamada), is big into the labour movement and has been protesting the changes at the works which has been bought by a bigger concern who are intent on compulsory layoffs. Tatsugoro, however, likes to think of himself as a “craftsman” rather than a “worker” and refuses to join the union partly out of snobbery and partly out of an entrenched fear of “communism”. He refuses to fight his compulsory redundancy because he is still wedded to the old ideas about loyalty to one’s superiors whilst simultaneously viewing himself as “better” than the other workers because of his long experience and skilled craftsmanship.

Nevertheless, Tatsugoro continues to selfishly abnegate his responsibilities to his family, refusing to insist on his severance pay and drinking the little money he still has left. Tatsugoro has four children ranging from teenager Jun to an infant born just as he lost his job. Some way into the film, Jun and and her younger brother Takayuki (Yoshio Ichikawa) take their father to task for his continued selfishness but the confrontation ends only in defeat. Tatsugoro simply doesn’t care. Loudly exclaiming that he has no daughter and will send Takayuki to the boys’ home, Tatsugoro destroys their hopes by reminding them that their fate is the same his – leave school early, work in a factory, marriage, children, drink yourself into an early grave. The argument proves so disheartening that Jun gives up on a school trip she’d been given a special subsidy to attend to roam around the streets, sadly visiting the prefectural high school that she has now given up on attending and accidentally witnessing another reason to give up on life that she, naively, misunderstands.

Meanwhile, Jun and Takayuki have also made friends with a family from North Korea who will be returning (without their mother) under a preferential “repatriation” programme organised by North Korean officials in Japan with the backing of the US and the Japanese government which, uncomfortably enough, saw only advantage in reducing the ethnic minority population. Though the film adopts a mildly positive view of repatriation – after all, no one really knew what North Korea was like in 1961 and many saying goodbye to their friends fully expect to stay in touch and perhaps meet again one day, it does highlight the persistent layer of xenophobic prejudice that the children face. Sankichi (Hideki Morisaka), one of Takayuki’s best friends, is taunted from the audience whilst on stage in a children’s play by cries of “Korean Carrot” (he is wearing a funny wig at the time) while Jun’s mother makes no secret of her dislike of the children’s friendships, believing that the Koreans are “dangerous”. Others associate the North Korean (in particular) population with communism and possible insurrection, fearing that Japan might be pulled into another nuclear war in Asia by political troubles across the sea.

The repatriation program is attractive not only as a means of escaping a world of constant oppression, but because of the entrenched poverty of the Kawaguchi area and the relative impossibility of escaping it. In a poignant, resentful school essay Jun wonders why her future is dictated by a lack of money, why she alone will be prevented from going on to high school and pulling herself out of the lower orders solely because of her responsibility to her family and father’s fecklessness. Tatsugoro is eventually offered another job thanks to the kindness of the father of one of Jun’s wealthier school friends, but continues to view himself as a “craftsman” and resents being ordered around by youngsters. What’s more, the factory is much more advanced – doubtless, the father of Jun’s friend (so different from her own) thought it might be better for Tatsugoro whose health is poor because the work would be less physically strenuous, but Tatsugoro finds it impossible to adapt to automated working methods and soon quits, leaving the family cash strapped once again.

An inability to adapt is Tatsugoro’s tragedy though he later makes amends when he consents to join Katsumi’s union and takes a job in a new factory, confident that he can’t be summarily dismissed ever again. Jun, meanwhile, has discovered a third way. Longing to escape the burden of her family she resolves to step forward alone but also instep with her society. Having discovered the existence of a progressive factory which is run with friendliness and consideration and even provides education for employees, Jun realises she can have the best of both worlds. Though Jun’s decision is perhaps one of individualism and a bold assertion of her own agency, it’s also in keeping with the broadly socialist message of the film which insists that a problem shared is a problem halved and places its faith in ordinary people to look after each other. Optimistic, perhaps, but a perfect encapsulation of post-war humanism and growing hopes for the future for those who are prepared to work hard on behalf not only of themselves but also for the social good.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Cupola, Where the Furnaces Glow was scripted by Shohei Imamura whose work often focusses on the working classes and rural poor. As such it shares some similarity with his early film My Second Brother which also touches on the lives of ethnic Koreans living in Japan though this time in a mining village where the labour movement is engaged in actively opposing the exploitative practices of the corporate mine owners.

