River Washes Away the Moon (残月大川流し, Yasushi Sasaki, 1963)

River Washes Away the Moon posterTimes are changing fast in Edo. Hibari Misora reunites with director Yasushi Sasaki for another jidaigeki adventure only this time one with much less song and dance and fewer tomboy antics for the often spiky star. Set in 1868 in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate, River Washes Away the Moon (残月大川流し, Zangetsu Okawa Nagashi) is, in its own way, a story of revolutions, personal and political, as sides are picked and alliances forged in midst of a city in flux.

Edo, 1868. The Tokugawa Shogunate has been drummed out of the capital by the collective forces of Satsuma, Choshu, and Tosa but a new regime has yet to solidify itself. While some remain loyal to the Tokugawa cause, others join the new imperial armies leaving Edo a fractured state in which loyalists are on the run and violence rules the streets. Meanwhile, ordinary Edoities are trying to go about their everyday business. Ogin (Hibari Misora), an orphan, is a member of a pickpocketing gang run by a cruel mistress who metes out extreme punishments to those deemed to have transgressed her stringent rules, most often by trying to keep some of the money for themselves rather than hand it to the bosses for “redistribution”. Ogin is good at pickpocketing, but she has a noble heart and feels sorry for the country bumpkins who often become her prey. The madame wants her to take over the gang, but she wants out of the criminal life as soon as possible.

With things the way they are, the the loyalists ask the pickpockets for a favour – steal the shoulder badges off the Imperialist mercenaries so they won’t be able to return to their camps. The madame declares herself apolitical and declines but Ogin, a true child of Edo, feels quite differently and is only too keen to support the loyalists in whichever way she can. She gets her opportunity when a wounded soldier, Shinzaburo (Yoshitomo Ogasawara), creeps into the house she hides out in to get away from the gang. Ogin bravely hides Shinzaburo from the Imperialist troops and then hides him again when he returns sometime later after another battle with a lost little girl in tow. The pair grow closer, but Shinzaburo is under the impression Ogin is a wealthy merchant’s daughter and has no idea she is a poor orphan forced to pick pockets on the streets in return for safe harbour.

Unlike many of Misora’s jidaigeki heroines, Ogin is a much more “feminine” figure – she never gets to do any fighting of her own and the (extremely subdued) romance with Shinzaburo becomes the film’s main focus. She is however steadfast and bold. She stands up to her madame as much as feels she is able and is desperate to extract herself from the criminal world. As an orphan without any other means of support, however, her options are limited and even when she tries to do good it’s thrown back in her face.

Even Shinzaburo whose ideals one would hope to be more compassionate is after all a loyalist and not a revolutionary. His ideals are conservative if bending towards the moral good and therefore when he finds out what Ogin really is their connection is broken, he loses respect for her and though she never lied to him he blames her for the life she was forced to lead. A man like Shinzaburo might have lost his place, but he’s never known the kind of hardship a woman like Ogin has had to endure and the concepts are alien to him.

After getting her heart broken by Shinzaburo, Ogin finds the strength to break away from her criminal family by becoming an itinerant musician which gives Misora a chance to sing another song – her only other musical number is a full on set piece taking place during a community show held to raise money for orphans and possibly reunite dislocated people with their families in the process. Nevertheless Misora delivers an impressive performance as the continuously lovelorn Ogin, convinced that her world is limited by the circumstances of her birth and only latterly realising she has the power to change her fate (if for the slightly dubious reasons of proving herself worthy of Shinzaburo). Ogin opts for her personal revolution while Shinzaburo opts for a political one. By 1963 the winds of change were indeed blowing through Tokyo once again, though if there are any political messages to be found in River Washes Away the Moon they are fairly subtle and lean more towards compassionate living and finding the strength to live by your principles than advocating for direct agitation as the best path towards a fairer world.


Hibari’s musical numbers (no subtitles)

It’s Me, It’s Me (俺俺, Satoshi Miki, 2013)

It's Me It's Me posterSome say it’s good to be your own best friend, but then again perhaps too much of your own company isn’t so good for you after all. The hero of Satoshi Miki’s adaptation of the Tomoyuki Hoshino novel, It’s Me, It’s Me (俺俺, Ore Ore), is about to put this hypothesis to the test as his identity literally splinters, overwriting the source code of strangers and replacing it with its own. How can you save your identity when you aren’t sure who you are? Perhaps getting to know yourself isn’t as straightforward a process as most would believe.