Smashing the 0-Line (密航0ライン, Seijun Suzuki, 1960)

(C) Nikkatsu 1960

(C) Nikkatsu 1960Looking from the outside in, the Tokyo of 1960 seems to have been one of rising economic prosperity in which post-war anxiety was beginning to transition into a relentless surge towards modernity, but there also seems to have been a mild preoccupation with the various dangers that same modernity might present. Like The Sleeping Beast Within released just two months previously, Smashing the 0-Line (密航0ライン, Mikko Zero Line) centres on a mystery which leads straight back to Hong Kong and a dangerous, international smuggling ring – this time involving both drugs and people. Our heroes are both reporters, but at odds with each other despite being old friends in having diametrically opposed notions of professional ethics.

Katori (Hiroyuki Nagato), our anti-hero, is a man so desperate to get a scoop that he thinks little of engineering one. Thus we witness him making passionate love to a woman one minute before turning her into the police the next. The woman, Reiko (Sanae Nakahara), is also the little sister of one of his oldest friends, Saiko (Ryohei Uchida), whom he also decides to turn into the police in service of his story. Another old friend, Nishina (Yuji Kodaka), has also become a reporter but for a more respectable paper and is dating Katori’s little sister, Sumiko (Mayumi Shimizu), who is now the announcer at the local baseball stadium. Katori’s decision to turn on Reiko will have profoundly negative consequences for her former lover who is prepared to sacrifice all in pursuit of his goal.

Three men, once college friends, have chosen three radically different paths in the post-war world. Saiko has become a gangster while Katori has become an unscrupulous yet apparently publicly minded newshound and Nishina a pure hearted journalist who insists on doing everything by the book and abiding by conventional journalistic ethics. Yet despite himself, or possibly because of his love for Sumiko, Nishina tries to help Katori see the dangers of his extremely dangerous pattern of behaviour in which he has been content to use people like things to get what he wants.

Katori claims to be on the same side as Nishina – he thinks something is going sour in the city and that only he can stop it by exposing the various conspiracies in play. Katori’s chief fear is that Tokyo will become “another Hong Kong” – a crime ridden state of drug addled lawlessness (an extremely biased and seemingly inaccurate view of ‘60s Hong Kong but one that speaks of a certain fear of Japan’s new spot on the global scene). This particular conspiracy does indeed ping back to Hong Kong and the illegal traffic of drugs but also people heading in both directions. In the Japan of 1960, it was near impossible to get a passport and so smuggling yourself out might be the only way if you really need to get to Hong Kong which means you’ll need to pay a people trafficker to do it.

Katori, broadly, seems to think people trafficking is a bad thing he doesn’t want in Japan but is entirely blind to the same ways he himself uses people in pursuit of his goals. Not only does he bed Reiko (his friend’s little sister) only to make a speedy exit minutes before the police arrive, but he also palms off another mark on his informant only to turn them both in in hope of greater gain. He even manages to find time to seduce a doctor at the centre of the scandal who tries to pull a gun on him but later surrenders completely, only to fall victim to some proactive tidying up from the bad guys. Not content with sacrificing former lovers, Katori will not give in even for his sister, refusing to give up on his lead even when Sumiko is threatened with gang rape. When Nishina turns up and saves the day, Katori doesn’t even stop to ask how Sumiko is but walks off in the direction of the story with nary a second glance to his unconscious sister.

Yet Katori’s particular brand of nihilistic heroism consistently fails. His scoops are uninteresting and he only gets them by inserting himself into the story. Nishina, steadfast and honest – he even goes to the trouble of getting a proper passport to hide on his person in case he’s caught pretending to be a stowaway, is the one who gets there in the end, breaking the smuggling ring, rescuing Katori after he gets himself in trouble, and generally always being around to save the day. Mildly ironic themes of xenophobia aside, Smashing the 0-Line is a typically frenetic piece from Suzuki which offers only a few instances of unusual experimentation in his use of freeze frames and onscreen text but packs in plenty of punch in its amoral anti-hero and the dogged investigative reporter trailing along behind.


Available as part of Arrow’s Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years Vol. 2 Border Crossings box set (also features incisive audio commentary from Jasper Sharp providing a wealth of background information not just about Suzuki’s career but the state of the Japanese film industry at the time)

The Bad Sleep Well (悪い奴ほどよく眠る, Akira Kurosawa, 1960)

Bad Sleep Well posterThere’s something rotten in the state of Japan – The Bad Sleep Well (悪い奴ほどよく眠る, Warui Yatsu Hodo Yoku Nemuru), Akira Kurosawa’s take on Hamlet, unlike his previous two Shakespearean adaptations, is set firmly in the murky post-war society which, it becomes clear, is so mired in systems of corruption as to be entirely built on top of them. Our hero, like Hamlet himself, is a conflicted revenger. He intends to hold a mirror up to society, reflecting the ugly picture back to the yet unknowing world in the hope that something will really change. Change, however, comes slow – especially when it comes at the disadvantage of those who currently hold all the cards.

We open at a wedding. A small number of attendants lineup around a lift waiting for the arrival of the married couple only for a carriage full of reporters to pour out, apparently in hope of scandal though this is no gossip worthy society function but the wedding of a CEO’s daughter to his secretary. The press is in attendance because the police are – they believe there will be arrests today in connection with the ongoing corruption scandal engulfing the company in which a number of employees are suspected of engaging in kickbacks on government funded projects.

The rather strange wedding proceeds with the top brass sweating buckets while the bride’s brother (Tatsuya Mihashi), already drunk on champagne, takes to the mic with a bizarre speech “refuting” the claims that the groom, Nishi (Toshiro Mifune), has only married the bride, Yoshiko (Kyoko Kagawa), for financial gain before avowing that he will kill his new brother-in-law if he makes his little sister sad. Nishi, as we later discover, has indeed married with an ulterior motive which is anticipated by the arrival of a second wedding cake in the shape of a building at the centre of a previous corruption scandal with one black rose sticking out of the seventh floor window from which an employee, Furuya, committed suicide five years previously.

The police are keen to interview their suspects, the press are keen to report on scandal, but somehow or other the system of corruption perpetuates itself. The top guys cover for each other, and when they can’t they “commit suicide” rather than embarrass their “superiors” by submitting themselves to justice. The system of loyalty and reward, of misplaced “honour” mixed with personal greed, ensures its own survival through homosocial bonding with backroom deals done in hostess bars and the lingering threat of scandal and personal ruin for all should one rogue whistleblower dare to threaten the governing principle of an entire economy.

Nishi chooses to threaten it, partly as an act of revolution but mainly as an act of filial piety in avenging the wrongful death of his father who had, in a sense, cast him aside for financial gain and societal success. Wanting to get on, Nishi’s father refused to marry his mother and instead married the woman his “superiors” told him to. Later, his father threw himself out of a seventh floor window because his “superiors” made him understand this was what was expected of him. Furuya wasn’t the last, each time a man’s transgressions progress too far his “superiors” sacrifice him to ensure the survival of the system. Strangely no one seems to rebel, the men go to their deaths willingly, accepting their fate without question rather than submitting themselves to the law and taking their co-conspirators down with them though should someone refuse to do the “decent” thing, there are other ways to ensure their continuing silence.

Reinforcing the post-war message, Nishi chooses a disused munitions factory for his secret base. Both he and his co-conspirator, a war orphan, had been high school conscripts until the factory was destroyed by firebombing and thereafter were forced to live by their wits alone on the streets. Nishi swears that he wants to take revenge on those who manipulate the vulnerable, but finds himself becoming ever more like his prey and worse, hardly caring, wanting only to steel himself for the difficult task ahead.