Hitoshi (Kazuya Kamenashi), an aimless 20-something, had dreams of becoming a photographer but they’ve fallen by the wayside while he supports himself with a dead end job on the camera counter in a local electronics superstore. Virtually invisible to all around him and so anonymous the woman in the fast food restaurant almost wouldn’t give him the fries he’d ordered, Hitoshi is irritated when two salaryman-types gossiping about how one of them plans to quit the company to pursue his dreams rudely invade his space. Perhaps for this reason, he finds himself taking off with the irritating stranger’s phone after he carelessly allows it to fall onto Hitoshi’s tray.

Emboldened, Hitoshi decides to use the phone to commit an “Ore Ore” scam – a well known telephone fraud in which a stranger rings an elderly person and shouts “it’s me, it’s me!” in a panic so they won’t twig it’s not really their grandson who is ringing them and claiming to be in some kind of terrible trouble which can only be relieved with cold hard cash. Not the sharpest knife in the drawer, Hitoshi gets the money wired to his account and then tries to dispose of the phone but it’s already too late. When he gets home, a strange woman (Keiko Takahashi) is in his apartment and she keeps calling him “Daiki”. What’s more, when he tries to go and see his mum (Midoriko Kimura), another guy is there who looks just like him and his mum won’t let him in.

Hitoshi eventually becomes friends with “Daiki” who introduces him to another “Me”, Nao – a cheerful student slacker. Each in their own way slightly disconnected, the trio build up an easy friendship – they do after all have quite a lot in common, and begin jokingly referring to their shared apartment as “Me Island”. Hitoshi, remarking that he’s never felt so carefree among others, begins to see the upsides of his strange new situation which obviously include the ability to be in two places at once, but too much of himself eventually begins to grate when Nao begins tracking down and bringing home all the other Mes he can find with the intention of launching a Me Empire.

A member of a lost generation, Hitoshi is a perfect example of modern urban malaise. Though he once had dreams, they’ve been steadily killed off by an oppressive society leaving him alone and adrift, unable to connect with others as the light slowly dies in his eyes. Perhaps, however, there is the odd flicker of resistance in his intense resentment towards those who have defiantly not given up – the chatty salaryman talking about his individualist dreams and later his work colleague who has been secretly taking accountancy classes in an effort to escape casual employment hell for a steady, if dull, regular job.

Hitoshi has always regarded relationships as “troublesome” but begins to feel differently through bonding with himself. As Daiki puts it, accepting others means that you’ll be accepted – something Hitoshi unconsciously longs for but is too insecure to believe is possible. His actualisation receives another stimulus when he meets the beautiful and mysterious Sayaka (Yuki Uchida) who again encourages him to accept the one who accepts you and is the only other person who seems to be able to see the “real” him as distinct from all the other Mes. Yet Hitoshi struggles – he can accept parts of but not all of himself, eventually leading to a disastrous turn of events in which the parts of himself he does not like begin being “deleted” as one Me decides to make war on all the others.

Only by ridding his psyche of imperfections can Hitoshi reformat his personality and once again resume full autonomy as the one and only Me. Yet can we be so sure final Hitoshi is the “true” Hitoshi? Who can say – only Hitoshi himself can know the answer to that (or not), the rest of us will just have to accept him as he is in the hope that he will also be able to accept us so that we can in turn accept ourselves.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

When the Buckwheat Blooms (메밀꽃 필 무렵, Lee Seong-gu, 1967)

When the Buckwheat Flowers Bloom posterLife’s little ironies conspire against an ordinary pedlar in Lee Seong-gu’s adaptation of the Lee Hyo-seok short story When the Buckwheat Blooms (메밀꽃 필 무렵, Memilkkot Pil Muryeop). Set in the colonial period, the film tracks the long sad story of an unlucky man and his impossible love as he finds himself continually pushed to the edges of a world which is already disappearing. Yet as bad as things are for the heartbroken pedlar, they’re far worse for his long lost lady who finds herself continually handed from one man to another, abused, and exploited with no possibility of escape.

The story begins with three pedlars – Heo (Park No-sik) who hawks fabric, Jo (Kim Hee-gab) who sells paper, and Yun (Heo Jang-gang) who peddles “medicine”. Heo gets into an altercation with another, younger man, Dong-i (Lee Soon-jae), who he accuses of cutting in on his business. Unable to let the matter drop, Heo starts arguing with Dong-i again at an inn at which point he departs and leaves the old men to it. Heading back on the road, Heo entertains his friends with a familiar story – the one about his night in the buckwheat fields with his one true love.

Flashing back almost 20 years, the pedlars are all young men and only Jo is already married with a pregnant wife (Do Geum-bong) he takes with him on the road. In the marketplace one day, Heo catches sight of Bun-i (Kim Ji-mi), a noblewoman fallen on hard times whose father apparently plans to sell her to pay for his gambling debts. Crestfallen, Heo goes back to his business but catches sight of Bun-i once again and “enjoys” a spot of not exactly consensual sex in the middle of a beautiful buckwheat field. Heo asks Bun-i to wait for him, insisting that he will find the money to buy her from her father before he sells her to someone less nice. After trying several madcap schemes to get the requisite funds (including wrestling to win a bull), Heo sells his beloved donkey but is too late – Bun-i’s dad left in a hurry and sold her off somewhere or other but no one knows where. Heo sets off on a five year quest to find her but remains perpetually too late, only a little way behind but always arriving just after Bun-i and the son which is presumably Heo’s have been sold on to their next “owners.”

When the Buckwheat Blooms is very much Heo’s “depressing” (as he later describes it) life story. We see Bun-i on the periphery of his flashback, but he never finds her and so does not know of all she’s suffered since they parted, nor even that she has a child. Much of his melancholia is born of being old and of being poor. It is clear that his life has been ruined through poverty and lack of prospects – no one chooses to be a pedlar (as the pedlars keep pointing out), it’s what you do when you can’t do anything else. An itinerant existence has deprived each of them of a traditional family life. Jo had a wife in the flashback, but she and her children now live in a permanent home which Jo only rarely visits. Meanwhile Yun’s wife left him after the first time he took off for the road, unable to bear the loneliness and lack of stability involved in being a pedlar’s wife. Heo had remained single because of his lack of financial stability, but meeting Bun-i gave him hope for a different kind of life. He planned to give up peddling and set up as a farmer but, of course, it was not to be.

If that weren’t all the times are changing. The pedlars’ business is disrupted by the arrival of a band of fiddlers, but they haven’t just come to make merry – they’re advertising the “future”. They come to sing the virtues of the newfangled “department store” which is apparently a “foreign” invention and stocks “everything” – it has everything the market has and more, only cheaper and better quality. Dong-i, a young man, plans to give up peddling and try his luck in the gold mine, but there’s precious little hope for old men like Heo who have spent their lives living hand to mouth day by day and are now ill-equipped for anything else.

Heo is, at least, an “honest” man – he drinks but not to excess, and is frugal rather than throwing his money away on sex or gambling. Nevertheless, it’s hard to get away from his quasi-rape of Bun-i as she tries to run from him in the forest. The violence of the initial encounter undermines the romance of Heo’s ongoing tale as he hunts down his missing woman, apparently wanting to save her by buying her back from whoever it is “owns” her at the current time.

Told from Heo’s perspective, Bun-i’s feelings do not much factor in to his narrative but her life has been just as miserable as his, if not more so. A once noble lady, she suffers the humiliation of being “sold” by her father, and then sold on numerous times to other men each of whom abuse and mistreat her. By this time she also has a young son on whose behalf she resolves to suffer, even as her various “husbands” threaten to separate them. Bun-i has no freedom or possibility of escape. She is as chained as Heo’s donkey and treated with far less kindness.

Yet it is Heo to whom the central tragedy to ascribed – he yearns, searches, is frustrated and then forced to give up on his dreams while continuing to harbour enough of a spark of hope as to prevent him from moving forward with his life. He is condemned to grow old walking in circles burdened by an unrealisable dream. Once again shooting entirely on location, Lee aims for a more “sophisticated” aesthetic than many of his contemporaries, co-opting a shooting style much closer to European or Japanese film than is usual in ‘60s Korean cinema. A melancholy tale with an ironic, perhaps “happy” ending, Lee’s sad story of missed opportunities and ruined hopes is an oddly apt one for the post-war world but one which finds its share of cheerfulness even in abject misery.