In any revolution there will be casualties, but these casualties will often be those whom Nishi claims to represent. Chief among them his new wife, Yoshiko, who has been largely cushioned from the harshness of the outside world thanks to her father’s wealth and seeming care. She loves her husband and wants to believe in her father or more particularly that the moral arc of her society points towards goodness. Nishi, tragically falling for his mark, married his wife to destroy her family but ironically finds himself torn between genuine love for Yoshiko, a desire for revenge, and a mission of social justice. Can he, and should he, be prepared to “sacrifice” an innocent in the same way the “superiors” of the world sacrifice their underlings in order to end a system of oppression or should he abandon his plan and save his wife the pain of learning the truth about her husband, her father, and the world in which she lives?

In the end, Nishi will waver. Yoshiko’s father, Iwabuchi (Masayuki Mori), will not. Goodness becomes a weakness – Iwabuchi turns his daughter’s love and faith against her, subverting her innocence for his own evil. He makes a sacrifice of her in service of his own “superiors” who may be about to declare that they “have complete faith” in him at any given moment. The only thing that remains clear is that Iwabuchi will not be forgiven, the wronged children of the post-war era will not be so quick to bow to injustice. Let the great axe fall? One can only hope.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Death on the Mountain (黒い画集 ある遭難, Toshio Sugie, 1961)

Death on the Mountain DVD coverThere can be few films with as accurate a title as Death on the Mountain (黒い画集 ある遭難, Kuroi Gashu: Aru Sonan) , but Toshio Sugie’s 1961 psychological melodrama certainly makes good on its promise. The Japanese title of the film is prefaced by “The Black Album” which is a title given to a series of novellas penned by one of Japan’s most prominent mystery writers, Seicho Matsumoto, whose work was frequently adapted for the screen including eight collaborations with director Yoshitaro Nomura of such well known mysteries as Zero Focus and Castle of Sand. Death on the Mountain was, like the others in the Black Album series, serialised in Shukan Asahi, in this case between 5th October and 14th December 1958 under the title “Sonan”. “Sonan” literally means “distress” or “disaster”, but it has another telling association – “Sonanshi”, meaning “accidental death” such as might occur while mountain climbing, sailing, or engaged in some other dangerous yet normalised activity. The death at the centre of Death on the Mountain is accidental in once sense, but very much not in another.

The film begins with a body being winched from a lower platform back up to a snowy ridge. Iwase (Kiyoshi Kodama), an experienced mountain climber, has perished in a freak accident. Packed inside his backpack, Iwase’s body is burned at the foot of his beloved mountains while his mother looks on sadly, his sister Masako (Kyoko Kagawa) angrily wondering how her brother, a true mountain man, could have died in such a bizarre way while a much less experienced climber, Urahashi (Takashi Wada), survived. The secret may lie with the leader of the expedition, Eda (Hisaya Ito), who has been looking sheepish ever since the incident but otherwise comports himself in a cool, detached manner.

Like many of Matsumoto’s mysteries, Death on the Mountain turns on a secret but Sugie’s adaptation never seriously considers that Eda is not in someway at fault or questions that Urahashi’s recollection of events, published in a popular mountaineering journal, is anything other than accurate. The facts, as laid out firstly by Urahashi’s article, state that Iwase had not been himself on the day of the climb. Eda had treated them all to first class sleeper cabins but Iwase spent the night drinking, chain-smoking and brooding, meaning he was tired before they even arrived at the mountain. He didn’t sleep at the inn either because of someone whispering all night long and needed to take frequent rests during the early part of the climb. Resting is, however, dangerous – as is excessive thirst, and Iwase spent a lot of time guzzling water and sitting down all of which made him even more exhausted. Coupled with a turn in the weather which left him cold and wet, Iwase’s exhaustion got the better of him and he finally lost his mind. At least, that’s the way Urahashi described it, and Eda seems not to dispute his version of events even if the failures – not bringing a map for both mountains they intended to climb but only one, pressing on despite the weather, and mistaking the trail back to the standard path, all rest squarely with him.