When the Buckwheat Blooms is the second film included in the Korean Film Archive’s Lee Seong-gu box set. Also available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

Narratage (ナラタージュ, Isao Yukisada, 2017)

Narratge poster 1Isao Yukisada made his name with the jun-ai landmark Crying Out Love in the Centre of the World back in 2004. Adapted from a best selling novel (which had also been adapted as a TV drama around the same time), Crying Out Love was the epitome of a short lived genre in which melancholy, lovelorn and lonely middle-aged heroes looked back on the lost love of their youths. Jun-ai has never really gone away though it might not be so popular as it once was, but the focus has perhaps shifted and in an unexpected direction. Narratage (ナラタージュ), once again adapted from a best selling novel though this time one by an author still in her early 20s when the book was written (incidentally smack in the middle of the jun-ai boom), is another sad story of frustrated love though in contrast to the jun-ai norm, its tragedies revolve around loves which were tested and subsequently failed, leaving the broken hearted romantics trapped within their own tiny bubbles of nostalgia.

The heroine, Izumi (Kasumi Arimura), narrates her tale from three distinct periods of her young life speaking from the perspective of her still young self now living as a lonely office worker. A lonely high school misfit, she found herself drawn to a sensitive teacher, Hayama (Jun Matsumoto), who rescued her from despair through an invitation to join the drama club. Relying on him ever more, she began regularly visiting his office for guidance and the pair bonded over their shared love of cinema. On graduation Izumi decided to declare her love, but earned a sad story in return and resolved to move on with her life. Then in the second year of university, she gets an unexpected phone call, calling her back to help out with a play at the school’s culture festival.

Yukisada begins with a rather unsubtle metaphor in which the older Izumi lovingly fondles an antique pocket watch which has long since stopped ticking. 20-something Izumi apparently has very little in her life, a pang of melancholy envy passing her face as she talks to a friend on the phone at home with a new baby while she prepares for another lonely night of (unnecessary) overtime. Where the heroes of jun-ai obsess over true love lost, Izumi struggles to face the fact that the man she loved did not, could not, love her in the way that she wanted him to. There is, of course, something deeply inappropriate in the awkward relationship between Izumi and Hayama who are a teenage student and her teacher respectively – connect as they might, there are moments when a line is crossed even while Izumi is still a schoolgirl which is in no way justified by the presentation of their (non)romance as a natural consequence of their mutual suffering.

Hayama and Izumi are presented as equals but they aren’t and never could be. As if to continue the chain, university era Izumi gets a love confession of her own from old classmate Ono (Kentaro Sakaguchi) who has apparently been carrying a torch for her all this time. Ono’s love, like Izumi’s, is originally generous and altruistic – he understands her unrequited affection for Hayama and perhaps even sympathises, but once Izumi decides to try and make things work with someone who loves her it all starts to go wrong. Ono is jealous, possessive, desperate. He demands to inspect her phone, insists she erase Hayama from her mind and devote herself only to him. Izumi, sadly, goes along with all of this, even when her attempts to turn to Ono for protection when afraid and alone are petulantly refused. When the inevitable happens and she decides to try and sort things out with Hayama, Ono tries to exert an authority he doesn’t really have, ordering her to bow to him (literally), and harping on about all the hard work he personally has put into their relationship which, he feels, she doesn’t really appreciate while berating her for not really loving him enough. As it turns out, neither of Izumi’s romantic options is particularly healthy or indeed viable.

At one particularly unsubtle moment, Izumi (alone) attends a screening of Naruse’s Floating Clouds – another film about a couple who fail to move on from a failed love affair though their struggle is ultimately more about the vagaries of the post-war world than it is about impossible love. Meanwhile the school play is to be A Midsummer Night’s Dream which is also about misplaced and unrequited loves which spontaneously sort themselves out thanks to some fairy magic and a night in a confusing forest. No magic powers are going to sort out Izumi’s broken heart for her. Like the pocket watch, her heart has stopped ticking and her romantic outlook appears to be arrested at the schoolgirl level. She and Hayama maybe equally damaged people who save and damn each other in equal measure, but the central messages seem to be that difficult, complicated, and unresolved loves and the obsessive sadness they entail produce nothing more than inescapable chains of loneliness. Simplistic as it may be, Izumi at least is beginning to find the strength to set time moving once again prompted perhaps by another incoming bout of possibly requitable love lingering on the horizon.


International trailer (English subtitles)

It’s Only Talk (やわらかい生活, Ryuichi Hiroki, 2005)

It's Only Talk poster“I’m scared of wanting to die” the heroine of Ryuichi Hiroki’s It’s Only Talk (やわらかい生活, Yawarakai Seikatsu) confesses during an awkward car ride with a childhood friend, perhaps one of the only absolute truths she offers in her infinite quest to escape existential loneliness through the false connection of mass tragedy. Yuko (Shinobu Terajima) tells people that her parents died in the Kobe Earthquake, but they actually died in a house fire a few years later. She tells people that her best friend died in 9/11 (she died in New York in the early 2000s but in a car accident), and that her former lover died during the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo Subway (this one might even be true, but who really can say). She lies, not about facts only details, in the belief that her private pain is somehow not relatable enough and if she ties herself into a wider sense of national or global tragedies then others can share in her grief and she won’t be so alone in her sadness.

Following the deaths of her parents when she was 29, Yuko was diagnosed with bipolar and has been in and out of hospitals for the past six years. Now 35, single, and unemployed, Yuko has found herself cast out from mainstream society and fulfils her (minimal) needs for human connection through meeting “perverts” on specialist message-boards. Through one of these illicit connections she meets K. (Tomorowo Taguchi) – a 50-year-old husband and father who drives her all the way out to provincial suburb Kamata to ensure the liaison (which extends only to watching a porn film together in a public cinema and a cup of tea afterwards) remains secret. Taken with the suburb’s retro charm and unassuming air of faded grandeur, she decides to move and starts life over again in the somewhat nostalgic past which brings her into contact with two men from her youth and another still battling his own.

A portrait of inescapable loneliness, Yuko’s life is both as frozen as the photographs she takes of local landmarks to post on her fledgling blog and permanently in flux as she tries to navigate the constantly shifting tides of her condition. After moving to Kamata she unexpectedly reencounters an old university friend who recalls their spirited discussions of world politics from the fall of the Berlin Wall to Tiananmen Square when they were both bright and engaged students. Like Yuko, Honma (Shunsuke Matsuoka) has wound up in Kamata as a kind of retreat from the harshness of life in Tokyo. Unwilling to embrace life in the public eye, he’s decided to concentrate on a career in local politics instead hoping to work his way into the ministry of education as a civil servant. He is also unmarried – partly as a result of debts accrued during unsuccessful electoral campaigns, and, as we later find out, erectile dysfunction. Honma reintroduces Yuko to another old friend, “Bach” (Nao Omori) who has gone the opposite way and become a venture capitalist but apparently still holds a torch for the young Yuko all these years later. Meanwhile, she’s been meeting up with a lonely yakuza, Noboru (Satoshi Tsumabuki), who also has bipolar and longs for the world of childhood safety and innocence he associates with the strange Godzilla tyre park Yuko photographed and put on her blog.

The most significant relationship in her short-lived period of connection is in fact with her childhood friend and cousin, Shoichi (Etsushi Toyokawa), who abruptly turns up at her flat unannounced. Shoichi, also depressed but perhaps in a less extreme way and hiding it much better, left his marriage because he felt pushed out when the baby was born and then ran after a younger woman who went to Tokyo but ultimately did not want him. The two share a strange sort of intimacy born of their long history which is almost fraternal but laced with minor awkwardness and ancient resentments. Though his wife berated him for his refusal to help out at home, Shoichi tenderly cares for Yuko just as she is at her most vulnerable having entered an extreme depressive episode – washing her hair, doing her laundry, and picking up her medication while trying to remain patient even when Yuko rejects his gestures of help. The giving and receiving of care provides each with a new sense of purpose and connection but their paths are perhaps set on different courses in the immediacy of the need to deal with the unresolved past.

Waking up from her depression, Yuko discovers life has delivered her yet another cruel blow, witnessing others moving on in one way or another and leaving her once again all alone marooned on the sidelines. Yet she lives on, “scared of wanting to die” but daring to remove the towel which hides an ugly scar from a previous suicide attempt to revisit a public bath which holds a memory perhaps both happy and sad. Melancholy in the extreme, It’s Only Talk is not a tragedy but an aching portrait of spiritual loneliness in a society only too happy to exclude.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Devil’s Island (獄門島, Kon Ichikawa, 1977)

Devil's Island posterKon Ichikawa revisits the world of Kosuke Kindaichi for the third time in Devil’s Island (獄門島, Gokumon-to). Confusingly enough, Devil’s Island is adapted from the second novel in the Kidaichi series and set a few years before Ichikawa’s previous adaptation The Devil’s Ballad (the twin devils are just a coincidence). As with his other Kindaichi adaptations, Ichikawa retains the immediate post-war setting of the novel though this time the war is both fore and background as our tale is set on profane soil, a pirate island once home to Japan’s most heinous exiled criminals, which is to say it is the literal fount of every social failing which has informed the last 20 years of turbulent militarist history.