Japanese mysteries by and large are much more concerned with the how rather than the why, though in Death on the Mountain the how is a much greyer area than one might assume. As Masako’s cousin, an experienced mountaineer himself, points out, Iwase’s death was caused by a series of unfortunate circumstances but that doesn’t necessarily preclude that there was ill will or that someone didn’t help the “unfortunate circumstances” along in the hope that they would lead to the “accidental death” of the title. There was, therefore, not quite a murder but definitely a lot of ill will and gentle coaxing towards an act of guilty self destruction. As for the why, well that turns out to be far less interesting and suitably petty. Morally speaking, the act of “murder” becomes moot, though the “murderer” finally meets justice head on, only for the tale to end on a note of ambiguity as Masako, whose investigations have resulted only in further deaths, blames herself for daring to disturb the peace. If she’d only have let the “murder” of her brother lie, no one else would have died. Is Masako now an accidental “murderess” or a frustrated seeker of justice? Whatever the answer, all her efforts have been in vein.

Death on the Mountain was previously adapted as a TV drama shortly after the novel’s release, broadcast between 31st August and 7th September 1959, though presumably with lesser production values than Sugie’s admittedly minimal yet authentically detailed exploration of modern mountaineering. Shooting on location and making much of crunching snow, swirling fog, and pelting rain, Sugie runs high on atmosphere but fails to capitalise on the noirish sense of malevolence that lies at the centre of Matsumoto’s mystery, that evil can come dressed as kindness and the line between murder and accident is much thinner than might otherwise be presumed. Matsumoto seems to want to ask a few questions about causality and personal responsibility, the degree to which a man’s death is his own failing, how much the fault of “unfortunate circumstance”, and how much ill intentions from the world around him. Sugie, however, is content to let the suspense peter out with the solution offered in true detective style through a suppositional monologue delivered in front of the presumed murderer but for the audience’s benefit. Nevertheless, even if the mystery falls flat the mountain air rings true and Sugie has, at least, captured something of nature’s awesome power and terrifying beauty.


Rusty Knife (錆びたナイフ, Toshio Masuda, 1958)

rusty knife posterPost-war Japan was in a precarious place but by the mid-1950s, things were beginning to pick up. Unfortunately, this involved picking up a few bad habits too – namely, crime. The yakuza, as far as the movies went, were largely a pre-war affair – noble gangsters who had inherited the codes of samurai honour and were (nominally) committed to protecting the little guy. The first of many collaborations between up and coming director Toshio Masuda and the poster boy for alienated youth, Yujiro Ishihara, Rusty Knife (錆びたナイフ, Sabita Knife) shows us the other kind of movie mobster – the one that would stick for years to come. These petty thugs have no honour and are symptomatic parasites of Japan’s rapidly recovering economy, subverting the desperation of the immediate post-war era and turning it into a nihilistic struggle for total freedom from both laws and morals.

Public support is, largely, behind this new force of order as seen in the local uproar when top gangster Katsumata (Naoki Sugiura) is arrested in connection with an assault. Things being what they are, Katsumata is soon released to laugh at law enforcement from a safe distance but the past is coming for him. Some years ago Katsumata killed a local councillor, Nishida (Ikunosuke Koizumi), and made it look like suicide but three guys from a local gang saw him do it. He paid them to keep quiet, but now one of them feels like talking and thinks Katsumata might like to pay a little more to reseal the deal.

Chatty Tokyo thug Shima (Jo Shishido) gets pushed off a train for his pains but Katsumata is worried enough about the other two to send his guys out to make some enquires. He’s particularly worried about Tachibana (Yujiro Ishihara) – a “sleeping lion”, Tachibana is a hot head who’s now gone straight after coming out of jail for murdering a guy he thought was a direct cause of his girlfriend’s death. Luckily enough, Tachibana now runs a bar where he employs the other witness, Terada (Akira Kobayashi), to whom he acts as a stern big brother hoping to keep them both on the straight and narrow. Tachibana is unlikely to talk, he wants out of the gangster world for good, but Terada is young and ambitious with a girlfriend to impress. He takes more hush money from Katsumata, not realising what he’s getting himself into, and then lets it go to his head.

Tachibana is the rusty knife of the title. After letting his rage consume him in murdering a petty mobster in revenge for the rape of his girlfriend who later committed suicide, Tachibana has vowed to quell his anger and live a decent, peaceful life. Angry outbursts are, however, never far from the surface and following recent revelations, a rusty knife may find its cutting edge once again.

Keiko (Mie Kitahara), a customer at Tachibana’s bar, is making a documentary about violence in the city which coincidentally turns up a few clues as to Tachibana’s past, not to mention her own. The daughter of the murdered councilman, Nishida, and the niece of another powerful politician, Keiko is a figure of righteousness, charting her own course through the difficult post-war world and attempting to do so with dignity and elegance while refusing to abandon her sense of decency and compassion. Later a real life married couple, Kitahara and Ishihara were a frequent on screen romantic pairing though this time around the connection is more subtle as Keiko begins to sympathise with Tachibana’s plight and commits herself to saving him from destroying himself in becoming consumed by his barely suppressed rage.

Tachibana is indeed raging, though his rage is understandable. As someone later puts it “nothing in this city makes sense”. The systems are corrupt, the wartime generation continue to run the show and run it badly, or at least for their own ends, robbing youth of its rightful place at the forefront of economic recovery. Yet even if Ishihara is a symbol of youthful alienation, his rage is one which must be quelled. Even in this city where nothing makes sense, self control is one’s greatest weapon. If youth is to walk forward into the exciting post-war future, it will have to drop its rusty knives.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Souls on the Road (路上の霊魂, Minoru Murata, 1921)

vlcsnap-2017-12-09-00h26m35s417Minoru Murata was one of the most important figures in early Japanese cinema but as the majority of his 36 films are lost and he sadly died at the young age of 43 in 1937, his work has largely been over looked outside of scholarly circles. Starting his career as an actor in the “shingeki” movement which aimed to bring modern, naturalist theatre to Japanese stages, Murata first performed in Norimasa Kaeriyama’s “Pure Films” in 1918 before joining Shochiku’s acting school on the recommendation of playwright Kaoru Osanai. The “Pure Film” movement, like the Shingeki movement in theatre, sought to create a new more modern Japanese cinema as opposed to the overly theatrical, kubuki influenced productions of the time. Souls on the Road (路上の霊魂, Rojo no Reikon), an early directorial effort for Murata in which he also stars, was made for Shochiku and is very much influenced by the Pure Film Movement as well as foreign cinema from Europe and America.

The narrative of Souls on the Road is adapted from two foreign literature sources – Gorky’s play The Lower Depths and the German novel Mutter Landstrasse, das Ende einer Jugend by Wilhelm August Schmidtbonn. Influenced by the work of D.W. Griffith, Murata cuts between the stories of four interconnected groups of people – a failed violinist who returns home to his family with a wife and daughter in tow, two escaped convicts hiding out in the woods, the local master and his servants including a young woodcutter played by the director, and a wealthy young girl.

The central drama revolves around the musician who left home under a cloud to become a concert violinist in Tokyo but failed to make a success of himself. Despite having a fiancée at home, Koichiro (Denmei Suzuki) has married a Tokyo woman (Haruko Sawamura) and has a young daughter. Desperate and starving, the trio have made the snowbound journey back to Koichiro’s Hokkaido village largely on foot but Koichiro’s father (Kaoru Osanai) who is the master of a large estate refuses to help him. The former fiancée, Mitsuko (Ryuko Date), who is also Koichiro’s cousin, still lives with the master and is distressed by Koichiro’s return. Battling her own emotional pain, she wants to help Koichiro’s wife and daughter who are obviously in a bad way, but is also conditioned by the need to obey the master’s instructions even when they seem cruel and immoral.

Murata bookends the film with direct quotes – firstly from Gorky’s play and then from the Bible emphasising the need for human compassion. The master’s refusal to help his son is directly contrasted with the fate of the two convicts who cross Koichiro’s path in the forest. The two men originally try to rob Koichiro, but seeing that they too have nothing and the little girl is close to starving, the convicts give up their own food to help them. When they chance upon house they remain conflicted about trying to rob it – they don’t want to end up back in prison and they don’t want to steal but they are also starving and have no other options. The custodian of the house catches them in the act and enacts a sadistic punishment but later changes his mind and decides to help them.