In 1946, Kindaichi (Koji Ishizaka) travels to Kasaoka to catch the ferry to the island. On the way he runs into a demobbed soldier hobbling along on crutches only to catch sight of the man quickly picking his up crutches and running across the railway tracks when he thought no one was looking. Kindaichi is in luck – before he even reaches the boat he runs into the very man he’s come to see, Reverend Ryonen (Shin Saburi), for whom he has a message. Posing as a fellow soldier, Kindaichi reveals he has a “last letter” from a man named Chimata who sadly passed away right after the cessation of hostilities having contracted malaria. Chimata, as we later find out, was the legitimate heir of the island’s most prominent family. Kindaichi chooses not to reveal his true purpose, but the truth is that Chimata suspected his death would put his three younger sisters in danger from various unscrupulous family members attempting to subvert the succession.

Your average Japanese mystery is not, as it turns out, so far from Agatha Christie as one might assume and this is very much a tale of petty class concerns, island mores, and changing social conventions. The extremely confusing island hierarchy starts with the head of household who doubles as the head of the local fishing union and then shuffles out to the branch line and brassy sister-in-law Tomoe (Kiwako Taichi) who is keen claim all the authority she is entitled to. The old patriarch, Yosamatsu (Taketoshi Naito), went quite mad at the beginning of the war and is kept in a bamboo cage in the family compound where he screams and rails, only calmed by the gentle voice of Sanae (Reiko Ohara), a poor relation raised in the main house alongside her brother Hitoshi who hasn’t yet returned from the war. Aside from Yosamatsu, the absence of the two young men means the main house is now entirely inhabited by women, looked after by veteran maid Katsuno (Yoko Tsukasa).

Then again, Japanese mysteries hinge on riddles more than they depend on motives and there are certainly plenty of those on this weird little island where they don’t like “outsiders”. Ichikawa hints at the central conceit by flashing up haiku directly on the screen along with a few original chapter headings for Kindaichi whose eccentricities might seem less noticeable in such an obviously crazy place but strangely seem all the more overt, his trademark dandruff falling like rain from his tousled hair. It has to be said that Kindaichi fails in his otherwise pure hearted aims – he doesn’t make a great deal of effort to “save” the sisters and only attempts to solve the crimes as they occur, each one informing the next. This time around he gets trouble from both irritatingly bumbling detective Todoroki (Takeshi Kato) and his assistant Bando (Kazunaga Tsuji) , and the local bobby who immediately locks Kindaichi up and declares the crimes solved on the grounds that they only started happening after Kindaichi arrived.

Meanwhile, there are rumours of an escaped “pirate” running loose, demobbed soldiers, and a host of dark local customs contrasting strongly with the idyllic scenery and the strange “pureness” of this remote island otherwise untouched by the war’s folly save for the immediate events entirely precipitated by the absence of two young men taken away to die on foreign shores. Though the various motives for the crimes are older – shame, greed, classism, a bizarre dispute between Buddhists and Shamans, none of this would have been happening if the war hadn’t stuck its nose into island business and unbalanced the complex local hierarchy. Tragically, the crimes themselves all come to nought as a late arriving piece of news renders them null and void. Just when you think you’ve won, the rug is pulled from under you and the war wins again. Ichikawa opts for a for a defiantly straightforward style but adopts a few interesting editing techniques including fast cutting to insert tiny flashbacks as our various suspects suddenly remember a few “relevant” details. This strange island, imbued with ancient evils carried from the mainland, finds itself not quite as immune from national struggles as it once thought though perhaps manages to right itself through finally admitting the truth and acknowledging the sheer lunacy that led to the sorry events in which it has recently become embroiled.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Devil’s Ballad (悪魔の手毬唄, Kon Ichikawa, 1977)

Devil's Ballad posterA year after his box office smash The Inugami Family, Kon Ichikawa returns to the world of eccentric detective Kosuke Kindaichi with The Devil’s Ballad (悪魔の手毬唄, Akuma no Temari Uta). Like many a Kindaichi mystery, Devil’s Ballad finds him called upon to delve back into the past to satisfy an ageing detective’s anxiety about an old case, only to be faced with a series of new ones as a consequence. This time, however, the mystery leans less on buried secrets than deeply held grudges, betrayals, and lingering feudal feuds as the post-war society tries and fails to free itself from ancient oppressions.