Meanwhile, one of the master’s servants, a boy named Taro (played by director Minoru Murata), runs into the rebellious young mistress of a local estate (Yuriko Hanabusa) who dresses in a sailor suit and gleefully shoots her minder with an air gun to avoid having to go home. The young mistress strikes up a cross class friendship with Taro and invites him to the Christmas party she is organising at her mansion to which pretty much everyone is invited regardless of class origins or backgrounds. The young mistress’ “Christmas Party” might seem incongruous for a rural town in the Japan of 1921 and does indeed take on the trappings of Russian literature with the mummers and balalaika players replaced with traditional Yagibashi dancers, but the party itself seems to have no particular religious dimension as the young mistress dreams of being visited by Santa and a small shot of Mitsuko seeming to pray as Koichiro’s wife and daughter lie freezing in a barn is the only hint of a real presence of Christian thought outside of the overt references in the framing sequences and overall Christianising morality of the film as a whole.

Murata’s signature approach mixes an entrenched naturalism of location shooting and realistic performances with expressionistic techniques. Literally “souls” on the road, Murata introduces as series of ghosts using dissolves and superimpositions as the protagonists are haunted by alternate pasts and futures or even by themselves as Koichiro finds himself interrogated by the hopeful violinist who left with big dreams but has brought his wife and child to the brink of starvation and death from cold in a barn steps away from his childhood home. Somewhat heavy handed in its closing moments as Taro wonders what might have been if the master had been more forgiving and welcomed his son home instead of punishing him for leaving, and the young mistress wonders what might have happened to the convicts if the custodian had not taken pity on them, Souls on the Road is an early visionary masterpiece far ahead of its time which looks forward to a new kind of Japanese cinema.


Elegy of the North (挽歌, Heinosuke Gosho, 1957)

elegy of the north posterHeinosuke Gosho is perhaps among the most neglected Japanese directors of the “golden age”. A pioneer of the “shomingeki”, Gosho’s work is marked by a profound humanism but also a refusal to reduce the complexity of human emotions to the superficially immediate. Elegy of the North (挽歌, Banka) takes him much further in the direction of standard melodrama than he would usually venture, echoing contemporary American or European romantic dramas filled with soaring scores and moments of intense emotion bridged by long periods of restraint and repression. Yet it is also among the most psychologically complex of Gosho’s narratives, telling stories of death and rebirth in place of the usual coming of age and first heartbreak for which the genre is so well loved. In Reiko (Yoshiko Kuga) he presents us with a heroine we can’t be sure we like and certainly are not intended to approve of even as we sympathise with her pain and long for an end to her (often self inflicted) suffering.

Walking along the smoking volcanic soil of frozen Hokkaido, Reiko offers us the first of many voiceovers in which she tells us about her left arm – withered and almost numb due to childhood arthritis. When her withered arm is bitten by a dog, Nellie, owned by a melancholy architect, Katsuragi (Masayuki Mori), she barely feels it but Katsuragi is mortified. “She’s never bitten anyone before”, he tells Reiko by way of explanation, “I’ve never been bitten before”, Reiko fires back but bitten she certainly has been. Captivated by the idea of Katsuragi, she doesn’t immediately take him up on the offer of coming to his house and possibly adopting a puppy but catches sight of him around town and then decides to pay him a visit. He isn’t in, but Akiko (Mieko Takamine), his wife, is. Reiko didn’t want to see Katsuragi’s wife so she makes a speedy escape.

Having caught sight of Akiko, Reiko is equally intrigued. Akiko, as Reiko discovers, is having an (unhappy) affair with a much younger medical student, Tatsumi (Fumio Watanabe). Failing to read the emotional landscape of this sorry scene, Reiko regards this information as a juicy piece of gossip in her ongoing campaign to win over Katsuragi. She spies on the lovers, childishly eavesdropping on them in a local cafe, even suddenly delivering their coffee for them so she can get a proper look at Akiko – not that she really sees her or the distraught look on her face, she merely observes her rival – the wicked woman who has betrayed her beloved Katsuragi.

Reiko is constantly berated by her father and grandmother for her unwomanliness. Compared with the typical Japanese woman of the time and particularly with the stoic yet miserable Akiko, Reiko can certainly be thought unusual. Dressing in androgynous loose trousers, polo neck jumper and overcoat, without makeup and with unkempt hair, her aesthetic is one of rambunctious child or rebellious teenager. Her habit of throwing out awkward, inappropriate questions at first seems like childish ineptness but later seems calculated to unbalance. She is often cruel, perhaps deliberately so, but then remorseful (if only for selfish reasons). Though Reiko seems to feel that it’s her disability that marks her out as an outcast, unfit for marriage or a “normal” life, her family appear much more concerned with her unconventional rejection of femininity in her boldness, masculine dress, and refusal to learn the traditionally feminine crafts of housework and cookery so necessary to becoming the ideal wife.

What Reiko sees in Akiko is an image of her idealised self – beautiful, poised, elegant, and the wife of Katsuragi. As part of her nefarious plan, Reiko decides to “befriend” Akiko while Katsuragi is away on a business trip. What she never expected is that she would come to genuinely care for both Akiko and the couple’s small daughter Kumiko (Etsuko Nakazato), making her position as a potential home wrecker impossible. Reiko’s father blames himself for her unwomanliness, having raised her alone after his wife died, denying her of a maternal influence from whom she would have learned all the essentials of femininity which she now seems to lack. Akiko, a few years older, becomes both friend and surrogate mother – Reiko even begins calling her “Mamma” just as Kumiko does. Akiko’s distant poise begins to thaw when Reiko crawls in through her door one night after contracting pneumonia. Nursing Reiko as a mother would brings the two women closer together but it also unwittingly drives them apart in deepening Reiko’s sense of guilt in being torn between two loves in the knowledge that she must destroy one of them or herself.

Akiko, the tragic heroine of the piece, remains a cypher precisely because of her adherence to the rules of traditional femininity. Reiko is first drawn to her because of her sad smile – something she later brings up again in their fiercely undramatic yet heartrending parting scene as Reiko tries to undo the harm she has just done only for Akiko to mildly reject her by instructing her that she needs to take better care of herself. Her relationship with Katsuragi appears to have floundered and, trapped in a lonely marriage, Akiko has found herself in an emotionally draining entanglement with a younger man whose life she fears she is ruining. Tatsumi, needled, is irritated by Reiko’s buzzing around Akiko, asking her an awkward question of his own in accusing her of being a lesbian, to which Reiko gives one of her infuriately barbed replies with “call it what you want”. Reiko’s intentions probably do not run that way (at least consciously), so much as she longs for the love and affection she missed out on after losing her mother at such a young age. Akiko, however, may see things differently. Her life appears lonely, and her friendship with Reiko, whom she brands “reckless yet somehow cheerful” (again, like an infuriating child), is one of its few bright spots. The betrayal is not so much that Reiko has slept with her husband, but that Reiko has deliberately ruined their friendship by exposing it as a cruel ruse in the most wounding of ways. The last time we see Akiko, she is wearing the necklace that Reiko gave to her – a sure sign that her final decision is, in someway, taken on Reiko’s behalf.

Reiko’s tragedy is that her intense self loathing which she attributes to her withered arm, leads her to suspect each act of kindness is only one of pity and that no one can truly love her, they’re just overcompensating because of her “deformity”. At the beginning of the film she asks herself if her mind is as warped as her body. Her actions are often “warped”, as in she works against herself and ultimately destroys the very thing she wanted most yet there is a kind of settling that occurs through her interactions with Akiko. In the final sequence, Reiko has shed her dowdy, dark coloured, worn trousers and jumpers for an elegant skirt and blouse, and has learned to accommodate a certain level of domesticity. Even if she is merely echoing Akiko, Reiko has at least attempted to move forward in exploring the areas of femininity she had hitherto rejected outright. That it is not to say her “unusual” nature is tamed in favour of conforming to social norms, merely that a side of herself which she had decided to keep locked has been opened up for examination (and may then be rejected with greater self knowledge). Elegy of the North lives up to its name in singing a long and painful song of mourning, but Gosho ends on a note of hopeful, in pained, optimism for his contrary heroine, literally forced to move past the scene of her crime towards a possibly happier future.


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