The film opens with a tryst between two adolescent lovers in the ominously named “Devil’s Skull Village” in 1950. Yasu (Yoko Takahashi), the girl, is at pains to let her boyfriend, Kanao (Koji Kita), know that she is keen to take the relationship to the next level but he is old fashioned and wants to wait until their union is formalised. The pair are interrupted by some of their friends who are in the middle of planning a celebration for a visit from a girl who moved to the city, Chie (Akiko Nishina). Meanwhile, Kindaichi (Koji Ishizaka) has arrived at the inn owned by Kanao’s mother Rika (Keiko Kishi) on invitation from a retired policeman, Isokawa (Tomisaburo Wakayama), who wants Kindaichi to look into the murder of Rika’s husband twenty years ago. Isokawa, then a young rookie, is convinced that Rika’s husband was not the victim but the murderer and the corpse actually belonged to another man entirely – Onda, a drifter who defrauded half the village with a wreath making scam.

Rika and her children – 20-year-old Kanao and his younger sister Satoko (Eiko Nagashima) who has prominent facial birthmarks and rarely leaves the house, came to the village with her husband and are therefore slightly divorced from the longstanding social rivalries. The village has two noble families – the Yuras and the Nires. Feeling the need to modernise, the Nires bet everything on vineyards and it paid off. The Yuras, by contrast, were defrauded by Onda’s wreath scam and lost their fortune and social standing. Yasu, Kanao’s girlfriend, is a daughter of the Yuras, but the Nire’s have been petitioning Rika for quite some time to have her son marry their daughter, Fumiko (Yukiko Nagano), who also has a crush on him (though this is largely irrelevant to her father’s dynastic ambitions). When the younger generation start getting bumped off in ways eerily similar to a local folk song, Kindaichi and Isokawa are on the case, wondering if these new murders have anything to do with their old one.

Despite its 1950 setting, Devil’s Ballad is unusual in resolutely making an irrelevance of the war which only receives a brief mention as an explanation for why some of the case files have been destroyed and for why marriage is such a hot button issue given the lack of men and abundance of women. Nevertheless, the crimes span a turbulent 20 years of Japanese history with the original murder taking place in the early ‘30s during a period of economic instability following the Manchurian Incident. In the socially conservative pre-war era, it seems Onda also got around and may have fathered several illegitimate children with women in the village, some of them noble, some not. These buried secrets seem primed to bubble to the surface now that the children are coming of age and marriage again becomes an issue as worried parents try to think of acceptable ways to block potentially “inappropriate” matches without sending their children off into ruinous elopements or tipping off the wrong people that their kids may not be their kids.

The crimes themselves, old fashioned as they are, are partly reactions to a changing society. We discover that the reason Rika and her husband were forced to come back to the village was that their showbiz careers were stalling – she was a vaudeville performer specialising in shamisen, and he a “benshi” (narrator of silent films) who became convinced his job was obsolete after witnessing a subtitled print of Morocco. Likewise, the two rival families cannot let go of their petty provincial privileges, and as Kanao angrily snaps back at his mother, Japan is now a democratic country and he is free to choose his own wife at a time of his own choosing with or without parental blessing. This remote village is perhaps isolated from the privations of the post-war world but it’s also stuck in the past, hung up on past transgressions and unable to move forward into the new era. However, the primary motivations for murder are as old as time – guilt, humiliation, and self preservation.

Ichikawa keeps things simple but splices in a few strange, avant-garde sequences of kokeshi dolls menacingly bouncing balls coupled with shifts to black and white, fast-paced reaction shots, and stuttering still frame sequences all while Kindaichi showers innocent passersby with his famous dandruff, the idiot police officer continues to offer ridiculous theories while his sergeant dutifully follows him around, and the local bobby perfects a line in hilarious pratfalls. Overlong at two and a half hours and falling prey to the curse of the prestige crime drama in spoiling its mystery through casting, the Devil’s Ballad may not be the best of the Kindaichi mysteries but offers enough of a satisfying twist to prove worthy of the Kindaichi name.


Original trailer (no subtitles)